S-ing on S-Town (Spoilers Galore)

When I first heard about S-Town, the sister podcast to the phenomenon Serial, I had no idea what it was about. Since having a baby, I felt I no longer had time to indulge in podcasts. But when I saw the way people’s eyeballs plunged out of their head at the mention of it, I thought I’d give it a try.

At first I felt queasy about why people were enjoying this podcast so much. I am from the South and get exhausted with people making fun of Southerners. Except occasionally when it is really funny. The main character, John B., while eccentric and fascinating, seemed so tragic even before the big turning point of the story. I did not want to find this funny or some sick pleasure in the “grotesque”.

But I continued to listen. The last three episodes, in my opinion were the best because they illuminated who John B. was and could have been if he perhaps lived somewhere else. They began discussing the fact he was a suffering, closeted, gay or bisexual man living in a S-Town that was never going to love him.

I though it was beautiful. My own father, who is gay, grew up in a small town. He did not come out of the closet until he was thrity-seven and married to my mother. Some of the crazed, desperate, and lonely behavior John B. demonstrated, I recognized. The pressure to be straight or just the right amount of masculine, must be maddening. I was really excited to hear a story illuminating this reality — not every gay man lives in NY and LA, not every gay man is living his best life, not everyone has the freedom to express themselves and the result of this is a tragic, harrowing existence.

Then I read the “think” pieces. Airbrushing Shittown written by Aaron Bady, published in Hazlitt was the first. The thesis is, elegantly put, that the show airbrushed the characters to be the South we wanted to see. To forgive the poor little Southerners for their sins because, hey, they are just poor and stupid any way. Part of me agreed with Bady. There is a dialogue now, with books such as Hillbilly Elegy, that we need to understand the people that voted for Trump. While I have tried to do that, I continue to come up with the fact that my mother who was born in West Virginia and did not go to college, still had the brains and the character to vote for Hillary Clinton. Millions in the South did.

What I did not like about the piece was the focus on Tyler. Bady’s claim is that Brian Reed, the journalist behind S-Town, wanted us to like Tyler. I disagree. I didn’t like Tyler, trust Tyler or think much about him, because he wasn’t the central character to this story. While I do think S-Town is seeking sympathy for the South, I don’t think it was airbrushed to the degree Bady claims. I think John B. is the victim of this story and the message. While there may be pleasant things about all towns, the fact that John B. could not even have a boyfriend made it a S-Town and that was the point. I much preferred this Vice piece for that reason.

When I Tweeted the Vice piece, I got comments from people who I do not even follow. They said there were other podcasts that questioned the tactics of the investigation. That there was proof John B. was an abuser of some sort. Just like with Serial and Making a Murderer, the critics come in later and S- on everything. While this form of criticism is necessary in journalism, I feel fine with stories being airbrushed to highlight the topics that have been ignored and forced to sit at the bottom of a dark, dingy wells for decades.