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‘This American Life’ translates well to TV

What happens when Ira Glass and his team at public radio's "This American Life" presume to bring the much-adored, long-running series to television?
/ Source: The Associated Press

What happens when Ira Glass and his team at public radio's "This American Life" presume to bring the much-adored, long-running series to television?

They pull it off!

Somehow this gang has managed to replicate on TV screens what, for 1.7 million listeners weekly, flows from the radio smartly unencumbered by pictures. (Vivid pictures, of course, bloom in each listener's mind.)

What a relief for leery listeners! But maybe they're still wondering: Why put "This American Life" on TV anyway?

"We just thought it would be fun to do something new," says Glass, who, since creating the show in 1995, has furnished its signature vision and voice. "I wish the reason was more high-minded than that."

Not that Glass rushed headlong into TV's embrace. He was pitched ages ago, he says, by broadcast networks who liked the show — but strongly suggested that its TV incarnation should dwell on subjects drawn from the younger demographic.

So when Showtime came calling, Glass was in no hurry. He wondered what the catch would be.

"We kept asking them, ‘Well, is there anything we need to know?' and they basically said, ‘Make it special.'"

People telling stories about themselvesLike on radio, Showtime's "This American Life" (premiering 10:30 p.m. EDT Thursday) tells stories about people who tell stories about themselves. However much these stories may vary, there is always drama, waves of discovery and, always, a surprise — or even a flat-out revelation.

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Beyond that, as with its radio counterpart, "This American Life" on TV defies summarizing. To try to boil down one of its stories into just a few words is to boil it away. Even so, here goes:

Hewing to a chosen theme (as the radio version does), the premiere episode is titled "Reality Check," and begins with a brief piece about a little girl on a school bus who makes a charmingly tragic error in judgment.

After that come two longer stories, dubbed "acts." A beloved family pet — a Brahman bull, of all things — dies, then is resurrected by the owner and his wife, with unfortunate results. And finally, good intentions go awry when a band of merry pranksters in New York pretends to idolize an obscure rock duo.

Future half-hours (there are six) include a story about senior citizens who write and star in their first short film, with nothing less as their goal than getting it accepted by the Sundance Film Festival. Another story somehow intertwines an artist who paints biblical portraits, the model he enlists as Jesus, the model's atheist girlfriend and her strict Mormon father in a spirited clash of personalities and creeds.

Each edition of "This American Life" is hosted by Glass, who, after all these years as a distinctive but disembodied presence, is finally on view. Turns out, he is a nerdy-but-cool-looking, boyish chap of 48 who wears a pair of thick black plastic-frame glasses he's had just about as long as his show.

Introducing each segment, he sits at a desk stuck somewhere wildly out of place (a parking garage; Utah's Great Salt Plains), its location inspired by that episode's theme.

Fun fact: His imposing art-deco desk is a prop. It breaks down into pieces that can easily be shipped to remote shooting sites. But a let's-pretend desk was just one small part of this American life for Glass as he navigated TV's odd demands.

"The first season was a long process of figuring out: What is this show?" says Glass, seated at his real-life desk in his real-life New York office.

He's a lifelong radio guy who spent years as a reporter and producer for National Public Radio. While doing pieces for nearly all of NPR's news shows, he developed the storytelling ethos that imbues "This American Life," where listeners don't just listen, they join in the experience. But how to make that happen on TV?

Freedom to do their thingIt was a painstaking process, but Showtime allowed him, his staff and their production partners — Killer Films — to suss it out for themselves.

"A lot of times it came down to Showtime saying, ‘Look, if you guys REALLY want to do this...,' and we said, ‘We really want to do this,' and they would say, ‘OK.'"

As ever with "This American Life," words and narrative rule. Yet the TV rendition is strikingly visual.

"We said, ‘Let's use the pictures the way we use the music, the scoring, on the radio show: to intensify a feeling,'" Glass explains.

Largely because of production demands for the TV show, both it and the Peabody Award-winning radio series (which continues on 500 public radio outlets) are now based in Manhattan after years of "This American Life" having called Chicago home (the radio version is produced by Chicago Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International).

"I think the TV show does feel like the radio show," says Glass, taking stock after all this trial-and-error, "and that it doesn't feel like anything else on TV. The tone is just different."

Difference? He ponders TV's one-note brand of reality storytelling, often mocking or glorifying someone at arm's length.

"It's way more interesting for the viewer to see a story where you can imagine being that person, where you're invested in whatever it is they're invested in," Glass says. "The funny moments are funnier, the dark moments are darker. You can have hope, and disappointment, and feel every possible feeling."

All that, and pictures too.