Showtime Gets it Right with This American Life

It's funny how far we've gotten away from actual reality in our TV shows.

In a day and age where we're inundated by so-called "reality television," in the form of shows were people fight for a million dollars on a deserted island or battle to become a top model (or top chef or designer...), watching Showtime's new series This American Life is a wake-up call of sorts. After all, this is true reality television, in the very best sense of the word.

Based on the much beloved National Public Radio series hosted by the soft-spoken and erudite Ira Glass, This American Life is a collection of everyday people's stories, grouped together each week into a singular theme. It's a true vox populi, a confessional of sorts, and it brings together a disparate group of people you would never have the opportunity to meet.

On This American Life, Ira Glass and his team spend six months traveling the country in search of touching, heartbreaking, and/or humorous stories from the most unlikely of sources: an Iowa pig farm, a Vermont indie rock band, a senior citizen's home in Burbank. The one thing they have in common: they're all true and they all capture a different shade of American life.

In the first episode, "Reality Check" (airing tomorrow night on Showtime), Glass and his team speak to two very different sets of people. In the first segment, he speaks with a rancher who resurrects a beloved pet bull (through the magic of cloning),but discovers that it's not quite the same animal he once loved; in the second, Glass speaks with Ghosts of Pasha, a Vermont indie rock band who were set up for the "greatest night of their lives" by a prankster group called Improv Everywhere. The latter is a story I first heard on This American Life last year and which has haunted me ever since.

I was initially concerned, along with many others, on how well the popular radio series would travel to television. I'm happy to report that it translates extremely well without losing any of Glass' off-kilter humor, sensitivity, or inquisitiveness. In fact, shifting the program to television adds another layer to an already deep format. In dealing with such intimate stories, radio gave This American Life listeners the ability to feel instantly connected to the people it was profiling and functioned as a priest's confessional would: raw, honest, and (visually) anonymous.

Here, however, Showtime's series gives the viewer the ability to even further connect with the subjects Glass interviews, presenting them in their full, three-dimensional glory. The effect heightens the intimacy, giving viewers the feeling that they are there alongside Glass, rather than distancing them.

And in an age of bug-eating survivors, contestants willing to test their fear factor, suitcase-choosing would-be millionaires and the like, isn't it time that you added some actual reality to your reality TV?

This American Life premieres tomorrow on Showtime. Subsequent episodes air Thursday nights at 10:30 pm ET/PT on Showtime.

* * *

Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions junior exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionary.blogspot.com.