Review: 'This American Life' on Showtime

ira-glass-on-showtimes-this-american-life.jpg“A surprising number of public radio listeners are suspicious of anything on TV. They see radio as an inherently superior medium, which I don’t agree with.”- Ira Glass.

Probably the most common questions from the This American Life faithful when learning of the public radio-to-cable television adaptation are “How?” and “Why?” When approached by Showtime representatives back in 2002, even Glass was skeptical of their motives, finding it hard to visualize where his storytelling would fit among the sex and violence which is commonplace, and to this point, expected from premium cable subscribers.

To his surprise, the network came back to the table with executive producer Christine Vachon, whose indie production company Killer Films carved a niche for itself with such against-the-grain pictures as Kids, Boys Don’t Cry, and Far From Heaven. Sensing an opportunity to create something completely new for television, in the same way his radio show separated itself from standard fare, Glass and his producers moved forward with the project, culminating in a six-month shoot in locations across the country.

Having viewed the first four episodes, I can say that the trademarked voice and cadence of the celebrated radio show are still intact – only elevated by the cinematography, which should come as a relief to any of the faithful willing to make the jump, and give newcomers to the party a contrasted option to other Showtime series, such as Weeds and Dexter.

Each 30-minute show begins with a short teaser story to introduce the theme. Next, you see Glass himself, sitting at a talk show desk (ala Leno/Letterman) adorned with microphone and coffee mug – the scenery for the out-of-place host and desk varies from one random, innocuous locale to another.

The six episode run for TAL features mostly original stories, but longtime listeners of the show will recognize those told in the pilot. The first: a rancher’s prized bull passes away. Not satisfied with the memories alone, he chooses to have the bull cloned, only to find that what the double possessed in physical characteristics, it completely lacked in hospitable demeanor – attempting to gore his owner to death.

Other stories include a young documentarian who sets out to expose his stepfather’s faults, only to find that his mother’s substance abuse played an equal part in his rough upbringing. Meanwhile, a much older filmmaker gathers her nursing home residents to help her make her first picture, in hopes of getting accepted into Sundance. Another has Glass and company traveling to Utah to watch Mormons, atheists, and hippies gather in the Mojave Desert as an artist seeks to re-create biblical scenes.

The newfound visual component varies between classic documentary style and abstracted eye-candy, paired with ambient sounds from indie-leaning audio tracks. Although Glass and his small team of producers and filmmakers shy away from classifying the shows as documentaries (he likes the phrase “dramatic stories that happen to be true”), it’s hard to deny that there are similarities in the use of found photos, footage, and talking head interviews. What separates This American Life from traditional documentary work, while avoiding the “reality” stigma are stories that are equal parts funny and dramatic – everyday people in situations that are relatable to viewers – narratives constructed in such a way that you’d be hard pressed to walk away before knowing the outcome. Devoid of spin or ham-fisted manipulation – as always, it’s the storytelling that sets This American Life apart.

This American Life debuts Thursday, March 22 at 10:30.

Primer material:
— Trailers: 123
— Glass compares and contrasts the Showtime series to the radio version on NPR’s Fresh Air.
— Four part video: Glass on Storytelling
— Listen to the This American Life archives

Posted by Ted Zee on March 18th 2007 | Home Page | 4 Comments Subscribe to this site's feed

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