photos courtesy of stownpodcast.org
“From Serial and This American Life, I’m Brian Reed. This is S—Town.”
Reed interjects this line right after teasing me with one of the many cliffhangers that end each chapter of “S. Town,” or “S—Town,” the newest podcast by Serial Productions. I always have to skip the next 10 seconds of the calming piano because I can’t wait for the next segment.
“S. Town” is a 7-part series released in 2017, about a man named John B. McLemore who despises his hometown of Woodstock, Al. John contacts Brian Reed, reporter and podcast genius, to investigate an alleged murder and police corruption in his town. According to John, the murder was committed by a son of a wealthy family, the Burts, who had been bragging about the killing all over town and was covered up by police corruption.
Reed’s breakout project, “Serial,” which featured a “whodunit?” murder mystery, “S. Town” offers a twisting and turning plot line that follows John and his unconventional personality and hometown. The seven-hour series is easy enough to follow that you can listen while doing chores or math homework.
Brian shifts the focus of the podcast from the murder to John himself, the real story, after John and Brian spend countless hours on the phone. John is a clock repairer, semi-homosexual, owner of 126 acres, depression victim, foster dog parent, carer for his mother and overall genius.
Each chapter digs deeper into John’s forever changing character, with no real structure other than stories about John, like John’s sexuality or his buried treasure of gold bars. This structure made the podcast addicting. I never knew when Brian would bring in a new friend that would reveal a new character trait I wouldn’t have imagined John would possess.
After someone else ends up dead, a family feud develops over a hidden treasure and Brian covers it all with expertise in reporting and a narration that keeps you listening and thinking throughout the podcast.
Brian conveys John’s layered and complex personality through perfectly-timed quotes and observations. As I listened I felt like I, too, was close friends with John, and was able to form my own imaginative version of him without seeing his face. Brian would include every dad joke and every rambling rant on climate change from John. My favorite example was when Brian was talking with John as John discussed how he was peeing into his sink from an impressive distance because he didn’t want to walk to the bathroom.
The storyline of John and his neighbor Tyler Goodson, kept me most interested: their fishing trips, making of gold dimes and many tatoo sessions. John treated Tyler like a son and had him work on his land in an attempt to save him from his surroundings. They always said ‘I love you” but made sure to follow it up with “but that doesn’t mean I am trying to get in your pants.”
Although the plot twists and fresh storylines dwindled as I reached the final two chapters, Brian delved further into John’s past and the people who were a part of it. Talking to all of John’s friends and went into countless storylines of different points in John’s life that showed a new side of John. These parts were my least favorite but it still felt necessary to complete the story that Brian started, tying up loose ends and covering things that would have felt unfinished if Brian did not include them.
But, Brian was able to create seven hours of content that never once had me wanting to skip ahead because of boredom. He was able to sprinkle in details late that still made me surprised and smiling, like John’s initial involvement in his hometown, when he attended every town hall meeting instead of his later days as a cryptic hermit.
I didn’t think a recording of voices, the occasional peeing sound, and soft piano music could make me connect and care for people I didn’t know – or know what color eyes these people had or what their smiles looked like. But I was glad this wasn’t a video series. I focused more on the story itself rather than passing judgment on people based on their appearance. And it was something unique I usually don’t use as entertainment, I found myself listening while mindlessly doing math homework or just laying in bed staring at my ceiling immersing myself in S––town.