The renaissance of radio is upon us. Whether we’re tuning into the calming croon of Ira Glass’ endearing tenor as he guides us through this week’s theme of “This American Life,” losing ourselves to the mystery of “Limetown,” or parsing through and discovering new meanings to our favorite seemingly mindless pop songs in “Switched on Pop,” the likes of NPR, Gimlet, American Public Radio, Panoply, Slate, and even Buzzfeed have a monopoly on our ears. There are hundreds of thousands of stories that are waiting and highly portable on an amorphous Internet cloud, and among them, S-Town, a new and addictive seven-episode series from the producers of “This American Life” and “Serial,” shines like a gilded clock face in a workshop of odds and ends.
Classified as a long-form narrative podcast, S-Town transports listeners to Bibb County, Alabama, and the tiny town of Woodstock. It begins when producer and host Brian Reed decides, after receiving a series of urgent requests from series anti-hero and main character John B. McLemore, to investigate an unsolved murder in our protagonist’s hometown, a place he fondly calls “Shittown.” Though the prospect of a “Serial”-esque true crime audio drama draws listeners in, it isn’t what hooks them for the binge. What begins as a murder investigation quickly evolves into a fascinating exploration of a previously unexamined extraordinary life in an ordinary place that’s earned the series 1.8 million subscribers in its first week, according to The New York Times.
McLemore is eccentric and, at times, so thoroughly pessimistic that the only thing that saves him from alienating himself entirely is his commitment to the personal relationships he holds dear. He is also utterly brilliant and deeply concerned, to the point of obsessiveness, about climate change and the general degradation of our global community. There is speculation that he may be hoarding an unspecified amount of gold somewhere on his 124-acre property, on which he has crafted a massive hedge maze. He’s also an internationally known horologist, or clock scholar, who is skilled with antique clock repair. He hates rural life in Alabama, but makes paper-thin excuses when asked why he, a worldly and self-educated man like himself, has never chosen to leave. When it is quickly revealed that the murder in question never actually happened, the story delves into the complexities of McLemore’s character.
Evoking a sometimes eerie Southern Gothic feel and told through a chorus of lilting, accented voices who knew McLemore at various points during his life, S-Town is particularly intriguing because of its literary nature. It weaves in themes of homosexuality and mental health effortlessly with the underlying theme of time, metaphorically represented in the elegant and complicated antique clocks McLemore spent his time repairing. It does not ask listeners to pass judgment, but to listen to the stories of McLemore, his friends, and his family in order to occupy, if only for a chapter or two, a new worldview and find that perhaps it is not so different from our own despite political affiliations or geographic location. It is humanizing across socio-political borders and state lines.