The team behind the hit podcast Serial had enormous shoes to fill when they released their new ‘true-crime’ podcast. And yet, with each hour of interviews seamlessly woven with Brian Reed’s incredibly personal narration, S Town not only fills those shoes, but is positively overflowing with humanity and sensitivity.
The first thing to note about S Town is that to describe it as purely true-crime, like its predecessor, is to massively underestimate it. When Reed first received emails from S Town’s central character John B. McLemore, describing police corruption and the cover-up of a murder by a local wealthy family in ‘Shittown’ (Woodstock), Alabama, he clearly had absolutely no idea what was going on not only in the town, but in the complicated and peculiar mind of his contact.
The podcast swiftly twists away from an endeavour to uncover the truth behind a murder in this town and becomes an extensive exploration of this man’s life and personality. This is a deeply personal account of a deeply personal view of the town in question. Reed documents his journey of discovery and understanding with curiosity and respect.
He is evidently aware of the invasive nature of his investigation, and handles interviews with McLemore and the other residents of the town with an admirable, Louis Theroux-esque sensitivity.
Very quickly, Reed uncovers that the murder, the reason he’s in Alabama in the first place, wasn’t a murder at all. McLemore’s reaction is not one of relief, as might be expected, and the podcast quickly focuses on this man instead.
Clearly incredibly intelligent, McLemore is obsessed with climate change and the failings of humanity when it comes to the environment. But he is changeable, confusing, and never says what we might expect him to. One of the only things the listener can be sure of is that he despises Woodstock, but has trapped himself there and won’t ever leave.
There are some questions about the morality of the depth to which McLemore’s life is probed into. Further into the series, the more intimate details about his life and relationships are revealed. Repressed homosexuality and mental health issues amongst other personal information come to light, in some cases directly contradicting his wishes.
It is somewhat morally dubious. This is a complicated podcast, tangled up in real-life relationships and personalities, but is undoubtedly one of the most powerful things I have ever listened to.
Image: Andreas Faessler