[2 October 2008]
A desk sits in front of a highway, on a hill with houses in the background, or in a parking garage. A bookish, well-dressed man behind the desk addresses the camera and its unseen audience. It’s a scene made famous by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where it acted as a nonsense segue between skits that bore no relation to one another. They were there because something had to be, and because John Cleese could be funnier in the span of six words than most mortals. In the world of This American Life, however, the desk anchors the show, giving Ira Glass—the show’s bookish, well-dressed creator and driving force—an opportunity to frame the show’s precision-crafted vignettes.
Veteran public radio listeners already know This American Life as a quirky haven for the “And Now for Something Completely Different” spirit. Week after week, the radio program gathers several seemingly unrelated true stories under a thematic umbrella (“The Ten Commandments”, “Settling the Score”, “My Brilliant Plan”, etc.) that shows they’re not so unrelated after all. Presented with a considered pace that gives its tales plenty of time to unfold, This American Life is one of the last places to go for well-told stories drawn from everyday life.
After more than a decade as radio’s one-stop shop for stories, This American Life finally made the jump to television. This, of course, made many listeners nervous. TV is, after all, famed as the place where good ideas suffer horrible deaths at the hands of network interference, dumbing down, and politics. Would Glass be forced to wear a catch-phrase like an albatross around his neck? Would we be subjected to seizure-inducing quick editing that left us exhausted by tale’s end?
Thankfully, such fears turned out to be unfounded, because Showtime apparently trusted Glass and company to do their thing. The first season of This American Life wasted no time making regular listeners feel right at home in front of the TV. A rancher who clones his beloved pet bull, a woman using the 9/11 death of her husband in a standup comedy routine, a 15-year-old boy who vows to never fall in love, an aspiring politician who never lies—these types of stories and more were presented in ways that made it seem like making the transition from radio to TV was the easiest thing ever, when in fact it probably involved sleepless, soul-searching nights.
Shot in widescreen, often with very little movement, and no fear of holding a shot for more than a few seconds, the television show frequently captures that indefinable quality of This American Life where time seems to slow down during the story, focusing on some pivotal moment. The show’s website offers that “At one point, our cinematographer Adam Beckman and our director Chris Wilcha noted that the radio show has these reflective moments built into it, moments where the plot stops, and the people in the stories talk about how the experience changed them or their ideas about the world.” That can be as simple as someone looking off into the distance, or watching their dreams be realized as senior citizens make a movie, or having their cloned bull gore them and send them to a hospital bed. Often, the lessons people take from their experiences are not what we think we would take away in their place, but there’s never a sense that people are putting on a front for the cameras.
And the cameras certainly prove their worth. Words alone couldn’t do justice to the sight of a woman pulling a full-sized bull skin out of a cardboard box in the closet, or the completeness of the performance art piece that grows around an unsuspecting club band. The visual medium also gives the show the opportunity to take stabs at more experimental approaches, such as the stop-motion photography that drives the first episode’s lead-in, or the animated treatment (courtesy of Chris Ware) that tells the story of schoolkids running amok with fake video cameras. This American Life might arguably be tentative in its boundary-stretching, but you can’t argue with the results.
If there’s one criticism of these televised This American Life episodes, it’s that they’re too short. At only a half hour each, it feels like you’ve just settled in with each episode’s theme when the closing credits start rolling. Surely it’s a byproduct of the increased work, effort, and money that go into a television episode, but 30 minutes of intelligent storytelling feels like even more of an ephemeral flash than the hour-long radio efforts. Even so, after watching these short collections, you’ll be hard pressed to forget some of the indelible images presented here.