Let's just say it. The new podcast "S-Town," whose seven-episode season is available for binge listening as of Tuesday, is not trying to be "Serial 2."
Yes, it's the first podcast from Serial Productions, the company formed after the runaway success of the "Serial" podcast, a spinoff of public radio show "This American Life." With "Serial" co-creators Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig and "This American Life" creator Ira Glass all on the "S-Town" team, "Serial" addicts may think they know what to expect.
That puts listeners in the same boat as host Brian Reed, a "This American Life" producer who had no road map when he started working on "S-Town" three years ago. A longtime "This American Life" listener named John B. McLemore had sent an email to the show wanting to talk about his despised hometown, Woodstock, Alabama, where he claimed a rich man's son had gotten away with murder.
It's the understatement of the week to say that isn't how things turned out.
Reed didn't know what to think when he began talking to McLemore, an eccentric and brilliant man who restores antique clocks. His new friend was prone to veer off-topic midsentence and suddenly deliver a rambling lecture on climate change, hand Reed a William Faulkner short story to read or offer up his opinion on the worst flavor of Tums (cherry).
Finding the thread of the story was as complex as traversing the hedge maze McLemore grew on his rural property -- a labyrinth with 64 possible solutions.
Welcome to 'Shittown'
It all takes place in the town McLemore dubs "Shittown," a moniker that led to the podcast title.
"So why don't I move?" he ponders to Reed at one point. "There's gotta be people in Fallujah or Beirut asking the same question. 'Why the hell don't you get out of here, Hassan?' Hassan probably had a sand maze."
Both seasons of "Serial," the Peabody Award-winning cultural phenomenon that's been downloaded more than 250 million times, had something more of a road map to follow.
The famous first season dug into Adnan Syed's conviction for the 1999 murder of his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee; the second into Bowe Bergdahl's 2009 capture by a Taliban-aligned network. Those stories had made headlines, even if Syed's case wasn't nationally well-known. There were court documents, newspaper articles, legal decisions to provide guideposts. "S-Town" has none of the above.
"What is this?" Reed said he asked himself as he and McLemore engaged in lengthy, heartfelt conversations. "Is it a story? I'm not bored, I'm interested, I'm curious."
By the end of the first episode, it's clear McLemore's original outline of events has been twisted and turned like a children's game of telephone, with the truth bouncing from ear to ear, losing facts and picking up false details along the way.
And a major emotional event at the end of the second episode -- no spoilers, but it's earthshaking enough that you'll want to immediately binge on the next episode -- throws the entire future of the podcast into doubt.
"The story certainly shifted dramatically under me," Reed said of that event. "But I still liked talking to John, and I've learned something by talking to John. I've learned something by getting to know this place, and these people ... maybe there's more to this story."
CNET got early access to the first four episodes, and it's fair to say that what began as a possible true-crime story turned into something deeper and more complex. The intricacies of small-town life blend with McLemore's idiosyncratic personality and nonstop patter. The listener is strapped in for the roller-coaster ride in the same way that Reed was, not sure which deep dive the next episode will take. Is it an old-fashioned treasure hunt? A court case? A family feud? A small-town southern gothic tale?
The podcast title may drop a hint. Woodstock, Alabama, population 1,428, becomes a character in the show. The title had to be cleaned up to "S-Town" for various reasons, but executive producer Snyder says it was always a fitting choice.
"John uses the term 'Shittown' in almost an architectural sense," she said. "I feel like he uses it like a specific designation -- like there are ways that you qualify, and he makes that very, very strong argument over and over again for why he feels like there is a qualification for this town. But I think also what becomes very clear as it goes on is that Shittown isn't really a place."
Reed's not sure how the residents of Shittown will react to the podcast, but he hopes he's done right by the unique man who started it all.
"I would never venture to guess how people will react because I just don't know, but I hope that they feel like it captures John," he said. "I mean, people there know John, they know that he is funny and inappropriate and brash but also incredibly smart and troubled. [I hope] that people feel that it does him justice."
Unlike "Serial," where each episode was doled out week by week, the entire run of "S-Town" episodes is available now for download. Both Reed and Snyder agreed this was the right choice. "Serial' was modeled more along the lines of a serialized TV show, Reed says, where "S-Town" takes its cue from novels.
"People listening to it can listen to it all at once, the way you'd tear through an awesome book," Reed said. "Or if you take a week to do it, [maybe] you're listening to it before you go to bed, or you're listening to it and you put it down for a second to go to work."
He hopes the story will "embed itself in your brain just a little bit while you're going around doing the rest of your normal day, the way a good book does."
Snyder agrees. "I feel this story [places listeners] in a very specific world, and I didn't really want people to leave that world for very long," she said. "So in a lot of ways, I feel like the ideal way to listen to this story is to clear seven hours and do it, but I realize that that's probably not gonna be realistic."
No going back?
And while "Serial" host Koenig occasionally dips back into completed "Serial" seasons, especially since her reporting helped Syed win a new trial, Reed isn't sure his podcast will return to Shittown.
"I like this story, I've enjoyed doing it, but I'm OK with it being done," he said.
Snyder points out that any story's ending has to be inherently arbitrary. "Just because you choose an ending, somebody's life [still] keeps going on," she said. "We told the story we wanted to tell."
At one point, McLemore gives Reed a tour of his hedge maze and they get turned around and temporarily trapped.
"Kinda funny to be lost in something you designed yourself," McLemore jokes to the radio host.
If there's a motto for "S-Town" and McLemore's own complex, messy and very human life, that just might be it.
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