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'Death by Design' Delves Deep Into Cells

March 25, 1997|JOEL GREENBERG

About halfway through "Death by Design," one of the scientists was explaining how the cells between a chicken's toes die off in the embryo stage, while those of a duck do not: hence, the webbed feet. To which my son replied, as only a 9-year-old can, "So, why do I care?"

His instant critique was dead-on. This production, a kind of "Dream On" meets "Mr. Wizard," is so busy trying to be ultra-cute (or "deliriously trippy," as a press release tells us) that it neglects to tell viewers why the scenes they are watching are so important.

And make no mistake, this show deals with nothing less than the essence of life itself: the cell.

All living things, including us humans, are cells. Within each of us are cities, countries, worlds of cells--and how they behave dictates much of who we are. In "Death by Design" we see cells in all reaches of our bodies communicating, copulating, spiraling, dancing with each other. "Melrose Place" has nothing on our kidneys.

Interspersed with this often stunning microphotography (even my son let slip a few "oohs" and "aahs") are scenes from old musicals, B-movies and silent films, which cleverly (for the most part) draw parallels between cell and human group behaviors.

The opening is especially inspired, taking a preview (what is now called a trailer) of a B-flick starring horror hunk Richard Carlson, changing a couple of words and splicing in a couple of shots of cells.

But as they nurture this technique throughout the show, producer/co-director Peter Friedman and co-director Jean-Francois Brunet, in effect, wind up downplaying the main point. Cells, it turns out, possess a crazy component: They will naturally commit suicide unless they receive signals from other cells telling them to stay alive. The circumstances of this programmed cell death are critical in our own life, health, illness and, ultimately, death.

This message, though conveyed by some heavyweight scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi-Montalcini, gets somewhat lost amid the constant movie footage.

While "Death by Design" tries admirably to be innovative, it is a production desperately in need of a narrator to point out the forest through all these trees, and a few less "deliriously trippy" movie shots.

* "Death by Design" airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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