Who knew that four decades of corruption and mob violence in Providence existed primarily for your listening pleasure?
I’m of two minds about “Crimetown,” the hit podcast about Providence that wrapped up its first season with its 20th and final episode this week. You might be, too. On one hand, the show, hosted by Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, is as addictive as a bottle of pep pills — a series of true-crime half-hours that alternates legends of wise guy malfeasance with the over-arching saga of the late Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the six-term mayor, two-time convicted felon, and a walking embodiment of the city’s contradictions. (You can catch up with the series at www.crimetownshow.com.)
On the other hand, “Crimetown” represents the latest wrinkle in packaging and selling criminal enterprise as ghoulish, diversionary fun while arguably soft-pedaling the human misery left in its wake. Thursday night, in Brooklyn, the show’s producers will celebrate their final episode with a live “Evening in Crimetown,” featuring figures from both sides of the law. They’ve been teasing the event for weeks, even hinting that one of the show’s “most popular wise guys” might attend.
It’s probably the man who’s a former mob assassin. Which is one way to leverage your retirement.
Yes, yes, human culture has always loved its tales of bad men, from evil demi-gods to frontier killers to Depression-era gangsters to the goodfellas popularized by Martin Scorsese and “The Sopranos.” It’s an itch we can’t help scratching: These characters transgress so we can imagine transgressing — and then we revel in their (but not our) comeuppance.
The rise of alternate streaming neo-networks such as Netflix and Amazon and the growing popularity of podcasts have opened up spaces for true-crime “entertainment” in which viewers and listeners obsess over details of past crimes and misdemeanors. The hit podcast “Serial” sucked audiences into a reality-show murder mystery, obsessively followed during people’s morning jogs and afternoon drive-times. Smerling and Stuart-Pontier previously collaborated on HBO’s “The Jinx,” arguably helping bring that show’s subject, Robert Durst, to justice. The retelling of bad things other people have done is big business now. It’s fun. You could also argue it’s a disservice to the genuine wreckage those people have caused.
That said, “Crimetown” makes for educational listening, especially if you don’t know the full sweep and scope of the Buddy Cianci story — from his beginnings as an idealistic anti-mob state prosecutor, to his reign over an administration riddled by corruption, to the time he tortured a guy in his living room. The Boston press always looked at Cianci as something between the embarrassment next door and an entertaining train wreck, but whatever you can say about the man, he never lacked chutzpah and charisma. The voters loved him, too, electing Cianci to a fourth term after he was convicted in the torture episode.
Taking as their cue that double-edged sword of dark deeds and delightful panache, the Gimlet Media producers of “Crimetown” extend the tone to the entire criminal history of late-20th-century Providence. For every episode devoted to Buddy, there’s one delving into the mob history of the city once known as “The Beehive of Industry.”
We’re reminded that Providence was for decades a Mafia hub in outsized proportion to the state’s tiny geography. We learn of the iron hand of the city’s crime boss, Raymond Patriarca, from the 1950s through the ’80s, through interviews with local and federal law enforcement officials and retired gangsters.
We listen to chapters devoted to the endless game of cat-and-mouse between professional thief Tony Fiore and Brian R. Andrews of the Rhode Island State Police. We hear of Arlene Violet, a.k.a “Attila the Nun,” a former convent sister who as the state’s attorney general in the mid-1980s fruitlessly warned about a corrupt state banking system on the verge of collapse.
The series is morbidly fascinating and often laugh-out-loud surreal. “Crimetown” reminds us over and over that Providence is a small town in the guise of a big city. How small? When Fiore went on trial for burglary, one of the jurors was his sister. (She was eventually identified and excused.) When state Senator Gloria Kennedy went out for lunch with the attorney general at a downtown restaurant, she looked out the window to see her brother Charles — one of the East Coast’s biggest drug kingpins — getting arrested.
Everything in the series is built on duality and dichotomy, from the two hills that make up the city (one controlled by the mob, the other home to the WASP elite) to the mayor himself, a get-along guy propelled by demons and the proud owner of the least-convincing toupee in political history. The show is easily packaged by the producers as a satisfying sonic “read” and, as one listens, one finds oneself casting actors to match the voices. Dennis Aiken, the Mississippi-born FBI investigator who finally brought Cianci down in 1999 on racketeering charges via the undercover Operation Plunderdome, could only be played by Sam Elliott, for instance. On the other hand, no one but Buddy could play Buddy.
“Crimetown” relies in many of its episodes on the reminiscences of two former enforcers for the Patriarca syndicate, Bobby Walason and Jerry Tillinghast. The second episode, “The Wiseguys,” tells of their respective rise through the ranks, and it offers some of the most honest moments in the series, each man relating tales of wrecked childhoods and abusive fathers while taking responsibilities for their own misdeeds. In one of the final episodes, another tough guy weeps as he considers the ruined lives of his own wife and children.
But “Crimetown” also leans a little too hard on our misperception of the attractiveness of crime. Noting that Tony Fiore now runs a housepainting business, one of the producer-narrators jokes, “It’s a little less glamorous than robbing armored cars, but it’s a living.” And over the show’s long haul, the aura they extend to the chatty Tillinghast, aurally winking as he artfully dodges admitting to murder, feels glib and even irresponsible.
Sure, drive down to Brooklyn Thursday night if you want to meet some of the real wise guys and the men who captured them — maybe even Tillinghast himself. But, during the drive, maybe think about who you’re celebrating and why. And hope that if the producers ever decide to come to Massachusetts they think carefully about who their heroes will be. For many listeners, Providence is fresh territory. In Boston, we already know.