Saturday, April 1, 2017

Podcast Review: S-Town (2017)

S-Town (2017) - Executive Produced by Brian Reed, Julie Snyder; Hosted by Brian Reed.

By Kenny Howell

For years, This American Life has been at its best when it has taken us to places we don't know anything about.

It could be just an intimate story of two people switched at birth, or the entire town of College Station, Pennsylvania. It has a knack of taking subjects and fully exploring them while painting a broader portrait around that subject.

S-Town, the new podcast from Serial and This American Life does exactly that. It not only introduces us to one of the most interesting people I have ever heard in John B. McLemore, but also gives a complex overview of small town Alabama, where poverty, racism and many other ills of society are mixed in with some of the nicest people you have ever met.

Those nice people don't crop up too much in S-Town, but in my time living in Tennessee and Oklahoma, I have encountered towns like this where you either meet the most pleasant people in the world, or the scuzziest burnouts. There isn't much in between, but the few that are are stuck in a world they don't totally understand, like McLemore. McLemore contacted frequent This American Life contributor Brian Reed and said there was a murder in his little backwoods town of Woodstock, Alabama, and no one was doing anything about it. Reed followed the story, but that is not what it ended up being. The story itself was McLemore, an eccentric (to say the least) genius of a man who built an elaborate maze in his backyard as a math exercise, and was well-known for being maybe the best restorer of old clocks around.

Everyone in the area loves John B., despite the fact he likes to tell people how stupid they are, how people with tattoos are garbage, and that they are all too dumb to realize what is happening in the real world, like the effects of climate change. And he is well-versed in the subjects and science (for the most part at least), though his conclusions all are apocalyptic. Reed and John B. set out to find the story behind the murder he talks about, but something happens in the second episode that changes everything, and sends S-Town into a far more interesting, and wonderful, albeit troubling, direction.

If S-Town was fiction, people would say that you would be laying it on a little thick. This is wonderful Southern Gothic, with the glorious John B. leading the way. You see the world through his eyes, and then get a lot more in depth about what is going on behind them. It is a stunning work, and should be all anyone is talking about in the coming weeks.

All seven episodes of S-Town are now available for download wherever you get your podcasts.

Rating: ****

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