I remember Leon telling a story about one time when he was a kid and he was running down some stairs, and he was trying to emulate something from a cop show (Starsky & Hutch or TJ Hooker maybe?) and he went tumbling down the stairs. Can anyone…See More
As I write this I’m baffled as to where I find the time with as much as I spend watching movies, television shows and reading comic books and novels, I also somehow manage to listen to the radio quite a bit. Hardly the usual Top 40 stations on terrestrial radio when on Sirius XM I have access to comedy, talk, audiobooks and classic radio dramas almost anytime. Still, even before I bought a subscription to satellite radio I was already a devotee of the syndicated shows that play on National Public Radio. Shows like ‘Car Talk’, ‘Selected Shorts’ and ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ have been long-time favorites, but even now there’s nothing I enjoy more on a Sunday morning when I have nothing to do than to flip on NPR and listen to my favorite show, ‘This American Life’.
This American Life is a weekly hour-long journalistic radio program featuring essays, memoirs, field recordings, short fiction, and found footage. Each week's show loosely centers on a particular theme. Though the content varies widely, the stories are all about…well, life in America. The theme of the show is explored in several "acts", usually two to five. Most of stories are told as first-person narratives and focus on people who have interesting or flat out unusual life stories that turn out to be more universal that you’d expect. The mood of the show ranges from gloomy to ironic to thought-provoking to humorous. It’s pretty common for me get choked up by one of the segments right before (or after) laughing my ass off at one of the others. The show started in 1995, produced by Chicago Public Radio and hosted by Ira Glass. Humorists David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell (The Incredibles) got their starts with This American Life and are regular contributors.
Then again, sometimes the show can consist of one act that fills the entire hour. It might addresses current events, such as an in-depth look at survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the people risking their lives to cross the Mexican-US border or recently they laid out it all in crystal clarity exactly what lead to the United State’s financial crash.
I was surprised but not all that excited to find out there was going to be a This American Life television series on Showtime. Not that I thought it’d be bad, but…it’s hard to explain. There’s just something special about having a radio show (almost a dead medium) that was so awesome every week. As a television, with so much great competition it just seemed it’d be hard for it to stand out and not look small. Or even worse, lose much of it’s charm.
When the first season aired I caught it here and there but I can’t remember being more than anything but in the background for me. As I sat down to watch this DVD of the second season I felt myself starting to slip into that same mode as it started, but this time I was very quickly pulled back in. Watching the TV show is not quite like listening to the radio show as it’s only thirty minutes long which only leaves time for two or three acts, at the most. It also doesn’t allow for any of the usual asides.
What the TV show does is the same focus on a handful of bittersweet stories sliced from American life:
People escaping home without going very far away. In Philadelphia, teenage boys find ways to impress girls and break out of the confines of their families, using a mode of transport that's been obsolete in their neighborhood since the 19th century. A young man’s fight for independence from his mother would be a normal and healthy step for any kid, were it not for some very specialized circumstances. Namely he has the kind of debilitating spinal disease that makes Stephen Hawking look like Lance Armstrong. This is the prime example of the kind of story that heartbreaking in the beginning but almost uplifting by the end.
Yeah, he's in this unimaginably horrible physical condition and he's almost died several times...yet, he still manages to have a girlfriend who loves him and he's kinda into goth.
Stories about two foreigners in the U.S. in the aftermath of two very different wars, trying to make sense of life here. A young Iraqi arrives in America after fleeing his war-torn homeland and embarks on a road trip to let Americans ask him anything they want -- to hilarious and poignant results. And a Bulgarian man in Rhode Island realizes that an ongoing argument with his American wife about lawn maintenance has to do with the life he left behind 20 years ago, on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
3.“GOING DOWN IN HISTORY”
Stories of people trying to make -- and remake -- history, while others go down in history in ways they never intended. Two Wisconsin convicts gain local fame for almost escaping prison using a very MacGyver-esque tool: dental floss. High school students pose for smiley yearbook snapshots, which capture nothing of the dramas in their lives. And a man with a 30-year obsession with one particular bird unveils the grainy, Big Foot-style video evidence that he actually saw it. This show is closed out with a heartbreaking segment (okay, sometimes they can go as many as four acts!) about a man who was beaten, left for dead resulting in brain damage that's made it hard for him to deal with the world. His way of coping is isolating himself and building a realistic 1:6 scale model WWII scenario and photographing the evolving storyline, featuring himself as a main character.
There’s a whole world of boxing way down the food chain from championship fights, and the stakes are high even without media hype and massive cash prizes. Two boxers in Tennessee who’ve known each other all their lives face off in a match that neither can afford to lose. It's an in-depth look at the boxers who're paid to lose- Not take a dive, just very unlikely contenders who're brought in so a champion has someone to make them look good. After that is a group of kids in New York learns to fight bullies the old-fashioned way: by being funny. Actually, facing a bully is a whole lot easier than going on stage as a stand up comedian.
5.“SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE”
Cartoonist Chris Ware animates a true story which demonstrates that every marriage -- even the happiest -- is a courtroom. But most of the episode is devoted to the slow-motion disintegration of one couple's marriage. The husband’s obsession with a legal battle forces the most basic marital questions into the open: What do I need? And what can I put up with?
This episode was the closest to one of the radio episodes. It began as a story about a loving couple with a huge age and cultural difference, but it pulled 'a Simpsons' and went in a completely different direction and became a chronicling of the disintegration of a man's husband’s sanity.
The story of one life, told through the lives of people from all over the country, all named John Smith. Baby John Smith is 11 weeks old, in South Carolina, and his parents are still reeling from the sonograms that all predicted he would be a girl.
Ideally they wanted to focus on a single person and periodically document their life from infancy to old age, but this way- choosing several men all named John Smith- more practical and just as interesting.
It kinda hit me in the chest that #6 was the last episode on the disk. Once I started I watched them all in one sitting and was ready for more. There was a point when I was worried the show would be too reminiscent of Morgan Spurlock’s ’30 Days show. Thankfully ‘This American Life’ was much less political or formulaic. It pains me to categorize it as reality TV, but it is the only reality TV I can stand to watch. Probably because it’s the only one that focuses on REAL people.
I’m sure it’s different in a lot of places, but in the bright blue liberal oasis of Texas that is Austin, live performances of NPR shows sell out fast. I was able to see Selected Shorts ten years ago but that was pure luck. Prarie Home Companion sells out almost before it’s announced. There was a simulcast of This American Life at the movie theaters—not a live show, mind you. This was Ira Glass and crew live via satellite projected onto a movie screen—AND EVEN THAT SOLD OUT!
Well, lucky for me one of the bonus features on this disk (and the only one worth mentioning) is that live show. I thought I was going to be disappointed as it was really just a promotional kickoff for the show’s second season and heavily filled with so many scenes I’d just watched. However, there was plenty more (like a Q&A with Ira Glass) to satisfy me.