A story of our times: the tragedy of S-Town and John B. McLemore

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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.

When I heard about S-Town, with its true-life murder tag, I didn’t think it would be for me – it sounded exploitative. Later, I was intrigued to see it called ‘journalism as art’ – with overtones of Tom Wolfe and New Journalism. Other listeners raved about the intimacy of the medium, the roller coaster of emotions, about how they were binge-listening the entire podcast in a single sitting. I tuned in out of curiosity and, one episode in, was hooked.

S-Town features a pallet of stories and voices that might otherwise live briefly, tediously, and then disappear without trace, but are here captured for posterity in an invisible, intangible medium. Is it done well? Absolutely. Should it have been done? That’s harder to say.

What’s the deal with S-Town?

Filtered over 7 episodes, each around an hour long, 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, yet the investigation continues, exhaustively prying into people’s windows, their trucks, yards, bank accounts, feelings, secret doorways and sexual proclivities.

In fact, it’s this voyeurism that the series hangs on. It’s intimate in a way that TV can’t compete with: it’s 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. It’s a town and story shot through with inescapable humanity: there’s something here that we share, and perhaps we don’t even know it.

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 gate to the big themes that McLemore liked to hold court on: climate change, the injustice of poverty and, in particular, the circle of hell that is Woodstock, Alabama. On all of these things, and more, McLemore is dazzlingly articulate, if somewhat manic.

The characters who populate 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, and yet immediately identifiable. 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, or at least, not in newspaper headlines and viral clickbait – where people are either right or wrong, up-voted, or cast down.

On the other hand, isn’t this kind of documentary journalism also a well-worn model, from Dickens and Orwell and others? The kind where sheltered, middle class writers shine a little light on the heart of darkness, then get the hell out of there?

Finding out about McLemore himself is a revelation. He’s the town geek, an outcast, an eccentric, an object of ridicule and even self-loathing, but who secretly is 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 investigation that kick starts S-Town is a crime that it turns out didn’t happen, but once that’s revealed the investigation continues, unpicking itself across the remaining five or six episodes.

The real investigation of S-Town is one people are left to answer for themselves every day, often without anything like the resources or resolution that Reed has. Why did my friend/brother/sister/neighbour commit suicide? What drives people to do that – what were the clues, and could it have ended any differently?

That’s the question that consumes S-Town and Brian Reed: why did John McLemore commit suicide? What were the clues, and could it have ended any differently? In answering the question, inevitably, 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 and record your life history … by definition it is after all ‘on the record’.

Still, this is a troubling notion when the dead are involved. While John not only told Reed things freely, but often delighted in the telling, how much of his story was intended for public broadcast – or global consumption? The shock of Reed’s investigation is that much of John’s life was hidden: friends, relationships and interests were carefully kept apart while he was alive. After John’s death, Reed becomes the cord that ties them together, bringing his 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.

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 partly 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 – really listening – to other people, strangers, or just  those with opposing viewpoints is much harder. It’s a chore, 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 it 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.

Picture credit: image: writer’s own