This American Life: Season 1 (US - DVD R1)
Gabe braves a couple dozen tales of the weird and the wonderful in the U.S.A...
I didn’t know what to expect from a television series based on a popular and award winning Public Radio program. The only thing I knew is it wouldn’t be dull. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s hard to pin down the series on any specifically descriptive terms (just read the rambling description on the back of the box). The themes and feelings of these six, half hour episodes are never repetitive, and yet it’s oddly consistent. I can’t imaging anyone with an interest in the human condition finding themselves bored by these low key tales of real life in America.
The first episode, Reality Check, starts with the disturbing tale of a man and his pet bull. Chance the bull is so special to Ralph the farmer that when the gentle critter finally croaked the good farmer convinced Texas A&M to clone him. Sure as sugar, the new Chance isn’t quite the dear his biological ‘father’ was, and Ralph finds himself short one testicle. This leads into a light to dark to light tale of a small time band that find out the best gig of their life was actually an improv group’s practical joke. Ghost of Pasha is a struggling group performing their third gig ever when they were chosen by Improv Everywhere as a part of one of their ‘flash mob’ pranks. Members of IE made bootleg T-shirts and learned the lyrics to the new band’s songs, then went to the concert and put on a show of their own. One can only imagine the disappointment of discovering your best public performance was merely a joke.
The second episode, Growth Spurt, starts with a shocking story of an amateur comedian who deals with her husband’s death during 9/11 through her act. That leads to the nearly saccharine, but ultimately touching story of a group of senior citizens at an art themed retirement home who try to get a film into the Sundance Film Festival. It’s really impossible to resist these elderly folks and their kid’s games. The episode ends with a woman reading from the diary she kept as a thirteen year old. She reads this sad tale of a child’s drug and alcohol addiction in front of a decent sized audience. The bit is short, but poignant in a strange and sad way.
The third episode, The Cameraman, starts with a cute animated short about the distance a camera puts between an operator and his subject. Then the rest of the episode is devoted to young documentarian G.J. Echternkamp, who starts filming his wacky family in hopes of sticking embarrassing videos on the internet. His footage reveals dark and saddening truths about his relationship with his ex-alcoholic mother, and his joke begins to morph into a feature length film. I’m not sure if I’d be up for a feature length version of this story, but the episode is a deeply affecting teaser trailer, and possibly one of the most touching short subject documentaries I’ve ever seen.
The fourth episode, God’s Close Up, is probably one of the rougher episodes to watch in mixed company. It starts with a pre-credit sequence of people taking pictures of the desert sun and swearing that they see images of the Virgin Mary in the streaky, flashy images. This isn’t really explored deeply, but the base tale of the episode is. Ben lives in Salt Lake City and gathers people with beards to photograph for a series of religious paintings. This quirky tale twists when it’s revealed that the majority of the bearded folks in the Mormon state of Utah are the unreligious, meaning the people most touched by Ben’s paintings are often the unbelievers. His Christ is a Marxist college student with an ex-Mormon girlfriend, and the paintings have reopened discussion with her devout father. The social implications and explorations are the base of the episode, but Ben’s bizarro process is just as fascinating.
The fifth episode, My Way, is a four-part exploration of stubborn humans. Pre-credits is a very sad older gentlemen that spends three days a week in his dead wife’s mausoleum. This depressing tale is quickly remedied by the story of Joe, a fourteen year old that refuses to believe in love. Joe is charming and intelligent lad, and his adult speech patterns almost mask his child-like thought process. Then there’s the tale of Brad Blanton, a Southern man and ex-psychologist who ran twice for congress on the unlikely campaign of absolute honesty at any cost. Not surprisingly he didn’t win either time he ran, but his contrasting political means are startling, begging the question—why? The episode ends on another downer, following a photographer who is force to deal with the reality of his profession. His pictures, the ones that have brought him the most acclaim, are all of human pain and sometimes even death. His life was entirely turned upside down by a disturbing is a series of photos depicting a real life drowning he could’ve stopped.
The final episode is entitled Pandora’s Box. Another three-parter, this starts with the story of two professors who discover a way to chemically block memory in rats. Soon after celebrating this discovery they were crushed with E-mail pleas for a trial run memory blocking drug. It’s like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, only real. This leads into what started as a simple story about modern pig farms that turns into a genetic horror story. It’s not one of those PETA ‘don’t eat meat’ things meant to gross us out of eating pork, but it is a shocking look at a rather sickening process. The crew’s reactions to this stuff is pretty funny, as is the unnatural, science infused manner these pigs are raised and slaughtered. Everything ends with the story of ‘The Wiener Circle’, a hotdog stand open until 5am on Saturdays where the employees scream obscenities at the clientele—for fun. The social experiment comes in when we realize that ‘The Wiener Circle’ is rooted in an upper-class white neighbourhood, and all the employees are black. It gets pretty disturbing.
This American Life is presented in anamorphic, 1.78:1 widescreen. The image is soft, and some of the harder edges have bleeding and doubling problems. The softness makes for only slight amounts of artefacts and compression noise, but it also takes some adjustment on a decent sized screen. There just isn’t a lot of detail. The film quality varies pretty wildly throughout because of the various camera tricks and stocks.
Audibly the This American Life team seems reluctant to break too far out of their original radio roots. Every episode could work as an audio only broadcast. I mean this as a compliment, as the flow and editing styles of the beloved series have not been squashed. Working with a 5.1 soundscape these masters of audio storytelling mix lo-fi interview and sound effects footage with well produced, immersive, and often haunting music. I might have expected a more minimalist soundtrack, and some episodes, like ‘The Cameraman’, are mostly allocated to the centre channel, but the music tracks are quite active. The bass track is thick and the surround and stereo channels honestly play off each other pretty impressively.
I’m surprised at the pace and fullness of the pilot episode commentary track, which features Ira Glass and series director Christpher Wilcha. There’s a lot of talk of the production process, the visual and audio choices, and entertaining tales from behind the scenes. Glass’s speech patterns are actually different on the commentary then on screen, which I find interesting in my boring little way. The problem with the track is that it only accompanies the pilot episode, which is easily the series’ weakest.
A photo gallery and Ira Glass bio are the only other bits on the disc. No sign of the senior citizen’s short film, Bandida. I wonder if they made it into Sundance?
If you like documentaries you might want to think of this disc as a set of a dozen or so shorts for the price of one. Overall these tales may break your heart, but there is a sense of satisfaction and connection with real people you’ll never meet. It might not be worth a full purchase (as of yet it is only available at Borders for sale), but I highly recommend a rental at the very least. The series is refreshingly candid and honest without being outwardly politically slanted.
This release is only available at Borders stores for sale currently. More information can be found on the series website, which includes several downloads.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 29th January 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Creator/Director Commentary, Photo Gallery, Ira Glass Bio
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ira Glass
Cast: Ira Glass
Length: 162 minutes
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