It’s rare that I want my long morning commute to last even longer. But this morning, when the conductor announced train delays, I grinned. A couple more minutes on the platform meant a couple more minutes listening to S-Town, the latest true-crime podcast from the teams behind This American Life and Serial, released this morning.
The label “true crime” isn’t quite right for S-Town, though. I’d go with “Southern gothic.”
Sure, host Brian Reed ostensibly travels to Bibb County, Alabama, to investigate the alleged murder of a teenager, systematically covered up by members of the rural town. But with its cinematic sense of place, a charismatic character at the podcast’s center, and unabashed use of metaphor (see: hedge mazes with no exits), S-Town is unlike any other true-crime podcast I’ve encountered — Serial and beyond.
The podcast begins with a phone call. John B. McLemore — the owner of a deep Southern twang, skeptical personality, and curious mind — knows there’s something amiss in his Alabama town, which he calls “Shittown.”
A longtime listener of This American Life, John reached out to the show as a last resort. Like a modern-day Cassandra, only John is concerned with the police corruption, unexplained murders, and socioeconomic decay all around hm. With a tendency toward the dramatic, John likens his impoverished town in western Alabama to Fallujah, Darfur, and Beirut. He speaks with a wry, over-the-top cadence, like he’s spent a life running circles around people and is desperate for someone on his level.
When, at last, John thinks Reed is understanding, he exhales happily, “You’re beginning to figure it out now, aren’t you?” Now, John has an audience beyond his only confidant, the town lawyer who’s smart enough to live in Tuscaloosa.
Perhaps it’s John himself, not John’s story, that convinces Brian Reed to fly to Alabama and investigate the murder. After all, it’s John’s off-the-cuff storytelling that kept me poised on the edge of my seat.
“By sheer force of will, John was opening a portal between us,” Reed says of their hours-long conversations. And that portal leads to John’s world, a small town in Alabama that’s something straight out of Faulkner.
So, like any This American Life producer who sniffs a story, Reed goes to Alabama. He goes to John’s house, which is only navigable by coordinates, not street names. John’s house has the only hedge maze in Alabama, an old clock repair shop, and about a million bustling projects fueled by his pent-up mental energy. At once, John's the Matilda whose intelligence was never acknowledged by Miss Honey; he’s the old woman in the mansion on the hill, the conspiracy theorist who sees a reality everyone around him is blind to. And he’s entrancing.
But is he reliable? And are his stories, and accusations, true?
As Reed investigates the murder, he’s also peeling back layers of the caller at the heart of the story. One of S-Town’s big questions is, of course, who killed Dylan Nichols? But the other is, will John ever get out of his shit town, where he’s as entrenched as the trees and the tattoo parlors and the WalMarts?
All seven episodes of S-Town are now available to stream. So, in a few hours, the floodgates of spoilers will be open unto the internet. This is our official recommendation to listen now, before someone gets to the end.