Warning: This post contains spoilers for S-Town.
S-Town, the gorgeous new podcast from the creators of Serial and This American Life, sells itself as a murder mystery. John B. McLemore, a brilliant clock-restoring eccentric living in rural Alabama, contacts radio producer Brian Reed with a tantalizing tip: A youth from his small “shit town” has been murdered, he believes, and local officials and a prominent family may be working to cover it up. After a long correspondence, Reed finally heads down south to check things out; but his investigations into local crime eventually lead him to take on another case—that of McLemore himself.
By the end of the second episode we learn that McLemore has committed suicide—upsetting news for listeners who’ve just started to love this endearing loon—and the real story starts to unfold. Reed still works to uncover wrongdoing and shadiness in Bibb County, but what S-Town really offers listeners is a melancholy portrait of a queer man for whom that identity was complicated—a source both of pleasure and confusion, connection and loneliness. There’s just one problem: While Reed’s attempt at understanding and representing McElmore’s experience is admirable, choices in the framing, writing, and editing of the series reveal a glaring—and for the show, hobbling—lack of queer knowledge.
Though it’s not explored in depth until Episode 6, we get flashes of McLemore’s sexuality from the beginning of the series. At first, it only comes up in passing such as in a blunt line about what people might think of his and Reed’s spending time together—“They already think I’m a queer!” Then there’s McLemore’s friendship with the young, straight tough-guy Tyler Goodson, which at least for those listeners (and radio producers) savvy enough to recognize it, smacks of the classic queen-doting-on-rough-trade dynamic in gay culture. By the end of Episode 3, we find out more explicitly that McLemore “might be a fan of David Sedaris,” as he wryly puts it, and that he considered it dangerous to be openly gay (or “semi-homosexual,” or queer—his self-labeling shifts) in his community.
Reed does good work as a reporter, but once he realizes McLemore’s sexuality and love life are important to his story, he turns to straight concepts, especially the obvious desirability of monogamous coupledom, to make sense of his subject’s queer life. Sure, McLemore might have at some point wanted a “real” partner—a question explored at length in Episode 6—but without one he still built relationships (some sexual, some epistolary, some of employment) that, for all we can tell, he found meaningful. Reed expresses pity when he learns about McLemore’s casual physical relationships and the lack of emotional depth he assumes they afforded, but he also clearly doesn’t understand cruising. Gay men have a long history of being able to find emotional and physical fulfillment from different sources, and that distinction doesn’t make any of the methods pitiful.
In Episode 6 we also meet Olan Long, McLemore’s only openly gay friend; they had initially connected on a phone dating service. As the only queer voice we hear in the series, Long brings the most nuance to McLemore’s portrait, revealing touching details about the joys and pain of McLemore’s life—at least as he saw it. But Reed’s questions about Long and McLemore’s relationship—as well as larger queries, such as if any of McLemore’s other partners had taught him “how to be gay”—aren’t as revealing as they might have been, because the (newly married) reporter just can’t drop his predetermined thesis of McLemore’s need for a traditional romance.
The most grating manifestation of this heavy-handedness was Reed’s reliance on a country song—Canaan Smith’s “Love You Like That”—to convey what he thinks McLemore needed from love: “Slow as the Mississippi / strong as a fifth of whiskey / steady as a Tom Petty track / I wanna love, wanna love you like that.” But this trite simplification of what love can be doesn’t sound like McLemore at all, and there’s no real evidence that he was interested in anything like it. According to Long, during one of their lengthy conversations McLemore asked if he considered himself to still be looking for a partner. Long didn’t. Reed presents this as a sad “missed opportunity” (and Long somewhat agrees), but it’s just as likely that their phone calls and visits provided what McLemore was looking for from Long, just as his yardwork relationships with trade-y young guys provided something else. Not everyone wants or needs a life partner.
In the final moments of the episode, we’re given one of the most honest moments with Long when he recounts sitting with McLemore in his truck one afternoon. He recalls wanting to reach over and “do some stuff,” to have some casual fun, because while Long usually wasn’t physically attracted to disheveled McLemore, today he had on a clean shirt. But instead of lingering on the humanity and charming specificity of that moment, Reed shoves it into his country song frame. A hookup in a truck with a friend would have been glowing and beautiful and “real,” but similar scenarios with strangers were somehow tawdry.
In the midst of some wonderful tape about Long’s memories of McLemore, we also spend a long chunk on the significance of Brokeback Mountain in these men’s lives. I certainly don’t want to discount how much that story meant to them (Long in particular), but the amount of time spent discussing it felt like Reed was just trying to grab hold of the tragic gay love story most familiar to straight audiences. Long and McLemore’s relationship was singular and complex; they deeply understood each other’s struggles but were distanced by their own issues, like Long’s discomfort with McLemore’s crude and glib vocabulary, and McLemore’s misperception of Long’s condescending attitude. By foregrounding Brokeback, one could feel the reporter settling for easy legibility at the expense of human nuance.
During the final episode, Goodson shares the uncomfortable story of McLemore’s tattoos. After Goodson covered McLemore’s torso in ink and pierced his nipples, McLemore regularly asked him to go back over the tattoos again and to re-pierce his nipples. McLemore called these interludes “church.” Reed tries to explain McLemore’s desire to continue experiencing this pain, but there’s a decidedly queer aspect to it he doesn’t seem to get. McLemore may have gotten a drug-like rush from the prick of the needles (Reed’s working theory), but it’s also one of the few moments of safe physical intimacy he could share with Goodson, who he clearly connected with emotionally. In playing tape (from Goodson’s phone) of one of the church sessions, Reed essentially broadcasts a very raw scene from McLemore’s private romantic life on-air. Listening to it felt grossly voyeuristic, and the fact that Reed didn’t recognize this is discomfiting to say the least.
Reed’s attempt to share the story of a difficult queer life is noble, but he just doesn’t know where his own blindspots are. He tries to translate McLemore into a framework he understands—shaping the story into a total tragedy with country songs and gay movies to lead the way—rather than allow his complex love life, like so much else about him, to speak for itself. Nonfiction is always messy, but when you’re unfamiliar with the forces that have shaped the life of your subject, it only gets messier.