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Try Some True Reality TV: Showtime Gets it Right with "This American Life"

It's funny how far we've gotten away from actual reality in our TV shows.

In a day and age where we're inundated by so-called "reality television," in the form of shows where people fight for a million dollars on a deserted island or battle to become a top model (or top chef or designer...), watching Showtime's new series This American Life is a wake up call of sorts. After all, this is true reality television, in the very best sense of the word.

Based on the much beloved National Public Radio series hosted by the soft spoken and erudite Ira Glass, This American Life is a collection of everyday people's stories, group together each week into a singular theme. It's a true vox populi, a confessional of sorts and it brings together a disparate group of people you would never have the opportunity to meet.

On This American Life, Ira Glass and his team spend six months traveling the country in search of touching, heartbreaking, and/or humorous stories from the most unlikely of sources: an Iowa pig farm, a Vermont indie rock band, a senior citizen's home in Burbank. The one thing they have in common: they're all true and they all capture a different shade of American life.

In the first episode, "Reality Check" (airing tomorrow night on Showtime), Glass and his team speak to two very different sets of people. In the first segment, he speaks with a rancher who resurrects a beloved pet bull (through the magic of cloning), but discovers that it's not quite the same animal he once loved; in the second, Glass speaks with Ghosts of Pasha, a Vermont indie rock band who were set up for the "greatest night of their lives" by a prankster group called Improv Everywhere. The latter is a story I first heard on This American Life last year and which has haunted me ever since.

I was initially concerned, along with many others, on how well the popular radio series would travel to television. I'm happy to report that it translates extremely well without losing any of Glass' off-kilter humor, sensitivity, or inquisitiveness. In fact, shifting the program to television adds another layer to an already deep format. In dealing with such intimate stories, radio gave This American Life listeners the ability to feel instantly connected to the people it was profiling and functioned as a priest's confessional would: raw, honest, and (visually) anonymous.

Here, however, Showtime's series gives the viewer the ability to even further connect with the subjects Glass interviews, presenting them in their full, three-dimensional glory. The effect heightens the intimacy, giving the viewer the feeling that they are there alongside Glass, rather than distancing them.

And in an age of bug-eating survivors, contestants willing to test their fear factor, suitcase choosing would-be millionaires and the like, isn't it time that you added some actual reality to your reality TV?

"This American Life" premieres tomorrow on Showtime. Subsequent episodes air Thursday nights at 10:30 pm ET/PT on Showtime.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Survivor: Fiji (CBS); Friday Night Lights (NBC); America's Next Top Model (CW); George Lopez/According to Jim (ABC); Bones (FOX)

9 pm: Criminal Minds (CBS); Crossing Jordan (ABC); Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll (CW); According to Jim/In Case of Emergency (ABC); American Idol/'Til Death (FOX)

10 pm: CSI: New York (CBS); Medium (NBC); Lost (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: America's Next Top Model.

On tonight's episode, the girls learn the art of posing (please let it not be from Miss Jay), are put through their steps in a simulated vault heist, and pose for a crime-scene photo shoot. Ooh la la.

10 pm: Lost.

I can't tell you how happy I am that Lost is back on the air again. On tonight's episode ("The Man From Tallahassee"), it's finally here: the true as to how John Locke ended up in the wheelchair (it better be a doozy). Meanwhile, Ben offers to tell Locke the truth behind the island's mysteries if he stops his plan and Kate discovers that Jack has made a deal with the Others.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Thanks for covering this. I heart Ira Glass. Not to be confused with "I have a heart of glass", which like Blondie I do.
Anonymous said…
I got a sneak peek at the first few episodes of this and thought it was brilliant, heartbreaking, hilarious, and totally engrossing. I agree with you that, at its heart, it still feels like the beloved radio show but with an added dimension. I love being able to see the faces of the people who are telling the stories. Anyone who was worrying that this excellent program wouldn't translate to the small screen should put their minds at ease and tune in!
I'm a big Ira Glass fan and am really looking forward to seeing the show. I'm so glad to hear that you liked it!
Anonymous said…
Saw the first episode This Americam Life on On Demand a couple of weeks ago. Looking forwaqrd to the rest very much.

Funny about how you heard the indie band story on the radio. I had a bit of deja vu over the cloned bull story. How long ago did I hear that on the radio?

Are all the stories going to be recreations of ones that have already been on the radio? Were they filmed simultaneously? (I assume they were) How long ago?
Anonymous said…
I caught up this weekend, and watched the 3 eps on my tivo. I am hooked! I thought I'd just watch one, and then watch something else, but I watched all three in a row. That Ghosts of Pasha story definitely stayed with me.

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