By Kristen Bahler
March 28, 2017

Until today, the details surrounding the new podcast S-Town were shrouded in mystery.

That was deliberate, of course. The series, produced by the team behind Serial and This American Life, is driven by a startling narrative that works best if you know almost nothing about it. And, true to Serial-style hype, a vague preview clip managed to drum up enough subscriptions to push it to the top of the iTunes podcast chart nearly two weeks before its release. All seven episodes dropped today, and they don’t disappoint. Here are three quick hits to whet your appetite.

1. There’s hidden treasure.

S-Town opens with the story of “John B,” a liberal existentialist stuck in a rural Alabama town he deeply despises. John works in antique clock restoration and is on a mission to expose a murder he says has been ignored by local law enforcement. He’s got some peculiar money habits — like a distrust for banks that has prompted him to keep money hidden around his house rather than in a savings account.

A few episodes in, S-Town morphs into something completely different. A bitter family feud leads to a treasure hunt for John’s fortune–solid gold rumored to be hidden somewhere in his house (a real treasure hunt! for real gold!)–recounted by This American Life alumnus Brian Reed in the same dramatic, narrator-as-character fashion that Serial fans will recognize.

2. But this isn’t Serial.

Stylistically, though, S-Town is in a category of its own. Unlike Adnan Syad’s story in Serial, which viewers got a piece of every week, S-Town listeners can listen to the entire series in one big, binge-worthy chunk.

“This felt like the right way to experience the story,” says Julie Snyder, executive producer of S-Town and co-creator of Serial. What makes S-Town a gripping series, she says, “isn’t narrative tension, but the people in it, and being a part of their world.” John B. is front and center, but he’s also joined by Tyler, a close family friend who John loves like a son, an elderly mother on the brink of dementia, and a rotating cast of loud-mouthed townies whose personalities range from morally questionable to potentially murderous.

3. There’s a hidden money moral everyone should learn.

S-Town’s pace is also slower than Serial, but the big reveals are worth the wait. Unlike other podcasts, the mind-bending narrative comes from the story itself–and the character driving it–rather than post-production magic. Snyder says that’s largely because the plot only recently revealed itself, despite being on the producers’ radar for several years.

“When [Reed] first had to get permission to fly down to Alabama three years ago, it was very unclear what the story was,” she says. “But things kept happening, and he felt like he had to make sense of them.”

By the series conclusion, Reed learns a great deal about trust, loneliness, and the murkiness of personal wealth. We won’t spoil the ending, but if MONEY had to pick a moral, it’d be one we’ve harped on for years: Make a living will. ASAP.

Julie Snyder and Brian Reed of Serial Productions
Elise Bergerson

 

All 7 episodes of S-Town are available to stream or download on the podcast’s website.

 

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