S-Town or, more accurately, Shittown, is a nonfiction podcast by the makers of This American Life and Serial. While Serial veered more towards the journalism end of This American Life, S-Town leans heavily on the creative nonfiction side. The podcast, released in full on March 28th, 2017, follows narrator Brian Reed as he tries to find out what darkness is at the heart of Woodstock (or “Shittown”), Alabama. Reed investigates the town after a series of calls with Shittown resident John McLemore, who asserts that there has been a murder in the town that nobody is addressing.
The early episodes of the show are phenomenal, suspenseful, and absolutely bizarre. McLemore shines as the story’s protagonist, a mysterious backwoods Jay Gatsby to Reed’s confused, stressed Nick Carraway. McLemore is astoundingly brilliant, dissecting everything from his town’s corruption to the inner workings of clocks to the science of climate change to the cultural ignorance of world news. Reed often struggles to keep up, but is drawn in as the listener is, trying to understand what makes McLemore hate his town so much but still not leave.
Each of the initial episodes builds upon the previous in ways that only makes the story stranger. The twists that happen early on are absurd and sometimes genuinely alarming. McLemore develops into a character who is simultaneously more and less humanized as the listener learns more about his past, his actions, and his feelings on the state of the world.
The issue, though, is that these feelings are only maintained through maybe half of the series. By episode 4, the show becomes listless, often dropping storylines for full episodes only to return to them when the audience has already moved on. The pacing is uneven and awkward, and the show’s anticlimax leaves the listener feeling as though nothing was really gained by listening other than being able to talk about, yes, a very strange and true story.
I would give S-Town a lukewarm recommendation to most people I know, but I’d also inform them that it drags and has an anticlimactic ending. I think S-Town is worth listening to for those who are already a fan of This American Life and Serial. I also think it’s worth listening to because most people who listen to podcasts at all will likely be talking about it for the next few weeks. All in all, the show ends disappointingly, with only the first few hours feeling like landmark successes.
If you’ve already listened to the podcast, you can read my full review for more information. If you have an interest in listening, I would still highly recommend doing so before you read any reviews. The twists really are that good.