S-Town is the new podcast from Serial and This American Life (I highly recommend both shows, especially season 2 of Serial) that chronicles… well, I’ll let them tell you:
JOHN DESPISES HIS ALABAMA TOWN AND DECIDES TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. HE ASKS a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.
I am putting aside the question of whether or not reporter Brian Reed should have made this podcast (i.e., did John B. McLemore realize he was giving Reed permission – or did he give permission at all – to reveal details about this life given that this was not the context under which they began recording together) – Reed did make the podcast, so the genie is out of the bottle.
Or, I guess a more appropriate analogy would be, “The shit is out of the bowl.”
So I’m not coming at this from the perspective of “John didn’t ask for a profile,” although that is true. My real issue is that S-Town makes promises it doesn’t keep and bizarrely switches from engaging mystery to plodding profile without explanation or apology.
And it seems that pissed me off.
S-Town leaves too many dangling threads. Well, they’re not exactly threads, they’re GIANT F#$%ING LARGE DIAMETER LOAD BEARING CABLES! For example:
- We’re promised that John’s body exposes S-Town, but that never happens. We never learn if John was right or wrong about Woodstock, Alabama. I guess you could argue that he was wrong, but since this was presented as a thesis statement, the lack of conclusion on this topic is problematic to say the least.
- We know Faye lied about the phone calls to the people on John’s list, but this is cast aside. Brian even gave her an out, suggesting that her grief made completing the task too difficult, but she doubled down, insisting she made the calls. Maybe there was nowhere else to go (Brian may have it a wall on this issue), but he never mentions it again, never expresses frustration. This is presented as a key point and a lot of time is spent on this issue, but it just falls away like the ticks of a clock. (See what I did there? You get it.)
- Brian also promises a treasure hunt that never goes anywhere… Right? I suppose the “Switch that thing off” segment is supposed to tell use that Tyler found the gold, but the point just doesn’t land. It seems like an aside, which is frustrating because after John’s death, the fate of the gold is a major focus of the podcast… until it’s not. What happened to the gold bars in the freezer Faye mentioned? I don’t know, and Brian doesn’t really mention it again…
These are the major issues that are bugging me. It’s frustrating. Maybe there are no answers, but it seems to me that Brian probably should have said so instead of just letting what was initially the premise of the damn show disappear in a labyrinth never to be seen or heard from again.
You could argue that John and Brian got together to investigate a death (well, a murder, but I won’t split hairs) and that’s what Brian ultimately does, but since John’s death is not in dispute (John committed suicide), the why of it (why John took his own life) is stretched into oblivion. I can see that some might feel that the explanation answers the question – John was wrong, Woodstock is not a shit town… but I don’t buy that argument. There’s just too many unknowns:
- The cousin’s theory that Tyler had something to do with John’s death
- The resolution of the conflict between the cousins and Tyler
- Why Faye lied/why were John’s friends (the people on the list) not notified in time to attend the funeral or not notified at all
- Did Tyler find the gold and (wisely) not tell anyone?
- What happened to the gold in the freezer?
What is really sticking in my craw is the genre shift that occurs. Episodes 1-4 are this exploratory mystery and episodes 5-7 are a character portrait that I’m not sure needed to be told. My wife and I were discussing why hearing from the other clock makers and collectors was so compelling and why hearing from Olan in episode 6 (as an example) was not. For me, this is because the clock makers and collectors illustrated who John was through examples – before this, I wasn’t sure if John was talking out of his butt about clock repairing, but here, it’s revealed that John is a true master. Meanwhile, I’m not sure it’s important to learn that Olan was able to get John the Brokeback Mountain short story and John did come around to like it. Lot’s of people like Brokeback Mountain, but almost no one is a clock master. Even other clockmakers were awed by John and this was a topic John spoke about passionately – he was interested, so I’m interested. I can’t ever remember John mentioning Olan, so in my mind, he comes out of nowhere and interprets John’s feelings and while I have no reason to doubt him… Having someone evaluate someone else’s feelings after the fact is problematic. And not especially compelling. It’s nice to know John had someone like Olan in his life for a time and that Olan wanted to kiss him that time (that was sweet), but I don’t think I needed forty minutes of this. I’m glad Olan knew John, I’m glad Olan likes Brokeback Mountain, but it goes on. The Olan stuff is just an example of episodes 5-7 and it’s unnecessary depth. These three episodes could be edited down into a single one hour story that would have been far more effective.
But is this podcast worth a listen? I kicked this off by saying I recommend both Serial and This American Life, but do I recommend S-Town? Rrr… yes? The first four episodes are magic. The colorful characters (I thought John was the king of the personalities, but you just can’t make something up like Tyler’s Uncle Jimmy), the stories, the vivid descriptions… This is amazing stuff. The thing is, S-Town doesn’t really go anywhere.
And yet, it’s a fascinating journey. I’m not sorry I took it.
this post was updated on 4/13/17