Thursday 27 April 2017

Your next true crime obsession

The makers of podcast sensation 'Serial' are back with a new mystery - and it doesn't disappoint
Small town USA: Brian Reed investigates a mystery in Woodstock, Alabama in new podcast, S-Town
Small town USA: Brian Reed investigates a mystery in Woodstock, Alabama in new podcast, S-Town

Christopher Hooton

The podcast world got a major new release on Tuesday in the form of S-Town, a seven-episode true crime series that's been three years in the making. It comes from the creators of Serial, the murder-mystery audio series that became a global phenomenon back in 2014, and the weekly radio show This American Life.

Here's what you need to know.

The premise

'John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who's allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man's life.'

Why is it called S-Town?

The investigation started with a phone call from John, who in the first episode tells the host: "Something's happened. Something has absolutely happened in this town. There's just too much little crap for something not to have happened. And I'm about had enough of 'S*** Town' and things that goes on (sic)." Basically, it's about an unusual murder mystery in small town Alabama.

Who is hosting?

This American Life producer Brian Reed. While fans were disappointed by Serial's second season, which revolved around soldier Bowe Bergdahl, listeners will be pleased to hear S-Town is immediately gripping. Serial host Sarah Koenig said: "It's weird, it's beautiful, it has a plot that goes in fascinating directions that I never saw coming."

Is it any good?

S-Town couldn't have known when its story began three years ago that it would come to fruition with perfect timing. With the election of Donald Trump as US president came the realisation the country was split, that there was a side of it not so glued to its iPhones and politically a world away from those seeking the retweet congratulations of like-minded liberals.

The story unravels in Woodstock, Alabama, a gun-packing, hope-bereft small town. It is dubbed "S*** Town" by resident John B McLemore, a bitter, brilliant, eccentric and ebullient clock mender who pisses in his sink and writes about climate change in his spare time.

He invites Reed to look into the alleged murder of a local man, but the story takes a shocking left turn in the final moments of episode two as someone else ends up dead.

That's as much as I'm going to say about the story so as not to give away any spoilers. Suffice to say, John is at the very heart of this podcast and is what makes it so good. He is charismatic and a joy to spend time with, turbulent and unsettling as he can sometimes be. Serial was essentially a real-life whodunnit - it was amazingly thorough and will be remembered as the podcast that birthed a genre - but ultimately it was just about the transfer of information to the listener.

S-Town, however, is about people. Reed has a real fondness for John, this bizarre character that came into his life by chance, and it really comes across in the podcast. He also treats those he visits in Woodstock with the correct balance of respect and suspicion, of "we're all human beings" empathy and "okay, these people have very different and often abhorrent opinions" reservation (maybe even more successfully than Louis Theroux).

The podcast is warm and interested; as much concerned with learning about character as solving crimes, though this is not to say that you won't also be glued to its events.

It really feels like an expansion of what Serial was doing, and it's 'S*** Town' title was a gift from John as, ultimately, it is about the town and the downtrodden rural American mindset that led to its nickname.

A hell of a lot remains to be discussed once we can openly talk spoilers, but for now, if you're considering firing up episode one, just do it. I somewhat disinterestedly stuck on the pilot last night, and found myself engrossed in episode four after more than three hours of back-to-back listening.

How can I listen to it?

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, RadioPublic and other apps.

Irish Independent

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