As it turns out, there’s this formerly great American city that was once bursting with crooks, run by the mob, and represented by a thoroughly questionable congressman. Can you imagine?
Of course you can. The pitch is cliché at this point, but it’s still gold, especially when you’re getting the meal served at a high level from Crooked City, a new series hosted by Marc Smerling. Veteran crime-podcast-heads will recognize Smerling from his work on Crimetown, the early hit he created with Zac Stuart-Pontier whose breakout first season brought a new spin to Providence tourism. Crooked City’s debut season explores the criminal history of Youngstown, Ohio, a city forged by the quintessential Rust Belt experience: booming with industrial activity in the late 19th and early 20th century, hollowed out following the decline of American steel. These days, Youngstown is often short-handed for its distinction of once being the fastest-shrinking city in America, a condition its local government recently attempted to internalize as a constraint to accept within its policy framework (dubbed “smart shrinkage”).
Crooked City chiefly concerns Youngstown during the period of its decline, when economic deterioration gave rise to all sorts of shady types — including, and perhaps especially, Jim Traficant, a local star quarterback turned county sheriff turned U.S. representative who was “colorful” (as they say), controversial, and eventually convicted in 2002 on ten felony counts including all the classics: bribery, racketeering, and tax evasion. Traficant died in 2014 in what appeared to be a freak tractor accident on his daughter’s farm. His death opens the first episode, and the wild arc of Traficant’s political life supplies the season with its narrative architecture, give or take a few diversions about the city’s historical relationship with the region’s various criminal elements.
Crooked City is the direct continuation of the Crimetown project in all but name. The DNA is hard to miss: Both are dense histories of a city delivered through a true-crime lens with a light touch of travelogue. (Some attention is also paid in passing to the fact that Youngstown’s troubles were so bad it was once granted the nickname “Crime Town, USA”).
That first season of Crimetown was emblematic of the bygone Gimlet era, one of the first instances of a production team from another media industry — Smerling and Stuart-Pontier were, at that point, still rolling from HBO’s The Jinx — successfully crossing over to make something wholly new and interesting in the podcast business. The show’s intertwining history of criminality and political corruption in Providence resulted in a smash hit, but what made its success interesting was in the way it left real-world marks. Dig around and you’ll find local column inches mulling over the state of political corruption in the city prompted by the podcast’s popularity. Here’s a local news clip of Providence mayor Jorge Elorza calling the podcast “terrible” for the city. I have a vivid memory of being on an Amtrak that, upon stopping in Providence, took on two conductors who were heatedly discussing the podcast.
In 2018, Crimetown followed up with a second season about Detroit, but that installment came and went rather quietly. Why it didn’t hit in the same way exactly, I’m still not sure. Perhaps the novelty of Providence accounts for more of the original season’s popularity than one might think. In any case, that was the last Crimetown we got.
Smerling and Stuart-Pontier seem to have since spun off to pursue separate endeavors since then. The latter’s most recent audio project was Not Past It, a history show hosted by Simone Polanen that’s published by Gimlet, now in something of an identity crisis under Spotify ownership. The former, meanwhile, went on to create a new studio called Truth.Media (clunky name, especially these days), which published a few podcasts in recent years, including Firebug, about an arsonist who terrorized SoCal in the ’80s, and Morally Indefensible, which expanded upon the thoroughly fascinating Hulu docuseries A Wilderness of Error. You should expect to see the studio shingle around the podcast charts more often in the coming years.
As a matter of entertainment, Crooked City is a welcome return to flair. These days, I’m all too often finding narrative podcasts — and serialized crime-themed pods in specific — to be dreary, way too by the numbers, even if the underlying tale is fundamentally interesting. If there’s one thing I truly appreciate about Crooked City, it is the show’s underlying raconteuristic fun. Much of this is owed to Smerling’s narration, all sly enthusiasm; he talks about criminality the way Jonathan Gold wrote about food. Indeed, the tone of Smerling’s delivery often makes me think of the “Sickos” meme. Listening to it, I’m sometimes made into the meme myself. Sure, there’s a whole separate moral entanglement one can and should work through about rendering crime, political corruption, and societal pain into entertainment commodities, but I suppose we’re all a little past that point now.
That sense of (morbid, challenging, complicated) pep and fun makes me think of another show that has stuck around my rotation lately: Wondery’s Fed Up, a scam-adjacent tale of social-media-era chicanery that features less death and only slightly more body horror. Although clunky, it’s a show that works almost completely because of the strength of Casey Wilson’s energy as pinch-hitting celebrity host. Am I saying all narrative podcasts should be hosted with a sense of fun? Of course not. That would be inappropriate in many situations. But it would be nice if more of them were presented with actual showmanship and flair.
➽ You can’t really go wrong with a treasure-hunt story, but that’s only partly what you get with Missed Fortune, a new limited-run podcast series from Apple TV+. It’s an adaptation of the magazine journalist Peter Frick-Wright’s 2015 feature for Outside about a fortune seeker named Darrell Seyler who believed he was close to finding the Forrest Fenn treasure. For those unfamiliar, Fenn was a wealthy (and obviously eccentric) antiquities dealer who hid a cache of valuable items somewhere in the Rocky Mountains upon learning he was terminally ill. The guy made it into a whole production: He literally wrote a poem containing clues as to the location, publicized it as widely as he could, inspired a generation of treasure hunters — that kinda thing.
Anyway, Missed Fortune is probably a solid enough listen for anyone who would enjoy being sucked up into the wild world of modern treasure hunting. That said, I find it somewhat hard to recommend for two reasons. First, Missed Fortune is pretty dour, which is a bummer because it deviates from the inherent strangeness and whimsy of the entire Forrest Fenn ordeal. I don’t discount the logic of the approach, as Frick-Wright seems principally interested in exploring the cost treasure hunting extracts from a person. But the choice does constrain the fundamentals of the story’s inherent appeal. The second reason is a spoiler, so skip the next paragraph if you’ve already bought enough into the concept of Missed Fortune to go for it …
… Now, the second reason should be obvious to anybody like myself who’s already super-familiar with the Forrest Fenn story: The treasure was found back in 2020 but not by Darrell Seyler, the figure at the center of Missed Fortune. (Hence the title.) The person who did succeed was also the subject of an Outside magazine story, though not one written by Frick-Wright, and that person already identified himself as 32-year-old medical student Jack Stuef. So the question for Missed Fortune is whether it’s able to justify its existence either through the strength of its presentation or whatever larger ideas it’s trying to process, which is a fair enough challenge. It’s just a really tough one given the sheer abundance of everything else that’s out there.
➽ Oprah Winfrey’s company, Harpo, is reportedly suing Oprahdemics for “what it says is an unauthorized attempt to capitalize on ‘The Oprah Effect,’”according to The Hollywood Reporter. In case you don’t know, Oprahdemics is a Radiotopia podcast hosted by two Black academics, Kellie Carter Jackson and Leah Wright Rigueur, that’s dedicated to rigorously unpacking the legacy of Winfrey and her iconic daytime television program. It is also, fundamentally, an appreciation podcast hosted by two self-declared Oprah superfans. Which is why this frankly feels, to me at least, like an excessive use of legal force, even if the intent, as stated in the THR piece, isn’t to shut down the podcast, per se, but to specifically “prevent a dilution” of the Oprah brand. I dunno, feels gross.
➽ If you’re into book drama, here’s one for you: Missing Pages, a series dedicated to all sorts of publishing-industry nonsense. It’s plenty fun, almost trashy fun, and definitely interesting if you’re into the material. The host is Bethanne Patrick, whom folks following the extremely interesting ongoing antitrust trial between the Department of Justice and the Penguin Random House–Simon & Schuster merger might recognize as the industry insider doing some of the livetweeting coverage last week. You might get some satisfaction from how the series tries to build out a larger argument, or indictment, about the publishing industry’s many sins; that element of the show can be hit or miss. Glad they’re there, though.
➽ Julian Edelman … is making a podcast now? Okay.