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‘S-Town’ Explores a Complicated Compassion for the White Underclass

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

In 1968, The Zombies released what would become their most well-known album, Odessey and Oracle, an experimental psych-pop record with iconic, psychedelic cover art characteristic of the decade. Yet the arrangement also featured a somewhat uncharacteristic ode to Nobel laureate William Faulkner in a haunting retelling of “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner's name-making short story published in The Forum in 1930. Through a portrait of the eponymous character, the story spoke to the anxieties and hardships of the deep South, which was reeling from major political shifts that would eventually drive the North and South farther apart—economically and ideologically.

In the new podcast S-Town (Shit-Town), the glossy byproduct of This American Life and Serial, host and producer Brian Reed delivers an unsettling oral history of Woodstock, a town in Bibb County, Alabama, reminiscent of, and clearly influenced by, Faulkner’s rich, fictional landscapes. The result is a form-defiant, meditative, Southern Gothic masterpiece—one that, like Faulkner’s story decades ago, speaks to present-day anxieties with stinging salience.

John B. McLemore is S-Town’s foul-mouthed, eccentric protagonist, as well as the impetus for the story. The podcast’s twists hinge on the subtle biases activated in the listener by McLemore’s lazy cadence and anti-politically correct nature. So when the more private details of McLemore’s “tedious and brief” life are revealed, the power of the surprise lies in the listener’s obliviousness to the complexities and poetry inherent in a small town existence.

Details about Bibb County’s history poke through the various plot lines of the series, providing a portrait of the violent racial history and moral decline of the town. The county’s racial terrorism and exclusion of freed slaves from the political process following the Civil War make the townspeople’s slick talk about “niggers” and their wives much more chilling and invite speculation about how our present politics became so polarized. Bibb County was also the last county in Alabama to comply with a school desegregation order, according to Reed. In a tattoo parlor, he encounters a tattoo artist named “Bubba,” who makes it a point to tell the radio producer, on the record, that the townspeople alone are responsible for Bibb County’s periods of prosperity—not the town’s history of plantation slavery. “It didn’t have nothing to do with a bunch of niggers picking cotton,” Bubba explains, unprompted. “We worked our asses off and earned everything we got.”

The townsfolk show an unprecedented awareness of themselves as characters in a podcast. At one point in Episode Two, a man in a bar says, “Tell ‘em, tell ‘em, give ‘em a picture. I’m a 6-foot, 350-pound bearded man in a John Deere hat with ‘feed me’ [tattooed] on my belly,” providing details of his appearance for the radio audience. McLemore does the same when describing Roger, the transmission mechanic with one tooth, on which he bobbles a cigarette in an apparently fascinating balancing act.

For that matter, Reed is aware of himself as a character in the story, too. Some of the most poignant moments in the series involve his conversations with McLemore, where he skillfully navigates and, at times, defies the ethical boundaries of the reporter-source relationship. Writer Nicholas Qua gave a name to this phenomenon in his recent review of the podcast for Vulture, saying, “S-Town emerges as the latest iteration of what is shaping up to be the Serial team’s broad principal legacy: how it carries to podcasting the torch of New Journalism, that blend of reportage and literary technique that remains honest to how the personal experience of the journalist is intermingled in the production of a story.”

On his decision to travel to Shit-Town, Reed narrates in his podcast: “It felt as if by sheer force of will, McLemore was opening this portal between us and calling out through it, calling from his world,” revealing that his motivations for going to the town are more personal than investigating a potential murder.

Indeed, Serial’s fingerprints are all over S-Town—Julie Snyder is Reed’s co-producer, and Sarah Koenig introduces each chapter and edits alongside other This American Life producers. But the story eschews the most grating of Serial conventions. The characters speak more than Reed, and the host seemingly never delays what he knows and at which point he knows it. He also admirably makes no bones about his friendly affection for his source.

In many ways, the story is also subconsciously about Reed, also a producer on This American Life, a radio program that is now a pastiche of an old tradition, both revered and parodied for its rigorous documentation of ordinary life. With hosts and characters who have played themselves (or versions of themselves) seemingly unironically on film and television, the show has been criticized as liberal navel gazing. Perhaps this is captured best by the Onion’s cheeky 2007 headline, “This American Life Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence.”

All of which is to say, certain scenes in S-Town, such as the one mentioned above with Bubba—which was proceeded by Reed narrating his shock at the blatant racism of the encounter—risk inverting the story and its deeply shaded characters into a version of a familiar film trope, the Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl, or, more insidiously, the Magical Negro, where these woefully downtrodden southerners really only exist to reveal something to Reed about humanity and, quite possibly, himself.

The script is a literary well, wasting no words and tending to its nuances like little hydrangeas, benefiting greatly from the pruning of S-Town story consultant Starlee Kine (Mystery Show), who has previously written about tackling themes in different forms of storytelling. When John gives Reed what he somewhat peculiarly referred to as “bedtime” reading—he hands him A Rose for Emily (Faulkner), The Necklace (Guy de Maupassant), and The Renegade (Albert Camus)—they feel like well-placed Easter eggs from a classics-obsessed auteur, but they also signpost trouble to come.

Beyond social commentary and sophisticated entertainment, the podcast becomes a commentary on itself, grappling with its own pretension. When Reed solves the mystery, the impetus of the podcast, and delivers answers to McLemore, he’s disappointed with McLemore’s lack of enthusiasm.

“Damn, man. I’m over here busting my ass off,” Reed says to McLemore, his voice pitched higher than usual. “When you contacted me, you wanted to know what actually happened, so it’s progress in that sense, right? I am not saving the world over here. Climate change is not ending; I am not bringing jobs and sustainable employment to Alabama and lifting people out of poverty. But you asked me to try to figure out what happened here, and on that front I’ve made progress.” McLemore enthusiastically agrees, but the listener should be less conciliatory.

A stunning feat of form, S-Town should be swallowed whole and digested with intention. The podcast manages a moving exploration of the lingering sociopolitical and economic divisions of American society, fueled, very literally in this case, by geographic divisions and the legacy of slavery. But to an extent, it also gets snagged in the same trap as recent New York Times best-seller Hillbilly Elegy, rhetorically lulling the audience into a sense of compassion and empathy for an at-times racist white underclass, at the expense of the humanity of the vulnerable populations most threatened by the politics of this underclass.

In the end, S-Town isn’t so much an answer to the persistent and problematic growth of populism, so much as a revelation about how complicated the problem actually is.

Author:

Alyssa Sims is a program associate with the International Security program at New America.