S-Town threads listeners through Alabama wilderness and the mind of a genius

Image: Stownpodcast.org (Art: Valero Doval)
Image: Stownpodcast.org (Art: Valero Doval)

In Podmass, The A.V. Club sifts through the ever-expanding world of podcasts and recommends the previous week’s best episodes. Have your own favorite? Let us know in the comments or at podmass@avclub.com.

A Podmass series spotlight
S-Town

Note: This review contains major plot points of S-Town. You’ve been warned.

The new collaboration between Serial and This American Life starts as a murder mystery, and that’s kind of how it ends. But the twists and turns that happen between episodes one and seven of this true-crime narrative hosted by Brian Reed rival any fictional mystery. In a rare podcast move, every episode was dropped at once, so it takes just over seven hours to go from start to completely surprising finish of the story of clockmaker John B. McLemore.

The story begins with an email from McLemore to Reed claiming that there is an unsolved murder that has taken place in the town of Woodstock, Alabama—better known throughout the remainder of the series as Shit Town. It seems like a similar setup to Serial from the start: A single mystery with complicated twists and turns, complete with a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the relationships that build between journalists and their sources. But the result is something much more focused on the relationship. S-Town becomes about Reed uncovering the depths of McLemore’s life, the complicated connections he built with the other residents of Woodstock, and the clues to his fortune that may or may not exist in the giant rose hedge maze he grew in his backyard. By episode three the original murder is solved—in fact, there wasn’t even a murder to begin with. What’s at the core of the series is actually a gut-wrenching study of mental illness and secrecy in a small town.

S-Town benefits from binge-listening because it has so many twists to offer. The end of every episode is a sharp left turn that is compelling because it wasn’t manufactured—it was just part of the crazy story one journalist followed for years. Unlike the more professional and buttoned-up Serial, this podcast becomes emotionally raw—Reed is up-front and vulnerable about his feelings toward the main subject he spent years corresponding with. And also unlike Serial, listeners can go into this series knowing that the story was crafted around a definitive ending, no matter how satisfying or unsatisfying it may be. Overall, the beautifully reported and produced show is setting a new precedent for how long-form investigative narrative audio journalism should be shared with the masses.

99% Invisible
Manzanar

It’s the late ’60s, and twentysomething Warren Furutani is on a quest to find evidence of wartime prison camps for Japanese-Americans. He knows these places once existed; his parents met within one, after all. But his attempts to pump elders for info about the camps were met with anger over dredging up the past. By the end the decade he hit pay dirt, unearthing the site of Manzanar, once an enclosed city more than 100,000 high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This discovery would prove to be only the beginning of Furutani’s efforts, and he spent the next several decades seeking official recognition of the location and admission of its purpose. Success has proved to be no less acrimonious than Furutani’s exploration, generating constant debate over how to represent what when on at Manzanar. The evident parallels between this story and the modern-day surveillance of Muslims adds another layer to a debate never quite settled.

Go Bayside!
Saved By The Bell: Wedding In Las Vegas With Paul F. Tompkins

“This is a piece of shit! It didn’t have to be this bad! Nothing has to be this bad!” So screams the great Paul F. Tompkins about Saved By The Bell: Wedding In Las Vegas, the venerable teen sitcom’s swan song. This hilarious, free-flowing breakdown of the 1994 TV movie is also the swan song of comedian April Richardson’s Go Bayside!, a long-running podcast that achieved the unthinkable by devoting at least an hour’s worth of conversation to every single Saved By The Bell episode (outside of The College Years and Good Morning, Miss Bliss eras). This finale serves as a lovely send-off, not just for the presence of Tompkins, but for its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, entirely justified by the duo’s amazing stories. Richardson indulges in hilarious tangents about dating a men’s rights activist, dealing with foot fetishists, and the peculiarities of Southern etiquette. Of course, all of these tie back to Saved By The Bell: Wedding In Las Vegas, a film that burns away the brain cells of both hosts in ways that are endlessly amusing.

Maltin On Movies
Dax Shepard

Joining established film critic Leonard Maltin and his daughter Jessie this week is Dax Shepard, the writer, director, and star of the new CHIPS film. Both Leonard and Jessie have a clear enthusiasm for Shepard’s work, and when combined with the latter’s easy charm and sense of humor, all three share a fun dynamic. Shepard—known for both his role on Parenthood and as the spouse of Kristen Bell—breezily relays his experience as a former addict, his friendship with Bradley Cooper, and the practical concerns of pitching and forming a movie. The three of them spend a bit of time discussing Hit And Run, Shepard’s earlier foray into writing, directing, and acting, and Shepard offers interesting insights into juggling three major production roles at once, especially on a larger production such as this cinematic redux of ’70s icon CHIPS. With Maltin’s expert steering of the conversation, Shepard manages to cover a wide range of the production elements of his latest film.

Sawbones
Dr. James Barry

Born in Cork, Ireland around the year 1789, James Barry grew up to become a respected British military surgeon. And that might have been all history remembered about Dr. Barry had it not been for the woman prepping his body for burial after his death who discovered his lifelong secret: he was a woman. Barry began life as Margaret Ann Bulkley; most professions were off-limits to women at the time, so after her father deserted the family, Margaret, with the help of some family friends, hatched a plan to enroll in medical school as a man. It was a ruse she kept up the rest of her life. This begs the ticklish question of gender identity, and the hosts get into a bit of navel-gazing discussing whether Barry was transgender or merely a skilled (and dedicated) opportunist. But far more interesting are the accounts of Barry’s life as a military doctor, which include performing an early successful C-section in Africa (to a baby that would later grow up to be Prime Minister of South Africa) and chewing out Florence Nightingale in public—all while hiding his biological sex from the world.

The Bechdel Cast
Gigli With Josh Fadem

In one of their best episodes to date, Jamie Loftus and Caitlin Durante of The Bechdel Cast are joined by comedian Josh Fadem to discuss 2003’s wildly problematic Gigli starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. Listeners are treated to some over-the-top impressions when the trio takes turns performing the movie’s most absurd monologues. Durante is quite vocal about how much she hated the movie, while Loftus is just as outspoken about how much fun she had watching it. Fadem, a self-proclaimed cinephile, has a deep love for Gigli, and is quick to excuse its backwards ideas as a product of “innocent times.” Fadem’s enthusiasm is palpable throughout, his energy and humor adding to the episode’s momentum, while Loftus describes the movie as “a tone poem with a lot of horny depth”—the exact kind of phrase guaranteed to be heard only on this show.

The IRE Radio Podcast
Not-So-Special Education

The podcast for the society of Investigative Reporters And Editors dropped a new episode this week after several months of inactivity, and it’s worth the wait. Former Houston Chronicle reporter Brian Rosenthal details his months-long investigation into a secret state education policy. It began with a tip Rosenthal initially regarded as fantastic: Texas schools were systematically harming special education students. But when he started to look into it, he found the numbers didn’t make sense. The percentage of Texas students enrolled in special ed programs was well below the national average, with no apparent explanation for the discrepancy. The Texas Education Agency wouldn’t speak with Rosenthal and denied most of his records requests, but the little he did access painted a chilling picture. Through Rosenthal’s reporting, listeners learn about an “accountability system” encouraging school districts to cap the number of kids in special education classes, forcing autistic and disabled students into the general population—often with disastrous results.

They Call Us Bruce
Lewis Tan

With the recent controversial casting choices in Doctor Strange, Iron Fist, and most recently Ghost In The Shell, the spotlight on Hollywood’s whitewashing of Asian characters has never been brighter. Longtime culture writers Jeff Yang and Phil Yu have chosen this cultural moment to launch They Call Us Bruce, their brand-new podcast focusing on life from an Asian-American perspective. On this week’s episode, Yang and Yu have a thoughtful talk with actor Lewis Tan, whose story has been making the rounds online of late: he had originally read for the lead role of Danny Rand in Iron Fist before the eventual casting of white actor Finn Jones. While Tan, the son of revered actor/stuntman/fight choreographer Philip Tan, did end up getting cast on the show, it was in a greatly diminished villain role. Tan and the hosts have a lot to say on the matter, and thanks to a bottle of Hello Kitty wine, little is held back in their hilariously frank and awkward conversations. There is great charm and fun found in the company of Yang and Yu, making this program as entertaining as it is necessary.

With Friends Like These
“If You’re Worried About The Future, Look At The Past”

Ana Marie Cox is in equal measures an odd choice and a perfect match for the Crooked Media family. Unlike the other hosts featured on the nascent podcasting network, she didn’t make her bones in the Obama administration, nor as any sort of D.C. staffer; she started her career in the fourth estate, and there she has stayed. However, as the founding editor of Wonkette in 2004, she helped till the fields from which sprang our current bumper crop of sharp and irreverent political commentary projects like Pod Save America. With Friends Like These is considerably less acerbic fare than Crooked Media’s other shows: Cox—a liberal who married a conservative—spends her weekly hour encouraging conversation and comity between the two warring ideological factions. In this episode, she asks Mythbusters’ Adam Savage to help her respond to a query from a listener whose sister has fallen into a sinkhole of Pizzagate-esque conspiracy theories. And though her guest is an outspoken skeptic, the two wind up comparing notes about how you sometimes have to give up on being right.

Your Kickstarter Sucks
Fishy Flip

The podcast adaptation of the popular Tumblr Your Kickstarter Sucks—hosted by creators Michael Hale and Jesse Farrar (best known as their Twitter handles @dogboner and @BronzeHammer, respectively)—has been strong from the jump, but the eighth installment finds the show really hitting its stride. The duo’s on-air chemistry is top-notch, so there’s a lot of funny packed into the long, rambling intro, and while the actual Kickstarter projects discussed in this episode are not among the most memorable to appear on the show, the riffs that pop up along the way certainly are. Hale seems to be in an especially goofy mood, and at no point is that more obvious than when he sabotages his own attempts to trick his co-host in a spectacular rendition of “real or fake?” and convince Farrar that Sporanges (“a new kind of orange”) might actually be a real Kickstarter project. Hale is clearly tickled by his own joke, and his fits of laughter are the perfect cap to a solid 90 minutes of astounding, hilarious stupidity.