What Is S-Town Really About? And Everything Else You've Been Wondering About The Podcast
The Debrief: Tempted by S-Town but not too sure how it'll stack up to Serial? Here's your NTK (also if you haven't listened yet, MAJOR spoilers abound...)
If there’s a podcast-shaped void in your life since season 2 of Serial finished last March, fear not – the good folks at NPR have rewarded our patience with a new show that’s just as gripping, AND they’ve kindly released all the episodes at once, for your binge-listening pleasure. If you haven't already, you need to get on board with S-Town.
Here's everything you need to know about our latest audio obsession. And of course, tread carefully. When we say everything, we mean everything, which means there are a few spoilers up ahead.
So, what is S-Town?
It's a podcast presented by Brian Reed (a This American Life producer) and produced by Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig, who were the masterminds behind Serial. S-Town is a sort of companion piece to Serial, but it’s incredibly different at the same time. If you're late to the party, put your headphones on and get comfy – this one’s going to have you hooked from the start.
What’s the story?
Back in 2014, a man called John B. McLemore sent an email to the team at This American Life, asking them to look into a murder that he believed had occurred in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama. Being the diligent journalists they are, they sent Brian Reed off to the Deep South to meet John and investigate the case.
Sounds a lot like Serial, right? Well, it is for the first episode at least - but the investigation into the alleged murder quickly becomes a backdrop for something else. The real story comes in the form of the fascinating John McLemore, an eccentric genius who lives with his mother on a vast property on the outskirts of town, complete with a hedge maze of John’s own design. John and Brian forge a friendship whilst having long conversations about life, death and everything in between, but one day Brian receives a devastating phone call: John McLemore has killed himself.
Wait…who is John B. McLemore?
When we’re first introduced to him, John B. McLemore is a man on a mission. A lifelong Woodstock native, he’s become increasingly disillusioned with the government, and well, life in general. He wants to clean up the town and thinks Brian’s the man to help him do it.
Angry and prone to long rants about the state of society and his general grievances, he initially comes off as a something of a curmudgeon, but as you learn more about him, it becomes apparent that wasn’t always the case. He’s described as having red hair, glasses, and his nipple piercings are mentioned A LOT, which seems a weird thing to fixate on. He’s also a respected horologist (that’s the technical term for clockmaker) described by one pal as being the best on the East coast of America, and he’s frequently referred to as a genius by those that knew him – but as Brian discovers, John McLemore was also a deeply troubled man.
So what happens next?
After Brian finds out about John’s suicide, he begins an examination of John’s life in minute detail, from the fall-out his suicide caused amongst his friends and family to an investigation of what drives a person to take their own life. The rest has to really be heard to be believed – there’s a lot to take in, from the feuding parties battling over his estate to the extent of John’s depression whilst he was alive. The eight episodes examine themes including family, mental illness, betrayal, sexuality, and relationships, as Brian tries to learn more about John through connecting with the people that knew him best.
It’s sometimes incredibly difficult to listen to, as Brian delves into deeply personal aspects of John’s life including his sexuality and sexual preferences, and at times you might question if it’s necessary to reveal such private information to the whole world. A dead man can’t give consent, and it sometimes feels like Brian Reed is becoming more concerned with the story than with what John would have wanted.
Nevertheless, it’s an exercise in grief management – Brian was John’s friend, as were many of the contributors who speak in the podcast, and perhaps speaking about John in such detail is their way of coming to terms with his death. It’s a beautiful, poignant examination of what it means to live a life, and the incredible impact that one person’s heart-breaking decision can have on the community around them.
Why is it called S-Town? What does it mean?
As Brian explains in episode one, S-Town is a euphemism for Shit-Town, the name that John McLemore has given to Woodstock. John has, er, strong feelings about Woodstock, which he’ll express to anyone who’ll listen. He feels that the town’s going to the dogs, which anyone who’s ever lived in a shit small town might sympathise with, but as the story progresses, we learn there’s far more to John’s relationship with Woodstock Alabama that initially meets the eye (or ear, as it were).
In many respects, the podcast couldn’t come at a better time – in both America and Europe, people feel disenfranchised and unheard by those in power. John doesn’t trust the local police force or government, but despite his less-than-flattering name for Woodstock, there’s a sense that he wouldn’t feel so angry if he didn’t care at all.
How does it stack up to Serial?
Serial was quite literally a serialised murder mystery, and it's clear that NPR have been careful to make listeners aware that S-Town is a different sort of podcast. It feels a little like an audiobook rather than a podcast, divided into 'chapters' rather than episodes, but it’s every bit as compelling as Serial, and the deeper you delve into the story, the more you want to know.
It was released all at once on March 28th, available on iTunes, or on its very own beautiful website. The names of the chapters are quotes taken directly from their respective episodes, which adds to the personal nature of S-Town and differs from Serial’s more mysterious titles. Whilst Serial tried to get to the bottom of a crime, S-Town is more concerned with getting to know one man.
That’s not to say there’s not plenty to enjoy for true crime enthusiasts, particularly in the first two episodes when Brian is still trying to get to the bottom of the supposed murder he’s investigating. Fans of Serial will recognise the sort of slow-burn storytelling that made the podcast a hit, but rather than focusing on right and wrong and the American justice system as Serial did, S-Town is a poetic mediation about life, and a personal journey to come to terms with a friend’s death.
If you couldn’t get into Serial but are interested in stories about the human condition, you might also want to give S-Town a go. Whilst the content is sometimes graphic and often tragic, it’s a much easier story to follow, and its overarching theme is the question we’ve all put to ourselves at one point or another: 'How will I be remembered after I die?'
What’s happened in real life since the story finished?
This is where S-Town really differs from Serial – there’s no case to answer this time around. In the final episode, Brian speaks to the new owner of John’s property about his plans for the future, but beyond that, it’s hard to say much more about the state of things in Woodstock, Alabama. You get the distinct impression listening to S-Town that life in the small town goes on, and those who knew and loved John carry him with them, day after day. Anyone that’s ever lost a loved one to suicide will understand the enormity of this task.
Many listeners have already devoured the series since its release and have been inspired to do some more digging. Images have popped up online of John McLemore’s famous hedge maze, which devoted fans had found via Google Maps. Without John to lovingly tend to the hedges, it’s in a bit of a sorry state, but if Serial fans have proven anything, it's that they’re a committed and loyal bunch, so it might not be the end of the road for the maze yet. There’s also an S-Town Instagram account, where you can find photos of the amazing clocks that John McLemore worked on, as well as quotes and illustrations from the podcast.
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You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating