Here’s Why You Should Probably Be Listening To “S-Town”
Come for the murder, stay for the story.
Reminisce with me. It’s October, 2014, the world is not entirely ablaze, and if you own ears and an internet you’re either listening to the Serial podcast or are about to spend much of the next year wilfully ignoring people telling you to listen to the Serial podcast.
The show is a phenomenon, quickly becoming the most downloaded podcast of all time and defining viral audio for the internet age. It will be the water cooler convo de jour well beyond it’s initial 12 week run.
When Season 2 of Serial debuts in late 2015, it swings a left on listeners, swapping a murder in New Jersey for the story of a US Army deserter in Afghanistan. The series gets bogged down in laborious detail and loses much of their momentum — and many listeners — in the process.
The lack of murdery goodness leaves millions of true-crime obsessed listeners itching for a fix, creating a podcast vacuum into which flows many dozens of shows doing exactly what Serial 1 did so well: leading with the bleeding, dishing out macabre delights on a weekly basis.
And then in 2016, TV gets in on the action, with shows like Making a Murderer and The Jinx bringing juicy murder mysteries to the masses.
So where does all this leave Serial?
Well, this weekend the Serial team dropped all seven episodes of their new show, S-Town, shunning weekly releases in favour of a Netflix-style binge format, and demoting the Serial name to a “from the makers of” credit.
S-Town, however, is entirely Serial Season 3.
The hook? A murder. Yay! I hear you say. That’s right, there’s been a killing in a small town in Alabama, and it’s been covered up. That’s two major true crime boners right there.
Here’s another: the suspected murderer is the son of a prominent local businessman, who has paid the sheriff to make it all go away. And! The victim was kicked to death during a drunken fight. And! The KKK might be involved. And! The local sheriff’s department are embroiled in an entirely separate sex abuse scandal. Hoo-boy.
S-Town, it immediately becomes clear, is only the iTunes-friendly title. The show is actually called Shit Town, and it’s about, well, a shit town named Woodstock, Alabama. And it might not actually be about a murder. Job one for producer/host Brian Reed is to try and separate fact from fiction, and figure out who among the residents is actually telling the truth, if anyone.
Is this an elaborate cover-up, or an elaborate catfish?
What the show is definitely about is local polymath and antique clock mender John Brooks McLemore (pronounced mack-le-more, like the rapper), who contacts Reed about the maybe murder and spends more than a year in correspondence with him via phone and email, building not just his case, but what feels on both sides like a genuine friendship.
John B., as he’s know to locals, is a hell of a protagonist. A charismatic audio presence, softly spoken with a Southern lilt, he’s angry about injustice and climate change in equal measure. He’s also a genius. Once he coaxes Reed to come down to ‘bama to investigate, we realise, as Reed does, that there is so much more to the story than a simple thing like murder.
Like the hedge maze John B. builds on his vast property, this is a story with any number of twists, turns and dead ends (the maze, at least, only has 64 possible solutions).
What emerges from this set-up is a story about a man in many ways too big for his small town, and too smart to ever truly to satisfied. And it’s about the people of Woodstock. Regular, real people, living ordinary lives. As portraits of rural white America go, I doubt you’ll find a better depiction in a thousand Sunday paper think pieces. The production values here are second to none. The whole thing runs like, well, clockwork.
Some have said the series is voyeuristic. That prying into the lives of these strangers makes them feel uncomfortable, or filthy, which doesn’t wash with me. It’s good old fashioned reporting, as Reed dutifully — and at the lower end of his speaking register — follows the leads, gets the various players on record (Alabama folk are big talkers, it turns out) and delivers a gripping story worthy of a best-selling novel, beat-by-well-plotted-beat.
In 2017, that’s what the Serial team deliver above many other podcast pretenders: story. Here they have beaucoups of it, to borrow a phrase from a memorable S-Town resident. They’ve learned their lesson from the Season 2 snore fest and put narrative first. Just feel the goosebumps when details from episode 1 start to pay off in epiosde 6 or 7. It’s masterful.
You might as well call it Story Town.
Is it worth a listen? You’re darn tootin’ it is. I devoured all seven episodes, roughly an hour each, back to back, and lived to tell the tale. Heck, I’d happily sing and dance the tale, it’s that good. If I had to pick a flaw, the ribbon round the final episode was a tied a little too neatly and sweetly for my tastes, but by the end I was far too sated by quality storytelling to care.
So you can either spend the next 12 months wifully ignoring everyone telling you to listen to it, or clear your schedule and saddle up for a ride into Shit Town.
Oh and bring tissues. It might get teary.
You can listen to the S-Town podcast here, or from your preferred provider.
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