When Serial's Sarah Koenig debuted the podcast Serial in 2014, its title was a straightforward nod to the structure of the true crime mystery: It was one story, told week by week. The podcast exploded into a phenomenon, which is why so many of its fans were anxious to binge on the Serial team's follow-up series, S-Town, which went live Tuesday — even though no one really knew what, exactly, it would be about. S-Town shares Serial's medium-altering format, although each of its own seven installments dropped at once. And it, too, is a Russian nesting doll of mysteries — specifically, what does S-Town even mean? It might be the only puzzle that's solved swiftly.
S-Town host Brian Reed first encountered the man who would embed himself in the center of his reporting efforts for the next three years back in 2013. "John B. McLemore lives in Sh-ttown, Alabama," screamed the subject line of an email McLemore himself sent to Reed, a senior producer on the radio show This American Life, at the time. In the email, McLemore implored Reed to come investigate police corruption and rumors of a murder cover-up in the hometown he despises. That would be Woodstock, Alabama, a blip on the map that about 1,500 call home.
As he explains in the riveting podcast, Reed, who's been with This American Life since 2011, did call up the eccentric, brilliant McLemore and eventually visit "Sh-ttown" for himself. The story that unfurls there, though, is far from the one he originally set out to pursue — but McLemore's captivating influence never ceases to guide it. And the same is true for the setting of Woodstock, which McLemore tells Reed is a backwards, redneck town with too many churches as well as sex offenders, its people mired in apathy. During the time that Reed spends with him, McLemore rarely lets up on railing against Sh-ttown and everything that goes on within it.
So, Reed and his team couldn't imagine not calling the show that.
"We don’t want to call it this just because it’s provocative. The reason that there’s nothing else to call this [is because] this is like a frame of mind [John] was in," Reed said in an interview with The Huffington Post shortly before the show's March 28 release. "It’s not just a word he used and it was funny. The dude ... this kind of took over his way of seeing the world."
But, as S-Town producer Julie Snyder told the publication, actually using a swear word in the title — as much as the team wanted to — wouldn't work. Someone pointed out to her, she said, that the podcast would have a name newspapers couldn't even print, as prospect to her that seemed "lame and cloying." And so S-Town was born.
It was a clever name for a clever show — one that will surely hook its listeners from the get-go.