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VALLEY WEEKEND

Tales of Vice in the Valley

'High Incident' Uses Suburbia to Mirror Society's Turmoil

September 19, 1996|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The television producer is talking over his car phone. He is talking about cops and robbers and the San Fernando Valley. He is talking about life in these United States. Listen, he says, because this is important.

"We are trying to hold up a mirror to this society we live in, which is what good drama is supposed to do."

His words grow quicker and excited and then, in a burst of static, he is cut off by interference.

He calls back.

"We thought about Phoenix and we thought about Orange County, but this is where it's all going on."

He is driving through the Valley as he speaks.

"Because of the melting pot, it's a strange place. Out in the San Fernando Valley, everybody lives here, and when they collide, they collide at 40 miles an hour at the intersection of Chatsworth and De Soto, you know?"

Charles Haid is probably best recognized for his acting and, in particular, his roles as a cop in "Hill Street Blues" and the 1977 film, "The Choirboys." But these days he serves as co-executive producer and frequent director of "High Incident," an ABC series in its second season.

Set in fictional El Camino, the show--created by Steven Spielberg and his DreamWorks Television--has attempted to separate itself from such hits as "Homicide" and "NYPD Blue" by focusing on a distinctively suburban brand of crime. That means plenty of traffic tickets, domestic disputes and burglaries spread across a bleached panorama of housing tracts and strip malls.

*

So far, all of it has played out on the readily identifiable boulevards and avenues of the Valley.

"We are attempting to revisit the suburbs of Steven Spielberg's 'ET' and see where they are in the 1990s," Haid says. "White people, brown people, yellow people. Vietnamese, Thais, Latinos. We've dealt with the Simi Valley escape artists and the right-wing, up-in-the-hills encampments."

This blend of race and class is certainly enough to cook up the occasional ratings-grabbing mayhem, but "High Incident" has for the most part stuck to its holstered guns and, in the process, has taken shots from critics.

"It's hard to see how much drama a show can get out of house robbers and husbands and wives at each other's throats," wrote Caryn James of the New York Times, reviewing last season's first episode. "The floundering 'High Incident' hints that there can be such a thing as too much realism."

But the Boston Globe wrote: "In hands as talented as these, domestic disturbances are staged with all the import of Greek tragedy." And Howard Rosenberg of The Times praised the show's "nose for levity" and "characters whose blemishes make them all the more real and believable."

The photography plays to these features. Many of the shots are starkly personal, tight, hand-held and herky-jerky, peering over shoulders. The camera follows the actors into a rented house in the Chatsworth hills, or down in the flats at a shopping center near the corner of Winnetka Avenue and Victory Boulevard, or through a hangar at Van Nuys Airport.

The blanched suburban tableau leaves ample room for character development, says David Keith, who heads an ensemble cast. In addition, he insists, a predominance of the mundane accentuates the show's occasional violent moments.

"If every moment is slam-bang, you don't bat an eye," Keith says. "But if you're lulled to sleep by watching cops pull a kitten out of a tree and all of a sudden an officer gets shot through the head, it's like a plane crash."

Haid, for his part, would rather leave the shooting and crashing to his writers. He doesn't particularly want to talk about scripts or production. The social issues interest him most.

"You have this enormous multicultural society . . . natural disasters and social upheavals . . . and people are complacent to sit in their backyards."

*

The sound of his voice grows weaker if no less enthusiastic as he drives farther away. He talks about immigrants. He talks about embracing diversity. He talks about Plummer Street and Lurline Avenue.

"In a certain sense, the San Fernando Valley is a microcosm of suburbia everywhere."

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