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All photos © Showtime
Reviewed by Will Harris
hen the TV version of “This American Life” made its debut on Showtime a few years ago, there was some concern amongst the diehard fans of the original radio show that allowing the show into a visual medium would somehow result in the demise of the audio version. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet, nor is it likely to happen. Why? Because the majority of the people who watch the TV version are the ones that were already diehard listeners of the radio version, anyway!
Mind you, that could change, and very possibly has already begun to do so. The television series, which airs on Showtime (because, quite frankly, PBS never asked them if they wanted to do a television series), earned three Emmy nominations right out of the box, and in 2008, the show even took home a few, earning awards for Outstanding Nonfiction Series and Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming.
“This American Life” continues to be a beautiful look into the residents of our country – some human, some not – as they live their lives, no matter how unique or mundane they may be. After all, what may seem humdrum to some may strike a chord of familiarity in others. Some have asked if it’s a requirement that all “This American Life” stories have to be depressing in some capacity, and it’s not hard to see why, but a majority of the tales manage to touch your heart, albeit in unique ways on occasion.
Take, for instance, the season premiere, “Escape,” which spends the majority of its time focusing on a 27-year-old guy who’s suffering from Spinal Muscular Atrophy. His motion is limited, his speech is decidedly affected by his condition, but he’s extremely smart and, as host Ira Glass learned first-hand, he’s got a real way with words when he’s writing an E-mail; as such, it’s hard to watch this fella and not feel sorry for his situation, because you can only imagine what he could accomplish if he wasn’t stricken with this ailment. There’s a moment toward the end of the episode, however, when his breathing tube is removed and we hear his voice for the first time. His delivery is far from crystal clear, but it’s still such a thrilling moment to finally hear him speak that it takes your breath away.
The episode that holds together its theme the easiest is the season finale, “John Smith,” where the series delves into the lives of several individuals who share the same name. There’s the 11-week-old John Smith, whose parents are still coming to grips with the fact that all of their sonograms assured them that they were having a boy (one can only hope that they won’t traumatize their child by letting him watch the episode during his formative years), and we’re treated to a look at six other John Smiths of other ages. They have precious little in common aside from their name, but they still have that common bond.
We could pick out other highlights of “This American Life: Season Two,” but there are only six episodes in the bunch, and while some are arguably better than others, every one of them is worth seeing, so why spoil the experience any further? Whether on the radio or your television, Ira Glass and his team never fail to entertain and enlighten with their work. Let’s hope they manage to find the time to produce a third season very soon – but, of course, if they don’t, there’s always NPR.
Special Features: I have a suspicion that Ira Glass may not be a regular Bullz-Eye reader. We observed last time around that it would’ve been nice if he and director Christopher Wilcha would have done more audio commentaries for the episodes, but if they heard our plea, they ignored it. We do once again get a commentary on the season premiere, but also like last time, it’s so good that you’re left wishing they’d done it for all of the episodes. There’s an assurance on the back of the box that you get an extended version of one episode, but if that’s the case, it isn’t advertised as such on the disc itself. This sin is forgivable, however, due to the inclusion of the “This American Life” theater presentation, which you may have seen advertised in your local movie theater. It runs around an hour and 20 minutes, and although some of the stories have been excised from the existing episodes, there’s a wealth of new material for fans to enjoy, with Glass taking questions from audience members and explaining the history of the series and what goes on behind the scenes to make it what it is. Even if you’ve already got Season Two on your TiVo, the theater presentation alone makes this set worth purchasing.