If you haven’t been listening, you might not know that this is a cultural moment. S-Town, the latest podcast from the makers of Serial and This American Life, has landed. In its first week, it was downloaded more than ten million times.
The first season of Serial, released in 2014, brought the art of podcasting into a new era. The most popular viral audio documentary ever made, Serial #1, a true crime series narrated by Sarah Koenig, was the blockbuster that broke the mould. The follow-up season was the proverbial second album, eagerly awaited yet daunting for its producers. Tracing the story of a US soldier who deserted his post, it attracted big numbers but lacked the energy and freshness of the first.
S-Town, or Serial #3, recaptures the glow and takes the podcast artform somewhere entirely new. More like a novel than its predecessors, and packed with literary allusions, this multilayered story follows journalist Brian Reed as he pursues a tip-off from a listener in the Deep South.
The story starts as an investigation of a murder: the covered-up killing of a teenage boy that Reed’s informant claims to know about. After a series of weird but engaging phone conversations with the man, Reed decides to visit the small town in Alabama where the crime was allegedly committed. So far, this is tried and tested Serial true-crime territory. But once Reed gets there, the investigation evolves into something else. We share his fascination as he encounters a cast of characters out of a Southern Gothic novel and tries to work out exactly what is going on. The program is disorienting, each episode bringing a new and unexpected turn.
But S-Town is really the story of how Reed, the archetypal Yankee outsider, comes to befriend and ultimately try to decipher his caller, one John B. McLemore. McLemore is a funny, garrulous, forty-nine-year-old antique clock expert whose conversations with Reed include extended rants about climate change and the declining state of the world. He is also a redneck conspiracy theorist who hangs out with the local white supremacists and lives with his mother in the place he calls “Shit Town.”
S-Town is quite different tonally from Serials #1 and #2. Its Southern Gothic roots are given away by the song that ends each chapter, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which is based on the William Faulkner short story of that name. “A Rose for Emily” has not just been coopted for S-Town – it’s also an ancestor of sorts. In Faulkner’s short story, written in the 1930s, Emily is an aristocratic woman whose father turns away all suitors. After he dies, the community notices a man, apparently Miss Emily’s lover, coming and going, until one day he appears no more. Miss Emily passes the rest of her days alone, except for the decrepit black servant who walks out of the house the day she dies, never to return. Entering her house afterwards, the townsfolk discover the horror upstairs: the body of her lover, whom she had poisoned many years before so he would never leave.
S-Town plays with the stereotypes of the dark, decaying south to create a strong sense of foreboding. Who are these people? Who is lying and what is real? What macabre evidence lies in wait? As the episodes progress, our need to know grows, just as Reed’s did, and the answers are disturbing. The journalist goes to places that Easy Rider and Deliverance tell us he shouldn’t – the whites-only back room of the local tattoo parlour; the Wild Turkey drinking session with men who, as they tell him, “don’t give a fuck.” This is Trump’s inherited country, a forgotten, depressed backwater, white and poor; Reed doesn’t tell them his girlfriend is black. As they drive around the town, McLemore points out the local high school, a place he calls “Auschwitz.” It’s obvious he was bullied there. But if this is such a shit town, why does John never leave?
Like a tarnished old mirror, the images S-Town evokes depend on the listener. For me, Johnny B. is the boy I knew at school who came down the East Gippsland backroads each day from a house that had no books. This boy talked philosophy to whoever would listen, and was brutally teased because his dirty trousers were held together by staples. S-Town reads to me as a poignant tale of what can happen to the gifted child, born in the wrong place, who must make fun of himself to survive, and who will grow up with a deep self-loathing. Then again, as one of McLemore’s friends comments, perhaps he is his own worst enemy, a person who makes a tiresome burden out of living. Perhaps he would be out of place wherever he lives. We all know a Johnny B., a person who is sometimes tiresome to talk to, who talks a little too loud, who maybe knows a bit too much.
S-Town is also a story within a story – of Brian Reed and his colleagues trying to work out how to make this podcast. In this respect, it’s like Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman film-inside-a-film based on the novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Orlean’s encounters in Florida’s swamp country with real-life redneck and amateur orchid expert John Laroche prove devilishly hard for its screenwriter, played by Nicolas Cage, to adapt. In fact, it nearly kills him. Reed took years to make S-Town, and says the experience has changed him.
S-Town has its faults. It verges on literary pretension with its allusions to fictional characters like Boo Radley and its overly artful plot twists. Some critics have raised the inevitable ethical questions that go with this kind of true-life reportage, which certainly emerge in the final episodes. But S-Town is a masterpiece, an instant classic. If you look around your local carpark, you might notice some of those ten million–plus people who’ve downloaded it sitting in their cars listening. Mention it and they’ll beg you not to give away any plotlines. Only after the last episode will they emerge ready to talk, and then talk some more, about S-Town and everyone’s favourite genius redneck horologist, Johnny B. •