There's not much life in `Life 360'

Preview: PBS' new package produced with `Nightline' copies what others have more successfully done.

October 05, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If Life 360 - the new weekly PBS series premiering tonight - is the future of public television, count me out.

The concept for a program that combines interviews, film, essay, music and performance to tell stories grouped around a common theme is hand-me-down. The execution has the feel of being overproduced, pretentious and empty. And, this is a show PBS has been touting for months as one of the weekly linchpins of its new prime-time lineup that takes effect Sunday.

Life 360 is a co-production of PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Oregon Public Broadcasting and ABC's Nightline. I like Nightline when it does news. When Nightline does pop culture, generally it is clueless - as was the case last year when it did a series on hip-hop music that was critically savaged.

Robert Krulwich was the host of that hip-hop series, and he contributes an essay to tonight's program with his same tired, one-note act of feigned bemusement. Krulwich and Life 360 are a perfect match; they look thoughtful rather than actually being that way.

Michel Martin of Nightline is the series' host. She opens tonight's show in a cabaret setting with a stage and people sitting at tables as if they are waiting for something to happen. Later, Jewel will come on stage to sing. I guess that's something.

Martin tells us the title of this week's show is "Six Degrees of Separation," or how we all are connected to one another, and tries to link that theme to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The first storyteller is playwright and actress Anna Deveare Smith. I liked what Smith had to say, but I had to replay the tape three times to follow it. The reason for the replays: The producers have her walking through Grand Central Station while she delivers her commentary, and the visuals are so busy, excessive and distracting that her message is all but lost.

There is a documentary film piece at the center of tonight's show that is impressive. It tells the story of an Air Force sergeant whose heroism saved the lives of dozens of soldiers in Vietnam.

But, as good as the piece is, it's merely a film adaptation of what Ira Glass does every week on public radio with This American Life. In fact, the whole show, with its emphasis on monologue and storytelling, is a variation on Glass' concept - which works so much better in the more intimate and private medium of radio.

The hour's most vapid moment: Martin sitting on the steps to the stage interviewing Jewel between songs. The phony-casual positioning of the two, and the talk-show fake feel of the conversation - where have we seen it before? I know: American Bandstand, Dick Clark and Melanie, circa 1969.

Life 360 premieres at 10 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

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