The tenor and charm of the public radio show “This American Life” are sustained in Showtime’s vid version of Ira Glass’ quirky collection of peculiar tales. When “Life” works on the radio, the stories paint vivid pictures. The selections in the first two episodes possess compelling strength, whimsy and ambiguity in both the stories and the characters, providing a solid transformation from radio to TV.
“This American Life” begins with a short reminiscence and then heads to Glass, parked behind a desk in an open prairie, who announces the title, the connective tissue between the two stories that follow and a synopsis. It’s identical to the radio show Glass has hosted since 1995 in which a collection of taped stories tap into all things Americana.
Episode 1 is “Reality Check,” telling the stories of a rancher who gets involved with the cloning of his passive bull and its repercussions and an improv group’s attempt to give an unknown rock band the “gig of its life.” Second, “Growth Spurt,” concerns a senior arts community making a short film, an adult turning the diary she kept as a 13-year-old into a piece of theater and a comedian who lost her boyfriend in the 9/11 attacks and uses that fact in her material.
The brevity of each seg gives them a bracing quality free of judgment, catharsis or down-the-rod conclusion. It is all about being in the moment with these people, whether it is the rancher who finds that his young bull may not be the friendly animal that its ancestor was or the actors taking part in the filming of a 63-year-old woman’s first screenplay. Glass’ strongest presentations generally celebrate the journey and not the goal or destination.
The filmmaking has a consistency that works well with the storytelling. Even though one segment concerns a farm and another a rock concert in New York City, there’s a measured beat to the style that’s very comforting. The rock band story, in which the members feel the rush of elation and the numbness of embarrassment, is wisely open-ended, allowing the viewer to decide if the tale has victims or not.