My Thoughts on S-Town

(Some vague spoilers.)

I just recently finished binging on the new and highly popular podcast S-Town produced by the creators of Serial and This American Life and although many listeners love the podcast there are some who felt the story wasn’t all that great.

Here’s how the story begins:

John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.

— S-Town Official Website

After listening to the seven-chapter series I thought it was a beautifully told, thought-provoking story. Looking through the reviews, I read a few of the negative ones to understand why those who didn’t like S-Town felt this way. Was I following the crowd and fooling myself into thinking S-Town was good just because of it’s popularity?

One of the major criticisms people had was that much of the plot lines didn’t have closure by the end of the story; that it became undirected towards the ending. I too noticed a similar lack of direction in the concluding chapters but it didn’t feel stilted — and that’s important. I believe the underwhelming ending, the lack of a satisfying conclusion or revelation, is by design. The story draws parallels between its plot and main character, John. They both begin with such promise, such excitement, but wilt in their final moments. They both attempt to resolve, but end up just end up with loose ends. The drawing of these parallels is not some cheap new-age meta bullshit; it forces us to feel John’s frustration, to experience his emptiness, to be lost in the story — lost in John’s maze with a null set.

Asking more questions than it answers, S-Town allows us to simply think about life.

S-Town asks hard questions but doesn’t satisfy listeners with the hard answers we want so badly, and in some ways this is part of what makes it a great story. Real life is full of muddied realities and conflicts that rarely have clean and clear resolutions. S-Town makes us speculate about the unresolved conflicts it introduces rather than filling every void. The art of the story is as much about what is told as it is about what is unknown. Asking more questions than it answers, S-Town allows us to simply think about life.

I understand the criticisms, however my experience listening to S-Town was both external and internal, and striking that balance is what makes this podcast a beautifully crafted narrative.