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.
Creative nonfiction is a tricky genre. Walking the lines between factual truth, emotional truth, and narrative depictions of other actual people often muddies what actually makes a piece of creative nonfiction successful. These lines are made even harder to navigate, I’d imagine, for those who also have a background in journalism–which, it should be said, is a different genre from creative nonfiction. This isn’t to say that the genres don’t overlap: S-Town‘s predecessors are two shows that fall in the middle of that venn diagram. This American Life is ostensibly a creative nonfiction podcast that often delves into journalism, and Serial is ostensibly a journalistic piece that borrows heavily from creative nonfiction.
For me, one of the key factors that differentiates the two genres is purpose. The purpose of a journalistic piece is to directly inform the reader about its content. The purpose of creative nonfiction is to use its content to discuss ideas past its literal text.
My feelings on S-Town can be explained most succinctly, I think, by saying that
- S-Town is very interesting journalism, but
- S-Town is not very good creative nonfiction, and
- S-Town seemingly believes it is creative nonfiction.
In the promotional materials for S-Town, Ira Glass says something to the effect of early episodes of S-Town giving him the same feeling as early episodes of Serial, which I agree with wholeheartedly. In its first half, S-Town did feel like a landmark of audio. The references to fiction woven into the more intimate, personal details did create a more literary feeling to the show that hasn’t been prominent in most nonfiction audio up until now. The unfortunate twist of John killing himself at the end of Episode 2 felt like the likely inciting incident to drive the next stage of the plot, which naturally lead into the treasure hunt, which would have been absolutely unbelievable if the listener didn’t get to know John in advance. By episode 5, though, the show loses its footing. The problem is a combination of pacing and the aforementioned lack of purpose.
The pacing in S-Town shouldn’t, by any means, be an issue. Deciding to release the story in full in one day, taking a page out of Netflix’s book, was a purposeful choice. To be released in such a way, the show would have needed to be produced for binge-listening. Other than the end of Episode 2, I never felt as though this were the case. The story drove its momentum with its genuine absurdity, but the narrative structure did nothing to aid this. Storylines were discussed and then dropped until hours later, when they’d almost been rendered irrelevant (the treasure hunt being the most glaring example). The transitions between episodes were often forced cliffhangers, none of which carried the same weight as Episode 2. Unlike Serial, S-Town doesn’t have the excuse of being unraveled in almost real-time. Its pacing is messy even though the episodes were released simultaneously.
As one whole piece–which is assumedly how listeners are supposed to consume S-Town given the release format–the pacing was also off in very basic ways. Past those first golden episodes, the show slowed and sprinted with little care given to dramatic timing. After four or five episodes of hearing such a bizarre story, the content itself often wasn’t enough to justify the more glacial segments; in the context, the listener has too high a threshold for absurdism to be enraptured by a strange but slow-paced conversation.
Those slower moments would have been more intriguing if the show had some narrative goal it was working towards, but the listener is left with philosophical anticlimax. This is likely not an issue for those who engage in media for entertainment, which I think most would argue is media’s prime objective. What bothered me, though, was that S-Town had so many philosophical threads it could have carried throughout the show or even just developed a bit more. I can name several statements this should could have made without making much of an effort:
- The theme of time could have been used to actually make a statement on John’s life. The tie between the clock and his manifesto is made, but to what end? Is the idea that we only have so much time to make our lives meaningful, but that struggle can end our time even shorter? What of the time John spent oppressed in his town as a man who isn’t straight What of the time John spent complaining about his town instead of taking action to leave?
- Emotional truth renders the objective truth irrelevant in many cases. The struggle between Tyler, John, the cousins–even all the way back to the alleged murder–all show that the objective truth is something that may not ever be fully known, no matter the effort put forth. The show even references Faulkner consistently. What does objective truth mean to someone like John, so consistently logical and informed but so consistently dismissed?
- Through a more journalistic lens, what does this story say about rural America? About classism? About the stories that are told? About who is made famous or considered interesting? Of altruism? Of activism? Of LGBT+ rights? Of clock history?
The problem is that these are points I can easily make on behalf of the show, but the show never attempts to make them. The closest it gets with the time discussion, which is half-heartedly brought up towards the end of the show. The podcast never seems to think it is in need of a greater purpose than its own content, but I was amazed at how many times I would end a chapter with the thought, “So what?” Instead of feeling like I was listening to a produced piece of audio, I often felt like I was being told an interesting (but very long) story at a dinner party.
Had S-Town been told in the style of journalism, I think it would have been a great creative success. Again, I think the story is one of the most strange and interesting stories I’ve ever heard. The lean on creative nonfiction, though–which is emphasized by those literary allusions, focus on emotional truth, and character-driven plot–ultimately rendered this podcast a disappointment for me.
I will say that S-Town is often very funny, often very upsetting, and often very intriguing. I still believe that those first few episodes are some of the best of any podcast I’ve heard. Overall, though, I don’t think that this podcast, which started so promisingly, ever lived up to its potential. For me, S-Town will be remembered as three or four beautiful episodes followed by three or four very frustrating ones.