When This American Life first hit the television screen, it was enough that the show had made the transition from radio without losing any of its trademark pacing or quirkiness. The things that made the show such a radio favorite—host Ira Glass’s segues, the incidental music, the multi-act structure—had been carefully preserved despite all the visual medium’s temptations.
What a difference a season can make, as Season Two finds the This American Life crew starting to test the boundaries of what they can do, playing with their format a little bit. Start with host Ira Glass’ introductions to each episode. Season One planted Glass behind a desk in various locales to introduce each segment with what seemed like an “and now for something completely different” air. Season Two finds him in those same strange locations (riding an escalator, in the woods, in a train yard), but now he’s speaking into a small hand-held camera he’s positioned on whatever flat surface he can find. It’s a minor thing, but it seems to make Glass less of a distanced observer.
In short, the show’s learning to manipulate the extra dimensions that television provides. And there may be no better example than Season Two’s first episode, “Escape”. A short introductory segment profiles a group of inner city kids learning to care for horses at a local stable. Scenes of them riding their horses through boarded-up Philadelphia neighborhoods, and across green hills with the city’s skyline in the background provide a jarring visual counterpoint.
The bulk of the episode, though, tells the story of a 27-year-old man afflicted with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. The segment addresses his desire for independence from his mother, who has devoted her life to caring for him. He gets a girlfriend, has near-death experiences, gets a tattoo and a piercing—it’s a gripping story about someone’s desire to find himself in the face of physical adversity. But it’s the visual of him withered and paralyzed in his bed, folded into a fetal position, that brings home just how remarkable his actions are. On radio, the story would have been poignant. On TV, it’s inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time.
Likewise, “Going Down in History”‘s depiction of “picture day” at a high school does a fine job of getting its point across that these annual photo album snapshots don’t capture the turmoil and choices that define these students’ lives (dying relatives, lost first loves, forced efforts at popularity, etc.). But there’s something about a brief twenty seconds or so, where the camera strobes through scores of kids sitting for their pictures, that emphasizes the story’s thesis that each face represents a hidden tale.
A later segment about Bobby Harrison’s quest to photograph or film the possibly extinct Ivory Billed Woodpecker starts out with pictures in four-second increments—the same type of technology Harrison’s using to photograph the bird. And the season’s ambitious attempt to track a human life by chronicling numerous John Smiths at different points in their lives gains power from the camera’s ability to overlap and thematically link images from one life over the words of another.
At this point, it’s only fair to mention that these kinds of visual playfulness are light touches. Season Two is undeniably more smooth than Season One, but the show’s emphasis is still on well-told stories. An Iraqi travels across America, setting up a “Talk to an Iraqi” booth with results that range from touching to funny to tense. A Bulgarian immigrant makes his lawn care a continuation of his experiences during the Cold War, much to his wife’s dismay. Two Wisconsin inmates use rope ladders made from 18,975 feet of dental floss to attempt a prison break. A man who was severely beaten outside of a bar finds revenge and therapy by photographing meticulous scale-model World War II scenes, with himself and those he knows as the characters.
The strength of This American Life has always been not only its ability to find truly new stories, but also its ability to find the unique center at the heart of stories you think you’ve heard a million times. Marriages disintegrate every day, but not in the way documented in “Scenes from a Marriage”, where a man’s obsession with legal challenges drives his wife away. And it’s a fair bet that many viewers who could care less about boxing were sucked in by the layers upon layers of complications driving the tale of two lower-tier fighters in “Underdogs”.
Season Two of This American Life doesn’t falter from the impressive path that Season One began, and may even do that first season one better.