Judge Erich Asperschlager thinks this review would make a great TV show. Any takers?
Our review of This American Life: Season Two, published January 21st, 2009, is also available.
Funny. Dramatic. Surprising. True.
Welcome to This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass. Each week on the show, they choose some theme and bring their audience a variety of stories on that theme. This week, "It's Showtime": the story of how a long-running documentary series made the leap from public radio to a premium cable network.
Facts of the Case
In our first act, we learn that the show's first season consists of six half-hour episodes on a single disc.
• "Reality Check"
• "Growth Spurt"
• "The Cameraman"
• "God's Close-Up"
• "My Way"
• "Pandora's Box"
Sometimes, something that is successful in one medium takes on another. Books become movies. Magazines become podcasts. Radio shows move to television. Often, the experiments fail; what works in one place just doesn't translate well to another. Other times, though, the experiment succeeds. In act two, we explore one such success.
I don't listen to as much public radio as I used to, but This American Life is one show I still make an effort to hear. Sure, sometimes I get a little tired of how darn important the narration makes even the most mundane of activities sound (can't a factory worker eat a sandwich without it being a commentary on the historical struggle of America's workforce?), but more often than not, I find it to be smart, funny, and absolutely fascinating.
This American Life: Season One takes everything fans love about the radio show and adds a layer of visual invention and creativity that makes the experience even more immersive. Those fans worried about a beloved NPR selling out to television should put down the scissors and their pledge cards. Far from a bastardization, This American Life is just as compelling on TV as it is on radio. In fact, after watching this incarnation, it might be hard for some people to switch back.
Public television could learn a thing or two from this series. Unlike the talking heads and static background of most TV documentaries, This American Life's visual style is as interesting as its stories. Every shot is thoughtfully and beautifully composed; every subject is perfectly lit. Purposeful editing supports the variety of moods, and a rich, vibrant color palette makes the show a joy to watch on a widescreen TV. How many public media properties can you say that about?
Beautiful as This American Life looks, the real strength of the show is its storytelling. Ira Glass and his producers have a knack for choosing themes and stories for their radio show. The subjects they select for their television debut prove they know not only what makes a good story, but also what makes good TV. Doing justice to stories in "The Cameraman" and "God's Close-Up" would have been difficult, if not impossible, in an audio-only format. Even the stories in "Reality Check"—all repeats from the radio show—benefit from the televised treatment. It's easier to understand Improv Everywhere's group "pranks," for instance, when you see them in action.
Considering This American Life airs on Showtime rather than PBS, I expected it to be edgier. The occasional swear word pops up, but the content is mostly as family friendly as it is on the radio. The only exception—and it's a big one—is a segment in the last episode about The Wiener's Circle, a Chicago hot dog stand where the staff yell obscenities at the customers and vice versa. It's definitely not for the kiddies, but if your teenager is old enough to handle the foul language, let them watch it. The piece blends commerce and race relations in a way that raises powerful questions about basic human decency. This segment could never have aired on the radio; I'm glad it found a place on TV.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Act three examines those areas in which, despite the best of intentions, This American Life: Season One falls just short of the mark. One of the worst things I can say about the disc is also a backhanded compliment: I wish there was more.
I can accept that an hour of radio is about equal to a half-hour of TV in terms of time, money, and effort. I just wish this first season lasted more than six episodes. Perhaps I've been spoiled by multi-disc TV sets, but a full season of any show clocking in at less than three hours is disappointing.
This set is light not only on episodes, but on extras. The audio set-up menu lets you turn on a commentary by Ira Glass and director Christopher Wilcha, but only for the first episode. If you're recording one commentary, why not two or three? Heck, there are only six episodes; take an afternoon and knock them all out. Besides the lone commentary, the only other bonus features are Glass's biography and about a dozen photos in a gallery. Maybe next season they'll splurge and add some deleted scenes.
If you're a fan of hipster nerd king Ira Glass and his media empire, This American Life: Season One belongs in your DVD player by the end of the day. It's beautifully shot, honest, funny, and fascinating. In fact, the only thing wrong with it is that it's not long enough.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• Audio Commentary by Ira Glass and Christopher Wilcha on "Reality Check"
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