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DVD Review: This American Life – Season One

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A politician who never, ever lies, a woman who writes her first screenplay and has it filmed using only residents of a senior citizens home, a boy who claims to not believe in love — This American Life introduces you to all of them.

Based on the hugely popular Chicago Public Radio show of the same name, This American Life came to television over a decade after beginning its run on the radio in 1995. Each episode centers on a theme, and presents from two to five true stories from across the country that illustrate that theme.

It’s a method that’s proved wonderfully effective for a radio program over the years, and the format translates perfectly to television. Host and executive producer Ira Glass is quirky, but in a barely noticeable kind of way, and the show itself is similar. These aren’t your average slice-of-life stories nightly news broadcasts often run to wrap up their programs, and Glass tends to provide more insight than the average documentary filmmaker might be comfortable providing. Each story skews slightly offbeat, but each theme is instantly relatable, and it’s hard not to get sucked into the microcosms of American society this show discovers.

This American Life represents some of the best journalistic feature reporting out there. The group of staffers and freelancers who come together to create the show and dig up these stories outdo themselves with every episode on this disc. America is full of the unique, the quirky and the fascinatingly strange, but stories like this don’t just show up on your desk. You have to go out there and find them.

The stories range from the silly (a flash mob going to an unknown band’s concert and rocking out like they were hardcore fans) to the poignant (the spiritual and personal repercussions that a series of biblical paintings has on a divided family) to the disturbing (a group of grade-school kids who become so enthralled with the notion of filming what they see that they fail to help a classmate in need).

Each segment is engrossing, and many are challenging. Not one story among the six episodes is inconsequential. Glass himself seems to become engrossed with the material often. He’s committed to these stories, and his interviewing always feels fresh and honest.

Even those who greatly prefer fiction or squirm at the thought of spending more than five minutes in front of a documentary will find it difficult not to become hooked. This American Life is so successful because it takes extremely niche subject material and presents it in a way that will fascinate viewers from all walks of life. America is exceptionally diverse, and this program makes that quite evident, but the struggles, hopes, and fears of Americans are exceptionally relatable too. It’s not difficult to see why the radio program has captivated audiences nationwide for more than a decade. Now that it’s adapted for television, its appeal has nowhere to go but up.

The season one DVD includes all six episodes of the first season on Showtime. Special features include a biography of Glass, a photo gallery, and commentary on the first episode by Glass and director Christopher Wilcha.

This American Life Season One is a Borders exclusive and is only available in Borders stores or online at Borders.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.