The first time I ever heard what would now be a DVD commentary (my recollection is that I later learned it came from the Laserdisc edition), it was a showing of Clerks on cable, and I could hear Kevin Smith and whoever else chatting about the making of the film, and it was sort of fascinating, even though it wasn't a movie of which I was a big fan.
Now, of course, commentaries are everywhere. Not only do they have them for high-end movies where everything has been thought out to the last detail and there is much to say about every camera angle, but they also slap them on ordinary movies, and even very bad movies -- the audio commentary on the 1999 trash-classic Cruel Intentions is one of the funniest commentaries I've ever heard, because of the entirely serious way in which they explain how terribly French and sophisticated the whole thing is.
Somewhere along the line, the actual point of a commentary has become blurred. Many of them are fun but impart very little actual information -- witness the rollicking cast/crew commentaries on shows like The Office and How I Met Your Mother. Some are startlingly lame -- I find the 30 Rock commentaries excruciating, because the people involved are all so obviously of the "it's bad to explain comedy" school of thought, so they don't want to be there, and they seem miserable to a person.
But the best use I've seen recently of a commentary as it was originally adored by film buffs, where actual light is shed on the process of making something good, came with the track attached to the first episode of Season 2 of This American Life -- the Showtime TV version, that is. (That's a clip from the show above.)
What makes a commentary good, after the jump...
First, a quick note: Obviously, if you've never gotten into the radio version of This American Life, I encourage you to do so immediately. There's an episode called Fiasco! that is my go-to entertainment for bad moods. It makes me laugh out loud like a hyena every single time I hear it, even though I have heard it many, many times.
But I wasn't so sure about a TV show. I liked the first season a lot, but I was reserving judgment until I saw them do something as stunning as what they did on the radio. And then, in the first episode of Season 2, which is called "Escape," they did. The show was about Mike Philips, a guy who describes himself this way on his blog: "Due to the magic of bad genetics he doesn't walk, nor does he breathe without the assistance of machines. One could also argue that he's simply astonishingly lazy."
The episode about Philips (which won an Emmy) is pretty much perfect: surprising and enlightening and not pitying; largely a story about a guy who's struggling to make a break from his mom (as many people do), only it's harder because she's used to being the one who makes sure he keeps breathing.
The commentary is just as good. Host Ira Glass and director Chris Wilcha offer genuine insight about why a shot was chosen, why a sequence was or wasn't used, and how they got Johnny Depp. (Philips is a prolific writer despite the fact that typing is a very slow process for him, and having the voice of Depp -- who Philips names as one of the guys he'd want to play him in a movie -- suddenly appear to read his words gives the entire episode a floaty, dreamlike quality that utterly defies the physical limitations of Philips' world.)
It's rare that the insights offered in a commentary are so good that they're almost as rich as the episode itself, but this is that rare case. Not every movie, and certainly not every TV show, benefits from this kind of close examination, but for the ones that do, it's still possible to rise above the "This is my favorite scene in the episode!" stuff that clutters up lesser efforts.