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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Yeardley Smith and Zibby Allen bring their true-crime fixation to life with Small Town Dicks

Illustration for article titled Yeardley Smith and Zibby Allen bring their true-crime fixation to life with Small Town Dicks
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Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the most memorable episodes of their podcast. For more podcast coverage, see Podmass, The A.V. Club’s weekly roundup of the best ’casts out there.


The podcasters: “We’re a little obsessed with each other.” Actors and longtime friends Yeardley Smith (The Simpsons) and Zibby Allen (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) hang on each other’s every word, a built-in feature of their kinship that lends itself impeccably well to their true-crime podcast, Small Town Dicks. Alongside their co-producers, Dan and Dave—identical-twin investigators within the ever anonymous “Small Town, U.S.A.”—Yeardley and Zibby feature criminal cases from across the country as told by the detectives who worked on them, interspersing real 911 calls and interrogation tapes for added intimacy. The series is genuine and raw in a way that many crime shows fail to be; where typically a host presents the facts of the case, these hosts are hearing them in real time right alongside listeners. Ultimately, Small Town Dicks is a riveting showcase of good detective work at its very best, and an illustration of many officers’ insistence that “It’s not just a job, it’s a calling.”

Season 1, Episode 1: “Don’t Go!”

The A.V. Club: What makes this a memorable, representative episode of Small Town Dicks?

Zibby Allen: I love that we both chose this one. Of course, it was the pilot episode, and that might have some influence on why it was so impactful. When we started this, we thought, in theory, this podcast might have more levity. Detectives Dan and Dave are really very funny. They’re incredibly witty and charismatic, and it seemed obvious that there’d be more of a place for that. But once we got into telling these stories in the nitty-gritty detail that we do, we realized that there’s less room for that when we’re really taking in, on a very intimate level, the horrifying reality of this case in particular. We jumped in feetfirst—is that the saying, or is it headfirst?

Yeardley Smith: Either way, you’re in the deep end.

ZA: So all of a sudden my whole being was taking in this story in its great detail, and it hit me hard. And we also had the great honor of being able to interview the mother of the victim. I had never met anybody who had had a direct connection to a murder of a loved one. It was haunting, and when we captured these interviews and heard the tapes of the murderer, all of that hit me on a visceral level, and I realized then that we had something really epic here. It was a call to action on our end, to really hold up these stories with a kind of reverence. It was no longer funny. It was like, “Oh, we need to take this seriously and tell this story with the due respect to those involved.”

YS: I would second that. For me, one of the things that was so moving was Dave talking about how it had affected him. I don’t think that’s something that you ever hear about. It’s hard to get them to talk about it. It’s not a place that they’re necessarily comfortable, but Zibby and I somehow have a knack for getting in under the door like water. Not that we weren’t reverent before, but when people are willing to tell you, in such detail, about their experience—whether they’re on the law enforcement side or the victim’s—it’s absolutely humbling. It was quite beautifully told, and well put together. We were really proud that that was our leadoff.


ZA: A lot of these cases involve people from all different walks of life. But there was something in the way that the victim was described both by her mother and the detectives that felt really close to home. It was such a vicious murder, and it happened in an instant of reactivity based on a text message. It was jealousy. And there were threads of that story that felt weirdly familiar, having grown up with friends with an extra-jealous boyfriend. And it just felt extra close.

Season 3, Episode 3: “Interstate”

YS: What I love about this episode is that it has everything. It has an incredible story that is, again, told with reverence by the detectives. We have Detective George, who’s now a sergeant, and Dan and Dave both worked on it. It also has humor, and it has a real thread of “Oh my god, I never would have known that” about a number of details of what it’s like to extradite a suspect from one state to another. It’s a great buffet of all of the elements of wonderful storytelling, told with such reverence for the victim—and even for the suspect, who ends up being really contrite. Dave and George meet his parents. You’ve got the whole thing, from soup to nuts.


ZA: And it has a really powerful confession tape, too—I’ll just leave it at that. I don’t want to ruin it, but it’s one of the most striking so far that I’ve heard.

Season 2, Episode 1: “Girl For Rent”

AVC: Yeardley, you selected this one. What makes it memorable?

YS: This is a story told by another one of our guests that we’ve had on a couple times named Sergeant Dave. What was so affecting about that episode was, when he encountered the little girl and he thought, “Something’s not right here,” she was quite defiant. She was not like, “Oh, thank god you’re here.” She was like, “What’s your deal? I’m fine.” Of course, nothing was fine. You think, how many little girls are out there? He just happened to come upon her. This was not a situation where somebody called [the police]. He was doing a routine check on an abandoned parking lot and he encountered this man and this girl, and he’s like, “Hmm, my hackles are up.” You just think, thank god for that. Sergeant Dave is actually still in touch with her, and she came through in a way that most victims in a situation like that don’t. But I always think about that one.


AVC: Each episode seems to showcase a different detective instinct. In this episode, it really was almost like an officer’s innate intuition. It seemed to upturn the entire case and bring it into the light.

YS: Absolutely.

Season 1, Episodes 11-14: “The Sociopath And The Whistleblower, Parts 1-4” 

ZA: Speaking of intuition, this was a four-part episode from the end of our first season, and that word “intuition” is used a lot by the detective telling that case. He’s now a lieutenant, Lieutenant Scott. One of his quotes from that, which I’ll never forget, is, “I never really understood women’s intuition until this case.” And the story alone is unbelievable. If you wrote it in a movie, I’d say, “No, there’s no way, that’s too much—it’s over the top.” And aside from it being just an incredible story that’s complex and multifaceted, you just watch it spread across this entire small town, at almost every level: the cop’s peers all the way down to what might be called the people living on the fringes. We did this interview over the course of maybe four hours.


YS: Five, I think.

ZA: And I did not take a breath practically the entire time listening to Lieutenant Scott tell this story. Part of the reason it was so riveting is that he had such an epic personal transformation from investigating this case. He was in charge of internal investigation, so he had to investigate one of his own, which came with its own controversial threads. He got quite emotional. I remember all of us were sitting there at the table wiping tears away from our face by the end of this interview, because Lieutenant Scott is so candid about how it changed him fundamentally as a human being, going through this entire thing.


I think about it constantly; it blows my mind, his ability to be personally accountable and track where his biases started and how they came apart. He ended up becoming an advocate for these women whom nobody else was an advocate for. It’s really amazing, and the women involved have a special kind of chutzpah that I find remarkable. There’s a level of resilience that I can hardly wrap my mind around when it comes to some of the female victims in this case.


AVC: It really could be a movie, with these themes of personal transformation and legitimizing those voices on the fringes of society. What went into the decision to give this story a multi-part, miniseries treatment?

ZA: Yeardley and I like to go into these interviews not knowing much about the case so we can genuinely represent what a new listener would experience. So we had a vague idea, but our assumption was that this would be a standard hour or two-hour interview. Well, at hour five, we’re sitting there going, “Don’t let this end!” I just thought, there’s too much to this case. I don’t want to cut any of it out. We could have made it an even longer series. [Lieutenant Scott] remembers in such detail, and he covers this case at least once a year with a journalism class at the local college. He’s just so well-versed in the case that there was no way we were going to leave out those details.


YS: We actually did a mini-sode where we had a follow-up with all the women. We call it “The Women,” and it’s a really lovely, not always happy, but really interesting addendum.

AVC: And this story comes back into play in season two, with “The Protégé.”

ZA: I just can’t believe the whole story.

Season 2, Episode 2: “If These Walls Could Talk”

ZA: Funny enough, Lieutenant Scott covered this one, too. We have a deep, profound respect for every single detective we’ve been able to have on our show, and this story was really wild. I loved the details about some good old-fashioned detective work. This was in the ’90s, when they were still bugging houses by having to go in and rewire stuff. There’s a particular moment [Scott] describes when they all had to disguise themselves as PG&E workers, these detectives, just to get up on the rooftop and do what they need to do to bug this guy’s house. And then, of course, those tapes are incredibly chilling to listen to. They had to bug a suspect’s house to figure out whether or not he murdered his wife. So between the 911 call and those tapes, I constantly think about this case. It’s just insane.


AVC: I was thinking of The Jinx during this episode. Who knew that there’s an entire population of people who mumble their own confessions?

YS: I know! “This guy is a mumbler. We’ve got to bug his house to see if he mumbles anything really significant.” It’s brilliant.


ZA: So many times we’ll be listening to these stories, and [suspects] just make some crazy mistakes to the benefit of the investigators. Yeardley, what’s the thing you’re always saying? It’s hilarious, and it’s so true—what is it?

YS: “Be smarter! Be smarter than that! This is basic!”

ZA: But these people cannot help themselves, which is of course why they ended up in the situation that they end up in so much of the time. He was mumbling from the get. Even on the 911 call in the very beginning, you’re thinking, “This guy’s not right.”


YS: Talking about “being smarter,” one of the things that we’ve learned about criminals is that they actually have really robust social media presences, for the most part. Facebook, Twitter—you’re like, “Oh my god, their pages aren’t even private!” Really? That just seems like a no-brainer, dude.

ZA: In “Interstate,” there’s a perfect example of how Facebook is, as Detective Dave says, one of the best tools for law enforcement investigation.


YS: You can just connect so many dots on Facebook: “Oh, he’s friends with her, and she’s been involved with—okay, well, 75 percent solved. Thank you, Facebook.”

AVC: What are your goals for Small Town Dicks in the future, and what would you hope listeners gain from it?


YS: One of the things that has been a real unexpected gift is that a lot of the detectives say to us, after they’ve done their interview, how cathartic it is to have this space and the time to tell the story from soup to nuts. We stay away from politics, but there is a sort of un-ignorable conversation these days: A lot of spotlight is placed on law enforcement that’s gone wrong. Without meaning for this podcast to be the opposite, it really has been an opportunity to highlight excellent work. I’m pleased and proud that we’re able to showcase another side of law enforcement. Of course every profession has their bad eggs, that goes without saying. I think, for the most part, there’s better police work going on than the questionable police work.

In terms of where we go, I feel like everybody has a story. Everybody feels like their story isn’t that interesting, and every one of them is wrong. So there is no end to the number of stories and perspectives, and the ways they got from A to Z. For me, that never gets old, and it’s not much more complicated than that.


ZA: I second everything you’re saying. It’s been profound for me personally to sit face-to-face with these men and women in law enforcement and really experience their humanity in a way that I admittedly may not have considered previously, to be totally frank. I’m really grateful for that, and it’s shifted my perspective. [Yeardley] and I really do this well, with each other and now inside of this podcast: We lead with this fervent curiosity. Where there’s curiosity, there’s more to be discovered. Where there are answers, everything dies and splits. I like that that’s been the by-product of what we’re doing. I love capturing people’s stories. I’m an innately curious being anyway. Until we decide we’re done, there’s no end to what more we can capture.

We’ve talked lots about the different avenues for capturing these stories. But it’s evolving the way it’s evolving, and this has been really great for us. Season three is almost fully captured, and we never stop. We go to these small towns and capture these stories in person, and so far we have every intention of continuing.


AVC: Is there anything else listeners should know?

YS: We have merchandise now!

ZA: And we’re grateful for how vocal our listeners are. We spend so much time working on these, and it’s hard to know how we’re really landing. The only reason we have a sense of that is because listeners reach out over social media with supportive words and affirming feedback that lets us know we’re doing these stories justice. That keeps us going; it’s amazing.


YS: It’s such a tiny team, so on top of honoring these cases, to know you’re headed in the right direction just feels great.

Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.