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With S-Town, Podcasts Come of Age

The series, from the creators of 'Serial,' begins as a murder investigation, before broadening into a meta-investigation of its own genre.


“I’m embarking on an investigation at the behest of an Alabamian horologist.” So declares Brian Reed, the presenter of Shit-Town, a new podcast from the team behind Serial and This American Life. You may have seen it advertised euphemistically as “S-Town.” The title derives from an unsolicited email sent to Reed by a man named John B. McLemore in 2014—the Alabamian horologist, a specialist in the art of making clocks and watches. McLemore asks Reed to visit him in “shit-town, Alabama,” where, he suspects, a gruesome murder has gone unsolved.

Reed takes the bait, and the listener expects a second Serial to unfold. But McLemore is stranger than mystery, and more mysterious than a dead girl. It was as if, Reed says, McLemore had opened a portal between them through sheer force of will. He calls Reed, writes to him, insinuates himself into the reporter’s life. Reed has no way to know if McLemore is telling the truth, or if he is just radically lonely and desperate to find a voice on the other end of the line, or at least an ear.

We can hear from the first that McLemore is eccentric: His thick Southern accent undulates wildly as he speaks. In the first episode, Reed locates McLemore’s remote property in Bibb County, Alabama, via coordinates of longitude and latitude, and walks straight into a literal maze of his subject’s own creation.

This beginning sets up metaphors and themes that will hold the entire seven-episode series together. The maze is a huge, waist-high, spiral-form labyrinth constructed out of rose bushes. McLemore is a polymath of extraordinary mathematical and artisanal ability; he has not only constructed this remarkable maze, but also teaches trigonometry to the hired hands on his land, and heals antique clocks that nobody else can repair. The rose maze and the restored clocks become this show’s governing figures.

Reed believes he is in Woodstock, Alabama—for Woodstock is Shit-Town, and Shit-Town Woodstock—to investigate whether a teenager beat another teenager to death, and got away with it. In the course of his investigations he comes across nasty-sounding people, like the owners of a business titled “K3,” and various virulent racists who use the N-word with abandon in the back of a tattoo parlor. The investigation swiftly becomes chaotic—and then the murder-mystery structure falls apart completely.

It is impossible to say more without giving away the series’ twists, which are crucial to its listening pleasure. But what seems like insanity turns out to be tragic beauty; where ugliness and chaos seem to rule, love is in fact buried. Just as McLemore forced open a portal between himself and a radio journalist many, many miles away, the story of his life and loves forces a collapse of genres and a new level in audio storytelling to open up.

The problem of Shit-Town is not, in the end, one of murder. It is a problem of time. In an early episode, Reed hangs out with McLemore and his young friend Tyler, who is sharpening a chainsaw, tooth by tooth. The sound the sharpening makes is rhythmic—not quite like the ticking of a clock, but regular enough to remind you of a metronome. In one of Shit-Town’s characteristically avant-garde production moves, Reed’s narration picks this sound out of the background of a scene that he himself is in, to talk about time.

The chainsaw that keeps count; sundials bearing gloomy inscriptions; the gorgeous astrolabes and old clocks over which McLemore has a mastery evident nowhere else in his existence: this show is about how to measure out a life. Toward the very end of the series, an old friend looks down at a beautiful instrument made for him by McLemore, and laughs, then cries, over its sheer mechanical beauty. “What’s more valuable to me than this?” he chokes out.

“The measure of time has something to do with me.” Another old friend of McLemore recalls him saying as much, as he fell in love with clocks. Timepieces are not just about time in Shit-Town, but also about identity. The maze is also about being in the world; specifically, in space. How to be myself, and how to be myself here, where I hate everything and everyone? McLemore loathes Woodstock so much that he christens the entire show with a cruel epithet, and yet he does not leave. He builds his maze so that it can be escaped in 64 different ways, depending on how he shuts the gate. There is one version of the maze that is inescapable.

At Vox, Aja Romano writes that Shit-Town should never have been made. The entire show is about this single, complex man but—for reasons I won’t reveal—he cannot consent to its publication. “I can’t help but wish Reed had questioned his mission more openly,” Romano writes. The invasion goes too deep, Romano feels.

But, unlike the pointless inquiry of Missing Richard Simmons, or even the rubbernecking spectacle of Serial, I think that S-Town does interrogate its mission. Reed simply performs that interrogation formally, by setting up and then collapsing generic expectations so that his investigation becomes a meta-investigation, which itself then collapses into a shapeless but compelling sprawl of philosophical questions.

S-Town is transgressive, but that transgression, along with its high quality, mark a new phase of maturity for audio storytelling—perhaps a kind of adolescence. A similar stage for contemporary essay-writing was marked by Janet Malcolm, when she condemned the journalist in 1989 as “a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm acknowledges that a subject’s consent is not the same thing as a subject understanding how far nonfiction storytelling can warp a person. One cannot consent to becoming art. And “so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson,” Malcolm writes.

Malcolm’s New Yorker article-turned-book was a landmark because the genres available to her at the time—essay-writing, biography, investigative journalism, reflections on ethics—were not, individually, capacious enough to hold her thought. Similarly, the genres available to audio storytelling (at least forms popular enough to be recognized as genres by listeners) are not capacious enough to hold the story of John B. McLemore. So Brian Reed and his colleagues have had to create something different.

What kind of story is this? And when will I understand where I’m being led? These are perhaps the secondary animating questions behind S-Town, just after the actual mysteries under investigation. Since this is a new kind of story for the mass audio market, the listener has no way to predict where this story will take her.

I wanted to take the show on its own terms, to follow the real-life mystery at hand, but the formal innovations of S-Town are distracting. The mystery of the show’s identity keeps us listening the way that the mystery of the murderer’s identity kept us listening to Serial. But in time, more shows in the mainstream will follow S-Town’s peculiar lead. If greater intimacy with the messy and wonderful corners of our world ensue, and fewer neat little mysteries get tied up with bows, our headphones will be better for it. Like clockwork, a medium grows in complexity and strength as time and collaboration do their work.