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S-TOWN Podcast is a Brilliant Portrait of an Eccentric Genius (Review)

S-TOWN Podcast is a Brilliant Portrait of an Eccentric Genius (Review)

The first season of the hit podcast Serial, which, as of February 2016, has had its episodes downloaded 80 million times, is a monumental murder mystery that stands as the benchmark for any other podcasts in the same genre. But even though S-Town, the new podcast from Serial Executive Producer Julie Snyder and This American Life Executive Producer Brian Reed, ostensibly begins as a murder mystery in the same vein, it quickly evolves into a character portrait of a bizarre, brilliant, and tragic horologist named John B. McLemore. Because of McLemore, S-Town becomes as equally engrossing a mystery as Serial’s first season, but not because of murder (although that’s kind of in there too), rather because it’s a story that explores the social—and chemical—alchemy that goes into the making of a tortured “genius.”

The series, released Netflix-style with all seven episodes dropping simultaneously on March 28, is hosted by Reed, who received an email from McLeMore in 2012, requesting that he investigate “the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder.” But as the murder mystery eventually proves to be a red herring, other mysteries bloom from both McLemore’s mad scientific mind as well as from Woodstock, Alabama—a place McLemore frustratedly, but maybe somewhat lovingly, calls “Shittown.”

“Shittown” is replete with peripheral characters who make Woodstock, a heavily wooded town in Bibb County with a population of about 1,400, a strange and intriguing place to spend roughly seven hours of your time. There’s Tyler Goodson, a young man in his early 20s with three daughters from three different women who thinks it’s fair to chop off a man’s fingers if he steals his grandfather’s guns. There’s Bubba the tattoo artist, who makes some truly abhorrent and racist comments one moment and then has everybody giggling the next. Razor, who sounds like Boomhauer from King of the Hill. And Olan Long, a 60-year-old RN and former linguist with the Air Force, who talks as calmly and explicitly as Mister Rogers about his sexual relationships.

But all of the characters in the series, who together represent a rainbow of personalities from white supremacist to Brokeback Mountain enthusiast, are easily eclipsed by McLemore, who makes an impression similar to that of Chris Cooper’s Laroche from Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s film Adaptation. That is to say, McLemore is a mostly self-taught genius—or at the very least an extraordinary tinkerer—who can rattle off the Latin names of flowers and in the same conversation muse about the dire state of education and climate change. Reed notes of McLemore that “it’s exhausting to hang out with him.”

McLemore can be forgiven because his mind is clearly racing all of the time; at one point his thought processes are described as feeling like a song that he can’t get out of his head. He’s possessed to learn, build, and repair—everything from clocks to motorcycles—and dabbles with extraordinarily difficult problems, including the construction of his own astrolabe in order to “put himself inside the brains of the people who puzzled through the earliest versions [of the instrument]… like 10th century Islamic scholars.”

Astrolabe-S-Town-Image-04032017

An astrolabe like the one McLemore built, used to make “astronomical measurements, typically of the altitudes of celestial bodies, and in navigation for calculating latitude…” Image: Wikimedia / Masoud Safarniya

Reed describes how McLemore assiduously studies time itself, fully aware of how “tedious and brief” (to quote a sundial) one’s life can be. On top of being an elite horologist—one who studies time and the making of clocks—McLemore is also a scientist (even if not by trade) who has an unquenchable thirst for discovering how the world works. He can espouse his thoughts on subatomic particles and how they behave in quasars just as easily as he can tell you about electroplating. He is a man who keeps Potassium Cyanide in his house, and doesn’t bother to wear a mask when he’s melting mercury to fire brand clocks with gold: Two truths that illustrate his character, and even haunt him, as well as any listeners who finish off the series.

McLemore is depicted as a mad scientist, rabid believer of climate change as an unavoidable doomsday for humanity, and humbled philosopher of time, but also, through stories of his actions, as a genuinely kind person with a big heart. He gives shelter to a horde of stray dogs, never leaves his sick mother alone in the house, offers up his body as a canvas for tattooing (which he hates) so Bubba can pay rent, and even becomes a pseudo father to Tyler and other young men. But the good deeds aren’t as innocently intentioned as they appear. And for a brilliant man, who has, in a real sense, a mind out of control, no event or relationship in his life is ever one-dimensional. In fact, they’re all endlessly complex, like the problems McLemore is constantly trying to solve in his mind.

If you’re in the mood for a hardcore murder mystery, S-Town is probably not for you. But giving McLemore a chance at charming you with some Deep South, small-town brilliance, working his way into your brain like a catchy song, that’s a good use of your “tedious and brief” existence here on Earth.

Rating: 5 out of 5 burritos.

5-burritos1

What did you think about S-Town? Let us know below!

Images:  S-Town/Facebook


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