By Cornelius A. Fortune
When I first heard of Showtime’s announcement that there’d be a TV version of the venerable public radio program “This American Life,” I grumbled and said to myself: how could they?
The show’s host and creator Ira Glass held to the assertion in interviews that if you like the show, you’ll love the TV version. I held my breath, and the premiere is bloody brilliant. It’s everything that the radio show is – quirky, heartfelt, often moving – but with a cinematic sweep.
Airing Thursday, March 22, at 10:30 p.m. on Showtime, with the episode “Reality Check,” “This American Life” is truly unlike anything you’re likely to see on television.
It’s not quite a documentary, but there’s a little bit of that feeling in there, and there’s also the fact that all of these stories are true.
Ira Glass, who wears a two-piece suit and glasses, introduces the show, a la Rod Serling, often narrating from unexpected locations (by a mountain side; in a parking garage; by the side of a busy highway). He narrates from a huge anchor’s desk, and is our guide through these unusual stories.
As with the radio show, the structure is broken down into a prologue and either two or three acts.
In “Reality Check,” we are treated to a prologue of a girl on a school bus who has to relieve herself so badly, she goes on the bus, with what seems at first to be triumphant results; next, a couple clone their dead bull Chance, who dies after 19 years. The bull’s replacement Second Chance isn’t quite a replica of the domesticated bull the family had grown to love. The episode ends with a rock band that is given the best night of their life, complete with fans galore – there’s only one problem: it’s a prank.
Some of the stories coming up?
A 14 year-old boy decides to never fall in love; a Virginia politician attempts the impossible: winning an election without telling a single lie; an accidental discovery that erases memories leads the desperate to contact a team of New York neuroscientists to get their minds wiped clean.
Having seen the better part of four episodes, I’m convinced that the TV series found its true expression in an episode of a young filmmaker who films his stepfather and mother. It is very funny, sad, and completely benefits from a cinematic rendering.
I love that fans of the radio show will probably love the TV version as I did, and maybe viewers will be curious enough to check out the radio show.
Few things are going on with terrestrial radio these days. “This American Life,” is one of the cornerstones of the medium, and will doubtless change the television landscape by taking the best of radio and film and marrying the two.
Not sure that’s supposed to happen. But “This American Life” brings new blood to the documentary form by not adhering to the conventions of the medium, and is a shinning example of creative non-fiction, where life is truly stranger – and more beautiful – than fiction. “This American Life” proves that offbeat can be sexy, and is actually a sublime expression of the American experience.