S-Town: a story of our times

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A true-life tale from the makers of This American Life and Series, S-Town is devastating, heart-breaking and troubling. Spoilers.

What is S-Town about?

Told over seven, hour-long episodes S-Town begins with a murder in ‘Shittown, Alabama’. Producer Brian Reed receives an email from a guy named John, who claims a crime in his home town has been buried by corrupt cops and a wealthy family with Klan connections.

That’s how it starts, anyway. By the time the story concludes we’ve come a long way from murder. The investigation peers into people’s windows, their trucks, yards, bank accounts and sexual proclivities.

In fact the series arguably hangs on this voyeurism. It’s intimate in a way that TV can’t compete with. It’s like sitting on the stoop eavesdropping while everyday conversations go on in a front room, or back room, or in a hotel car park.

Despite the age of the events (from 2012 onwards), S-Town feels immediate. It’s strangely like being there in person. In fact, these people – for all their distance (geographically, socially, politically) – are like your people. Some of them are like you, deep down.

A story of our times

The events chronicled in S-Town unfold over a couple of years, starting with John B. McLemore’s email to radio producer Brian Reed in 2012. Ostensibly that email – and the invitation to investigate – was about police corruption, but it opened the gates to the big themes McLemore liked to hold court on. Climate change, poverty, and the circle of hell that is Woodstock, Alabama. On all of these things, and more, McLemore is dazzlingly articulate, if somewhat manic.

The characters in this story – friends, family, neighbours, officials – are regular nobodies. They live invisibly, with little money to get by and fewer aspirations to hold it all together. It’s a powerless and exploited existence and, from everything that John says (and which Reed mostly confirms), it’s dirt-bowl, depressing stuff. This kind of life has never gone away, but perhaps apart from reality TV or documentary journalism, it rarely gets an airing.

That’s where S-Town performs a public service. It broadcasts to the world from an unseen war zone (because it must be war when governments punish their own people). It validates invisible lives and gives them a depth and meaning we rarely give our fellow humans.

McLemore himself is a revelation. He’s the town geek, an outcast, but also a brilliant thinker, a benefactor, and a world-leading master of horology. He spends his time repairing or constructing intricate clocks and sundials … he built a maze – a real, hedgerow maze, behind his house.

Who wouldn’t want their own life to be dissected, and from among the detritus have something remarkable revealed? In fact, what S-Town does so well is just that: putting together the jigsaw of one man’s life and showing that things are never so black and white. There are all kinds of shades in between, some of which are inevitably beautiful. The question is: who has ownership of that story?

Worthwhile life defined

The real investigation of S-Town is one people are left with all the time. Why did my friend/brother/neighbour kill him or herself?

This is the question that consumes S-Town and Brian Reed. Why did John McLemore kill himself? What were the clues, and could it have ended differently? In answering the question, Reed weighs McLemore’s life in the balance, showing the sum of the man – complex, flawed, kind, mean, but ultimately worthy of thought and remembrance. As portraits go, it’s quite some tribute.

At one point, Reed tells Tyler, a friend of John’s, to be careful what he reveals because once it’s said it becomes public, and could potentially implicate him. That may be another sign of our times: say too much, or reveals things unwisely (by choice or by association), and parts of your life can be preserved in Internet aspic, in perpetuity. Perhaps there’s less cause for complaint if you invite a radio show to visit your home which, by definition, is ‘on the record’.

Still, this is troubling when the dead are involved. John not only told Reed things freely, but often delighted in the telling. But how much of his story did he intend for public broadcast – or global consumption?

The shock of Reed’s investigation is how much of John’s life was hidden while alive, including friends, relationships and interests. After John’s death, Reed brings those secrets out into the noon day sun. Reed wonders, and possibly excuses himself in this, that as John’s an atheist, he has no turmoil ahead of him in the afterlife – he’s worm food, and it does no harm now.

The ‘after’ life

And so, everything is out there now. John’s life. His death (in detail). There are possible clues to his depression and even madness. His homo- (or bi-) sexuality is picked over and examined, as is his occasional misogyny and casual racism. Everything is threaded together; it’s a very human search for meaning and, one suspects, Reed’s particular quest to find love in John’s life.

S-Town, for its questionable content, remains beautiful and dark, and a fine portrait of people and one man in particular. Its tragedy is that Reed gives McLemore a level of consideration that few people get. Perhaps that’s one reason instances of depression and isolation are endemic across our species. While binge-listening to S-Town is easy, listening to other people, strangers, or just  those with opposing viewpoints is much harder. It’s a duty, rather than a guilty pleasure … it’s not entertainment.

The other tragedy is that picking over John’s life in this voyeuristic way reveals a man who may have been hard to stomach, yet easy to admire. Listening to the recordings of his conversations from such a long way off, he’s articulate and intelligent and likeable. The weight of the investigation suggests that John died without ever knowing reciprocated, pure love, and that too seems tragic – now that a million or more have heard his words, and take time to consider his life and death, and what it might mean for their own existence.


S-Town is produced by Serial Productions, and from the makers of Serial and This American Life

Picture credit: Ingmar