Dennis Young has heard the standard criticism of This American Life—namely that it’s an oasis of twee, feel-good preciousness for smug liberals—but he doesn’t buy it. In an editorial at The Concourse on the occasion of the radio show and podcast’s 20th anniversary, Young argues that TAL is much darker and harsher than its critics seem to think and certainly doesn’t devote all of its time and energy to flawed but redeemable eccentrics. Either the show’s critics haven’t really been paying attention, Young suggests, or they haven’t been listening in years. As just one example of many, he cites the show’s “Petty Tyrant” episode, devoted to a decidedly unlovable maintenance man in Schenectady, New York, who grossly abused the moderate amount of power he had been given and made life a hell for his subordinates. Where’s the redemption there? Where’s the cuteness factor?
Young is basing his assessment of This American Life on the program’s last two years only, so he’s “agnostic on whether the twee/precious criticism was ever true.” But in the episodes he has heard, he has found plenty of examples of stories with unhappy endings, unchecked dictators, and even borderline nihilism, including an episode that actually makes a case for the effectiveness of assassinations. The article also singles out This American Life for its in-depth education reporting, with episodes like “Harper High” and “The Problem.” “No one,” Young argues, “consistently interviews children better than TAL does.” That being said, he also admits that the show does do its share of lightweight, cutesy episodes. And there have been lapses in the show’s journalistic integrity, mostly notably the Mike Daisey fiasco. But to dismiss the show as just the audio equivalent of Whole Foods is to miss the point, Young says. Over 20 years, This American Life has managed to build something substantial and meaningful. As Young puts it,
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.