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On the Tube: 'Streamliners' speeds back to days when travel had style

Friday, February 02, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

As a child, I loved trains: Lionel toy trains, Amtrak trains, the small-gauge ride-on train at a nearby park that I named Engie Benji. My family vacationed in Strasburg, Pa., stayed at the Red Caboose Motel and rode the Strasburg Railroad. We took a trip through the Colorado Rockies on the Rio Grande Zephyr. We parked our car in the Harrisburg railroad yard to watch trains come and go.

Whenever I see a train today, I still hear the echoing voice of my mother ("Look, Robbie, a train! Look!"), but it's a thing of nostalgia. How it came be that way is the subject of "Streamliners: America's Lost Trains," a presentation of PBS's "American Experience" (9 p.m. Sunday, WQED).

This last gasp of passenger train travel started in 1934 as the first lightweight stainless steel Streamliners went into service. Unlike trains of the past, with their coal-powered locomotives and Pullman cars, Streamliners had names like "M-10,000" and "Zephyr." A slick, aerodynamic design gave them a modern look that offered hope for the future just as the country emerged from the Great Depression.

Written, produced and directed by Thomas Ott, "Streamliners" lovingly chronicles the development of this final evolution in passenger train travel. It's a bit of an odd subculture, I suppose, but the fate of Streamliners reflects the shifting trends in American life.

Where once we were content to spend days aboard a luxurious train watching the country speed past, by the 1960s Americans just wanted to hurry up and get there.

"Streamliners" points out that while Japan and European countries put money toward developing high-speed trains, America shifted funding into the development of airports and highways, forever altering the national transportation landscape.

"Streamliners" also touches on how the look of these trains influenced the rest of the culture, resulting in toasters with a streamlined look. (I supposed a modern equivalent would be how the iMac has revolutionized design to the point that the George Foreman Grill now boasts a multitude of see-through colors.)

Narrated by Liev Schreiber and lasting just an hour, "Streamliners" is a minor chapter in the history of the American experience, but it's a testament to the changing ways of American life in the 20th century.

'Dancing in September'
(9 p.m. tomorrow, HBO)

HBO's latest original film has an interesting concept, it's just poorly executed. Rather than dancing, this tale of African-Americans in the TV industry trips over itself at just about every opportunity. It's clumsily made, but at its heart contains a worthy story about television and the corruption of creativity.

The film's title is evidently Hollywood slang for getting a new series on for the fall season, though it's not a phrase I've ever heard. Written, produced and directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood, "Dancing" focuses on a young African-American woman, Tomasina "Tommy" Crawford (Nicole Ari Parker), who gets fed up writing for an insipid sitcom. She tries to make suggestions to improve the show, but the arrogant executive producer wants to hear no dissent. She's fired.

A new network is about to launch and plans to do it using the eyeballs of under-served African-American viewers. The WPX network is clearly based on The WB. Like The WB, WPX launches with black shows and then abandons them as it segues into more advertiser-friendly young adult dramas.

One of WPX's top executives, George Washington (Isaiah Washington), aims to be the first African-American network president. He hears Tommy's pitch for the sitcom "Just Us" (as in "justice") about a black female judge who, with her husband, takes in a parentless teen-ager.

The sitcom gets on the air, and Tommy soon finds herself driving a BMW and living in a fancy home. But there's a price to be paid for success. Along the way, Tommy has compromised her vision, eventually becoming no better than the executive producer who once fired her.

"Dancing" gets a lot right about the TV industry, from the network honchos who fear risk ("I think you could sleep with 101 prostitutes without using a condom and have a better chance of survival than a black family drama," says one WPX exec) to the writers who willingly churn out the same old swill (WPX gets pitched "Chums," which is like "Friends," but set in Los Angeles).

Bythewood makes his directorial debut with "Dancing," and his lack of experience shows. Originally created for feature release, "Dancing" suffers on TV. There are too few close-ups, too many static wide shots and one annoyingly long sequence where the foreground is out of focus and only a reflection from a mirror in the background is clear.

Bythewood's Hollywood experiences -- he wrote for "A Different World" and "New York Undercover" -- serves him well in getting the details of the TV business right. But reality isn't enough for Bythewood, and he sends "Dancing" to a place that's as ridiculous as that pitch for "Chums."

Not content to depict the problems of Hollywood, the film also tries to point the finger at TV for violence in society. Though I'm sure TV instigates some real-life violence, in "Dancing" there are just too many coincidences.

In its last 20 minutes, "Dancing" reaches "over the top" status and then keeps going. It's as if Bythewood doesn't have faith in the concept of the film, that he thought it was too inside, so he shows how the filth that oozes out of Hollywood returns to hurt Hollywood.

That may be true, but in lumbering to its conclusion, "Dancing in September" takes its characters to unbelievable extremes.

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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