Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
Warning: The following commentary contains spoilers.
As I was pondering “S-Town,” the podcast from “This American Life” that tells the story of a small Alabama town and one of its more colorful residents, an old line by the writer Janet Malcolm leapt into my head: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
Somehow I was not surprised that someone else had the same thought. But whereas Gay Alcorn, writing in The Guardian, uses Malcolm’s observation to condemn the makers of “S-Town,” I think it’s more complicated than that. Malcolm was writing nearly three decades ago about a convicted murderer, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who had no choice but to trust Joe McGinniss, the journalist-collaborator who betrayed him. Brian Reed, the host of “S-Town,” is operating in a far more egalitarian media environment, an age in which those who don’t like the way journalists tell their story will tell it themselves.
John B. McLemore, the brilliant, mentally ill protagonist of “S-Town,” may not have been entirely aware of what he was in for the day that he convinced Reed to investigate a murder that turned out not to have taken place. But McLemore never seems not to be in control of his own story — even after his suicide, even after Reed reveals some fairly shocking facts that McLemore himself had not been fully forthcoming about. Despite that, it is McLemore’s voice and sensibility that dominate. This is his story, even if it took Reed’s skill and nerve to tell it.
“S-Town” is the cleaned-up name for “Shit Town,” as McLemore called his hometown of Woodstock, Ala. McLemore is many things — a nationally recognized restorer of antique clocks; a highly intelligent liberal immersed in the right-wing culture of the white Deep South; a gay man whose sexual orientation is more or less an open secret. But it is his foul-mouthed, highly inventive monologues on subjects ranging from climate change to the alleged corruption of the local police department that capture our interest and draw us deeper into his damaged psyche.
Reed had pretty much set McLemore and Woodstock aside after his investigation of a murder evaporated amid a tangle of misunderstood facts and conspiratorial whispers. He returns after learning that McLemore had committed suicide in a particularly grotesque manner: he drank cyanide while ranting on the phone with the town clerk. Though McLemore obsessed over the details of global warming and the world financial system, and had long talked about killing himself, he’d given very little thought to what would happen after he died. He left no will, and he made no provisions for his elderly mother, who was suffering from dementia. Those oversights lead to the tensions that unfold over the final five hours of the seven-hour podcast.
“S-Town” isn’t really a story — or, rather, it is many stories, mostly unresolved. Mysteries fizzle. Plot lines lead nowhere. By the time it ends, we understand just how psychologically unbalanced McLemore was, especially during the last few years of his life. But Reed thumbs his nose at Chekhov’s rule that if a gun appears early in a story, then it must be fired before it ends. Did McLemore really bury a stash of gold out in the woods? Were the cousins up to no good or not? Why, after McLemore killed himself, did the town clerk not call his closest friends until after the funeral was over? Whatever became of McLemore’s “stepson,” Tyler Goodson? We never really learn.
But these are mere details. What makes “S-Town” riveting is the way Reed develops the characters of Woodstock, and especially of McLemore, peeling back more and more until there’s nothing left to show. It’s that unpeeling process that makes Gay Alcorn so uncomfortable. She writes:
Understanding another person is worthwhile; whether to make a seven-part podcast series about a person, when they never agreed to it, is another question, and one that Reed unfortunately does not address. The interviews, hours and hours of tapes left whirring away, were granted by a person who was not a public figure, a person Reed knew was mentally ill, and agreed to for an entirely different purpose. That requires an explanation.
Unlike Alcorn, I think “S-Town” is a lot more than a compulsively listenable story. Reed tells us something insightful about what it means to be a fully human, fully flawed person. Despite everything we find out about McLemore, some of it pretty disturbing, he is never stripped of his dignity. We are brought deeply into the life of another person and, in so doing, we learn something important about ourselves.
That is all the explanation needed. I think John McLemore would agree.