Halfway through the second episode of the third season of Girls, Lena Dunham’s character has one of her signature meltdowns and is left alone in the woods by her friends. When the camera cuts back to her later, she’s lying on the ground in the fetal position with her headphones in, and we hear the dulcet tones of Ira Glass hosting This American Life. This is more or less how the show has been portrayed for the past two decades: a snuggie for educated liberals, a comforting escape from the real world for the sad people who listen to NPR.
This criticism has followed the podcast and radio juggernaut pretty much ever since Hot Takes became a thing; coverage of the hourlong human-interest podcast usually drills the show for being painfully twee and precious. In 2007, 12 years after TAL launched, The Atlantic wrote a scathing article about the show’s gentility, concluding that “TAL lives at a kind of permanent 70 degrees, moderate humidity. Everyone says his or her piece, is shown to have a flaw, then is revealed as a pretty all right person in the end.”
If that sounds harsh, the criticism certainly isn’t unique: In a 2014 interview, Nick van der Kolk, the host of the Love + Radio podcast, explained that he is often pitched stories that don’t make the TAL cut: “Some of the best stories we’ve done, quite honestly, were pitched to This American Life and rejected because they couldn’t find people likable enough.” It all adds up to a pretty clear picture. What drives the podcast to the No. 1 spot on iTunes is the same thing that has made Whole Foods a successful company: liberals’ burning desire to create an oasis of cute goodness in a bad, bad world.
These tropes are either wrong or outdated; the show, or at least the episodes I’ve listened to lately, are often bleakly depressing. TAL doesn’t live in moderate humidity—it barbecues your earlobes for an hour with the flames of hell. In listening to hundreds of episodes in the last two years, I’ve encountered some of the biggest assholes anywhere. From the loathsome racist Missourians who skip the dog whistle for straight-up dog billboards in an episode titled “The Problem We All Live With” to the unchecked dictatorial maniacs who abuse their subjects in “Very Tough Love and Petty Tyrant,” TAL’s world is populated with despicable villains who remain unredeemed at the end of the hour.
I’m agnostic on whether the twee/precious criticism was ever true—again, I’ve only been mainlining Glass and friends’ vocal fry into my bloodstream for the last two years—but it’s not true now.
There are too many episodes with unhappy endings and unlikable people to cover in this space, including After the Flood, What Happened at Dos Erres, Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde, and Switched At Birth. But my favorites of the show’s darkest episodes can be broken down into roughly three categories: lunatics in charge, prestige education reporting, and borderline nihilism.
- Here’s some crazy behavior.
- Here’s some INCREDIBLY CRAZY AND DARK BEHAVIOR.
- We bagged the big baddie at the center of this story, but the pathology of the system goes way deeper; in all likelihood, we just happened to shine a spotlight on one asshole who was getting away with what lots of assholes are still getting away with.
In “Tough Love,” Glass doggedly pursues a drug-court judge and proves more or less beyond a doubt that the judge in question is running roughshod over the constitutional rights of her defendants. Rather than contentedly tossing her pelt on the wall, though, Glass delivers the most disquieting news of the hour: the bipartisan push for drug offenders to be shepherded through drug courts rather than the traditional criminal system means that more and more judges without any background in working with drug addicts are going to take over drug courts.
“Tyrant,” delivered by a pre-Serial Sarah Koenig, makes the damning case that the head of the maintenance department in an upstate New York school district was permitted to run his own personal terrorist organization for the extremely low price of running a relatively disciplined union shop.
No one consistently interviews children better than TAL does. This can play to amusing effect—like the two brothers who were forced to compromise and name their dog “PastaBatman”—but more often, they’re just devastating. And no school episodes are more painful than 2013’s Harper High School and this year’s The Problem We All Live With. (Both are two-hour episodes and originally aired over two weeks)
The “Harper High” episodes ultimately serve as an example of the problems that “The Problem” then seeks to repair. The former goes inside a Chicago high school that saw 29 students shot in a single year, while the latter delves into the related problem—highly segregated schools and neighborhoods. Here’s the kicker, though. The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones, more or less guest hosting “The Problem,” explains over the course of the episode that the only education policy that will ever solve anything is desegregation—but we refuse to do anything to encourage desegregation, from the bottom to the very top of the system.
In part one of “The Problem,” parents of a white, suburban high school are confronted with a relatively small influx of black students from Michael Brown’s high school just outside of Ferguson, Mo., as Brown’s alma mater, Normandy High, loses its accreditation. Of course, the white parents fight it tooth and nail—including some of the most disturbing audio in the history of the show when they get the chance to testify at a school board hearing. Eventually, the white school district figures out that they can make it much harder for the black students to get in, requiring each student that wants to transfer to get a personal injunction from a judge.
It’s unsurprising, if disturbing, that desegregation efforts are stymied at a local level. But where “The Problem” sucks all hope out of the topic comes in the second hour of the episode, where Hannah-Jones and TAL’s Chana Joffe-Walt interview then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The duo more or less gets Duncan to admit that he won’t put any federal funding towards encouraging even voluntary desegregation programs. Hannah-Jones, from TAL transcript:
“If Secretary Duncan is saying that the administration is going to focus on bringing those segregated schools up to par, then what that’s saying is the administration is going to try to make separate schools equal. And separate but equal is the doctrine of the Supreme Court in the 1800s that Brown v. Board of Education struck down.
There’s not a conclusion that you could reach from education reporting that’s more depressing.
These are kind of sui generis episodes that need to be heard to be understood, but they all have horrifying conclusions. Quickly: The Middle of Nowhere shows that if you’re far enough away from the spotlight, anything works; Trends With Benefits shows that huge swaths of Americans have decided that $13,000 a year is the best salary that they can make; and The Night in Question chillingly shows that in some cases, fucking assassination is an effective political tactic.
There are twee-ass episodes that don’t break your heart. Some of those episodes—129 Cars, The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About, I Was So High, Put A Bow On It—are really fun, but your mileage will vary. For example, despite having attended or worked at a camp every summer from roughly 1995 to 2013, I’ve never been able to make it past the five-minute mark of Notes on Camp.
Either way, though, occasional excessive cutesiness can be the financial and emotional tax for journalistic and analytic greatness. Whimsy pays the bills for the underwriters and makes the darkness more bearable for readers and writers.
That doesn’t excuse TAL’s failures; from Mike Daisey’s mortal sins of lying about conditions in Apple factories to David Sedaris’s more venial ones of exaggerating family hijinks, the show has fucked up from time to time. But don’t fall into the trap of viewing those mistakes as the natural consequences of a hipster quirk-factory; they’re journalistic boners running roughly parallel to 60 Minutes on Benghazi, and the New York Times on Iraq. And TAL is every bit the journalistic powerhouse as those institutions.
If there’s a stickier criticism of the show, it’s that its affectations and multi-act structure are built for engendering temporary empathy. The episodes live in a hermetically sealed cube that are engineered for you to listen to on a road trip or airplane, get hit with that existential sadness for an hour or two, and then move on with your life. But the cumulative effect of a show running that hard nearly every week for two straight decades is that if you listen to it enough, you can’t quite leave it behind. Last month marked 20 years since the first show; here’s to 20 more years of darkness.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.