“S-Town,” the latest podcast from the makers of “Serial” and “This American Life,” is a deeply thought-provoking and captivating story about murder, mental health, impending societal collapse and clocks in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama.
The story begins with John B. McLemore, an antique clock repairer and creator of an elaborate backyard maze, who emails journalist Brian Reed asking him to investigate a homicide that McLemore suspects has been covered up. As the podcast unfolds, it pulls listeners into the eccentric life of McLemore and his hometown which he’s titled “Sh*t-town, Alabama.”
McLemore is the lifeblood of “S-Town,” and the podcast brings listeners into the amazing peculiarity that is his real life. When McLemore speaks, it’s entrancing. He has a thick, southern accent; he’s delightfully crass but fiercely intelligent.
McLemore is the antithesis of his hometown. He criticizes his community’s ignorance and indifference, and as an act of rebellion, he invests himself in every issue, from local to global. John B. takes the time to learn the Latin scientific names of the plants in his yard and describes himself as a “45-year-old homosexual atheist,” which is a challenging role to fill in a county that has 47 times more churches than high schools. He is impassioned and informed, and is an absolute anomaly in a town of the “proleptic decay and decrepitude” he describes.
At the end of its second episode, “S-Town” takes a sharp turn and the podcast begins to touch on topics like loneliness, depression and being queer in the rural south. “S-Town” explores its characters’ complicated relationships with each other and with the town itself. McLemore’s resentment of his hometown exemplifies these complications, because although he feels it holds him back, home is one of the only places he’s ever known.
Though “S-Town” does have the surface-level excitement of death, murder and a possible buried treasure, it provokes thought on a much deeper level. “S-Town” questions what it means to live a worthwhile life, and how to deal with the crushing wickedness in the world.
As expected from the makers of “Serial” and “This American Life,” the production of “S-Town” is as spectacular as the story it tells. Each chapter of the podcast is concise, information-packed and cohesive. It’s edited to gives listeners a multifaceted view of its characters and setting without dragging on with unnecessary details in a way that feels respectful of the listeners’ attention.
“S-Town” is a fantastic treat for podcast aficionados and a captivating foot-in-the-door for those who are dabbling in podcasts for the first time. All seven chapters of “S-Town” are available for free on iTunes, and online and stownpodcast.org.