Arts & Culture

The This American Life Ira Glass Man-Fatuation Post: Thugs

Our favorite nebbish talks thugs. Oh Ira, we love you so. (In a totally platonic, man crush sort of way…) Read More

By / August 4, 2011
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

It would be an undertaking to fully dissect the genius of This American Life.   On its face, TAL is the most personal radio show in history, but it’s also a lot more than that.  TAL takes stories that happen to everyday people and tells them flat out.  They rarely delve in the philosophical underpinnings of these stories or try to dissect their own characters, they simply tell stories and this week’s “Thugs” episode was a perfect example of how effective they can be at doing so.

This week’s intro dealt with a small Mexican town overrun by a drug cartel.  Just when the town gets used to the constant violence that comes with being ruled by bad guys, they find themselves free of the thug presence that had plagued the town.  Turns out, this particular group of thugs takes mini vacations from their tirades.  Next thing the townspeople know, a new gang is in town, one that they soon are learn, is benevolent.  That’s right, a benevolent drug cartel.  They protect the local businesses and dole out tequila to local daddies on Father’s Day; they’re liked.

When the old cartel comes back to town, they murder local cops and politicians for working with the their replacement and war between the two gangs ensues.  The good guys eventually win, but with major members of government and law enforcement dead, casualties of the cartel war.  The locals then decide that they don’t need new ones.  The cartel is stronger and more effective than the cops and politicians, they’re preferable.  They’re part of the community, marrying into local families and investing themselves into the town.  They’re the preferred thugs.  You find yourself wondering by the end of this story, what’s the difference between any kind of leadership and a band of thugs?  Are we always just settling for the most preferable thug?

In act I, TAL revisits their new favorite storytelling terrain: Post-Mubarak Egypt.  In a sense, Act I is a re-telling of the same story told in the episodes introduction.  We follow a young working actor who finds himself an active member of the Egyptian revolution, fighting the former powers that be and eventually falling victim to their treachery.  The question posed is the one people think about any time a revolution is attempted.  What’s the difference between a terrorist and freedom fighter?

For this writer, Act II of this week’s “Thugs” episode was one of the most emotionally powerful, of perhaps this entire year of radio shows.  In essence, it’s the story of an idealistic young woman who comes upon a young man, covered in leaves and sticks having  just escaped from juvenile detention.  Kenneth is youthful, polite and charming, so she takes him under his wing, determined to change his life for the better.  She’s so successful that she makes turning around the lives of troubled young people into her life’s work.  The young man becomes practically a part of her family until one day he’s arrested for murder.  Kenneth is sentenced to a lengthy jail term, escapes within a month, and murders a man during his escape.  The episode concludes with a reunion between the Kenneth and his former mentor at the Arkansas death row.  Kenneth, it seems, is less repentant than she or at this point, we, would like to believe.  You see, we as listeners, almost naturally want to believe Kenneth is innocent when in fact he killed a young college age girl and a local truck driver.

The question of evil is hard to grapple with, especially because good people often do incredibly bad things.  We wonder, “If I hadn’t had this person in my life, or the support from that person, would I have ended up in jail?”

Broken down, Act II is the story of a woman who refuses to believe everyone else who says that once a child has been in the system, they’ve been irreversibly affected, a woman who refuses to believe that, “A thug is a thug is a thug.”

Finally, I like to comment on the Tory Malatia sound clip at the end of each episode because, it’s the one thing they do on TAL each week.  This week, after one their best episodes, they deliver perhaps their worst Malatia joke ever!  In fact, this was perhaps the only time their clip has been borderline offensive.  Why?  Because the clip they use is part of the description of a prison escape in a which an innocent man is murdered in cold blood.  Using this in jest seems like bad taste.  Am I being sensitive here?

Until next week, I’m Jew-thug Jon Reiss, signing off.