Philosophy in gangs special seems a hazard in itself

April 08, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

NBC says "Lives in Hazard" shows its commitment to helping viewers understand the root causes of violence.

I say "Lives in Hazard" shows that NBC either doesn't have a clue, or else doesn't care about anything except creating a perception that it's part of the solution rather than the problem of violence in society.

"Lives in Hazard" is a highly publicized NBC special produced and narrated by actor Edward James Olmos, which airs at 8 tonight on WMAR, Channel 2.

The slick brochure the network sent to teachers, editors and TV critics describes it as a "hard-hitting, real-life drama that takes viewers behind the lines of an inner-city war zone to meet some of the young men and women trapped there."

In reality, the NBC special is a glorified backstage look at the making of Olmos' 1992 feature film, "American Me," which was a fictional story about Mexican-American gangs in Los Angeles.

The gang members viewers "meet" tonight are the gang members who worked on the film as actors, extras and helpers. And they are all clearly playing to the camera. In that respect, "Lives in Hazard" is more like a "Backstage With HBO" feature that the cable channel runs to hype its movies than it is a "hard-hitting real-life drama."

What viewers mainly see are: scenes featuring Olmos telling his film crew how groundbreaking it is for them to be filming in a "war zone" in the barrio, scenes featuring guards at a prison telling viewers how groundbreaking it is for Olmos' crew to be filming there, scenes featuring unidentified people saying how groundbreaking it is for Latinos to have a real-life "role model" like Olmos.

And if the self-promotion for Olmos doesn't get you, his Hollywood sociology will.

"I think role models are the most important thing to have in a kids' life," Olmos says modestly after viewers hear the testimony as to what a great role model he is.

I think you could probably make a case that adequate food, shelter and medical care might be just a bit more important for most children than seeing Olmos making a film in their neighborhood.

I'm not going to quote from the shameless opening that features Olmos repeatedly thanking NBC and saying how groundbreaking all this is. I'm hoping that segment was intended for gullible teachers and TV critics only, and won't air tonight.

It's time for us to start yelling that the emperor has no clothes when the networks try to foist this kind of self-serving docu-drool off as public service. It's also time to wonder why, as a society, we would ever turn to an actor for answers to a problem as serious and complicated as that of violence in society.

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