1. National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” which first aired in 1995, is well known and widely lauded for its empathetic retelling of everyday stories. But adapting the show to TV posed several prickly dilemmas. For starters, says host and creator Ira Glass, “Literally, what do you look at?”
2. This problem cropped up in the very first episode, which premieres on Showtime on March 22. It tells the story of Chance, a bull owned by two Texans, Ralph and Sylvia Fisher. When Chance died, his owners tried to have him cloned. Naturally, TAL saw a story. The problem: Chance had been dead for seven years. Yet on TV, we seem to see Chance, very much alive, wandering past the Fishers’ kitchen window.
3. “There, we are playing a bit of a cheat,” says Glass. See, the Fishers succeeded in cloning their pet: They have a new bull named, appropriately, Second Chance. “So in the first minutes of the story, what you’re seeing is the clone,” says Glass. “And those shots were designed entirely. Ralph helped us, because he knew an old trick. He tied fishing line to the ring in the bull’s nose, and he’s off-camera, pulling the bull past the window.”
4. Eventually, Second Chance turned on Ralph violently; in fact, the story’s theme is how grand schemes can go awry. “When we started, we knew that arc,” says Glass. But his crew was also on hand to capture a second, more brutal attack. Was Glass pleased by the fortuitous timing? “I would have been more pleased if it didn’t mean Ralph getting gored.”
5. And TV posed another problem: “The default position for radio is empathy,” says Glass. “But the default position for shooting a person with a camera, we realized, is mocking.” For example, when Sylvia unfurls Chance’s skinned hide, the story veers toward Daily Show–style ridicule. “The thought that she could come off as ridiculous, that horrifies me,” says Glass. “That makes me feel like we did her wrong.”
6. This reaction to Sylvia may just be a product of the cultural moment, in which so much comedy simply points a camera at a regular person and waits for him to say something dumb. “I mean, I loved Borat. I love The Daily Show,” says Glass. “But our mission is a different one. Our mission is a mission of love. We want you to see things the way our subjects see them. Everything we do is pitched to say, ‘This could be you, this could be you, this could be you.’ ”