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On the Tube: There's nothing 'neat' about CBS reality show 'American Fighter Pilot'

Friday, March 29, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Some critics have sounded an alarm over military review and involvement in the production of several upcoming "reality" series. For CBS's "AFP: American Fighter Pilot" (8 tonight), that hand wringing is irrelevant because the show is virtually unwatchable.

There may be a decent documentary about pilot training buried somewhere beneath layers of sound and video effects, but it won't air tonight on CBS. Editing chores on this choppy program were apparently farmed out to CBS's sister network MTV, which never met two seconds of film it couldn't slice into nanosecond clips.

In "AFP," people's most inane statements sometimes echo and the words are displayed on screen. When a gray-haired classroom instructor tells the new class of fighter pilots they're going on "a really neat journey," his words get thrown up on screen for no good reason. The show's look, simply put, is repulsive.

Scrape away that gunk and the content is somewhat interesting, but not as "Top Gun"-exciting as CBS purports. "AFP" follows three fighter pilots through 110 days of training on the F-15 Eagle with the Air Force's 95th Fighter Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla.

CBS's clear favorite is the charismatic Lt. Todd Giggy, 24. With his penchant for Porsches, motorcycles and bleached hair, the older instructors view him as a cocky "seventh-grader in a flight suit." But Giggy flunks the simulator and comes off as more desperate than the hot-shot instructors describe. (The first two shows end with a cliffhanger involving Giggy, the second more serious than the first.)

Lt. Marcus Gregory, a 25-year-old churchgoing, expectant first-time father, is the shy guy in the group, preferring to spend time with his wife rather than toasting Mr. Bones, the 95th's mascot.

Experienced bomber pilot Lt. Mike Love, 28, is the flying veteran who seems destined for head of the class status.

Announcers try to make "AFP" sound like a reality show with talk of "one will be top gun," but there's no immunity idol or $1 million grand prize awaiting these flying aces. They're just vying for what's essentially valedictorian of their pilot training class.

Footage for "AFP" was shot independently sometime before Sept. 11 (CBS won't say when), with the network coming on board to make it into a TV series late in the game.

The second episode is less MTV-ish (the echo, mercifully, disappears), but the fliers go from not knowing how to turn on a plane to soaring high above with seemingly little instruction. Maybe that wouldn't have been great TV or maybe it would have breached national security, but "AFP" skimps on documentation of the pilots' training.

For those worried about the jingoism in "AFP," aside from clips of Sept. 11 and President Bush in the opening credits, the show is much more about boys and their toys than about flag waving.

'Jews & Christians: A Journey of Faith'
(4 p.m. Sunday on WQED/WQEX)

So often what divides religions makes headlines, but this thoughtful two-hour documentary does the opposite, exploring the similar teachings, rituals and beliefs of the two faiths.

It's not flashy and could stand to have section titles as it transitions into new topics, but this sincere program takes an even-handed, ecumenical approach.

Through interviews with scholars and religious leaders well versed in both religions, "Jews & Christians" reminds viewers that Jesus was a Jew and the two religions' different views of The Messiah. It seeks to give each group a better understanding of the other.

"Seventy percent of what one says about the other breaks the commandment 'Thou shall not bear false witness,' " says Dr. Krister Stendant, a professor at Harvard's Divinity school.

Others more theologically inclined than I will have to pass judgment on the accuracy of the program, but it makes a compelling case for similarities and differences between Yom Kippur and Ash Wednesday, Passover and Easter.

Based on the book "Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith" by Marvin Wilson, who also wrote much of this documentary, "Jews and Christians" goes on a little too long. Sections near the end on Catholic-Jewish educational programs, sensitivity training for Sunday School teachers and an interfaith encounter group are redundant.

But the program's intent is noble and its broadcast on Easter provides more religious nourishment than another viewing of "The Ten Commandments."

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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