Originally created 10/17/01

A well-rounded view of 'Life'



NEW YORK - Right on cue, Life 360 has arrived as a weekly magazine series exploring the human condition in imaginative ways.

You could set your watch to it (well, sort of): Every decade or two, public television introduces such a series, which wins critical praise and even a loyal audience, then abruptly disappears. The Great American Dream Machine was an innovative hodgepodge of interviews, filmed segments and satirical features whose contributors during its brief 1971-72 run included Chevy Chase and Andy Rooney.

Then in 1992 PBS unveiled Edge, a droll, quirky and critically acclaimed pop-culture hour that was yanked after a handful of episodes.

Now let us hope for better with Life 360, which airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on most PBS stations.

Life 360 co-exists with a likeminded series, EGG, which calls itself an "arts news digest." It premiered on PBS in January. Both are welcome departures from the traditional public-TV recipe of British costume dramas, nature specials and pledge-month concerts by John Tesh.

So far, no glimpse of Mr. Tesh on Life 360, whose weekly mission is "to look at one issue or topic or idea by applying all the different artistic and journalistic tools," explains executive producer Janet Tobias. "This allows you to have fun and be amused, but also to probe deeply, and be surprised."

Future topics include Leaving Home, Bridges, Flying and Owning Up.

But the overarching idea for Life 360 is storytelling.

Last week's program (theme: A Place in Time) profiled 14-year-old Wendy Osborn, who, a dozen years ago, vanished on her way to school. This poignant story was produced by filmmaker Kelly St. John, another kidnap victim of Wendy's murderer.

"Fate works in its own mysterious way, its twists and turns echoing through our lives," Life 360 host Michel Martin said as she turned to a romantic story about the clock in the lobby of Manhattan's Biltmore Hotel.

The Biltmore is gone, but writer Ron Suskind established that the famous clock (under which guys and gals, including his future in-laws, rendezvoused a half-century ago) remains. And it's still keeping good time.

In the show's cabaret setting, Late for Your Life was performed live by singer Mary Chapin Carpenter. Then in a monologue, Margaret Cho observed that "circles are all around us; they're who we are; they're inescapable; and they are very hard to draw ... without a compass."

The hour concluded with the Kronos String Quartet performing a requiem for those lost in the Sept. 11 attacks as dozens of their names were displayed.

As with other episodes, last week's area of inquiry (why do things happen, and to some people but not to others?) was decided months ago. But on Sept. 11, it gained heightened urgency.

"We see Life 360 as a blend of timeliness and timelessness that speaks to fundamental human meanings," said Ms. Tobias, adding, "After Sept. 11, I think there's a more fundamental hunger for meaning than there was before."

Although the tone of last week's Life 360 was subdued, that's not always the case.

The premiere episode, Six Degrees of Separation, included a rollicking piece on human interconnection from comedian Jake Johannsen, who managed to associate John Wilkes Booth with the Internet, Kevin Bacon and the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies.

Then a whimsical report revealed that viewers have likely inhaled a few of the several trillion molecules Julius Caesar exhaled in his dying breath 2045 years ago.

"We are all connected across time," declared Robert Krulwich. "What they breathe out, you breathe in."

Speaking of connections, the always clever Mr. Krulwich, a regular contributor, was host of Edge. And now his day job is that of an ABC News correspondent.

Ms. Martin, too, is a correspondent at ABC News' Nightline, for which Ms. Tobias is a former producer. (Life 360 is a collaboration between Oregon Public Broadcasting and Nightline.)

Now hard at work completing the initial 13-segment order, Ms. Tobias hopes her new show won't suffer the premature demise of past PBS magazines.

"We want a chance to push the magazine form in a new direction," she said.

Or, judging from the title of Life 360, she might have meant every direction.

TUNE IN

Life 360 is a new Friday magazine series on PBS that emphasizes storytelling by journalists, writers, artists, comedians and musicians. Every show has a theme. This week's show, Voice, includes the segment Stutter Step, a profile of Georgia Southern University running back Adrian Peterson. Life 360 airs at 9 p.m. on WEBA-TV (Channel 14) and at 10 p.m. on WCES-TV (Channel 20).