Years ago my wife had laser surgery on her eyes. Everything went smoothly except for the recovery. A woman who loved being outside, reading and watching films was told, "For a week, you can't go out in bright light or keep your eyes focused in the same position, like reading a book or watching a screen." The only solution to make a week pass quickly was radio.
From a world of quality public broadcasts, one program stood out, "This American Life," an hourlong essay on modern America oriented around a weekly theme, combining short stories, documentaries, radio theater, found prose/poems, interviews, you name it. It was a comforting and engrossing voice when my wife had to sit in the dark, and it's since accompanied us on long drives countless places, for years.
Now, at this point saying that "This American Life" is good to great pretty much every week is like pointing out that water is moist. But part of the cliché way of thinking about it might come from the fact that this is a thought-provoking show that's hard to think about. The topics it presents are easy to describe. How the show works isn't. I felt stymied until two days ago I stumbled across an interview with host Ira Glass, in which he talked about the value of being wrong:
A lot of great stories hinge on people being wrong. In fact, we've talked as a staff about how the crypto-theme of every one of our shows is: "I thought it would work out this way, but then it worked out that way."
This is a relief, because often the contents of each show seem to spiral away from the theme. Where the show takes you isn't the land of make-believe but the land of make-mistakes, the misbegotten area where big ideas end up. A classic episode about a haunted house is spooky and engrossing, but really turns out to be about obsession and not looking at county records. A Christmas show set on an aircraft carrier winds up asking uncomfortable questions not about Christmas but about how the justice system uses military enlistment as an alternative punishment. The surprises are authentic. Americans—all people, really—tend to go off script, and those moments tend to be the most revealing.
The producers of "This American Life" took this same documentary approach to the visual medium with a two-season series of the same name on Showtime. The first episode was a little clunky, but the show rapidly hit its stride and presented just as many surprises as the radio series. Take the case of one Texas farmer who lost an old, beloved and extremely gentle bull and then discovered that Texas A&M wanted to clone a bull. Miraculously, the man was able to take his gentle bull's clone home, and then had to come to grips with metaphysical questions about DNA and the spirit when the bull gored him.
Another first-season episode featured indelible scenes of pig farming, inspired by a disturbing Harper's magazine story called "Swine of the Times: the Making of the Modern Pig." The story examined how pigs went from coming from thousands of farms across the country, having pink meat, fat, and varying flavor, to coming from just a handful of farms, being bred to have no fat and whiter meat (remember "Pork: The Other White Meat"?) and being so genetically fragile and similar that a single cold could wipe out hundreds at once. Meanwhile, the farms sat next to vast open pits of pig waste. The entire spectacle so overwhelmed a cameraman that he nearly passed out, and Glass later admitted that the man became a vegetarian at that moment and hadn't touched meat since.
Doing TV and radio at the same time proved too demanding, and the creators shelved the TV series indefinitely. But the 13 episodes (six in season one, seven in season two) are gems and all worth watching. Moreover, the factual documentary approach—without the oddities of "found" media, one-act plays or fictional memoir—means that there are fewer "misses" and far more pieces directly on point.
Of course, there are bound to be a few misses with the original radio series. It's been on the air for 14 years and over 400 episodes. The creators had to figure out what they were doing, refine what worked and take risks with things that might or might not. But a lot of times those risks turned out to be brilliant.
They took a flier on original material from a guy named David Sedaris when he was virtually a nobody and championed political pieces from Michael Lewis when all anyone knew about him was that he was "that ex-Wall Street guy." When most Americans wondered how the economy tanked in 2008, "TAL" had a harebrained idea and spent an hour walking Americans through no-asset loans, mortgage securities, bets against them called Credit Default Swaps, and bets on bundles of CDS's called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO's). Not only did they decide that one hour of intense education was something people could use, it's riveting.
Thankfully, those who aren't familiar with the series don't have to make random purchases from the "TAL" archive to find these gems. Many of the best segments, including ones repeatedly voted fan favorites, have been included on two 2-CD sets, Stories of Hope and Fear, and Crimebusters and Crossed Wires. Reflecting its title, Hope and Fear definitely offers more sober fare of the two sets, although it does include Sedaris' extremely funny, "So a Chipmunk and a Squirrel Walk Into a Bar."
Meanwhile, Crimebusters and Crossed Wires: Stories of This American Life, despite a title that might suggest something like authority and justice, collects more famously flippant stories. The profound moments of "Watching the Detective," in which Ira Glass follows a private detective following someone else and realizes that he has just seen the worst moment of a person's life, are more than outweighed by cops chasing squirrels and a legendary college answering machine message.
In a lot of ways, great "This American Life" segments are like great comedy sketches on a classic album. You think you might listen to them once, but can just as easily find yourself listening to them again and again, until you've memorized the beats not only to each line but to the pauses between them. Even after a half-dozen listens, you wind up grabbing the CDs and stuffing them, yet again, into a bag for a family road trip. In my family at least, nobody minds.