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Listening to ‘S-Town’ is how you should be spending your weekend

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Listening to 'S-Town' is how you should be spending your weekend

From the creators of ‘Serial,’ ‘S-Town,’ a true crime podcast about John B. McLemore has become an overnight sensation since launching Tuesday. Artwork by Valero Doval.

“Has anybody called you?”

These words come at the end of the second episode of “S-Town,” a new seven-chapter podcast produced by the creators of the popular “Serial” podcast and National Public Radio’s “This American Life.” 

And it’s with these words that the podcast takes a dizzying leap into the unknown, as NPR reporter Brian Reed goes from investigating possible corruption and murder in Alabama to journeying into the bizarre world of John B. McLemore, an antiquarian horologist, who is obsessed with climate change, claims he is “60 or 70 percent homosexual” and lives with his demented mother in a Civil War-era home.

Like its counterpart, “Serial,” “S-Town” — whose seven episodes were released on Tuesday — has turned into an overnight cultural sensation. It was already the number one podcast on iTunes, where it sat for weeks as “Serial” fans subscribed to the show in droves. And now there are already Reddit threads and other Internet forums dissecting every action and word of Reed, McLemore and the other voices we encounter throughout the story.

Reed entered the story in 2012, when an email from a listener alerted him to a possible murder worth the reporter’s attention. The real story, however, turned out to be the story of the listener who emailed him. 

McLemore lives in the “child molester capital of the state of Alabama,” the town of Woodstock, or “Shittown,” as McLemore alternatively names it. His property is more than 120 acres, which includes a 330-foot rose garden, a hedge maze he built and a swimming pool for the 13 stray dogs he has rescued.  

It would be an insult to the complexity and depth of John B. McLemore to call him unique.

While this podcast is billed as a true crime show, criminal activity takes a back seat here. “S-town” instead becomes a gripping examination of the mental health of a complicated man trapped in his own dark, grim thoughts, living in a town where his heart can’t escape, but his brain knows he should run from.

“I go through these stages of depression,” McLemore explains in the first episode. “When you live in an area like this, it is like the Darfur region of Sudan. You realize you are in an area where stuff happens and you can’t help it.”  

Stuff does happen in Woodstock, a Bibb County town of less than 1,500 people southeast of Birmingham. Bad stuff, even.

A county sheriff’s deputy is convicted of sexual abuse and human trafficking in recent years. There are drugs. There is overt racism and bigotry. (Bibb County refused to issue marriage licenses after the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage was a constitutional right in 2015.) “S-Town” is a rare, unfiltered look into a place that most NPR barely even know exist, much less might have visited — far bigger in scope and more probing than “Serial.” (More than 20 percent of Woodstock lives below the poverty line and less than half of residents even have a high school diploma.)

There’s another significant way in which “S-Town” differs its predecessor, which repeatedly circled around the question of its central figure’s guilt or innocence. In the fashion of a great, contemplative novel, “S-Town” is an endlessly winding story that also becomes a fascinating meditation on time — it’s inexorable passage, and the impossibility of ever slowing it down.

Much of McLemore’s life revolved around time. Within the inner-circle of horologists, people who study time, McLemore was a savant — a prominent clock fixer in the world. He fixed $100,000 clocks. People from as far as Massachusetts or Utah drove to Woodstock to have McLemore fix their clocks — to help them fix time.

For his part, Reed centers the podcast around time and clocks, starting the series with a monologue about the trickiness of fixing a clock. Clock repairers often can’t tell what has been done to a clock over hundreds of years, so they rely on witness marks to determine what has been done to the clock or what the original clock looks like in order to restore it.

“You are constantly wondering if you just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere, and all you have are these vague witness marks that may not mean what you think they mean, so at every moment along the way, you have to decide if you are wasting your time or not,” Reed says.

In “S-Town,” Reed magically weaves listeners through time and those witness marks of McLemore’s life, telling the fulfilling story of John B. McLemore and the people and things he loved, loathed and lost. It’s the best seven hours you can spend this weekend. 

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