Manuel Gomez is a hero for our times. You know, the rogue US private investigator, working around the law to find the truth and free the innocent? That Philip Marlowe/Mike Hammer/Jim Rockford type? Well, Gomez is that, but updated to today. Kind of.
“I come in, music blaring,” he says. “I gotta make a statement.” He’s talking of the time he arrived at 10pm at a Bronx skate park to try to talk to a local kid. Gomez zoomed up in his soft-top car, roof down, flash suit a-flapping, with his music blasting out. Phil Collins, In the Air Tonight. “It turns heads,” reasons Gomez. “Especially the drum sequence.”
Oh, you will love Gomez, or Manny, as he’s known. In Conviction, a six-part true-crime series, we follow him over a couple of years as he tries to get a young client out of Rikers Island jail. Pedro Hernandez, 16, is accused of shooting another youth, aged 15, in an argument. Pedro swears he’s innocent, and his mum, Jessica Perez, gets in touch with Manny to see if he can help. And Manny gets to work.
Reporter Saki Knafo from the New York Times magazine is our narrator and guide, but it’s Manny that holds our attention. He’s the biggest character in a story packed with memorable individuals: Jessica, tough, uncompromising; Pedro himself, quiet and studious. Everyone we meet sears themselves on to our synapses, from the cop that arrested Pedro, to the kid who was shot. But it’s fast-talking Manny, bowling into neighbourhoods and chatting to everyone, returning over and over until he finds the person with the information, hanging out until they’re willing to go on the record… oh, it’s definitely Manny who sticks with you. He drives a 400-mile round trip to talk to a man in jail. He sits outside a 16th-floor flat for three hours from 6am to see if someone comes out (he has a Coke bottle in case he wants to pee). It’s rare for a podcast to give you such a feel of a neighbourhood without one of those lengthy I’m-not-from-around-here descriptive speeches by the host. No need for that here: Conviction is steeped in the Bronx, because of Manny.
Knafo is fair: he talks to the cop, to the accuser, gets everyone’s side of the story. There is care in Conviction’s detail, and the structure is meticulous. But this is not a chin-scratcher of a podcast. Conviction rattles along. It’s fun, in exactly the same way a detective story usually is.
A side note: Gimlet Media, which made Conviction alongside the New York Times, has recently been sold to Spotify for an astonishing $230m. (No longer can anyone host a panel called: How Do You Make Money Out of Podcasting?) It’s a surprise, but Gimlet has always been an exception, more conventional and ambitious than many US podcasting collectives. Its first show, StartUp, was about starting up a business: that business was Gimlet itself. In just four years it has transformed itself smoothly into a pod powerhouse, making its own shows, but ones too for brands such as Tinder, eBay, Reebok, Virgin Atlantic and every podcast’s favourite sponsor, Blue Apron.
Without doubt, Gimlet has been responsible for some of the best podcasts of recent times – Reply All, Mogul, Homecoming – but these were mostly made in co-production with others. Gimlet’s homegrown podcasts are a little cerebral and similar to other, livelier shows already out there. It has a women-talking-pop-culture podcast, a small-and-everyday-things-are-fascinating podcast, a BME culture podcast (The Nod: excellent), a childrens’ stories podcast. It has been clever enough to cover all the bases. And Spotify clearly wants to move into non-music listening, to become the place you go to for anything audio. But still, in a time when Audible is slashing its podcast output, when Panoply (Slate’s podcast publisher) pulled out in September last year, $230m is a lot of money. We shall see.
Three shows featuring outsiders
PJ Harvey: Behind the Scenes
OK, Polly Jean Harvey isn’t exactly unknown, but she’s never been conventional, even when she’s under the spotlight of the mainstream. Front Row’s John Wilson, increasingly striking out on his own, presents and produces a half-hour show about Harvey’s working practices. She’s been creating the score for the new West End production of All About Eve, starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James, and we hear Harvey finding her way. “Be quiet. No rustling,” she tells Wilson, who can barely contain his excitement. We move through her whole process. Terrific.
Beyond Tara and George
Tara and George, Audrey Gillan’s exceptional series about two rough sleepers, was my favourite show of last year. This one-off follow-up episode (though there are rumours of another series to come) sees Gillan return to the pair during the freezing cold snap of the new year to see how they’re getting on. Gillan also goes to a memorial service at London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields remembering all those who perish on our streets: 165 people in the past year. She asks the simple, obvious question: why are so many homeless people dying in Britain?
Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything
This is a longstanding podcast from Radiotopia, presented by the creaky-voiced Benjamen Walker (his voice might get on your nerves for a bit: persevere). It jumps between fact and fiction, between place and mind, between Walker and various interviewees. It considers contemporary life: commodification, fake news, craft beer, why Facebook doesn’t have a dislike button. Theory of Everything can seem indulgent, but it opens your mind and tells you stuff in a way very few podcasts could even imagine. Warning: I used to hate it.