For the past ten years, "This American Life" has been must-listen radio among the NPR set. I myself have tuned in on many a Saturday afternoon to hear smart, well-told stories about everyday epiphanies and about the peculiar folks who comprise our great country. I listen while doing the crossword, if you must know (in my defense, I have steadfastly resisted acquiring an NPR tote bag and pledging money for the sake of a "Car Talk" boxed set; I am not a total nerd, just mostly). Creator and host Ira Glass's creepy, androgynous voice and quiet incantations have created a sort of sense-memory in me, whereby the plaintive notes of his odd timbre make me feel like nothing more than spending a little time on my sofa reflecting on the strange tapestry of the human condition.
In slow, deliberate fashion, "This American Life" reveals the stories we all tell each other but that seldom make news apart from our own social circles. There was the episode about lying in which a young man goes to great lengths all through college to maintain the pretense of being from a strict vegetarian family; the episode on testosterone in which a transgendered man misses having a good cry; and the episode where a man's daughter recognizes similarities between Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr., and asks her father of King, "Did they kill him, too?" In other words, it's fascinating, internal stuff; it's like hearing a great secret or being seated next to someone intriguing at a dinner party. And, because "This American Life" does unfold like a pleasurable conversation, it's hard to imagine it would be any good at all on television. Where radio is languid, television assaults the senses. Where radio is background, television demands our full attention.
But tonight, "This American Life" will premiere on Showtime, complete with Ira Glass (who, it turns out, is bespectacled and kind of groovy) and the mournful music that punctuates even the most comical pieces on the radio. And the show is really good.
Though I approached the Showtime program with deep skepticism, I immediately realized my folly: People can be so much more powerful and, yes, human than you ever imagine them to be. In the first episode, a farmer grieves over the death of his longtime pet bull. Not content to remember the beloved animal simply through photographs, the farmer insists on preparing the beast to be mounted. "I'd cry awhile and skin awhile," he says of the grisly task. "Somebody had to do it." Without the image of the farmer, it could easily be heard simply as funny. But, as the farmer talks about his bull, his eyes are red, raw, and full of pain. Though his voice is strong, his face conveys another reality; the bull's death seems to have broken him. In its way, the scene is insane and comical, but ultimately it is incredibly sad. The piece is also beautifully filmed, with gorgeous shots of a bull that sweep across its massive trapezoidal back and then linger on muscled shoulders and poignant horns. It is like falling into a Georgia O'Keefe painting. The images make the farmer's next extraordinary steps to preserve his bull, which go far beyond taxidermy, all the more heartbreaking.
It slowly became clear to me that these American stories are often wonderfully visual. There is an upcoming episode about a Mormon painter and his quest to find authentic bearded men in Utah (Mormonism frowns on facial hair) to pose for his Biblical scenes. The vagabonds, hippies, and homeless men who come to the artist's aide to reenact a crucifixion at twilight in the desert are worth watching. In another episode, seeing the footage of a first-time documentarian's efforts to immortalize his dysfunctional family was far more provocative for every shifting grin, eye roll, and wince.
Of course, the vaunted structure of the program has changed little from the radio show, which still is on the air. Glass structures each piece around a "theme." Sometimes it's a simple enough theme: "bullies" maybe. But many times the theme seems totally incomprehensible: "how people try to be new and interesting and how this is different at different ages." Many pieces feel as though they were complete, waiting to be added to a show, and then retrofitted into a given theme to round out the last minutes of the program. At these moments, Glass spins his words to create tenuous interconnectivity. But we don't mind, because the stories are good and Glass and his team tell them with the inside tones of a friend saying, "Check out this guy I met. ... Random but cool story, right?" Meanwhile, the show dutifully steers away from being arch or asking "gotcha" questions. The gentle narrators guide you through the scenes and stories purposefully and without need of all the bells and whistles so common in today's docu-dramas. Even the images on the Showtime series are as well-chosen as the stories themselves.
Though I feared the "This American Life" television endeavor would rob me of my own imaginative landscapes, I found that truth is, of course, stranger than fiction. The haunting and sometimes mirthful tales that are the stock-and-trade of "This American Life" are not lost in imagery but heightened by it. It turns out video didn't kill the radio star.
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To honor the quiet brilliance of "This American Life," take Sacha Zimmerman's "Can You Out 'Ira Glass' Me?" challenge. See if you, too, can extract a childhood memory, profound moment, or fleeting epiphany and turn it into a "This American Life" masterpiece. Click here to read the guidelines.
By Sacha Zimmerman