mamamia out-loud

Guys, we need to talk. About S-Town.

We need to talk about S-Town.

The podcast, centred on local Alabama eccentric John B. McLemore, has been downloaded more than ten million times in the first week of its release.

The think pieces have followed suit. Was this show, from the same team that created that other huge show Serial, a triumphant podcast or a hot mess with no storyline that just bored everyone?

This is an actual text - names withheld for privacy, of course. (Image: Supplied)

People, it seems, are firmly in two camps: Love it, or dump it in a trailer park trash can and set in on fire.

My phone is lit with complaints about the hours "wasted" on it. And people are crying out to me "It's a podcast for snobs".

Yes, there's a certain amount of wanker status that comes with deeply appreciating a seven hour tome made by This American Life. Yes, there is a reputational bias that exists here, that basks this show in a certain favourable light. Yes, I don't have children, or a life, so I can spend seven hours listening on a weekend.

The scores of gushing reviews online, and the almost universal acclaim have led some to a feeling of alienation; that if they stick their hand up and say "I didn't like it" or "what was the fuss", they'll be persecuted or judged unfairly.


But I was one of those people.

It didn't really grab me until episode three. Until then I felt disconnected; like the train had left the station and I was flailing, running behind it, wondering why everyone was on board but I wasn't. I didn't connect with the main character, John. I didn't understand the landscape. I didn't want to waste my time on a show that took an hour to say what could have been condensed into twenty minutes.

But I persisted, and having finished it now, it was worth it.

So if you're still only at the beginning, maybe try until ep three. And take my advice: If you entered this show expecting another Serial, walk away now. You will be disappointed. But if you can listen with your ears, and your heart open, what unfurls is on par with some of the literary masterpieces of our time.

This next part of this article contains spoilers. If you haven't finished the podcast, fair warning.

Still here? Good.

"I persisted, and having finished S-Town now, it was worth it." (Image: Supplied)

This is a story about the remarkableness of what is, by the outset, an unremarkable life.

This show, three years in the making, swerves in such a way that by the end, you realise the point of this story isn't to find a treasure or solve a murder or salivate over small town gossip or implicate small town criminals. The point of the story is, people have stories.


Could it have been tightened? Maybe. In a culture where attention spans have dwindled, where eyeballs demand to be entertained within seconds, where your attention is fought daily by a stream of bingeable, clickbait content, our tolerance and patience for layered meaningful stories has been eroded.

And this show demands a lot of us. Unlike other podcasts where you can work, exercise, cook, or poke around the house, this show requires your mind to focus on it. It's not unlike a novel in that it's full immersion, or you'll miss something.

What's uncovered is a treasure, within a treasure, within a treasure. Don't be hoodwinked by the mystery around missing gold bars, that's the superficial layer. The treasure here is John. It's the depths of sadness and confusion of the human soul; our human need to be loved, understood, to have a person in this world.

And the twist; that an exceptionally intelligent and eccentric man was poisoned - turned mad - by the exact craft he excelled at is almost Shakespearean. Other podcast devotees have wondered if the treasure was time. That threaded through the themes of clocks and sundials and finally death, is the tacit realisation there is never enough of it. I love that theory.

This podcast, through its chapters, canvasses themes of racism, homophobia, isolation, mental illness, and family. It's mystery and intrigue, yes, but mainly it's centred on how one man, who barely left the town he was born in, managed to connect and alter the lives of people around the world.

It's sad. And uncomfortable. And depressing. And life affirming. And more than once I've questioned John's motives for contacting This American Life. Was that part of his eccentric, wider plan too?


While the craft is sublime, the story isn't perfect. There were times it was uncomfortable, I found chapter six's theme to skirt that line of privacy invasion that I've talked about previously with the podcast Missing Richard Simmons. And it's not entirely satisfying. There is no over resolution over the missing fortune, or what happened with the Town Clerk, or why certain people weren't contacted after he died, and we can't decide if the cousins were evil or misunderstood,

But isn't that life? That we get hooked by juicy drama and scuttlebutt, tied up in the small stuff, when in the end it's the most meaningful things that matter?

I think this is a masterpiece and should be studied in English curriculums as a classic text, in modern form.

To those who complain it didn't grab them, I say the same thing; Would you just throw Chaucer across the room and claim that he didn't grip you? Would you roll your eyes at Wuthering Heights and say it was boring?

Mia Freedman, my boss, talks a lot about bursting her bubble. About how we are conditioned through social media to be fed things we agree with, things we like, things in our sphere, our people, our vibe.

This is a bubble burster. It requires you to step outside of what you thought you liked and enter a world that's entirely unexpected.

It's not just podcasting at its finest, it's storytelling at its finest. That's what makes it remarkable.