S-Town review- it’s hard to recall a more touching, devastating podcast

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The latest project from Serial and This American Life was announced as a true crime whodunnit. But the truth is far greater, richer and more life-affirming

Warning: its consideration of the contains spoilers .

When the makers of Serial and This American Life announced their new podcast, it appeared that it would probably fall in the true-crime genre. The information was sparse: an email had been sent to This American Life, asking a reporter to analyse the son of a wealthy family who had allegedly been bragging that he got away with assassination. All seven episodes would be released at once. What emerged last week was far greater, and more grand, than a simple whodunnit. S-Town has unfolded with elegance and subtlety, and its hard to recall a more touching podcast, even within its This American Life ancestry.

S-Town is about a great many things, but these things gather around the life of John B McLemore, the enunciate and garrulous human from Alabama who emailed This American Life offering up a hometown mystery and a tale of corruption. After months of talking on the phone, producer Brian Reed was intrigued enough to visit Shit Town, officially known as Woodstock. John takes him on a dizzyingly fast tour of his home and grounds, where he has built a labyrinth so complex he gets lost in it himself. John is charismatic, wordy, intellectual and largely misanthropic; he surely seems to despise the town he feels he didnt do enough to escape. He is a horologist renowned for his clock-making abilities, it turns out, far beyond the southern countries. He is a voracious reader. He is kind and he is cruel, angry and resigned. He voices paranoid, at times, playful, at others. Afterward, theres a hypothesis as to why, though like much in this story, it is never quite resolved.


After months of talking to John B McLemore on the phone, producer Brian Reed was intrigued enough to visit Shit Town, officially known as Woodstock. Photo: Andrea Morales

At the end of the second episode, Brian learns that John has taken his own life. Its devastating. Brians distress at the loss of the man who had become his friend is stark and upsetting. Its a rift in the expected narrative and a genuine shock to us as listeners. This was supposed to be about the police officer accused of sexually assaulting women, or the cover-up of a assassination by a rich mans son, some real life version of True Detective. But Johns death sets the histories of S-Town on a wider stage, and asks bigger questions, and turns this into a deep exploration of empathy and understanding. Johns life, which he seems to say has been stuck in this Shit Town, turns out to be so rich that unpacking it over seven episodes can only begin to do it justice. It might, one hopes, make its listeners consider the untold narratives behind more people than John B McLemore. You get the impression, at least from what Brian presents to us, that he might have liked that.

If there were some concerns that this might be an exercise in exoticising the south or small towns, or some kind of class tourism, its a testament to Brians skills and sensitivity that it never feels that way. He knows hes the kind of leftie that the election of Trump upset, as one of “the mens” sets it. But, as with Serial, the process of putting this story together is explained throughout, and the intimacy of that is honest and effective. As the listeners are learning, i used he. I imagine that in the days to come we will learn what Woodstocks residents construct of their new notoriety; Ill be interested to find out how they feel.

S-Town is especially good at navigating subtleties and grey areas. In a digital age that rewards polemics, it stands out even more in its refusal to magistrate anyone, instead presenting people in all their contradictory messiness, including John himself. We satisfy racists, we fulfill thieves, we hear about violence and abuse and loss. These things can be hard to hear, but everyone involved is treated as a person. At hours, the most trivial of anecdotes can unravel into something unbearably poignant, such as Johns embrace of Annie Proulxs short story Brokeback Mountain, which he comes to call the grief manual.


What emerges is a story about surviving when you dont fit in, seeing connects which allows you, and the beauty that resides in the unexpected pockets of a persons existence. Photo: Andrea Morales

Theres a macabre humor running through it, too. While the narrative of the nipple piercings becomes more desperate towards the end, its hard not to see the tragicomedy in Rita telling the undertaker to cut his nipple off, because hes dead anyway, so she could have a memento( though that is one of the many grey areas ). When Tyler says John had a little sugar in his tank, its as sweet as it is sad.

There will be the issue of the ethics of a podcast such as this; there has been at least one tale deciding that without Johns full consent, this podcast should not have been induced, and there is already a great deal of activity online dedicated to finding pictures of John and his home. Again, whether this will be welcomed by Woodstock residents remains to be seen. But ultimately, what dedicates it a kind of permission, I believe, is the great hope that resides within. For a story that hinges on a troubled and lonely human drinking cyanide in his own kitchen, it aims up being life-affirming. Its about surviving when you dont fit in, finding connects which allows you, and the beauty that resides in the most unexpected pockets of a persons existence. Its a delicate and splendid obituary, and a noble attempt at understanding a life.

Listen to S-Town here. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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