This American Life: Season One

This American Life: Season One

B+

This American Life: Season One

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For more than a decade, WBEZ's This American Life has been a welcome guest in its listeners' lives. Every week, host Ira Glass shares a series of stories grouped around a common theme, but the show is defined as much by his literal and authorial voice—wry, empathetic, often bemused, and radiating boundless curiosity about humanity and its infinite quirks—as its format. The public-radio institution's long-threatened television adaptation engendered excitement and concern from fans. Would the show's tricky tone translate to television? Would it make the trip to the glass teat with its warmth and intimacy intact? How could slick visuals possibly compete with the mental pictures radio listeners concocted to accompany each evocative story?

Like its radio sibling, TV's This American Life explores colorful stories that travel in unexpected directions, like the tale of a patriarch who retains faith in the fundamental goodness of a clone of his beloved pet bull, even after the genetically engineered beast attacks him twice. The result plays like Pet Sematary by way of The New Yorker. Standout segments have the compact, insinuating power of a great short story, or raise disquieting questions about human nature, like a story about a Chicago hot-dog stand where foul-mouthed, jokingly abusive give-and-take between wealthy white customers and the black, working-class staff sometimes takes an ugly, racist turn.

The stakes are high for Showtime's Life. The good news is that the show—whose first season has just been released on DVD everywhere, after months of being available only at Borders, in a deal sure to enrage armchair Marxists—has made the scary leap to television with much of its charm and integrity intact. It helps that the first season runs a scant, British-style six episodes, which doesn't afford it much opportunity to wear out its welcome. Ira Glass hosts each episode from a traveling desk that pops up in unexpected locations, a conceit that skirts preciousness without crossing over. In a weird way, the pet-bull story echoes Life's migration to pay cable, but it's less a clone gone awry than a whole new entity that borrows from the visual vocabulary of documentaries, music videos, and independent film, while preserving the radio hit's poignant, searching, deeply humane core.

Key features: An amusing, candid commentary from Glass and director Christopher Wilcha on the first episode.

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