Podcast Review: S-Town (No Spoilers)

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 LifeS-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.

  1. […] Before jumping in, I would highly recommend not reading this review until you have listened to S-Town in full. Even if you don’t mind spoilers, the twists really are that good. You can read a spoiler-free review here. […]

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  2. […] but overall, I’m very ambivalent about this podcast as a piece of media. For more, see my review without spoilers and, if you’ve already listened to the show, my review with […]

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  3. […] about problems in the industry itself. A lot of my complaints can be found in my S-Town review; it all comes back to being exhausted with how much mediocre shows with lots of press are […]

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  4. […] where your seasons are completely different from each other instead of just making a new show. Don’t be like S-Town, either, which stretched its length for no […]

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  5. […] The format of a musical still feels fresh and innovative within the medium. While I’m usually wary of shows that receive the most praise in the media, with 36 Questions, the praise seems completely […]

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  6. […] giving too much away. Just know that this showcase is already feeling like what I wanted both S-Town and Rabbits to be. “#3 – The Cassette” had me so stunned my jaw literally […]

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  7. […] WBEZ’s podcast S-Town was released earlier in 2017, it garnered praise from the media for its literary stylings. In the […]

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  8. […] Podcast Problems is still a fairly new site, but I’ve reviewed quite a few podcasts. If you haven’t read my review guidelines–which would probably be irrelevant to most of you–you might not know that the podcast reviews I’ve written are only for the shows I’ve wanted to review. I don’t typically write bad reviews for shows unless they’re the subject of national conversation, a la S-Town. […]

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  9. […] Podcast Review: S-Town (No Spoilers) / Podcast Review: S-Town (With Spoilers) […]

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