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Reviewed by Will Harris
here hasn’t been this much controversy over a radio show being transferred into the televised medium since, well, honestly, you probably have to go all the way back to “Fibber McGee and Molly.” Blame it on the fact that NPR listeners are a notoriously defensive breed of individuals who take tremendous pride in their habit, but it’s amazing how many people bristled at the idea that Ira Glass’s weekly audio adventures into the lives of ordinary and extraordinary individuals around this great country of ours could translate into (ugh) a TV show.
It will hopefully come as a pleasant surprise to those purists that, indeed, “This American Life” proves just as enthralling as a television series as it does a radio show.
If you’ve never actually seen a picture of Ira Glass prior to looking at the DVD cover for “This American Life,” then, well, it won’t be terribly shocking. Somehow, Glass manages to look exactly like he sounds, which is not an easy task for someone on radio to accomplish, but c’mon, even before you saw him, you just knew he wore glasses, didn’t you? He pops up in various locations in the episodes, always sitting behind his omnipresent desk, looking like the world’s most out-of-place anchorman (in one instance, he’s in the middle of a field with snow-capped mountains behind him) while still managing an aura of bemused confidence.
The transition from radio to television is virtually seamless, which is to say that there are precious few moments within these six episodes which couldn’t work just as well if you ran the sound through your home theatre system but turned off the television itself. If anything, the visuals add to the experience, though you can imagine the aforementioned purists moaning, “But now we won’t be able to listen to the radio show without wondering what it would look like!” To that, we ask: how is that any different than what you were thinking before there even was a TV show? Anyone who says that they’ve listened to “This American Life” on the radio and never wondered what someone looked like is a damned dirty liar.
Of the episodes, the first (“Reality Check”) is certainly the perfect opening for the series, providing a brief story as the prologue, followed by two lengthier stories which are totally different in feel yet are still filled to the brim with emotional impact in their own way. It’s the second episode (“My Way”), however, that features the single best segment of the first season: “Still Life.” If you’re familiar with the ‘80s song, “Whirly Girl” by Oxo, you will never be able to hear it again without thinking of the band’s bassist, Frank Garcia, and his performance within this episode. Much of the footage contained within the segment comes from "Frank & Cindy," a documentary by Garcia's stepson, G.J. Echternkamp, and once you’ve watched that footage, you’ll be rushing out to see more. It’s enthralling (though not necessarily in a good way) and reveals the story of how Echternkamp came to find his current career path.
In truth, all of the episodes of “This American Life: Season One” are enthralling, providing the kind of reality TV it’s okay to like. The show’s tagline describes it as funny, dramatic, surprising, and true. We won’t argue with any of those adjectives.
Well, except for “surprising.” In our heart of hearts, we always knew it was going to be this awesome.
Special Features: To look at the back of the box, you would think there was no bonus material on the set whatsoever, and even to look at the “bonus features” section of the DVD itself, you’d probably think the same thing, since the only things to be found there are a text biography of Glass and a photo gallery. If you pull up the episodes individually, however, you will find that Glass and director Christopher Wilcha have done an entertaining and informative audio commentary for the series’ first episode. Would that they had done so for the subsequent episodes as well.