When S-Town came out last year, I was coming to the end of a nine-month road trip, where I was working remotely writing about true crime for this blog. I was hanging around Venice Beach at the time, watching the skateboarders do tricks that seemed impossible, watching the enormous men at muscle beach strut around, watching a woman eat fire at the Freak Show at the end of the boardwalk. All the while, I was listening to S-Town. I was enthralled with this podcast; alone in a new place, the hot sun beating down on me, I would listen on my headphones while walking for miles and miles, through the canals of mock-Venice, looking at the flowers overflowing from their hanging baskets, the young couples standing on each arched bridge like an 80s romantic comedy. S-Town is anything but a romantic comedy, and then again, somehow, it is also that.
S-Town is a lot of things. It promised us true crime; it promised us murder. Part of my job is to stay as up-to-date as possible with true crime, and so I had already been waiting for this buzzed-about new project from the folks that produced Serial, the podcast that launched true crime out of the fringes and into the ears of popular culture. S-Town colored my life for the week I was listening; it certainly made me laugh and cry, made me think about how complicated every single life really is, the tragedy and the beauty of that, as I walked along looking at so many different kinds of people. It made me present in my own strange life as well, my complications.
S-Town premiered March 28th, 2017 and was downloaded a record-breaking ten million times in its first four days. By May, it had reached 40 million downloads, and now the film rights have been acquired by Participant Media in partnership with This American Life. Apparently, Tom McCarthy is in talks to direct, whose incredible film Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s uncovering of child sex abuses in the Catholic church, won the Oscar for best picture in 2015.
In case you haven’t listened to S-Town, I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but I do want talk about it. In 2012, This American Life received an email from a man named John B. McLemore, claiming that a murder had taken place in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama, which he repeatedly called Shit Town, hence the name of the podcast. After an entire year of emailing back and forth, producer Brian Reed took a trip down to Woodstock to meet John B. (as he was often called) in person and to investigate his allegations of murder. Very quickly, Brian discovered that there was no murder, despite the sensational story that had been told to him. What he did discover was an intelligent but depressive figure in John B., one who felt trapped in a conservative small town he just wouldn’t leave.
I think part of the allure of S-Town is in its structure, in the way that the original story, the story we expected to hear of a murder in a small town, fell away quickly, leaving the reporter in a phase of disappointment. It felt more true to life; we were along for this ride with Brian Reed, and as he moved forward he knew as little about where the story was heading as we did listening to his work. We follow a journey less clear-cut than a true crime podcast that tries to answer the singular question of “Who Dunnit?”
S-Town explores a life, the life of an antique horologist (a person who fixes old, rare clocks) and eccentric, problematic, nuanced man with a deep Southern accent and a skill for giving impassioned speeches. The podcast explores his complicated relationships to friends and family, his work and writings, his sexuality, and his mental health, which does toward the beginning of the podcast result in his suicide, the shock of which was included in the story itself. Though S-Town won the prestigious Peabody Award for radio, it received mixed reviews, many critics calling attention to the morality of exploring a private and tragic life for profit. Others felt it exploited the personality of white working-class rural life for entertainment. John B. may have died, but many of the other people (characters is the wrong word) whose lives Brian explored are still alive, and not entirely happy they agreed to be interviewed in the first place.
Regardless of the morality of S-Town, the film will be made, but just how remains to be seen. As I mentioned before, this story is not a murder mystery; it does not have a clear and easy story arc to follow. It jumps around from past to present, and seems to desperately try to keep up with the manic John B. as the entirety of his complicated life spreads out in front of us. What I expect, what I hope for, is that director Tom McCarthy, assuming he takes on the project, will tackle the story the way he tackled the story of Spotlight: through the lens of the reporter. I assume Brian Reed will be a main character, and we will follow him through the myriad of wild experiences and strange discoveries he made while getting to know John B. in such an intimate fashion. I think it’s the only way it can work as a film, as so much of Brian’s personal journey is contained in the podcast itself.
S-Town held value for me, even though there are fair moral questions about its right to exist in the first place. What I felt walking around Venice Beach was this transcendent sort of feeling, one that is now known by some as Sonder.
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
This is not a word in any real dictionary, but it has been shared online for some time. I think that explorations of a life are important—even when that life is problematic. We can't understand each other, and we can't become better people without truly examining everything inside us, the beautiful and the ugly. I don’t want to comment about the claims that this podcast helps highlight depression and suicide as issues; I don't feel qualified to say. But I think that what it really does is help one to feel the depth of a stranger’s secret life, his love and hatred, his pain and longing, his obsessions, relationships, thinking patterns, and flaws, and to continue to remember that just like yourself, every person is a universe unto themselves.
There is no information about when the film is set to begin production, but it's a tall order for whoever takes it on, just as it was for Brian Reed as he got to know John B. and tried figured out just how in the world to tell us about him.