There have been many attempts to bring rural, small-town life to the wider American audience. “Parks and Recreation” brought viewers comedic updates from Pawnee, Ind. while the HBO series “True Detective” approached rural Louisiana from its seedy underside. The new podcast “S-Town,” which stands for “Shit Town,” is a realistic and empathetic documentary of an Alabama town’s residents and its subsequent intrigue.
“S-Town” is the latest podcast to come from National Public Radio (NPR). Reporter Brian Reed worked on the popular podcasts “Serial” and “This American Life” and is the narrator for “S-Town.” He became involved in this story through a series of emails sent in 2014 by John B. McLemore, a resident of the Shit Town in question. The emails described a murder that had apparently been covered up by either a prominent family or the police in S-Town. The title of the podcast is a reference to what McLemore calls his hometown, which the listener finds out is the small town of Woodstock, Ala. Eventually Reed travels from New York City to S-Town in 2015 to investigate McLemore’s reports of the covered-up murder. The podcast then unravels past this initial point of contact between Reed and S-Town when one of its residents dies unexpectedly.
I was captivated by both “Serial” and “This American Life,” which led me to have high expectations for “S-Town.” Reading the description of the podcast made it appear to be similar to “Serial” in content, specifically because it focused on the aspect of crime. However, once past the first three episodes, the podcast takes a turn into the documentation of McLemore’s life and the aspects of Shit Town he despised. I truly enjoyed hearing the recordings of the conversations between Reed and McLemore. They shone a light on the intricacies of small town life and the ever-apparent apathy of S-Town residents. Reed is able to view and share McLemore’s stories through a journalistic lens while also being incredibly empathetic. He is unbiased as he learns more and more about S-Town and strives to learn all he can about McLemore and the other people he encounters.
The narrative of the story twists in and out of many smaller plot lines in the first few episodes before becoming succinct in the aftermath of a death. I thoroughly enjoyed the richness of the storytelling that is characteristic of NPR podcasts. Reed is tremendous in his ability to recreate the web of relationships in S-Town. McLemore constantly fills the narrative with turbulence that is even more emphasized by Reed’s calm, poignant narration. The combination of the southern gothic aura of S-Town and the sleek editing of NPR make this podcast a masterful commentary on living. The juxtaposition is so striking I honestly thought “S-Town” was a fictional story.
If “S-Town” is your first foray into the podcast world, I recommend this as a wonderful introduction. The story of John B. McLemore, and ultimately of Woodstock, is as dramatic as it is captivating. The small town life described in this podcast can captivate city dwellers and cause small town folk to contemplate their own way of living.
Cover photo courtesy of The Guardian.