Judge Erich Asperschlager is completely unscripted and occasionally true.
Our review of This American Life: Season One, published October 9th, 2008, is also available.
Funny. Real. Surprising. Unscripted. True.
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:
• "Two Wars"
• "Going Down in History"
• "Scenes from a Marriage"
• "John Smith"
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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