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Review: S-Town, the Successor to Serial

Five out of five stars.

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Some spoilers (not all) ahead.

I loved Serial season 1, which entered around Sarah Koenig’s investigation of the murder of Hae Min Lee, specifically trying to prove whether or not Adnan Syed had been rightfully convicted. The series was fascinating, and the stakes felt high. You got to know the people involved with the case so personally. You knew their backstories. The gray areas became mistier as the series went on.

I was less into Season 2, which explored the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The scope was so broad, and I missed the personal feeling of the first season. In S-Town, a Serial podcast hosted by Brian Reed, we return to the first season’s more intimate style of nonfiction storytelling, with the eccentric genius of Woodstock, Alabama, Shit Town native, John B. McLemore.

In Serial season one, I think the listeners felt closest to the host, Sarah Koenig. Adnan was fascinating–but also a convicted murderer. The main story was Koehnig’s investigation. In S-Town, Reed, as a host, is likable and thoughtful, but the story really centers around McLemore’s life. He suspects others of foul play. And he hates his hometown, where he feels compelled to stay.

I binged S-Town, and it’s fair to say it’s not a murder mystery. It’s a memoir, an autobiography, and a biography all in one. McLemore contacted Serial after the first season, saying he had a murder case for them, along with the terrible town of Woodstock, Alabama—Shit Town—that needed journalistic investigation. Reed answered the call, and the two became friends, talking for years about the town, and the potential murder which turned out to be a sham. The real story is about clock master McLemore’s life–how he spent it, the people who inhabit it, and the aftermath of his suicide, which occurred during the years Reed was interviewing him.

After McLemore dies, his mysteries, rather than unfolding, begin to pile high: for one, there’s his money. Nobody knows where it is, where he hid the gold he alluded to. There are his relatives, his cousins, who claim his property despite his wishes to leave everything to his younger friend, Tyler.

McLemore claimed Tyler was “everything wrong with this shit town” and yet was perhaps his closest friend. Their relationship is layered and confusing, and includes a darkness that was only revealed after McLemore had died. There’s also McLemore’s sexuality and queer relationships, which he was careful to never reveal to anyone in Shit Town.

There’s also mental illness. Reed tries to understand John–his genius, his depression. He interviews family and friends after his death, getting as close to the truth as possible, and he ends up uncovering more about the night John killed himself, plus what led him there.

Emotional, funny, mysterious, enthralling; listen to S-Town, the podcast about getting to know a complicated human.

(image: screengrab from website)

Molly Booth is a freelance writer and YA author of Saving Hamlet, out now, and Nothing Happened, spring 2018, both from Disney Hyperion. She’s also an English MA candidate at UMass Boston. She was homeschooled through high school, which means she gained her Geek/Nerd/Dork Certificate at an early age. She lives in Boston and has almost too many pets. Almost. Follow Molly on twitter and tumblr, or visit her website for more nerding.

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