I have watched these DVD episodes of the Ira Glass series This American Life, some segments more than once, and I have to say I just don’t get it. Perhaps it is because I never heard the radio program on which they are based. It is a somewhat popular show with a cult following. I tend to avoid public radio at all costs as it is far too heavy handed in its liberal politics for my particular tastes. Still, I approached the series with an open mind that knew literally nothing going in. I’m sorry to report that I still seem to know nothing about the show. So I began to try and research the series and found there is remarkably little information out there on it at all. Even Showtime, where the series originally airs, offers precious little about the program. I can’t even get a good handle on what kind of a show it is trying to be. The commentaries suggest it is a documentary of sorts, but their banter also makes one believe that they are actually attempting to spoof the documentary. Bad news Ira, Michael Moore’s already been doing that for years.
In a nutshell, I’m told the show follows pretty closely the format of the radio show, and in hindsight that could be the problem. Each half hour episode explores about 3 mini stories loosely revolving around some basic theme. The people interviewed, for the most part, are playing things pretty straight, but I get the uncomfortable feeling they are being set up for all of us to laugh at their expense. The themes vary from the “man screws with nature and gets his” to “the cost of stubbornness”. The series has a knack for the Instant Karma. Each episode opens with Ira sitting behind a late night style desk out in the world somewhere. He might turn up on an urban street corner or out in a cow pasture. He introduces the theme, and away we go on a ride that appears far more comfortable with Borat as our tour guide. Ira is goofy looking with his Buddy Holly horn rims and an ensemble right out of The Office. Eccentric folks are profiled. Examples are a rancher who clones his favorite pet bull, Chance. Only to be gored by the clone named, you guessed it, Second Chance. How about a politician attempting to run for office without ever telling one lie to anyone? Or try the group of enlightenment seekers in the
Each episode of This American Life is presented in its original broadcast 178:1 aspect ratio. By its very nature, the picture quality is not a constant thing. The series is filmed out in the field with various results. At times the picture is remarkably crisp and sporting vivid color and solid black levels; at other times grain and low lighting intrude to provide a more amateurish image. All of this is intended, and I don’t expect it to detract for the fans of the show.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is basically a wasted affair. Since the entire show is dialogue, there’s not much happening anywhere but center. I actually think I liked the 2.0 option better, as it appeared to at least be fuller in front.
The Commentary Track by Ira and director Christopher Wilcha is actually far more entertaining. They provide lively chatter and reassure me in some ways that perhaps none of this is meant to be taken too seriously.
At first I was surprised to learn that this series was going to only be for sale through Borders bookstores. Once I had my first look, I began to understand. It’s likely the mainstream electronic outlets didn’t have much confidence that it would sell. Look, I’m sure the radio show is a hoot and that Ira does a wonderful job of entertaining you guys. Some things just don’t translate well from radio to video. While you’re at Borders, do yourself a favor. Catch a good musician or author reading. Drink a caffeine beverage with a sweet tasty muffin. Even pick up a couple of good books to curl up with, but if you plunk down a Jackson on this DVD all you’ll get in return is “this crazy experience that seemed manufactured and then was over”.