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California as global symbol

April 13, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"CALIFORNIA and the American Dream," which begins tonight on KCET, is a documentary omnibus whose four parts, each by a different director, are loosely grouped around the theme of the Golden State as bellwether of national, even global, progress and/or regress. That's a cliche, practically -- California as the future -- but like most cliches it is born from an element of truth. The episodes share already intertwined issues of social justice, economic equity and environmental sustainability, as well as a common narrator in Linda Hunt, and all resonate with the current debate over immigration.

The series is a presentation of that mainstay of public broadcasting, the Independent Television Service, a coalition of independent producers whose stated purpose is to serve "voices and visions of underrepresented communities," to address "the needs of underserved audiences, particularly minorities and children," and to "take creative risks, explore complex issues, and express points of view seldom seen on commercial or public television."

"A just society seeks participation from those without power, prominence or wealth," the service declares, which is to say that it's involved with just the sort of programming that makes throb the temples of they who regard public TV as a hotbed of liberal socialism where nobody respects the status quo.

Even were that true, given that media of every stripe overwhelmingly are controlled by the powerful, prominent and wealthy, that can't be accounted a really bad thing. And though these films are not scrupulously "balanced," in the sense that opposing viewpoints have equal screen time -- some are more balanced in this sense than others -- they at least express some of the objections to their discernible points of view. They are not autocratic in their idealism.

The introduction to each episode calls California "a battlefield of conflicting needs and diminishing resources." (Jed Clampett's kinfolk called it "the place you ought to be," our eternal blessing and curse.) This is, to be sure, the state of the whole wide world, and the underlying thesis here is that people are going to have to learn to share those diminishing resources in such a way that the planet isn't ruined, that the solution is essentially local and that the big stick of government has to work with and for the people rather than against them. There is, of course, disagreement on how.

The series, which will continue over the next three Thursdays, begins tonight with Jed Riffe's "California's 'Lost' Tribes," a look at the history and pros and cons of Indian gaming, which gives the "pros" more play than they usually get. Subsequent episodes concentrate on redevelopment in San Diego's City Heights, coalition-building in Los Angeles politics and a look at the state of the state's agriculture. They are animated by a raft of activists, organizers, scholars, scientists, farmers, workers, politicians, philanthropists and alternative thinkers, and sundry ordinary concerned citizens. I find them engrossing, but then I am just an old progressive softy.

"The New Los Angeles," directed by Lyn Goldfarb, is in some ways the least revelatory of the shows because it's the most local, but time has made even this local ground less familiar. (It's been an astonishing 13 years since the Rodney G. King riots, or the civil unrest, or rebellion.) The film reaches back to Tom Bradley's campaigns against a smear-happy Sam Yorty and examines the way we just got along and didn't just get along over the years since, with special attention paid to labor issues and a fair deal for the working class.

Paul Espinosa's "The Price of Renewal" portrays the fascinating relationship between its two main characters, aged zillionaire philanthropist Sol Price (of Price Club fame -- who knew he'd named it after himself?) and young African American real estate developer and City Councilman William Jones, who together remade an ailing San Diego neighborhood, with unintended consequences. But best of all is Emiko Omori's "Ripe for Change," possibly because it is about the real stuff of life: food. Alice Waters is here, the link between the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and fine dining, arguing for the seasonal and locally grown, and so is writer-grower David Matsumoto, making you care crazily about a peach.


Where: KCET

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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