Serial, the breakout podcast about a murder mystery involving high school sweethearts, fundamentally changed the burgeoning podcast industry. The show’s massive popularity—each episode of the first season was downloaded an average of 3.4 million times—showed that, despite the unfamiliar medium, there was a demand for engaging audio narratives.
The popularity of Serial allowed host Sarah Koenig to launch her own production company, and the first product of that endeavor arrived in late March with the release of S-Town. The download numbers for S-Town highlight just how much the industry has grown. The show earned 10 million downloads in just four days; it took Serial seven weeks to reach that mark. Serial’s shadow is all over S-Town, but make no mistake: aside from the branding, the two shows have very little in common. S-Town is compelling and worthwhile, but in an entirely different fashion.
It’s hard to say what S-Town is about without giving too much away. In previews, it was described as a murder mystery akin to Serial; let’s just say that this is not the case, and the genuinely deceptive marketing push intended to drive up downloads is pretty frustrating. The show takes a full two of its seven episodes to get where it’s really going. In hindsight, it’s easier to see why that decision was made, but the pacing is problematic, listener engagement-wise.
Once the show’s true intentions crystalize, though, it becomes apparent just how unique its ambitions are. Without giving anything away, the podcast centers on John McLemore, a lonely genius savant living in rural Alabama who implores This American Life reporter Brian Reed to investigate a rumored murder in his hometown. McLemore is brilliant and maddeningly enigmatic; the inscrutable state of his psyche is the driving force of the podcast.
The show’s thematic vision isn’t subtle; Reed devotes an annoying amount of time to needless, convoluted metaphors. However, the themes are profound all the same. S-Town makes a powerful case for empathy and the necessity of getting to know the entirety of another human being without judgment. In its best moments, the show eloquently demonstrates how the personal experiences people endure affect their worldview on a more macro level.
In a time where judgment without empathy seems more rampant than ever, the show’s mission feels particularly necessary. Too often, “understanding the other side” and similarly hollow platitudes are employed to stress the value of empathy. These phrases usually lack any real sincerity; after all, the phrase still assumes there’s an “other side” at all. S-Town makes the argument, convincingly, that no such division exists if we look deep enough.
This theme is enhanced by virtue of the podcast format: when the information is being fed straight into your ears, it feels one step less removed than what the same story might accomplish visually. Unfortunately, Reed often falls flat as the show’s host, which is partially why S-Town fails to reach the same heights Serial did. He has a certain self-righteousness that can be off-putting at times, and he has a tendency to get too wrapped up in unnecessary details that distract from the central narrative.
A funny thing happens as the show develops, though. As I learned more about the esoteric McLemore, I reconsidered my initial judgment of Reed as well. Perhaps I was reading his intentions incorrectly, I thought; perhaps I had jumped to make assumptions about his identity too quickly. It was with this transformation that I knew S-Town had succeeded. It takes a while to get there, but I encourage you to be patient. The payoff is moving and presents the unique direction podcasts can take, just as Serial did three years ago.