S-Town Is a Well-Crafted Monument to Empathy

The much-hyped podcast evolves from murder mystery and rural tourism into timely, humanistic biography.

S-Town reporter Brian Reed
Andrea Morales / S-Town

In the days after the 2016 election, an article by David Wong on Cracked called “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind” went viral. It listed five reasons why the Donald Trump phenomenon was explicable not by red vs. blue but rural vs. urban, and it relied heavily on pop culture to make its case. “Every TV show is about L.A. or New York, maybe with some Chicago or Baltimore thrown in,” he wrote from downstate Illinois. “When they did make a show about us, we were jokes—either wide-eyed, naive fluffballs (Parks And Recreation, and before that, Newhart) or filthy murderous mutants (True Detective, and before that, Deliverance). You could feel the arrogance from hundreds of miles away.”

That tension between city-dwellers and country-dwellers runs so high these daysand is so front and center in the political conversationcontributes to the suspense of the gripping new podcast S-Town. “S-Town” stands for “Shit Town,” the term applied to the Alabama burg of Woodstock throughout the seven-episode documentary series from the creators of Serial and This American Life. Reporter Brian Reed heads there from New York City off a tip that there’s been a covered-up murder; his investigation encounters meth use, open racism, and devastating poverty—realities that pop culture so frequently uses as grist. The series shifts shape time and time again but one constant is the dynamic of Reed’s crisp, radio-ready tones contrasting with the drawls and profanity of the people he meets.

More than that, the ferryman to this world is a resident of Woodstock who holds himself apart from it in ways that will likely draw the sympathies of the left-leaning listener. Tipster John B. McLemore frets about climate change, forgoes religion, and is queer; “Shit Town” is how he refers to the place he’s lived most of his life. He directs Reed to somewhere named K3 Lumber, which McLemore calls KKK Lumber—an epithet that doesn’t offend its owner, who asks when the Klan is mentioned if Reed’s one of those lefties disturbed by the election.

All of which is to say that early on, the notion looms that McLemore is the Kurtz to Reed’s Marlow in a fight-starting, American South Heart of Darkness redux.

S-Town turns out to be something much savvier and stranger, though: an act of journalism and literature and humanism that, if anything, hints at the possibility of cultural reconciliation. As pure entertainment, the series delivers mightily thanks to Reed striking lucky with people and places that are as memorable as any fiction. But S-Town finds true novelty as the true-crime narrative and touristic vibe fades and Reed starts obsessing over McLemore himself. The results are a monument to one man’s life, a meditation on the tangled relationship between individuals and the settings around them, and a sensitive portrait of oft-stereotyped places like Woodstock.

McLemore is a late-middle-age clock restorer, hedge-maze maker, acid-reflux sufferer, and all-around gadfly. The hook for S-Town is that he says he’s heard talk of a murder in Woodstock, but the listener quickly gets the sense that what McLemore says is less the point than how he says it. The tapes of his conversations with Reed are glorious, darkly comic linguistic sculptures, filigreed with vulgarity, custom slang, and scientific names for plants. In one striking sequence during Reed’s first tour through Woodstock, the reporter notes his host’s unrelenting, almost cheerful negativity towards such things as butterflies, greenery, and a high school, or as McLemore calls it, “Auschwitz.”

The condescension here towards rural life—the disdain for obesity, tattoos, and “Jeebus”—comes not from the coastal elite but from someone who has grown up in the woods. And the mystery here, more pertinent than the ones about death and hidden treasure that arise, is about the source of McLemore’s resentment. Slowly Reed unpeels the repression and disappointments in the man’s past, some of which are environmental and some of which are self-made. But, just as remarkably, he probes McLemore’s subjectivity, at one point nearing medical diagnosis, arriving at an understanding of the stark filter that darkens McLemore’s worldview—but also encourages sneaky acts of charity.

Again and again, characters initially presented in caricature-like fashion by McLemore or another source get a chance to speak for themselves, and the liberal ideal of universal empathy and understanding gets applied on a granular scale. Whenever Reed feels the pull to judge one of his subjects, he lets us know about it and he corrects himself, even in the most extreme instances of monstrousness (some listeners may take issue with this lenience). Woodstock itself gets its defenders who hint that “Shit Town” was once paradise for McLemore and that what’s changed is less the place than the person. He, meanwhile, is revealed to have not been as confined by his surroundings as it initially seemed, having lived a vibrant life with connections across locations and cultures. Reed obviously has come to love McLemore, but that doesn’t keep him from affixing a few troubling asterisks to his biography.

Anyone set on a juicy resolution to the gritty mystery raised early in the podcast or the adventure-novel hijinks implied a little bit later will, by the end of S-Town, be frustrated. Occasionally, you may feel a twinge of ethical doubt as Reed digs up secrets, conducts potentially incriminating interviews, and blithely presents disturbing details (the saddest twist of the story really should have had a warning with it). But anyone interested in audio journalism’s potential as art will marvel at what Reed and his team accomplishes. At times, it even seems possible that S-Town makes good on a grand, hidden plan by McLemore to trick a radio producer into turning his life into literature akin to the Faulkner and Shirley Jackson works he loaned to Reed on his first visit to Woodstock. If so, for all its terribly tragic dimensions, it was a successful ploy—one that defies McLemore’s pessimism by asserting that vastly different people can come to understand one another.