Original air date: 8/9/2002
The gist: A group of male inmates at a high-security prison in Missouri rehearse and perform a production of the final act of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Why it's great: Listening as a group of hard-nosed criminals wrestle with the complexities a four-century-old masterwork brings unexpected appreciation to a play many of us might dismiss as high school required reading. In "Act V," a motley crew of misfits and malefactors find reckoning and redemption through iambic soliloquies, the meanings of which transcend age, class, and criminal rap sheet. The play isn't professional -- there were no lavish sets or polished performances -- but hearts beat inside the chests of these men, many convicted of heinous acts. Get ready to fall for Big Hutch as Horatio, and his razor-sharp criticism of a Hamlet plot hole.
Original air date:10/7/2005
The gist: The stories of people who, when all hope was lost, found a way to keep living -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Why it's great: Survival instincts are on full display in this episode that begins with a plane full of passengers seemingly bound for certain death, who circle for several hours before an emergency landing attempt. Though we know the jet safely descended, Glass’ survivor interviews make for a nail-biting segment. The crux of “Back from the Dead” focuses on those affected by Hurricane Katrina. In true TAL fashion, the reporting does not endeavor to take on the totality of the disaster, focusing instead on the individuals on the ground, people who rode out the storm in trees and now live in tents, broken communities that look to the outcome of a high school football game to regain a sense of normalcy and hope. Long after the tide washed back, we have these stories to remember this dark and devastating chapter of American history.
Episode 355: "The Giant Pool of Money"
Original air date: 5/08/2008
The gist: Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg translate the economic gobbledygook of the 2008 financial crisis and tie it to actual people with motives, desires, and fallibilities.
Why it's great: Davidson and Blumberg’s reporting on the real estate bubble stands as a monument to narrative audio's ability to help listeners follow the facts of an intricate story. "The Giant Pool of Money" couldn’t be split into soundbites or packaged up for the five o'clock news. It's custom made for longform listening. Even the bad actors, such as Glen Pizzolorusso, a 20-something college graduate who made $1 million a year selling bogus mortgages, jump out as colorful and relatable. Leave it to TAL to understand that we can't talk about the recession around the dinner table without first knowing the people who nearly drove us into the abyss.
Air date: August 24, 2007
The gist: A celebration of the cliché of heartbreak from every angle.
Why it's great: A charming, vulnerable Starlee Kine (now the host of Mystery Show) decides that the best way to get over a recent breakup is to write her own breakup song, and seeks guidance from none other than Phil Collins. As the story evolves, Kine echoes what we all fear to be true about breakups: that we secretly enjoy the sadness. The episode ends with three short acts about divorce, including a recording of an 8-year-old asking questions about her parents' breakup that her adult self attempts to answer. Forget Adele -- this is the antidote for heartbreak.
Episode 454: "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory" and Episode 460: "Retraction"
Original air dates: 1/6/2012 and 3/16/2012 (note No. 454 is now only available in transcript form)
The gist: Mike Daisey performs an excerpt from his one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which chronicles his eye-opening visits to Apple factories in China in which he spoke to workers about working conditions. Later, host Ira Glass sits down with Daisey after evidence surfaces that details in the story were fabricated.
Why it's great: In its 20-year run, This American Life has only once had to issue a retraction. While many media outlets -- newspapers and radio programs alike -- might have issued a "regret the error," Ira Glass made the decision to turn the debacle into a radio show. "Retraction" not only vies to get the story right, digging into some of the allegations regarding underage workers and dangerous conditions inside factories, but it also pulls back the curtain on how stories are vetted and fact-checked at TAL. Glass is candid about the show's role in failing to thoroughly follow up on sources, but also confronts Daisey for exploiting his staff's trust. In one of the most gripping discussions ever recorded regarding the role of facts in journalism, Daisey argues for the emotional truth -- the "truthiness" of his version -- while Glass insists, no, facts are facts. Though the story about the story overshadows the very real problems at Apple factories, TAL wins the day by proving its integrity to listeners.