A rural Alabama town. A broken clock. A half-grown hedgerow maze. And someone may have been murdered. DUN DUN DUN DUN.
The highly anticipated new podcast from the audio royalty that brought you Serial and This American Life is finally here, so grab your headphones and settle in because I’m here to tell you exactly why you don’t want to miss this.
And just so we get this out of the way, I’m officially declaring a spoiler free zone.
Read on, my friend.
1. It will shatter your expectations at every turn
Leading up to the release of S-Town, the producers were giving NOTHING away. The only information we knew? Clocks were involved and there may, or may not, have been a murder. Boom, I’m interested.
The first episode — of the seven that make up the full series — follows this basic narrative, taking you deep into the setting of our story: a rural Alabama town called Woodstock. The beginning feels reminiscent of Serial season one — a tipster reaching out about an unsolved murder. This time, the tipster himself is the core of the series: John B. McLemore, an enigmatic antique clock restorer who has dubbed the town of Woodstock “Shittown.”
Each episode unfurls with slow candor, and leaves you questioning everything you thought you knew at the start.
The episodes that follow then take us down a twisting and unexpected journey that is less and less about murder and more and more about the complexity of our guide and the relationship between John and Brian Reed, the executive producer from This American Life who investigated this story for three years and who narrates the podcast. Each episode unfurls with slow candor, and leaves you questioning everything you thought you knew at the start. By the end of the final episode, the story had evolved into something I never would have expected — something morbidly fascinating, somber, and utterly unique.
2. It will take you deep into the richly drawn world of “Shittown,” Alabama
One of the strengths of the series is its ability to draw you into the narrative so fully that you’ll feel transported — caught up in John’s rapid-fire, upbeat style of pessimism. He’s a man made of contradictions, spitting vitriol against his birthplace while working in mysterious ways to uplift the people within it. He, we’ll call it “colorfully,” expresses his distaste of tattoos and the people who wear them, then, in the same breath, lifts his shirt to flash Reed a stomach covered with ink. He has a carefully cultivated, half-grown hedge maze growing in his backyard, a workshop full of restoration tools, and gold buried (we think) somewhere on his property. The dynamic between John and Reed itself is a fascinating push-pull that Reed manages to translate into a beautifully woven narrative.
The triumph of S-Town is that it captures something indefinable and oft-ignored about the universality of loneliness and how it roots into our individual lives.
I’m honestly not sure whether to call it exploitative — this deep dive we take into John’s life, into his personal relationships, puzzling out his inner thoughts and feelings. It’s one of the most human things I’ve ever listened to, and I was consistently floored by the openness of many of the subjects Reed interviewed along the way. It’s a key difference from the first season of Serial, in which so many of the key players showed discomfort or simply refused to speak to a reporter (an understandable response). S-Town takes a wild reversal to this, the people of Woodstock seem eager to talk to Reed, to share their slice of the story. As the murder storyline takes a backseat, Reed stays invested in the people of this town and their story. It’s apparent he believes John’s life is a story in and of itself. There’s something beautiful and unexpected about that — the triumph of S-Town is that it captures something indefinable and oft-ignored about the universality of loneliness and how it roots into our individual lives. It’s masterpiece of empathy. A rich and brutal call for understanding for the people surrounding us, whose lives we’ll never fully know.
3. It will literally PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE WITH EMOTION
All seven episodes of S-Town are already available, so, of course, I immediately binged them all because I have no self-control to speak of. I hit episode six on a late drive home from work — the rain was pouring, the sky was moody, and I was cocooned in my car, crying my eyes out. As I’ve already declared this a spoiler free zone, I can’t go into details, but suffice it to say: it was one of the most heartfelt and deeply personal interviews I have ever heard in my life. It broke my heart, piece by piece, the life of this man and his sincerity in laying out his emotions for all to hear.
It broke my heart, piece by piece.
This is not an “easy” podcast to listen to and it doesn’t have the same frantic, breathless energy that Serial did. Instead, listening to S-Town feels like falling into a gothic Southern novel — a complete work that is less about the “hook” of murder and more about the setting, the people, and the feeling of one small town in America. In that way, S-Town is more of a hybrid between a podcast and an audio book, which makes the decision to release the episodes as one chunk — instead of weekly installments — strategic. The complete story gets increasingly somber, and by the last episode, I was overcome with a profound sense of sadness for many of the players involved in this drama. S-Town as a complete work is a true celebration of what life is actually all about — a celebration of its richness, complexity, and humanity.