This American Life: Season 1 review by Tom Blain

To say This American Life: First Season on DVD represents the first season of This American Life isnt entirely true. Show host Ira Glass has had over a decade to fine tune his craft over the airwaves of National Public Radio. The immensely popular radio show (immense by NPR standards) is an hour long collection of short stories, mostly nonfiction that share a common theme. Each story, or act, is narrated by an observer/interviewer/participant which in a few cases Ira himself. As the listener you always get more than just the crust, or the top layer. Each act digs deep into the subjects soul and psyche, and to reveal something you probably wouldn't hear in your average barroom conversation. Its more than a show about Americans. It could just as easily be titled This Human Life.

But the big question on my mind, before seeing a single episode on television: Could it be as good on TV as it is on the radio? Conventional wisdom in the West would tell you if its good on radio its better on TV, but in this case it could be different. Call me old-timey, but there is something comforting in the anonymity of the radio show. All you hear is this voice, like the confessional both in a Catholic church. These people give you a section of their lives and talk candidly about themselves for a good ten to twenty minutes on subjects that are not always comfortable. Its one thing to have a microphone shoved in your face while you talk about your most embarrassing junior high moment, but its another thing for the camera to be capturing your every winch and twitch as you retell the most painful wedgie story in your arsenal. There are two perspectives that change here. First, since they are now seen as well as heard would the subjects be more on their guard or would they be frank and honest as on radio. Secondly, would my opinion of these people change having seen them on television? Heck, I didnt even know what Ira Glass looked like and I kind of liked it that way, no offense. But in a lot of ways, the NPR show gave you the words behind the act as gospel with no distractions.

Back to the original question: Could This American Life be as good on television as it was on radio. Well, the good news is the format didnt change. The show starts with a quick introductory story, approximately 3 minutes long. It not only introduces the show, but it introduces the shows theme. Ira always narrates this part and its usually the best part of the show. Then he rolls in with the theme and the number of acts. The narration is the same. The music is even the same. The only difference is the visual presence. Welcome to 1957, This American Life.

The best episodes are a grab bag of human emotions. One moment comedy, one moment tragedy. Youth mixed with the elderly. The sad, remorseful, and lost. The cheerful, reborn, and rehabilitated. The best on Season 1 is entitled My Way. There are four stories of people who march to the beat of a different drummer despite people telling them they are crazy or wrong. The first is a touching story of a man who visits his wifes grave every day, and stays there for hours; just to be closer to her. The second is a story about middle school boy that most would label youthfully ignorant as he proclaims his denial that he will ever love anyone. The third is a story of a politician whos so truthful that no county in their collective right mind would ever elect him. Finally the fourth story is about a photographer whose awarding winning shot, came at the price of a strangers life; something that will always haunt him.

While re-watching the fourth act in particular, I realized the difference watching made over just listening. The story itself is very haunting in spoken word, as the photographer contemplates whether putting down his camera and running to help a woman out of roaring waters would have saver her life. But it carries even deeper weight as the four black and white photos he took instinctively are dissected on screen. First we see a crisp image of the lady standing on the shore during a rough storm, drinking out of a bottle. Then the next shot is of the same lady lying on her back in the water. The narrator informs us that in between the shots, a wave broke up the land she was standing on, dropping her into the waters. Next is a shot of her reaching out to two men who attempt to get close enough to rescue her. In the background, stormy waves and wake foreshadow the next events . Finally and sadly, the last shot shows the two men backing off as she is pulled into the waters by an enormous wave. Only the front half of her body is even seen as its wrapped up in white waters. It was the last she was ever seen. Descriptions on radio (or in this review for that matter) dont describe the situation nearly as well as the photos. It is in stories like this where This American Life succeeds in its transition.

Im not ready to go as far to say that I enjoyed the television show more than the radio show. There were a few shows that were less enjoyable. The Cameraman, for example, meandered and rolled around and in the end, its point was that it really had no point. But this story probably wouldn't have held my interest even if it was on radio; but I will say NOT seeing the people on TV would have would have turned me off less.

But the show is at least as good as its radio partner. In time it may even exceed expectations but will need few more seasons worth of episodes to do so. Let me put it this way: I watched all six episodes in one night and was hungry for more; maybe the greatest fault of this DVD is that there is only 2 hours and 48 minutes worth of show. For those who enjoy the NPR show this is another great way to continue that enjoyment. And for those who are unfamiliar with the show its about time you pick up this DVD and start your journey.




8 out of 10 Jackasses
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