By the conclusion of the second episode of S-Town, the captivating new podcast from the makers of Serial, it’s very clear that rumours of a small-town murder cover-up that initially intrigued producer Brian Reed were just the starting point for this particular true crime story.
All seven chapters are now available for download on your preferred pod-catcher, Netflix-style, and it’s not unlikely that you’ll end up bingeing the whole lot in a few train journeys.
We’ll keep this fairly spoiler-free (if you want to go in completely blind, though, then back away now), but here’s how it starts: back in 2012, Reed, a reporter for the radio program This American Life (of which Serial was also a spin-off), received an email from an Alabaman man named John B McLemore. The subject line “John B McLemore lives in Shit Town, Alabama” naturally piqued the interest of the editorial team, as did accusations of a murder in said Shit Town.
The killer, according to McLemore, belonged to a rich, powerful family, and had seemingly got away with the shocking crime despite bragging about it to bewildered big-mouth locals. Unable to ignore the weighty allegations, Reed eventually headed to Woodstock in Bibb County, Alabama, to meet his mysterious new confidant.
Gripping as that opening hook undoubtedly is, S-Town, named after John’s less-than-complimentary description of the hometown he loathes so much, is at its heart an intimate character study. In the first few hours, we learn about John’s disillusionment with the place he’s lived in all his life; his fascination with trigonometry; antique clocks; the creeping threat of climate change that wider society, in his opinion, is ignoring, the enormous wealth he hides away; his struggle with depression; his adopting of stray dogs; and an actual maze that he’s growing in his front garden. McLemore wants to see justice but he has no faith in the system. He knows his own mind but he frequently drifts off-topic and into bizarre anecdotes. He’s not your average redneck, that’s for sure.
Reed is immediately cynical about the supposed murder, despite John’s assuredness, “if you keep your mouth shut you’ll be amazed at what you can learn”. And without giving anything away, the focus of the story shifts dramatically in real-time. When that happens, it will leave a lump in your throat. As a listener it’s difficult to predict what’s coming next, what this is all going to lead to, and you get the impression that the reporters had the same feeling.
Journalist and writer Jon Ronson was confident enough to say this:
The podcast is a no-brainer for Serial fans, although it’s notably different from anything they’ve done before; S-Town transcends typical true crime fare. They’re still pioneers of the medium, no doubt, weaving the narrative together with fantastic music and arguably matchless production values.
It’s consistently affecting, and just like Serial, as Reed recently told The Guardian, it’s experimental storytelling that perhaps wouldn’t be possible in any other format. Where S-Town differs is that it’s all out there now. The decision to let us decide the pace in which we consume our media has worked wonders for streaming services, so it will be interesting to see how many real-life podcasts take this novelistic approach.
To date Serial has been downloaded over 250 million times. We wouldn’t be surprised to see S-Town mirror its success, but what’s for certain is that you’ll be thinking about John B McLemore long after you unplug the headphones.