Five This American Life episodes to listen to (while Serial is on break)

Yes, I’ve been listening to Serial these past few weeks. Yes, I’m actually surprised it’s gotten this big. Not that I doubted it – it is, after all, a spin-off to This American Life, and Sarah Koenig’s one of that show’s most reliable producers – but, still, it has gotten big. It might be the whole crime-story-in-installments premise. (They did say the second season, which was just confirmed, wouldn’t necessarily be about a cold case.) Or it might be the circumstances, of our new ability to become more involved armchair detectives. Anyway, the podcast’s on Thanksgiving break this week, so I figured I’d list five This American Life stories that one can listen to to while away the break. Some of my friends listen to Serial but have not encountered This American Life before, so hopefully this serves as a bit of a guide. Not that my picks are the most representative – I’ve only been listening for six years, and the show’s been going on for nineteen; you can also peruse that show’s own picks here – but, you know, I like these stories.

Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde | If you like Serial‘s premise, this is an obvious starting point. Call this the podcast’s prototype, as Sarah tackles the circumstances behind a murder. A doctor, just hired at a rural clinic, finds out that he replaced a man with the same last name as his, who went to prison after killing his father. Here you hear Sarah’s inquisitiveness and her oscillation between one side and the other – much like she later does with Adnan Syed. Also, the ending is not what you quite expected.

What Happened at Dos Erres | A personal favorite of mine, this TAL episode centers on the killings of whole communities by the Guatemalan military, the extent of which would not fully unravel until the discovery of a survivor living in the United States. The show’s done a bunch of these more journalistic stories; one of their best known, albeit one I’ve never had the chance to listen to, is the episode explaining the housing crisis that led to the American economy’s recession. This one blends investigative journalism with a human interest angle, and very well at that; I was very much struck at the enormity of the whole thing at the end.

Rest Stop | I’ve always been fascinated with these big gas stations by the highway that I only go to when going out of town – when I was a kid, for one, I marveled at this big Petron place before the Southwoods exit at SLEX – so this episode, documenting 24 hours in the life of a rest stop in New York state, was built to appeal to me. It’s both mechanical and contemplative, with stories from employees, management and customers alike. And a bunch of foreign students there for work experience.

Invisible Made Visible | TAL doesn’t always devote a whole hour to one story: it was built for multiple stories around a theme. (The whole “act” thing is a legacy of the show’s previous name, Your Radio Playhouse.) The show’s introduced me to some good writers, comedians and storytellers (and have bloated my book budget accordingly): David Sedaris, David Rakoff, and Sarah Vowell, among others, but they’ve also featured folk like Malcolm Gladwell, Junot Diaz and Joss Whedon. I’m choosing this episode (which I’ve written about before, as it contained Rakoff’s final story before he died of cancer in 2012) because of comedian Tig Notaro’s contribution about meeting Taylor Dayne everywhere. (Or watch it here.)

Doppelgängers | Finally, I’m posting this episode because of that story about (supposedly) fake calamares made from pig intestine. (I’m putting that nicely.) That is a story that’s serious on one side, and interestingly cringe-y on the other. And then it’s followed by a more serious story about the effects of violence on inner city youth, and punctuated throughout by Fred Armisen being Ira Glass. This American Life is this weird creature: at one end earnest, at the other just ridiculous. It is very much an American public radio creature, but it did pave the way for the many storytelling shows (and podcasts) that have cropped up in recent years – The Moth, Snap Judgment, Love + Radio, and, well, Serial. [NB]

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