This week’s This American Life introduces us to three kinds of amateurs: amateur musical-theater performers, amateur moms, and amateur presidents.
The first act tells the story of some unusual amateur activity that took place at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, one of the world’s largest military bases, from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Each year during the Christmas season, Fort Bragg would put on “The Soldier Safety Show”—staged song-and-dance numbers performed by an all-soldier cast.
The purpose of “The Soldier Safety Show” was to cut the number of preventable accidents caused by drinking and driving, motorcycle accidents, and other risky activity conducted by anxious teenagers awaiting deployment. The military leadership at Fort Bragg recognized pre-combat deaths as a major problem affecting the base. Accidental deaths spiked near Christmas. “The Soldier Safety Show” spliced together grim testimonials and images of gravestones with upbeat show tunes in an effort to educate soldiers and dissuade them from reckless risk-taking. The effort seemed to work: the average number of deaths at the base dropped by a third after “The Soldier Safety Show” started.
This American Life tends to lead with strong first acts. I found this segment, however, to be overlong and somewhat tedious. The listener is invited to marvel, for twenty minutes, at how bizarre it is that straight-laced army folks would engage in musical theater. But is the confluence of military and musicals so mystifying? The military, after all, draws citizens with a range of interests—they’re not all no-nonsense conservatives. (And even those who are might be persuaded to enjoy a few high kicks once in a while.) And controlled silliness is a ubiquitous feature of disciplined, regimented groups like military units—it’s a way of releasing tension and expressing individuality without disrupting order. Finally, if show tunes are shown to reduce preventable deaths, as “The Soldier Safety Show” did, then military officials would have a strong pragmatic reason to encourage the show.
The second act follows two high school girls who, as a health class assignment, have to take care of robot babies programmed to cry and complain. This segment is more engaging than the first, but it’s bizarre in unexpected ways—uncannily “off”, much like a robot baby is. The segment’s oddness partially comes from the two girls profiled by Hillary Frank, the host of a parenting podcast. But the segment is also just too neat, with none of the messy edges, banality, and quotidian detail that typically arise when a journalist interviews “ordinary” people.
Paige is a wispy-voiced Christian girl who wears a purity ring. Rachel is a bisexual theater kid who keeps a “good-luck” condom in her drawer. The two girls have distinctively mannered voices and personalities. They are nearly opposites. As one might expect, however, the conclusion of the robot baby assignment yields a charming, tidy conclusion: Rachel, it turns out, was a much better practice mother than Paige. Along the way, the segment captures unusually exciting action—Rachel bursts into opera while donating blood; Paige trips on a wooden crate and nearly breaks her leg trying to get to her crying robot baby during drama rehearsal.
The two girls, with their highly stylized voices and mannerisms, do not seem quite real. It seems as if they are performing somewhat for Frank—or that Frank, with her neat, discrete acts of characterization, is painting a high school morality tale that would be fit for an afterschool special (albeit one with a mischievous sense of humor). The segment comes off as almost fictional. And this air of fictionality undermines the intriguing characters and events that Frank diligently captures. Paige’s voice is so strange that at times I thought Frank was interviewing a baby rather than talking about one.
The third and final act discusses the practice of choosing a “designated survivor” to lead the U.S. government in the event that a terrorist or enemy government blows up the House chamber during the State of the Union address, killing all our top leaders. The practice of choosing a designated survivor began during the Cold War amid fears of nuclear attack. The designated survivor is typically a mid-ranking cabinet member: the Secretary of Transportation, the Secretary of Agriculture, and so forth.
Producer Stephanie Foo scores interviews with a number of former designated survivors, including Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture; Donna Shalala, former Secretary of Health and Human Services; and Bill Richardson, former Secretary of Energy. These high-profile interviews lend energy to a snappy segment that offers a behind-the-scenes look into our government’s internal security practices.
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