This American Life -- an early look
by Kevin Kelly, posted Feb 23rd 2007 11:03AM
As we've previously reported, This American Life is coming to Showtime, and we were lucky enough to get a look at the first four episodes. It's no secret that I had high hopes for this show, and was all set to have them crushed, trampled, and stomped upon. However, I'm happy to report that that my hopes are still intact, at least after having seen four episodes. There's still room for my hopes to be smashed into a million crystalline fragments down the road.
First off, if you've never heard an episode of This American Life, it's high time that you head to iTunes and subscribe to their podcast. It's one of the best radio shows I've ever heard, and presents stories from Americans that you'll never hear anywhere else. It's pure documentary work where the hosts and interviewers don't overshadow the subjects, and features as much humor as it does touching drama. A real gem on the radio dial, and it's a labor of love on Public Radio International, which is more famous for its content, and not for the fortunes they pay their hosts.
Although Glass resisted this move to television for a long time, it's really incredible how natural it feels. It literally is like they have taken episodes of the radio show and added pictures to them, that's how seamless they've managed to make it. They cover the exact same sorts of subjects, which range from eccentric to esoteric, and while some of the stories are straight interview pieces, they also feature submitted stories, which is a big part of what makes the radio show so accessible. I know that they worked on this show for a long period of time, and that a lot of work went into making sure it was basically an extension of the radio, and not something new entirely.
In the first episode, they are filming the bizarre story about a rancher who had his beloved bull cloned after he died, and they manage to capture a terrible moment (most of which occurs off-camera) but the immediacy of the moment comes across a bit strong on camera than it would on the radio. The third episode (and my favorite of the bunch) features a story animated entirely by Chris Ware (!) and moves into a very bizarre and moving story filmed by a young man about the struggles with his mother and stepfather. Powerful and moving stuff.
I was honestly worried that they would feature Ira Glass a lot more in this show, since in many ways he is This American Life, but he really only appears on camera rarely, with his deck and iconic radio microphone set at a different location across America each time, and he narrates many of the pieces. However, he doesn't loom larger than any of the pieces, and he remains the same soothing presence that he is on the radio show. Glass, who hid for years behind pictures like this, moves smoothly into his role as on-camera host, and he seems like the kind of "everyguy" that you'd like to know.
This is the closest thing I've ever seen to true documentary television presented in a way that directly appeals to my generation, and doesn't have the same agenda that a show like Dateline or 60 Minutes would have. While it isn't directly news, it is literally a part of the American experience, and you'll find that it takes you out of your comfort zone. Give it a whirl and you might be surprised.
This American Life premieres on March 22 at 10:30pm ET/PT on Showtime, and we'll be watching.