If you love something exactly as it is you're likely to fear change. It may be a favorite ball player switching teams, The New York Time going color, Jay Leno succeeding Johnny Carson, Battlestar Galactica or Planet of the Apes re-imagined, or Steve Colbert leaving The Daily Show for his own program. For me, it was This American Life (TAL) branching out into television. Sure producer and host Ira Glass went out of his way to assure listeners that the radio program would continue as before, but the fears were there. Will the frequency or quality of new radio programs diminish? Will the television show be any good? If it's not good, will it make me like the radio program any less?
These concerns may seem trivial to an outsider, but for many of the 1.7 million fans that listen to TAL each week, or at least me, they were real. I can now breathe easy. TAL continues to be the best thing on radio, and it's a pretty damn good television series too.
A bit of background for the uninitiated: TAL has been on the air since 1995, nationally syndicated since 1996, and is now carried on over 500 public radio stations each week, as well as being available as a free podcast. Each episode has a theme, and a number of stories on that theme. The feel of a TAL episode was summed up by a character on the Gen-Y Fox television series The O.C.: This American Life? Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are?
Five years in the making, This American Life: Season One, consisting of six 30-minute episodes, appeared on Showtime in the spring of 2007. Like the radio program, the
TV series features true stories about real people organized around a theme.
The episode titles (and themes) of the first season are as follows: Reality Check (when perfect plans fall apart); Growth Spurt (moving on through sheer force of will); The Cameraman (the effect of being an observer behind the camera); God's Close-Up (God and his posse on Polaroid and canvas); My Way (the benefits and costs of stubbornness); and, Pandora's Box (the consequences of tinkering).
All the stories in the first episode, Reality Check, will be familiar to longtime TAL radio listeners. With slight differences in style to accommodate the differing media, these segments play out essentially identically on both formats. This is in sharp contrast to a segment in Pandora's Box which re-visits a Chicago hot dog stand first featured on the radio program in 1996. The essential facts are the same in both segments: a late night hot dog stand where the black working-class staff and the white middle-class customers are surly with one another. The radio segment described the interactions as good natured and boisterous, but the television program makes it look far darker and much more racially charged. There's a dramatic change between the two segments which I hope is more attributable to changes in the way the story is presented rather than in the mood at the stand itself. In either case, it's an intriguing and frightfully stark contrast.
The television series starts off much like the radio program, but then finds its own voice. The first episode follows the radio format of recounting past events. Essentially, this happened to me then, and this is how I feel about it now. The later episodes capture events as they are occurring which better fits with television's need for visual primacy. Some of the stories featured include a would-be politician's vow to always tell the truth, a woman who sets out to become a screenwriter at age 63, a 15-year-old boy's vow of lifelong celibacy, a standup comedian's routine about her boyfriend's death on 9/11, and the true science behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The television show is immensely entertaining, but doesn't provide the intimacy of the radio program. The viewer remains an observer at a distance from the story as it unfolds, whereas the listener often is made to feel like a confidant in whom deep personal recollections are being entrusted.
TAL is presented in a 16:9 enhanced image. The video often looks soft, but not unacceptably so. There are no subtitle options.
The disc provides 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes, and a Spanish mono dub. The 5.1 mix sounded great with no dropouts or distortion, but the 2.0 mix sounded slightly harsh. The Spanish dub used a wide mix of voice actors that while not always conveying the original inflections seemed acceptable, though the option of Spanish subtitles might have been preferable.
The first episode includes an optional audio commentary by host and producer Ira Glass and director and co-producer Chris Wilcha about the making of the series. The commentary often drags when Ira and Chris get engrossed in watching the segments, but it'll still be worth a listen to fans. There's also a brief biography on Ira Glass and a small photo gallery.
The television series is unlikely to ever supersede the greatness of the radio program, but This American Life: Season One is a worthy addition that can be enjoyed by fans of the radio program as well as new audiences. This release is highly recommended.
Hopefully, we won't have to wait another five years for season two.