At the end of the final episode of S-Town, presenter Brian Reed thanks what he calls ‘the best podcast team in the world’. Over statement? Probably not. From the makers of Serial, S-Town is a superb piece of radio storytelling that breaks and warms your heart in equal measure. Laugh out loud funny at times, the story takes dramatic and poignant twists, right until the final few seconds and a wonderfully written reveal. Radio really doesn’t get better than this.
There are technical and journalistic reasons why this is so good. Let’s look at the technical aspect first. S-Town begins very differently to Serial. Firstly, it is Reed presenting and not Sarah Koenig. While the script has all the same hallmarks of This American Life and Serial, the tone is slightly different. Also, the star of this series is undoubtedly John B McLemore and not Reed. In Serial, despite the access to Adnan Syed in prison, Koenig was the star; placing herself at the heart of the narrative and her investigation. Reed plots and shapes the script in a similar way here, but you feel like you’re walking the path with him, not being led up it.
On episode one of S-Town you hear mostly from John B. Although his southern drawl initially grates, you begin to warm to an extraordinary character. You soon form a remarkable attachment to John B. It makes these seven episodes some of the most emotional moments of radio I have ever experienced. At times the storytelling is like the best of literature; transporting you to another place. Sometimes it feels like a different time too, like the previous century. And time plays a crucial role as the story unfolds; from John B’s work as an horologist to his insistence that his home is on a different time zone than the local town.
When Reed first visits John B, he is shown a maze in the grounds of their house, made and designed by John B himself. The imagery and production in these ten minutes is terrific. It is a perfect example of clever scripting and powerful audio production and it magically transports you in a way visual media cannot.
When listening, images from the first series of TV’s True Detective came to mind, with vast open spaces of nothing and people that rarely, if ever, travel beyond their hometown. Like True Detective, music is also key. The backing tracks are cleverly chosen, to match mood and environment and the final closing song from The Zombies has a poignant connection to the story.
Away from the production, there are moral and political questions to explore. The moral concerns are genuine – but I do not want to discuss them here, as this gives away the story. My love of the podcast shows where I stand on that issue anyway.
As for the political issues raised, I lazily fell into the trap of discovering the characters and residents of Shittown Alabama (or Woodstock as it’s officially known) and thought these are the sort of people that made Donald Trump US President. There are those people that are openly racist and even a company with a name that has an unapologetic nod to the Ku Klux Klan. But dig deeper and you find there is a heart to the place. People that really care for each other. Brian Reed avoids judgement – or if he gets close to it – admits he might be wrong.
As Koenig put it herself, Serial was a ‘Shakespearean mash up’ that had the perfect ingredients for a classic murder story. S Town doesn’t have that same mystery and intrigue, but it makes you think and reflect more. This added depth I describe made S-Town far more rewarding to listen to. The story has a real arc. A beginning, a middle and an end, carefully plotted and beautifully told. Where Serial was the Smells Like Teen Spirit of podcasts, lifting the medium into the mainstream, S-Town might just be the Stairway To Heaven. It’s set to become a classic of its genre.
Radio is all about connection and engaging an audience. When done as well as this, it really is wonderful. You might listen and not connect to it the same way as I did, but you’ll certainly admire the work that must have been put in. Ultimately S-Town is about judging; challenging our perceptions and avoiding leaping to a conclusion about people. But it is also about a relationship. Not like the teenage love story at the heart of Serial, but the special bond forged by Reed and John B. This is quality journalism from a presenter who genuinely cares and it is all the more powerful as a consequence.