'The 90's' on PBS offers quick cuts of life


You're a wise shopper. Would you buy a magazine that every week only had four things in it to read, and one of those things was always Andy Rooney wondering where all those darned little paper clips in his desk come from?

No, you wouldn't.

So, why watch such a newsmagazine on TV when, for the same low, low price, you can get one of the most vibrant, quick-paced, grabbing, thoughtful, innovative, fun-to-watch, hard-to-zap programs on television?

You can have it all, though. "60 Minutes" still reigns supreme in its 7 p.m. Sunday slot, but for a boffo video mag that'll give you a real sense of where, one can hope, TV is heading, tune in tomorrow night on PBS for the season premiere of "The 90's."

"The 90's" is a rapid-fire collection of videos that examines a different topic every week. Each hourly show is made up of 25 to 30 individual segments, from 10 seconds to a few minutes long, shot by independent producers almost exclusively with normal home video cameras. It happens fast. Blinking is discouraged.

The first show of "The 90's" in this, its second season on PBS, is "Taking Chances," a good intro inasmuch as it deals fairly lightly with the hazards of living. Many of these hazards are, we see, self-induced and/or easily avoided. Here, you get to leap along with a bungee-jumper, who takes his dive with camera in hand; you'll get a look at a real strange fellow who likes to literally go out on a limb, monkey-style (though monkeys rarely fall, as this doofus does).

Other segments in the opener offer glimpses at people who play the ponies, the lottery, bingo, the stock market. There's a look at how a blind pedestrian navigates the sidewalks of New York, and a bit about "the ultimate risk": breathing in Los Angeles. And, somewhere up in that brown haze is a man washing windows, some 1,100 feet above the street. You'll find out what life's like for him, too.

So, the first one's kind of fun. Later episodes of "The 90's" grow weightier and deeper, but never overbearing. In Jan. 31's "Getting Older," you may find yourself sinking into a bit of despair, regardless of your age. There's a stark look into an adult day-care center, a short chat with "Final Exit" author Derek Humphry, and a stunningly poignant piece, "My Name Is Stanley Newman," which finds the subject alone at the end of his life, reflecting: "I've lived longer than I wanted to. . . . I'm just an ordinary guy who never did anything worthwhile." It's said without self-pity but rather with a disturbing frankness. On the lighter side, though, you get a chat with "Today's" centenarian-tracker Willard Scott, and a ditty about the lost junk of the boomers' early years: space sticks, pop rocks, cyclamates, the Bay City Rollers and red M&Ms.;

There's not much to laugh at during the Feb. 7 look at "Guns and Violence," which starts out in the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' library of guns, an incredible arsenal ranging from homemade machine guns to Uzis, M-11s, sawed-offs -- everything. From there, we see the shooters in use, from gangs to cops to soldiers. "The 90's" features a women's class on gun-handling and self-defense, which includes an excited woman pointing to a bullet-riddled outline of a man's torso. "This guy woulda been dead many, many times," she says with a grin. "It was fun, too."

Further in February, things get a little less cumbersome as "The 90's" visits "Rural America" (Feb. 14), "It's a Mall, Mall World" (Feb. 21) and an "Open Subjects" video free-for-all (Feb. 28).

All of the shows zip across the country, sometimes spinning off into the rest of the world. Producer Joel Cohen feels "the more unique voices and viewpoints, the better."

With camcorders popping up all over the place, potential correspondents for "The 90's" are in every neighborhood in the country. True, many of them are more interested in getting their camera work onto "America's Funniest Home Videos," but there are others out there who are capturing better moments, bits of irony, humor, tragedy and valor that might've gone unnoticed, and adding them to the American chronicle.

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