Shit Towns, Good Stories | The Golden Age in Podcasting

February 27th 1991, director David Lynch went on the Late Night Show with David Letterman to discuss the second season of Twin Peaks, his beloved murder-mystery drama. Only a few hours earlier, the show had been put on hiatus, so his tolerance for Letterman’s typical talk-show badinage was low. He would permit maybe sixty seconds worth of jokes at his expense, but once the opportunity arose, he reached into the breast pocket of his grey shirt to produce a small yellow sheet of paper.

“If [the show] has to end, y’know that’s alright,” he told the host in his awkwardly polite nasal voice. “But if it doesn’t have to end that’s even better.”

“I’m asking people to write to Bob Iger, the President of ABC and if I could, could I give- uh- his address.”

Letterman chuckled with bemusement as Lynch read aloud Iger’s address. It was television gold, Lynch pleading viewers to give the series a second chance. What he saw as the solution to a decline in popularity was the time slot. Twin Peaks was being shown over the weekends, and according to Lynch, his viewers were party people. They went out on Saturday nights. No, the show could only survive if inserted into the weekday schedule.

Of course, time was only one hindrance. Another contributing factor had been the apparent frustration from fans at his decision not to reveal, at the end of the first season the central question posed in the premise: Who killed the Prom Queen, Laura Palmer?

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David Lynch, image source

This part of the problem was not raised over the course of the interview, and the reason it was not brought up was because the network had forced him into meeting that expectation a few months earlier. They wanted him to identify the killer, and give him a tangible body. He had not wanted to do so. Such an outcome had never been his intention in the conception of Twin Peaks.

That is the story of network television though. There is only a limited amount of creative freedom one can be allowed, before a producer decides to intervene and in the end we discovered that Leland Palmer had committed the act. This big reveal was made in December, at which point, the second season had barely hit the halfway point. Yet, here was Lynch asking, if at all possible that the show keep going. Even after the plot had officially concluded, he saw the making of many new meals in among the leftovers. There were more episodes, a feature length film, a series of books, one spin-off that would eventually become ‘Mulholland Dr.’ and a third season, which is now less than a month away.

How could this be possible? We knew who killed Laura, why was he determined to continue the saga?

The fact is that Twin Peaks was never about the plot. Rather than solve the mystery, Lynch envisaged a show that expanded outwards in multiple directions, exploring the stories of those lives affected by the event. He was not concerned with the investigation, but the investigators. He was not interested in what witnesses saw. He wanted to see what made them tick. After all, it was a show called, Twin Peaks, not Who Killed Laura Palmer? It was about a place with stories, not a single story in a place, and this is precisely why people have long called out for a continuation of the original series. They wanted stories, not plot, because that is what people love.

People gravitate towards story, because it is where the meat lies, whether in film or literature, fiction or non-fiction. Naturally, this may seem a given in the context of fiction. In journalism, however, it is an unappreciated factor as to what can make a piece of reporting categorically great, as opposed to just being important.

During the latest of his appearances on the Longform podcast, author Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down with Evan Ratliff, of the Atavist Magazine to discuss what he felt to be the true strength in his narrative reportage. As an outspoken writer on the subject of racial tension in American politics and society, surprisingly enough Coates did not heap as much value onto the idea of the topic, as much as he did the stories themselves.

The “human stories” were what, he said made there be “beauty in the reporting.” While empirical data or facts would hammer home a certain point on the subject, what resonated were the direct experiences of people within the wide frame. Across each of his works, ‘The Case for Reparations,’ ‘My President Was Black’ or ‘Between the World and Me,’ he admitted that his reason for writing these works was only part inspired by the larger subjects of housing reparations, race in politics and police brutality. In actuality, he would not have followed through on these ideas had it not been for the characters involved, Clyde Ross, Prince Jones, and Barack Obama.

This is precisely why This American Life producer Brian Reed struck gold with his podcast series, ‘Shit Town,’ which came out last month as a Serial Production, and has already been downloaded 20 million times.

Split into seven parts, all released simultaneously as if a Netflix original, the intention to prevent spoilers ‘Shit Town’ is about Woodstock, a small town in Bib County, Alabama as perceived by one man, John B. McLemore, while also being about how the town perceives him.

A horologist by trade, McLemore’s reason for contacting Reed is a Who Killed Laura Palmer situation.

“Somethin’s happened,” he tells Reed over the phone. “Somethin’ has absolutely happened in this town. There’s just too much little crap from somethin’ not to have happened, an’ I’m about had enough o’ Shit Town an’ the things that goes on.”

Shit Town - HeadStuff.org
Image source

What he is talking about specifically are two potential cases of corruption within Woodstock, which illustrate its moral decay. The first is a rumour that a local police officer had forced women to give him sexual favours. The second, he says is a possible murder-conspiracy connected to one of the town’s best-known families, the Burts and their son, Kabrahm who may, or may not have killed a teenager named Dylan Nichols.

These were the reasons McLemore wanted Reed to come visit. Needless to say, since he was basing his suspicions on hearsay and open-ended mumblings, the tips were as watertight as a string vest. Still, there seemed something rich worth tracking in Woodstock, and after a few months corresponding, Reed was down, first snooping about for clues, then finding himself on something of a wild goose chase, then finally, studying the goose himself.

“Is he just a bored guy who contacted me on a lark and never expected me to follow through?” Reed reflected in one early segment. “Is this murder not real and he knows it? It’s not only the fact that right now he’s pouring potassium cyanide into a bucket in front of me that makes me wonder this. It’s all the little moments from our conversations over the months that I’ve ignored or written off as one of John’s quirks.”

The telling moment is when a number of locals suggest that Kabrahm will likely spill every detail were Reed to ask him. This happens in episode one, and Reed aware of how early this idea has come addresses it with excuses. He is not ready to confront the alleged killer. He does not think it is safe, he “pusses out” while there are another six episodes to go. But, by episode two, he goes through with the plan and approaches Kabrahm, and so he ends the plot. Not only does Kabrahm openly discuss what happened on the night in question, but he also points out that nobody actually died, nor was the supposed victim even involved. It is anti-climactic to say the least.

This however, is not the point of ‘Shit Town.’ It is not about going from point A to B, but the colour in between, specifically the character who gave the tip, John B. McLemore who has committed suicide by the end of the second episode. So, what we see is a risk, Reed chancing his arm at abandoning the plot, which does not need to end given that there is still the loose end in the shape of the sexual predator within the police force and who was never mentioned again.

What Reed does though is straight out of the Twin Peaks playbook. He creates a complex biography around the man who gave the tip, seeking to make sense of McLemore’s life via his closest friends, his wayward relatives, various local authorities and a former male love, whom Reed interviews despite this being an area McLemore wanted to keep off the record.

Edited to fit a literary style, Reed opens up new possibilities for narrative podcasting by going against the spontaneous style of his contemporaries, such as ‘Serial’ or ‘Missing Richard Simmons,’ which start from scratch each week and were conceived with the possibility of there being a clean cut ending. ‘Shit Town’ on the other hand cannot have a conclusion, because it is purely speculative and open to varied readings. The series may have its flaws, ethically especially, but in defying convention and abandoning its plot, there is the possibility that this could be one of the few podcasts that will stand the test of time and serve as a definitive milestone when we inevitably talk about the ‘Golden Age in Podcasting.’

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