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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

The Real City Can Be Found 'Beyond the Freeways'

August 22, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Traversing television . . . and Los Angeles.

You're hot and irritated. You're driving (barely) south on the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass, mind-locked and gridlocked, a steam-spewing stall-out impeding northbound traffic to the left of you, two crashes blocking traffic ahead of you. And you know that when you finally do reach your LAX destination, merging with the other city mice and urban ants, more crowds will be waiting.

This "dystopia," as historian Leonard Pitt calls Los Angeles.

This packed confluence of freeway motorists, joining in a "wordless creed" that writer Joan Didion says is "the only secular communion Los Angeles has."

This blankety-blank city.

But wait. Is Los Angeles only a vastness crisscrossed by traffic jams? Is it only O.J.? Menendezes? Rodney King? Paparazzi ? Hollywood hype? Gangs? Drive-by shootings? Racism? Riots? Kinkiness? A smoggy wilderness of earthquakes, earth slides, rock slides and wildfires?

That's the line we get day after day from the news--relentless negativity that solidifies an image of a totally dysfunctional city characterized by misery and devoid of any joy or cultural richness. In fact, rarely on television anywhere is Los Angeles celebrated in ways that inspire pride--the exceptions being the occasional "Life & Times" segment and Huell Howser's affectionate profiles of city life, both on KCET-TV Channel 28.

And, oh yes, one more exception comes to mind: the pieces (titled "Beyond the Freeways") that Sam Hall Kaplan has been doing the last six months for the 10 p.m. Saturday newscasts on KTTV-TV Channel 11.

Way, way beyond the freeways is more like it, for Kaplan's vibrant stories are distinctively witty and literate for Los Angeles television, the only pity being that they're not available to a wider audience.

"The vision we present to many is indeed that of a wasteland, a network of sterile streets, overlooked by overblown houses and edged by an insular industrial complex," he began one segment. "But down a side street off of Jefferson Boulevard, amidst seemingly lifeless buildings, culture flourishes." In fact, it was flourishing in a small corporate gallery featuring sculpture and poetry readings.

In another piece, a straw-hatted Kaplan touted an exhibition of American flags at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood--Old Glories made of wood, pencils and even newspapers; flags as posters, as postcards, as cigar boxes, even as cigar wrappers. Refreshingly, here was something that L.A. chauvinists could really puff on.

As they could on Kaplan's Charles Kuraltish video essay capturing opening day for a kids' T-ball league in Santa Monica, his piece toasting Little Tokyo, another on the sculptures that have made downtown Los Angeles "a museum without walls," and a notably aromatic tribute to Southern California's wildflowers, the camera capturing a resplendent carpet of yellow.

Keep it up. If only more TV communicators would exchange freeways for side streets, stop to smell the wildflowers and explore the city's gardens of culture instead of wallowing in its stink holes.

*

HE OWES US?: Advanced by Joe Morgenstern in an Op-Ed piece in The Times last week, it's an exotic theory indeed that actor David Caruso has somehow betrayed a public trust by deciding to give up his co-starring role as Det. John Kelly on ABC's acclaimed hit "NYPD Blue."

He seduced us, made us fall in love with his character and his show, and now is leaving us in limbo like some stinker of a guy sneaking away from his wife and kids in the middle of the night? Pooh on him because our lives will be enormously diminished if his successor, Jimmy Smits, is less appealing and endangers the future of the series?

Well, that's life. No one ever said prime time was "Divorce Court."

Nor does the Major League Baseball strike metaphor apply. Caruso is in no way analogous to rich players and richer owners suspending the national pastime because of a conflict over money.

For whatever reason, Caruso decided to quit. If viewers hadn't watched his show in sufficient numbers, ABC would be quitting him. That, too, is the way the game is played. Whether he's an actor or a plumber, all that Caruso owes anyone is his best effort. And his Emmy nomination for "NYPD Blue" suggests that that has not been a problem.

*

HARDHEADED: The most spectacular commodity on CNN these days is anchor Linden Soles' hair, an indestructible granite-like edifice (currently dark brown) that hasn't budged in months. He could get a hernia just carrying it on his head.

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