This American Life, the two-season Showtime television series based on the immensely popular radio show, is a profoundly moving and brilliantly captivating look at the people in this fine nation of ours. Host Ira Glass and his production team have crafted an unscripted love letter to American life and the tenacity of the human spirit. To be sure, this reads as hyperbolic praise, but I can assure you that this Emmy-award winning series is truly deserving of my accolades. This is some must-see viewing.
When I watch a television series, the characters are key. Make me care for the people I’m spending time with, and you’ve got me hooked. Little did I know that I would effortlessly fall for the vibrant and awe-inspiring true-to-life characters spotlighted in This American Life. For the rancher whose unconditional love for his bull leads him to ask scientists to clone the animal after his death. For the high school students whose everyday life drama will never be captured by awkward school photos and will fade with the passing of time. For the two underdog boxers pitted against each other, both with everything to lose. These compelling stories draw you in and never let go, taking completely surprising turns along the way. Much of its unexpected nature comes from what unfolds directly in front of the camera, and these unscripted moments can be both unflinchingly dramatic and funny.
The conceit of building a program around a central theme works just as well on television as it does on radio, albeit with some minor growing pains in the medium translation. In the trailer above for the second season, Ira Glass amusingly pitches that “this time around we actually sorta even semi-know what we’re doing.” This is markedly true. While the first season features much intrigue and emotional depth, at times the proceedings feel a tad heavy on interviews and talking heads narrating the action. The second season of This American Life builds on the first and simply elevates the storytelling to a whole new level. The creators take more advantage of the visual medium, with a gorgeous cinematic aesthetic that cannot be replicated in a radio show. The shots become more kinetic and narration is relied on less. There is a tighter focus on a narrative journey, which provides more opportunities for humor and pathos.
My personal favorite episode of This American Life is season two’s “John Smith.” This episode tells the story of a singular life, from birth to death, told through the lives of seven different Americans from all over the country, all named John Smith, ranging in age from 11 weeks old to 79 years old. This seemingly simple premise is astounding in its execution. We cut from an elementary-school aged John Smith at his school’s science fair, to a John Smith in his forties welcoming his son back from war overseas, to a John Smith in his thirties spending time with his ailing mother in her final days, and so on.
At times surprisingly and striking, these stories mirror, reflect, or contrast each other. We watch the 8-year old John Smith inquisitively and amusingly observe his father shaving, which leads to a montage of all the John Smiths shaving in the mirror, and ends with the 70-year old John Smith shaving, wondering when he had become so old. Narration from the 36-year old John Smith talking about what he missed as a child growing up without a father plays over footage of the 8-year old John Smith fishing with his father. This dynamic storytelling structure illuminates how relatable and universal American life can truly be. Dreams, love, hopes, and fears are all on naked display. This is a journey that runs the emotional gamut. And since the subjects of “John Smith” are treated with such a compassion and raw honesty, the twists and turns of everyday life stem organically and are all the more captivating in their thrills and heartbreak.
I have stepped away from each episode of This American Life with food for thought: whether it is a fresh, eye-opening look at an unfamiliar world, such as modern-day pig farming, or a greater deeper appreciation for life, through the story of a retirement home resident fulfilling her dream to become a screenwriter. I highly recommend that you take the journey with these everyday Americans. Who knows how their unscripted stories may inspire you.