A Rear Window Into S-Town

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Being a podcast aficionado like myself, I always find it interesting when podcasts break into the mainstream to be talked about by the normies. Usually ending with their disappointment that every podcast isn't like Serial. The latest one to break the barrier and become a water cooler conversation starting point is the fascinating and voyeuristic S-Town. Be warned this article contains spoilers.


In a similar vein to Serial and This American Life (both of whom are credited as producers), S-Town is an example of high level investigative journalism in podcasts. Hosted by Brian Reed, S-Town starts with a tip off about a murder in Woodstock, Alabama, which the informant nicknames Shit Town. The informant, a clock-maker by name of John B McLemore, dismayed with the corruption and degradation in his town - and the world at large - turns to Brian to help him investigate the misdeed. 

However in this seemingly straightforward murder investigation is the first bait-and-switch, when fairly early on after it turns out that no murder has been committed. What follows is vignettes of Brian getting to know John who is a fascinating, if rather jaded person, whom has a view on the world that is both beautiful and tragic. When the news of John's suicide comes around you've seen the writing on the walls. In June of 2015 John B McLemore killed himself by drinking cyanide.

From this a story of the aftermath of his death as well as a loving exploration of the life of this extremely interesting person materialises. Through the people he knew and the post mortem fight for his estate we discover the life of a man who while very intelligent, was slowly jaded by the world he sees and the destruction of this planet through global warming. 

The whole series struck a cord with me not only because of the fascinating life and odd circumstances of Johns death and aftermath, but also the familiarity of his depression. Depression seems to have played a very profound impact on Johns life as it has for me, and while not absolutely accurate the way it manifested for him I could parallel to my own experiences. The dismay with the world, the lack of hope and the trivialising of suicidal ideation. All these things struck a cord and was one of the reasons this series is so great; a honest, non-judgemental look at depression. 

An area of some discussion and ethical questioning is the voyeuristic nature of the show. The host Bryan, takes his investigation of Johns life into every nook and cranny of his past. With this comes a question of if overtly prying into someones life after they have died OK, especially if there is no one to object on their behalf. At one point he openly shares something John said off the record. While it is obvious that Bryan has a fondness and respect for John, There is still the question of whether it is ethically right to expose someones life after death. 

I have no answer for this, and it's something that I'm sure will be discussed in many think pieces and ethics papers to come. But this also shows something even more bizarre; how can we justify listening to a series that forces us to become voyeurs. It's different from reality TV where the subjects are willing participants, or true investigative journalism where the story of a crime or important topic to the public is being uncovered. John was just a man, and I like millions of others loved listening to his story whether or not he wanted it told. It's all very interesting with no easy answers, and something I'll think about for long after listening to the final episode.


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