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I wasn’t far into S-Town, a gorgeous new seven-part podcast from the team behind Serial and This American Life, when I began to hear rumors that it “wasn’t real.” Maybe this tale of murder and intrigue in a sleepy Alabama county had been dreamed up by producers hoping to refresh the “podcast space”—to fool listeners into embracing a form of audio entertainment they didn’t know they wanted. It felt like a plausible theory. Narrator Brian Reed kicks off the series with a meditation on clock-making, the process by which impossibly temperamental, intricate machines are set in motion by persnickety artists. And the opening episodes are (winkingly, I wondered??) full of Faulkner, both because one character loans Reed A Rose for Emily to help him understand the town’s quiet menace, and because the show itself meanders between Gothic unease and poetic melancholy.
If S-Town is a contraption, perhaps it’s one straight out of Carson McCullers: a wagon with honeysuckles trained all over it and a corpse nailed to the undercarriage. Or perhaps Reed and his colleagues want to transport us in ways that we don’t expect and that genre conventions don’t prescribe. The journey begins in familiar Serial territory, with a voluble and disenchanted eccentric named John B. emailing Reed out of the blue and begging him to investigate a local boy’s murder. John thinks the son of a prominent family offed the kid; he thinks the corrupt police department covered it up. To him, the whole sordid affair encapsulates something essential about the trash heap of depravity and backwardness in which he’s spent his entire life. Woodstock, Alabama, he insists, is “Shit Town.”