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DVD Review: This American Life, Season Two

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This American Life is a Showtime series based on the award-winning Chicago Public Radio show of the same name. Just like the radio program, this series is hosted by Ira Glass and focuses on portraying compelling stories from real, everyday American people. The show is a hybrid between a traditional documentary, news story, and even a reality show with a hint of humor thrown in. This unique approach helps the series appeal to more than just documentary fans and morphs the show's style into something else completely.

Season two of This American Life takes the same approach as the first season, but this time with new stories and new people. Much like the radio series, each episode centers around a different theme, ranging from the power of the human spirit and fear to the many different elements of married life. Each episode is divided up into a series of small vignettes that explore the theme as it exists in the lives of real American people.

Each of the six episodes here has something unique and interesting to offer, but occasionally things tend to get a little slow or seem to have little other purpose than to take up time (seriously — spending half an episode showing a couple arguing about mowing a lawn?). Aside from these scenes, the series is filled with unforgettable gems that will leave an impact.

One of my favorite parts in the entire season is when a rather gutsy Iraqi citizen living in America goes across the southern United States, setting up a "Talk to an Iraqi" booth to find out what people are thinking about the war. This cut right to the core of an issue that Americans have been facing for what seems like too long and the fear that consumes most Americans is almost scary in itself. In another episode, a brain damaged man takes a collection of photos of fictitious World War II-inspired battles portrayed by action figures, which serves as a disturbingly sad reminder of the dangers of war and the harsh reality that some Americans face. But by far the best episode in the bunch is the finale, an extended episode that examines seven different stages of life through the eyes of seven different men named John Smith, none of whom know one another and all of whom live in different parts of the country, but all of their stories feel connected and compelling.

The special features on this DVD are fantastic and surprisingly complete for such a short series. The features include an audio commentary for the first episode with Ira Glass and director Christopher Wilcha, a biography on Glass, a stills gallery, and an entertaining live performance entitled "This American Life Live." This supplemental feature is hosted by Glass and includes a great collection of additional items from season two, such as outtakes, extra interviews, and even a Q&A session with the audience members.

The only difficulty with this show is the film quality. Due to the documentary style of the series, some scenes are shot with different types of cameras, which forces the quality to shift fairly frequently. This doesn't detract from the great stories at all, but can be a little awkward for viewers who aren't familiar with documentary filmmaking.

Despite these quality issues, This American Life is highly recommended for both documentary buffs and for those who just enjoy a well told story. Rather than trying to be a trendy new reality show, This American Life is a truly amazing series that celebrates the dignity, nobility, and challenges that exist in everyday life.

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