Review: S-Town Podcast

Elizabeth Walker

Fans who have been longing for the return of the NPR podcast Serial now have something to ease their withdrawals. The new podcast S-Town debuted March 28 and is already creating a buzz.

S-Town is from the same producers as Serial and This American Life. While Serial tried to untangle a single, complicated mystery by releasing one episode each week, S-Town released all seven episodes at once. Many listeners immediately binged.

“S-Town” is short for Shittown, the nickname given to Bibb County, Alabama, by one of its residents, John B. McLemore. “John B.,” as everyone calls him is an eccentric genius who lives with his mother.

He first connects to the narrator, journalist Brian Reed, via email, in an effort to draw the reporter’s attention to a rumored murder and police corruption within the county. As Reed delves more deeply into Bibb county and its residents, he learns the real mystery is within John B. McLemore himself.

For those listeners who have spent much time in the rural South, the characters might feel familiar. It is clear Reed made an effort to let the town’s residents speak for themselves rather than view them through a judgmental urban lens. But it is precisely the fact that these are real characters, and that their memories are both unvarnished and grotesque, that makes S-Town so compelling.

If you want a podcast that ties everything up in a neat bow at the end, this is not it. If you enjoy falling down the rabbit hole of a character’s life, or if you find the best works of literature are imbued with a pronounced sense of place, then turn on S-Town, and prepare to be haunted.