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TV Reviews : Kids in Peril: From Uplifting to Appalling

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Of tonight’s two CBS specials about children in jeopardy, one is an unexpectedly uplifting 30-minute, commercial-free public service, the other a two-hour, voyeuristic wallow.

First up is Arnold Shapiro Productions’ “Break the Silence: Kids Against Child Abuse,” hosted by Jane Seymour. In it, young children talk about their experiences with physical abuse, sexual molestation and extreme neglect, then they tell how their lives got better. This is not a horror show; the goal is to let other children know that they “have the right to say no and to be safe.”

Created specifically for children in grades 3 to 8, with animated spots to help tell the real-life stories, the film uses language that is simple and non-threatening. Most reassuring of all, these four gallant young people, two boys and two girls, don’t come off as sad-eyed, pitiful poster children. They’re just kids whose lives got better after they brought a bad experience into the open. They want other children to know that they can do the same.

The next effort, “Before Your Eyes: Kristin Is Missing,” is a not-so-uplifting CBS News special.

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Yes, folks, no longer do you have to wait for real-life misery to become the TV movie of the week. Now you can watch family tragedy and dysfunction as it happens , thanks to alert news crews who can get wind of an actual tragedy, rush out to film its progress, then set it to mood music, add flashback montages and let the real people become actors in their own drama, with a close-up of every tear, every revelation.

Or, as the show repeatedly and portentously announces: “No actors, no re-creations. You’re watching the actual story unfold before your eyes.

The real story is two stories, one about the Coalters, a Michigan family searching for their naive, 14-year-old daughter who ran away with a 49-year-old trucker, and one revolving around the same trucker’s arrest for molesting his own young daughter. This “actual” story, however, directed by CBS News’ Jonathan Klein, shamelessly manipulates viewers until it feels more like sad fiction than fact.

The heavy-handed music--country singers crooning about love and broken hearts--shapes perception and bizarrely validates the confused adolescent runaway and the unsavory aging trucker as star-crossed lovers.

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The participants-turned-actors even read the commercial break teasers: “But nothing could have prepared us for the surprise that was waiting.”

By the time the sorry mess wraps up, with its voyeuristic taint, it’s difficult not to wonder what happens to reality when those involved are the willing stars of their own disaster movie and anguish is knowingly filtered through the lens of a camera.

* “Break the Silence: Kids Against Child Abuse,” tonight at 8; “Before Your Eyes: Kristin Is Missing,” on CBS Channel 2, tonight at 9, on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).


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