Register for Forum |  Forum Login |  Forum Control Panel  


By Bryan Newbury
February 26, 2007

Last month Showtime announced that it would air six episodes of a television adaptation of WBEZ’s acclaimed This American Life. Regular listeners will hardly miss a beat, as the screen version is a nearly identical experience right down to host Ira Glass’ herky jerky cadence now with visuals! On second thought, they’ll miss a number of beats along with… Iraglass…. on…. Thisamericanlife… Act II. But these are the out of the pocket rhythms to which they’ll be accustomed.

Viewing episodes one through four, it is quite clear that Glass and Co. have retained complete creative control. The format is instantly recognizable, and the single detraction is Glass narrating from a desk with Walter Winchell microphone in various locales. Retaining the geek chic of the show seems to be nonnegotiable. Fans of the show will no doubt be pleased. Whether it will play in Pittsburgh is yet to be seen.

For those not acquainted with the somber singing of Garrison Keillor or the admonitions of the brothers Magliozzi not to drive like them, a little background. Since 1995, This American Life has brought listeners engaging and offbeat stories of not-so-regular regular Americans. The subjects range from quirky to delusional. Glass serves as the personality, along with a cast of sidepeople that all seem to share what can only be described as an urban privilege aesthetic. He has enough of a presence of personality to keep each program consistent and coherent, though that choppy manner of speech (presumably to avoid bridge words such as “like/you know”) can be trifling. It is singular, and it places Glass in the category of a postmodern Rod Serling, guiding us through short stories where the subjects are the stars.

About those subjects. It is difficult, especially with the knowing irony that serves as constant companion in the show, to judge whether these strange everymen whose stories fill This American Life are being looked at with wonder or derision. The answer seems to be a combination of both. In four 30 minute episodes, viewers are treated to a rancher so bereaved by the loss of his bull that he clones him with nightmarish consequences; a Vermont band who is pranked into a dream gig; a retiree focused on screening her first short subject at Sundance; and, among others, a woman who spent her youth getting out from under the yoke of her strict Mormon upbringing only to return to Utah because her boyfriend becomes iconic to the father as a result of his striking resemblance to Jesus.

One can’t accuse the show of lacking imagination or the ability to captivate. Glass himself turns out to be a sympathetic interviewer, and this no doubt elicits more information from the show’s subjects. There is still that nagging feeling that despite such empathy for outsiders, the subjects are much like Ghosts of Pasha: they aren’t quite in on the joke, good natured though it may be. The dichotomy necessitates ambivalence in the listener or viewer. These people are far from commonplace, but they are common. In this respect, all are tragicomic. If This American Life can be accused of one principle weakness, it is that they focus more on the comic than tragic in their role as observer.

Fortunately, it will be easy to decide if the show is for you. Just tune in on public radio (it is broadcast on most local stations) and listen for a few weeks. One of three options will present itself. You’ll tune in to Showtime because you love it, you’ll throw your radio out of the kitchen window because you don’t love it so much, or you’ll like it, tune in, and then discover that you’re not gaining a whole lot by watching rather than listening to it. Indeed, you’re losing a half hour. Even if option three is your choice, it is advisable to stick it out through episodes three and four, whose visual contributions add much to the narrative.

It would be fair to say that This American Life isn’t destined for a long television run. Part of the show’s success has been its hipper-than-thou stance, which plays well to selective public radio audiences. This attribute makes it hard to see a broad audience. It isn’t so much that such shows are “too smart” for the viewing public… just that they tend to tell you “I’m pretty smart” over and over. Perceptive viewers will likely sense some condescension. It is not beyond consideration that the engaging characters who fill the program will be enough to see past that. Judging from the initial episodes, Showtime will be enjoying a loyal following for the show… even if… it… isn’tforeveryone.


This American Life, Episodes 1-4

Showtime & Chicago Public Radio

Jonathan on March 9th, 2007 at 12:36 pm 

I have been listening to TAL for a number of years, and although I agree with some of your points, I disagree that the show is typically ironic or ever condescending. It IS a show with some intelligence behind it, and it never seeks to hide it, but I can’t think of an instance where the stories or interviews were clever for the sake of being clever. Could you please cite some examples?

Post a comment

Name:  (enter something here)
Email:  (and here)
URL:  (but not necessarily here)