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Rodney Ho covers TV and radio, from Atlanta’s stations to the hottest “American Idol" news.
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CNN’s ‘This is Life With Lisa Ling’ season 5 tackles MS13, screen addiction, gender identity, “furries”

Originally posted Friday, September 20, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Lisa Ling has a dream job for any curious, empathetic journalist: she gets to travel the United States immersing herself in different - often maligned or misunderstood - subcultures to try to understand participants’ motivations and psyches.

Called “This is Life with Lisa Ling,” the CNN hour-long weekly series returns for a fifth season of eight episodes Sunday. Ling’s style of reporting is earnest and straightforward, with nary a trace of partisanship. 

“We provide people with an experience and arm them with information so they can decide how they feel about a particular topic or subculture,” Ling said in a recent interview.

This season’s first episode tackles MS-13, a viciously brutal Latino street gang. She spends time in the D.C. area studying how and why kids - typically Latin American immigrants - get drawn into the gang. 

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“MS-13 is frequently mentioned by the Trump administration,” Ling said in an interview. “It’s incited the wrath of the president. But in reality, not a lot of Americans know what MS-13 is about. They will be surprised to learn the U.S. government played a pretty big role in its evolution.” 

Ling hones in on a gruesome 2017 murder of a teen girl Damaris Reyes Rivas by MS-13 in Virginia. One of the participants was fellow teen Venus Romero Iraheta who blamed Damaris for the murder of her boyfriend and MS13 gang member Christian Sosa Rivas. 

Damaris was stabbed 23 times. Her murder was captured on video and shown during the trial. Though Ling didn’t show the video in the episode, she herself watched it. 

“It was horrifying,” she said. “It was one of those things you wish you could unsee. You can’t believe human beings could be capable of this. Even after watching the video, I wanted to understand better why someone would do this. After receiving the responses of my questions from Venus, I in no way sympathize or condone what she did. But I do have a better understanding of how she ended up in the clutches of MS-13, how powerful gangs like this can pressure associates to conduct these kinds of savage murders.”

Lisa Ling explores the MS13 street gangs in the first episode of season 5 of "This is Life With Lisa Ling" returning Sunday, September 23, 2018 at 10:15 p.m. on CNN. CREDIT: CNN

But not every episode she does is that dark. She also delves into the world of “furries,” a group of people who like to dress up in full-body animal costumes. 

Ling said fans over the years had suggested she do an episode on them but “discounted them at first. It sounded silly. Some on my team thought they were a bunch of sexual deviants. But when we started asking around, it’s actually a massive community of people for whom sex is not the reason they do it. The majority of people who profess to be ‘furries” suffer from extreme social anxiety.”

Ling interviewed one “furry” out of costume and “she could not stop shaking.” But once in her outfit, “she became an entirely different person who wasn’t afraid of anyone.”

The episode will conclude the season. “We hope by then we’ve earned our audience’s trust that it’s going to be an unexpected experience. If you hang with us during this episode, you will find it pretty darn moving.”

Ling said the episode about screen addiction is less a subculture and more about our entire culture. She sheds light on the negative impact screens have on kids’ brains. The more time spent staring at a screen, the more prone a child will become depressed and anxious. And “it’s not uncommon for kids these days to create alternate identities online their parents know nothing about,” said Ling, who has a five-year-old daughter. 

She focuses on a trained psychiatric nurse who had been trained on the warning signs of suicide. Yet her 16-year-old daughter took her own life and her mom only discovered why after the cops studied her phone and laptop.

“Kids these days lack basic face-to-face communication skills,” Ling said. “It’s really scary.” 

CNN's 'This is Life With Lisa Ling" features an episode about gender fluidity. CREDIT: CNN

Her favorite episode this season is about gender fluidity. She opens with a teen who decides she is “agender,” or neither a man or a woman. 

“We are in the midst of a gender revolution,” Ling said. “It’s being led by young people who don’t feel they fit into any particular box, who can’t check male or female. It’s exciting these kids now have the tools to be able to express these feelings. People who felt this way in previous generations had no tools to express them. It’s a really beautiful epsiode.”
She interviewed NBA legend Magic Johnson because his son is gender fluid. “He speaks so lovingly and eloquently about his process and how challenging it was for him to raise a gender fluid child. He expressed how much respect he has for his child, for his unconditional love for E.J.”’ 

Ling now has 40 episodes in the can at CNN since 2014 and is already working on season six.

“It’s kind of amazing because after our first couple of seasons, I wondered, ‘How are we ever going to find eight new topics every season?’ Somehow we do. Every season is better than the previous season. We continue to refine the craft of telling these stories. There is no shortage of cultures to explore within our backyard.”

Ling’s return is bittersweet for CNN only because her show is paired with the final season of “Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown,” which precedes her return Sunday at 10:15 p.m.

“His passing was a devastating loss to humanity” Ling said of Bourdain, who took his own life in the spring. “He brought the world into our homes in such a unique way, exposing us to cultures we’d otherwise never have known about or been interested in. He brought a kind of humanity into our homes. I have such an appreciation for what he did.”

TV PREVIEW

“This is Life with Lisa Ling,” returns for season 5 at 10:15 p.m. Sunday, September 23 following “Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.”

About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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