- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

This American Life: The First Season (Paramount, $19.99) — In an era when even star-spangled banners are made in China, we long for that which is still truly and uniquely American.

Well, we can call off the search party.

“This American Life,” hosted by Baltimore native Ira Glass, is just that.

Showtime’s adaptation of the long-running public-radio program features more than a dozen short, quirky vignettes, artfully filmed and tightly edited, about ordinary Americans who triumph — and sometimes fail — in their one-of-a-kind experiences, which are told through personal narratives.

There’s Ralph Fisher, the Texas rancher who so loved Chance, one of his domesticated bulls, that when the animal died, he had it cloned. Despite the identical DNA, however, the cloned bull — fittingly named Second Chance — lacked the gentle temperament of his namesake.

Second Chance brutally and repeatedly attacks his owner. Yet even from his hospital bed, Mr. Fisher is unwilling to let go of his dream.

The program’s 10- to-15-minute vignettes are organized under themes. The one about Second Chance is filed under “Reality Check,” a chapter about people who concoct schemes to make their dreams come true, only to be boomeranged back to reality by unpleasant outcomes.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Plenty of stories are humorous and sweet. What’s remarkable, though, is that no matter the mood, a wonderfully respectful thread always runs through the words and pictures.

No one is out to make fun of these Americans. It’s clear Mr. Glass and company just want to authentically share — and make sense of — their tales.

“This American Life” runs 168 minutes, but its special features are limited to a photo gallery and commentary by Mr. Glass, who created the series, and director Christopher Wilchaimdb, sted Wilca.

101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure Special Edition, 101 Dalmatians (Note: not the original animated Disney flick but rather the 1996 live-action version) and 102 Dalmatians — (Disney, $29.99 each) — These classic good-against-evil favorites — in which Pongo, Perdita and Patch do battle with the wicked Cruella De Vil — are packed with special features, including music videos, bloopers, behind-the-scene takes and games.

In “101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure Special Edition,” for instance, viewers can learn about London geography and landmarks by helping Patch find keys in various locations. (He’s trying to find and free his siblings, who have been kidnapped by you-know-who.) We also learn that the Tower of London consists of several towers and is one of the oldest forts in the world and that Covent Garden is a premier place to catch street performers in the city of Big Ben.

All three stories — aside from being sprinkled with good messages and reassuring, innocent narratives — also feature some great appearances and voice performances. There’s Eric Idle as a wisecracking macaw (“102 Dalmatians”), Glenn Close as Cruella (in “101” and “102”) and an unforgettable Martin Short as the pretentious German artist Lars (“101 Dalmatians II”).

Gabriella Boston

CSI: NY The Fourth Season — (Paramount, $72.99) The fourth season of the Manhattan branch of the hit CBS franchise featured one of the show’s best episodes to date. In “Down the Rabbit Hole,” Mac (Gary Sinise) and the gang traveled to the online virtual world Second Life to hunt down a murder suspect. Let’s just say the younger cast members had better luck than Mac in enticing the killer with a female avatar. The season’s 21 episodes are all here on six discs — enabling you to catch up just in time for Wednesday’s fifth-season premiere.

Samantha Who? — (Buena Vista, $29.99) This ABC series was, for the first half of its season, last year’s highest-rated freshman sitcom. It has been mentioned in plenty of news stories during the summer hiatus for a much sadder reason, though. Star Christina Applegate recently underwent a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. When it comes to the show, however, the plot isn’t new: A woman wakes up from a coma without her memory and discovers she wasn’t a very nice person. Still, the comedy does provide a fitting vehicle for the charming Miss Applegate.

Dancing With the Stars: Latin Cardio Dance (Lionsgate, $16.98), Denise Austin: Best Belly Fat-Blasters and Kathy Smith: Lift Weights to Lose Weight Double Feature (Lionsgate, $14.98 each) The reality competition “Dancing With the Stars” is one of television’s highest-rated shows. Yet many Americans aren’t content just to watch celebrities and professional dancers have all the fun. “Dancing With the Stars: Cardio Dance” was the top-selling fitness DVD in 2007 and 2008. The follow-up comes just in time for Monday’s seventh-season premiere. Two of the show’s impossibly good-looking pros, two-time winner Cheryl Burke and Maksim Chmerkovskiy (who partnered fourth-season runner-up Laila Ali) get your heart rate up with the cha-cha, samba, mambo and merengue. With warm-up, cool-down and 10 minutes of each Latin dance, you get a good 50-minute workout. There’s also a bonus 15-minute toning section to give muscles besides the heart some work, too.

It’s safe to say that in some years during the 1980s and ‘90s, the top-selling fitness videos were by either Denise Austin or Kathy Smith. The fitness queens are still going strong, but these two most recent discs are re-releases of some of their best-selling routines. My own introduction to at-home weight training began in the ‘90s with Miss Smith’s 1998 “Lift Weights to Lose Weight,” which is in this two-disc set along with its 2003 sequel. These are solid upper- and lower-body workouts of about 20 minutes each along with two 10-minute ab routines and a 20-minute stability workout.

Those tired of doing endless crunches should find something new on Miss Austin’s disc. It contains seven ab workouts culled from a number of the effervescent trainer’s previous titles, including yoga and Pilates routines. Each is about 10 to 15 minutes long.

Kelly Jane Torrance