“This American Life,” the hour-long National Public Radio show centered on a weekly theme, is my favorite thing on the radio. It’s hosted by Ira Glass, who has a nasal voice and hipster glasses, and I regularly download the podcasts from iTunes. I started listening a few years ago, and it’s a consistently awesome hour each week. The tone ranges from funny to ironic to mystified to somber. There is solid investigative reporting, especially on the recent economic meltdown, as well as poignant storytelling. The show usually ranges between two and four “acts” per hour, though there are some stories that take up the whole time, and there was a show with 60 acts. It’s not the kind of idle background noise of NPR news — you have to be able to focus on the story, maybe with some mindless housework going on alongside.
One of my favorite shows is called “Act V.” It’s told by Jack Hitt, who frequently contributes to “This American Life,” and you can listen to it here. It’s about a prison in Missouri that has a theatre program for its inmates, and a dedicated theatre teacher leads a stalwart group through Shakespeare. Due to security measures, they can’t practice more than once a week, and they can’t perform an entire play in one sitting. So in this case, Hamlet is performed act by act, and the episode centers on the final, climactic Act V, wherein Hamlet finally takes action and kills his uncle. The acting is less professional than your typical production, but the pathos is stronger, because many of the men involved in the play are in jail for murder themselves. Their meditations on their pasts and their roles in the play are the centerpiece of the episode, and it’s engrossing.
I was excited to learn that “This American Life” was making the leap from radio to television a few years ago, with the radio show continuing apace. I recently watched the first season, which originally broadcast on Showtime, and I thought it was terrific. It’s different, to be sure — the episodes are only a half hour and any cursing is left intact– but the soul of telling an unusual, unheralded story remains.
Adding visuals to what is typically an aural experience is intriguing, but it doesn’t feel like watching 60 Minutes. There are some distinct advantages. In one episode, for instance, a Utah man is being interviewed about his role in a series of religious paintings of Jesus. He has a long beard and long hair and a somewhat burned out feeling about him. The introduction to his interview leads in with a voiceover as we watch him trek across part of the Utah desert, holding what initially appears to be a dog or pig under his arm. As the camera moves in, we realize that it’s actually a naked infant, carried exactly as you might carry a pig at your side. (Well, that’s conjecture. I don’t go around carrying pigs.) Then we see him giving the interview, sitting in the cab of a truck with the door open, naked infant on his lap, feeding spoonfuls of baby food to the child. The voiceover continues as we see him walk away, baby still under his arm. The baby goes completely without comment, either by the interviewer or the interviewee, and this is something that could never be adequately described over the radio. It’s a see-it-to-believe-it moment.
I’m looking forward to watching the next season once it arrives in my mailbox. It’s such a funny, inventive, human approach to storytelling, and I’m never bored by “This American Life.” It’s original, both in radio and television format. If you haven’t caught it on your NPR station or downloaded a podcast from iTunes (it’s one of the most popular podcasts), you absolutely should.
Let’s hear it from regular TAL listeners. What are your favorite episodes? What do you think of Ira Glass? Have you made the radio to television transition as well, and if so, what did you think?