Pictures Came and Broke Your Heart
This American Life debuts on television.
In its hop from public radio to subscription cable, This American Life (Showtime, Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. ET)—upper-middlebrow and oddball, offering a humanistic look at the world and a thoroughly horn-rimmed approach to storytelling—has tried to reinvent what television looks like. It's an ambitious if occasionally pushy effort. The style treads the jagged line between excitingly eclectic and what-the-hell haphazard. Viewers of the first four episodes will detect the influence of some of the most influential nonfiction filmmakers of our time: Errol Morris, Barbara Kopple, Jerry Springer, and—this is a confident guess—whoever did the Mötley Crüe episode of VH-1's Behind the Music.
Elsewhere, it's everywhere. TAL is a documentary show assembled from documents including home movies, lizardly hidden-camera footage, bad snapshots, affecting close-ups, maudlin silhouettes, fuzzy snippets of press conferences and stand-up acts, interviews conducted under lighting inspired by financial-services ads, establishing shots that can look as good as Edward Hopper compositions, and impressionistic montages more inscrutably goofy than the ones that play on The NewsHour when Jim Lehrer runs poems. It's definitely TV—though it can seem a bit bashful about that fact.
The stories are the usual unusual TAL fare. (In fact, a few have already aired, years ago, on the radio.) The host, Ira Glass, introduces shapely vignettes and meaty slices of life that point toward matters of life and death. The main difference is that the Showtime program—partly of televisual necessity, partly because of the radio program's tote-bag anxieties about going Hollywood—tends to favor stories about spectacle, performance, and show business. There's a fine segment about an artist assembling bearded citizens of Utah—a diversely countercultural bunch—in order to create a vision of Jesus and the disciples; and a wobblier one about a group of street-theater pranksters who turn an unknown band's obscure gig into a raucous happening. In the cutest and least necessary piece, the residents of a rest home take a break from watercolors to make a short film, hoping it will get them to the Sundance Film Festival. They become so impassioned that their director, a journeyman documentary-maker, tells the camera that he feels "like the Harvey Weinstein of the senior set," which made me wonder if he was going to cut the film by 40 minutes and put an 80-year-old in a headlock.
The show's conflicted attitude toward TV is most evident in the third episode, which opens with an appealing animated piece by illustrator Chris Ware. (Watch it here.) He pulls off a vignette that reconciles childhood melancholy with hipster anomie, as if Charlie Brown were dancing to Belle and Sebastian. The story itself is a schoolyard memoir about a melee that erupted when some kids wielding cardboard TV cameras egged on their play-acting subjects. "People act differently if they're behind a camera, even if the camera isn't real," summarizes Glass, with one of the Charlie Rose flourishes of superfluity he indulges now and then. The cartoon kicks off an episode devoted to a documentarian's look at his hollow-eyed mother and bloated stepdad. She's a rock chick; he was once on the Billboard Top 10 list. She's hooked on pills; he prefers booze; together they scream. It's harrowing (some of its scenes make the work of John Cassavetes look like that of Beatrix Potter) but also teeters on the creepy edge of exploitation. The notion, says Glass, is that it's "a story about this guy who gets behind a camera," stepping around the fact that it's a story by a guy who gets behind a camera.
What rescues the segment from condescension and smugness is that, despite the distance, there's a recognizable human warmth. The camera is presented as a therapeutic device, and—after 20 minutes of bingeing, yelling, awkward confessions, and confrontations—the family of three peacefully sits down on the floor and eats a pizza. It's just a little heart-warming. TAL's shrewd masterstroke is to reconcile the two halves of the American TV brain. Its every surface is glazed with David Letterman irony—the contempt for corn, the absolute self-awareness—but its soul belongs to Oprah.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph of Ira Glass by Douglas Barnes/Showtime.