At the end of the final episode of S-Town, presenter Brian Reed thanks what he calls 'the best podcast team in the world'. He is almost certainly right. From the makers of Serial, S-Town is a superb piece of storytelling that breaks and warms your heart in equal measure. Laugh out loud funny at times, the story takes dramatic and poignant twists, right until the final few seconds. Radio doesn't get better than this.
There are so many angles of debate from S-Town, that it is hard to focus on a review without getting distracted. I thought I'd touch on some of the issues raised but mainly look at why I think this is such a terrific listen.
Let's look at the technical aspect first. S-Town begins very differently to Serial. Firstly it is Reed presenting and not Sarah Koenig and while the script has all the same hallmarks of This American Life and Serial, the tone is slightly different. Also, the star of this series is undoubtedly John B McLemore and not Reed. In Serial, despite the access to Adnan Syed in prison, Koenig was the star; placing herself at the heart of the narrative. Reed plots and shapes the script in a similar way here, but you feel like you're walking the path with him, not being led down it.
On episode 1 of S-Town you hear mostly from John B. Although his southern drawl initially grates, you begin to warm to an extraordinary character. At best he is irritating, at worst frightening, but you soon form a remarkable attachment to John B. It makes these seven episodes some of the most emotionally charged radio I have ever experienced. At times the storytelling is like the best of literature, transporting you to another place. In places, it feels like a different time too, and time plays a crucial role as the story unfolds; from John B's work as a horologist to his insistence that his home is on a different time zone than the local town.
When Reed first visits John B , he is shown a maze in the grounds of their house, made and designed by the man himself. The imagery and production in these ten minutes is terrific. This is how radio can magically transport you in a way visual media cannot. Later in the same episode, there is another segment that is similarly brilliant, as John B gold plates a coin.
I visualised the first series of True Detective for most of the seven episodes and although a different state completely, I'm sure many other listeners will do the same. Like that show, the music is key and here the backing tracks are cleverly chosen, to match mood and environment. The final closing song from The Zombies is also a lovely choice given its connection to the story.
Away from the production, there are moral and political questions to explore. The moral concerns are genuine - but I do not want to discuss them here, as this gives away the story. As for the political, I lazily fell into the trap of discovering the characters and residents of 'Shittown' Alabama (or Woodstock as it's officially known) and said this is why Donald Trump is president.
I think that is lazy because I passed judgement all too easily. As the show develops, you discover another side to this town, having initially perceived it as a backward and outdated society, you hear from people that care and your view is changed. However, it is hard not to feel some concern when you learn of a company in the town that has a name with an unapologetic nod to the Ku Klux Klan.
As Koenig put it herself, Serial was like a 'Shakespearean mash up' that had the perfect ingredients for a classic murder story. S-Town doesn't have that same mystery and intrigue, but it makes you think and reflect more. Where Serial was the Smells Like Teen Spirit of podcasts, lifting the medium into the mainstream, S-Town might just be the Stairway To Heaven. It's set to become a classic of its genre.
Radio is all about connection and engaging and when done as well as this, it really is wonderful. You might listen and not connect to it the same way as I did, but you will certainly admire the craft of story telling and enjoy a glimpse into a small part of that 'real' world America.Suggest a correction