(Warning to LM - pee is mentioned repeatedly in the following blog. I'm not joking).
I see today the Tribune Magazine's cover story is on Ira Glass and the TAL TV show. I've been meaning to get my thoughts out on this and figure I should do it before I read the article.
I called Comcast to pay a bill a few weeks ago and they made me an offer on Showtime that I couldn't refuse as I was anxious to see the forthcoming television version of my favorite radio program, This American Life. Though the show doesn't officially premiere until later this month, I was pleasantly surprised to find the first episode available on demand. Even though it was very late and I needed to get to bed, I couldn't resist watching it right away.
Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly/Serenity) has made the accusation in a number of DVD commentaries that TV is too often just radio with pictures - talking heads spitting out a script. So what is the expectation when radio becomes TV? I wonder what people expected and how they reacted when their favorite radio programs made the move to TV in the 50s?
There's not much about the TV version of TAL that won't be familiar to fans of the radio version. The show opens with a humorous mini-story to introduce the weeks' topic. The story, a woman's reminiscence of a school field trip in which she urinated on the bus ride, is re-enacted. Stories that involve puddles of urine are, in my opinion, best left to the imagination - but there, in the first 5 minutes of the first ever television episode of TAL, is a puddle of pee (or some appropriate facsimile). Not a good start in my opinion.
Skip to Ira Glass sitting at a desk in in the middle of a rural road. He introduces the show and the topic, much like he always does on the radio, but this time we get to see him. And he's sitting in the middle of the road. This may be the most interesting visual of the whole show.
Now to today's show in 2 acts (it was late and I sadly don't remember the topic). First act - a beloved bull that was cloned, only to be not much like the first bull. Wait, I've heard this one before. Yes, this story was previously aired on the radio program. Well, there must be something interesting to see then right? Well, we all know what a bull looks like right? We can all drum up a mental image of a salt-of-the-earth rancher and his wife. The only visual that really could not be replaced here is of the dead bull's hide being pulled out of the closet. The rancher even got mauled by the cloned bull while the crew was with him, but if they got video of it, they've spared us the sight (why couldn't they also spare us the sight of a puddle of urine on a bus floor?).
Act 2 - a group of performance artists in NYC pull one off on a struggling small time rock band by learning all of their songs and filling the room at one of their gigs and singing along and acting like they were really into it. Wait, I've heard this one before too. Oh, so that's what the band looks like. Is this footage someone took from the actual gig, or a re-enactment?
It all feels a bit like cheap History Channel re-enactments (why is this even on Showtime?) and I'm afraid the TAL folks have really blown it here. It's the existing TAL fans that are most likely to watch the show initially and create any kind of buzz about it. It's an insult to the fans to just repackage previously aired stories. I'm not sure who the producers of this TV version are, but it seems like they've put video cameras in the hands of radio people rather than putting a great concept into the hands of experienced filmmakers. I hate to say it, but at least as far as the episode goes, TAL on TV really is just radio with pictures.