When you’re behind the wheel of a fuel-efficient hatchback for over 4000 miles and your musical tastes are expansive, but not that expansive, you’ve got only a few options as far as dealing with boredom go. There’s the classic “License Plate” game (46 of 50 states!). Tractor trailer pickle. But no matter what you come up with — no matter how finger-paintingly creative you are — you will eventually (begrudgingly) find yourself turning to the Podcasts menu on your USB-connected iPod. Then thumbing your way down to a little show called This American Life. You’ll listen to an episode. Maybe several. And only afterwards will you arrive at the central issue that’s been unconsciously nagging at you the entire time: you know this is good for you in some weird way…but does it have to be so DOUCHEY?
Let’s be clear upfront: This American Life is obviously an enjoyable radio program with redeeming social merit. For fifteen years National Public Radio has produced an insane amount of stories covering seemingly ever facet of the titular subject, and always with pretty high journalistic and artistic standards. It’s a GOOD show in the truest sense of the word, and what follows should in no way be taken as an “I hate This American Life” rant. I’m not a dedicated enough social scientist to sit through 10+ hours of RADIO programming I don’t at least sort of like.
…But This American Life is also douchetastic times maybe a hundred thousand (why always “times a million?” That’s unrealistic) and the reason my eyes are now stuck this way. Because I rolled them too many times listening to the program.
Each week host Ira Glass, aided by a militia of Art History and Political Science major correspondents, explores themes pertinent to life in these United States (© Reader’s Digest). 99% of the time this boils down to “you thought you knew all about this person/group/thing; turns out you don’t” but the show also tackles cool things like rest stops and unsolved mysteries. Sometimes there is even spoken-word poetry! If you have ever picked up a David Sedaris book or read the New Yorker (cartoons don’t count!), you are already halfway to being a TAL subscriber.
After listening to enough episodes, you learn to anticipate the story turns and reveals, sometimes before the segment has barely started. It’s the same familiar structure ever time: when you hear “so the family did what anyone faced with their situation would: they ran,” you know you’re in for a discussion of the actual harm in growing marijuana; when a story begins with raucous laughter, it will inevitably end in someone’s death. Searching for the perfect bahn mi sandwich. Questioning the merits of Oprah’s Book Club selections. Abortion. It should come as no surprise that the show has carved a special place for itself in the lives of four-eyed people and elbow patch enthusiasts, many of whom are white, liberal, and guilty-feeling.
There’s no harm in hewing to a very specific set of political and artistic codes, but when your show is called “This American Life”…you expect a certain ideological democracy, something TAL can’t really claim. There are stories about Red States and non-subtitled movies, sure, but forever through that “isn’t this weird?” lens. You feel less connected to America than you do above it, and in a mildly queasy way.
…All of which is to say — in too many words — that maybe This American Life is not meant for Great American road trips, but walks to the pet bakery in Chelsea. Or failing that, an oxygen bar. What’s baseball?