This article was previously published by The Tribune Weekend section here.
This week’s podcast takes a diversion down an unexpected path. A show that started off appearing to be about one thing quickly took a very different turn – and led this week’s review selection to ask the question “Who are we – and who has the right to talk about us after we’ve gone?”
S-Town comes from the creators of Serial - and has hit the top of the charts from its launch.
S-Town is a new show from the creators of Serial and This American Life. And it’s an oddity.
Ostensibly, this starts out as a real-life crime show in which the host, Brian Reed, is asked to come to the town of Woodstock, Alabama, to investigate a murder. It then takes a very, very different course.
Reed was invited to come to the town – the S-Town of the title, but that’s just an abbreviation of the curse word used to describe it by John B McLemore, a cranky old man who tinkers with clocks, drinks cheap whiskey and berates the world for all that is wrong.
He tells Reed of abuse of people across the state by police officers, he talks about the land he has where he keeps stray dogs as the unofficial animal shelter of the area, he hangs out with his buddy as he sharpens his chainsaw. And he presses Reed to investigate a murder that doesn’t appear to have happened.
Reed tries to find out more about the murder – but there’s nothing. No trail, no newspaper reports. Nothing. He begins to think McLemore might have made it all up. And so begins the real journey of the show, examining McLemore himself.
Now, there’s no two ways about this, I’m going to have to give a spoiler for the events that happen in the show. You see, in the second episode, McLemore commits suicide. The news of this comes to Reed as he’s mid-investigation and it changes the whole path of the show. Suddenly, it becomes about McLemore, who he is, his sexuality, his lack of a will that leads to all sorts of family contention, the rumours of quantities of gold that he owned. It becomes, in essence, a look at mid-American life, and the secrets that we keep.
S-Town was released recently in a block of episodes, so you can binge listen to the first seven episodes already. It’s a slightly uneasy listen – McLemore invited Reed to investigate a death, but it was never his death. Or his life. At times, this feels slightly voyeuristic, disrespectful even. But the story that is told really makes you think about what lies behind the faded facade of Americana, and what goes on in those small towns out there.
I’ve reviewed Modern Love before – it’s an excellent show – but by chance a remarkably fitting companion piece to S-Town this week is the latest show featuring a reading by actress Laura Dern of a piece by Rhonda Mawhood Lee. She reads about a pastor speaking to her parishioner, a 78-year-old man who had fallen in love with a 28-year-old man – to the shocked reaction of his church.
The show includes reaction to the piece – but one of the concerns is again that, unfortunately, the story comes after the fact. Ned passes away. So is his story someone else’s to tell? Ought we to be discussing, no matter how compassionately, their sex lives, their loves?
It fits into the same territory as the discussion of McLemore above – and while I have no answers to the questions it raises, it is beautifully done and thoughtfully executed.
Modern Love is very well worth a listen – even when it raises awkward questions.
Movie star John Candy - whose life is explored in Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths
Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths
This show – a quick listen at about half an hour – looks back over people’s lives, highlighting parts we might not be familiar with.
The latest episode is about John Candy, who died far too young at the age of 43 in Mexico. The show looks back at his early days starting out, failing to make a career as a salesman and being dismissed by someone who said they would never hire an actor again. That was a spark for Candy, who was at least being described as an actor, something he would devote himself to more fully, first in comedy in Canada before breakthrough roles in movies, especially when he hit the big time in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
It’s a quirky format for a show, with scenes from Candy’s life being played out in short vignettes, sometimes effectively, sometimes less so, but always putting a spotlight on parts of the actor’s life we might not be familiar with. There are his struggles with reviews that highlighted his weight, there are the times he is wrestling with the need to look after his family but being taken away from them by his work – his life is stressed with different influences, while always being recognised as a good guy.
The length of the show perhaps doesn’t allow us an in-depth view, but for a quick listen, it does help to show us more of the person we thought we knew – and wonder if we ever really did, and that’s no mean trick to pull off.
Other recent episodes cover subjects as wide-ranging as Marvin Gaye, Joan of Arc and Julius Caesar – so it’s fair to say the show has ambition in its targets. But start with someone familiar – or someone you thought was familiar.
Got a show you'd like to see featured in the review column? Drop a note in the comments below or tweet me at