Featured: Top of Home Page

A public radio classic gets a TV 'Life'

David Bianculli
New York Daily News (MCT)

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.




By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.


Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.


L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.


Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.


Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.


Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.


West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".


PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.