#QuestusReviewus S-Town by Anna Mass

Prior to S-town, the only podcasts I had listened to were “Stuff you should know” and NPR politics podcast. S-Town showed me a completely different side of podcasts that I had not yet experienced, and in turn completely changed my perceptions of podcasts in general and ideas about what successful podcasts are able accomplish. Brian Reed’s S-Town podcast was the first narrative based podcast I had listened to, and it made me realize that podcasts can be a very effective way of telling a story. If John B. McLemore’s life had been made into a movie, I do not think it would have been nearly as successful as the S-Town podcast. The incorporation of phone calls between Brian Reed and John B. McLemore, the accents of Woodstock, Alabama, and dialogue between Brian Reed, our host, and the people of Woodstock collectively make it difficult for me to find off the time to turn off S-Town.


The first episode of S-Town was crucial in making me want to continue to binge the podcast, and even encouraged me to make my boyfriend listen to the first three episodes so we could binge the remaining episodes in the car during the drive to Charleston that weekend. When listening to the few episodes of S-Town, I realized one major difference between S-Town and the other podcasts I had listen to prior to this one: the development of characters. Listeners really got to know the depths, secrets, and private lives of many of the major characters in the podcast. Although this aspect of the podcast kept me more interested and engaged, I definitely feel like this development that kept expanding as the podcast progressed made it seem less goal-oriented in solving many of the podcasts unanswered questions.


While the ending of S-Town may have seemed ambiguous and left us listeners with more questions than we originally started with, I think Brian Reed’s purpose all along was to tell listeners about the much different life of an incredible man in Woodstock, Alabama who lived a life that seems only imaginable in America 50-60 years ago. For an outsider like Brian Reed, the way people lived in Woodstock so simply was fascinating. As narrating from an outsider perspective, Brian Reed was able to incorporate a “case-study” of Woodstock, its murders, and suicides and make it appeal so much to listeners because he is narrating from their perspective. I genuinely think that Brian Reed’s role as an outsider and narrating was crucial in the success of this podcast. This effect as well as the small-town murder crime genre remind me a lot of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, a book I really enjoyed reading senior year of high school.


While listening to S-Town was an incredible experience that encouraged me to listen to Brian Reed’s Serial and even gave me some inspiration for my final project, I definitely think that S-Town deserves criticism for the lack of ethics incorporated into the show. When listening to the first episode of S-Town, I was surprised at the amount of information given to listeners about John B. Mclemore’s life, such as giving almost the exact coordinates of his maze which in turn allowed reddit users to find his house on Google Maps after only a short period of time (https://www.reddit.com/r/stownpodcast/comments/7mzus1/decided_to_look_up_john_bs_house_on_google_maps/). S-Town exploited the life of John B., Tyler, Rita, and many other of the characters, and definitely went a bit far in providing details about their lives, criminal activity, and the town of Woodstock. During the first episode, I even paused the series to google S-Town podcast and hopefully find a little more information about if the podcast was based on a true story or not only to find articles about the current and pasts lawsuits facing S-Town today. Despite S-Town being a “brilliant, complex, and incredibly invasive deep dive into one man’s life, it probably shouldn’t have been made.” As the title of a Vox article beautifully puts it.


Despite the ethical issues and questions raised by S-Town, I have already recommended the podcasts to friends and family. The unclear and ever-changing questions raised in the podcast keep listeners engaged, on their toes, and make them eager to listen more which makes S-Town a must-listen for all podcast lovers.

The OA Questus Reviews – Anna Mass

Angels, supernatural elements, and thoughts regarding an afterlife and death have always felt ambiguous and far away from the reality that I and so many others live in. The OA, while maybe far-fetched and a bit hard to comprehend at times, made these elements feel closer to me and to my reality partially due to the suburban setting which contained such normal characters who lived normal lives and dealt with normal problems. To be more specific, Prairie, who prefers to be called “The OA”, is the daughter of a successful Russian oligarch and was once-blind, but can now see. Her insane experiences and story contrasts nicely with the quiet, suburban setting where the biggest issue is a degenerate high school bully named Steve. Due to having a main character who appears to be so supernatural, foreign, and spectacular it was more than necessary for the creators of the show to include characters such as Betty Broderick Allen, Nancy and Abel Johnson, Steve, and Alfonso to show viewers some familiarity and keep them engaged in the show.

The character development of Steve who is a bully, troublemaker, and misunderstood teen can easily remind viewers of someone they knew all too well in high school. Similarly, Alfonso, a jock who appears to have it all because he got a full ride scholarship, struggles with abusing drugs and running a household because his mother, who appears to be a bed-ridden addict, is uncapable of doing so. The addition of high school teacher Betty Broderick Allen (also known as BBA), was especially fascinating because her ability to believe the OA and the five students added such credibility to OA’s story and to the development of the plot. Additionally, it showed a reality that students often forget: teachers deal with hardships, aren’t perfect, are often not as simplistic as people think, and have lives and real challenges to deal with not only inside the classroom, but outside of it as well. While the developments of the listed characters added substance and plot to the show, Jesse and Buck needed to be more developed because unlike the other three people who listened to Prairie’s story, these characters didn’t contain much development or really add much of anything except needed meeting numbers to the plot.

One character I’m still trying to psychoanalyze is Dr. Hunter Aloysius Percy, better known as “HAP”. In the beginning, HAP is portrayed as a curious, understanding, nice man who acts like he wants to help and understand Prairie. After he misleads her into becoming a part of his experiment, he is immediately seen as the show’s antagonist. A few ambiguities that spark my curiosity regarding HAP are the fact that he does show some moments of humanity in the show that are unexpected. Throughout the first season, I almost seemed to notice a development of guilt in HAP. Whenever he told the hospital staff about the people in his friend’s lab I was surprised and am still curious as to why that was included in the show. It makes me wonder if HAP will always stay the shows antagonist or if it could foreshadow changes in HAPs character. Closer to the end of the season, we see the relationship between Homer and Prairie grow into an intense and powerful bond. Throughout the development of their relationship, HAP almost appears to be jealous of their bond and does almost everything he can to break it. HAP shows moments of jealousy when he allows Prairie and the other captives to hear Renata and Homer having sex. Finally, HAP gets so fed up with Homer and Prairie’s relationship that he “sets Prairie free” after Homer and Prairie heal the Sheriff’s wife. These actions by HAP and his evident fondness for Prairie throughout the show make me wonder if HAP was or is in love with Prairie.

The first episode of the OA almost seemed like the first episode of the second season of a show due to the abrupt beginning where viewers see Prairie do what appears to be committing suicide. In the beginning of the first episode of the OA, I originally felt confused and thought the show was a bit hard to follow. Not knowing or understanding the challenges of Prairie’s captivity and how she regained her eye sight was frustrating, and in retrospect, I can understand Nancy’s short-fuse with Prairie and Abel’s utter confusion. I knew that in order to understand and comprehend all of the different and contrasting elements imbedded into the show, I was going to have to give the show my undivided attention and have minimal distractions if I wanted to better understand. Typically, when I watch TV shows, I can use my phone or have side conversation, but with the OA I couldn’t. When I found myself trying to do this, I in turn found myself needed to rewind whichever part I had zoned out of. For me, the experience of watching the OA was more similar to reading a book than it has been for me in the past with show watching. Similar to watching the OA, when reading a book, I also have to give my undivided attention to the book and if I decided to chit-chat in between lines, I end up always having to re-read.

While the first episode of the OA might have been a bit too ambiguous, it definitely sparked a major curiosity inside me and made me want to binge the show because I wanted to make sense of everything I had just seen. The unfamiliar addition of the supernatural elements also enthralled me more because it added an aspect to the show that I’d never really experienced before in a show that also contained elements that were all too familiar. Another thing I really liked about the OA was the strong female lead and the new perspective it shed light to regarding a higher power and afterlife. After Nina (Prairie’s Russian name), died on the school bus incident, she encountered a recurring character Khatun who is portrayed as the higher power throughout the series. Khatun is mystical, mysterious, has brail markings on her face, and certainly isn’t the norm people think about when considering a higher power. By adding this element, the OA diminishes the misconception that “God” or a higher power must be male.

While the ambiguity of the OA started out as frustrating, I ended up genuinely liking it because the show can really be read whichever way you interpret it or want to read it. If you don’t believe Prairie and her story it could be a story about a captured girl’s trauma and the mental illness that follows her return to normalcy. If you do believe Prairie and her ability to transport to a different dimension by using “the movements”, then it becomes a mystical sci-fi story. Lastly, if you believe that the FBI detective planted the books to make Prairie’s story seem fake, then the show becomes rooted in conspiracy. The ending of the first season leaves viewers with multiple different perspectives, explanations, and outcomes to ponder which is a lot of the reason why after watching the show it really stays on your mind.

I would definitely recommend this show to anyone who is curious, open-minded, and appreciates a good mystery. I would also recommend binge watching this show because there are so many important characters and so many things that happen that would be easy to forget, but come back to mean something and show importance later in the show. This show is certainly not for those who are impatient or closed-minded regarding supernatural elements, a higher power, miracles, and an afterlife. The OA, in my opinion, adds a new perspective on death and dying which is a topic that so many people are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with. This show is an ambiguous, mystical, mystery that is action packed and will throw you a curve ball when you’re least expecting it.

Review of Pierre; Or the Ambiguities – A.M.

To say that I enjoyed reading Pierre; Or the Ambiguities would be much too simplistic. In fact, it’s hard for me to describe how I felt when reading Melville’s arguably least popular work. Reading the first assigned section of Melville’s Pierre transported me back to a class period of honors 10th grade English class when my teacher, Mrs. Fulford, informed us that we would be reading the first few chapters of “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens for homework. As I struggled through the first chapter, I wasn’t sure if I loved or hated reading what seemed to me (and many others) as too many pages of narrative thoughts without a developing plot. What I did realize was that no matter how long-winded Dickens may have been, I was intrigued and ready to read so I could attempt to find meaning and relevance in the internal conflict and thoughts that were so frequently presented in the novel.

I noticed a similar feeling creeping back to me after finishing the first part of Pierre. Questions I often had to stop to ask myself when reading both Pierre and Great Expectations were “What’s the relevance of this chapter? Couldn’t the novel have been just as good and maybe even better without it?” Asking myself these questions made me realize that Pierre provided much more than it seemed to on the surface. To me, it seemed to provide a meaningful, inside glimpse into the existential, conflict-plagued thoughts of Melville himself. Believing in this made Pierre easier for me to read because I found it to be much deeper, meaningful, and open to interpretation. On the other hand, knowing this also allowed for too much hypothetical contemplation and analysis which made reading the book a not-so-timely activity.

In Pierre, Melville’s stream of conscious writing style can often make it difficult for readers to interpret and enjoy reading the novel. When reading the novel, it’s important to consider that the grammatically flawed sentences were strategically crafted by Melville himself… But why? My thought would be to show that he has control over his own works or so readers are forced to come up with their own ideas about how to make sense of the what seems to be incoherent sentence structure. Without being able to consider ideas such as these, reading Pierre would’ve been a drag for me.

Although a bit too ambiguous and hard to follow at times, I respect Melville for being able to write such a unique novel. I can truly say I have never read anything quite like it, but I almost think this book should be taught in a philosophy class in order for readers to truly be able grasp and get the most out of a book that encompasses as much depth and creativity as this one. Additionally, I think it would be helpful to preface just how slow the plot develops throughout the novel so readers will give more thought to Pierre’s long-winded, frequent commentary. I highly recommend this book if you enjoy hypothesizing and diving into the psyche of others and can, of course, handle all of the ambiguity.


Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Would/Would not recommend? Depends on the person asking