Friday, November 20, 2009

This American Life

"This American Life" is a program hosted by Ira Glass. Some of you will be familiar with it. Most will know it from National Public Radio, where it has been broadcasting for the last (almost) fifteen years now. I've listened to the program once or twice, though I can't claim to be a regular contributor to the ratings.

For two seasons, one in 2007 and one in 2008, This American Life was a television program on Showtime. Each season consists of six episodes, all but one of which are just shy of thirty minutes long. Each consists of anywhere from one to four stories, all revolving around a loosely observed theme for the evening. I'll not that these themes were very, very loosely observed.

It is, I should warn you, a quiet program. There's no flash to any of the stories, as they are all, get this, real. They are all true-to-life things which could happen to any of us at any time. The narrators are subdued, and the stories are refreshingly bereft of an angle. It's all honest reporting, or very natural story telling. This is not to say This American Life doesn't have a sense of humor; the second episode of the first season closes with five minutes of a woman reading her (real) eighth grade diary to a crowded room, and it is hilarious from start to finish.

Whether laughs are had or not, the real magic in This American Life is its honesty. The people under the watchful eyes of the cameras don't hide anything. They don't attempt to, either, which is just as important. The stories are varied, taking in retirement home residents who decide to make a movie, a pair of boxers fighting for their low-level careers, a thirteen-year-old who has vowed never to be in love... the most stunning episodes are also the most unexpected. There is an episode which started as a film about the filmmaker's favorite people, but ended up capturing the implosion of a marriage. Another, possibly the most touching episode, was started as an attempt by the filmmaker to illustrate how terrible a person his stepfather was, only to end up restoring some of the balance and honesty to his entire family. It was incredible.

This is a show that revels in the small, the seemingly insignificant things. The last episode is masterful, a story following the lives of seven separate John Smiths, each at a different age between 11 weeks and eighty. It serves as a wonderful epitaph for the program, and, because of the amount of footage taken of each individual, features some of the most honest moments. There is a beauty in a seventy-year-old John Smith watching footage of his children, taken in the 1960's, commenting on his daughter, and then noting his son. I want to bring your attention to how he describes his son's story: "He, well, he fell into a lifestyle I don't understand, and... he got sick from it." To watch this line spoken is to have your heart broken. He isn't judgmental of his son, he isn't upset that his son was gay; he is simply honest about it. He doesn't understand the lifestyle, but the boy was still his son, and he loved him. John and his wife visit the grave frequently, and when the son asked if he could come die at home, his parents didn't even give it a second though. Of course he could, he was their son.

The diary reading I mentioned is one of the funniest things I've seen in some time, and the final episode is one of the truest. In between, you'll find every aspect of American life shown in unexpected and delightful ways. It's a shame the production schedule was such that Ira Glass asked it to be removed from Showtime for the future, but rest assured I will be contributing to those ratings soon enough.

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