S-Town Review


Ryan Huynh, Staff Writer

From the producers of Chicago Public Media’s This American Life and Serial, comes the highly anticipated spinoff hosted by TAL producer Brian Reed about his adventures in Woodstock, Alabama. Or as John B. McLemore would call it, “s*** town”.

When he first emailed Reed out of the blue in 2014, he seemed like a quirky but typical small-town eccentric. A random This American Life fan who wants Reed and the show to come to Alabama to help him solve a local mystery.

John believed “we have a genu-wine murder” in the rural county where he and his family have lived for generations. Firm in his belief that local corruption had allowed the son of a rich family to escape punishment for beating someone to death, John eventually convinced Reed — after a long period of occasional back-and-forth emails — to travel and investigate.

Like John himself, “S***town” starts out seeming weird but conventional, hiding a mystery that doubles as John put it, a portrait of regional “decay and decrepitude.” And John is its disgruntled center.

Initially, Reed’s attempts to find the truth are mostly unsuccessful. S***town is a tiny rural community full of complex characters and social systems. In episode two, flustered by the sheer number of locals who want him to casually confront a possible murderer, Reed spits out, “This town!”

Like many aspects of S-Town, the initial mystery turns out to be merely an entry point for something much stranger, sadder, and more bizarre. “This town,” like John himself, is both unique and universal, and Reed soon realizes that the world is like S*** Town.

It’s here that the series takes another turn, as if the real mystery is John himself. It’s also here that it becomes both incredibly invasive — and incredibly rewarding despite that invasiveness. Likewise, the podcast prompts us to ask serious questions about the ethics of Reed’s narrative experiment.

But as someone who has never listened to any podcasts before this one, S-Town caught me by surprise. The complexities of John grappled me with every turn, having to determine the morality and justifications of the characters actions including Brian’s voyeurism throughout the series.

S-Town is a very, very good podcast, and I’m glad it was my first one. John is eminently fascinating and compelling, but also eminently troubled; S-Town tries to honor him by giving him a voice again even after the events of the series.

I recommend that everyone should listen to the podcast and immerse themselves with the mystery that is S-Town, Alabama and its main inhabitant, John B. McLemore.