I wasn’t far into S-Town, a gorgeous new seven-part podcast from the team behind Serial and This American Life, when I began to hear rumors that it “wasn’t real.” Maybe this tale of murder and intrigue in a sleepy Alabama county had been dreamed up by producers hoping to refresh the “podcast space”—to fool listeners into embracing a form of audio entertainment they didn’t know they wanted. It felt like a plausible theory. Narrator Brian Reed kicks off the series with a meditation on clock-making, the process by which impossibly temperamental, intricate machines are set in motion by persnickety artists. And the opening episodes are (winkingly, I wondered??) full of Faulkner, both because one character loans Reed A Rose for Emily to help him understand the town’s quiet menace and because the show itself meanders between Gothic unease and poetic melancholy.
If S-Town is a contraption, perhaps it’s one straight out of Carson McCullers: a wagon with honeysuckles trained all over it and a corpse nailed to the undercarriage. Or perhaps Reed and his colleagues want to transport us in ways that we don’t expect and that genre conventions don’t prescribe. The journey begins in familiar Serial territory, with a voluble and disenchanted eccentric named John B. emailing Reed out of the blue and begging him to investigate a local boy’s murder. John thinks the son of a prominent family offed the kid; he thinks the corrupt police department covered it up. To him, the whole sordid affair encapsulates something essential about the trash heap of depravity and backwardness in which he’s spent his entire life. Woodstock, Alabama, he insists, is “Shit Town.”
John certainly acts like a literary creation. (If, as seems to be the case, this podcast truly is nonfiction, then it’s hard to overstate how miraculous it is that Serial found him, a man of endless contradictions prone to drunkenly holding forth on the subtleties of Pythagorean geometry while pissing in his kitchen sink.) He is a professional horologist, a student of time. He lives with his 88-year-old mother and 13 stray dogs on ancestral land. He has cultivated a life-sized hedge maze with 64 possible solutions, converted the basement of his house into a series of gated dungeons, and adopted various tattooed ne’er-do-wells as surrogate sons. Depressive and obsessive, he speaks in florid, profane soliloquies about his fellow townsfolk, whom he dismisses as “Jeebus-loving,” “snaggletoothed” “rednecks,” “boozing and hollering and hiding in the woods.” He’s also unhealthily fixated on climate change and inclined to take the suffering of Darfur, Auschwitz, and Islamabad on his own shoulders.
John lives in a world of his own making: “Shit Town,” half Woodstock, Alabama, and half a projection of liberal dismay and paranoia. He also embodies right-wing fantasies about the judgmental elitism of the left. But mercifully, the show doesn’t seem interested in litigating culture wars or even commenting on politics. Certain characters (burly motorcyclists who use the N-word, carpetbagging cousins in Hawaiian shirts—not to mention the This American Life reporter moved at one point to pretend-puff on a joint so that the dudes at the tattoo parlor don’t think he’s a “puss”) flirt with caricature.* Yet they become more complex and human the more time we spend with them. This follows in part from Reed’s narration, which is at once skeptical, charming, and hyperempathetic in the Sarah Koenig mode. He likes these people, and so do we. (Reed actually does Koenig one better: Where her fraught relationship with Adnan became the true subject of Serial’s first season, S-Town’s host manages to recede into the background, rightfully spotlighting the beguiling setting and great interviewees. His personality is like a fan that he mostly keeps closed but occasionally flashes open with a witty or angry or soulful aside.) More importantly, the podcast has a kind of philosophical aversion to cliché. It wants to pursue the sort of literary truth that goes beyond presenting colorful folks doing wacky things.
So while S-Town mimes the twists and turns of a true-crime podcast, it doesn’t much care about murder. And while it incorporates many voices, it does not (à la Serial’s Bowe Bergdahl season) use those voices to tell a story of grand systems. Mostly, the show explores a few human relationships on the one hand and elemental questions about time and place on the other. These concerns guide it to a spot at once more intimate and more abstract than its predecessors.
Time flummoxes and torments John B. He resents Shit Town because he perceives it as mired in the bigotries of the past. At the same time, he also deplores its “proleptic decay and decrepitude”—how the county’s afflictions anticipate further blights to come. He researches melting ice caps, disappearing rhinos, overpopulation, and democracies in decline: all of the “shit” that accretes far away from Shit Town and yet is emblematized by it. John, eternally frozen in an earlier historical moment, can’t stop accelerating into a dystopian future. Backward and forward, all he sees is suffering.
I’m not sure that the podcast has resolved its general elegiac perspective on time into an argument. It doesn’t need to: It only has to dredge up that essential tragedy and make it knock around in your heart. At one point, John explains to Reed that sundials tend to feature engraved mottos. “They are usually sad,” Reed observes, before reeling off several examples in Latin and English: “I have lost today”; “Time flees like a shadow”; “It’s later than you think.” But for all the classical languages that find their way into this show about rural Alabamans possibly getting drunk and murdering each other (John also loves to regale friends with plants’ and animals’ scientific names), one adage is notably absent. It’s what Aeneas realizes, in the Aeneid, when he walks into a Carthaginian temple with Dido and sees the walls covered over with images of Troy’s fall. “Sunt lacrimae rerum,” he says. “They weep here for how the world goes.”
That scene in the Aeneid is about how one place’s tragedy, or one person’s, can resonate far away, in another place or person. It is also about conjuring the past as a set of frozen pictures, the better to both revere and mourn it. I don’t mean to suggest that S-Town is a downer—the show consistently proves engrossing, lively, and funny—but I do want to emphasize how seriously it takes its subject matter. For the first time, team Serial has discovered a mode that transcends pulpy entertainment and edges into literary beauty.
There are no murals on the walls of S-Town. Instead, there are tattoos spread over the bodies of the town’s young men, many of whom John despises, loves, and longs to rescue. John sees the ink as a sign of hopelessness and shame. But, in a twist, he also has a chest full of tattoos himself. In a further twist, a guy at the parlor speculates that John sacrificed his skin in order to give business to the struggling tattoo artist. And a further, devastating twist, which I won’t spoil here, involves tattoos layered one over the other, like the rings of an oak, images upon images mantling a single complicated man.
A traditional mystery performs a dance of seven veils, peeling off a new covering every few beats until the center is exposed. At the end, someone produces a body. The puzzle is solved.
S-Town may have the narrative instincts of a mystery, but its riddle is human nature, both in aggregate and individually. Under each layer lies another layer. Serial Season 1 experimented with the elusive nature of truth but ultimately decided that the identity of Hae Min’s killer was both knowable and unknown. In S-Town, surfaces are beautifully and intricately realized—wonderfully tattooed—and then pulled back to reveal more of the same. Together, stories, years, and images add up to a composite solution: a person, a relationship, or a town. If Serial’s first season pioneered a new genre of emotionally sensitive true crime podcasting, S-Town marks an exhilarating turn toward something more like aural literature—toward the kind of case that’s even more satisfying because it always stays open.
*Correction, March 31, 2017: This post originally misidentified Brian Reed as an NPR reporter. He works for This American Life.