Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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'This American Life' smoothly shifts from radio to TV

In the early 1990s, aided and abetted by Saturday Night Live's Terry Gross/Fresh Air parodies and a ridiculously politically correct college atmosphere, I shunned public radio. It seemed like it was intended for my elitist elders, not for me.

A few years ago, a friend re-introduced me to public radio and I soon found, much to my surprise, that I enjoyed listening to a business show (Marketplace, hosted by the dulcet-voiced Kai Ryssdal) and especially This American Life.

The latter offers a treasure trove of often-outrageous, quirky stories that, over the long haul, do an excellent job of showing humanity at its best, worst, most silly, most heartfelt, most confounding, most enraging, and most flawed. This American Life offers some of the finest illustrations and ruminations on the human condition that have ever been committed to media.

So I was somewhat fearful when I heard This American Life was making the leap to TV. The radio show is so much about voice and language and storytelling, I worried that the TV folks would mess it up. Luckily, the radio show's host, Ira Glass, hasn't allowed that to happen.

Glass also hosts the TV series, but his presence is limited to an introduction at the start - from behind an anchor desk that's placed in different locations across the country - and he also provides voiceover narration on some reports.

There are no reaction shots when Glass is interviewing someone. He's heard off-camera but not shown as a way to keep the show from aping TV news or a reality program. This American Life embraces a documentary look.

Glass is more of a presence in the pilot than in subsequent episodes. The pilot also recycles stories already heard on the radio, while almost all of the following episodes boast new material.

Each TV episode of This American Life, which runs at

10:30 p.m. Thursdays on Showtime, has a different theme. This week's pilot, Reality Check, features three stories of people who get their dreams dashed by reality. The most fascinating piece centers on a farmer who clones his pet cow, which takes an unfortunate turn that shows Mother Nature is still in charge.

The upcoming episode, Pandora's Box, explores the notion of unintended consequences, whether it's genetic alterations in pigs or allowing civility at a Chicago hot-dog stand to take a backseat to raucous, rude behavior.

Premium cable channel Showtime has produced six episodes of This American Life, and I can only hope more will follow. Fans of the radio show may still ask, "How do you take such a unique radio property and convert it to TV?" That question initially stumped Glass and executive producer Christine Vachon (producer of the films Boys Don't Cry and I Shot Andy Warhol).

"We could have just put people into a studio and filmed them telling their stories," Glass acknowledged at a Showtime press conference in Pasadena, Calif., in January. "But it felt like that wasn't ambitious enough. It wouldn't be exploiting everything you can do with pictures to the degree we wanted."

The biggest difference between the radio and TV show? On the radio, stories are recounted. For TV, stories lend themselves more to the medium if they are being documented as they unfold.

To avoid the Ken Burns, pan-across-a-table-of-photos style, director-executive producer Chris Wilcha said producers sought out stories "that actually were going to happen in front of the camera and were going to be shot instead of responded to or just laid out."

That wasn't easy, and Glass acknowledged it's made the team feel that the radio show is far easier to produce compared to TV. He's optimistic that fans of the radio show will give the TV version a chance to succeed or fail on its own merits.

"Part of the power of radio comes from the invisibility," he said. "And we have to give that up. I feel like if somebody has heard our radio show and watches any of the episodes, I believe we would win them over."

I suspect Glass will be proved correct.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.

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