I probably haven’t been listening to This American Life since its national debut in 1996, but I’ve been doing so for long enough that 13 years seems too short a period for the show to have been on air. Despite my fidelity to the radio program, I was not among those who greeted news of the TV series with cries of, “Betrayal!”, or “Sell out!”
Airing on Showtime, the television incarnation of This American Life began in 2007 with a solid season that felt very much like an illustrated version of the radio show (and, in fact, the premiere featured stories originally aired on radio). In season two, which ran last year and is now being released on DVD, the TV series began to become more of its own animal, exhibiting greater ambition in the development of visual narratives, but also resulting in a more uneven collection of episodes.
For those who aren’t familiar with the show, on radio or TV, This American Life is built around the telling of stories meant to provide some insight or special encounter with everyday life, mostly, though not exclusively, in the United States. Individual episodes are organized around a theme that ties together the often multiple stories that make up a program. The radio show emphasizes non-fiction work, but will also feature fictional pieces. Thus far, the TV series has been strictly documentary in nature. The first and last episodes of season two exemplify the promise of the show’s format as translated for television.
Episode one, “Escape”, begins with a short story about city kids who have taken up horse riding in Philadelphia. This segment is anchored by striking shots of teenagers on horseback riding through neighborhoods, urban parks and across freeways. The story is told without narration, but through images and interviews.
The balance of the episode is devoted to Mike Philips, who was born with Spinal Muscle Atrophy, a condition wherein the connection between brain and muscles is severely weakened. At 27, Mike is left with only minimal capabilities for movement, virtually unable to speak, let alone to get around on his own.
By framing this narrative in terms of Mike’s desire for independence from his mother, the segment, or “act” in the parlance of the series, manages to avoid both the pitfall of reducing Mike to the sum of his impairments and of denying his physical condition in a rush to show that, really, he’s ‘just like everyone else’. Like any young adult, he craves to be on his own. On the other hand, setting out in that way carries risks that don’t adhere to most kids who leave the parental nest.
The way Mike is shot, and how those shots are presented, is integral to the achievement of nuance in the episode. Only after viewers have been introduced to Mike as a full person, and not just as his disease, is there a simple, stable shot of his face where his impairments are made intimately manifest. Up until that moment, which occurs near the end of the show, the camera is variously: held at distance, occluded, positioned at oblique angles, and used for extreme close-ups of discrete parts of his body and the technologies that make his life possible. His physical differences from most people are not hidden, but they are obscured so that all of the other ways in which he is both like and unlike those watching can be emphasized.
Editing also plays a key role in the sixth, and final, episode of season two, which like the first, exemplifies the qualities that make the TV This American Life if not exactly essential, then certainly worthwhile.
The TV episodes of This American Life are roughly 30-minutes long. The second season finale, “John Smith”, is extended to an hour. This episode is the story of a life told not through the biography of a single person, but through the intertwining of seven people, all named “John Smith” and each representing a particular moment in life, spanning the time between birth and death.
The different Johns are woven into a single narrative through a number of devices, including using shots of one to illustrate the words of another and montages of common activities like shaving, playing, and going to work. At the same time, each individual John Smith is represented in their own context and as having their own trajectory, similar to, but distinct from, all the others. As with Mike’s segment of “Escape”, the dialectic between human sameness and difference is shown as much as it is told in “John Smith”.
While the opening and closing episodes of season two represent the best of This American Life on television, the second episode of the season is the series at its weakest.
“Two Wars” starts with the quest of an Iraqi immigrant, Haider Hamza, to discover why the US went to war with his home country. While Haider, sitting at his handmade “Talk to an Iraqi” booth is a charming image, as constructed, the story reads like little more than urban, blue state sneering at red state hicks. Viewers are treated to a spectacle of Haider being lectured and quizzed by one ignorant, jingoistic, and delusional American after another, the lone exception being an apology from an 11-year-old girl whose father is serving in Iraq.
Maybe this segment is an authentic reflection of Haider’s experience and maybe it isn’t. In either case, it lacks the nuance and artfulness that make “Escape” and “John Smith” effective TV. What makes the flatness of this story even more disappointing is that Haider was featured in an excellent episode of the radio show, “Big Wide World”, in 2007.
The second, shorter, act of “Two Wars”, “Grassnost”, deals with a couple, Nikolai and Danielle, and their battle over the lawn. The underlying subject here is the meaning of lawns in American culture, and in a different context, the segment may have made for compelling viewing, but paired with “Ask an Iraqi” it seems frivolous, despite, or maybe because of, the geopolitical gloss it is given in relating Nikolai and Danielle’s conflict as a recapitulation of the Cold War.
On radio, This American Life frequently pulls off ironic and whimsical juxtapositions. Maybe television implies a coherence that radio does not, something about how images work on the brain in ways that are different from spoken words alone. Regardless of the reason, the two stories in “Two Wars” appear mismatched, and maybe unhelped by being on TV.
The remaining episodes of season two are: “Going Down in History”, which features three acts, one about the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, one about a failed prison escape, and one about picture day at a high school (this last is another highlight of the season); “Underdogs”, which looks at two boxers who specialize in being “opponents” for other fighters; and “Every Marriage is a Courthouse”, which begins with a segment originally aired on the radio and animated here by Chris Ware, but focused on the story of a California couple whose marriage is broken by the husband’s obsessive involvement in a legal battle with the state. For the DVD, “Underdogs” also includes a segment on kids attending a comedy camp in New York.
In addition to the extended episode, the extras on the DVD include a commentary track with Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life, and Christopher Wilcha, the director and co-executive producer of the TV series, on “Escape”, a live performance featuring Glass and Wilcha, and a biography and photo gallery for Glass.
The performance was recorded at New York University just before the start of season two on Showtime. In effect, it’s an interesting and creative way to present and package some of the normal extras for a DVD, including outtakes, additional material, and discussions of the production and creative process for both the TV and radio shows. It runs about 75-minutes and includes audience questions.
After two seasons on TV, for me, This American Life remains primarily a radio show, but I look forward to the creators’ continued experiments with word and image.