Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Let's Talk About S-Town
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The podcast series from the makers of Serial and This American Life has lit up the iTunes charts, and there’s much in it to discuss. Read on for a conversation about the show, and if you’ve got thoughts of your own to add, send them to hello+stown@theatlantic.com and we might publish them here on Notes. We’ll give you ample warning of any spoilers, so feel free to follow the conversation even if you haven’t yet finished all seven episodes.

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What Do Southerners Hear in S-Town?

Andrea Morales / S-Town

S-Town plays on some familiar themes of storytelling about the South. As Aja Romano has noted at Vox, the show fits firmly into the Southern gothic tradition immortalized in the works of authors like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, even though it’s nonfiction. But in an interview with Deep South Magazine, the show’s producer Brian Reed said his instinct was to push beyond stereotypes:

Reed hadn’t spent much time in Alabama before traveling down from New York to meet John. His wife, who is African American, advised him to set his social media profiles to private. He thought she was just perpetuating a stereotype, but he does meet his share of racists among John’s friends. “In a way, the vision that John was feeding me of this Shittown or S-Town that he lived in, it had all the trappings of the stereotypes you think of when you think of rural Alabama,” Reed says. “My knee-jerk was to go against that. It can’t be exactly that. I know it’s more complicated than that.”

I grew up in central Florida. As Floridians know, the weird cultural geography of the state means that the farther north you go in Florida, the closer you get to “the South,” so central Florida is a somewhat ambicultural middle zone, not fully Southern, but bearing whiffs and echoes and markers of the South. So I’ve been interested to hear the reactions to S-Town from listeners who grew up in the region, and I’ve excerpted a few here.

Artwork by Valero Sandoval / S-Town

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 hello+stown@theatlantic.com. 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.