ICYMI Review: S-Town

In case you missed this podcast from March of 2017, here’s a review of it to urge you not to forget to watch it.

We love conspiracy theories. The rise of YouTube conspiracy theory videos is upon us, and it’s created a thirst for mystery, which may be quenched by Brian Reed’s gripping and grim account of life in the rural American South. In 2012, the staff of podcast This American Life were alerted to an alleged cover up of a young boy’s murder in Woodstock, Alabama. It is not a surprise that such a premise was taken on to be produced as a podcast – a new genre of true crime documentary has emerged since Netflix’s Making A Murderer. We want a mystery where we have to work out the answer. S-Town could have quite easily taken this approach, but it didn’t. It’s not about the distrustful establishment or a gruesome murder mystery, but about the man who contacted This American Life’s staff: John B. McLemore.

 

McLemore initially appears unlikable, rude and hysterical. He raves about every potential disaster currently facing the humanity, depressing himself with hopeless statistics. Throughout the first episode, one question looms over the audience: is he a conspiracy theorist desperately seeking attention? As Reed investigates the alleged murder of Dylan Nicols, he quickly discovers that not only is there no cover up, but Nicols is alive and well. The podcast could have ended then and there on episode two with no apparent mystery, but even after this deception, McLemore keeps in touch with Reed. They email for three years. Reed’s connection to McLemore grows, as does the audience’s. The mystery returns when a very real tragedy faces Woodstock: McLemore’s suicide. Reed’s reaction is harrowing and raw, shown in the audio of the moment he is told of McLemore’s fate. It’s difficult not to catch the lump in his throat.

 

The following five episodes focus on the life of John B. McLemore and those who are left to deal with his loss. More and more people come forward with their stories about McLemore, creating more mysteries. He was once a kind, funny man with many friends. He repaired antique clocks, making him one of America’s best horologists. His life was one simply weighed down by the bounds of an inescapable, intolerant small town. More than a mystery, McLemore becomes a protagonist. Though he is a real man who once lives, he seems to go through dramatic character development, once we learn others’ views of him. Reed contacts a list of people McLemore wanted contacted as soon as he died, and some of them seem as though they’re talking about a different man altogether. The podcast is a journey through his life, uncovering what led to his untimely demise.

 

The people of Woodstock are unforgettable: the troublemaker saved by McLemore, the ailing mother, the apparent money-grabbing relatives. They seem like characters, each serving a different role in McLemore’s story, with a different perspective on who this man was. Reed’s conversations with these people allow us to understand them and their intentions. By the end, no one is black and white. No one seems completely bad or completely good. However, this understanding solves no mysteries. The most intriguing, if not cliché of which, is the rumour of John B. McLemore’s gold. He owned a great deal of land, and many people in the town believe it is buried somewhere in those acres. Although the mysteries keep appearing, McLemore’s sad fate has an unexpected kind of resolution in the final episode, which is worth the time spent on the series.

 

The lack of visuals could be off-putting for some, especially as found footage is a staple of the documentary genre. Yet the podcast incorporates hours of audio from the others involved in the story. We hear exactly how McLemore and Woodstock sound and feel. It is a candid window into the town. The conversations included involve the audience even more, as though we are searching through hours of audio for clues; we are the detectives. Emotions are presented: despair, anger, deafening silence. All 7 episodes are around an hour a piece, and are perfect for binge-listening while you do anything else – cooking, cleaning or as background noise for that writing. Although, you might want to save yourself a day to listen to it. Once you turn on the first episode, you won’t be able to stop.

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