S-Town and Missing Richard Simmons

Recently, I listened up the popular podcast S-Town and ended up listening to all seven episodes in about 24 hours. This podcast is wonderfully produced and one of the latest projects from the teams behind This American Life and Serial. I was initially hesitant to listen to this show because I wasn’t sure how the show would go. It has been lauded as a true crime podcast and the description of it alludes to it being similar in nature to other popular podcasts like Serial and Missing Richard Simmons. And while the description doesn’t adequately describe the final product of the show, it was an interesting (and sometimes rough) listen.

I wrote about using tragedy as entertainment recently and this podcast, while a beautiful audio production, does delve into the same things I alluded to before. For both Missing Richard Simmons and S-Town, there’s a certain sense of altruistic but ultimately misguided intrusiveness. These shows take the notion of individual privacy and tear it apart in the name of concern and love. During Missing Richard, there’s this sense from Dan Taberski (the host) of whether or not he should be doing the show before coming to the conclusion that he’s doing it from a place of concern and love, regardless of how the show has made Richard feel.

That same sort of mentality is embedded within S-Town too, with an eventual implication that this invasion of privacy was okay because John died and didn’t believe that there was an afterlife when he was alive. But people are entitled to their privacy, even after death and regardless of whether they believe in an afterlife. These shows, and many others like them, seem to cross a line that’s difficult to come back from, especially once put out into the world.

Taberski admits in the last episode of Missing Richard that they had a completely different episode lined up but recent events changed all that. A visit to Richard’s house by the LAPD (which seemed to be spurred by the podcast and its audience) resulted in Taberski feeling better about Richard and how he was doing but that same visit also seemed to clue Taberski into just how large his audience and impact was.

I think S-Town could have been a really great testament to McLemore and his life and Missing Richard Simmons could have been a testament to the impact that Simmons had on others. Instead, we have these shows that are beautifully made but ultimately feel creepy and invasive. Missing Richard has an entire episode that essentially accuses one of Richard’s closest friends of being a witch and holding him hostage with zero backup and understanding of what doing so means in front of a national audience.

With these shows and many others like them, I wonder about the trend of true crime and tragedy as entertainment. I don’t doubt the idea that these podcasts are wonderfully made and it’s evident that the teams behind them put in a ton of work. But there’s this certain feeling of opportunism from the hosts and while they might have the best intentions, it does feel invasive in some way.

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