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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Viewers Were in Suspense -- Aboard the Jet and on the Ground

September 22, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Let's take a second," KCBS-TV Channel 2 news anchor Harold Greene said, "let's all take a second here, and let's all say a little prayer as this pilot touches down with 139 people."

And you did. By then, you'd been watching something as ostensibly dull as a plane cruising through the clear-blue Los Angeles skies for three hours.

But this was something else -- this was some bizarro twist on the O.J. Simpson slow-speed chase, by air, involving an emergency landing on JetBlue, the discount hipster airline, the one where, onboard, you can watch TV on the way to New York.

As you watched what looked like stock footage, suspense and strangeness only grew: Those passengers on the plane, they might be watching themselves cruise through the sky right now. It made the situation that much more relatable, beyond the horribly relatable fear of trouble onboard an aircraft.

It wasn't that they knew what you knew, it was that they were potentially watching what you were watching -- themselves. In this age of TV everywhere, they were both news subject and news viewer. On a plane.

"We couldn't believe the irony, that we were watching our own demise on TV -- it was all too post-post-modern," passenger Alexandra Jacobs, a journalist at the New York Observer, told CNN's Anderson Cooper.

After about an hour, she said, the TVs were shut off.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, as the time came and went when it was said the pilot would land (it was going to happen at 5:25 p.m., then around 6, then there was an eight-minute warning shortly after 6), the national news had cut into their coverage of Hurricane Rita to follow the story, as they had last week during Los Angeles' midday blackout, raising and then dismissing the idea that terrorism could be involved.

The experts who had been hastened onto the local and national cable news said that the situation was serious but not dire. When the plane landed, we would see smoke and sparks but in all likelihood that would be all. You believed them, but what kept you there, still, was the matter of landing this plane with its front wheel at a 90-degree angle.

Los Angeles has now provided Fox News and CNN and MSNBC with two gloriously self-contained stories, with happy endings, with which to cut away from endless coverage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But I stayed on the local news; this was an L.A. story -- a large piece of metal heading toward some dramatic/anti-climactic end. Televised freeway chases are a Southern California staple, but this did our weird local tradition one better.

Trouble in the air is more primal and also, it must be said, more suspenseful. The pilot landed at 6:19, in time for the local news to cut away to their networks' coverage of what the newest hurricane, now a Category 5 like Katrina, could bring.

This is the week when the broadcast networks are rolling out their new shows, but for sheer suspense and human drama it's the news you keep flipping back to.

Including, on Wednesday, to watch a JetBlue pilot circle L.A. for three tense hours, an audience captivated, before executing a picture-perfect landing with a bum wheel.

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