S-Town Will Do for Podcasts What HBO Did for TV
I finished listening to Shit Town in the middle of the night last night, with my family sleeping in their beds, the living room lit by the diagonal beams of a neighbor’s porch light. At one point, a spider descended from the ceiling until she was floating just in front of my face, legs waving. I grabbed her by the thread she was hanging from and placed her on the floor beside me. There was no time for distractions.
As podcast co-creator and host Brian Reed ended his story and as the series’ theme song, “A Rose for Emily,” began to play, I got the rare feeling that only comes when you are leaving a universe behind: turning the last page of a really great novel, carrying the last box out of an empty apartment, looking out the back window as your parents drive you away from summer camp. It’s the feeling of missing something even in the first seconds it’s gone, of almost instant nostalgia.
It’s a feeling that I’ve never gotten before from a podcast, but one that I think will be in my future. It’s a feeling that makes clear, at least to me, that S-Town is the beginning of a podcast revolution, a leveling-up of a medium that is only going to get better and brighter in years to come.
Better than just binge-listening
This isn’t the first podcast I’ve binged. My friends and I devoured Serial during a girls’ weekend in 2014, and just last week I finished the emotional roller-coaster ride that was Missing Richard Simmons along with millions of other slightly conflicted, guilt-ridden people across the country. Both of these podcasts captured my imagination, and both were digital page-turners that excelled at doling out just enough new information each episode to string listeners along for the whole ride. Both were released to cries of “genre game-changer!” by critics.
But Shit Town has something different — an added element of art and humanity that elevates it above the rest and that truly makes it a game-changer. Listening to S-Town felt like watching The Wire for the first time and realizing that HBO was taking television to the next level without looking back. It was like when my best friend in junior high school turned on The Wall and explained to me what a concept album was.
More than noir
Until now, long-form podcasts have had to have an element of noir in order to make headlines. They needed dime-store novel hooks, preferably murder, of course, definitely intrigue, with a good amount of sexual deviance highly preferable. True crime was a natural choice, and Serial soared during its first season while its second season, which took a hard turn toward investigative journalism (with no murders) struggled to make big waves.
Shit Town was not the true crime murder mystery it was advertised as (though its creators were smart to market it as such, a bit slyly). In the beginning, as Reed explains in the first episode, his initial interest in the story’s main character was hinged on a possible murder mystery. He received an email from a stranger who claimed the son of a wealthy lumberyard owner had gotten away with murder due to police corruption. The storyline, which we quickly find out is totally untrue, was enough to hook Reed into the real story of Shit Town and also enough to get listeners to tune in for long enough to discover the real story themselves.
If not unsolved murder, what is Shit Town about? Like all of the very best art, it’s about a person and a place. John B. McLemore, an eccentric clock tinkerer from a small rural town in Alabama, a semi-closeted gay man who cared for his ailing mother, who participated in a community he also wanted to escape, who was exceptionally intelligent but couldn’t get through school.
That’s it. You can throw in the bits about a rumored murder or the bits about a treasure hunt for literal bars of gold, but Reed and the listener both know that the center of the story isn’t a missing fortune. It’s just the man and the place he lives and the people who know both. We start the next episode with fumbling fingers to hear McLemore’s soft drawling voice, not just to learn more about his fortune (or lack thereof).
One of the issues that Serial and Missing Richard Simmons both struggled with were they way in which they were made: written and recorded week by week, as each episode was released (just as Dickens wrote his serialized novels). The strength of the method is that the story can change with the audience's reaction (which it does) and with the addition of new information. The weakness is that the creators start a story that they don’t know the ending to.
With Shit Town, Reed and his team deliver all seven episodes at once, a cohesive, polished, beautiful story — an audio novel — with a heart and soul, with symbolism and themes and atmosphere. Reed worked on this story for many years, and it shows. He has thought about every aspect of the story, from its moral implications to its messages to its final meaning. He has certainly thought about what McLemore would think about it and every resident of Shit Town. And, again, it clearly, clearly shows.
One of the central symbols of Shit Town is the clock: an instrument that must be built and maintained perfectly in order to keep time accurately. The other central symbol of the story is the hedge maze — particularly one that McLemore built that has 64 different solutions (and one null set) depending on the position of its gates. Reed has delivered to us a piece of art that keeps both images in mind during its own creation: the scientific precision of making and caring for a clock and the messy, wild reality of winding your way through a maze.
What does S-Town have that long-form podcasts before it have lacked? It’s two things: the mechanical integrity of a timepiece and the knowledge that solving the mystery isn’t as important as finding the heart of the story.
A couple of minutes after I finished the podcast, I was still sitting in my dark living room when my phone blinked awake.
My friend was texting: "So did you finish it?"
"I juuust finished," I replied, and could feel myself sliding back into the world of S-Town. It’s another mark of a really great story, when all you want to do is talk about it. But we didn’t want to talk about the gold or the non-murder or the suicide.
"OK, finally we can talk about it," my friend said. "Let’s talk about John."