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Getting true-crime podcasts right

Curtis Flowers with his sister Priscilla Ward (right) exited the Winston Choctaw Regional Correctional Facility in Louisville, Miss., in December 16, 2019.
Curtis Flowers with his sister Priscilla Ward (right) exited the Winston Choctaw Regional Correctional Facility in Louisville, Miss., in December 16, 2019.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

A lot of true-crime podcasts exist only to shock. They lean into the lurid by highlighting the most heinous aspects of a story. I presume this is because there are people who enjoy that sort of thing.

How else to explain “Where the Bodies are Buried,” in which host Phil Chalmers, described as a “renowned serial killer profiler,” interviews a different psychopath in each episode. What do we actually learn by listening to William “Clyde” Gibson talk about all the people he mutilated? Not much, trust me, but some people are apparently riveted.

I was likewise mystified by “The Orange Tree,” last summer’s popular podcast that delves deeply — too deeply, for my taste — into the macabre 2005 murder of Jennifer Cave, a 21-year-old woman in Austin, Texas, who was found stabbed, shot, and dismembered in the bathtub of a young man’s apartment. I nearly became sick to my stomach listening to the first episode.

What many of these podcasts have in common is a warning. “The Orange Tree,” for example, begins each episode with: “What you’re about to hear contains descriptions of physical violence that are gruesome in nature.” Call me cynical, but this sounds less like a well-intentioned caution and more like a not-so-subtle signal to listeners that if beheadings are your thing, you might want to stick around.

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I’m not suggesting these stories shouldn’t be told. Free enterprise applies to podcasts, too: If there’s an audience, anything goes. When I was in high school, my father and I drove across the country, and as we sped through the Badlands, I barely looked out the window because I was savoring “Helter Skelter,” Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the Charles Manson murders. So I get it.

But I’m 55 now, and my time is more valuable than it used to be. I need more than a bloody corpse or a bizarre atrocity to commit to an 8- or 10-episode series. I tried to listen to “To Live and Die in L.A.,” the heavily hyped podcast, hosted by Neil Strauss, about the death of an aspiring actress from Albania. But the story was so unsurprising and the stakes so small, I stopped listening after a few episodes.

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Which brings me to “In the Dark,” a true-crime podcast that gets it exactly right. Produced by Minnesota-based APM Reports and hosted by reporter Madeleine Baran, “In the Dark” doesn’t concern itself with plain old potboilers or whodunits. The first two seasons focus on stories that raise larger questions — about police incompetence, judicial malfeasance, systemic racism.

The second season, which concluded last October, about Curtis Flowers, was a revelation. Flowers is the Black man from Mississippi who spent more than 20 years in prison while Doug Evans, the white district attorney, prosecuted him six times for the same crime — a 1996 quadruple homicide — despite scant evidence that Flowers was the killer.

Rather than rely on the public record to tell this shameful story, Baran and her crew moved to Mississippi and conducted their own investigation. What they uncovered — coerced witness statements, shoddy forensic science, an alternative suspect, and six almost-all-white juries — ultimately helped exonerate Flowers.

“We’re not interested in crimes itself,” Baran told the Clarion-Ledger after Flowers was released from prison. “We’re interested in these larger structures and powerful people and institutions.” (Production of season 3 was paused due to the pandemic.)

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That’s what interests me, too. I’ll listen to podcasts about murder and mayhem, but it helps if the story spotlights more than a single tragedy. A good example is the just-released “Death at the Wing,” director Adam McKay’s podcast that connects the deaths of several young basketball stars in the ’80s and early ’90s — late, great Celtics draft pick Len Bias, among them — to the increase in greed, guns, and drug use during the Reagan era. McKay contends the young stars fell victim to the social and political forces that defined the ’80s.

Sometimes, more compelling than the questions true-crimes podcasts answer are the ones they ask.



Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.