How 'S-Town' Explores the Murky Ethics of Privacy
The new true crime podcast has enough compassion and emotional heft to balance out its invasive story.
Credit: S-Town's Official Facebook Page
When the first season of Serial premiered, changing the game for podcasts, it also brought with it a new wave of true crime mania. Making a Murderer, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, In the Dark, and so many more extended true crime explorations descended upon us. But if Serial changed the game by introducing true crime to a whole new medium, its second season proved that capturing lightning in a bottle wasn't so easy. In some ways, the new podcast from the Serial team, S-Town, is the true heir to the sensational story of Adnan Syed. In S-Town, producer Brian Reed goes down to a small Alabama town to investigate a potential unreported murder. What he finds there is an evolution of the true crime genre in which the crime doesn't matter at all. It's all about the people.
In this case, it's one person in particular who catches Reed's attention. John B. McLemore's email to Reed is what kickstarts the story, and very quickly his unique personality dominates the show, and Reed's interest. As the show pulls further and further away from the crime McLemore had originally written to Reed about, the abstraction of the true crime genre into pure character study turns S-Town into a podcast—or story, frankly—unlike anything most listeners have heard before. But as with anything new, boldness engenders pushback.
"S-Town is a stunning podcast. It shouldn't have been made," reads the headline of a Vox article. While acknowledging the impressive journalistic effort, and its almost undeniable emotional heft, writer Aja Romano makes the case that by plumbing the depths of McLemore's personal history down to his more private details, Reed and his team have produced something of a violation. S-Town, Romano writes, "proceeds with the familiar confidence of a production that believes it had open access to all facets of John's life." It's a concern. One I shared, admittedly, many times over the course of the seven-episode series. The podcast allayed any concerns, though, convincing me with its core ethic: compassion.
Spoilers for S-Town follow.
A part of Romano's unease with S-Town derives from the fact that many of the most private details Reed unearths about McLemore did not come from the man himself, nor could he have given his permission. That's because, as is revealed at the end of the series' second episode, during reporting on the story, McLemore committed suicide. The reveal is a shock, but it also stands as a clear shift in both the story itself and the storytelling. The setup to the podcast—a mysterious possible murder in a backward, corrupt Southern town—was merely prelude to another kind of investigation. McLemore himself was always far more interesting than the yarns he was spinning.
Right from the first phone call Reed has with McLemore, it's clear that S-Town will be driven by the man's incredible, odd personality. He's flamboyant in that Southern way, charming as hell, quick to witticism, strikingly cynical, and prone to the most elaborate, engaging tangents you've ever heard. He's openly crude, but intensely caring, often expressing deep dismay at the degradation of his hometown, and the world at large. And while not everything in the universe revolves around John B. McLemore, he sure makes it feel that way in the best possible sense. It's not hard to see why Reed quickly became attached to him as a person, and as a subject.
That sort of attachment can become gross, sycophantic even. Look no further than Missing Richard Simmons, the other podcast sensation of the season. In that show, Dan Taberski caught the thread of a story about fitness personality Richard Simmons possibly being held at home against his will, and spun it into an elaborate and queasy tale that was far more an indulgence of Taberski's own fantasies and proximity to fame than anything else. Romano discusses the case of Missing Richard Simmons, making a connection between that show's ugly ethics and S-Town's finer grained problematic-ness. The central question both must answer is, what right do these podcasters have to delve so deeply into the lives of their subjects? In essence, is there no right to privacy?
But there's a major difference between the two popular podcasts: compassion. Where Taberski was blinded by his own lust for celebrity, Reed is guided always by compassion. This is true even of the side characters in S-Town. People who originally come across as villains are given voice, making them human, allowing them each a measure of understanding, respect, and yes, compassion.
As Reed digs into McLemore's own story, uncovering in one episode his battles with living as a queer man in the South, it is always with an eye toward complexifying the man. Reed seeks to understand McLemore, not because we need to understand him—he's not a public figure to be unmasked—but because to try to understand McLemore is to grant him a kind of compassion he so clearly yearned for in the world. Though so often cynical about the world—he goes off endless about his "shit town" and the destruction of the world by climate change—McLemore's conversations and his deeds show him to be a man of deep love for people. S-Town is that love given back.
S-Town fits into a long tradition of journalists writing character pieces, even of non-public figures, so concerns about privacy are nothing new. They're expected. But the real measure of quality journalism and true life storytelling cannot be whether privacy was violated. Privacy is necessarily violated in all such stories, even when permission is granted. Instead, we must look to the storytelling itself, how it works, where its interests lie, and what it ultimately reveals.
In the final episode of the show, Reed reads portions of McLemore's suicide note—possibly the gravest violation of privacy in all seven episodes. Oh, but what it reveals: What we've been witness to, we come to see, is the imagination of a person who loved the world so much he couldn't bear it. We see a man who lived his whole life in the same shit town, and his anger at its failures were a result of his unyielding belief that it could be so much better. By granting us access to McLemore's story, his personality, and his life through his own words and the people he touched, S-Town proves its worth many times over. It's a story of humanity that includes humanity's worst, but always pointed in the direction of its best. In that way, it's a true testament to McLemore. A great elegy. And one we're all lucky to have heard.
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