The podcast has long been a medium that lends itself to narrative non-fiction. “Serial” was perhaps the first podcast that ever broke into popular culture beyond the niche podcast audience. The first season followed the narrative non-fiction true-crime story of a Baltimore murder. That spawned a series of new true-crime podcasts, creating a cliche genre in the podcast world. “S-Town” is produced by the creators of “Serial,” who released all seven parts of the series on March 28.
From the looks of it, it seemed to be yet another true-crime podcast — a “Serial” spin-off of some sort. In fact, the first episode even starts out with the producer and host, Brian Reed, investigating an unsolved murder. But even in the beginning, the real focus of the seven-part series isn’t the murder, or the stories behind the alleged murders. The focus rests on John B. McLemore, the man who first contacts Reed to investigate the alleged murder.
“S-Town” stands for “Sh*ttown.” That’s what McLemore calls the town he lives — a town in rural Alabama. The podcast might’ve started out as a murder investigation, but it quickly turns into a deep exploration of the multifaceted life of McLemore; a near-genius man who uses his talents as an expert in antique clocks, but also an eccentric conspiracy theorist who can’t get enough of complaining about “Sh*ttown,” global warming, and everything else believes is wrong with the world.
And that’s only a basic dive into McLemore’s life. Throughout seven episodes, the development of McLemore’s character is what sets it apart from “Serial” and other narrative non-fiction podcasts; it doesn’t have to conform to any sort of narrative framework to make it work. Instead, Reed takes the audience on a free-flowing journey with so many compelling twists that it’s impossible to talk about the plot of the podcast without giving a major spoiler away.
At one point in the podcast, Reed makes subtle comparisons between a William Faulkner story and the life of John B. McLemore. Indeed, the Southern gothic setting of the podcast of is reminiscent of Faulkner, and the series similarly explores the social issues and cultural character of the American South.
McLemore’s insistent negative social commentary on everything from climate change to the socioeconomics of “Sh*ttown” stands in sharp contrast to the apathy presented by nearly every other resident of his community, making for a fascinating exploration of that community and the broader modern Southern life.
The podcast’s success doesn’t merely lie in its subject. The producer, Brian Reed, presents a unique personality that seems to be perfect for this story. Reed’s patience with the story and his genuine curiosity and deep friendship with McLemore, all serve to coax out a fragile story that could have easily fallen apart or become a dead end under another producer.
Reed weaves a clear storyline through a series that takes itself in disjointed directions. The figurative language he uses to tell McLemore’s story fit the podcast perfectly and feel like natural parts of an otherwise non-fictional story.
The use of music in the podcast is also commendable. Daniel Hart scores much of the podcast, his track “Bibb County” (the county in which McLemore lived) is of particular note. “Bibb County” is an upbeat chamber orchestra piece heavily featuring the violin, marked by deeper, drawn out notes that seem to bring out the underlying sadness of the podcast’s story.
Each episode of the podcast also finishes with the song “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies. The song is based upon a Faulkner short story of the same name, providing a catchy tune with lyrics that reflect the mood of the podcast.
The podcast isn’t for everyone — along with vulgarity throughout each episode, there are larger themes of suicide and self-harm, making much of the story hard to listen to.
“S-Town” is a podcast like no other — while the narrative non-fiction genre is served best by podcasts, the genre has been overwrought with repetitive storylines and uninteresting characters — this podcast instead takes narrative non-fiction through a deep exploration of the compelling life of John B. McLemore, creating a captivating, original story.