I want to say something about the most recent This American Life episode. I don’t usually write about the show for our site; actually, nobody does. It seems kind of pointless to write a straight-forward review, because everyone is already listening. I once overheard some douchebag tell his douchey friend, “Oh, you just started listening to podcasts? I’ve been listening to This American Life for two years.” Well guess what, the show has been on since 1995.
Writing about This American Life feels like telling people about gravity or fried chicken. Everyone already knows it’s good. Everyone already knows what’s up. We’re still trying to figure out the best way to cover it regularly. But, in the meantime, I’ve got something to say.
This American Life is kind of like Tim Duncan, NBA all-star for the San Antonio Spurs. They’ve both been around since the 90s, do the little stuff better than anyone else, and get overlooked for other shiny, new things. For Timmy, those things are Steph Curry’s three-point wizardry, James Harden’s free-throwing shooting, 1 and Russell Westbrook’s freakish feats of strength. We spend the entire season heaping praise on these upstarts and then, come playoffs season, The Big Fundamental gets off his 39 year-old butt and reminds us just who he is. It’s the same thing with Ira Glass and the gang. People talk about Gimlet, Radiotopia, and This American Life‘s more successful little sister Serial, without ever acknowledging that This American Life is still the best. 2
This Saturday I was driving and turned on my local public radio station. WAMU was playing a phone call between two men who had not spoken since Hurricane Katrina. It was beautiful. Everyone and their mother has done some sort of story about the 10 year anniversary of Katrina. WNYC’s Death, Sex, and Money spent a whole week on it. Buzzfeed profiled a heroic drug dealer. Even in this crowded week of Katrina stories I was like, “Wow, this is really good radio. I wonder what show this is; what airs at 1:55 on WAMU?” It was This American Life. I normally feel awestruck when I listen to the show, but even more so this week.
“Lower 9 + 10” does what only radio can do: it puts the voice of someone who is at once completely unlike you and yet entirely of you in your ears. One woman describes begging on the streets in Texas and scraping her children’s diapers clean for re-use following the storm. It is simply heartbreaking. The sorrow, the mourning, the hope: it’s all palpable.
Zoe Chace: And so it’s like, yeah, you have a new life. But it looks like a good life. Is it a good life?
Jean Gibson: Looks are deceiving. You make do with what you have, and you try every day to get that other life back. Yes, every day. Every, every day. But it’s not coming back. But that’s OK, tomorrow coming. I’m going to be able to get some little piece of it. And then tomorrow come, and it doesn’t come back.
Zoe Chace‘s Act II, set in Mercedes’ Bar, is a true standout. At one point Mercedes’ daughter asks the customers how far they had to walk to the bar from their parked cars. Zoe simply holds out the microphone and lets the cacophonous din of the patrons’ bellyaching wash over you. No piece of radio has ever given me such a sense of a place and its people. 3
And that’s what the story of Katrina and the 9th ward is really about: a city and her people. “Lower 9 + 10” presents this story—a tale of geography, meteorology, and humanity—unadorned. Every story is touching, every story is thought-provoking. Every story feels achingly true. I’d tell you it’s worth your time, but of course it is. It’s This American Life.
- I’d include a video, but free throws are boring. ^
- If you’re not a basketball fan, think of it like this: This American Life is like Prince. All those other shows are like every other band. ^
- I exaggerate a lot. This is not one of those times. ^
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