S-Town podcast: 14 things you need to know about the ‘new Serial’, John B McLemore, and Woodstock Alabama

Susannah Butter
Compelling: the new podcast from Serial and This American Life is proving addictive listening: S-Town Podcast

It’s time to adjust your commute all over again. S-Town, a new podcast from the makers of Serial, is captivating the capital.

Commuters are taking longer journeys so that they can fit in more episodes of the show about John B McLemore, the lonely horologist with a florid turn of phrase and a drawling Southern accent. The mysteries McLemore raises are so compelling that the pod squad are seeking out fellow listeners for debriefs on what is going down in his Alabama town.

The podcast sets the scene with an allegory about how maddening it is to fix old clocks. “You’re constantly wondering if you’ve spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere.”

Anyone who turned amateur detective when hooked to Serial will sympathise with this rumination on the nature of solving crimes.

S-Town presenter Brian Reed (S-Town Podcast)

But unlike Serial, which was released week by week, all seven episodes of S-Town are available now. The show was downloaded more than 10 million times in its first four days, a new record for a podcast. It took seven weeks for the first series of Serial to reach that audience. So here’s everything you need to know about S-Town.

1) It started with an email

Back in 2012, when Serial wasn’t even a glint in Sarah Koenig’s eye and podcasts were still a niche trend, a producer on radio show This American Life called Brian Reed received a message. The subject was: “John B. McLemore lives in S***town, Alabama”. McLemore wanted Reed to look into a crime — the son of a wealthy family was bragging that he’d got away with murdering a boy and McLemore couldn’t stand it any longer.

2) It’s OK to call it S***town

That’s the name McLemore comes up with because he despises the place so much. The people of Woodstock, Alabama have heard of the show but many are too busy to listen. When asked about their home becoming famous they said, “it’s pretty cool”.

3) It’s easy to binge on

Unlike Serial, which unfolded week by week with the producers not knowing what would happen, it is complete, which listeners say is relaxing: “With Serial we were on edge because we didn’t know if it’d be solved, but here you feel in safer hands, you might get closure.”

4) You’ll have S-Town withdrawal symptoms afterwards

You’ll want to fill the hole S-Town leaves not by listening to another podcast but by reading. S-Town is packed with literary references. McLemore gives Reed William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily to help him understand his world. He also gives him Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace.

5) Reed wanted S-Town to feel like literature

He has said: “If Serial is more like a TV show, this is more like a novel. I hope people enjoy it the way they might a book.”

6) You will also want to watch and read Brokeback Mountain

It comes up frequently as McLemore sees his own story in its message about male friendship and forbidden love.

7) It was the back-up Serial

Producer Julie Snyder says she was working on what became Serial when Reed told her about McLemore: “I figured we could always do it on the weekend if Serial crashed and burned.”

8) It’s been used as a prism through which to understand the Donald Trump phenomenon

In New York intellectual circles, journalist David Wong’s theory explaining Trump’s popularity is common currency: “Every TV show is about LA or New York, maybe with some Chicago or Baltimore thrown in. When they did make a show about us, we were jokes — either wide-eyed, naive fluffballs (Parks and Recreation) or filthy murderous mutants (True Detective). You could feel the arrogance from hundreds of miles away.”

Woodstock fits this mould – McLemore rattles off statistics about it being riven with child-molesters and endemic police corruption. But unlike in the shows Wong mentions, we are told this by a real-life white southern man. Analyse that.

9) The capital gets a shout out

McLemore uses “having afternoon tea in London” as an example of a “normal” thing to do.

10) It’s packed with atmospheric tunes

The jangling music is as much a part of the show as the gothic plot. It’s the work of Daniel Hart, who has range — he has toured and recorded with St Vincent and composed music for Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. Each show ends with The Zombies song A Rose for Emily (McLemore has a rose maze in his garden).

11) Names matter

Some have suggested that calling a young man Tyler Goodson is nominative determinism.

12) It raises ethical questions

The pod squad relishes an ethical debate and there are plenty of discussions to be had about S-Town. Without wishing to give too much away, something happens to McLemore and there are questions around whether he gave consent to have his story told, and whether it was appropriate to have made the show.

Serial sparked similar conversations about whether a true story should be used as entertainment and whether the privacy of the bereaved was being invaded, as did the podcast investigation into the disappearance of a fitness guru, Missing Richard Simmons, earlier this year.

13) Look out for unlikely camaraderie

Reed, who narrates the show is a New Yorker, married to an African American fashion editor at PAPER magazine. McLemore is an outsider in a conservative town who has “made an insurmountable challenge out of living”. He latches on to Reed, emailing him every day about everything from ebola to tattoos. Reed often finds the culture of Woodstock difficult and is glad Solange, his wife, told him to make his social media private but he becomes fond of McLemore, despite his unfocused rambling.

14) It’ll make you think about the environment

Listeners have wondered if this is making a deliberate point when Trump is going back on Barack Obama’s low-carbon policy. McLemore is obsessed with climate change, quoting data about the doom-laden future of the planet and finding it difficult to focus when the sea ice is melting.

Paradoxically, though, he burns through prolific amounts of petrol. His neighbours argue with him, wondering what action they can take to save the planet. One says: “I’ve switched my lightbulbs to energy-saving ones. I’m doing my bit. What more can someone do?”

Follow Susannah Butter on Twitter: @susannahbutter

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