Shit Town, known as S Town in its marketing because the US is a country full of prudes whose heads will explode if they hear the word “shit” in public, is a remarkable new podcast from This American Life. It is unlike any other podcast I’ve heard so far, in fact. If you were one of the many people put off by the second season of Serial and have decided to pass on Shit Town (I mean S Town) I strongly suggest you give this one at least two episodes.
Some mild SPOILERS are coming. I suggest not reading any further until you’ve listened to at least the first three episodes.
Shit Town begins as a murder mystery – did the son of a rich family get away with murder? – but slowly turns into an extremely in depth portrait of one man’s struggle with genius, homosexuality, and mental illness. Though the initial murder mystery turns out to be a total red herring, there is actually a greater, more personal (less sinister) mystery at the heard of the story of John B, and it’s worth sticking through to the final episode to find out what that is. (And it’s not just, “was he rich?”)
What Shit Town gets right is the details, not just about John B. himself but about life in rural America and, particularly, family feuds (though, in this case, the feuding parties are not related by blood). Rarely has a feud been so exposed for the misunderstanding it really is than in Shit Town. Our idea of John B and the eponymous “Shit Town” itself also radically change throughout the podcast, as the story is told masterfully, making even little, insignificant details feel like big reveals. And the show has moments of unbelievable power I thought I could only get from drama or really good film documentaries: John B’s suicide and funeral are devastating, as is the final reveal about why he was likely the way he was. I really got wrapped up in this guy’s life.
Some people have accused Shit Town of being invasive. I disagree with that for a number of reasons:
- John B invited NPR down to “Shit Town.”
- Deciding that John B wasn’t mentally capable of consenting to this documentary says that people with mental illnesses don’t have agency (or, as the GF put it, it infantilizes them).
- Most American media is completely okay with tabloid style privacy invasions of celebrities, which give brief flashes of how they live and do not paint portraits. This is an extremely in depth and nuanced – and rather flattering – portrait of one man. Unless you come to this with certain preconceived notions that gay people are evil, or people who swear a lot are evil, I have a hard time imagining you will come away from this believing that John B was anything less than human. It’s a much fairer portrait of John B than most celebrities get.
- We have films that are this invasive and we’ve certainly had numerous written articles and books that are this invasive. How is a radio documentary different? Either object to them all or none of them.
Anyway, this is a unique, special podcast. One of the best I’ve heard so far. Take the 10 hours (or whatever) and listen to this remarkable portrait of a very smart, very kind but very troubled man.