Trailblazing can be a gift and a curse.
Serial was a phenomenon immediately upon its release in 2014. It stayed atop the iTunes rankings for three months and became the fastest podcast to reach five million downloads. It became the medium’s first “breakout hit,” according to The New York Times and even received its own brilliant SNL parody. It hearkened back to the days before television, when families would sit around the radio and listen to stories, their mind visually creating a scene that was only being presented via audio. While some found the ending unsatisfying, the journey was more than worth it.
Since then, a slew of podcasts have followed in its footsteps, remixing the format to their own end, from the true-crime piece of Criminal to the mystery detective vibe of Missing Richard Simmons. Even Serial itself suffered from its own brilliance and success – expectations for the second season were impossibly high and rather than try to repeat what they had done the first time, the team behind the show wisely went in a new direction.
It was wise, but not always interesting.
For me, the problem with season 2 wasn’t that it wasn’t a whodunit mystery or a salacious crime, but that I had no interest in the story or, more importantly, the people. It was wonderfully researched and reported and I’ll happily listen to Sarah Koenig read the back of a ketchup bottle, but I just didn’t care about Bowe Bergdahl. Unlike Adnan and Jay and everyone else from that first season, there was no individual – dare I say character – in which I was remotely interested.
Which brings us to S●Town.
In promoting the show, executive producer Julie Snyder said, “With Serial, we were experimenting with using television as a model. With this one, we looked to novels.” And that’s clear. Because, like many of the best novels, it is complex. It is layered. The story it is at the beginning is far from the story it is at the end.
It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint what it’s about. It’s about a murder. It’s about a possibly rich, probably gay, incredibly intelligent man. It’s about a will and property dispute. It’s about police corruption and small crime. It’s about abuse and anger. It’s about race and gender and sexual orientation. It’s about the nature of family and friendship. It’s about a hedge maze. It’s about love and intimacy. It’s about trust and two sides to the same story. It’s about climate change. It’s about depression and mental illness. It’s about clocks. It’s about a small town in rural Alabama.
It’s about all of those things and none of those things.
“I don’t just look at myself as a 49-year-old semi-homosexual atheist living in a shit town full of Baptists in Buttfucksville, Alabama. I look at myself as a citizen of the world.”
Now that we’re living in a post-Netflix world, dumping all seven chapters online at once was brilliant, because each time I heard “A Rose for Emily,” the song by The Zombies that closes each episode, I couldn’t wait to get to the next one. And, this time, I didn’t have to wait. (I was also fortunate to go in fresh, having no idea what it was about at all.)
At first, the story itself isn’t anything spectacular, but as it unfolds, it becomes clear that the strength of S●Town is that the individuals are so rich and compelling. The protagonist is riveting to listen to. From his accent, to his cadence, to his intellect, to his cynicism, to his hatred of the shit town he’s called home his entire life, he’s a character straight out of a novel. The fact that you hear almost nothing from him after episode two makes his appearances that much more memorable.
The program loses its way towards the end (sound familiar?). It kind of circles back to the beginning, but it leaves a few loose threads hanging in the process, but that is a minor quibble.
It probably will not have the cultural impact of Serial (and the Blue Apron ad with the funny laugh doesn’t come close to the Mail Kimp one), but S●Town manages to escape that incredibly large shadow and exist on its own as a damn good podcast.
Christopher Pierznik’s eight books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.