Thursday, January 27, 2011

This American Life

Written by Joe the Revelator

The 6-episode series, based on a Chicago Public Radio program also called This American Life, first aired in June 2007 on Showtime. It featured an interesting mash-up of journalism, documentary style filming, and first person narratives to tell stories about Americans and the choices we make throughout our lives. Hosted by Ira Glass, TAL lasted two seasons, until in 2008 the creators asked to be removed from television due to the scheduling difficulty involved in composing each show. Although the entirety of its career on Showtime consisted of 12 shows over two years, it won three Emmy's and is currently re-airing on TV and Netflix.

Host and producer Ira Glass, who looks like a well-adjusted Buddy Holly on nerd pills, has a voice made for grabbing attentions and keeping it. The greatest strength of This American Life are the narrations done by Glass. He points to important, easily overlooked facets of life; shows us the extraordinary behind the norm, and manages to do it without sounding pretentious. There are several other talented narrators throughout the series, usually reserved for the longer single-story episodes, but Glass's sympathetic comments resonate the most influential.


The bulk of the episodes begin with a short glimpse into oddities which have cropped up in American culture; like the group of Christians who gather every week to photograph the sun so they can speculate on divine symbols they see in the bloom effects. Or a pair of scientists who started to receive heartfelt requests for the chemical treatment they stumbled upon, a treatment to wipe a subject's memory clean. After a short introduction the show's theme is revealed and a couple of 20-minute stories are presented to the viewer following that theme.

Episode one, Reality Check, talks about people whose dreams have run far ahead of their reality, and are snapped back into focus in bizarre ways. A family of Texas farmers clone their beloved pet and prizewinning bull when he dies of natural causes, creating from Chance's DNA a bull calf named 'Second Chance', who amazingly turns violent despite the original Chance's Ferdinand-like demeanor.

Later in the same episode, a little-known rock band who has gotten used to playing to empty crowds, find a bustling nightclub full of fans who know their lyrics by heart. Later they discover over the internet that their fans were frauds, and all part of an elaborate prank from an acting troupe, some who went so far as to memorize their material and print out groupie T-Shirts before attending the NY show.

The Finale'

If you're not a fan of public radio, don't be afraid to turn This American Life on the TV and leave it in the background while you're preparing breakfast in the morning, or dragging yourself onto the treadmill for ten minutes. But I guarantee you'll be sucked into the program soon enough.

Each consecutive episode is as quirky as the first, and almost feels like a Ripley's Believe It Or Not of life lessons. Some of the stories sound bizarre enough to be fiction, yet still ring true as only reality could. And with each freakish situation or confusing twist is a seed of humanity. If I could pick a television series that best illustrates the human condition, This American Life would be it.

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