The latest episode from This American Life, a radio program that has been around since the late 90s and has produced over 500 hour-long episodes, is one of its best. This is not something that is said lightly or without care. But episode #551 was gripping, heart-breaking and had me sitting completely still at my desk in the library, unable to move and unable to stop listening. The episode focuses on “good guys” in America in 2015, with four different parts telling four different stories of people trying to get more out of life for being good, or to understand what exactly ‘good’ is. The episode not only tells of introspection, but forces introspection on anyone whose ears linger over each story, which will entice anyone who tunes in.
The first half of the episode is admittedly light and fun, but this is not to diminish the quality of the segments. The second segment is a piece of stand-up from This American Life regular, Mike Birbiglia, with the first being a social experiment from the producers of the show to see if it was possible to get discounts at supermarkets after claiming they were “good guys” (they succeeded, but then recommended to the audience to not do this because doing it makes you not a “good guy”). Where the real meat of the episode is, and what makes it one of the best, is in the final two acts of the episode: one about a diver and one about schizophrenia. These final two are eerie and haunting and will stop you in your tracks if you listen closely, no matter what your activity may be.
I don’t want to go into descriptions of these portions because even the smallest amount of information may ruin the magic they hold. This episode will rock you to your core. The exploration of goodness is not often met with a satisfying answer, but this four-act program does not try to answer “who or what is good”, instead displaying four stories of good to leave the listener violently ruminating over this philosophical question. This American Life has put forward one of its best episodes in a long time and it is worth a listen. It poses an important question and provides anecdotal answers that will keep you intently listening from its very start until the end credits.
Photograph: The American Life