I Like to Watch

The mundane gives way to flights of fancy as Showtime's "This American Life" returns for a second illuminating season.


Heather Havrilesky
May 4, 2008 3:30PM (UTC)

Some days you merely survive. You brush your unwashed hair and pack something crappy for lunch. You trudge from the car to your office. You sit and check your e-mail, the highlight of your day. And now the real work begins. You pick up the phone and close your eyes. Your co-workers say "Hi!" and you struggle to muster an appropriately chirpy yet professional response.

And just when you think the day is all about getting by, a glimpse of sunshine out the window or a melancholy song playing in your headphones sends you out of survival mode into some dreamy, nostalgic state that makes the pragmatic world of work feel horribly mundane. Your quest to simply get through the day is replaced by a painful longing for more. The world is full of hope and heartbreak and lukewarm coffee and glasses that don't fit quite right, and you have to do something about it. You want to walk outside and spend the day wandering around in the springtime sunshine. You want to pick your kid up from day care and take her to the park. You want to bail on that lunchtime meeting and go see a movie down the block. You want to get a pedicure, and then have a sandwich and a big glass of iced tea. You want to stare at the wall and let your eyes go unfocused.

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And then, when you go to lunch alone and you sip iced tea and stare at the wall with glassy, unfocused eyes, you recognize Glenn Miller on the stereo, and that gets you thinking about how romantic and unmatched the big-band sound was, how maybe it was the war raging overseas or the styles at the time. Thinking about it makes you want to go back and live in some smoky, noir, black-and-white version of the early '40s. You'd wear cinched dresses and uncomfortable pumps with neatly pinned hair and red lipstick. Even though you know your vision is formed from some sentimental, blurry mix of old movies, newsreels about Rosie the Riveter and your dad's Time-Life books about the Third Reich, you still think it would be nice to live back then, writing letters to the troops with an ink pen, and baking cookies in your bad shoes. You'd probably be married to someone rigid and unyielding, and you'd be forced to look good, forced to smile politely when people made ignorant, inane remarks, like the poor, pent-up, chain-smoking heroine of "Franny and Zooey." Modern times are too permissive, after all, and someone like you, with your unwashed hair and your dog-hair-covered sweater, would clean up nice and thrive, really, under oppressive societal conditions.

Join the circus
And now we get to the point, which is that the point may be beside the point entirely. Your day doesn't take shape from mere survival, or even from how efficiently you check items off your to-do list, but rather from the texture and weight and meaning of your experiences, replete with those unhinged daydreams about bad shoes and red lipstick.

However self-indulgent they might be, there's an enduring importance to our romantic flights of fancy. We all need them, whether we're walking numbly through our lives, unaware of our desires, or we're on pins and needles, painfully aware of the contrast between our lives and our imaginations every second of the day.

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The stories we tell each other, the hopelessly common little tales about laundry piling up and impending deadlines and planned vacations and recalcitrant contractors and petty squabbles with co-workers, never do justice to the richness of our internal lives. Even though we may only recognize some variation on survival mode in each other, even though we mouth trivialities and small talk, inside us there's a kaleidoscope of emotions, a million and one imaginative leaps to faraway places, along with looming questions and unfocused needs and bouts of nostalgia. We carry around three-ring circuses of hope and regret inside, with sad clowns and fat ladies and graceful trapeze artists soaring through the air, even if the rest of the world sees nothing but one lumpy, forlorn-looking tent.

The return of Showtime's "This American Life" (the second season premieres at 10 p.m. on Sunday) may be the one show on television that does justice to the jugglers and the screaming children and the elephants in headdresses that live inside us all. This show is all about flights of fancy: giving in to your best (or worst) impulses, following your whims wherever they lead, unraveling a thread of an idea and then weaving it back together and unraveling it again until you understand something new about yourself and the world.

Like the radio show that preceded it, "This American Life" takes snapshots of people's lives and turns them into art. We catch a glimpse of someone else's landscape. We experience for a minute how it feels to be another person. We put ourselves in someone else's shoes. Nothing is overexplained or exaggerated. There aren't unnecessary flourishes that might take away from the central mood of the story.

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The tone of this show is respectful but amused, cautious but curious. The storytellers always have an appreciation for sadness, for the dark side of things, for conflict, for flaws, for the contradictions inherent to being human, but they're carried along by a wicked sense of humor and an almost buoyant sentimentality. And why not? Ordinary people with problems and hopes and secret desires are being celebrated here, thoughtfully and artistically.

If anyone ever thought this radio show didn't belong on television, it should be clear by now that they were wrong. In the first minute of the second season's premiere, I'm absolutely transfixed by a segment about a bunch of kids from Philly who learn to ride horses around the city. The sight of these kids, perched on massive horses, ambling through the graffiti-covered row houses of Philadelphia, is at once beautiful and sad. Just as the producers of "This American Life" make smart choices about what kinds of stories belong on the radio, they've selected the perfect stories to bring to the small screen.

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Next, we meet a guy named Mike Phillips who has spinal muscular atrophy. He's confined to a wheelchair and he can't speak, and he has to type out everything he says. When host Ira Glass asks him, "So if we were to replace your voice with somebody's, like, what would you want it to be?" he types, "I totally want either Johnny Depp or Edward Norton, whoever is available, because either way, they are both badasses." Then Glass announces, "Ladies and gentleman, reading from Mike's e-mails, Mr. Johnny Depp."

For the rest of the piece, there's Johnny Depp's voice, delivering Mike's story. "When I was a kid, I could sit up and drive a power wheelchair. I could breathe on my own, so I could play outside with the neighborhood kids." The effect of hearing Mike's desires in the deep, mellow tones of Johnny Depp's voice is at once devastating and uplifting.

Mike's mother, who still sleeps on the floor of his room every night even though he's 27 years old, explains that she's doing whatever is necessary to keep her son alive. "It's survival. I mean, there's always something that needs to be done." Mike, on the other hand, wants to follow his flights of fancy wherever they lead, whether that means having a girlfriend or living on his own.

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Glass explains at the outset that this story is about "how to be in charge of your own life, how to live as an adult with this disease," but Mike's ambitious, stubborn desire to live on his own terms resonates beyond Glass' understated explanation. "I just recently became aware of how tenuous my life is," Mike says, "so I really don't have time to waste on fear."

The next episode focuses on an Iraqi named Haider Hamza who lives in America and travels around the country, setting up a booth that says "Talk to an Iraqi" so he can discuss the war with random citizens on the street. The results are both visually stunning -- shots of his strange booth, in the middle of a sunny beach or the center of a lush, green park -- and fascinating. As you might predict, most of the Americans want to tell him what's going on in his country. "The Sunnis and the Shiites really realize, they do need us, they do like what we're doing," one guy tells the Iraqi.

The Iraqi responds that his friends and family "used to think they used to live in hell, now they think that was heaven, in fact, and this is hell."

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The man says, after a pause: "But you weren't free."

The show's introductions by Glass are much more natural and less awkward this time around than they were during the desk-in-the-wilderness intros of the first season. Even so, they appear to be totally unrehearsed now -- Glass is holding a piece of paper and reading from it occasionally as he moves along some urban landscape. Glass mumbles many of his words and seems to aim for descriptions of the show's segments that are so understated that they're not all that descriptive. This is how Glass explains Hamza's story: Hamza would "ask people sometimes, you know, why would you want to invade my country? But he did not get very ... good answers." While you have to applaud an attempt to depart from the somewhat cheesy conventions of broadcast television, Glass' comments are sometimes so restrained and casual that they start to feel a little bit precious.

As far as critiques of "This American Life" that skewer the show for being hopelessly sentimental and falling back on the same quirky, odd, poignant formula time and time again, they don't hold much water for me. Any formula or genre can feel tired if you're exposed to it often enough: the paint-by-numbers angsty short story (Lorrie Moore, Ethan Canin), the Joan Didion-like essay (if only someone could come close to matching her skill on that front). The writers and storytellers of "This American Life" struggle mightily to bring insights and meaning to their stories, and the effort pays off. They start with something fairly small, and then follow the most provocative and meaningful threads from that starting point.

When we meet a couple torn apart by the husband's lack of interest in mowing the lawn, even though the story itself is a common one, the beliefs and imaginative ramblings that spring from this basic disagreement are enthralling. While the wife identifies lawn mowing with her dependable, all-American dad, the Russian husband resists the conventional oppression of having to mow the grass, and when he finds out that the city of Providence might fine him if their grass gets to be too long, he decides that he'll never mow the lawn again in protest. Even without this conflict, spending time with this couple and their children is enjoyable -- they're shot from such strange angles as they have dinner together, the youngest daughter telling her mom about the two kittens she met as her face barely clears the edge of the table.

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There's a feeling of magic in "This American Life," the kind of feeling you get when you read a great novel or listen to truly inspired music. After watching this show, you start to experience the little things around you through a different filter: the dogs sleeping on the bed, the clothes turning and turning in the washing machine, the sound of kids playing next door. Instead of intrusions, each of these mundane details feels like a gift.

Can you ask for anything more from a TV show? Of course you can, but you also want to wear tight dresses and bake cookies in your bad shoes, so we can't exactly trust you on this one.

Next week ... We leave our inner three-ring circuses behind and join the beleaguered denizens of "Battlestar Galactica" on their (increasingly dark and somewhat melodramatic) quest for survival!


Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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