Let’s Talk | S-Town Podcast

Hi everyone. I’m Rincey and this is Rincey Reads. Today I’m going to be talking about S-town. This is a podcast that was recently put out by the same people who put together like This American Life and serial. I’ll have a link to it down below in case you guys are interested. I listened to it a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it basically ever since. I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of feelings and they are complicated. So let’s just get into it. Oh before I get started, I’m just going to say that if you haven’t listened to s town in its entirety, there will be spoilers for the entire thing here because I think a lot of what I want to talk about also happens in like the last couple of episodes. So if you don’t want to be spoiled on S-town, I recommend like turning this off, coming back to it when you have finished. Or if you don’t plan on finishing or you don’t care if you get spoiled, you can continue watching. So like I said, my thoughts on S-Town are really complicated. It’s one of those podcasts that by the time I was done with it made me feel really uncomfortable. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of the podcasts that have been coming out recently. Let me just say I listened to both seasons of Serial and the first season of Serial made me slightly uncomfortable as well. I think it was less the podcast though and more the way people were talking about the podcast. The first season of Serial dealt with the death of a young woman and someone who is currently in jail for that crime and the way people talked about it was just so like dismissive of it. And the way that we talk about these podcasts, we talk about them as forms of entertainment but because these are actual people with actual situations, it’s not just entertainment. I feel the same way about like the news and I feel the same way about like reality television. Like we create these things that are meant to be entertaining on a certain level but they involve real people and real situations and their real lives and we turn these people into like caricatures almost and we take away all of the complexities and the nuances that might belong in them and we make them into stereotypes and we sort of like gawk at them from a distance. and it makes, again, it just makes me really uncomfortable. So I started listening to this podcast because they pitched it as a true-crime podcast in the beginning. They talked about how this guy contacted them from the small town in Alabama and there was some like corruption and crime that was happening in there. And so I was interested in that because that’s a idea and story that I’m always really interested in. This ideas like corruption happening amongst officials and police officers and things like that and trying to uncover the truth and bring some justice about. By the end of the eight episodes, it was seven or eight episodes I can’t remember now. I think it was seven. It turns into something completely different. And in the beginning I was ok with it because I like sort of character driven stories in my books and in my television shows and all this stuff. I like stuff that focuses on the complexity of people and it seemed like S town was going to make that turn after the major death happens and after they realized that like this murder wasn’t really a murder and things like that. I thought that they were going to talk about the complexities of just small-town life and the people that live in this town. But it turned into something else. The fact that this journalist Brian felt comfortable delving into the sexual orientation of a man who had recently passed away and hadn’t necessarily provided information about that aspect of his life was really uncomfortable for me. The fact that they set up a lot of questions that didn’t provide a lot of answers but I think left room for the listener to make judgments on them. I also think it’s really uncomfortable to look at people who live in these sort of small southern American towns and especially if someone who like lives in Chicago, I live in the north, I live in literally like the exact opposite of what those towns are, it felt very easy for it to turn into like making those small towns into a zoo and making those people into like the animals at a zoo who are meant to entertain me and provide me with some giddiness before moving on with my life and I can sort of like cast my judgment upon them because they aren’t alike to me and they think a different way and act a different way. And yeah it was weird. um but I also couldn’t stop listening to it which i think is probably mostly on me. But it was a really compelling podcast. But i think what made me the most disappointed was the fact that they created like these seven episodes in total and just drop them all at once. So they didn’t have to deal with the real-time aspect or the real-time reactions while making the podcast like Serial had to deal with especially in their first season. You know there was real information that was coming out while they were creating all of these episodes and they had to adjust episodes in order to accommodate for that new information and all of this stuff. This was clearly different in that they just dropped the episodes so they knew exactly what they were putting out and they knew what the full arc was going to e And so the fact that they chose this arc to tell felt a little bit weird because there are so many like gray areas that they go into. And they acknowledge it at a certain point and they come up with their own justifications but I don’t think their justifications are right or I just don’t agree with them at all. There was a really great article on Vox that someone shared with me and so I’m going to link it down below and they talk about this really well as well. It basically says like s town is a great podcast but that doesn’t mean that it should have been made. I’ve been think about this a lot because there’s this podcast, I had uncomfortable feelings about Serial and then there was like what I think is the pinnacle of uncomfortable podcast which is the missing richard simmons podcast. Where this guy without any prompting, without any sort of encouragement for Richard Simmons, just goes looking for him. And I think that in this age that we’re living in, we believe that anyone’s lives are somehow belong to us. Like we don’t have any right to delve into anyone’s private life without their consent or their rights and so things like missing Richard Simmons where he’s trying to search out for this man who doesn’t want to be found or purposely like removed himself from the public life for a reason, made me really, really uncomfortable. And I think that this s town podcast kind of did the same thing where they started delving into parts of John’s private life that he didn’t necessarily want or we don’t know if he wanted out there. And because he’s passed away there’s no way to really reconcile with that and i think that i don’t know maybe i just give too much reverence to people who passed away but at a certain point I’m just like, they’re not alive anymore to give their wishes so how are we supposed to handle that. I would always edge as a side of caution. But anyways those are by just complicated thoughts on s town. It was great storytelling but I also kind of don’t know if it should have been made just like the Vox I article said. So let me know what you guys think down below. I know a lot of people really enjoyed it because again like I said it’s really, really well done. It’s really compelling but doesn’t make it right. So it’s one of those things I’ve been like literally wrestling with and thinking about constantly since I’ve listened to it. I also listened to it all in one day so I think that was part of the problem for me at least as well. Like I just dove in and listened to all seven episodes almost straight and at the end of it I was just like ah man I don’t know that was something I should have done. I think that if there was more space between the podcast episodes like if I had to wait a week, I think there would have been a point where I stopped listening. But I didn’t and this is where we are now. So Again let me know down below with you guys out of Serial, and I will — not serial, s town — and I will talk to you guys next time. Bye.

29 thoughts on “Let’s Talk | S-Town Podcast

  1. Still Processing also had my favorite analysis. That was such a great episode this week. I struggle with things like television and podcasts that deal with real humans. I didn’t finish Serial season one or Making a Murderer. Because I just felt so uncomfortable even while understanding how compelling they were. S-Town, I think, was my breaking point. I knew nothing going in and so the very first part of the first episode was breathtaking. Once I heard John’s accent, I got super worried. And then, with 8 minutes left in the first episode, I stopped the podcast and deleted it from my feed. I’m from a small town in the deep south. Slightly bigger than Woodstock but still so similar. And so John wasn’t a foreign unknown exotic oddity to me. He was so many people I’ve known. He was family and friend and NOPE NOPE NOPE. I immediately went online and read the Vox article to utter astonishment at how things unfolded. And then got so dismayed at how super smart people were gushing at how amazing a story it was. IT WASN’T A STORY. It was a man’s life. So thank you for this video. I considered making one, but I think I’m too emotionally close to this to be coherent.

  2. I feel exactly the same way. Not sure if there's more to add to it than that, I told you some of my thoughts before. It was an extremely well-crafted podcast, though I feel like at least half the impetus was having so much interesting stuff recorded at the time of John's death, not wanting to "let that go to waste" and then finding a way to take the arc into a different direction. Sharing intimate details about a person's life without their consent, especially someone who was troubled, to say the least, probably suffering from depression, etc, made me really uncomfortable. The talk about finding gold, the portrait of a small town, those things are more innocuous (though not fully, as you say, I don't like the notion of making rural/southern lives into entertainment fodder just for the fact of them being different to northern/urban centres) but I do wonder if there could have been a way to make this material into a story that wasn't as intrusive. It's hard to say. I also listened to it over the course of a day or two, so it kind of walloped me.

  3. I argue the COMPLETE opposite, check out my video in my channel if you get a chance! I enjoyed your commentary, and I agree that we don't have a right to these people's stories… but I do think there's value in the public hearing these stories. The exploitation of these people help educate US, raise OUR empathy, etc. Kind of like how zoos and Seaworld are getting flak, but they gave us the opportunity to actually EXPERIENCE these animals, and ultimately care more about them and do MORE to protect them.

  4. I don't know, I felt like they did a pretty good job of showing at least John, and to some extent even Tyler and the town itself, as being a real, "3-dimensional" person. Even though he might not have known they'd make his life story into a podcast, he did talk extensively and openly while being recorded.

    I definitely agree with you on the Richard Simmons one though.

  5. I thought it tried to dismantle some of that big city gawking – and I thought, seeing so many stereotypes shattered, that Reed embodied that. I definitely agree that there were some instances when the host would try to explain why they were going forth with something even though it was morally questionable (stuff about John's sexuality for sure). I do understand your uncomfortableness, I felt it at times too.
    I liked how Linda Holmes from Pop Culture Happy Hour talked about it (http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2017/04/07/522912205/pop-culture-happy-hour-s-town-and-chewing-gum) – she said that the fact that it was all released at once didn't let people start doing their own investigations and get more intrusive about the people involved. When Serial came out I did look up stuff as we waited on the next episode, while for S-Town I have not looked up a thing.
    From what I understand, the Richard Simmons podcast was intrusive just to be intrusive. Richard Simmons purposefully stepped away, while John McLemore wanted to talk to Brian Reed.
    I think S-Town also dealt with so many topics that opened my eyes to mental health, depression, what it's like living in a rural town, climate change, fears of economic collapse, all things I know and understand but which S-Town made me think about in new ways. So I do think there is some value to it, to try to understand a person (John McLemore) as compassionately and truthfully as possible.

  6. I think more and more I'm falling into the "shouldn't have been made" camp. It is a wonderful story and really exceptionally crafted (although not without its own pacing/structural faults, as I'm sure many people picked up on!) On the other hand, I didn't find that it offered any kind of new insight on rural life and especially being gay/depressed/suicidal in poor/rural America… I mean, it kind of just stated the situation. Which I think is fine for a novel, but for a purportedly investigative piece of journalism, I found it missed that mark. Without John's thoughts on those issues, it's still an outsider's perspective. Also, the fact that right at the end we got the whole "John could be racist! And incredibly sexist sometimes!" was kind of a slap in the face to me. Why not include that info sooner, before turning him into this kind of folk hero/doomed intellectual?

  7. your thoughts are your own guilt…these are real people…
    i know many more like that…there are thousands….welcome to see a different part of the world.

  8. I listened to S-Town over 3 days. I think that I listened to all 8 episodes because it was only 8 episodes. After John died the episodes did make me uncomfortable. I would like to recommend the podcast Up and Vanished, the story is still unfolding. I ended up listening to S-Town while waiting for the next episode of Up and Vanish to post. I can say that S-Town is not a podcast that I feel that I can recommend.

  9. I actually had an incredibly positive reaction to S-Town, possibly because much of it was relatable. I'm not from the South, but I am from a small town and I enjoyed the portrayal of Woodstock because it seemed quite honest. Brian grew more and more positive in his perception of the town with time, which was not dissimilar to my own perception of my town.

    As for John's privacy, I had the opposite thought process to you in that I figured, because he was dead, the notion of privacy is somewhat irrelevant. I just have a hard time understanding why privacy matters more than truth if no one is around to be hurt by it. Perhaps his mother? Other than that, though, I just really appreciated the openness with which his story was told because I felt that I was able to better appreciate him as a person. He felt less and less like a caricature as more of his life was revealed.

    I really respect your opinion, though, and I'm definitely going to think more about it and see if maybe I just overlooked any discomfort for entertainment's sake.

  10. I think even though I ended up feeling comfortable with a lot of the choices made, I completely agree with the reasoning behind other people's discomfort. I do think though that releasing all the episodes on one day was the only way to do what they did without building the same problematic conversation that the first season of serial did because it cut off any sense that people should try to guess where the podcast is going. I also think by building out the relationships between the "characters," it was able to make them into more than just stock stereotypes.

  11. S-town was recommended to me today. From your review and a bit of Episode 1, I can save the 7 hours, as the program breaks a good rule: don't listen to crazy people.

  12. I think you totally missed the entire point of this podcast which was that John B was an aberration and yet also a product of his surroundings at the same time. He often embodied 2 contradictory traits or viewpoints at once- it challenged your judgements and expectations at every turn. I couldn't disagree with you more- John B. courted his relationship with this reporter and knew what he was doing- he called him, emailed him, invited him to his house…I don't get your perspective on this at all. I felt empathy for all the characters and also painfully saw their complexity as humans. I thought is was shockingly beautiful and tragic but definitely NOT an invasion of privacy. I think it was clear he actively sought throughout his life to be known and most of his overtures were to that end. he wanted connection and even detailed his life almost like a book narrative, you need to listen to it again.

  13. I fairly recently moved from downtown Detroit to a pretty small southern town, and work in a neighboring town that has just three-hundred residents. There isn't an easy way to describe the dynamics of these towns, and it doesn't come quickly. Heh, it's still a mystery less than two years in 🙂

    Thank you so much for speaking out on your issues with the podcast. It has helped me kind of wrap my mind around why I wasn't feeling quite on-board.

  14. I have mixed feelings about S-Town. I listened to it immediately after you mentioned it I believe in a Book Riot episode ("Books To Read After S-Town", I think). I finished it about week and a half later. After the first episode, I found myself pushing through just to finish. To this day, I find myself struggling to figure out why they decided that it was a good idea to release it.

    I am a big fan of Serial. (I loved the first season of Serial and the later half of season two. ) I liked Brian yet I am of two minds about him. I wonder if he did this as an homage to someone that entered his life briefly and made a significant impact upon his life. Or was this more of journalistic motivation: he had the material, "Why let it go to waste?" Or was it a bit of both. Don't get me wrong. From the way he was portrayed, he seems like an okay guy but the intentions of he and producers make me wonder.

    When I listened to the show, I too, wondered how John would've felt about being memorialized this way. Having all of his dirty laundry aired out; that's not something that Southern people like (My relatives are from small towns in the South. The Southern mentality was deeply ingrained in my upbringing). It's not proper and I was taught that it is/was considered disrespectful. Then I reminded myself of the first thing they taught about the ethics of journalism: They are personal decisions. No matter what the societal mores, if the reporter feels that the significance of the subject matter is more important than the damage of character, then it's okay to publicize. It was understood that it is up to the individual reporter to live with the repercussions and effects of such a decisions. We also were taught that when a person dies, they can no longer be defamed. They lose all rights upon loss of life. Since the dead person can longer sue, a reporter for libel or slander, the information can be publicized. There were a few times that John said things "off the record" and Brian seemed to honor it. They definitely seems altruistic. In light of all of this, I still feel that podcast fell short. I felt like it went full circle and left us in the middle of nowhere. The podcast didn't teach us anything new. Instead unintentionally gave us more example of Southern caricature(s). I think it was a good attempt to try to do something compassionate for someone that Brian viewed as undervalued. In the end, I feel like it felt flat and rushed. Then again, as I said before, I'm still processing it all.

  15. I loved S-Town, and I disagree with you about it's existence. I think it was really fair about that culture and never put them down.

  16. I just finished listening to this and really enjoyed it. It did remind me of the privacy/respect issues similar to what I've heard about the Richard Simmons one, but for the most part I kept thinking about the teaser for the series, about the witness marks on the clocks and how they guide the craftsman in restoring something and the parallel to the "witness marks" of John B's life, and Brian trying to figure out what story he was even telling. Especially when he says "at every moment along the way, you have to decide whether you're wasting your time". So I thought the meandering thread of the story was really intriguing. With the description of the "fuck it" mentality of the area and John's possibly put on dramatics to make things more novelistic, I got the general sense that he wouldn't have minded. The depictions of all the "characters" seemed well rounded, and at different times I switched who I was rooting for.

  17. It started as a character driven entertaining story but became exploitive in the end. You are exactly right in that the story seemed to became more of an invasion of Jon B's private life in the later chapters. In the first episode John gave the host some stories and articles to read including Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily". The host described a common theme in the material as a polite facade over "an undercurrent of depravity" or something to that effect. The last couple episodes felt voyeuristic as more of John's possible illness and the whole "church" thing became the focus. The unsettling feeling I have after listening to all the episodes I think has something to do with our ability to be entertained by prying into other people's shadow selves (without their consent in this case) rather than looking at our own.

  18. I thought S-Town presented with great storytelling, but I couldn't for the life of me decide why they chose to skip over the initial premise and delve into the motivations and aftermath of a man's suicide. I also felt Brian often jumped to conclusions without enough information. It ended up feeling invasive to me, and I think it shouldn't have been published.

  19. S-Town to me, had the vibe of being more so of a gift to John. I gathered that he wanted for people to know his story and throughout the podcast you hear him say the words "After I die, people will know who I am" I thought it was beautifully done.

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