A public radio classic gets a TV 'Life'
Public radio's "This American Life," hosted by Ira Glass, comes to television Thursday in the first of six installments on Showtime.
This presents a quandary in two respects.
Either people have never heard of, or heard, "This American Life," in which case they won't care that it's coming to TV - or they're big fans and can't imagine a TV adaptation could do it justice.
I'm in the latter camp. "This American Life" is a reliable repository of the quirky, inspirational and unforgettable. And a lot of the stories it tells gain a lot from what used to be called, in the days when radio was king, the theater of the imagination.
Some radio shows should be heard and not seen. "All Things Considered," the granddaddy of public radio series, tried to jump to PBS in 1982 with Sanford Ungar and "ATC" co-host Susan Stamberg at the helm, and it fell on its face.
But I have good news for "This American Life" fans. This TV version not only has a distinct, appealing look, it also retains the radio show's sound and personality.
In other words, it works.
That should appease the loyalists. Now for the uninitiated.
Who is Ira Glass, and what is he up to? He looks like a cross between a young Buddy Holly and an earnest TV reporter from the early 1950s - one of Edward R. Murrow's boys, trying to make something of this newfangled visual medium.
And he does. He and his co-executive producers, Chris Wilcha (who also directs) and Christine Vachon, have Glass introduce his stories by seating him in front of a big desk with an old-fashioned radio microphone (pure David Letterman), and placing that desk incongruously out in the wide open spaces of fields, desert flats and underground garages (pure Monty Python).
Then, for each week's show, Glass selects a theme and presents stories related to that theme: a short teaser at the top, then one or two longer pieces. Thursday's pilot, of the four available for preview, is the only one that recycles stories from the radio show. The theme is "Reality Check," and these are the stories:
A woman recalls the embarrassing time in grade school when, on a school bus stuck in traffic, she relieved her bladder, and got caught. A Texas rancher loves his favorite pet bull so much that he has him cloned - a fascinating story that's gory in the most literal sense.
Finally, from New York, there's the story of a merry prankster who stages an ego-boosting fervent crowd for an unknown rock band playing one of its first public performances.
The new stories in later episodes aren't quite so memorable, though one about Sasha Rothchild reading from her diary from when she was 13 is truly great.
But there's no Glass ceiling here. The work he's done on radio since 1995 is well-reflected, and Glass has a likable TV presence.
Seeing is believing - and with radio personalities, that's not always the case.