The third episode of the new Showtime series This American Life opens with a wonderful animated short. As cartoonist Chris Ware’s adorably geometrical characters bumble about, host Ira Glass interviews a guy named Jeff about a childhood incident in which he and his fifth grade classmates started carrying make-believe movie cameras everywhere. As they obsessively “filmed” their everyday lives, what began as a fun trend soon devolved into the schoolyard version of COPS. “The camera really changed the way we behaved,” Jeff observes. Glass agrees: “People act different if they’re behind a camera.”
It’s a classic This American Life moment, capturing Glass’s ability to wring truths from tales of ordinary existence. But this exchange also captures the tension behind the much-anticipated televised spin-off of the wildly popular public radio program. For over a decade, This American Life (a.k.a. TAL) has been a phenomenon, reinvigorating audio storytelling and rescuing public radio from the tepid depths of Lake Wobegon. Ever since Glass inked a deal with Showtime early last year, his fans have been wondering what TV would do to their beloved show—and its host. Could TAL’s quirky intimacy be repackaged for cable, or would the boob tube suck the soul out of it? Was Glass about to do for TV what he’d done for radio, or was he about turn into a Gen-X Charles Kuralt? When Glass mentioned the TV series at a recent public appearance in Minneapolis, one audience member cried out, “Judas!”
Glass claims that he too was skeptical about taking his program to the small screen. As he recently told the Chicago Sun-Times, he repeatedly turned down offers from the networks. “We said to Showtime what we had said to everybody else, which was, like, ‘We know nothing about making moving images. And we won’t do it unless you find filmmakers who can explain to us how this will happen, and what it would look like, and what it would be. And they have to be filmmakers who we respect.’” Glass was won over after Showtime enlisted Killer Films, which produced Boys Don’t Cry and Far From Heaven, to co-produce the series. Its first six episodes begin airing Thursday night.
Pledge-mug carrying TAL listeners will be relieved to know that the results are good. Not just good in the sense of not being cringe-inducing, but good in the sense that Glass and company have created a show that—like its inspiration—sticks in your head. It’s beautifully shot and edited, and except for a couple moments of MTV-ish visual effects, it feels more like film than TV. The four episodes I watched left me wanting more—which is both the show’s beauty and its biggest frustration. They say that the television camera adds 10 pounds to you; that’s not the case for the new version of This American Life. It’s still attractive, but it’s definitely lost some weight.
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Each 30-minute episode follows the radio show’s basic format. After a short opening segment, Glass appears on screen and introduces the week’s theme and the one or two acts inspired by it. So far, Glass is the show’s only on-camera personality; radio regulars such as David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and David Rakoff aren’t in the first four episodes. It’s fun to watch Glass in his Elvis Costello glasses and skinny gray suits, ensconced behind a boxy desk that could have been lifted from an old Tonight Show set. Rather than being stuck in a studio, he and his desk are plopped into a variety of outdoor locations—a street corner, a suburban hillside, a salt flat. Despite the deep focus, Glass is weirdly one-dimensional on the small screen. He looks relaxed, but his trademark voicing feels flat; his spontaneous-sounding (though carefully calculated) tics such as audible breaths, sighs, and tongue clicks are muted. It’s a reminder why we don’t curl up next to our TV sets on Sunday afternoons.
Glass has long championed the intimacy of radio, particularly its ability to get listeners to feel an emotional connection with people they have little in common with. “Empathy is everything on the show,” he explained when I interviewed him in 1999. But empathy can be hard to come by on even the most well-intentioned TV program. Take the segment in which a young guy films his pill-popping mom and her alcoholic husband. As the camera follows the fat, loutish stepdad—who sleeps on a couch in the basement and pees in cans because there’s no bathroom down there—it’s hard not to feel like the line between compelling storytelling and gawking has been crossed. When the story reaches its obligatory TAL moment of self-reflection and universalizing, the stepfather confesses that he loves his stepson. On the radio, this might raise a lump in your throat. On TV, it’s just another scene of vicarious squalor.
Sometimes, seeing is disbelieving. Which is why, before TAL hit the big time, Glass preferred to have his face obscured in publicity photographs. Back then, he felt it was better to go incognito, lest listeners’ mental image of him was ruined. (A friend who imagined Glass as a cigar-chomping bald man was especially disappointed when he finally saw a photo.)
Fittingly, the new series’ most memorable stories revolve around the gap between idealized expectations and reality. In the first episode, a Texas couple clones Chance, their beloved pet Brahma bull, in hopes that the new animal, Second Chance, will inherit its predecessor’s unusually sweet disposition. In another segment, a woman in a senior citizens’ home writes her first movie script, casts her fellow residents to star in it, enlists the help of a Hollywood director, and dreams of going to Sundance. And in what might be the series’ best piece, an entire episode is devoted to a Mormon artist who seeks bearded men as models for his religious paintings, only to discover his perfect Jesus in the form of an unrepentant atheist.
Glass likes to say—or at least he used to—that “radio is your most visual medium.” Radio forces listeners to do much of the imaginative heavy lifting that television relieves viewers of. But, as This American Life’s newest incarnation demonstrates, while TV may be bad at intimacy, it can’t be beat for immediacy. It’s hard to imagine stories such as the Jesus painter working on the radio; its climactic scene of a nighttime crucifixion on the shore of the Great Salt Lake is stunning. And the story of the cloned bull, a heftier version of which already aired on the radio, gets some new life from striking images such as Chance’s owner retrieving his enormous preserved hide from the closet. “It’s just sad seeing he’s empty,” she says, holding his deflated head. Some things really are better seen than heard.