In the second season of Crimetown, the Gimlet Media true-crime podcast by The Jinx creators Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier that debuts a pair of brand-new episodes Monday, the once-great city of Detroit takes center stage. Which is great news for any fans of true crime, archival tape, and/or byzantine city bureaucracies.
The podcast’s first season, which dug into political corruption in Providence, Rhode Island, was a history narrative largely defined by the story of one man: Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr., whose rise to power and conflict with opposing organized-crime factions substantially contributed to the structure of modern Providence. With its sophomore effort, the Crimetown team sets their sights on the Motor City’s significantly more complex landscape of power. While the podcast will build a good portion of its narrative around the rise and fall of Kwame Kilpatrick — who served as Detroit’s mayor in the mid-2000s until he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2008 — it will also attend to the city’s internal struggles with gangs, the drug trade, and a collapsed economy.
Ahead of the season-two premiere, Smerling and Stuart-Pontier spoke to Vulture about their decision to cover Detroit’s messy politics, how they tweaked their investigative process this time around, and what making the podcast has taught them about the nature of crime.
Let’s start simply: Why build the new season around Detroit?
Marc Smerling: There’s a lot of crime porn out there, and one thing we really try to do is find something that raises the idea of crime to higher level. Finding really interesting people who serve as icons for bigger ideas is a big part of what we look for. Kwame Kilpatrick, for me, was the way into this season. He was the youngest mayor ever to get elected — after Buddy Cianci — and in the end, he gets 28 years of prison on racketeering charges. There was so much going with Detroit: the drug trade, the gangs, the issues of race in a city that’s experienced tremendous white flight. It’s a city that really hit rock bottom. And so Kwame was our starting point. What was the story of this young mayor, and what happened?
To figure that out, you have to go back in time. This story goes back a very, very long way to when the auto industry was starting to collapse, which meant that a lot of the plants began moving out of the inner city of Detroit, which meant that the economic base collapsed, which then led to the city collapse. That created a big petri dish for crime.
Did you consider looking at any other cities?
Stuart-Pontier: We definitely had a list of cities we were researching for the new season, but I got really excited about Detroit early on.
Smerling: Obviously, there has been a lot done about Detroit over the last three to four years, and I was a little hesitant because of that. I did also feel that some of the issues with Detroit are a black mark on who we are as Americans, and I didn’t want to rub anybody’s face in that. But when I started hearing their voices on tape, I was like, Oh, I got to meet this person, and I got to go on a journey with them.
What’s the process behind building this new season?
Stuart-Pontier: We usually start with the characters and we plot them on a timeline. Right now, in our office, there’s a huge chart where the Y-axis is the timeline and X-axis are all the people. We’re trying to capture a whole city, and so we look for moments of connection between characters and the history. What was going on with Coleman Young, the first black mayor in the ’80s? What was going on with the gangs at that time? Were there meeting points? Those moments of connection are super clear back in Providence because it’s such a small place. We’re dealing with something different here in Detroit, which is a little more difficult because it’s so much bigger.
Smerling: Archival tape is a big deal for us. In season one, when we came across Buddy’s biographer’s interview tapes in a box in his outdoor shed, it was like a nirvana moment. That kind of original recording, where people are talking about their lives in an expansive way without the idea that they’re going to be broadcasted at any point, those are extremely valuable.
How much time did you guys spend in the city for this?
Smerling: This season, we’re just editing. Zac and I aren’t reporting. I’ve been doing a TV show and Zac has been making The RFK Tapes, so we weren’t going out to Detroit to do the heavy lifting. For the reporting, we’ve been working with Drew Nelles, one of our senior producers from the first season, and a guy named John White, who joined us from StoryCorps. We also have some new talent that’s coming up. As a result, this season is going to sound less monolithic.
To me, Providence was very much a personal journey. I understand that city on a level that I think most people don’t, because I had been part of a very big Italian family there. This is more of a straight-up reporting job. We’re making relationships with people out there, we’re getting the tape and we’re forming it, but we’re not out there reporting it. But Drew and John, they’ve been out there maybe 20 times over the last year.
In the first season, Buddy Cianci was an organizing principle around which the entire story of Providence was built. Does Kwame Kilpatrick fit into Detroit’s story in a similar way?
Stuart-Pontier: The thing about Detroit is that power doesn’t exist that way. In season one, Raymond Patriarca and Buddy Cianci were struggling over the soul of Providence. That kind of clean rivalry isn’t present in Detroit. It’s more like a passage of power from one person to the other, and the city is divided up from corner-to-corner between the different gangs and pockets of infighting. It’s not just Kwame Kilpatrick — we’re going to spend some time with Coleman Young, and then you’re going to meet other characters that will come back later. Kwame is a huge part of this story, though. At least half the episodes will be devoted to him.
What has making these two seasons taught you about crime?
Stuart-Pontier: All these choices that these people make are completely understandable, particularly when you’re looking at them with a larger lens. The more we look at different stories, the more that feels universal to me. People are gray — not all good, not all bad.
Smerling: There’s a reason that everybody’s obsessed with true crime. Netflix has, like, a hundred new true-crime shows or something that they churn out every month, and I think it’s because it’s so interesting to watch people in those situations. It’s human nature in its very essence. It’s the heightened drama of who we are. I think Breaking Bad changed everything in a lot of ways. You had this school teacher who gets cancer — and you can’t think of anybody who deserves a break more than this guy — and then he becomes the drug kingpin of the Southwest. He becomes ruthless. All these things that we all kind of feel, all these ambitions we kind of have, are twisted and magnified into a sort of monster. That’s what makes crime interesting.
It’s fascinating that you mention a piece of fiction like Breaking Bad.
Stuart-Pontier: I do think that the point about characters not being one-sided, and that people can see and identify with them, that’s important. We do try and take some things from the fiction world in terms of how they tell stories. Now, we have a high degree of reporting integrity and we’re not changing anything there. But the way we think about structure is always about trying to heighten the drama in a way that you would in a fictional show.
Last question: How did you think the first season resonated in Providence?
Smerling: There was a small contingent that was like, “Oh, I wish this would just end and we wouldn’t have to talk about our dark past and Buddy and Raymond and the mob,” but I think most people loved it. They’ve accepted the past of Providence, Rhode Island. In some ways, they’ve romanticized it. In some ways, they look down their noses at it. But they realize it’s part of who they are as a city. And now there’s a tour! You can go to the city of Providence and take the Crimetown tour. That’s kind of fun, you know?