This American Life
Empty10:30-11 p.m., Thursday, March 22
On a recent tour to support his weekly Public Radio International program and to promote its Showtime premiere, "This American Life" host Ira Glass recalled hearing his show encapsulated on Fox's "The O.C." A character asked, "Is that the show where all those hipster know-it-alls talk about how fascinating ordinary people are?"
No and yes. The translation of radio to television is tricky, but if any concept can make the leap, it's the show Glass has headed for 12 years. "Each week, we pick a theme and do different stories on that theme," he explains for his viewers, perched behind a desk at any number of outdoor locations (imagine David Letterman's furniture going "Monty Python"). But "Life" is the anti-"Extra" and the obverse "Access Hollywood." In its world, the most fascinating subjects are the most regular rather than the most plastic.
Maintaining a theme is a challenge in just 30 minutes (the radio version is an hour). The premiere, "Reality Check," focuses on a rancher who cloned his Brahma bull and the fallout from a group of pranksters targeting a band. Other episodes incorporate Chris Ware's animation. Still others take the full half-hour to tell one story. Those are the shows that let this series hit its stride.
Visually, the show (executive produced by Julie Snyder, Alex Blumberg, Glass, Banks Tarver, Ken Druckerman and Killer Films' Christine Vachon) owes a debt to Errol Morris and is rife with artistic flourishes and re-enactments. Reporters are heard not seen and occasionally pontificate: Regarding a pig farmer, the reporter sums up, "He grew up on a farm, and now he works on a factory." Such apparent godlike summation might not diminish the show's "hipster" designation, but most of the insights are incisive rather than high-handed.
It's not news, and it's not features. "Life" instead has found a delightfully happy medium by telling stories that never hew to expectations (the story of a biblical scene painter transforms into one about the atheist girlfriend of his Jesus model and her devout father), and in the process does something exceptional.
Unlike so many celebrity-soaked offerings that make the world seem cheaper and grubbier, "Life" makes the ordinary extraordinary and along the way makes the world seem wider, bigger and an eternally more interesting place to be. Just listen.
THIS AMERICAN LIFE
Chicago Public Radio/Public Radio International
Creator: Ira Glass
Director: Christopher Wilcha
Executive producers: Julie Snyder, Alex Blumberg, Ira Glass, Banks Tarver, Ken Druckerman, Christine Vachon
Co-Executive producer: Christopher Wilcha
Producers: Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, Nancy Updike
Director of photography: Adam Beckman
Production coordinator: Emily Camille
Editor: Jenny Golden
Host: Ira Glass