15 Favorite Episodes From a "This American Life" Completist

not best. favorite. chronologically.
  1. 1.
    #9: Julia Sweeney (01.10.96)
    Before TAL knew their formula, they devoted an episode to Julia Sweeney's amazing & hilarious story of her & her brother's experiences with cancer.
  2. 2.
    #65: Who's Canadian? (05.30.97)
    The best lightweight version of this show. The first time I listened to this episode, I realized two things: 1) I love David Rakoff. 2) I love Canada???
  3. 3.
    #107: Trail of Tears (07.30.98)
    Sarah Vowell & her sister, of Cherokee descent, retrace the Trail of Tears. Heartbreaking history lesson wrapped up in super fun car trip. TAL at its best.
  4. 4.
    #199: House on Loon Lake (11.16.01)
    True life mystery story about an abandoned house/the chasm between childhood and adulthood! Maybe the best episode in pure storytelling prowess.
  5. 5.
    #204: 81 Words (01.18.02)
    Important and fascinating journalism on "how the American Psychiatric Association decided in 1973 that homosexuality was no longer a mental illness."
  6. 6.
    #218: Act V (08.09.02)
    Inmates at a high-security prison rehearse and perform Hamlet. 'Nuff said.
  7. 7.
    #317: Unconditional Love (09.15.06)
    "Can love be taught?" This is the episode I return to most often, recommend most to friends, and refer to most in my own work.
  8. 8.
    #339: Break-Up (08.24.07)
    This is the only episode I chose simply for one of its stories. Starlee Kine's account of how she attempted to cope with heartbreak through songwriting--in which Phil Collins makes a crucial cameo--is just that good.
  9. 9.
    #342: How To Rest In Peace (11.02.07)
    Devastating stories about how children survived after their parents are murdered. I don't know that I've ever heard a piece of radio like this. Only listen if you are willing to weep.
  10. 10.
    #360: Switched At Birth (07.25.08)
    Absolutely fucking fascinating. About exactly what it sounds like. Don't want to give anything away. Just listen.
  11. 11.
    #425: Slow To React (01.21.11)
    The whole episode is good, but on this list because David Holthouse's peerlessly brave account of confronting the man who molested him when they were children. Fyi might be triggering for some...
  12. 12.
    #465: What Happened At Dos Erres (05.25.12)
    Sometimes I feel uncomfortable when TAL gets political. This is some first-class journalism though, and a story that really needed to be told.
  13. 13.
    #472: Our Friend David (08.17.12)
    David Rakoff was a glorious writer. I fell in love with him first through his frequent contributions to this show, then through this books. When he died of cancer in 2012, TAL put together this most beautiful tribute. Another guaranteed to elicit tears.
  14. 14.
    #476: What Doesn't Kill You (10.05.12)
    Tig Notaro, like Julia Sweeney almost 20 years earlier, tells the story of her experience with cancer. This, and other brushes with death, makes for a fascinating rumination on mortality.
  15. 15.
    #487/88: Harper High School Parts 1 & 2 (02.15/22.13)
    Crucial listening if you care at all about education and gun control in this country. Two parts, one story. Just do it.
  16. 16.
    Bonus: David Sedaris
    David Sedaris is one of my favorite TAL contributors, but none of his episodes made this list. I think that's because of how the show deploys him--they often use his excellence to punch up lackluster episodes. Just search his name on the TAL website & listen at random. You can't go wrong.
  17. 17.
    Bonus: Important Issues
    TAL did some pretty great reporting on 9/11, Katrina, the economic crash of '08/'09, and the wars we've been embroiled in for the past 14 years. There's a lot there worth listening to, if you poke around...