It started out as one of those public radio shows. It has since become an enormously popular chunk of U.S. culture (well, for some of us, at least) and has returned to DVD once again. It’s This American Life: Season Two, and it is without a doubt one of the finest television shows that anyone has ever made.
Season two brings us all six episodes of Showtime’s award-winning show that departs from the usual garbage television forces on us day to day by bringing us an authentic dose of reality, without any scripts, rehearsals, or stupid MTV-style gimmicks.
Much like the radio series of the same name, each episode of This American Life has a different theme, and brings us several vignettes (or "Acts") centering on that theme. Join creator/host Ira Glass as we dip into six more episodes about people — real people — and life. Real life.
Episode 1: “Escape” – Teenage boys in Philadelphia find a new means of escape within their modern confines: horses. A young man with spinal muscular atrophy yearns to take charge of his life and live with his girlfriend, away from his mother for once. A fascinating and utterly profound look at people that only goes to exemplify the old adage, "Where there's a will, there's a way."
Special kudos to Johnny Depp for his contribution to this episode.
Episode 2: “Two Wars” – An Iraqi citizen living in America goes cross-country setting up a “Talk To An Iraqi” booth to find out just what the hell we were thinking. An American housewife battles with her Bulgarian husband over his inability to mow the lawn (go, man, go!).
While the second-half of this ep may drag a little (I mean, it's a lawn for Pete's sake!), the first half is exceptional, and seeing this brave (and handsome) Iraqi lad set up a Q&A booth in the Southern United States just to listen to the inhabitants of a nation consumed with fear is amazing — especially when an 11-year-old girl is the only one to come up and flat out say "Look, I'm sorry!"
Episode 3: “Going Down In History” – A man seeks to find an ivory-billed woodpecker — even though they’re extinct. Two Wisconsin convicts (named Dunwald and Dummer) discuss their great “Dental Floss Escape” which earned them the nicknames "Dumb and Dumber" (excerpted from Gary Roma’s Hanging By A Thread: A Dental Floss Documentary). High school students get their smiley happy cookie-cutter pictures taken (which don't reflect their actual lives one bit), while a brain-damaged, isolated man takes photos of fictitious WWII battles with action figures (a truly sad and disturbing segment, actually).
Episode 4: “Underdogs” – Two “opponent” boxers (the ones that aren’t supposed to win) rematch each other, with each of their careers in the balance. Meanwhile, a group of teenage boys discover the joys of stand-up comedy at a (believe it or not) Comedy Camp in New York.
While I personally could have done without a solid two-thirds of an episode devoted to washed-up boxers, the last segment here is entirely worth it.
Episode 5: “Scenes From A Marriage” (“Every Marriage Is A Courthouse”) – Cartoonist Chris Ware animates an amusing story of a classic case of he said, she said from a married couple. Another married couple is driven apart by an obsessive husband’s desire to turn over a court decision.
Episode 6: “John Smith” – Inspired by a story in the Washington Post, this extended episode examines the seven different stages of life through seven different John Smiths, all of whom don’t know each other, never met, aren’t related, and who live in different parts of the country (a true highlight in this set).
Since footage on This American Life is often assembled from different sources, the video quality varies. That said, it’s about as good as you can get if you classify this show under the “documentary” heading. The picture is an anamorphic 1.78:1. In terms of sound, we are given an English Dolby surround and 5.1 mix to choose from, as well as a Spanish mono stereo track. As with most Showtime DVD releases, there aren’t any subtitles, but closed captioning is available.
Special features include an audio commentary for the first episode by Ira Glass and director Christopher Wilcha, a bio on Glass, a still gallery, and a very entertaining live performance piece, "'This American Life' Live!" (77:40). Filmed in New York, this standalone feature is once again hosted by Glass and includes several bits from season two in addition to outtakes, interviews, and a Q&A with audience members. The show was originally broadcast live to select theaters (read: them artsy movie houses) in high definition and, while the quality has been downgraded for this standard def DVD release, the picture looks better here than it does on the episodes themselves.
As with the previous season, This American Life: Season Two comes highly recommended.