The Problem of Bingeing on S-Town

Artwork by Valero Sandoval / S-Town
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Given the market dynamics of media in 2017, I expect that this very moment, somewhere in America, the invisible hand is penning an epic takedown of S-Town. The seven-part series from the makers of This American Life and Serial is popular enough that backlash is near-inevitable. Already, many folks have commented on the show’s milieu, a perfect fit for America's political zeitgeist in the same way that J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was in 2016. Between that context and the inherent problematics of any show that dives so deeply into the complex inner lives and tragedies of its subjects (see also: Serial, Making a Murderer, Missing Richard Simmons), this is a show that is likely to rub at least a few listeners the wrong way. But it’s a rich enough endeavor that no matter how you feel about it, it offers many footholds for conversation.

One danger in releasing a show like S-Town all at once is that it induces a sense of sudden, ephemeral ubiquity, at least within a certain cultural bubble. Conversations about the show will burn hot for a few weeks around its release, and if you don’t immediately start binge-listening, you’ll miss the social experience of it. You might get spoiled on key plot points. And it might already have gone through the critical wringer, so it will be impossible to listen fresh. Your impressions might be shaped by the vague sense that the show’s been deemed problematic, subtly priming you to listen for its flaws rather than its merits, a spoiler of a different kind.

So I’d like to discuss S-Town—with you, if you’re interested— a little at a time, here on Notes. I haven’t finished the show, but what I’ve heard has been remarkable. Although all the episodes are available, our discussion can proceed at a leisurely pace; the show is rich enough to reward multiple listens. Any spoilers will appear after the jump, and we’ll make sure to include a note that says "[ Spoilers ahead through episode X ]” before that point in each post.

If you’ve got thoughts to contribute, send them to My Atlantic colleagues will join me, and we’ll make sure to excerpt coverage that runs elsewhere on the site. Whenever you’re interested in digesting the show alongside a thoughtful and curious crew, our thoughts will be here for you to catch up. (Start, perhaps, with the thoughts of the great Spencer Kornhaber.)

Just remember: Make haste, but slowly. Soon comes night.