The first season of “Serial” isn’t even three years old yet, but its impact is still being felt – thanks to a week-to-week speculation engine that elevated the show from casual obsession to cultural phenomenon. The deep dives, the amateur sleuthing and armchair psychoanalysis of a 15-year-old crime rebooted like clockwork with each new episode. It’s a cycle that only intensified when audiences realized that even the creators of this show weren’t 100% sure where this journey would end.
The “Serial” team’s latest output, “S-Town,” won’t experience that overwhelming hum of constant headlines. Not because this series is any less engaging or worthy of water-cooler discussion, but “S-Town” has been launched with a drastically different release plan.
Instead of making one episode available weekly over the course of three months, the seven installments of “S-Town” were uploaded simultaneously. Anyone who started listening to the story of John B. McLemore and his fraught relationship with his hometown of Woodstock, Ala., when the episodes first appeared at breakfast could have finished well before dinner.
READ MORE: ‘S-Town’ Revealed: Behind the Scenes of the Next Big Podcast From the Makers of ‘Serial’
Other podcasts have made all their episodes available at once, but “S-Town” is the highest profile example of a show bringing a Netflix release model to audio entertainment. Though the show is probably best enjoyed in segments, spaced out at the listener’s discretion, the process listening to the whole series over a 24-hour timespan confirms why this strategy was the only logical avenue for “S-Town.” And aside from being prudent in this particular case, it might just hint at a way forward for all podcasts of its kind.
Recency bias aside, it’s almost impossible to not view part of “S-Town” through the lens of the podcast du jour that it supplanted: “Missing Richard Simmons.” They’re both profiles of men whose exuberance and specific brand of generosity provide a helpful lens through which to view the community of those they affected. Each are biographies told with a distinct personal perspective.
But where “Missing Richard Simmons” strayed after its stellar pilot was in its inability to outrun headlines and to leave the potential for each successive chapter solely in the minds of listeners and not immediately available on their listening device of choice.
By making all seven episodes available at once, “S-Town” shrewdly avoided the murky ethical waters of using a human life as a cliffhanger. Brian Reed and the rest of the “S-Town” team presented their version of McLemore’s story in full, rather than waiting for a subReddit to fill in the gaps between Chapters II and III. The even-the-host-has-no-idea-where-this-is-heading appeal of “Missing Richard Simmons” likely gathered a number of fans who otherwise wouldn’t have tuned in. But that’s a huge storytelling gamble that rarely pays off, one that almost assuredly taints the entire project if its conclusion doesn’t make the case that the risk was necessary and earned.
Because we’re a glutton for twists and shattered realities, that didn’t stop a few outlets from framing their coverage around teasing the authenticity of “S-Town.” And who wouldn’t want to scour the web for pictures of that backyard maze?
But those who listened to more than one episode realized that this was nonfiction reporting that would have suffered from the regular churn of easter-egg hunting and pouncing on each successive character in the story in the absence of the next chapter.
That kind of rampant guessing game is built into the fabric of a show like “Big Little Lies,” which asks an overarching question at the top and teases it throughout. Even the original “Serial” season built the entire pursuit around a simple guilt/innocence dichotomy, playing with how certain camps of listeners fell on either side.
“S-Town” realizes that its hook is John McLemore himself. If anyone who gets through Chapter I isn’t enthralled by the lengthy opinings of this outspoken Alabama polymath, there’s no dominating whodunit to keep them coming back for more. Successive episodes deal with friendship, betrayal, convoluted family entanglements and the everyday tragedy of a life lived in secret. The “S-Town” of Chapter VII is one with different concerns than those of the show’s opening, an evolution that those with the opportunity to listen to it in full can best appreciate. The episode descriptions of “S-Town” are single quotations not to be cheeky or elusive, but purposely vague with the knowledge that, if you’re invested in John’s story, you’re willing to follow wherever it might lead.
Not all serialized podcasts are blessed with the resources and built-in fan base that allowed “S-Town” to use this particular model. It’s surely a luxury to be able to forego that handy news cycle strategy in favor of one that lets listeners discover and discuss the show at their own speed. Shows that have to build an audience from scratch can’t afford to spend years to drop a seven-hour story all at once and hope that the effort was worth it. Still, as podcasting becomes a less fragmented landscape and networks begin to plan how best to deploy their flagship shows, “S-Town” has given those organizations an illustrative test case.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “S-Town” is that it does what few all-at-once forms of entertainment are capable of doing: effectively letting the audience pick their ending. Despite the radical story change at the end of episode 2, a listener could conceivably walk away from the show at any point and experience a completed story. A few installments end with a slight tease of things to come, but these episode endings aren’t the usual “Pass me the remote, we gotta skip the credits” shockers that most TV shows now have baked into their DNA.
Having a show that doesn’t demand to be finished is a risky proposition, especially in an ad-based medium that incentivizes more downloads, more streams and more subscriptions. But in prioritizing McLemore and the people of Woodstock over the mystery that some people might have expected from “S-Town,” the show ensures that it doesn’t suffer the same obligatory plot fulfillments that occasionally cause viewers to lose interest. It’s precisely because “S-Town” doesn’t feel like a weekly chore that audiences will be more likely to return to the show for one more chapter, one more chance to live inside this town and the shifting ways these folks are all connected.
It would be foolish to declare the world of podcasts as a meritocracy, but one lesson of “S-Town” is that character and craft are what keep people listening, not just gimmickry. You can savor these seven chapters as a vivid, finished tapestry or return from time to time to examine each new corner. That flexibility of enjoyment is an admirable goal for podcasts (and all episodic entertainment, really) to strive for, regardless of how each new episode is dished out.