The 15 Best ‘This American Life’ Episodes (So Far)

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It was nearly 20 years ago that Ira Glass, a Chicago public radio host, launched a unique radio show with a magazine format, in which various stories (or “acts”) with an interconnected theme were provided by reporters, storytellers, commentators, and the like. Originally titled Your Radio Playhouse, Glass changed the title shortly before the show was picked up for nationwide syndication to This American Life. And this Sunday, This American Life airs its 500th episode. In honor of the occasion, Flavorwire has (with great difficulty and discussion) selected the show’s 15 best episodes to date. (Maybe. They’ll probably be 15 completely different ones tomorrow.)

#47: “Christmas and Commerce” Original broadcast date: 12/20/96

TAL’s holiday episodes are always wonderful, from the annual “Poultry Slams” for Thanksgiving to the scary storytelling of their Halloween shows to the frequently heartbreaking Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day editions. And from the show’s early days, it has served as a showcase for the talents of the two Davids, Sedaris and Rakoff. Both of those elements come together in this early episode, which features a full performance of Sedaris’s wonderful “Santaland Diaries” (which Glass had recorded, in a much shorter version, for NPR before TAL’s inception) as well as Rakoff’s uproarious “Christmas Freud” story. (For more Sedaris holiday goodness, check out “A Very Special Sedaris Christmas”; for more Rakoff, don’t miss the late writer’s lovely tribute episode, “Our Friend David.”)

#61: “Fiasco!” Original broadcast date: 4/25/97

In considering TAL’s finest hours, it’s easy to focus on the serious, straightforward news shows that told important stories and started national conversations. But they tell small stories just as well — and don’t often get their due as one of the funniest shows in any medium. Take, for example, Jack Hitt’s “Opening Night” from the early episode “Fiasco,” in which the venerable writer and TAL correspondent (and several witnesses) describe what sounds like the most disastrous theatrical production ever.

Original broadcast date: 11/21/97

This “parable of politics and race in America” tells the remarkable story of Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, who served from 1983 through his death in 1987. His initial campaign was ugly, marred by shockingly pronounced racial attacks; “Harold” digs up tapes and other stunning remnants from that era, and asks how far we’ve come.

Original broadcast date: 11/17/00

Throughout its history, TAL’s staff have worked up several inventive “gimmick” episodes that tinkered with the show’s sprawling, multi-act format: they’ve shortened the story length, they’ve shortened the time frame, they’ve confined themselves to single locations. But this listener’s favorite of the “bottle episodes” is one of the first, a mosaic of personalities and stories over one day and one night at a beloved Chicago diner.

Original broadcast date: 2/23/01

This is the kind of broad but compelling topic that TAL can really make a meal of, and this 2001 episode is full of wonderful stories. But it sticks out in this fan’s memory for being my initial introduction to a peculiar gentleman named John Hodgman, whose informal survey of flight vs. invisibility is one of the show’s funniest to date.

#186: “Prom” Original broadcast date: 6/8/01

The best episodes of This American Life look at a cultural touchstone from several angles — comic, tragic, educational, curious. This episode’s longest act, the story of a tornado that hit Hoisington, Kansas on prom night, is a piercing piece of reporting, capturing the specific way that tragedy hits a small town. But the episode also offers up a wonderful chat with Sweet Valley High author Francine Pascal on the importance of prom, and a remarkable audio vérité portrait of prom night in Chicago.

#204: “81 Words” Original broadcast date: 1/18/03

Reporter Alix Spielgel contributes this full-hour report about “something very small that was part of something very large in the history of our country”: the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to no longer classify homosexuality as a mental illness. It’s kind of a perfect rubric for what the show does well — using a tiny entryway to explore major issues, questions, and concerns.

#266: “I’m From the Private Sector and I’m Here to Help” Original broadcast date: 6/4/04

Longtime producer Nancy Updike went to Iraq to explore the complications of American citizens and private contractors on the ground in a war zone. This award-winning hour showcases the kind of serious, long-form, detailed reporting that would become the show’s specialty over the second half of its run.

#296: “After the Flood” Original broadcast date: 9/9/05

Mere days after Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans, TAL aired this powerful ground-level report, looking at the damage done, the national response, and the long-term repercussions of the catastrophic event.

#323: “The Super” Original broadcast date: 1/5/07

The unique relationship between an apartment tenant and the man with all the keys is explored in this episode; all three acts are good, but the most memorable is Jack Hitt’s account of how he helped organize a rent strike in his NYC building, and how “the situation got pretty ugly. Monster ugly.”

#355: “The Giant Pool of Money” Original broadcast date: 5/9/08

The meltdown of the housing market is one of the most important stories of the still-young century — but its complexity and in-the-weeds jargon made it the kind of crisis that few people outside of the housing and financial sectors even understood, and the glancing approach of most news shows kept it inscrutable. That’s why this episode (which won the show Polk and Peabody awards) was so valuable: over the course of its hour, TAL producer Alex Blumberg and NPR correspondent Adam Davidson carefully and clearly broke down the entire housing meltdown, in terms that even the most casual listener could understand. It became one of the show’s most popular and praised episodes, and eventually spun off into Blumberg and Davidson’s excellent Planet Money blog and podcast.

#360: “Switched at Birth” Original broadcast date: 7/25/08

This remarkable story from reporter Jake Halpern concerns a pair of baby girls accidentally switched at birth in 1951, and how that discovery affects both families. It’s the kind of personal story that it’s easy to forget TAL does so well, since this was the period when their coverage of national and international news got so sharp, but it’s a tremendously moving hour. (Another excellent example from the same year: “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar,” Tal McThenia’s powerful story of a child kidnapping early in the 20th century.)

#414: “Right to Remain Silent” Original broadcast date: 9/10/10

Because it is, first and foremost, a radio show, some of TAL’s best stories have been those about audio — found sound, lost audio, and surreptitious recordings. The most riveting of those stories was the 41-minute second act of this 2010 show, featuring the secret tapes that NYPD officer Adrian Schoolcraft recorded during his 17 months on the job, highlighting the corruption and dishonesty of his precinct.

Original broadcast date: 3/25/11

Glass himself reported the infuriating story of Amanda Williams, the Georgia Superior Court Judge whose drug court is a model for over-punishment and ineffective treatment. This one landed TAL another Polk award, but more importantly, it resulted in formal charges of misconduct against the judge in question, who subsequently stepped down from the bench.

#460: “Retraction” Original broadcast date: 3/16/12

In January of 2012, TAL aired “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” a recording from storyteller Mike Daisey’s stage show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he described his trip to the Chinese factory where Apple products are manufactured. It became one of their most downloaded shows, but it also became the focus of controversy when some of Daisey’s claims were called into question. TAL could have pulled the show and/or quietly issued a correction; instead, they devoted an entire program to exploring the story, and to holding both Mr. Daisey and themselves accountable for the earlier program. In doing so, they turned what could have been a destructive embarrassment into one of their finest hours.

Original broadcast date: 6/8/08

One more favorite worth mentioning, even though it falls outside the parameters of those 500 radio shows, is the final televised episode of TAL’s excellent, and sadly short-lived, television spinoff. Though well-regarded among TV critics and the viewers who found it, the show was weirdly shunned by much of the radio audience, who seemed to almost resent Glass and company’s expansion to another medium. But the hour-long “John Smith” show — in which the entirety of a human life is viewed through the lens of six men, of varying ages, with the same name — in many ways encompasses everything that the program, at its best, is about. This wasn’t just as good as any episode of the radio show; this was one of the finest television programs I’ve ever seen, period.

Selecting these episodes was one of the hardest things this writer’s ever had to do, so tell me now: which ones did I miss?