Power Ranking Literally Anything: This American Life Stories

The other day I was driving down I-95 doing about five miles over the recommended speed for time travel and I had my stereo turned up to “Nah Sahn You Deaf?” playing–nay, blasting Bishop Nehru’s “Somebody Waits”.  I then had to turn down the stereo because I wanted to listen to the newest episode of This American Life.

Easily one of the weirdest things about me is that my iPod has 139 GB of space used up on it.  30 GB of which is is occupied by various podcasts including the near gamut from Grantland, Radiolab, This American Life, assorted other NPR podcasts, and a couple of football podcasts–sorry “soccer”.  Another 30 is populated by a plethora of audiobooks the most recommended of which are the entire Ender’s Game series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the modern american epic American Gods, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and other dope shit.

Now I’m gonna rank shit–read it.

20. Tarred and Feathered- The Hounds of Blairsville

Tarred and FeatheredThe story of “The Hounds of Blairsville” follows a typical small town in small town America where the internet manages to ruin someone’s life.  It’s a story that explores the wort parts of human nature in the relatively new environment of the internet.  The story is amazingly representative of many of the stories that have been in the news recently.  And coupled with a very well done reporting job by Stephanie Foo it is the first in this list of timely and well done stories from This American Life.


19. 129 Cars

129 CarsNot every great story is topical or even serious.  Not every story This American Life does has to conquer racial tension in America, our crippling debt, or homophobia.  Some great stories are just things you’ve never heard before.  The in depth exploration of the care sales business from the perspective of the dealers is just that. “129 Cars” reveals elements of the dealership business that if you had thought about for one second don’t seem that surprising but you’ve never thought about it so they are.

Listen to 129 Cars

18. Ruining It for the Rest of Us-Tragedy Minus Comedy Equals Time

Ruining it for the Rest of UsOne of This American Life’s regulars, Mike Birbiglia, is always funny–but few of his stories are nearly as funny as “Tragedy Minus Comedy Equals Time” where he tells the story of the time he ruined a cancer event with his jokes.

Listen to Tragedy Minus Comedy Equals Time

17. The Incredible Case of the PI Moms

PI Moms“The Incredible Case of the PI Moms” is one of the stranger stories that This American Life has reported.  The story of a group of suburban moms working for a fame whore private dick who uses their innocuous appearance to track adulterers.  That is until he gets the chance to be on TV where the fame whore private dick goes a step too far in trying to create drama and the hilarity and ridiculousness ensues.

Listen to The Incredible Case of the PI Moms

16. The Sanctity of Marriage-What Really Happens In Marriage

MarriageAs someone with no faith in the American institution of marriage there are few things more interesting to me than the science behind relationships and particularly marriages.  It has always interested me that people approach what is inevitably a business decision like it has something to do with love so this story of approaching the success or lack there of in marriage with scientific precision is of great interest to me.  John Gottman’s findings are also very interesting.

Listen to What Really Happens in Marriage

15. Heretics-Fall

HereticRussell Cobb’s story about Bishop Carlton Pearson follows the minister as his church, Higher Dimensions, rises in popularity to become one of the biggest mega churches in America.  “Fall” is the second half of the episode where Pearson is excommunicated from the church and and loses nearly his entire following and with it his reputation and wealth.  And if you know me there are few things I like less that religion and all of those things are illegal.  But the story of the hatred and prosecution that the church exacts on a daily basis being turned on its own is fascinating to listen to from a first person narrative.

Listen to Fall

14. Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde

Dr GilmerIt is rare that a reported story or documentary or anything of that type ends up going in a different direction than both the audience and the reporter thought it would go.  The story of the two Dr. Gilmers is one of those few exceptions.  It starts off as a story about a man accidentally thrust into another man’s shoes and then takes an amazing turn.  As always Sarah Koenig’s reporting is spectacular.

Listen to Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde

13. Three Kinds of Deception-Deceiving Others

Kinds of DeceptionLawrence Graham left his high paying attorney job to become a server at the Greenwich Country Club.  What follows is the least surprising story of rich white people being racist to poor brown people you’ve ever heard.  It’s the story telling that is impressive, Graham takes a cliched tale as old as race and makes it about as personal as it can gets.

Listen to Deceiving Others

12. Leaving the Fold-I’ve Got A Secret I’ve Been Hiding From You

Jerry SpringerThere was a point in Jerry Springer’s life when people compared him to Robert Kennedy–the good Kennedy.  Then while people were making that comparison he paid for a prostitute with a check.  Came back from that scandal and became a beloved figure in Ohio.  Now you know him as the guy who brought you this.  The story of how that happened had to be on this list.

Listen to I’ve Got a Secret I’ve Been Hiding From You

11. The Super- The Super Always Rings Twice

The Super“The Super Always Rings Twice” is the best bar story ever.  This is one of the more fun stories This American Life has ever produced.  Imagine if your super in your New York City apartment was a little bit crazy, told his tenants he had the right to kill in a certain South American country, and that he had to retire from the secret service because his doctor told him to get fat because of a heart condition.  Imagine if all of that was true.  And then imagine that he wasn’t the building administrator that almost had you killed.  That’s this story.


10. More is Less/Someone Else’s Money

More is LessThis American Life often teams up with many of it’s NPR colleagues like Planet Money, RadioLab, and in this case–NPR News.  This is a two part story about the health care system.  It was broadcast right around the time of “death panels” so the timing was critical to say the least.  And behind excellent reporting by the folks at NPR it remains probably the only interesting two hours there is in any medium about about the health care system (including Michael Moore’s self indulgent Sicko–really a two hour and three minute documentary? C’mon man I have shit to do).

Listen to More is Less

Listen to Someone Else’s Money

9. The Retraction

RetractionMike Daisey was relatively famous before his show on This American Life.  In fact, it is because of the popularity of his one man show that Ira Glass and team did a whole episode recreation of his inflammatory stories about Apple.  It has happened in the past that This American Life has had to retract some stories based on false information.  It is without a doubt because the episode of Mike Daisey’s original story was the most popular that This American Life had ever done that they did an entire episode retraction.  Doing something like this so publicly and handling it so well when in all honesty a great deal of the blame is on them was an impressive feat of journalism.

Listen to The Retraction

8. Petty Tyrant

Petty TyrantThis has always been one of my favorite This American Life episodes.  I don’t know why, besides that is is a spectacularly constructed story.  On one hand Steve Raccui is a insidious egotistical misogynist with access to explosives but on the other hand he might actually be the most interesting man in the world–and who’s to say you can’t be both?  I certainly would never make that argument.

Listen to Petty Tyrant

7. The Fix Is In

The Fix is InYet another story that is probably far more interesting that it should be but and also way less interesting that the implications would suggest.  The story of how one high level executive in a multinational food company went from a party to a billion dollar corruption scandal, to one of the best FBI informants of all time, and then finally falls victim to the same lies that made him so good at his job.

Listen to The Fix is In

6. Toxie

ToxieThe most important thing that has happened in this country in the past decade was the economic housing crisis that was brought about by predatory loaners.  The most boring thing that has happened in this country in the past decade was the economic housing crisis that was brought about by predatory loaners.  “Toxie” is one of the most interesting hours you will hear on one of the most important and boring events of our lifetime.

Listen to Toxie

5. House Rules-Rental Gymnastics

House RulesRacism is alive and well in American cities and it doesn’t always come in the form a cop killing or confederate flag.  Racism is often unrecognizable until a social justice organization hires a bunch of actors to go around and find it.  “Rental Gymnastics” is one of the best examinations of racial and gender relations in our country.


4. Harper High School

Harper High SchoolChicago has gotten a reputation over the years of becoming a more and more violent city and a great deal of that has to do with the expanding gang presence in the city.  “Harper High School” is an in depth examination of one high schools experience with the growing influence of gang culture and its effecting violence over a year’s time.

3. Cops See It Differently Part 2-Inconvenience Store

CopsThis American Life has a penchant for releasing timely poignant episodes and some of the most timely and affecting were the two episodes on cops’ perspectives on community relations in the wake of the string of murders carried out by police officers.  The most impactful story from the two episodes however was “Inconvenience Store.”  The story is about a mentally disabled black man who the police follow around arresting multiple times a week on false charges because they both know he will not press charges and will help fill their quota.  This illustrates the major problem in policing now which is that too much of police performance is based on statistcal arrest performance and not actually perventing crime.  Of course there isn’t a show yet about the fact that the police department keeps giving white guys who couldn’t make it in college guns and a license to murder brown people, but this is a start.


2. A Not-So-Simple Majority

not so simple majoritySpeaking of racial tension… Did you ever think you would hear a story about Hasidic Jews holding an impoverished town’s school board hostage?  Did you think that those same Hasidis would throw around accusations of antisemitism when people took exception to their policies?  Did you think that those policies would have made it near impossible for students to graduate high school in four years because there weren’t enough classes to take?  Did you think that the school board meetings–those things you’ve never once gone to in your town–would more closely resemble a WWE match than an actual meeting?  Did you think that those this story would infuriate and surprise you? Well if you answered yes to all of those questions than don’t even bother listening to this.  Otherwise this is one of the most troubling hours that This American Life has ever produced.


1. Testosterone-Infinite Gent

TestosteroneAdmittedly this story is not nearly as topical as those before on this list.  At least not on its surface and especially considering the fact that it came out 13 years ago it would be hard to say this is in response to all the rampant sexism that has swept the country and the internet in the past few years.  But this story in particular has always stuck with me.  “Infinite Gent” is the story of a lesbian woman who was a self described “dyke” who undergoes hormonal treatment gender transition.  He is interviewed about his feelings toward women sexually, his interests, and his deepest personal thoughts during the transition when he was taking twice the testosterone of a high testosterone man.  The account is extremely affecting and I recommend it to all of my female friends because before we can have a serious conversation about anything we need to be able to understand the other side and this is the only thing I have ever come across that I think is able to actually bridge the gender divide.  At least from one direction, here’s hoping we get an estrogen soon–I know I could certainly use the education.

Listen to Infinite Gent

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