This American Life, broadcast on the Showtime network, is a half-hour show based on, or more accurately, spun off from, the award-winning Chicago Public Radio show of the same name. Each episode is loosely based on a theme, which is then explored through stories about real people. The content and style varies from week to week, with stories ranging from light-hearted to incredibly sad.
The television version, like the radio series, is hosted by Ira Glass, who Time magazine named the “Best Radio Host in America” in 2001. Not having been exposed to Glass or the show before, I was quickly won over by his intelligence, wit, and a kind of nerdy charm. He generally opens each show with a brief introduction of that week’s theme and tells the viewers a little bit about the stories that are coming up. After that he falls into the background, sometimes narrating and occasionally interviewing subjects from off-camera.
Season two of the show, like season one, consists of a scant six episodes. But the six in season two are packed with stories filled with emotion, anger, humour, irony, and drama. The first episode, Escape, features a short story, told with no narration, of teens in the inner city of Philadelphia who escape the streets by riding horses. We don’t learn much about the people who run the stables and take these kids under their wing, but we are treated to some amazing images of riders trotting through the streets of Philadelphia and, later, to footage of them racing at top speed through a park, the city’s skyline rising in the distance. After this short opening piece, the rest of the episode features a young man, severely handicapped, who needs to achieve some measure of independence from his mother, a woman he has relied on all his life to not just care for him, but to literally keep him alive. The story is told with humour and sadness, and has several striking visuals.
Other episodes feature diverse themes from “Two Wars”, about foreigners who have left war-torn countries and are trying to make sense of aspects of life in America, to “John Smith”, the story of one life, told through the lives of people from all over the country, all named John Smith.
The show’s creators use the medium of television to tell these stories in ways they can’t on the radio, and a great deal of attention and care goes into the images that are used. From images of horses galloping through an inner-city park, to point of view shots of a man trapped inside an immobile body, to stories told through animation, we are treated to creative and compelling visuals that draw the audience into the stories.
My only real complaint is that there are only six episodes.
The episodes are displayed in 2.35:1 widescreen, except for Glass’s introduction segments, which are shot with a $100 flip-camera they bought at Best Buy. At these points the image quality drops and the picture shrinks to a small square image at the center of the screen. However, these intros are usually about a minute long and then the show goes back to widescreen.
Being a documentary, the show is sometimes constrained by such issues as settings and available light, so the image quality varies. However, the transfer is very clean and the episodes feature excellent contrast; the shots will often switch from gloomy settings to bright outdoor vistas, and all are reproduced with clarity and richness, ranging from deep blacks to luminous greens and yellows.
The dvd’s audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, and the sound quality is good overall. The important thing about this show, however, is the voices telling these stories, and in that regard the audio is excellent. The voices come through clearly and are never stepped on by the music tracks.
There is a single commentary on episode one, featuring Ira Glass and the show’s director, Christopher Wilcha. The two of them give entertaining insight into the production of the show and discuss the changes made between seasons one and two.
This American Life Live (1:17:40) – This is a special episode of the radio show shot before a live concert hall audience. This is something they do periodically, going on tour and recording the show in various venues across the US. This episode is a sort of preview for season two of the television series, giving previews of episodes but also going in depth with some aspects and occasionally showing outtakes and extra interviews.
Ira Glass Biography – A series of screens giving a brief bio of Glass and a history of the show.
Photo Gallery – A very small number of production stills, all of Glass.
If you’re a fan of the show then buying this disc is a no-brainer. If you’ve never seen it before but are a fan of documentaries – or are one of those people who think they would really like documentaries if they ever sat down to watch one – This American Life will be a treat. It’s a unique show that manages to be smart, funny, moving, and entertaining and is definitely worth checking out.