Podcast: “S-Town” (2017)

From the same people who work on This American Life and Serial, a new podcast was released last month. Following the same model as Netflix, the podcast decided to do away  with weekly episodes, instead choosing to release all 7 episodes at once, allowing the listeners to decide how and when they’d be consuming the story. I do most of my podcast listening at the gym, and am usually there for an hour. Within a week I was through with all the episodes. I had quite the busy month, so I haven’t had the chance to write about S-Town until now (I have a whole series of posts I’m going to be getting to soon).

At first the show, which actually goes by the title Shit Town when listening, seems to be another incarnation of Serial. If you remember the first season of that show, the opening episode begins with the host talking about the nature of memory and dates, before actually beginning the story of Adnan Syed and the death of Hae Min Lee. Similarly, this new show opens with some thoughts of its host, Brian Reed, on the nature of clocks and watches, their internal structure, and how these elements say more than just clockwork and time-telling mechanics. The reason won’t be clear until a few episodes later. The initial premise seems to be derivative of its NPR progenitors as well. One day Reed, whose day job is to generate stories for This American Life, receives an email from someone stating that in a small Alabama town a murder has taken place and all evidence and knowledge of it was erased by local law enforcement and corrupt politics. Quite the assertion for sure. The whistleblower is a local man named John B. McLemore, whose personality is larger than life, which is actually an understatement. Reed is intrigued by the notion of a small town cover-up and thinks it could make for a good segment on his show. What follows are many more emails between him and McLemore, which then turn into phone calls. Eventually Reed decides to go to Alabama and investigate the case for himself.

We quickly learn that the murder wasn’t covered up at all, for in fact there had been no murder in the first place. But Reed remained because another story began to take shape, one that wouldn’t work for the show he originally intended this all for, but maybe something new, something different. McLemore was too interesting a character, his views and ideas so at odds with his surroundings, not to remain interested. And then the unthinkable happened. This is a spoiler, but McLemore commits suicide and the show once again shifts. By the third episode the murder subplot is completely over, as is the portion where we as listeners get to know McLemore, his conspiracy theories, his obsession with environmental causes, his hatred for his hometown of Woodstock which he calls Shit Town (lending the show its name), his bizarre relationship to his supposed wealth, his mother, and some locals, especially a young man he seems fixated on. Suddenly the nature of the podcast is on the passing of a person and the lengths to which people will go in order to stake a claim on human possessions and the casualties of such behavior.

The show is also a fascinating study, which I hope will be eventually anachronistic, on what it means to be queer in small town America. McLemore was a middle aged man with a lot of troubles and countless demons. His relationship to language (he mostly uses fowl, aggressive, and disquieting ways to express himself), to intelligence and education, but mostly to sexuality, was troubling and distressing. The show gives the man a voice that would have otherwise gone unheard, unnoticed, and forgotten, but in the process it sheds a powerful life on how complex and harrowing life can be for those who are different, who do not fit in, whose existence is deemed a burden.

So what is S-Town about? It’s about loss. It’s about the parasitic nature of humanity. It’s about a desperate need for attention and validation. It’s about love. It’s about sexuality and being queer in America. It’s about solitude and the unending progression towards death. It’s about suicide. It’s about friendship. It’s about John B. McLemore, a gifted clockmaker with a complicated life and even more complex views about the world that surrounds us. It’s about all of us.

Do yourself a favor. Listen to this podcast. I promise you it will be worth it.

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