Cast: Ira Glass
Extras: Commentary Track, Biography, Still Gallery
It has become cliché to say that truth is stranger than fiction. The Showtime series "This American Life" does not make this trite claim. It demonstratively proves it. According to the blurb on the back of the DVD package, the show is "not quite documentary, not much of a news magazine, and definitely not a reality show…." So, what the heck is it? The blurb's own answer is that "it's simply unlike anything else." Well, that's not entirely true. After all, it is based on a radio program that has been broadcast since 1995. Originally titled "Your Radio Playhouse," the radio show was produced and hosted by Ira Glass and featured multiple true-life stories, or "acts," that fit a designated theme for each episode. The stories centered on average American citizens who had an unusual or otherwise worthwhile situation to be told. When Showtime greenlit a television version of the series in 2006, they allowed Glass to continue on as producer and host. While the TV version follows the basic format of the original radio program, it is true that there is virtually nothing else on TV right now quite like this. It defies easy classification and does not benefit from any single label. By turns funny, disturbing, saddening, and thought-provoking (sometimes all at the same time), the show brings new surprises with each new episode and, indeed, with each new segment.
Each episode opens with a brief introductory story, establishing the selected theme that will play out through the rest of the segments. These intros may be dramatized, told in first person, or feature interviews with the main individuals involved. Ira Glass then makes his formal introduction, always behind a desk situated peculiarly outside on a select location. In a brown suit and large-rimmed glasses, Glass has the look of a somewhat nerdy news reporter, but his quirky appearance and style of delivery mimic the show's overriding unconventional approach to storytelling. Some episodes present up to three stories, or "acts," while some are dedicated solely to one. They are all radically different from each other in tone and subject matter, and they cover a gamut of topics from religion and politics to family relationships to domestic pig farming. What they share is that they are all compelling in some way, examining the bizarre and rich layers of American life, allowing us to see aspects of our society that may or may not be familiar to us but that we can all relate to in one way or another.
The first episode, for instance, introduces us to an elderly couple in Texas who are so attached to their beloved pet bull that before he dies, they arrange to have him cloned so that he will always be with them. So eager are they to believe that the cloned bull truly is the same animal that they are willing to forgive its aggressive and injurious behavior in order to hold on to their illusion. At first glance, most viewers would probably be quick to dismiss the couple as extreme sentimentalists at best and obsessive loons at worst. How can we possibly relate to a man who, even after having his genitals ripped apart during one of the clone's attacks, still insists that this is the same bull he has known and loved for years? It is this somewhat freakish quality that makes the story entertaining, but at its core is a story that we all know too well. How many of us have some haunting nostalgia for the past, whether it be for a past relationship, a cherished holiday memory, or a lost dream? If we saw an opportunity to relive these lost experiences, even vicariously, it is conceivable that we would go to similarly extreme measures.
This is exactly what makes "This American Life" such a fascinating series. The people and situations featured are not what we typically see on television, reality-based or otherwise, but we can still recognize inherently identifiable qualities in these unusual stories. Of course, there have certainly been other TV programs to tackle provocative real-life issues, including HBO's "Taxicab Confessions" and MTV's "True Life." But while the former often veered into exploitation and the latter presented its material with almost grim solemnity, "This American Life" alternates between humor and earnestness, often within a single segment. It never takes itself too seriously, and yet it treats its subjects with respect and honesty. In fact, many of the stories are told with little judgment against the subjects. There is frequently no moral in the end. We are simply witness to something that will strike a chord, and we are left to judge it and learn from it as we see fit. One particularly harrowing story of a photographer who was in a position to save someone's life and chose to do nothing is almost horrifying in its lack of dramatic closure or summary conclusion, but that is what makes it resonate so long after the episode ends.
I refrain from going into great detail about each episode so as not to spoil the impact, but a few of the outstanding segments follow a man whose religious paintings force an atheist woman to confront her troubling religious background, a dysfunctional couple whose bitter relationship is captured in painfully honest terms on their son's video camera, and a politician who pledges to always tell the absolute truth, even if it means costing him an election. Tagging along with Glass and crew on their tour across America, we see just how truly bizarre the most ordinary people and places can be, and it urges us to examine our own quirks and actions. We may have sympathy for Glass' subjects. We may be offended or dumbstruck by their words and actions. But only the most egotistical viewer would be loath to admit how much we have in common with these "characters."
All six episodes of the first season are presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen on Showtime Entertainment's DVD. Because various qualities of camera were used in the making of the show, image quality varies not only from episode to episode but segment to segment as well. Suffice it to say that the image looks as good as it can possibly look, considering that some footage was taken with home video cameras or lesser quality while some was taken with professional equipment. The transfer can certainly not be faulted for any flaws, including grain and noise, which are inherent to the source material. The presentation is solid.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 English tracks as well as a Spanish mono track. The 5.1 track sounds very good, with strong vocals, particularly Glass' segments and narration. As with the picture, some of the audio is in decidedly poorer quality, but the DVD soundtrack does its best to present it as clearly as possible. Music benefits the most, always clear and never harsh or intrusive.
The first bonus feature is an audio commentary on the first episode with Ira Glass and director Christopher Wilcha. It is a pleasurable listen, as Glass and Wilcha discuss the show's roots and its debut on TV as well as the subjects of the first episode. They also discuss some of the structural problems with the first episode and how they, in some ways, corrected these issues in later episodes. This commentary track is accessible through the audio menu or in the episode selection (though oddly not in the bonus features menu). The rest of the features include a lengthy text bio for Glass and a brief photo gallery.
Ira Glass has succeeded in creating a show that gets to the heart and the contradiction of the American spirit—it celebrates our commonality by reveling in our diversity. There is no grand agenda here except to hold up a mirror to us, a somewhat misshapen and oddly decorated one, but a dependable one nonetheless. Through the seemingly extraordinary lives of these ordinary American citizens, we can take a look at ourselves and think about what it means to truly live in this country, warts and all.