This review is spoiler-free. I free you from the burden of reader discretion.
After shaking off their surprise that Erica isn’t reviewing a movie for her Tablet article this month, my fellow podcast enthusiasts will decidedly not be shocked by my subject today, the hit podcast S-Town, by the producers of Serial and This American Life.
The seven episodes of the podcast are labelled as “chapters,” suggesting a novel-like story organization. In these chapters, we learn of John B. McLemore, who lives in “Shittown, Alabama” (thus the name of the podcast). He suggests to This American Life reporter Brian Reed that in his small hometown of Woodstock, Ala., someone has committed a murder and gotten away with it. Once Reed visits Woodstock, we discover that the situation is far more complex than we could have imagined and our primary subject, John McLemore, is an eccentric man.
In the words of Sarah Larson, S-Town is “not a whodunit—it’s a What happened? or a Did something happen? or a What are we doing here? The more we learn about the possible murder, the more cryptic it gets.”
So what can we learn from a what-happened-or-did-something-happen-or-what-are-we-doing-here story featuring an eccentric, depressed man living in the middle of nowhere in Alabama and the “rednecks” in his community? Listening to this podcast underscored, for me, the importance of recognizing our interdependence and of living authentically.
McLemore, feeling like an outsider in his hometown, judges others and begins to define himself over and against his fellow citizens, often as more intelligent and enlightened. Coming from a small town full of closed minds, I empathize with McLemore’s coping strategy. Although depression is a complicated experience with several causes, I do not doubt McLemore’s sense of isolation exacerbated his condition. We need healthy community, both to feed into and to draw from.
Authenticity emerges as another, perhaps related, theme. Although McLemore’s unabashed refusal to be someone he is not contributed in part to his outsider status, the storytellers hint he has hidden at least one major thing about himself, whether for survival or comfort. Having to hide part of ourselves damages our mental wellbeing and prevents us from flourishing.
I highly recommend you listen to S-Town. Although I’m prone to Netflix binges, I tend to enjoy podcasts on a more leisurely basis. Once I started this series, though, I couldn’t stop listening.