Sunday, June 22, 2008

This American Life--Radio Has Never Looked so Good


I suppose there are probably still more than a few people who have not yet realized that the splendid NPR radio program, This American Life, is now featured as a regular series on Showtime. They do not promote it as heavily as some of the other original series like "Dexter" and "Weeds", so you should not consider yourself a failure or a recluse if you haven't heard the news yet. So far, two short seasons of This American Life have already quietly aired and are now available on Showtime-On-Demand if you have that option with your cable company. You can also download full episodes from Season One directly from the website.

I've been a long time fan of the radio version of TAL, which is a quirky and moving microscopic look at the underbelly of American day to day life. It's hosted by the brilliant Ira Glass, who sounds nerdier than a conference room chock full of Microsoft junior executives, but who comes across as distinguished and nice looking on TV. I don't think I've ever heard a segment of TAL that was anything but fascinating, and if nothing else, I would be grateful to Mr. Glass for introducing us all to David Sedaris (best selling author of Me Talk Pretty One Day and hundreds of hilarious essays).

The show has translated well to television, but its style is leisurely and meandering. So if you are in the mood for car chases and explosions, this is probably not for you. Last night I watched the Season Two finale and it was about as charming as television gets. Seven boys and men, all named "John Smith", were featured to depict what life is like at various ages for American men. There was the two month old John Smith from South Carolina, a pudgy pudding of a baby boy whose mom hoped he would grow up and give her 10 grand daughters some day. There was the spunky 9 year old John Smith who wore his Empire State Building costume (even when it wasn't Halloween) and made a science fair project out of different kinds of tape. Young 23 year old John Smith was a troubled man trying to find his way, who found redemption and his true calling as a truck stop cook. There was a 36 year old John Smith from Washington, who never knew his own father and had to watch his mother die of cancer. The 46 year old John Smith struggled with his feelings about middle age, and his contentious relationship with an independent son who had joined the marines. In one of the most moving segments of the entire episode, the 71 year old John Smith recounted the last days of his deceased son, who had died of AIDs at the age of 25. Finally, we had 79 year old John Smith, practically mute and living in a nursing home, his cloudy eyes surveying the final moments of his fading world.

Sometimes it seems like there is not much to admire about the world today, where war and mayhem and cruelty runs rampant on every cable news network, 24-7. If you'd like to take a break from that, and remember why human beings are a pretty good deal after all, you will not find a better destination than This American Life.

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