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Case Number 15508: Small Claims Court

Buy This American Life: Season Two at Amazon

This American Life: Season Two

Showtime Entertainment // 2008 // 201 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // January 21st, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Erich Asperschlager is completely unscripted and occasionally true.

Editor's Note

Our review of This American Life: Season One, published October 9th, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

Funny. Real. Surprising. Unscripted. True.

The Case

The second season of public radio phenomenon This American Life's pay cable incarnation improves on its stellar first series in every way. Though the season is once again limited to just six episodes, the format is better, the run-time is longer, and the disc's bonus material finally matches the features in quality and content.

For those unfamiliar with the show in either its radio or television incarnation, This American Life tells extraordinary stories about everyday people. Hosted by bespectacled NPR man-god Ira Glass, each episode usually has two to four of those stories, collected by themes such as "Escape" or "Underdogs" (both examples from this sophomore season). On radio, Glass and his producers are able to capture universal truths through specific experiences. On television, they do the same with the added benefit of intimate footage gorgeously filmed.

It's hard to overstate how beautiful this series is. So many documentaries rely on talking heads, static photos, or grainy home video. This American Life manages to make real life stories feel like they were planned out in advance with elaborate storyboards. Every episode is in widescreen, packed with rich colors and detail that shows just how good standard definition can still look in the right hands, and while 5.1 surround tracks on television box sets often feel like an afterthought, this disc makes full use of the available speakers to separate dialogue from ambient noise and This American Life's recognizable mood music.

Though a full season of only six episodes sounds like a bad value considering the 22-plus episode box sets out there, the amount of time, effort, and artistry that goes into each jewel-like half hour of this series is stunning. This is simply the best documentary show on television, and stands toe-to-toe with the best documentary filmmaking happening right now. Every segment on this set would make a compelling feature-length film. In fact, a couple of them were excerpted from longer pieces. In the first season, several stories were just video versions of pieces that ran on the radio show. This season, all but one were made especially for the Showtime series, and that one has new visuals courtesy of illustrator Chris Ware's accompanying animation.

This American Life: Season Two's six episodes and special features are all on one disc:

• "Escape"
Inner city Philadelphia youth find escape riding horses through their neighborhoods. In Tampa, Florida, Mike Phillips, a twenty-something who's lived his entire life with a debilitating disease that renders him immobile and unable to care for himself, decides to take charge of his life and relationship with his mother.

• "Two Wars"
Iraqi student Haider Hamza travels around America, setting up a booth and inviting people to talk to him about the realities and perceptions of the war in his home country. Elsewhere, philosophical differences about lawn care cause tension in the marriage of an American woman and her Bulgarian husband.

• "Going Down in History"
Time is running out for the duo who found the elusive Ivory-Billed Woodpecker to prove their discovery was for real. Prisoners Guy Dunnald and Tim Dummer gain notoriety for a daring escape using a rope ladder made from 18,975 feet of dental floss. When posed yearbook photos can't capture what's going on in the lives of high schoolers, Ira Glass tracks down the real stories by talking to the students themselves. After a random attack by a group of violent strangers, Mark Hogan tries to make sense of it all by photographing fictional WWII events recreated with action figures.

• "Underdogs"
Most of this extended episode centers around the story of a bout between two Tennessee boxers, Anthony Bowman and Marteze Logan—both professional "opponents" (fighters paid to fight stronger boxers with the expectation they'll lose) for whom winning means a second chance and losing means certain retirement. Then, This American Life favorite Jonathan Goldstein tells the story of eighth graders honing their stand-up comedy skills.

• "Scenes from a Marriage"
First, Robert Krulwich tells Ira Glass his version of an event he may not have actually witnessed. Second, the story of a husband and wife whose marriage breaks down because of his legal obsession, told through some 200-plus hours of amateur video.

• "John Smith"
This double-length episode is one of the finest hours of television I've ever seen. Unable to tell one person's complete life story, This American Life instead tells the story of seven people, all named John Smith, and each at different points in their lives: a baby whose parents were planning on having a girl; a precocious 8-year-old trying to make sense of school and the world; a 23-year-old line cook on probation for drug possession; a 36-year-old father and Microsoft employee whose mother is dying of cancer; a 46-year-old awaiting the return of his Marine son; a 70-year-old coming to terms with retirement after a serious stroke; and a 79-year-old in a nursing home, rapidly losing the ability to communicate with the outside world.

The first season had little more than one audio commentary and a photo gallery. Season Two adds the 77-minute feature "This American Life Live!" Filmed at NYU and simulcast to movie theaters across the U.S. in advance of the show's second season premiere, the event places Ira Glass behind an on-stage mixing board, previewing upcoming stories, talking with director Christopher Wilcha about making the show, and taking questions from the live audience. They repeat a couple of segments found elsewhere on the DVD, but for the most part, whenever Glass introduces something that's also in the episodes, they cut it and quickly transition back. With the episodes themselves running a little longer than they did last season, having this extra long bonus feature makes this set well worth the asking price.

The only two complaints I have about the DVD are minor. First, once again there's only one commentary, on the episode "Escape." Even if it pushed this set to two discs, I'd like to see commentaries on every episode. Second, this disc is getting a limited release. Like the first season, it's a Borders exclusive for now (though it appears to be available on Amazon), so people who'd rather not pay Borders prices but want the disc on day one have limited options.

A note to parents: This is Showtime, not NPR, so the language gets pretty raw. You may want to watch the episodes first to decide whether or not your young Ira Glass fans are old enough to watch.

Even if you've never heard, or heard of, This American Life, I urge you to get this, if you enjoy documentaries at all. Ira Glass, Chris Wilcha, and the rest of their talented team are doing something awfully special. It deserves to be watched by more people than subscribe to Showtime or shop at Borders.

Today's theme: Not Guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 100

Perp Profile

Studio: Showtime Entertainment
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
• None
Running Time: 201 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Featurette
• Photo Gallery
• Biography


• IMDb
• Official Site

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