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Best This American Life Episodes: Ranked

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Best This American Life Episodes

This American Life is a groundbreaking podcast and radio program that has captivated audiences with its unique blend of storytelling, journalism, and captivating characters. Launched in 1995 by Ira Glass, the show has evolved over the years to engage listeners through a mix of personal narratives, investigative reporting, and remarkable storytelling.

City street with diverse cars, related to urban life episodes.

With each episode focusing on a different theme, This American Life dives deep into the human experience, sharing stories that leave a lasting impact. From classic tales of love and loss to episodes that take listeners behind the scenes, the podcast has established itself as a critical favorite and a staple in the podcasting world.

Key Takeaways

  • This American Life is a popular podcast that features unique stories and captivating characters.
  • The show has evolved over time, encompassing various impactful themes and story-focused categories.
  • Critical reception and top-rated episodes highlight the podcast’s influence and continued success.

12 Best American Life Podcast Episodes

Top American Life Podcast Episodes

1. This American Life: Save the Day

2. This American Life: The Possum Experiment

3. This American Life: Three Miles

4. This American Life: Ends of the Earth

5. This American Life: Secrets

6. This American Life: Through the Looking Glass

7. This American Life: I Work Better on Deadline

8. This American Life: Return to Childhood

9. This American Life: Stories Pitched by Our Parents

10. This American Life: The Ferryman

11. This American Life: Kid Logic

12. This American Life: Rom-Com

13. This American Life: 129 Cars

The episode “129 Cars” involves a month-long observation at a Jeep dealership on Long Island, focusing on their ambitious goal to sell 129 cars.

Achieving this target would secure them a significant bonus from the manufacturer, potentially reaching $85,000, which is crucial for turning a profit for the month. Facing the pressure of possibly missing their sales target for the second consecutive month, the dealership staff employ every tactic at their disposal to reach their goal.

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14. This American Life: 24 Hours at the Golden Apple

This documentary captures a day in the life of the Golden Apple, a diner in Chicago, spanning from 5 a.m. to 5 a.m. the following day.

It features the perspectives of various individuals connected to the diner: a waitress who has served the graveyard shift for more than 20 years, daily regular customers, couples trying to resolve their issues, an array of intoxicated patrons, and, unsurprisingly, police officers.

This array of characters provides a vivid cross-section of urban life, painting a rich and diverse portrait of the community that revolves around this iconic dining spot.

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Bonus Episodes The Listeners Enjoyed:

  • #472: Our Friend David – A pastiche memorial episode for David Rakoff, known for his droll and hilarious contributions to TAL.
  • #471: The Convert – Mentioned as the episode preceding “Our Friend David”.
  • #47: Christmas & Commerce – Includes one of David Rakoff’s stories, a perennial favorite, where he plays a department store window Freud.
  • #181: The Friendly Man – A pastiche episode showcasing the works of Scott Carrier, another notable contributor in TAL’s early years.
  • #199: The House on Loon Lake – A highly acclaimed episode and an all-time favorite, noted for its compelling storytelling.
  • #319: And the Call was Coming from the Basement – Recommended as a companion to “The House on Loon Lake”; a precursor to spooky, suspenseful podcasts.
  • Fiasco! – Known for its comedy segments, including “Squirrel Cop” and “Tragedy Minus Comedy Equals Time”. (Episode number not specified)
  • #551: Part 2 – Heels on a Bus – Features a comedic segment by Mike Birbiglia, a semi-frequent contributor.
  • #587: The Perils of Intimacy – Explores human relationships with all their folly and foibles.
  • #448: Adventure! – True to its name, it’s about adventures in the unique style of This American Life.
  • #443: Amusement Park – Relatable stories for anyone who’s had a summer job at an entertainment venue.
  • #74: Conventions – A bittersweet tale of love and loss set in a convention center.
  • #425: Slow to React – Likened to a modern-day Count of Monte Cristo story, focusing on revenge.
  • #226: Reruns – Features the quirky behind-the-scenes story of underground director Trent Harris and the Beaver Kid.
  • #220: Testosterone – An intriguing look into who among TAL contributors has the most testosterone.
  • #293: A Little Bit of Knowledge – An insightful episode touching on the Dunning-Kruger effect.
  • #90: Telephone – Explores the shock and dismay of confronting one’s younger, more apathetic self.

Evolution of This American Life

Close-up of a microphone, symbolizing podcast and radio broadcasting.

I remember when This American Life (TAL) first emerged in 1995 on WBEZ Chicago. The show, created and hosted by Ira Glass, has significantly impacted the radio show and podcast landscape. This segment aims to provide a brief exploration of the show’s evolution.

In the beginning, the focus was on presenting diverse, real-life stories that revolved around a central theme. Listeners tuned in weekly to hear stories presented by Glass and his team. Over time, the show has evolved to include more investigative journalism, fictional pieces, and culturally significant stories.

Under Ira Glass’ leadership, TAL has continually pushed the boundaries of storytelling. There have been several best episodes that showcase their commitment to innovation, from “129 Cars,” which delves into an inside look at a car dealership, to “The Radio Drama Episode” that features dramatic readings of written works.

Chicago’s influence on the show is unmistakable. The city’s rich and diverse culture contributes to the story selection and provides a unique perspective into the lives of others. Some of the best episodes are rooted in the storytelling tradition of Chicago’s neighborhoods, helping to make This American Life a truly authentic experience for listeners.

Throughout its evolution, TAL has struck a balance between breaking news, investigative journalism, and poignant human stories that reflect our world. The show’s ability to stay true to its roots while pushing the envelope has kept listeners engaged and inspired over the past 25 years.

Influential Characters

129 Cars voted one of the best American Life Episodes

Throughout the years, many talented contributors have brought unique stories and perspectives to This American Life. One of these contributors is Alex Blumberg, who is known for his excellent storytelling abilities in episodes such as “Giant Pool of Money” and later went on to co-found the podcast company Gimlet Media.

Sarah Koenig, another notable character, has made a significant impact on the podcast scene, most notably as the host and producer of the critically acclaimed spin-off podcast Serial. Her work on This American Life was always engaging and compelling, as she was able to dive deeply into various subjects and present them in a relatable manner.

Meanwhile, Starlee Kine demonstrated her narrative prowess through unique ways of exploring stories, blending emotion and investigative journalism seamlessly. Listeners could always look forward to her contributions, which often captivated their attention.

A master storyteller and journalist, Jack Hitt left an indelible mark on the podcast’s early history, with his work strongly influencing the first decade of This American Life. One of the most memorable episodes he contributed to was “Dawn.”

Mike Daisey is an American author and performer primarily known for his monologues. He is known for his captivating and thought-provoking episodes, like “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” although this particular episode faced controversy due to some fabricated details.

Brian Reed has also contributed significantly to This American Life, particularly with his investigative journalism and storytelling abilities. His work eventually led him to create the spin-off podcast S-Town, which garnered significant acclaim.

Jonathan Goldstein brought a unique voice to the podcast, presenting humorous and heartfelt stories with an engaging twist. His storytelling could make listeners laugh and think in equal measure.

Another influential character is Terry Gross, an esteemed radio presenter best known for her long-running radio show “Fresh Air.” Terry has built a strong reputation thanks to her excellent interviewing skills and insightful conversations with guests.

Finally, David Rakoff was a frequent contributor who was cherished for his wit and ability to touch upon deep emotions in his stories. His poignant tales and reflections on life often resonated with listeners, leaving a lasting impact.

Top-Rated Episodes

Radio studio setup, central to 'This American Life' episode productions.

I’m excited to introduce you to some top-rated episodes of “This American Life.” These episodes have caught the listener’s attention and present unique stories and perspectives. Let’s dive right in!

One of the most standout episodes is “129 Cars,” which revolves around a car dealership’s quest to meet their monthly sales target. The tension and the captivating storytelling make it an episode you don’t want to miss.

Another incredible episode is “Switched at Birth.” This story reveals the emotional journey of two families who discover that their daughters were swapped in the hospital. The intense feelings involved and the delicate handling of the subject make it a memorable listen.

In the “Fiasco!” episode, the listeners are taken on a roller coaster ride with stories of ambitious ideas that turn out disastrously. It’s a perfect showcase of the show’s ability to blend humor and drama in ways that keep the audience engaged.

When it comes to informative and impactful storytelling, “The Giant Pool of Money” stands tall. This episode provides a deep dive into the 2008 financial crisis and unravels the complex reasons behind the disastrous outcome.

“Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” is another thought-provoking episode. It explores the darker side of technology manufacturing, challenging our perspectives on the devices we rely on daily.

For those seeking something magical, “The Room of Requirement” is an exquisite episode that explores the power of books and libraries in changing lives and comforting those in need.

Anyone looking for a fascinating snapshot of American life should check out “24 Hours at the Golden Apple.” It’s a compelling look at a diverse range of people over the course of a day spent at a Chicago diner.

Finally, “House on Loon Lake” is an enticing episode that takes you on a mysterious, abandoned house’s exploration, unraveling its secrets and the people who once lived there.

As a reminder, I’m talking about the top-rated episodes of “This American Life,” a show renowned for its compelling stories. And while these outstanding episodes are a great starting point, there are countless others waiting to capture your imagination. So, happy listening!

Story-Focused Categories

Mountainous landscape, resonating with 'This American Life' adventure stories.

In my experience listening to This American Life, I’ve noticed that episodes tend to fall into several story-focused categories. This is what makes the show so appealing to a wide range of listeners, as there’s truly something for everyone. Let’s explore some of these categories and highlight a few standout episodes.

Funny Stories: One of the show’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to balance serious and light-hearted content. Episodes like “Fiasco!” and “Switched at Birth” showcase the program’s talent for finding humor in unexpected situations, making them perfect for when I need a laugh.

Storytelling: This American Life excels at crafting compelling narrative structures that make it hard for me to hit pause. “The House on Loon Lake,” for example, unfolds like a mystery as the listener follows the investigation of an abandoned house and its former inhabitants. Another great storytelling episode is “Three Miles,” which delves into the consequences of two neighboring schools in vastly different communities.

Break-up and Heartbreak: Some episodes focus on the universal theme of love, loss, and healing, such as “Break-Up” and “Somewhere Out There.” These episodes often feature personal stories that resonate with me, reminding me of the power of human connection.

Mystery: Episodes like “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar” dive into solving mysteries and uncovering truths. As a listener, I find myself immersed in the investigative process and eager to follow the story until its conclusion.

Politics: This American Life doesn’t shy away from tackling political topics with nuance and depth. For instance, “The Giant Pool of Money” offers an illuminating breakdown of the 2008 financial crisis, while “Get Your War On” provides a closer look at the complexities of war.

Trauma and Tragedy: The show also bravely tackles challenging subjects that explore personal and collective trauma. Episodes such as “The Host of Seraphim” and “Testosterone” present raw, emotional stories that expose moments of vulnerability and redemption.

Conflict and Community: At the heart of many episodes lies the examination of human relationships, whether it’s through the lens of interpersonal conflicts or broader community dynamics. “The Problem We All Live With” expertly navigates the topic of racial integration within American education, while “Harper High School” provides a microscopic view of a community grappling with violence and loss.

That covers most of the story-focused categories of This American Life episodes. Each one brings a unique tone and perspective, making the show a truly rich, diverse, and captivating listening experience.

Impactful Themes

Quiet woodland, reflecting 'This American Life's' introspective and mystery themes.

This American Life is known for tackling a variety of compelling, sometimes unexpected, themes in its episodes. I recall one episode that delved into anger management. In this particular episode, the show explored the theme of anger using the perspective of both a mother from Long Island and a police officer, providing insightful and relatable stories to listeners.

I also remember an intriguing episode set at a Jeep dealership. This one focused on the intense sales goal environment of a car dealership and the challenges faced by its employees. The episode highlighted the human aspect of a seemingly mundane setting like a car dealership, capturing the struggles of meeting sales targets and dealing with different kinds of customers.

In another memorable episode, the show took us to the world of a Chicago diner. Through the lens of the diner’s diverse staff and clientele, the episode addressed issues of gun violence, birds, and the Trump administration, all while fostering a neutral and informative discussion. As a listener, I appreciated the balanced approach to these sensitive topics.

One of my all-time favorites delved into coincidences, as we listened to real-life stories of college students, a library, prom, and Peter Pan. This episode beautifully illustrated the mysterious nature of coincidences and fate, while also reflecting on the more lighthearted and quirky moments in life.

Lastly, on a more somber note, an episode I cannot forget discussed asylum seekers with a focus on the individual stories of families affected by the Trump administration’s policies. This powerful episode tackled an emotionally charged issue with clarity, weaving narratives of strength and hope amidst challenges.

Behind The Scenes

Sound mixer, essential in producing 'This American Life' episodes.

As a long-time listener of This American Life, I’ve noticed that one of the main reasons this podcast stands out is its talented team of producers, reporters, and contributors. Working from their New York base, they collectively deliver an exceptional level of journalism that engages and educates the audience.

In my experience, the producers play a crucial role in shaping each episode. Their curiosity drives them to dive deep into an extensive range of topics, as well as collaborate with seasoned reporters to create stories that feel both informative and personal. Their dedication to the craft is evident in every episode, as they tirelessly verify facts, chase leads, and explore multiple perspectives, staying true to their commitment to investigative journalism.

When it comes to the reporters, I’ve observed that they bring to the table a combination of excellent storytelling skills, empathy, and an inquisitive nature. They possess the ability to humanize every subject, drawing out intimate stories which ultimately make This American Life such a powerful show. I have always admired their willingness to immerse themselves in the lives of those they interview, forging connections with people from all walks of life and eliciting profound insights.

In conclusion, the producers and reporters of This American Life embody the essence of New York journalism – bold, diverse, and uncompromising in their quest for the truth. As an avid listener, I eagerly await the next episode, assured that it will be another carefully crafted mix of captivating stories and invaluable insights.

Unique Episodes

Dense woods, symbolizing 'This American Life's' exploration of the unknown.

As a fan of This American Life, I have come across numerous unique episodes that leave a lasting impression. One such episode is Serial, a spin-off podcast series that dives deep into a single true-crime case. In the first season, I followed the investigation of Adnan Syed’s case, who was convicted for the murder of Hae Min Lee. The meticulous storytelling and intriguing details kept me hooked throughout.

S-Town is another spin-off podcast that caught my attention. Set in a small town in Alabama, I was engrossed in the tale of John B. McLemore, a brilliant, eccentric horologist who contacted This American Life with a suspicion of a murder cover-up. As the story unfolded, it became less about the murder and more about the life of John B. McLemore and the characters of the town, exploring themes of mental health, family, and morality.

An episode of This American Life that stuck with me is Notes on Camp. In this installment, I was transported back to my childhood summers and the nostalgia of attending summer camp. The various segments shared fun and emotional stories of kids and adults, creating a vivid picture of the quintessential camp experience.

Another notable mention is the Bonus episode titled “Testosterone.” This distinctive show delved into the complex world of hormones and its effects on the human body and mind. Listening to the personal stories of people dealing with the impact of testosterone, I gained a deeper understanding and empathy for their experiences.

Lastly, Back to Penn State is an episode that I found both informative and eye-opening. This American Life returned to Penn State University after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, focusing on the aftermath and how the university and its students attempted to rebuild their reputation and community. I appreciated the insight into the challenges they faced during that turbulent time.

In conclusion, these unique episodes of This American Life have challenged my thinking, broadened my understanding and captivated me with incredible storytelling.

Critical Reception

Microphone for podcasting, key in 'This American Life' storytelling.

In my exploration of the best episodes of “This American Life,” I have come across various episodes that have been highly praised by both critics and listeners. One such episode that garnered much attention was the one featuring Jake Halpern. In this episode, Jake recollects his thoughts on summer camp, capturing the nostalgia and innocence of youth, which struck a chord with many listeners.

Another notable episode starred comedian Tig Notaro, who shared her uplifting and inspiring perspective on battling cancer. Her candidness and humor penetrated the hearts of the audience, leaving a lasting impact on many listeners. The New York Times even highlighted her appearance on the show, praising her ability to tackle such a personal and challenging issue.

Some episodes have even delved into the world of pop culture, as in the case with Phil Collins. The iconic musician talked about his career and life, offering valuable insights into the world of music and entertainment. This American Life’s ability to seamlessly merge pop culture with compelling storytelling is undoubtedly one of the reasons for its sustained popularity.

Nice White Parents, a recent spinoff series of This American Life, has earned both critical acclaim and extensive media coverage. The New York Times, for instance, regarded the series as a “fascinating excavation of the ways well-intentioned white liberals can perpetuate racial inequality in schools.”

In another standout episode, the show intriguingly explored the world of Shakespeare through the lens of a high-security prison. By dissecting the complexities of Hamlet with a group of inmates, This American Life uncovered a unique perspective on the classic tragedy, illuminating the play’s resonance with an unconventional audience.

In conclusion, the episodes of This American Life mentioned above showcase the podcast’s ability to combine captivating storytelling with critical insight in a way that consistently draws in and captivates its audience.

Frequently Asked Questions

This American Life episodes ranked

How To Listen To Episodes Of This American Life – Guide

What are the top award-winning episodes?

One of the most celebrated stories on This American Life is the two-part investigation into a series of gun-related deaths surrounding Harper High School in Englewood, Chicago. These episodes, 487 and 488, aired on Feb. 15, 2013 and Feb. 23, 2013, respectively. Over the years, This American Life has accumulated various reporting awards.

Which episodes are considered fan favorites?

Episode 464 is a fan favorite because it was originally done live on stage and beamed into movie theaters, making the invisible art of radio visible. It features a charming story from Tig Notaro about his repeat encounters with ’80s pop star Taylor Dayne.

Are there any essential episodes for new listeners?

For new listeners, I recommend starting with “No Coincidence, No Story!” It’s an episode that sticks with many listeners and includes multiple examples of when the stars align in ways that sound almost unbelievable.

Can you recommend impactful episodes?

A standout on This American Life is “Dawn,” the first episode to give the entire hour to a single contributor. It follows master storyteller and magazine journalist Jack Hitt as he interviews old friends and family in Charlotte.

Which episodes have been the most influential?

“Dawn” has had a strong influence over the first decade of the program due to its unique format and Jack Hitt’s storytelling style. This episode set a precedent for future episodes, showing the power of dedicating an entire hour to one story.

What are some unforgettable stories from the show?

An unforgettable story is Susan Burton’s melancholic essay about being single during the holidays. The story resonates with listeners and adds a different perspective to the holiday season. Chris Higgins’s story about cataplexy, “I’ve Fallen in Love and I Can’t Get Up,” is another unforgettable tale that has since been turned into a comedy called Ode to Joy.


Rose Evans

Helping podcasters grow their podcast has been my passion for the past 6 years, being part of the Wired Clip team means I can do this on a much larger scale.

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