The Inhumanity of S-Town

NPR's shot at the great American novel sidesteps moral problems old and new.

S-Town, the abbreviated title of a successful new podcast from Serial and This American Life is more troubling than fascinating. Producer and host Brian Reed–like his urbane forbears, Ira Glass, Sarah Koenig, and Alex Blumberg–purports to peel back the complicated layers of humanity surrounding one John B. Mclemore, an eccentric, misanthropic Alabaman who had contacted Reed to investigate a murder in his hometown of Woodstock. I’m going to give away the show’s big twist: (and in a moment, I’ll explain why I have no qualms in doing so) After the big reveal that the murder never happened in the middle of episode 2–while the show is still playing out like a potboiler in the spirit of its big sister, the hit podcast Serial—just when the promise of a tantalizing mystery is about to go cold, Reed strings the audience along with an irresistible lure: “but by the time this was all over, someone would end up dead.” That death ends up being the horrific suicide of the show’s subject John B. Mclemore by cyanide poisoning. Maybe some things shouldn’t be made into mid-episode teasers.

But that crass moment is the least of S-Town’s ethical problems. It never seems to occur or matter to Reed that his subject is a manic depressive, very likely type 1 bipolar, and in need of treatment, not fame. Reed makes a brief allusion to Mclemore’s “depressive mental state” and gives a few minutes of afterthought to the possibility of mercury poisoning. But whatever the cause, Reed never characterizes Mclemore’s mental state as a debilitating one or that it might have anything to do with his fractured relationships, or even his suicide. Mental illness is not a part of the story Reed tells about John. Instead, incredibly, Reed prefers to explain John’s behavior as a rational response to the fact that people are not outraged enough at the problems going on in the world nor doing enough to help out.

Reed is seduced by the literary type of John: the inspired eccentric, the madman who just might be the last sane person in a mad world. Reed is not alone in succumbing to the perennial temptation to assume some secret genius behind insanity and suicide, but creating a character for a southern gothic short story and documenting an actual person are very different things–no matter how much that person may appear to be a character who stepped right out of such a story. Reed prefers to suggest that Mclemore’s unhappiness must be the result of the same social forces that oppress us all, more or less. His diatribes and written manifestoes against his town and the rest of the world are treated as just dialed up versions of the morning news and just like the rest of us, his only real problems must have come from a lack of self-acceptance. Tellingly, the only thing Reed seems to doubt in John’s account of himself is his aversion to his own sexuality which Reed and a male almost-lover of John’s spins out over an entire episode as a classic case of repressed homosexuality.

That it may be, and all of the above themes could have been explored responsibly, as contributors to and symptoms of Mclemore’s condition, but the fact that the subject of mental illness isn’t even considered as a salient feature of his life is so strange as to require a great suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience (and judging by the show’s success, millions of listeners have happily obliged in this) that nothing else is wrong with him except a sad life As if to cover for it, Reed makes much of John’s genius: his vocabulary, his broad range of interests, his talent at fixing antique clocks, as though someone so smart couldn’t possibly be mentally ill.

I don’t think these issues stem directly from any bad intentions on Brian Reed’s part. Rather, I think they are symptoms of S-Town’s peculiar style of docu-drama, popularized by Serial. What makes these programs so troubling is also what makes them so riveting: the sensation of uncovering a story in real time with everything laid bare, including (or so it seems) the entirety of the reporter’s impressions and motivations. But while Brian Reed, the accidental friend of John Mclemore is well covered, another character remains obscured: Brian Reed the hip young documentarian with his shot at making the next Grey Gardens. In this, S-Town resembles the film Catfish by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, in which the audience is asked to believe that a young, good looking New York filmmaker had an interest in intensifying his romantic online relationship with a mysterious Michigan woman that was completely incidental to the film project he and his roommates were simultaneously building around it.

For another example, take Sarah Koenig of Serial who decided it was all right to reopen a murky investigation into the tragic death of a teenage girl–without the cooperation of her family–and get millions of listeners rooting for the release of the defendant whose innocence is still a matter of pure speculation. Serial’s closest documentary forbear, Errol Morris’s film The Thin Blue Line was indeed instrumental in getting a wrongfully convicted man off of death row. But Morris chose to make that film precisely because the evidence for his subject’s wrongful conviction was so overwhelming. The story was already there. Morris just had to throw light on it. Perhaps for that reason, Morris is also famous for eliminating, as much as possible, his own voice from his interviews. But in the new dispensation of documentary drama, the reporter places himself as a character in the middle of the narrative and so is unavoidably involved in instigating that narrative. Serial was not a story about the murder of Hae Min Lee and the imprisonment of Adnan Syed. It was a story about Sarah Koenig investigating those events. This lens makes it seem like we are behind the scenes and that we’re seeing everything Koenig sees, in real time. But to maintain that illusion, she had to bracket out her most important motivation for hitting the record button: the desire to create the very thing we are listening to. I think this layer of reality is concealed from the audience for the same reasons Reed and Koenig do not dwell on Mclemore’s personality disorder and the sick tragedy of Hae Min Lee’s death and the emotional toll it took on her family. Doing so would force the program to outside of its chosen genre–for Serial, noir potboiler, for S-Town, southern gothic–and then it would be no fun to listen to anymore.

I’m not unsympathetic to this problem. I too was once so enamored with the storytelling of This American Life that during a semester abroad in rural Africa, I took a handheld recorder, hoping to harvest some good art from real life stories: poverty, the wilderness of modernity and all that. But when I got closer to people’s lives and struggles, the fun of producing a great story wore off as I was confronted with the need to console, help, and support, and the two projects were often irreconcilably opposed. My interest was piqued by a local widow when she told me she had exchanged many letters with an inmate from Texas, my home state. My mind went wild with possibilities. Two marginalized people worlds away from each other, without access to the information technology the rest of us take for granted connecting via hand-written letters. I could interview her, get her thoughts and impressions and maybe even a message for him, and then follow up with the inmate when I got home. I began interviewing her before reading any of the letters. But of course, reality is usually much darker than we want it to be, and it only took one letter to understand that his goal was to get her to take and send him pornographic photos of herself. Even sadder, she had obliged in a few cases, and I could only suppose that her motivations were a tangle of loneliness and the hope that this could result in marriage to an American and a ticket out of one of the most impoverished countries in the world. I could have pursued the story where it had taken me, but instead I turned off the tape and tried my best to explain to her what pornography was, that this man did not care for her, that he only wanted to use her image, and advised her to cut off communication with him. Moreover, I decided that a large audience did not need to hear about this, especially not in the form of entertaining radio, with music, thoughtful narration, and carefully spaced out plot beats. I realized too that her willingness to expose her thoughts to me, a strange American with a recorder, were likely the same as her decision to expose her body to another strange American with her mailing address. I realized too that my interest in her as a person was too tangled up in my desire to get a good story, moreover to produce her story in a poignant, entertaining way. This goes beyond journalistic ethics into the very occasion for a friendship between two people. Issues of privilege between a New York reporter and a rural Alabaman may not present themselves quite so starkly, but they are there nonetheless, particularly when mental illness is factored in. Which is why it troubles me that it wasn’t.

How much did the motivation to create an artful radio program factor into Reed’s judgment to take such an interest in the life of a town eccentric and pursue his story wherever it leads? Is Reed investigating or placating? That the answers are impossible to determine doesn’t make them unimportant questions with real-world consequences. All Reed has to do is take a principled stand behind his art and leave it at that because Art Is Good and these days interviewing people is art. But because this particular art requires the artist to be directly involved in relationship to his subjects, another character in the play, there are uncomfortable implications. For instance, Reed exhaustively investigates how Mclemore’s disintegrating relationships might have influenced his decision to commit suicide, but he is silent on his own potential contribution: how having the ear of a National Public Radio producer is a tempting amplifier for a suicidal man’s cry for help. Instead, we are plunged into monologues replete with Jorge Luis Borges-like metaphors waxing on about the labyrinth of human consciousness and meditations on the nature of time. The influence of the reporter holding the microphone right in front of the suicidal man is apparently irrelevant.

S-Town like Serial, before it, requires a willful obliviousness to some very basic and painful realities of human life to sustain the thrilling illusion that they are documenting the mysteries of existence in real time. It all-too-easily results in a disturbing lack of solidarity with its subjects, particularly vulnerable ones. On one level, it’s just an updated version of the ethical quandary explored in the film Capote, wherein the famous author exploits a convicted murderer in his rush to write novelistic nonfiction. But this time, the problems are in the air not just in the auteur. That our media landscape today is saturated with similar programs like Making a Murderer and The Jinx makes it difficult to separate truth from entertainment and, ironically, to account for the frame through which we get our stories; the very thing post-modernism was supposed to help us do. Our strident confidence in the power of first-person narrative has led us to assume that real life fits easily within literary genre conventions—whether pulpy or high, it matters little. But getting ten million viewers excitedly asking “who killed Laura Palmer?” is a different thing in kind than getting them asking “who killed Hae Min Lee?” Laura Palmer’s murder was conceived to entertain us. Hae Min Lee’s was not, no matter how entertaining it may be to cook up theories about her death. Our present taste for setting reality to the beats of the genre conventions of fiction blurs the two.

S-Town’s problem isn’t objectivity versus subjectivity or even in gaining the consent of its subjects, which its team certainly did as much as possible. It’s about who gets to decide what kind of story its subjects are in and how the the show’s large audience (which, I’d hazard to say skews educated and upper-middle class) has come to uncritically accept a narrow view of humanity and even reality for the sake of fitting our appetites for entertainment. Even Mclemore’s resemblance to a literary character is, to a degree contrived, though not entirely by Reed. Mclemore imbibed just as much Flannery O’Connor and Ambrose Bierce as Reed and his audience had and he was eccentric enough to style himself after the part. The leading metaphors, the story-laden monologues, maybe even the maze he tends were not entirely the result of a man’s singular personality, but also the internalization of the conventions of high modern literature. Even the world of public radio plays a role. Mclemore was a public radio listener and I was struck by how closely the freewheeling direction Mclemore’s stream of consciousness resembled a narration of a newsroll straight from Morning Edition—heat waves in Siberia! Electron particles! Feminism! The opiate of Baptist religion!—all delivered in the entertaining tone of a southern patrician. I do not believe that someone as intelligent as Mclemore could have said “gen-yoo-wine murder!” without some degree of relish. It’s clear that Mclemore’s personality was heavily rehearsed and partially improvised from much of the same source material that inspired Reed’s presentation of him and nourished by the media environment of Reed’s employer. Having the eyes to see these feedback loops in our real-life entertainment and how the insertion of mass media technology into everyday life influences behavior, will help us grasp a fuller picture of Mclemore (and all of the subjects of the docudramas we consume) as the product, not only of an tragically flawed, eroding southern culture, but of a media environment that informs and shapes us all, especially our entertainment choices.

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