Eric Douglas Published

HBO Documentary ‘Our Towns' Features Charleston; Debuts Tonight


A new feature length documentary premieres tonight (April 13) on HBO based on the best-selling book Our Towns. The book, and the film, look at life in small town America, including a segment on Charleston, West Virginia.


Cover art for the best-selling book Our Towns, by Deborah and James Fallows.

James and Deborah Fallows are journalists for The Atlantic Magazine. Not long after returning from a four-year stay in China, they decided to turn their journalistic attention to the United States. They set up a post on their blog, asking the public to tell them what was special about their hometowns. In a week, they received 1,000 essays.

In the summer of 2013, they set out with the same approach as they had used before, moving away from the big cities and out to the small towns to see what America looked like.

“It’s such a different perspective from the general news coverage that portrays most of America as an object of what’s happening in bigger cities,” James Fallows said. “There, the only thing that matters is, ‘Is it a red state or a blue state?’ which we thought was the least interesting thing.”

One thing the Fallows found was that there was a lot more positivity in the local communities than the national news portrayed.

“If you’re living in a small town, you know what’s going on there,” Deborah Fallows said. “You can be a participant in not only talking about it, but doing something about it.”

She said they witnessed people taking the opportunity to be a part of local issues.

“Big national issues translate into small approachable issues when you’re in a town and feel that you can work with other people,” she said.

The book and the film attempt to strike a balance between the positive things on the ground and the problems.

“If you lead with positivity, people immediately say “I know exactly what I’m going to get, I don’t need to see the film,’” said Steven Ascher, one of the filmmakers that created the documentary based on the book. “Everywhere we went, we wanted you to understand how dire the opioid crisis is, or how intractable the homeless crisis is. We did that at the same time as seeing people who had actually made a difference, either in small or large ways, so that you would feel emotionally what those efforts really meant.”

When filming for the documentary began, the first city they came to was Charleston, West Virginia. It ended up being their proof-of-concept city; the one they showed to the executives at HBO to prove they could make the film.

“There is a youth drug court run by Judge Joanna Tabit in Charleston that is really innovative and it’s catching kids young,” said Jeanne Jordan, the other half of the filmmaking duo. “There were many stories like that all over the country where you start out with something that’s really difficult and then see how people apply positive energy to it to make things work.”

Filming for the HBO documentary took place in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. But the filmmakers and authors came away from the project with a feeling of hopefulness that they think applies even more today.

“As I have a chance to say numerous times in the film, the story of America is the struggle between the ways in which the country fails and sins and screws up, and the ways in which it tries to recover from those,” James Fallows said. “I think the hopefulness is in the part of America that is trying to improve.”

The new documentary Our Towns premieres on HBO tonight, April 13, at 9 p.m.