'This American Life' keeps its voice in shift to TV format
Generally speaking, when TV turns its hungry eye onto real people, the result is exploitive, mocking, or as fake as the plump lips on "The Real Housewives of Orange County." No matter how waggishly funny the "Daily Show" correspondents are, or how noble Diane Sawyer may think she is, or how yellow Nancy Grace can't help but be, the human beings they interview wind up as driven prey.
The TV adaptation of "This American Life" really tries not to pounce on its subjects. Like the public-radio show on which it's based, the new Showtime series projects respect for the "ordinary" people it delivers for our entertainment. The goal is to dig up human curios of Americana and bring them to light gently and affectionately -- a kind of nonfiction variant of series such as "Northern Exposure." "This American Life," tonight at 10:30, is as sincere as everything on Comedy Central or "The Surreal Life" isn't -- which stands as a warning to viewers who require ironic inversion in their diversion.
Host Ira Glass's show segues as smoothly as possible to TV, as it finds visual equivalents to the zigzag storytelling and spare atmosphere that distinguish it on radio. Because "This American Life" is on pay cable, it's not forced to structure its narratives around commercials, with artificial mini-cliffhangers that keep you hanging on until the show returns. The pace doesn't need to hurry forth at a predictable meter. The segments -- about retirees making a movie for the Sundance Film Festival, for example -- can meander as they might on radio, and not even reach a denouement.
Will those retirees in next week's episode make it to Sundance? That's not the point; on "This American Life," it's the journey that counts.
Showtime's "This American Life" also isn't compelled to inflate its themes of desire and transformational life moments for what network executives think of as "mainstream audiences." The stories stay as small as they are on the radio, such as tonight's piece about an unknown rock band that filled a New York club with rabid fans, then learned the "fans" were part of an improvisational prank troupe. While "Dateline" might have turned the tale into an expose on punking, "This American Life" keeps the drama on the level of the band's conflicted emotional response to having one night of glory. Glass, as casual as ever, doesn't let the segments become more sensationalized than, say, a person having an epiphany or -- as with the couple who cloned their beloved bull -- not having an epiphany.
Wisely, Glass and executive producer Christine Vachon have made sure that the show looks dazzling and yet unadorned. The images of a yellow school bus or a cow are vivid and simple; the shots are precisely framed; and the interviewees look more natural than posed. The occasional docu-dramatic recreations ring false, even while saving the show from the more static and traditional documentary usage of photos. But they do serve as reminders that the easy-going, quirky mood of "This American Life" is, indeed, by design.
Is the TV show as good as the radio program? They are two different beasts, in the same way that a novel speaks a different language than its film adaptation. While the radio show lets listeners fill in the stories with their own imaginations and empathies, Showtime's "This American Life" gives viewers a shorter, more fully formed product that's less open to interpretation. It asks less of us, and gives us less in return. Still, it's a welcome addition to nonfiction television and a loyal friend to the radio show.