So when all seven(ish)-hour episodes of the show from the team behind public radio’s “This American Life”
dropped Tuesday morning, my day was all but set. I started listening before dawn and kept going during every spare moment … and a trip to the gym, a 4-mile run and in the shower afterward until I finally took in all of it.
Here are my quick takeaways before I get into my more detailed list that avoids big giveaways but might ruin some minor surprises for the super spoiler sensitive.
“S-town” is not Serial and will disappoint those looking for that same true-crime, near-real-time storytelling experience. But it’s still one of the highest-quality stories told via the podcast medium to date: the small Alabama town, the eccentric but brilliant protagonist and other highly colorful characters are engaging and real and their story is filled with enough surprising twists and turns to keep you listening, particularly through the first four episodes. I’m still marinating on the ending, but I promised no spoilers this high up, so I’ll stop there and give the official warning.
Potential spoilers ahead! I’ll keep specifics out of the following list as much as possible, but if you’re hyper-allergic to spoilers, you may want to binge the whole thing first and then come back and see if you caught the same things I did.
1. The amount of reporting involved is pretty incredible. If you’ve never produced a radio or television program or documentary, it’s tough to appreciate the insane amount of man hours that went into putting together “Serial” each week, and “S-Town” is clearly a product of the same intense level of reporting. I’ve produced far less ambitious radio programs and documentaries and creating a 30-minute final product swallowed months of my life.
I cringed in empathy each time host Brian Reed mentioned the countless hours he spent recording the show’s talkative main character John B. McLemore and others. With that much tape, Reed and the show’s producers would have to spend months listening and re-listening to those conversations to edit them down into the final product of “only” seven hours.
2. The show seems to be constantly trying to figure out what it’s actually about. The producers made it widely known “S-Town” will not be another “Serial,” so you might be a bit confused when it starts out like another true-crime mystery in the style of that show’s debut season.
But stick with it, as the situation and story shift drastically early on — and right under Reed’s feet as he’s reporting it. From there, the story turns to sorting out what just happened and why, and what happens next. This leads Reed to investigate a variety of small mysteries, painting a vivid picture of a man, his town and what it all means.
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3. The political and cultural subtext is hard to ignore. Perhaps you’ve heard certain politicians over the past couple of years talk about the “forgotten men and women” of the white working class in America. “S-town” lays out, but never directly acknowledges, numerous juxtapositions between the kind of town that epitomizes footholds of Donald Trump support on the surface and characters who might not upon closer inspection.
The main character, a product of the same rural Alabama town, is obsessed with climate change, vehemently atheist and opposed to other values held in his small Southern town in a number of other ways. Reed certainly points this out about our hero but avoids verbalizing the connection that McLemore chose to reach out to a New York reporter from the public radio world to come visit what many will clearly recognize as another, very different side of American culture.
In fact, only near the very end of the series does a minor character come out and say what most listeners will have been wondering for six hours.
“I’m assuming you’re one of these left-wingers that we upset in the election,” the man says to Reed with a laugh during an interview. Reed doesn’t respond to the comment.
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4. John B. McLemore is totally steampunk. Antique clocks, horology, hand-crafted sundials, intricate hedge mazes and the forgotten and insanely dangerous art of fire-gilding are just a few of the things the man has mastered. The podcast will leave fans of anything with lots and lots of gears salivating for the movie version of the show.
5. You know these characters. The great thing about this kind of long-form storytelling is it takes the time to really get to know its characters and settings.
While the people and places in “S-Town” are undeniably unique, they’re also recognizable. A world away, in the wilds of the Alaskan Bush, I met a man named David Atchley
living in a remote Arctic cabin who could talk a blue streak about anything and everything and certainly would if you gave him a chance.
McLemore’s rambling conversations with Reed took me back to the first time I had to interrupt Atchley so I could setup a microphone to record his fascinating stream of words. It also took me back to long phone conversations with my equally eccentric late grandfather when he wasn’t well enough to get out, but before Alzheimers’ robbed him of the ability to remember my name.
I’ve never lived in Alabama, but I have lived in small, economically struggling towns, and I recognized those places and their cast of characters in “S-Town” as well.
And no matter who you are, you’ll surely recognize the emotions Reed chronicles in telling the story of one man who never quite fit into the town he can’t seem to leave: the loneliness, frustration and learning to find joy in between through other people. And through some truly incredible steampunk creations.
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