Friday, April 21, 2017
I've been listening to "S-Town," the newest podcast from the producers of "This American Life" and "Serial." I just finished it last night, sitting on our bench in the back garden.
It was a very strange experience.
I'll be careful not to spoil any surprises. The podcast began as an investigation of a murder in small-town Alabama, reported to the producers in a letter from a disgruntled resident. He quips that he lives in "Shit-town," and he turns out to be quite a colorful character -- both genius and, possibly, lunatic. Soon, circumstances change and the podcast becomes something else entirely.
I thoroughly enjoyed the show, but about halfway through I began experiencing nagging feelings of doubt about its journalistic purpose. The murder tip doesn't pan out, and we're left with an examination of one man's small-town life, in extremely intimate detail. And that man, for reasons that become apparent, doesn't fully participate in revealing all these details about himself. Is the show just high-brow reality programming, radio-style? Or is it something more -- an exploration of what it's like to be different in a remote, rural community?
As a former newspaper editor, I found myself questioning the story's raison d'etre. I think it succeeds, in the end, but if I'd put it together myself I'd have done two things differently. I'd have elided some of the intimate physical details about this man's past relationships, the reporting of which frankly seems like an unnecessary violation of privacy. And I'd have discussed -- somewhere along the line -- why the podcast remained relevant, despite the loss of its initial journalistic purpose. I understand wanting the listeners to determine that for themselves, but I think it would have helped us crystallize our view of the finished product. (Surely there were internal debates among the producers about whether to continue reporting, given the twists and turns in the story -- what were those like?)
Anyway, it's hard to explain all this if you haven't heard the show, and I don't mean to drag it down. I found it fascinating and I looked forward to every episode. (There are only 7 of them.) If you're at all interested in Southern culture, give it a listen.
(Photo: A church in Walthamstow, East London.)