This American Life

[20 June 2007]

By Mike Scalise

Growing Pains

It’s hard to watch our babies grow up. When This American Life made the jump to Showtime’s cable lineup this past winter after 12 years on the radio, Ira Glass brought his usual skepticism to the transition: “We went into the pilot not convinced that it could work at all,” he told the New York Times in March. “In fact, we asked for assurances from Showtime and got it in our contract with them that if we thought it didn’t work, that at the end of the pilot… we could ask them to kill it.” That kind of stubbornness and bet-hedging characterized TAL‘s first TV season, its successes and failures hinging almost entirely on how Glass and crew found ways to maintain its quirky character on this new medium.

The structure remains the same (a theme is introduced, followed by three illustrations), now augmented by director Chris Wilcha’s visual interpretation of TAL‘s tone, a mix of meditative detachment and a vibrant color palate. In his 1999 book, Radio: An Illustrated Guide, Glass breaks down the anatomy of TAL segments like this: “The structure of every story on our program,” he writes, is “an anecdote, and then there’s a moment reflection about what that sequence means… anecdote then reflection, over and over.” While that structure helped to make some of the new stories “irreverent” (much like the radio show), Glass also relied a bit too much on what worked on radio.

This was the case in Episode Two’s “Joe No Love”—a profile of 14-year-old Joe Kendrick, an RPG-playing, performing arts school student who had “sworn off” love—which suffered from Glass’ micromanaging narration. We heard “anecdotes” from Kendrick about how love “makes you act like an idiot,” followed by Glass’ “reflections”: “The thing about Joe is, he’s happy. Joe likes his life the way it is right now.” While radio must serve as an audience’s eyes and ears, the TV camera makes such illustrative commentary redundant: we could see for ourselves that Joe was “happy.”

Episode Five’s “Lights, Camera, Traction,” about a crew of LA-based retirees making what they hope is a Sundance-worthy short film, was also commandeered by his pushy narration. At one point, he described a “shocker” of a casting decision regarding a “big guy who had trouble getting whole sentences out in English.” Instead of showing the decision-making process, Glass insisted, “I just had to say something,” and confronted the elderly crew about it. When Glass was later proved right—the production went from promising to mediocre because of the acting—the film’s writer admitted to Glass, “You put doubt in my mind.” This seemed a smug, I-told-you-so moment, rather than a redemption story. So when we hear Glass pronounce that “taking a risk, doing things where you actually have a chance to fail… That’s what being young is,” it rings false. We’re left wondering what would have happened if he’d never interrupted at all.

This American Life has always been about the complicated wonder of unexpected discovery, and when the producers gave over to that idea, and trusted in both the new medium and the types of stories they could tell with it, the pieces were remarkably rich and surprising. In Episode Four, cartoonist Chris Ware’s animated prologue about schoolyard imagination gone wrong was loaded with inventive and charming nuance, transitioning easily to Alex Blumberg’s “The Cameraman,” a hands-off piece about actor G.J. Echternkamp’s documentary, Frank & Cindy, about his mother and stepfather’s codependent relationship. Told almost entirely through Echternkamp’s footage, the piece revealed character through details. Not only did we get to know the characters in their interactions, but we also got a good look at their unkempt home, littered with cigarette butts and framed by tattered furniture. Such images said more about the frayed edges of addiction than anything Blumberg’s narration would have. Importantly, this story could only have worked on television.


The same goes for Nancy Updike’s brilliant “God’s Close-Up,” from Episode Three, which focused on Kristi Davis, a self-exiled Mormon drawn back into that world by her Jesus-look-alike boyfriend’s involvement as a model in a series of hyper-realistic paintings of famous biblical moments. At once an exercise in visual irony and an exploration of the shadowy nature of fate, faith, and relationships, it featured a balance between what worked in the past and what will work in the future. Updike’s subjects—who ranged from the spiritually devout to Utah’s disaffected, non-religious subculture—spoke plainly about the complicated politics of where they lived, which elevated the themes of the piece to something far more than quirky. Rather than tie the anecdotes together in broad “reflective” narrative statements, Updike took a vérité approach, punctuating the story with vast, open shots of Utah’s landscape, as if to say to the viewers, “Look: there’s so much more to this story than I can even begin to tell you about, so here. You reflect on it.”

The segment showed the type of confidence that Glass and company lacked when they approached this season with one foot out of the door, ready to “kill” the show if it didn’t work. It’s what they’ll need to have in seasons to come, if they want TAL to mean as much to television as it has for radio.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/this-american-life1/