This American Life: What I Learned from Television

A Chicago Public Radio Production at Avery Fisher Hall on Monday, February 26.

I wrote here about This American Life once before. It was one of my earliest blog efforts, and I struggled to articulate what makes the radio program so special. The stories it features are so diverse in type and tone and subject matter that it’s difficult to capture what it even is, much less why I love it so much, why I babbled merrily for days to anyone who would listen when it became available as a free podcast. (Seriously, I’m evangelical about this. Visit iTunes and check it out.)

When I heard the show’s creators had agreed to do a television version for Showtime, I cringed, partly because I worried that This American Life’s beautiful, literate craftsmanship could never make the transition to TV and partly because Sean and I don’t get Showtime, so I won’t be able to see it—mixed feelings, clearly.

The live program Monday night alleviated the former concern somewhat. It was the first performance of a six-city tour meant, principally, to publicize the TV show’s premiere in late March, so they showed clips from the show, and host Ira Glass and television director Chris Wilcha talked onstage about how they went attempted to translate This American Life for a visual medium. Part of their approach is to eschew documentary-style filming for a more deliberately arty aesthetic: lots of careful framing, vivid colors, and use of music (the last of which is a staple of the radio show, too).

I guess I’m not quite convinced—hopeful but still wary. Some of the clips seemed in danger of tipping toward too precious, too self-conscious, which is always a danger with something like This American Life, something that is earnest and geeky and that takes pride in its earnestness and geekiness. More effective than the extended live-action clip—a story about a young teenage boy who has made the intellectual decision to reject the possibility of love—was the cartoon sequence that opened the program. Animated by Chris Ware, it told the story of a bunch of kids who grow so fond of pretending to film each other that they begin to lose their ability to actually interact with the world rather than merely observing and commenting on it. The images were striking in their simplicity, and Glass’s narration was, as it always is, sensitive and thoughtful.

The real draw, however, were the three performers, This American Life regulars who each delivered a new piece connected to the theme, “What I Learned from Television.” Jonathan Goldstein told a story from the perspective of Barney on The Flintstones. Sarah Vowell spoke about various sitcoms’ misbegotten attempts at Thanksgiving episodes. I adore Vowell—my copy of The Partly Cloudy Patriot is dog-eared—but it was one of her weaker essays, more rambling than digressive, and arriving at its Larger Point About America with more haste than grace.

The best work came from Dan Savage, who closed the program. Bitingly funny and sharp yet more emotional and true than the first two, his piece ambitiously examined TV stereotypes of gay and straight people and the damage those stereotypes can do. It was a personal essay, moving adroitly from his own adolescent viewings to the TV-watching habits of his preteen kid, and it was poignant without being fussy or sentimental.

Conservatives often seem to think they’re the only ones with “values,” but Savage’s essay dealt with the fear that any parent of any political persuasion has: the fear that the world is instilling values in your child that contradict your own. (Hell, I don’t even have children, and that’s something that worries me all the time.) The subject could have become pompous and reactionary, but Savage is too self-deprecating—and too talented a writer—to fall into that trap. Instead, his words and his delivery were truly moving, ending the program on a resonant note, representing the best of what This American Life has to offer.