I listen to a lot of podcasts. I’m fortunate to have a job where I can spend all day listening to whatever I please, and most of the time, I choose podcasts. Podcasts have been a source of news and comedy and a way to learn about topics I’ve always been interested in and things I’ve never heard of.
S-Town, an audio masterpiece that takes podcasting to a new level more akin to literature than you may expect, is by the producers of This American Life and Serial. S-Town is a seven-part series, ranging from 48-63 minutes per episode, released all at once, for a total of six and a half hours. It’s binge’able, right now.
The main premise is about John B. McLemore, a clockmaker, in Alabama who contacts Brian Reed at This American Life about a murder that he believes was covered up by the police. However, the show is more about understanding the people of Woodstock, Alabama, what John calls Shit-town, their misunderstandings, their feuds, and their humanity.
Should you listen to it? Yes. The crew behind this show is a group of seasoned producers and hosts, the audio quality and production is top of the line, and it’s just a great story that you’ll want to hear to the end and talk about with all your friends, and hopefully me! I’m @ThePodPlaylist on Twitter.
The podcast This American Life brought the established radio show to the medium of on-demand audio programming, which has always felt like the podcast equivalent of a magazine. Serial tweaked and played with that format to bring podcasts to a new level of popularity and awareness. According to an article in Wired, Serial was modeled after television, ending each episode with a cliffhanger. S-Town is the refinement of the medium to the mature artistic level podcasting deserves.
I compare S-Town to This American Life and Serial not just because they’re from the same creators, but because they are two of the most well-known podcasts, and they produce high-quality programming.
To keep with the theme of a literary novel, each episode of S-Town is a chapter. Through the series and in each chapter, S-Town illustrates the human condition.
In the first chapter, Brian defines proleptic, a word that John uses to describe the town. Proleptic, meaning the representation or assumption of a future act as if presently existing, is a theme throughout the series, with person after person declaring or claiming something to be true, when it hasn’t happened, or at least not yet.
Another prominent theme is horology, the study of time and making clocks. With this, Brian is building a great analogy that sets a couple themes and ideas to hook the listener, but quickly the podcast is no longer following the original investigation. S-Town is about a dead man, but that only scratches the surface.
S-Town isn’t about a town. It isn’t about a murder. It isn’t about a mystery. It’s about people, the people of S-Town, specifically, one person from that town, an amazingly talented and troubled person—John B. McLemore, an antique horologist, conspiracy theorist, poet, semi-homosexual, chemist, masochist, canine caretaker, horticulturalist, altruist, mentor, pessimistic idealist, and atheist, yet he won’t let any of those things define him. He is most often simply described by his friends as a genius, but he is also known by the townspeople for how he can talk for hours and is exhausting and he is not without his quirks. At one point John pisses in his kitchen sink, and this may seem like a random or gross thing to do, but he’s actually conserving water and fighting for his environmental beliefs.
Halfway through the second episode, John becomes a friend, a person who you want to get to know deeply but shield your kids from, a person who is relatable, yet is fascinatingly new and different. S-Town is about the literal and metaphorical maze that John has made, not just for Brian, but for everyone he’s ever contacted, for the townspeople in S-Town, and now for everyone listening. The flow of the show is steady, starting new threads but wrapping up others along the way, and the season ends with a great resolution that is both bittersweet and utterly fascinating.
There’s a lot of commentary in this show about small towns. When I was young, I lived in a small town here in Oregon, and this show has wonderfully captured that small town feel. But there’s a fascinating other side to John’s hatred for the town and people in it. He hates it because he loves it. It’s two sides of the same gold-plated dime.
S-Town is a great name for the show. Throughout that S has different meanings. Here is how I break down the chapters:
- Chapter I Shittown
- Chapter II Social
- Chapter III Self-destruction
- Chapter IV Scavenger hunt
- Chapter V Strife
- Chapter VI Sexuality
- Chapter VII Struggle
During chapters IV and V, the people of John’s Shit-town try to make their way through the maze of John’s mind, and the world he has created, putting them through tests of will and morality and even making them question themselves and their actions. This may be exactly what John is hoping for. John relays a story of how the people around him see the world and the other people in it, and it takes some time for Brian to fully grasp John’s analogy.
Some people argue that this series exploits the people in and around the story, but everyone agreed to be on the record for their interviews. John, after pushing away the friends in his life, reached out to Brian as a new companion. John not only uses Brian to help solve a murder, and expose the town of Woodstock to the light of day, but John also shares his 53-page manifesto while they were sitting together. John uses Brian as a biographer.
In addition to the incredible story, I find myself moved by the instrumental music used throughout as transitions and interludes. My head bobs as the plucked cello leads into the heavy beat. The music transports and engulfs me into the story.
Even though clips of interviews are played out of order for narrative effect, I can tell when Brian is interviewing based on his skill level, his comfort, and his questions, because during the three years that he devoted to this man and this town, he grows as an investigator and a reporter. I am very excited to see more from Brian Reed and the rest of the crew.
S-Town is neither Serial nor a true-crime podcast. It’s a journey through the degrading mind of a troubled genius. This podcast shines from its use of storytelling and analogies to convey morals and humanity. This isn’t light listening but something that reflects a mirror on yourself and your community. S-Town is a well-produced, enthralling, and thoroughly entertaining podcast. Like a great book, I didn’t want to put it down; in fact, I listened through seven times. S-Town gets better with each repeat experience. I’m so glad that John reached out to Brian, and they went on this journey together.
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