A good half-century before Ashton Kutcher punk'd his way into a nation's collective heart, Ralph Edwards and his merry band of This Is Your Life co-conspirators were ambushing celebrities and forcing them to take sentimental strolls down memory lane. Their shows differ wildly: Punk'd sets out to humiliate and embarrass celebrities, albeit in a playful, comic manner, by revealing them to be gullible jackasses unable to handle stressful situations. This Is Your Life praises and extols its guests, presenting their lives as a kind of whitewashed, Reader's Digest version of pop mythology, heavy on middle-America-pleasing themes of faith and family.
Yet in spite of antithetical approaches and sensibilities, the two shows boast a surprisingly similar brand of voyeuristic appeal. The genius of both lies in taking celebrities, especially actors, out of their natural habitats, depriving them of lines, scripts, characters, and rehearsals, and forcing them to fend for themselves. But where Kutcher aspires to make his subjects as uncomfortable and outraged as possible, Edwards goes out of his way to diffuse the shock of his ambushes, adopting a comforting, soothing, admiring tone that suggests a more adult-oriented Mr. Rogers.
This Is Your Life, The Ultimate Collection: Volume 1 collects 18 of the TV institution's most memorable episodes. Much of the episodes' drama comes not from the mushy and sentimental hagiographies, but in watching how towering icons respond to having their lives transformed into half an hour of televised entertainment. Bette Davis, unsurprisingly, manages to make it through heart-tugging reunions and saccharine emotions with her vinegary public persona wholly intact, while Roy Rogers seems visibly discomfited by the conflict between his California singing-cowboy image and the childhood picture of him as an Ohio farm boy posing with his prize pig.
Edwards shies away from the more sensationalistic aspects of his subjects' lives, with some noteworthy exceptions, especially a poignant episode on Johnny Cash that lingers on his addictions and personal demons in a borderline-sordid way. It's pretty telling that a typical guest on that most atypical episode is a good-hearted sheriff who picked Cash up in the midst of a pill-induced haze and gave him some crucial moral encouragement. Sometimes the heart-warming anecdotes people tell about honored celebrities reveal far more than they intend to, as in a story about a heartbroken Lou Costello racing back to record a zany radio show just after learning of the drowning death of his young son. Not every episode boasts such a morbidly compelling moment, but few are without at least some unexpected, unguarded surprises. This Is Your Life forced famous folks to be, or at least play, themselves. The show's queasy fascination comes from watching them squirm their way through their most perversely unnatural role.