Skip to main content

Is ‘S-Town’ a Guilty Pleasure?

The most successful podcast ever on iTunes has its share of critics. Pacific Standard staffers weigh in on the ethics of the show.
S-Town host Brian Reed reports with a horologist.

S-Town host Brian Reed reports with a horologist.

Within days of its release, S-Town, the true crime/human interestprofile hybrid from the creators of Serial, has already breathed new life into the podcast form.

According to Variety, S-Town received over 10 million downloads in its first four days alone — a figure that the breakout season of Serial was only able to reach after seven weeks. (In fairness, S-Town was released in its entirety when it debuted on March 31st; Serial ran in a traditional weekly format.) Critics havepraised — and in some cases blamed — the show for leaving no stone unturned in its quest to find a glimmer of optimism in a story that begins as a bleak, small-town Southern murder mystery. For her part, the New York Times’ Amanda Hess praised the show for its meticulous research, even knighting it as better than Serial.

S-Town follows host Brian Reed (also a senior producer on This American Life) as he follows a lead from a TAL caller, antique clock restorer John B. McLemore, who believesa murder may have just gone unpunished in his tiny rural town of Woodstock, Alabama. Though the crime that draws Reed into the story is allegedly committed by a few foul-mouthed teenagers, the center of the story is McLemore, a local antique clock restorer (listen to this podcast to learn about the fascinating field of horology) who describes himself as the town’s “very own Boo Radley” and harbors a great deal of loathing for his hometown, which he’s taken to calling “Shittown.”

Is McLemore onto something? Without giving too much away: The murder winds up being not quite a murder, but then suddenly a life is indeed taken — and Reed is drawn right back in. From there, the podcast spirals down a maze of buried treasure, family feuds, tattoo-parlor gossip, and one literal maze.

Here at Pacific Standard, several members of the staff binged the show as soon as it was released. On Tuesday, four of us have gathered to discuss some of its themes, and to address a few lingering questions. Warning: Spoilers lie ahead.


Morgan Baskin: I have a question to lead us off: Should this thing have been made at all?

Katie Kilkenny: I see what you did there, Morgan.

Michael Fitzgerald: Sure. From the moment Reed learns about John’s death until the treasure hunt narrative gets going, I had my doubts, but it turned into a flattering portrait of a genius who drew the narrator into his life, illustrating some things about the culture that shaped him before he died.

Max Ufberg: I’m not sure I agree that it’s better than the first season of Serial, as some have suggested. But I do think it offers a valuable insight into a town — and a man — that’s emblematic of so many of the problems plaguing America today.

Kilkenny: What we’re seeing here is something we’re not quite used to seeing from a super-popular, zeitgeisty podcast — a character study of a very open person — and that makes some people, like that Vox writer, uncomfortable. But for me, someone who loves detailed profiles of private citizens and is probably a terrible person, it was a delight.

Fitzgerald: S-Town is testing some ethical boundaries. Telling stories about communities that are exotic to the journalist in a way that doesn’t exploit is hard, and telling stories involving suicide is the hardest. I’d be interested to hear what people who grew up queer in the South, or families affected by suicide, or the residents of Woodstock itself think about the series. But it feels like a step forward for the relatively young narrative podcast format.

Kilkenny: Do we feel that there were points at which Brian did exploit John?

Baskin: This might be an over-generalization, but it seems like the main line of defense for what the show divulges about John is that, because this is a character study, there’s more leeway to reveal incriminating or personal information. And the implication there is that profiles are low-stakes, which I think is dangerous and particularly untrue in the case of peoplewho (allegedly) have mental illness. The “revelations” about John’s sexual fetishes, the clues that hinted at who his partners were, the divulgence of off-the-record conversations — that all made me really, really uncomfortable. And it wasn’t information that, in my opinion, was valuable to constructing a narrative about John’s life.

Ufberg: I’m mostly with you there. I think the sixth and seventh episodes could have been rolled into one. And I agree with you regarding those off-the-record conversations — unless it’s a matter of national security, I think you need to respect a source’s request to be taken off the record. But Brian also seems to think John’s loneliness played a role in his depression.

Baskin: I would agree that it’s important to discuss that — but Brian also spends a lot of time speculating about his mental and physical health. If you’re going to dissect someone’s health, there should be more fact. Give me some specifics from the autopsy.

Ufberg: Well, I thought the Mad Hatter diagnosis helped there. Actually, what made me more uncomfortable was the clues he gave as to John’s former lover. It’s a small town; people will figure out who Brian’s talking about.

Kilkenny: I agree with all this. And, as a writer, I’m kind of uncomfortable with the point at which these personal aspects were highlighted. The fact that the episodes primarily about John’s sexuality (VI) and mental health (VII) come after the murder and treasure-hunt narratives reach a dead end isn’t a particularly good look.

Baskin: Exactly; it seems sort of grasping to me. Like, what else can I mine out of this guy and his life? What else is intriguing about him? The revelation that K3 Lumber bought John’s property after he died was so moving and upsetting to me. I wanted to hear more about that.

Fitzgerald: K3’s owner probably came out looking the worst. I wonder how he feels about the podcast today.

Ufberg: Having known many Kendall Burts in my life, I’ll say: I’m sure they don’t care.

Fitzgerald: I could see the series making their lives more complicated — customers questioning their character, activists targeting them for being (maybe) KKK sympathizers. The gold? The maze? Some listeners might be motivated to pester them into getting them out of K3’s clutches.

Kilkenny: Somewhere, somebody is making a Kickstarter to Save the Maze right now.

Fitzgerald: I’d be surprised if that doesn’t exist already.

Baskin: Was anyone else bothered by the fact that there were basically two hours’ worth of the show where listeners were lead to believe Kabram was an actual murderer? It felt gratuitously long.

Ufberg: Only a little, to be honest with you. I think the narrative style — this long, unfolding story — allowed Brian leeway with some otherwise thorny storytelling techniques.

Fitzgerald: If they released this podcast piecemeal, like Serial, that might have been a bigger problem.

Kilkenny: I’m wondering, also, does John’s personal investment in the story ease some of the ethical gray area here? It certainly made me feel better to hear him pretty weepy on the phone at certain points — he was an interesting character on his own.

Baskin: Yes, but I’m wondering how this discussion would be different if the portrait wasn’t flattering. Does Reed’s sympathy for John absolve him of how he created that portrait? I don’t necessarily think so.

Fitzgerald: It’s not just sympathy — John invited Brian into his life and even lets him record intimate conversations. For years! Who knows his motivation, but that’s the closest you can get to an open invitation.

Ufberg: How do we feel about a New York journalist coming to shine a light on (some might say exploit?) a small Southern town?

Fitzgerald: Someone’s got to do it.

Baskin: I think Reed was pretty elegant in avoiding what could have been a lot of flak. He let John do most of the describing.

Kilkenny: Also, John is pretty much the one doing the liberal, coastal stereotyping of his own town here — Brian is the one challenging that portrait!

Fitzgerald: Right. The only person in this who came off as a stereotype was the guy who bought John’s property. Oh, Reed, too, maybe.

Kilkenny: Reed came off as a stereotype? Harsh, Fitz.

Fitzgerald: He stereotyped himself by only partially revealing himself, and mostly the urbane, progressive parts. Not in a bad way, necessarily.

Ufberg: Maybe that’s what I loved about S-Town so much, Reed’s determination to find the beauty in what’s being presented to him as, well, a shit town. It’s also one of the rare (at least nowadays) entertainment titles to not look down on the South. I’m looking at you, True Detective.

I don’t want to go all into Donald Trump here, but I think the past few months have served as a reminder thatwe need more stories that don’t try to caricature regions, and instead just present them as what they are: complex places.