"S-Town" began three years ago when one
John B. McLemore, a brilliant, funny, cranky and sometimes profane character reached out to
Brian Reed, a longtime "This American Life" producer. John wants Brian to investigate a murder, and Reed steps into a modern-day Southern gothic tale with more curves and twists than a rattlesnake roundup.
John's everyday chitchat can sound like finely crafted prose. He says stuff like "The sun's diminishing arc is passing beneath the horizon," to note that it's getting dark outside. (That quote might not be exact - I was sort of half asleep at about 3 a.m. when we got to that part. I'll listen again and perfect it if need be).
In the same segment, John uses offensive profanity to rail about a pizza store owner who's gotten on his nerves.
The breadth, depth and quality of the work is stunning. As riveting as "Serial" was and as enjoyable as "This American Life" radio essays are each week, "S-Town" is even more impressive. Brian returns repeatedly to this tiny little place in the world, where family secrets, long-held animosities and an active rumor mill turn the place into an ongoing theater production. He gets people with no good reason to talk to a reporter from New York to open up and share intimate personal reflections.
At one point a character seems on the precipice of a revelation and Brian cautions him to consider whether he wants the information public. It's a profound moment, one where investigative zeal, a strong code of ethics and compassion all gallop together. J-school students especially might want to take a lesson here.
Throughout the series, as the main story unfolds, you'll learn all sorts of historic, scientific and mechanical trivia. You'll gain a new appreciation for the antique clock you may have in your house. You'll look back upon "Alice in Wonderland" with a more learned eye.
You'll feel super trendy if you paint your nails with OPI's "I'm Not Really A Waitress" (or maybe that was just me).
And - this isn't really the point of the series but it's something to love - there is something delightful about seven hours of listening to rich, mellifluous (one of John's favorite words) Southern accents. The aural atrocities inflicted whenever Hollywood sets a movie down South will seem all the more painful once you reconnect with what Southerners actually sound like.
Woodstock, Ala., outside Birmingham, looks to be maybe a three-hour drive from Atlanta. I wonder if the folks there will start receiving more outside visitors who want to trace Brian's steps and encounter a place full of colorful characters and hot tempers.
For now, visit them via your headphones. You can listen to "S-Town" from the main site, or download via iTunes.
Here's the link.