WOOD­STOCK LONER

The lat­est of­fer­ing from the Se­rial team fur­ther stretches the pod­cast genre, writes Eric Ge­orge

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Review -

It’s the lat­est re­lease from the world’s most pop­u­lar pod­cast team, and their most am­bi­tious work to date. In 2014, stal­wart US pub­lic ra­dio pro­gram This Amer­i­can Life launched Se­rial, a highly ex­per­i­men­tal true-crime se­ries. Across 12 episodes, it ex­am­ined the murky con­vic­tion of a Bal­ti­more stu­dent for mur­der and be­came a break­out phe­nom­e­non in the process.

A fol­low-up sea­son launched the fol­low­ing year was met with markedly less en­thu­si­asm. It shifted the show’s foren­sic at­ten­tion abroad, in­ves­ti­gat­ing Bowe Bergdahl, an Amer­i­can soldier who walked away from his post in Afghanistan and into Tal­iban hands. Many lis­ten­ers were frus­trated by the sea­son’s lack of fo­cus and re­liance on sec­ond-hand re­port­ing, but Se­rial suf­fered no sopho­more slump. With 50 mil­lion lis­tens by its con­clu­sion, that sec­ond sea­son far out­stripped the first out­ing’s suc­cess.

Se­rial is a unique beast. It’s the clos­est thing pod­cast­ing has to pres­tige tele­vi­sion, with a depth of re­port­ing and a de­gree of pro­duc­tion pol­ish that can’t be matched. This year, the se­ries was spun out into a pro­duc­tion com­pany headed by co-founders Sarah Koenig and Julie Sny­der, and pod­cast­ing god­fa­ther Ira Glass.

So there was huge ex­cite­ment when Se­rial Pro­duc­tions an­nounced S-Town, a seven-part jour­ney to the tiny Alabama town of Wood­stock, hosted by This Amer­i­can Life con­trib­u­tor Brian Reed. The se­ries launched in late March, and while it has al­ready bro­ken down­load records, many lis­ten­ers don’t quite know what to make of it. At first glance, it seems like a re­turn to fa­mil­iar ground: an un­solved mur­der, po­lice cor­rup­tion and old money in the dark cor­ners of Amer­ica’s south.

This en­tic­ing open­ing is quickly aban­doned when S-Town slams on the nar­ra­tive brakes two hours in and piv­ots to­wards its true fo­cus: John B. McLe­more, a hyper-in­tel­li­gent ec­cen­tric loner who has spent his life in Wood­stock.

The bait-and-switch is a clever way of hook­ing lis­ten­ers, but it seems almost mean­spir­ited to tease Se­rial fans with juicy true-crime ma­te­rial they’ve been cry­ing out for. In­stead of hard ev­i­dence, we have a se­ries of sto­ries told by un­re­li­able nar­ra­tors. The heavy lift­ing here is done by McLe­more, a man who talks for hours with Reed on the phone, ex­pound­ing apoc­a­lyp­tic the­o­ries on cli­mate change be­fore tak­ing a break to piss in the kitchen sink.

He’s a fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject, wildly en­ter­tain­ing, although Reed does strug­gle at times to keep their con­ver­sa­tions on track. Us­ing a per­sonal tale as the emo­tive hook within a larger story is a com­mon de­vice in th­ese long-form en­deav­ours. S-Town, though, takes that struc­ture and turns it on its head, com­ing out of the gate with am­bi­tion on a grand scale, then slowly whit­tling the story down un­til all that’s left is McLe­more. It’s a risk, and one of many the show takes that serve as a re­minder of the unique po­si­tion Reed and the Se­rial team are in.

This is the first investigative pod­cast to pub­lish its en­tire sea­son si­mul­ta­ne­ously, es­chew­ing the weekly drip feed most shows rely on to grow an au­di­ence. And the open­ing half-hour is a dis­ori­ent­ing romp that flits from an­tique clocks to hedge mazes be­fore fi­nally ex­plain­ing ex­actly what S-Town is about.

Reed can bury the lead 30 min­utes into a story know­ing lis­ten­ers will hang in there. It’s a quiet, per­sonal tale told in chap­ters, not episodes. Metaphor is abun­dant, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on time and the way we mea­sure it, from clocks to sun­di­als. Per­haps S-Town’s cre­ators could have put a lit­tle more thought to­wards the time of its lis­ten­ers, though. How much does it achieve, in its almost seven hours, that couldn’t have been achieved in one or two?

That ex­treme length al­lows Reed to ex­plore an ar­ray of topics, from sex­u­al­ity in Don­ald Trump’s Amer­ica, to lone­li­ness, to the ug­li­ness of es­tate bat­tles. Some of th­ese dal­liances are fas­ci­nat­ing, and they’re all beau­ti­fully told, but it’s of­ten too easy to get dis­tracted.

There is no great rev­e­la­tion ly­ing at the heart of S-Town about life in the back­woods of Alabama, just a deep ex­plo­ration of one man’s life. Many crit­ics have al­ready raised con­cerns over whether this jour­ney into the id of a trou­bled man is eth­i­cally de­fen­si­ble. The pod­cast unearths a range of high per­sonal de­tails, in­clud­ing old lovers, ques­tions of men­tal health, and an ap­petite for sado­masochism.

Whether he con­sented to this re­mains unclear for rea­sons that can’t be re­vealed with­out spoil­ing an early twist. But on a more fun­da­men­tal level, is John B. McLe­more wor­thy of this much at­ten­tion?

Reed spent three years re­port­ing the story, in­clud­ing one full-time, and was given sig­nif­i­cant editorial sup­port to do so.

Jour­nal­ists around the world are cry­ing out for more re­sources to tackle sig­nif­i­cant is­sues. Could Se­rial’s dream team of ra­dio tal­ent and im­mense pop­u­lar­ity not both be brought to bear on some­thing weight­ier? That said, the story is deeply evoca­tive. There’s an easy flow through­out the seven chap­ters, with each nar­ra­tive beat fall­ing pre­cisely where it should.

Vi­tally, there’s a real sense of place that emerges steadily through the show. Colour­ful ac­cents and stereo­typed pol­i­tics give way to a com­plex pic­ture of a town pop­u­lated by peo­ple liv­ing on the fringes of Amer­ica. Daniel Hart’s score forms an es­sen­tial part of the story with­out ever be­com­ing a distraction.

Reed is the real star of S-Town. Most of the best se­quences are formed by his nar­ra­tion, and the nov­el­is­tic lean­ings of the show give him li­cence to re­ally stretch his legs in a way that may seem in­con­gru­ous in more strait­laced re­port­ing.

This mono­logue, edited slightly for length, comes in the fi­nal chap­ter: “As I was stand­ing on the bank, I saw a bridge in the dis­tance, I thought to my­self, I won­der if that’s the bridge Tyler and John tagged their names un­der that day ... so I drove to the end of it and crawled un­der­neath ... past a bunch of garbage, past a torn up couch and a pool lin­ing and rot­ting deer car­cass, and weirdly, the half­burnt med­i­cal records of an in­fant. And there they were. Tyler’s ini­tials on one side, with an ‘es­tab­lished 1991’, John’s on the other, ‘es­tab­lished 1966’. There were no nasty words here, a cou­ple of beer cans and cig­a­rette boxes, but other than that, not too much trash. To­gether, Tyler and John found a place that was just a lit­tle bit cleaner.”

Com­plaints about un­re­solved ques­tions have plagued Se­rial since its in­cep­tion. The first sea­son set out to es­tab­lish if a man had been wrongly con­victed of mur­der, then set­tled for a med­i­ta­tion on the con­cept of rea­son­able doubt. Sea­son two asked if Bergdahl was a traitor or a hero, then ended up telling lis­ten­ers about the state of af­fairs for sol­diers in the Mid­dle East. The risk is in­her­ent in the for­mat, where episodes are pub­lished weekly as the story un­folds.

S-Town is dif­fer­ent. Reed com­pleted his work on the pod­cast be­fore it launched, but still struc­tured the show as a largely chrono­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

This al­lows for some clever uses of fore­shad­ow­ing, with Reed hint­ing at events to come.

But this was also a chance to avoid Se­rial’s frus­trat­ing habit of leav­ing lis­ten­ers un­sat­is­fied by fram­ing S-Town with a ques­tion it could an­swer.

Amid an in­creas­ingly dis­tressed me­dia mar­ket pod­cast mak­ers have shown an un­der­stand­able if alarm­ing lack of in­ven­tive­ness. The medium is bloated with copy­cat shows and at­tempts to cash in on the suc­cess of a leading light, and there’s cer­tainly no more im­i­tated for­mat than the first sea­son of Se­rial.

The in­dus­try’s most well-re­sourced team is us­ing its im­mense pres­ence to shunt the medium in strange new di­rec­tions. It’s a vi­tal state­ment of in­tent, and a gen­tle re­minder to some that pod­casts can achieve far more than solve mur­ders.

IT’S A TOWN POP­U­LATED BY PEO­PLE LIV­ING ON THE FRINGES OF AMER­ICA

This Amer­i­can Life‘ s Brian Reed on his S-Town jour­ney

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