TV on the radio

Ira Glass explains how the moving image enhances Showtime's This American Life.

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AMERICAN ODYSSEY Glass takes his show on the road.

AMERICAN ODYSSEY Glass takes his show on the road.

As Ira Glass lounges around the brand-spankin’-new Manhattan headquarters of his public-radio institution, This American Life, the question of whether he experienced a moment of doubt during the development of Showtime’s new TV version elicits a telling response. “Yeah, there was a moment,” he admits, smiling ruefully. “There was one moment that I would describe as the entire time of doing the pilot. At the very beginning it didn’t seem clear if it could work at all, and it was hard to imagine how it would work.”

In fact, Glass and his Chicago-based crew of collaborators had long resisted entreaties to do television, and succumbed to Showtime only after a protracted war of attrition. The turning point, Glass says, came when the cable network—asked to provide a list of collaborative filmmakers—called Glass’s bet and raised it, offering the services of Killer Films, the outfit behind such celebrated indie masterworks as Far from Heaven and Boys Don’t Cry.

Unable to resist, Glass—along with producer Christine Vachon and director Christopher Wilcha—began to cast around for stories that could effectively reproduce the show’s intimate, affecting tone on the small screen. One of the most promising involved a rancher, Ralph Fisher, who had owned a famously docile and affectionate Brahman bull named Chance. After Chance’s death, Fisher managed to convince scientists at Texas A&M to clone his animal friend, and was now raising that eerily exact copy—named (what else?) Second Chance—to follow in his father’s mellow footsteps. But, as with many of the best American Life stories, things didn’t exactly work out as planned.

“It’s funny,” Glass says. “When we went out to do that story, we didn’t know that such a dramatic thing would happen—but that’s what makes the story really stand out.”

That “dramatic thing” was an unexpected, and vicious, bull attack, which—in a stroke of improbable timing—took place just as Glass and his camera crew were setting up to shoot on the farm. Although he was relatively new to the world of documentary filmmaking, the host’s editorial instincts didn’t let him down.

“Everybody was like, 'What do we do now?’ And I said, 'First thing, we turn on the cameras!’ Am I a terrible person for saying this?” Glass laughs, looking both guilty and secretly pleased. “I mean, I felt like kind of a creep.... This is the very first story I’ve ever worked on in television, and a man just got gored by an animal, and needs to be rushed to the hospital, but I do feel a certain obligation to start rolling.”

As it turned out, that horrific incident became the emotional center of the story, and it gives the premiere an impact and poignancy that easily rivals anything the radio show has done. And more importantly, it proved to Glass that, all misgivings aside, the TV version could add more than mere scenery to the show’s already gripping tales.

“There’s a moment in the hospital room,” Glass recalls, “where Ralph makes this brave little speech. And on the radio version, it’s a perfectly lovely moment, and it really is affecting to hear him say it. But on TV, it has all of that, and then he gets this look on his face... this look of complete weariness and vulnerability that just says so much more. And I remember looking at it, and it had never occurred to me what seeing the picture of him would do.”

And that, ultimately, is the true achievement of the TV version. It’s not that the stories are better or the characters more interesting than those on the radio show—it’s just that viewers can see them in a different, and perhaps more complex, way.

There’s a great little cartoon, meticulously drawn by illustrator Chris Ware, that kicks off the show’s second episode. The story involves a group of schoolchildren who make their own fake movie cameras, and it suggests that pointing a camera at someone changes their behavior—and not for the better. It seems a particularly apt metaphor, and obviously prompts the question: Do cameras, in fact, change everything?

“They don’t change everything,” Glass insists. “They don’t change your heart, and they don’t change the heart of the work.” He pauses, adjusting his thick-framed glasses as he mulls it over. “But they do change everything else, actually.”

This American Life premieres Thu 22 at 10:30pm on Showtime.

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