S-Town (or "Shit Town") is an investigative journalism podcast hosted by Brian Reed, and created by the producers of Serial and This American Life. The entire story was released at once on March 28, 2017, comprising seven chapters.
In 2014, John B. McLemore contacted Brian Reed, a producer of This American Life, requesting the show investigate the police corruption in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama (which John calls "Shit Town") as well as a murder committed there by Kabrahm Burt, the son of a powerful family who not only escaped prosecution but repeatedly bragged about his deed afterwards. After months of sporadic emails between John and Reed, they agree to meet in Woodstock to investigate the matter. John quickly reveals himself to be a fascinating figure in his own right: an eccentric yet quite intelligent polymath horologist clearly at odds with his environment. Brian and the listener is then taken on a journey through the curious town and the richness of a man's life hiding just underneath the surface.
Warning: merely classifying the plot of S-Town is enough to spoil a lot of the twists the story takes so expect lots of unmarked spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
- Anachronic Order: After the second episode, the series tends to jump around in time, which helps group plotlines together but also helps facilitate a number of surprises and red herrings.
- Bait-and-Switch: The show's heavy ties to Serial along with the murder case hook heavily imply this is going to be a true crime investigation. Episode 1 casts into heavy doubt whether the murder happened at all and Episode 2 outright confirms it didn't midway through, after which the plot becomes mostly about John's life and the impact of his suicide.
- Birth/Death Juxtaposition: The series ends with passages from John's suicide note, immediately followed by a short history of John's ancestors ending with a scene of John's pregnant mother pleading God to make her child a genius.
- Boomerang Bigot: John states that everyone with tattoos is trash, but is later revealed to be covered in tattoos himself, which he has a complicated relationship with.
- Bourgeois Bohemian: Reed is assumed to be this by several characters. The local business owner accuses him of being a liberal from up north who got pissed off at the election of Trump. John assumes that Reed has much more resources at his disposal than he does. In his narration, Reed occasionally expresses disgust at the racist and homophobic things that some residents say and generally displays exactly as much cultural alienation as you'd expect from a producer of public radio from New York interacting with small-town Alabamans.
- Cerebus Retcon: Later episodes cast darker light on John's prior benevolent actions:
- John has taken Tyler under his wing with the the hopes of helping him make something for himself. John is later revealed to have a history of doing this to people he may or may not be attracted to and getting incredibly jealous when they start having lives that don't revolve around him.
- Despite despising tattoos, he has had his chest repeatedly tattooed in order to keep the tattoo owner still in business. It's revealed in the final episode that despite that being his original intent, at some point he started getting addicted to the pain in the tattooing process, in what is either a form of self-harm or masochism.
- A Certain Point of View: One of the most important running themes in S-Town is that everyone has a completely different perspective on everything, and a lot of the drama in the series comes from when people with absolutely nothing in common have to try to agree on something.
- Corrupt Hick: John starts the podcast by accusing the local sheriff of being in the pocket of the local rich lumber family. There's no indication that this is true.
- The Friend Nobody Likes: Discussed. John claims that all his friends have died. He does spend time with the local ne'er-do-wells, but he's older, smarter and has much different views on things than they do. He tends to lecture them about various academic and political topics. They state that they do like John, but that a little of him can go a long way.
- Friend Versus Lover: revealed to be a dynamic of several of John's relationships: he would become incredibly close with someone, but become jealous and poison that relationship if they, for instance, became romantically involved with someone else.
- Genre Roulette: All over the place. Is it a Detective Drama starring an Intrepid Reporter? A Documentary about social decay in the Deep South? A Southern Gothic commentary on the inhumanity of man to man? A tragedy about a community trying to come to terms with the tragic death of the town eccentric? A Surreal Horror story about a man's slow descent into madness? A thought experiment on the importance of bias and perspective? A Coming-Out Story Gone Horribly Wrong? All? None? Convincing arguments can be made for any of the above positions.
- Gold Digger: Tyler accuses "the cousins" from Florida of being opportunistic, manipulative carpetbaggers who only show up to get John's money from his mother. The cousins, meanwhile, accuse Tyler of being a parasite who has tried to leech off of John's money and good graces. He also literally tries to dig up gold out of John's property after John's suicide.
- Good All Along: More or less the case with the Lawrences, John's cousins who arrive after his death. For about two episodes, all we get are Tyler's version of their behavior, accusing them of being callous gold diggers, which colors Reed's perception of them. When they finally speak on record, they reveal that they're really just a normal, loving couple who would rather not be dealing with all this hassle. That said, they don't totally dispel the accusations.
- The Klan: Woodstock was once a hotbed for the Klan, and it still shows. Reed finds a disturbing amount of KKK graffiti under the local bridge, and residents throughout the area are rather cavalier about racist remarks. The local lumber mill is suspiciously called "K3 Lumber". The owner has three sons, each with a name beginning with K, but when asked if his company is named for the KKK, he neither confirms nor denies.
- Motif: Clocks. John is a skilled horologist, and Reed ties n the measure and passage of time throughout the story.
- No Bisexuals: Despite John professing to be bisexual in several different ways many times, Brian always refers to him as "homosexual".
- Posthumous Character: John himself dies at the end of Chapter 2 but the entire show still revolves around him.
- Red Herring: There are a dozen potential plot threads that get set up and either get debunked or go nowhere. Some notable examples include:
- The murder of Dylon Nichols and ensuing cover-up, which starts off the whole podcast, didn't happen. The podcast quickly transitions into something else.
- Finding John's gold. No one finds it, at least on record.
- Tyler and the cousins' fight over John's estate and the property that Tyler claims is his. There is no resolution before the series ends, though Tyler would eventually be charged with 5 years of probation for theft.
- The conflicting statements made by the county clerk, John's lawyer, and several of John's old, distant friends. We never find out who was telling the truth, and nothing comes of it.
- Secretly Wealthy: John lives like a pauper, but is also known to make large purchases and never seems to worry about money. He occasionally makes oblique references to burying gold around his property and having to "dig up" some money for an impending purchase. He made good money restoring old clocks, so it's widely speculated that John might have lots of money, maybe even millions of dollars, stashed on his property in gold bars. People trying to find his money drives several episodes of the series after his death.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: John loves to show off his vocabulary, and Reed admits that he had to look up a word John uses.
- Shout-Out: John recommends that Brian Reed read "A Rose for Emily" in the first episode, and each episode ends with "A Rose for Emily" by The Zombies. The story mirrors the podcast's story in a number of ways: Both are tragic stories set in the South, about a mysterious, troubled and independently wealthy individual who is primarily examined through flashbacks after the person's death. The romantic difficulties of the individual take the forefront. Both stories also involve the arrival of interfering cousins.
- Shut Up, Kirk!: At one point, Brian asks the owner of K3 Lumber point blank if the name of the company is a reference to the Klan. At the time there was controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments (John's suicide happened the same month as the Charlestown Church shooting that sparked the removal movement), Kendall Burt shrugs the question off by casually calling Brian a "liberal" as if it's an insult.
- Southern-Fried Genius: John B. spent all of his life in Alabama and is later revealed to be a college dropout but was well-versed in several fields, such as botany, physics, chemistry and environmental science. He was also one of the most skilled antiquarian horologists in the country, possibly the world. A number of people call him a genius.
- Southern Gothic: The series is commonly described as this. Considering it centers on a small town in the Deep South with a close-knit, somewhat insular community mired in social problems and economic decay, it's a fair characterization. The ending theme is even The Zombies' "A Rose for Emily" (which is of course a Shout-Out to "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner, a defining work of Southern Gothic literature).
- Sympathetic P.O.V.: One of the key elements of the podcast is how actions, when seen from one person's perspective might seem laudable and understandable, seem suspicious and malevolent to another. The conflict between Tyler and the cousins from Florida is the prime example, though there are many more.
- Tattooed Crook: John says that he hates tattoos and that anyone who gets a tattoo is trash. He lambastes people for getting tattoos even though he hands around at a tattoo parlor. It's later revealed that he's covered in tattoos himself, though that has a fairly complicated origin.
- The Unreveal: Very little gets resolved. Some things include:
- Was John rich, and if so, what happened to his money?
- Was John's mental illness at least partially attributable to mercury poisoning?
- Wham Episode: Chapter 2: Brian casually admits the murder didn't happen midway through the episode and at the end John is revealed to have committed suicide, sending the real plot into motion.
- Wham Line:
Brian: [...] Kabrahm Burt didn't murder anybody. But also, [...] before this is all over, someone will end up dead.
- From the middle of Chapter 2:
- And at the end of Chapter 2:Skylar: John B. killed himself Monday night.