"This American Life" is an exact TV translation of the public radio series of the same name, from the explanatory opening by creator-host Ira Glass -- "Each week on our show we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme" -- to the sound-bite joke that runs in the closing credits. Television began as radio with pictures, importing programs whole from the prior medium, but this may be the first time that a public-radio cult-brand and sensibility have been imported to a premium cable network, and it makes Showtime look good. Smart. Tuned in. As if the people who run it can see beyond the glare of their own medium.
Still, the Chicago-based radio show (which is heard locally on KPCC-FM and KCRW-FM) is hardly cutting-edge now. A shaggy-dog documentary series that focuses, one might say, on the only slightly extraordinary, it has been around since 1995 and, while not the Boomer's Rest that is "A Prairie Home Companion," has settled into a kind of comfortable early middle age, a product with a predictable form and sound. That sound, in many ways, is an echo of Glass' own voice, which seems to my ear to embody a kind of millennial mix of cynicism and hope, an ironic tone that is (ironically) marshaled in the service of sincerity. That is one way to get by in this world.
Voice is the essence of the show, and the TV version is appropriately talky. (Glass himself, nearly 50 but, like his show, skewing younger, appears stuck behind a desk stuck out in strange places -- a field, a parking garage.) As in the radio version, the segments, or "acts" as he calls them, come in different flavors. Some are interviews, some are monologues, some are full-fledged documentaries involving multiple characters, but in every case a guiding human voice gives the story context. (Some get by entirely on that context.) Some attempt to make a mountain from a molehill and just get, you know, a kind of blurry enlargement of a molehill. But others do find the universal in the particular or just locate the notable, moving particular, and amplify it with loving attention.
The show's attitudinal mix of the jaded and amazed, the shocked and amused, is supported by the production itself. Instead of the catch-as-catch-can, light-flare aesthetic of older documentary film or the what-I-did-on-my-vacation hiccups of the digital video age, the visuals here are precisely composed and often deliberately lit -- they recall the photographs of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall and the films of Errol Morris and Hal Hartley, but also the artier sort of commercial and music video. The effect is weirdly double: distancing, in the Brechtian mode but at the same time a little psychedelic and illuminating. It wants to show you the glow in people and in things, to highlight the beauty in an awful world, and vice versa. But not to stress you out too much about it either, it is essentially a comedy.
The pictures do more than illustrate the words or show you things words can't easily convey; they make it possible to complicate the stories, to play with time and contrasting narrative threads in a way that would be confusing on radio but is the usual stuff of almost any television show. And they make it possible to say less, though with the occasional result that the narration says more than it needs to.
Among the best pieces in the four episodes available for review was one on a group of senior citizens making a film with the object of entering it in the Sundance Film Festival, which was funny and moving, and never condescending or sentimental (sentiment being a form of condescension, I suppose). The most complex of the stories, produced by familiar "American Life" contributor Nancy Updike, involves a Mormon painter of religious scenes, the outsiders he uses as models -- he wants men with real beards, and they are in short supply among Mormons -- and in particular his Jesus (an atheist ex-student of Marxist economics), Jesus' girlfriend and her former jet pilot father. Neither story really goes anywhere: An "American Life" piece typically ends half-resolved, with a question hanging in the air. "So-and-so regarded such-and-such and thought it might have been this.... But perhaps it wasn't this, perhaps it was really that." But that (or is it this) is true to life, after all.
'This American Life'
When: 10:30 to 11 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)