Investigative podcast strikes universal chord

Photo courtesy of S-Town Podcast

From “Serial” and “This American Life,” the new podcast “S-Town” investigates the town of Woodstock, Alabama, through the lens of its disgruntled life-long resident John B. McLemore. Brian Reed, the veteran “This American Life” producer who has won a Peabody Award for his work, acts as the host and executive producer of the podcast, which took over three years to develop. Julie Snyder, who was the co-creator of “Serial,” is the other executive producer of “S-Town.”

As the most listened-to podcast in history, “Serial” was instrumental as a revival of audio broadcasting, especially drawing in listeners of younger generations. Its first season, which focused on the death of Maryland teen Hae Min Lee and the person in prison for her death, Adnan Syed, was a deep dive into a complicated situation that engaged listeners week to week with suspense, uncertainty and fundamental moral questions.

The second season took the show in a different direction, investing a figure who had already received national attention: Bowe Bergdahl. While the story of this American soldier, who walked off into Afghanistan and was a prisoner of the Taliban for years before arrangements were made to bring him home, had many complications and judgement calls like the previous season, many listeners did not receive it as well. The focus more on the character of a single person and less on a traditional crime made it less engaging to those who appreciated the suspense of the first season more.

By breaking away from the name of “Serial,” “S-Town” has carved its own space to form a unique identity. While incorporating elements of both seasons of “Serial,” the podcast is free to deviate from the former structures without constant comparisons.

“S-Town” begins with Reed responding to a request for an investigation of an unpunished murder in John’s small town, which he refers to as the eponymous “Shittown.” The podcast spirals outward, turning into a character study of John, a survey of rural Southern life, and an exploration of issues both universal and deeply personal.

While suspense was built about the original murder case, a surprising early reveal causes the theme of the show to pivot. While pressing questions remain throughout the rest of the season, “S-Town” becomes less of a true crime show and more of a personal narrative. This shift, however, was positive as the murder case was harder to get invested in without the interviews of those directly involved.

Reed succeeds in building a concrete sense of place but also squarely positioning “Shittown” within the larger picture, exploring ideas of globalization, climate change and widespread apathy through conversations with and about John. As Reed said, “all the world was a ‘Shittown’ to John, and he had every disgrace of that world in his heart.”

Interviews with a wide cast of characters and extensive research flesh out a well-developed and constantly evolving story; listeners feel as if they are discovering more about and connecting emotionally with the subjects as Reed is. Occasionally, the out of order presentation of segments of the narrative could be confusing, but other times references across time were used to effectively show changing perspectives.

As was done in “Serial,” different facets of the subjects were presented, often revealing back story later and casting them in entirely different light, and ultimately listeners are left to come to their own conclusions and judge which interviewees are reliable narrators. Reed as a host effectively summarized conversations when necessary and weaved together interviews in a cohesive way.

With heavy subject matter, the release of the seven episode season all at once was ill-suited. The week-by-week release of “Serial” would have worked better for “S-Town,” as binging this podcast is emotionally overwhelming, and building interest over time could have garnered a wider audience.

The music brought the story to life from the theme by Daniel Hart to songs explicitly referenced in the show, which ranged from country to opera. The imagery of clocks, referencing John’s long time job as a horologist and the frequent subject of the passage of time, is perfect for the one visual most listeners associate with “S-Town”: the image that accompanies the podcast in listening apps.

The podcast succeeded when it explored many big issues, including mental health, race and sexuality, through the engaging case study of John and his world. Questions from what is a meaningful life to the nature of relationships may leave listeners reflecting not only the citizens of “Shittown” but also reflecting on their own lives. Ultimately, as Brian Reed said, “trying to understand another person is a worthwhile thing to do,” and “S-Town” delivers seven captivating hours of this worthwhile endeavor.