About halfway through the first episode of S-Town, the new hit podcast from the makers of Serial and This American Life, our host, producer Brian Reed, is walking through the sizable yard of Woodstock, Alabama resident John B. McLemore. McLemore had e-mailed Reed a couple of months prior about a potential murder mystery in Woodstock, a place that he had spent his entire life and often referred to as Shittown, Alabama.
The two men walk through the property until they come to the homeowner’s prized possession: a full-scale garden maze, complete with swinging doors that can open and close passageways between the still-growing shrubs to create any number of different puzzles. It’s the perfect moment to have at the start of a true crime podcast — their journey through the bushes an apt analogy for the twists and turns that are sure to come.
The only problem is, S-Town isn’t a true crime podcast. Sorry, Serial fans, but this program won’t provide you with a new case to obsess over. Instead, what Reed and company have created in seven episodes is something completely distinct. Even in the first episode, it becomes clear that John B. McLemore is the story here. He’s a world-class clockmaker with a genius-level IQ who lives with his mother. He describes himself as “60-70 percent” homosexual and exists with an indescribable complexity that stands in direct contrast to the simple, small-town way of his southern world. By the time he and Reed cross paths, McLemore is in his late 40s and has taken on a distinctly pessimistic worldview. He sends Reed and others long e-mails describing in well-researched detail everything from the global warming doomsday sure to come to the incessant shortcomings of his local government. In one episode, he describes himself as being “tired in a way that I can’t put into words.”
It doesn’t take long for the mystery surrounding a possible Woodstock murder to be overtaken by the mystery surrounding the life and times of John B. McLemore. Where Serial was built on its journalistic research and reporting but thrived when it reached moments of real humanity, S-Town is all humanity. Reed, like Sarah Koenig, is squarely in the center of this story and his relationship with the mercurial McLemore is captivating in its intricacy. It’s in episode two that we learn the murder that brought him to Alabama in the first place is actually not a mystery at all. But it’s right around this point that the producer’s work really begins.
Brilliantly constructed with a beautiful script and audio editing quality that’s wholly unsurprising from a creative team as accomplished as this one, the show balances real-life twists and turns with a more intimate tale. At times this podcast touches on small town politics, sudden death and buried treasure. These are the kinds of themes that attract your attention amid an ever-crowded market of audio programs and eventually get the headphones in your ear. But on another level, S-Town deals with much larger, more abstract ideas like isolation, repression, mental illness, family dynamics, deep-seated friendship and unrequited love. These are the things that make you lean closer to your car’s stereo system or hit the 10-second backtracking button just to feel the impact of one sentence from one person over again. These are the things that make S-Town great.
All seven episodes of the program were released at once last week, a move that grows more interesting the more you listen. With time, it becomes apparent the show is better viewed as an extensive profile rather than a suspense story. In consequence, it’s not exactly perfect for binging. But it is perfect for listening. It’s hard to imagine S-Town being this much of a success in any medium other than audio. Audio’s true strength is that when a podcast, especially one as intimate as this, is at its best it feels like the voices exist only within your head. This is a story for you only, a trip taken alone. In S-Town, that trip isn’t only taken to Shittown, Alabama. It’s taken into the lives of a multitude of characters, including a kind and genuine radio producer from New York and brash clockmaker filled with sorrows and secrets.
Back in the yard, those two men enter the maze together. They walk through its knee-high walls and eventually get a bit lost, despite the fact that the whole thing was mapped out by McLemore himself. But it doesn’t seem to matter because the tenor of the conversation has drifted naturally into that of an exchange between friends. It’s honest and slightly vulnerable, built on the growing comfort that comes when you feel a connection forming.
“You know, I designed this thing myself, so it was designed by a mad man,” McLemore says. “That’s what people tell me.”
“I do feel like I’m walking around in your brain or something,” Reed responds.
It’s unclear whether McLemore hears this or not.
“Just imagine when it gets over your head,” he says.