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TV Review: Colorful characters, arcane information lift overstuffed Oakland doucmentary

Wednesday, December 06, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

At the start of his latest neighborhood documentary, "Something About Oakland," WQED filmmaker extraordinaire Rick Sebak says the 88-minute program got its title "because it would be impossible to include everything about this fascinating part of Pittsburgh."

 
 
"Something
About Oakland"

When: 9 tonight on WQED/WQEX.

Writer/producer
/narrator:
Rick Sebak.

   
 

But by the end, you may think Sebak tried to do just that, particularly when it comes to Oakland's restaurants. Too much of the show's last half-hour is given to a laundry list of merchants -- and restaurants in particular -- in the neighborhood. Though intended as a celebration of mom-and-pop establishments, it feels too much like a rah-rah Chamber Of Commerce production. Call it: "Too Much About Oakland."

That misstep aside, "Something About Oakland" lives up to the Sebak tradition of providing viewers with fascinating nuggets of information (the temperature inside Phipps Conservatory can vary by 30 degrees between the floor and ceiling), colorful characters (this time it's "Uncle Sal" at a neighborhood grocery) and vignettes on some of the special events that characterize the neighborhood in question (an annual vintage grand prix held in Schenley Park).

Sebak gives a little historical background on the founding of Oakland, but I wish there had been more. Details about the neighborhood's founders easily could have replaced a segment on students moving in at Pitt every August (that happens at all college campuses -- it isn't unique to Oakland).

Gina Merante watches as WQED filmmaker Rick Sebak nibbles a roasted pepper from an Italian hoagie from the Merante Groceria. She’s in Sebak’s “Something about Oakland.” (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"Something About Oakland," funded by the Buhl Foundation, National City Bank, The Henry L. Hillman Foundation and the William H. & Karen A. Tippins Foundation, spends time with Oakland residents of all sorts. One minute viewers hear UPMC transplant pioneer Dr. Thomas Starzl muse about his love for the neighborhood; the next, it's Bill Kushman, who sells flowers at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Craig Street.

Although I have quibbles with the overemphasis on restaurants in "Something About Oakland," another segment on commercial businesses is more appropriate. Sebak visits multiple bookstores in the area, and it's germane given Oakland's evolution into Pittsburgh's academic center. It helps that each bookstore and its owners have unique stories to share.

"Something About Oakland" spends some time with the neighborhood's hospitals, but takes a closer look at the nationality rooms in the Cathedral of Learning and the Carnegie Museums. Sebak especially enjoys a tour of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's insect collection, which includes 11 million specimens. "Something About Oakland" hits its stride in this segment, as Sebak interviews the guys who work in the bowels of the museum categorizing bugs.

"We've got a lot of bugs," one curator says. "It might seem like too many, but I'm concerned we don't have enough."

Another solid moment comes in the last "Oakland" story about the annual rite of listening to the seventh game of the 1960 World Series at the remaining outer wall of Forbes Field.

As always, Sebak has fun cutting between different interviews among baseball fans. One thread features a man talking about how his cat died the night before the big game and how he somehow credits the dead cat with the Pirates win.

It's humorous without being judgmental, amusing without being hurtful and truthful because in some way or another, we're all a little off kilter. It's just part of the human condition. Sebak's specials -- no matter which neighborhood he's in -- are at their best when the focus isn't on merchants, but on people.


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.



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