This American Life

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Six episodes of a new television version of the popular Chicago Public Radio/Public Radio International show, This American Life, will be shown on cable TV’s Showtime starting on March 22nd, 10:30pm ET/PT. Ira Glass has been the producer and host of the hour- long documentary/essay style program since he created it 12 years ago. Soon This American Life’s 1.7 million listeners will be able to see what he looks like. The mysterious voice of radio will be replaced by the visual reality of television.

The dichotomy of the aural vs. the visual was clarified for me when I attended a recent taping of NPR’s witty and trenchant news quiz show, Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! After years of listening, I finally saw Peter Sagal and Carl Kassel in the flesh. Of course, they bear absolutely no resemblance to my auditory versions of them. And now their voices will forever be disjointed, muddied and confused by the clash of my visual and aural memories.

Will that be the case with This American Life? Will pairing the radio and TV versions of This American Life be a marriage made in heaven or one that causes the post-divorce gossips to whisper, “I knew it wouldn’t work.”

The television version of This American Life follows the format of the radio show: each week the program loosely focuses on a theme that is evocative of American life and presents several “true stories of everyday people” that illustrate a different aspect of the theme.

So, for example, Episode Two of the television show is called Growth Spurt and is about people who willed themselves to the next stage of their lives. The first short segment is about how a woman used a comedy routine to help her grieve over the death of her boyfriend, a September 11th victim. The second, and to me the most interesting piece, is about a group of seniors whose growth spurt involves finding the creativity and discipline to write and produce a short film. In the final piece, a young woman reads her teenage diary to a live audience. Her diary reveals how she reinvented her personality to fit into the drug culture at her rough public school.

One of the reasons that the piece about the seniors’ film worked for me was its visual nature. Watching the auditions and rehearsals for the film increases the understanding and appreciation of the filmmakers. We are not merely watching a visualization of the one-on-one interview format ubiquitous to the radio show.

Similarly, in an otherwise interesting part of Episode Three, entitled The Cameraman we hear Ira Glass discussing a childhood memory with an interviewee while we watch a cartoon illustration of the memory. The recollection is about degraded and depersonalized schoolchildren behavior when they view their world through fake cameras. While the cartoon is cute, this piece makes far better radio than it does TV. The remainder of Episode Three, on the other hand, works. It is a compelling look at a filmmaker’s visually searing and painful film about his mother.

In both the television and radio formats of This American Life, the themes and the segments within the themes are quite diverse and quite diverting. However, I find that some of them share a slightly ironic, slightly condescending quality. At their worst, they remind me of the taped interviews on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart…the ones in which the interviewees are not aware that the audience will be laughing at them. But when This American Life finds the right note, it is amusing, thoughtful, interesting and provocative.

Why did Showtime choose to turn This American Life into a television series? Showtime does have a history of bringing some interesting programming to cable TV (e.g., Huff, Weeds, Dexter) and there certainly is a dearth of decent documentary programs on the tube. After researching the demographics, I understand the consanguinity between the two audiences. Showtime is interested in capturing upscale viewers and, according to a 2006 Arbitron survey, one-half of NPR listeners have an annual income of $75,000 or more. However, more than 38% of NPR’s audience listens to it in their car. And while at home, if they are like me, they aren’t crowded around the radio as though they were listening to an F.D.R. fireside chat. They are more likely cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, exercising and otherwise multi-tasking in a way not possible while watching TV.

Showtime representatives have commented that if they get one-half of This American Life’s current audience they will consider the program a success. I hope that it works out, but it is unclear to me from the four episodes I previewed whether the listening audience will be captivated enough to watch Showtime’s This American Life, when they can so conveniently listen to it on the radio or on a podcast.

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