Podcasting is a medium that has resoundingly come into its own. Once exclusively the purview of the tech-savvy geek-chic, the format has blossomed in recent years. Today, podcasts offer entertainment/education across countless genres and with much creative gusto in their construction. 2014’s “Serial” was a depth charge into this— a sea of relatively consequenceless content. Created for National Public Radio and masterminded by executive producer Julie Snyder and reporter Sarah Koenig, the series purposefully recalled mid-century serialized radio dramas. Over 12 carefully constructed, thoroughly engrossing episodes that investigated the mysterious murder of Baltimore student, Hae Min Lee, “Serial” became an instant, verifiable cultural phenomena. Now, the latest podcast from the creators of “This American Life” and “Serial”, “S-Town” has landed— a truly unparalleled series that moves well beyond the mantle of ‘successor.’
If “Serial” was the podcast equivalent of “Bonny and Clyde” (1967), a film that signaled the dawn of modern cinema,“S-Town” is “The Godfather” (1972). That is, an indelible masterwork in the medium and a critical benchmark unlikely to be exceeded for years to come. “S-Town” begins much like its predecessor with the promise of mystery. Several years ago, reporter Brian Reed, senior producer of “This American Life”, is contacted by a patron, John McLemore, resident of Woodstock, Alabama, a town so remote it defies GPS technology. McLemore insists the journalist investigate Woodstock (aka “Shit Town,” in his parlance) as allegedly the son of a wealthy, local industrialist is walking about free, despite having publicly committed a brutal murder. In short order, Reed effortlessly unveils the situation as a matter of town gossip exclusively, but the narrative quickly takes a left turn for the tragic and surreal.
Before long, a very real death occurs, and the tantalizing elements of buried treasure, global conspiracy, tattooed miscreants, and a sprawling hedge maze spins up into a heady mix of fact and creative non-fiction storytelling. As it turns out, ‘Shit Town’ is rife with secrets— the strange, the profane, and the woefully tragic. The greatest trick that “S-Town” pulls is that it is not a ‘whodunnit,’ and does not live or die by the central question of an unsolved crime. Part of “Serial’s” appeal hinged deeply on the notion that the series was intellectually participatory— Koenig unwittingly activated countless internet sleuths who devoured each episode, week-to-week, and met in internet spaces like Reddit to formulate theories/opinions, and even conduct investigations of their own. Each new episode was perceived as a new piece of the puzzle, demanding intensive scrutiny.
Unintentionally, “Serial’s” finale left many feeling ambivalent, as most true stories do not conclude neatly or with clear summation. Reed and Co. have neatly sidestepped this issue by offering all seven episodes of “S-Town” at once, preventing the potential for listeners to feel betrayed as the narrative evolves beyond a criminal investigation into that of a character study. Beyond the first two episodes, McLemore takes the center stage as the kind of cult-of-personality type figure that arrives but once in a lifetime.
As a subject, the iconoclastic armchair philosopher is a fascinating one— his every scrap of Alabama-drawl inflected dialogue brimming with colloquial profanity. At one point he describes the goings-on of the situation as a, “…cluster-fuck of sorrow,” and in recanting the motto on a sundial he states, “All life is tedious and brief.” McLemore, a self-appointed horologist (the study of time itself) often ruminates on this fleeting facet of human existence, and as becomes dreadfully apparent, with good reason.
The intricacies of antique clocks, and the intangibility of time become central metaphors to the series as a whole. This is apt, as no amount of scripting, timetabling or careful planning could have led to capturing the events that unfold in Woodstock under Reed’s tenure. It is by mere cosmic chance that he arrives at this place and at this time to document a narrative that defies simple explanation. And much like the nature of time itself, “S-Town” does not neatly conclude. Reed, the careful journalist, chooses a perfect inflection point to step aside in the final hour, winking at his audience with the tantalizing promise of yet another mystery he cannot dare reveal.
Time marches on in Woodstock, Alabama, within our lives, and beyond all tangible reality. The lives we lead are things of sorrow, things of beauty, and the course of history carries on in perpetuity, indifferent to the matters of men and women. This, is the achingly painful and beautiful lesson “S-Town” has to share with the world.
Run time: Seven episodes
Available now on iTunes