S-Town Transcends the True Crime of Serial

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Producer Brian Reed, in Woodstock, Alabama. Photo: stownpodcast/Instagram

The podcast S-Town, which was released in its seven-episode entirety this morning, isn’t a true-crime audio documentary. At least, not in the way many fans expected when details of the latest project by Serial’s creators were first circulated. It was easy to make that assumption given the legacy of Serial, whose phenomenal first season remains the apotheosis of the prestige true-crime genre, as well as the various genre elements hinted at in S-Town’s original press release. (Murder! Mystery! Secrets!)

There’s death in the podcast, sure. And there are crimes, more than a few. And most of the stories told are true. But having genre elements isn’t the same thing as fitting into a genre, and in that vein, S-Town is less a true-crime whodunit than a kaleidoscopic nonfiction novel in the shape of a true crime–tinged podcast, one whose narrative preoccupations are more tied to the spirit and myriad complexities of a place (in this case, the tiny rural town of Woodstock, Alabama) than the combustible tension of a mystery to be solved — though, there is a murder mystery involved, too.

Discussing S-Town without giving away what it’s really about — a revelation elegantly dispensed through a sublime left turn in the closing moments of the second episode — is a tricky proposition, and in hindsight, it’s more understandable why the Serial team kept public details at a minimum and inadvertently allowed true-crime speculation to germinate. The basics are that Brian Reed, a senior producer at This American Life, is compelled to investigate the story of a murder in Woodstock after being contacted by John, an eccentric Woodstock native who harbors an intriguing antagonistic relationship with the town. As the story goes, the son of a wealthy family is said to have committed a murder, and is purportedly going around town bragging about the deed. It’s a classic setup, but not long after Reed starts chasing down the lead, someone else ends up dead, and the story folds inward into something completely different.

That description makes the show sound more conventional and suspenseful than it really is. What we end up with is something far less conventional, far more soulful, and, based on the four review episodes released ahead of this morning’s launch, far more rewarding. S-Town turns out to be a meditative and ornate family drama, one that eschews the propulsive momentum of a potboiler plot engine in favor of the softer, darker currency of gothic Americana. The podcast unfurls its story amid a complicated backdrop of extreme poverty, sprawling histories, and the psychosocial fallout of carrying out a life in a place lost in time.

Some listeners might be tempted to draw connections between the pictures drawn by S-Town and the public neuroses about the socioeconomics that led to Trump’s America, as we seem wont to do with just about everything else these days. And there would be some validity to that. There are elements of suffering and resentment in rural American towns long forgotten by the march of progress. The show contains gestures toward the tension between the pains of the liberal intelligentsia and the pains of farmland country. But as much as the many layers of S-Town’s milieu lend themselves to sweeping societal think pieces, the show itself keeps its eye intently focused on the personal and the idiosyncratic: At the end of the day, S-Town features a vivid portrait of a man, his complex relationship with his home, and the legacy of that dynamic. Woodstock might be a shit town (hence the title), but it’s someone’s shit town, and the podcast functions best as an exploration of that nexus.

The show isn’t without its problems. It possesses a meandering quality that’ll be appealing to some, but not so much to others. It’s true to sprawling social webs to a fault. And there are instances when the writing stretches a little too far for an inspired metaphorical connection; a motif of clocks recurs throughout the podcast, which would’ve been a more elegant device were the association not so literal. (John, who emerges as the central character of the piece, is among other things a horologist, an expert in clockworks.) But despite these stylistic shortcomings, much credit should be given to the overall strength of Reed’s narration, which hums with sensitivity, yet crackles with a veteran journalist’s wry skepticism and wit.

Reed is a fascinating steward, both for how he tells this story and the way he relates to the world built out in his reporting. As the events of S-Town unfold, the core relationship between Reed and John steadily grows to be the most animating element of the story, a seemingly bottomless well of narrative power. Its prominence will undoubtedly recall the complexity of the Sarah Koenig–Adnan Syed relationship at the heart of Serial’s first season (with some key differences), but the dynamic seems more naturally integrated into the perspective and texture of the show this go-around. In returning to that compositional gambit, S-Town emerges as the latest iteration of what is shaping up to be the Serial team’s broad principal legacy: how it carries to podcasting the torch of New Journalism, that blend of reportage and literary technique that remains honest to how the personal experience of the journalist is intermingled in the production of a story.

But S-Town’s specific legacy will be its existence as an unnaturally sophisticated creation for the medium, an inventive and emotionally rich step forward that reconfigures the value of its immediate peer group. Indeed, it’s a little hard to spend several hours with the first few episodes and then immediately dive back into the iTunes podcast charts, so littered with popular yet shallower potential equivalents. It renders hollow shows like Case File and Serial Killers, or rote genre exercises like Stranglers and the CBC’s Someone Knows Something. It further reframes the high jinks of Missing Richard Simmons into something less thoughtful and more accidentally malevolent.

It’s additionally curious to hold S-Town up against what could superficially be considered its closest cousin: Crimetown, Gimlet Media’s foray into true crime in collaboration with The Jinx’s Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier. That show, too, exhibits a strong dedication to its setting: the colorful city of Providence, Rhode Island, where organized crime is deeply entrenched in its history, and where that history is the focus of the show’s yarn. But while Crimetown feels almost gleefully animated by its grimy subject matter, S-Town’s tale is more driven by a profound sense of sorrow. And where Crimetown seems boyish in its fascination with the dark underbelly of the world, S-Town seems to shoulder Woodstock’s pains as responsibility.

This isn’t to slight Crimetown; that podcast is a pulpy delight. But I bring up the comparison mostly to assert just how dramatically mature (and rare) the sheer sense of empathy exhibited by S-Town is within podcast-land, and perhaps just about everywhere else. It remains to be seen whether those qualities will find S-Town embraced by the constituency that turned its progenitor into an international phenomenon, but there’s no questioning that it deserves such a response. It’s one of the most sincerely human things I’ve ever listened to, a pleasure multiplied by its grand scope of ambition.

Review: S-Town Transcends the True Crime of Serial