This American Life: Season Two

This program has the ability to find the unique center at the heart of stories you think you've heard a million times.

This American Life

Distributor: Borders
Cast: Ira Glass
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Season Two
Network: Showtime
UK Release Date: Unavailable
US Release Date: 2009-01-20

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.