‘S-Town’ is an elegant podcast (that’s not a murder mystery)

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While preparing yourself to listen to S-Town, the new podcast presented by Serial and This American Life, you need to know two things: is this isn’t trying to replicate the murder mystery phenomenon its predecessor created, but that it’s just as enthralling.

It may have started off from an email from a man named John about a murder and police corruption didn’t turn out to be another Adnan Syed case. One of the biggest grievances fans have is that the promotion leading up to the podcast’s release billed it as a murder mystery. However, it’s actually not even about murder at all, really.

Instead, S-Town, a shortened version of Shittown, was about a man’s life and the town he lived in. The email to creator and This American Life producer Brian Reed was from John B. McElmore. He’s from the small, rural town of Woodstock, Alabama. He’s never left, but he despises it greatly.

Over the course of seven chapters, which don’t have titles but quotes McElmore has said, we discover there’s more to John B. (as townsfolk commonly call him) than meets the eye. He’s a troubled figure worthy of an entire serialized podcast.

We follow Reed as he befriends McElmore and explores a kaleidoscope of topics. In fact, Reed flat out lets us know by the second episode that we’ve been misled by some means. He tells us the journey is McElmore himself. There’s no lying here. We follow Reed on a literary non-fiction journey like Capote during In Cold Blood. There’s nothing to figure out. It’s just a world to get immersed in.

Serial was meant to draw us in like an addiction to a Netflix series. S-Town was meant to digest like a book. The podcast is a sophisticated look into crime, race relations, the South, and the future of civilization.

It gives me hope that we will start to get these serialized non-fiction podcasts under the direction of Serial‘s Sarah Keonig. She can still investigate her own stories, but other journalists and producers can find their own stories. I have my fingers crossed that there is another Brian Reed out there finding a story out there of another John B. McElmore.

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