Tuesday, May 02, 2017

McLemore and Brian Drew Us

If you got hooked on season one of the podcast Serial (and wherever you land on whether the second was good or a disappointment), you'll probably want to consider the latest "multi-part story podcast" released by them and This American Life: S-Town. Though the podcast was released under that title, host Brian Reed gives the real title in each episode's introduction: Shittown. That's a reference to Shittown, Alabama -- a town rechristened such by the podcast's central figure, John B. McLemore.

The seven-episode podcast does something of a bait and switch. Episode 1 seeks to draw you in under false pretenses. McLemore contacts Reed imploring him to come to Alabama and investigate a murder he says the local police department has covered up. A story of intrigue and corruption, of murder and injustice, is what's promised as that first episode unfolds. That's not what S-Town turns out to be; not in the "true crime" sense, at least.

S-Town is, depending on how you look at it, an examination of life in a rural Southern town, or a deep dive into one enormously tortured psyche. People who have praised the podcast tend to see it more as the latter, but criticism can be leveled at it on both fronts. S-Town has now been available for about a month, so we're now well into the "backlash think pieces" period of its popularity. Many of those essentially slag S-Town as a vehicle for urban liberals to feel as though they've learned something about small towns. I don't know how much I buy into that interpretation, but my enthusiasm for the podcast is a bit muted all the same.

It is fairly entertaining overall, but my criticism of S-Town would be that it's ultimately not nearly as complex as it purports to be. First, there's that bait and switch in which it pretends to be a true crime podcast for two episodes. Then, as it peels the onion on John B. McLemore for the rest of the run, it draws out the process more than seems truly necessary -- because, in the end, he doesn't come across as all that complex a figure. By the final episode, McLemore's despair and disillusionment with his life in "Shittown" is revealed to have very specific reasons and causes. And at the risk of being reductive, seven hours weren't needed to get to the bottom of them.

S-Town does mostly work, though, as Brian Reed is able to draw the story out mostly in ways that don't feel like he's drawing it out (until you look back retroactively). There are a lot of other colorful characters in McLemore's orbit, and a lot of time is spent on them as well. There is a bit of the back-and-forth "he's the 'villain' here; no, she's the 'villain' here" that was the bread and butter of Serial. Still, I can't help but feel that another podcast -- like, say, Criminal -- would have found a way to tell this story much more succinctly and leave me just as satisfied. Maybe more so.

I'd grade S-Town a B-. Fans of Serial may want to check it out in any case. Otherwise, I'd probably recommend it only to those looking for a limited (not open-ended) podcast to binge on for a bit.

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