A Great American Life

This American Life sounds a lot like hanging out with some really good friends. The radio program on WBEZ, which broadcasts on PRI, delves into some deep issues while maintaining a conversational atmosphere, thanks to host Ira Glass. Each episode revolves around a central theme. Sometimes, the themes are light and funny, like Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time, where Glass interviews people whose seemingly great ideas turn awry. Other times, the subjects are quite heavy. In Will They Know Me Back Home?, US soldiers tell tales of the psychological difficulties of returning home after war. Still, other themes are investigative, like Very Tough Love, which explores an unjust drug court in Georgia and its merciless judge. All in all, This American Life furthers social capital by taking a long hard look at issues we take for granted or are afraid to acknowledge.

Listening to the program, you’re led through a series of acts, with each successive act complimenting the previous one. Glass provides commentary to fill in all the holes and to add necessary context in between interviews and monologues. The Music hits all the right notes, playing at the right time, and fitting the atmosphere perfectly. But the real meat and potatoes of This American Life is Glass’ dynamic interviews with his subjects.

During the second act of Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time, a troop of river dance performers pool their money together to buy a couple hundred lottery tickets. The odds are totally against them – about a billion to one – but they’re completely convinced they’re about to win. On the night of the drawing, they give their best performance yet, consumed by the energy of winning the lottery. And when they lose, they give a horrible performance. On the surface, this story is a little mundane and kind of pointless, but Glass manages to coax out an insightful dénouement from the interviewee. When the river dancers give their stale performance after realizing they’ve lost the lottery, the audience doesn’t seem to notice. They are totally satisfied and completely enthralled. Glass focuses on this aspect of the story, and turns the tale of some river dancers losing the lottery into the psychology of expectations, and about how we see what we want to see.

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