S-Town, the latest podcast from the team behind Serial and This American Life, does not go the way you think it will. Now, in the interest of keeping this post relatively spoiler-free, we won’t tell you what that exactly means, but we will say it’s the reason you need to listen.
Hosted by Brian Reed, S-Town—which is the search-friendly name producers gave the podcast (it should really be called Shittown)—seems, at first, a lot like Serial’s first season. Listen to Episode 1 of S-Town and you’ll be sure this is another reporter-goes-to-investigate-a-crime-and-brings-new-facts-to-light podcast. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, as the first season of Serial was a massive, binge-worthy hit, but following the same script wouldn’t make S-Town so noteworthy. There comes an episode in S-Town when the narrative changes and the podcast morphs into something else entirely. Basically, this is not “Did Adnan do it?”
The simplest way to describe S-Town is by saying it’s about a horologist who claims a murder is being covered up by police in his small Alabama town. That man, John B. McLemore, comes off as both a madman and a savant, someone who rattles on about climate change but knows the topic far better than even the scientists studying it. To listen to him is kinda funny, but also kinda sad. He’s a recluse with an effervescent personality. He builds mazes on his property. He takes care of 20+ dogs. He seems happy but says he’s severely depressed. John B McLemore is, without question, a major part of why S-Town works so well—but he’s far from the only reason.
What S-Town does so beautifully—and this is a credit to Reed, who’s cut his teeth at This American Life, producing some of the finest episodes of the show—is provide a glimpse of a town you know well but probably don’t spend time in, a rural town in the Deep South where rusted pick-up trucks rot in yards and racist gathering are organized in the little bar behind the tattoo parlor. Shittown is the star of Shittown. Reed does a fantastic job of setting the scene, often interjecting observations that border on personal opinions yet never feel out of place. In fact, it’s often the juxtaposition of Reed and the people he’s interviewing that give the town most of its personality. This podcast is about a shitty town where shitty things happen, and the shittiest thing of all happens when you least expect it.
Listen to S-Town here.