I'm a podcast junkie. I listen to hundreds every week. My favorites are My Favorite Murder, Wine & Crime, Casefile, In Sight, and basically any podcast relating to true crime. I listened to Serial, way back when, but was generally unimpressed. I personally don't find Adnan's case compelling: I think his trial was a joke, but I wasn't exactly convinced of his innocence. (This is an Unpopular Opinion, generally.)
When S-Town dropped this week, I hadn't been anticipating it like most people. However, once my podcast friends started to buzz about it in the multitude of podcast groups I'm in, I downloaded the first episode and listened. I was intrigued, expecting some kind of Serial-esque true crime podcast.
However, at the end of the second episode (which I hurriedly downloaded on my feeble, data-strapped internet because I needed it), I actually yelled out loud.
Note: my review will contain spoilers. If you haven't listened to S-Town yet, don't keep reading.
S-Town isn't a true crime podcast. It's not even really a podcast about investigative journalism. S-Town is, ultimately, the profile of a single person: John B., the man who emails Brian Reed about his terrible town (Shittown) in Alabama and a potential murder that happened there. Even before the kicker at the end of episode 2, I knew this podcast was about John B.: I knew it wasn't about any murder. The murder story was so lackluster, so boring. In comparison, John B. was magnetic and interesting.
This is, verbatim, what I said to my husband after we finished the last episode: Can you imagine being John B. in that small town? Viciously intelligent with serious critical thinking skills. Not just smart, but able to think over issues, to dissect them, to participate in discourse. The number of people who don't understand discourse, who think that any discussion about right and wrong is a judgement, is astounding. John B. was a queer conspiracy theorist, liberal, concerned about civil rights and the environment. He was one of the best clock restorers probably in the world. He most likely gave himself freaking mercury poisoning thanks to the method he used to restore those clocks. More than that, he wasn't secretive about any of these things. People knew those things about John B. in his small town. In that way, I admired him. I felt bad for him. I wondered what his life would have been like if he had left the town he referred to, almost lovingly, as "Shittown."
It is difficult for me to hear a podcast about someone with such insane potential, and such magnificent intelligence. Especially when that podcast, ultimately, is about the hole left by their suicide.
That's the kicker, isn't it? Ultimately, John B. commits suicide, right in the middle of the project. Brian Reed is flabbergasted, as you can tell in the audio recording where he finds out. He doesn't know what to say. He put time, and energy, in this project with someone who is now gone. It's a personal loss as well as professional. At that moment, I thought, "so what is this podcast about?"
Brian Reed, because he's a professional and a very good researcher, keeps going. Because what else is he supposed to do? He keeps pulling at the strings that John left. First, he follows John's friend, Tyler, in the aftermath: Tyler wants what he is owed, but is blocked by John's next-of-kin, Rita, who lives in Florida. Then, he interviews Rita and the podcast seems to shift. It's not about Tyler being screwed over by these next-of-kin anymore; John's family is just trying to take care of John's elderly mother and, thanks to John deciding to not keep his money in banks, there is no money for her care. As much as I want to sympathize with Tyler, who got dealt a rough hand in life, I do have to say: stealing stuff that John's family could sell to care for his elderly mother is pretty low. However, Rita is a strange character herself and her motivations are murky, at best.
It's during all this that I start to wonder: what's the point of a podcast that airs this kind of familial drama? It sucks, of course. But it's also very familiar. Things like this happen all the time. Someone dies without a will; their next-of-kin steps in to try to get things done; and friends start popping out of the woodwork saying, "Well, so-and-so said this..." This felt weird to publicize. I sincerely wondered why all these people were giving recorded interviews about all this information.
The end of the podcast is the most problematic for me. A lot of my thoughts are covered pretty succinctly by this piece on Vox. I remember, when listening to Episode 6, as Brian said, "I'm sharing this even though John had me stop recording because..." I grimaced. I realized, at that moment, that the second the podcast continued after John's suicide, that there was no consent on John's part to continue. I felt weird about it. I felt like I'd participated in a serious violation of someone's privacy. The discussions about his gold, about his house, with his lawyer about his will, about his sexuality, his mental health, his health in general... it's almost too much. It just goes too far.
It'd be one thing to profile the town, Woodstock. To branch off after John's suicide and say, "Ok, let's learn about this place he hated." And relate that back to his original email. But no, Brian Reed decided to profile a person who couldn't really consent to it. And in the process, Reed interviewed old lovers, old friends. Things that he couldn't take back to John and ask, "is this true? Is this ok?"
John may have been an atheist and he may believe he is worm food now and he might not care, but it's still gross. It's like Facebook stalking an ex-boyfriend or someone you don't know: it's voyeuristic and weird. It's normal human behavior to want to listen, to want to know. But that doesn't make it worth a podcast.
All that being said, at the end of S-Town, I was floored. It's a beautifully made podcast about a Southern gothic character (said every review of it ever). It's the portrait of a man who was tortured and intelligent and charismatic. But I'm not sure I feel comfortable having listened to it. I'm not sure this is the direction podcasts should go: sorting through the dirty laundry of others, exposing the things that we may not want exposed.