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August 30, 2015

This American Life -- an early look

by Kevin Kelly, posted Feb 23rd 2007 11:03AM
This American Life
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.

This American Life - Chris Ware animation
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.

This American Life - Ira Glass
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.

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i really want to see this show but i don't have a tv, let alone showtime. anyone know where it might be shown in san francisco? cafe/ bar/ etc????

March 19 2007 at 3:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

this is the first i ever heard of this show and am absolutely looking forward to it! sounds fascinating! thanks for the heads up!

March 17 2007 at 12:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My son is featured in one of the new Showtime episodes and they interviewed and filmed for over 2 days to get a 10 minute piece. Let me reassure anyone who may be wondering that every thing they do is not only "true" but deeply respectful of the idea of inner truth and meaning. They look clear eyed at their subjects, accepting the good and the bad with equanimity, and in Joe's case, the final product felt like a loving distillation of his essence, warts and all. I was a mild fan before, now I'm a HUGE fan. I want to see every episode, they are like little movies offering slices of life that help you "get" your own. A great antidote to all the manufactured crap out there now.

March 02 2007 at 7:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kevin Kelly


I know several of the show producers, and the show definitely isn't fake. Nice try at a flame.

February 25 2007 at 7:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

you know, the radio show is fake right?

February 25 2007 at 3:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jonny Rice

And who knew my knowledge of verb tense to be so unsound?

February 24 2007 at 6:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kevin Kelly

Yeah, to echo Q, please don't BitTorrent this show. It's stealing, plain and simple.

February 24 2007 at 6:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jonny Rice

Who know ancient Aztec gods didn't have a sense of humor?

My cable-less ass is looking forward to this show with much excitement.

February 24 2007 at 6:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

bittorrent the show, the show gets less official viewers, SHOWTIME cancels the show, way to go, jackasses.

At least with iTunes SHOWTIME can track the viewers, and hopefully get some money to keep funding the show.

Bittorrent shows with captive audiences. like American Idol...

February 23 2007 at 5:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jordan Running

I think Ira Glass looks really funny in that suit, to the point of distraction, so I'm glad to read that he doesn't have much screen time.

And khamel: Best BitTorrent analogy ever.

February 23 2007 at 1:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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