I'm pleased to report that the care given to the DVD release of the second season of the Emmy-award winning documentary television series This American Life is better than that given to the show's haphazardly updated website which still urges readers to watch "the televised version of This American Life premiering Thursday, March 22nd  at 10:30 p.m." and to buy season one "now available on DVD exclusively at Borders!" without any mention of season two, followed by a dead link to Borders' old website, even though season one has been available from Amazon and other retailers since last autumn.
In addition to all six episodes of the series, the single-disc release features a 77-minute cut of This American Life - Live!, the May 1, 2008 show at NYU that was simulcast to theaters across the country promoting the second season, and an audio commentary by host Ira Glass and director Christopher Wilcha for episode one.
A bit of background for the uninitiated: This American Life began on Chicago Public Radio in 1995 and is now carried on over 500 public radio stations each week, as well as being available as a free podcast. TAL made the leap to TV in 2007 with six episodes on Showtime, and completed a second run of six more episodes in 2008. Like the radio program, the TV series features true stories about real people organized around a theme.
At its best TAL offers human drama all the more poignant and unforgettable for being true. Every episode features at least one story that really shines. In episode one, Mike, a 27-year-old quadriplegic unable to speak or breathe on his own, asserts his independence from the fulltime care-giving of his mother by becoming a Goth and finding a girlfriend on Craigslist. In episode two, a young Iraqi travels around Blue-state America inviting passersby to ask him whatever they wish. Episode three features the elaborate 1/6-scale fantasy world of a brain-damaged and traumatized victim of a brutal beating. Episode four reveals more about boxing than you could learn in a lifetime of watching ESPN. Episode five features a man obsessed with winning a lawsuit even if it costs him his marriage, wealth, and freedom, while episode six considers the universal in the particular by documenting seven strangers ranging in age from 11 weeks to 79 years, all named John Smith.
The worst segments on TAL are merely mediocre. Stories about a couple fighting over whether to maintain the lawn (episode two), the hunt for an elusive woodpecker (episode three), and a comedy camp for kids (episode four), fail to fascinate, but are not disasters.
TAL is presented in a 16:9 enhanced image, but the video often looks soft and suffers digital compression errors, especially digital combing.
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 Chris Wilcha which is particularly focused on the episode, but does discuss some of the larger production decisions about the season. Unlike the commentary for season one, this one remains lively throughout. There's also a brief biography on Ira Glass and a small photo gallery, but the highlight is the 77-minute presentation of This American Life Live!, a stage show recorded at NYU and simulcast to cinemas across the country on May 1, 2008.
With just six new episodes a year and an audience one-tenth that of the weekly radio program, the television version of This American Life will never outshine the long-running radio program, but that doesn't mean that it's not worthy of your attention. In fact, This American Life is probably the best documentary series about ordinary people on TV since Errol Morris' short-lived First Person.
Given the state of the Showtime website, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that This American Life is not coming back for another season, but here's hoping otherwise.