If you’re looking for something to binge on, listen to the new podcast S-Town. S-Town, narrated by reporter Brian Reed, is a collaboration between the creators of Serial and This American Life. Much like how Netflix releases new seasons of their original series, S-Town was released in its entirety on March 28th and, as a result, I have subsequently spent the last 24 hours engrossed in the lives of Woodstock, Alabama’s residents.
The podcast originates purely from rumor. Reporter Brian Reed is drawn into the world of Woodstock by an email from a man named John B. McLemore who wants Reed to investigate a potential police cover up that involves the son of a wealthy family. John doesn’t know the details, but swears that he heard that the guy who did it was bragging about it in front of the Little Caesars in town. Reed agrees, and begins to dig deeper into the potential murder – but by episode two that story line is moot once Reed figures out that the murder in question never occurred. Reed discovers that they guy who was “murdered” is actually alive, and the guy who “murdered” him was never bragging about it in front of a Little Caesars. Here, as a true crime and mystery lover, I was left wondering what direction the podcast would take, as I had pegged it as a part of the true crime genre. What comes next I would have never expected, and it led me to binge listen to three hour-long episodes in the span of one night.
S-Town, much like its predecessors This American Life and Serial, creates a narrative. Unlike a lot of podcasts that only include interviews or discussion from the host, S-Town combines both. The creator, Brian Reed, integrates phone calls, interviews, recorded conversation and his own narration in order to create a story where the mystery isn’t in the murder—the mystery of the story is John himself. The podcast is centered around eccentric, wealthy and global warming-obsessed John and the people in his conservative town who he often clashes with. There are his cousins Rita and Charles who may have ill intentions, his troubled unofficially adopted son Trevor, the police department he swears is corrupt, a tattoo parlor he seems frequent too often and much more. Listeners will spend the entire eight episodes wondering why John chose to stay in Woodstock—which he refers to as a place of “proleptic decay and decrepitude”—and why people chose to stay around John. There are so many twists, dead ends and under answered questions that leave you wondering, “Who is John B. McLemore?”
S-Town stands by itself in light of the popularity of This American Life and Serial. It is different from Serial in that it flows without sudden backtracking, in addition to the fact that Reed doesn’t position himself into the story, in contrast to Serial’s Sarah Koenig. Reed does, obviously, have a connection to the story’s main character John as well as the people in John’s life, but he does not distract from the ultimate goal of the podcast- figuring out who John B. McLemore is. In addition, with respect to This American Life, the story doesn’t end with the episode—it continues chapter by chapter. What is unique about S-Town is that it offers much more than a simple story; while the focus is certainly on John, there are so many smaller sub-plots in the background about the people that John has impacted in his life and certainly in his absence. While some parts are admittedly difficult (Episode 3) or frustrating to listen to because they make you doubt the intentions of those who surround John, those aspects of the podcast are what make it so interesting and leave you wanting more. A unique story with a certainly unexpected outcome, I sincerely hope that Reed elaborates more on the life of the residents of Woodstock, and of course, on the life of John. Having finished the podcast, I plan on binge listening again quite soon.