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The new S-Town podcast, from the Serial team, is a real-life Southern gothic

All seven episodes of the highly anticipated podcast are out today — but don’t expect a true crime narrative.

Shittown host Brian Reed explores the dark underbelly of a Southern town.
Andrea Morales / Serial Productions
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

You are now entering Shittown.

That’s what the “S” in S-Town stands for, as we learn in the opening moments of one of the year’s eeriest new podcasts. The just-launched project is the highly anticipated follow-up to 2014’s smash hit Serial, and all seven episodes are available to listen to now.

The details of S-Town’s premise have been shrouded in mystery for months. The show was first announced in November, but apart from a few tantalizing hints about murders and treasure hunts, its story was kept largely under wraps.

So the podcast’s opening revelation that the “S-Town” title is a smokescreen for a something much blunter is a perfect setup for the various bluffs, double bluffs, and unexpected U-turns to come. Hosted by This American Life producer Brian Reed, S-Town is about the real life of one man whose attempt to make a difference in his small Alabama community has sweeping, unexpectedly far-reaching repercussions.

Reed spent several years investigating the story, which began with an email from a This American Life fan and evolved into a mystery within a mystery. The story ultimately takes many unique turns that are best left unspoiled, but in the opening act, a man named John convinces Reed to travel to Alabama to help him investigate a murder. From there, Reed gets caught up in the somewhat baffling idiosyncrasies of Shittown and its residents — and above all, in the idiosyncrasies of John himself.

S-Town is the work of podcast royalty: The first podcast to launch under Serial’s spinoff production company Serial Productions, it is executive-produced by Serial co-creator Julie Snyder, and its editorial team includes longtime This American Life host Ira Glass, Serial host Sarah Koenig, and Starlee Kine, creator of the cult podcast hit Mystery Show.

However, despite its blatant positioning as the heir to the Serial throne, S-Town is not quite the true crime podcast you might be expecting. Instead, it’s an engrossing narrative about the complexities of human behavior. But there are definitely similarities to Serial and other podcasts that deal in real-life intrigue, like the recent controversial Missing Richard Simmons.

Perhaps inevitably, what seems to be a foray into one mystery abruptly veers into a much larger, more somber, and unexpected tale about how the personal is always political, and how change on an individual level can become change on a universal level.

But it really does include a treasure hunt.

S-Town is now streaming on iTunes, apps like Stitcher, and the S-Town website.