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With S-Town, the makers of Serial test the waters of binge-listening

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This American Life goes Southern Gothic

Image: S-Town

Today, This American Life released all seven episodes of its new spinoff podcast, S-Town. While the project shares some of the talent behind the public radio hit Serial, it’s significantly different from that true-crime mystery series, which turned into a meditation on truth and the difficulty of truly knowing anything. S-Town is more straightforward and intimate, but its real-life story of small-town drama is similarly intriguing.

S-Town starts off with a promising mystery of its own: an Alabaman man named John reaches out to This American Life reporter Brian Reed because the son of a prominent family was allegedly heard bragging about killing someone. Intrigued, Reed meets John, and begins looking into his claims.

Some spoilers ahead for the series.

Yes, this show sounds like another in-depth look into a small-town murder, but before long, it emerges that nobody actually died. A story about a fight at a backwoods party grew in the telling until it reached John. But from this tall tale, S-Town turns into a character study of John himself. Reed is fascinated by the wealthy, eccentric man. John is out of sync with his birthplace and home state: he looks down on his neighbors, building a garden maze that covers his yard. He’s known across the nation for his niche skills in repairing old clocks. He supposedly had gold and money stashed away on his property, which he doled out to friends when they needed it.

Reed records his phone calls and emails with John, and tries to understand who he is. In turn, he establishes the foundation of S-Town: who exactly is this man, and how does he tick? Reed chats with John, who despairs at the state of the world and the community he sees as backward and racist. He goes from excited and manic to depressed and somber.

And then the story takes a big turn that changes its meaning and its purpose.

This American Life made a huge splash when its offshoot Serial debuted in 2014. The initial run of the podcast, described as its first “season,” followed convicted murderer Adnan Syed and poked holes in the legal case made against him. (Syed was eventually granted a new trial.) A second season attempted to make sense of the story of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan under unusual circumstances. Both seasons of the series use personal stories to address the way our world is governed and policed.

S-Town is a different narrative altogether. Rather than stretching the story week to week, the producers released all seven episodes at once, dropping what feels like an elaborate Southern Gothic novel its listeners can take in at their own preferred speed. Reed isn’t driven by events in an ongoing story, and he takes his time in exploring the world of John, his friends, and his family, giving listeners an audio portrait of a strange and complicated man. Within John’s life, the story finds its universality.

While This American Life is still planning on releasing a third season of Serial — it’s probably not due out until 2018 at this point — its producers recently created a new company, Serial Productions, which has plans for two additional podcast series following S-Town. While Serial popularized the idea of appointment podcast-listening, S-Town shows that its producers recognize the appeal of having a completed story to kick out the door, rather than an ongoing feature that changes as they continue to report, follow new developments, and chase a story that may eventually just peter out without answers.

Essentially, S-Town feels like something that could only exist today. Even Serial stuck to weekly releases and a general structure established by This American Life. S-Town, released in full, is more like a hybrid of radio reporting and audiobooks. It’s a drama designed so listeners can enjoy it at their own pace.