Monday, April 09, 2007

TV REVIEW: This American Life

One can only wish that all network "reality" television were this good. This American Life is a Showtime "reality" series that, per episode gazes at - but doesn't exploit - the behavior of unusual individuals who share a common problem/world view. That world view may have positive or negative ramifications for said person, but Ira Glass, our series host (who brings the series to television from NPR ...) is restrained and objective, and even though the series is, at times, howlingly funny, one never senses the host's laughing at anyone. He's just observing.

Each installment of This American Life targets "some theme," according to Glass's voice over narration, and then observes how some unique people relate to that theme. In the first episode, that theme is a "reality check," a splash of cold water on the face in which the subject is unwittingly snapped back to unpleasant reality.

The first story in the episode involves farmers Ralph Fisher and Sandra Reddell who, as the story commences, mourn the untimely loss of their pet, a prized bull named Chance. Now, Chance is a special sort of bull. He's tame, loving (he sleeps in the yard...), and had been a guest star in Hollywood films and even on the Letterman Show. He was a loving and sweet pet; part of the family; and Ralph quickly decided he couldn't do without him. That the pain of life without beloved Chance was simply too great a burden to shoulder.

So, Ralph did what was unthinkable just a few short years ago. He has Chance cloned at Texas A&M. As the episode goes on, viewers are introduced "Second Chance," Chance's unusual progeny. The reality check, however, comes into play when Ralph blithely attempts to act like this new bull is actually the bull he's always loved. In a horrifying moment, the young bull gores his owner, sending Ralph to the hospital with bloody wounds (a testicle is destroyed...). The reality check? This changeling isn't Chance at all; not a docile animal...but a bull like most others...just an animal. The sad and enduring fact we remember from Ralph's folly is that death is permanent. We can't bring back our loved ones, no matter how much we try. In horror and science fiction, we've seen this story played out as Pet Sematary, as one example, but it's a little shocking to see it played for real, in a non-fictional setting. The future has truly arrived, I guess. Finally, what makes this segment so fascinating is the way it charts the intersection of the contemporary American family with modern technology. We watch an "average" guy deal with something from the twilight zone - cloning - and it's a fascinating drama.
The second act of This American Life's first episode is called "The Spy Who Loved Everybody" and it concerns a group called "Improv Everywhere" that plays pranks (the group calls them missions...) on clueless people. The twist is that the pranksters, here termed "agents" want to help people, not hurt them with their missions. In "The Greatest Gig Ever" (mission # 37), the group decides to go give a fledgling, unknown rock group, Ghosts of Pasha, the best reception they've ever seen. The unsuspecting band is thus surprised to discover their new "fan base" at a gig, people who wear "Ghosts of Pasha" T-shirts and know all the lyrics to the band's songs, so they can sing along.

The "reality check" arrives when the group learns, days later, that they've been punk'd. That the response to their music was not authentic; just a trick. Suddenly, the band members are forced to countenance the idea of what it means to be a real band. Is it better be loved unconditionally - as a lie, or simply be unknown? This is another heart wrenching segment, in part because the sensitive leader of the band has lived his life in fear of ridicule, based on an experience with a bully during school. Suddenly, he's the object of a "joke" again. How he responds to this situation is touching, and a re-affirmation of the indomitable human spirit. Are the pranksters kind or wrong-headed? I fall on the wrong-headed side, but you should watch this episode to see how Ghosts of Pasha handles being "punked."

Another episode deals with the notion of "re-inventing your life" and whether it is ever too early, or too late to do that. In "Lights, Camera, Traction" a group of senior citizens dream of making their own short film and getting it into the Sundance Film Festival. The second story involves a grown woman who reads aloud from her diary. The document was written when she was thirteen, and is quite shocking to say the least.

So much of reality television is about dressing people down; about judges criticizing people and making them feel small. So much of reality television is about desperate people humiliating themselves for their fifteen minutes of fame. This American Life represents something totally the opposite. It's an exploration of the bonds and emotions that humans share. There's no finger pointing; just a tugging at the communal heart strings. This isn't a reality show about what separates us, but about what we hold in common.

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