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May 14, 2018 | by  | in Arts Podcasts |
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S-Town began the way I thought it would: small, conservative town in America, rumours swirling that a violent murder has been covered up, and the trusty, every-man narrator, Brian Reed from This American Life, there to lead you through the fray. As an avid Serial fan, I had high expectations and high scepticism of the plethora of true-crime-investigative-journalism podcasts that had sprung up in the wake of Serial’s success.

But as I began episode one I found my concerns fading. I was hooked. S-Town, which I had doubted so intensely, had captured my attention.The story begins with a man called John B. McLemore contacting journalist Brian Reed and asking that he investigate the “crummy little shit-town” he lives in, in which he believes a man has gotten away with murder. According to McLemore, Woodstock, Alabama is rife with poverty, police corruption, climate-change denial, and child molesters. Listeners become familiar with McLemore from the very start, hearing his thoughts and opinions as he shares them over the phone to Reed. McLemore is certainly an eccentric, prone to long rants lamenting the terrible state of the world. In one of his rants he famously says, “we ain’t nothin’ but a nation o’ goddamn chicken shit, horse shit, tattletale, pissy-ass, whiny, fat, flabby, out-o’-shape, Facebook-lookin’, damn.. twerkfest… Ya know, Mr. Putin, please show some fuckin’ mercy. I mean come on, drop a fuckin’ bomb, won’t you?”

In episodes three to eight, the focus of the podcast shifts away from the alleged murder, and Reed begins an intense, deeply intimate scrutinisation of McLemore’s life. His sexuality and sexual history, his struggle with depression and self-harm and the family disputes over his estate are delved into with a thoroughness so unabashed it was disturbing. Reed frequently encourages both the people he interviews and the listeners to speculate on the specifics of McLemore’s sexuality and relationship history. I found myself wondering if McLemore would have wanted his story to be told this way, but we will never know, because he was never asked.

I couldn’t help but think about the ethics of putting such intimate details of a person’s life on show without their consent. Is it really right to place such sensitive details on display for the world to see? For people to consume as pure entertainment? To attract listeners to a podcast that makes money off advertisements? Should the life of a person, who was private and clearly struggled with depression and his sexuality, be made into a narrative — the most shocking parts of their life used as cliffhangers in a story? Honestly, I don’t think so.

In writing this, a comment made about Serial several years ago came to mind. It was something the brother of Hae Min Lee (whose murder was the subject of Serial) said: “to me it’s real life. To you listeners, it’s another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI… I pray that you don’t have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5 million listeners.”

There is something about true crime stories that trigger our morbid curiosity. We want to hear things that will shock us, even better if it is something real. I get it. I listened to Serial and S-Town and they are riveting stories. McLemore was a fascinating, funny, smart, and troubled individual — he was quite a character, and Reed knew this would make a good story. Except now, after S-Town, a character is all John B. McLemore is, and all he gets to be.

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