TV finally sees ‘green’ light, shifts programming into gear

Times Staff Writer

It was Earth Day on Sunday, the 38th since its inception and the first since “An Inconvenient Truth” -- last summer’s “Jaws” -- woke the country up to a new fear. Suddenly everything is “green,” if only green for a day. The word is that it’s not only easy being green, but fun, sexy, cool -- the always schizophrenic Vanity Fair magazine, ordinarily a bulwark of conspicuous consumption, has its second annual “green” issue on the stands, and although there is a certain cognitive dissonance here, like a Prius parked in the garage of a 275,000-square-foot mansion, the package does not negate the content.

Television came fashionably late to this party -- that is, it arrived when there were enough people already in the room that it would feel comfortable -- but you can hear the buzzwords there now (sustainability, footprint, carbon neutral). The coming weeks bring investigations of and reflections on the health of the Earth -- the interest is out there, and TV can’t help but be of its times.

The growing sense that the world is out of joint is not new. Back in the 1960s, when that sense was not new either, it was commonplace for members of the younger generation to declare that the older had handed them a lousy world and that they wanted nothing to do with it; they would invent a new one. “Summer of Love,” airing tonight on the PBS series “American Experience,” is an evocative if necessarily cursory 40th-anniversary look back to the defining moment of this split, as disputatiously lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. By the summer of 1968, with truncheons flying in the streets of Chicago, it was clear that love was not, as then formulated, the answer. The following year brought Charles Manson and Altamont and the charter members of the so-called Woodstock Generation leaving behind a field prophetically covered in garbage. Morphing into the Me Generation, they went on a decades-long spending bender that made their parents’ vaunted status-seeking look monkish. “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” went one awful motto of the age -- on TV, there was “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” barely palliated by later anguished yuppie dramas like “thirtysomething.”

A new cycle may be beginning. Donald Trump might not have yet outworn his welcome, but Vanity Fair Green pinup Robert Redford is the mogul of the hour. On Tuesday, Redford’s Sundance Channel initiated an eco-themed programming bloc -- an eco-bloc -- called “The Green,” built around the 13-episode series “Big Ideas for a Small Planet.” Possibly the best thing about “The Green” -- the definite article meant, I suppose, to bring to mind the village green -- is that review DVDs were sent out in recycled/recyclable jackets rather than in the usual plastic jewel cases or other slow-degrading, dead-end containers that clot the TV critic’s life.


“Big Ideas” focuses, subject by subject -- food, clothing, shelter etc. -- on eco-friendly entrepreneurs, businesses and business practices; it is slickly made and frequently inspiring. What it makes clear is that these wheels have been turning for awhile; there are already alternatives in place. And bamboo, apparently, is the new hemp.

The other component of “The Green” is a series of eco-themed documentary films. Tuesday night brings the especially bracing “Waste = Food,” a compelling if not particularly artful documentary from the Netherlands about architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, who together formulated the “Cradle to Cradle” protocol, which holds that everything man makes needs to be 100% reusable. McDonough and Braungart are already cultural heroes, and there is something tonic about listening to them speak. Their social vision is radical and yet not: They don’t want to eliminate capitalism, or consumerism, or make every man a king, an attitude that helps them get along both with captains of industry and the leaders of China. They just want to make things work in a clean and sensible way that protects or enhances the Earth and the lives of everything on it, and they have had some practical success in this regard, reinventing factories and products for Ford and Nike and Herman Miller. They see a world in which you can have your bling and compost it too.

Environmental-issues reporter and “The Green” co-host Simran Sethi, another Vanity Fair eco-pin-up, shows up as well on “The EcoZone Project,” a syndicated green-themed home-makeover series that premiered locally Saturday and will air at least once more, at noon May 12, on KCBS. Alongside interior designer John Bruce (“While You Were Out”), Ryan Sutter (a winner on “The Bachelorette”) and host Daisy Fuentes, Sethi helps remake celebrity homes; in the opening episode, Ron Livingstone (“Office Space”) gets solar-powered lights, low-water succulents and benches made from recycled wood. Just what sort of impact a syndicated quarterly series will have on anything at all isn’t really clear -- better it were a regular feature of HGTV or TLC -- but it’s not bad as a thing of its kind.

Solar power is the theme of “Saved by the Sun,” a “Nova” special airing at 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS. I have not seen it, but according to press materials it will cover solar’s “grand hopes, latest innovations, roiling controversies and practical realities.” So expect a little from this side of the debate and a little from that.

In any case, whatever comes to save us must come from someplace beyond politics, since politics responds more to the immediate concerns of particular constituencies (or sponsors) than long-term social needs. The failure of successive administrations to do anything but talk, or not, about the new weather patterns is the subject of the PBS “Frontline” documentary “Hot Politics” (9 p.m. Tuesday). It traces global warming from its first burst of publicity in 1988 -- thanks to outspoken NASA climatologist James Hansen -- through years of inaction by both parties, to a recent hearing in which representatives of DuPont, British Petroleum, General Electric and Alcoa ask legislators to please finally give them some guidelines. “We must know the rules of the road,” one pleads. Former Colorado Sen. Timothy E. Wirth, who originally brought Hansen before Congress, is the last voice you hear, declaring that the next president will have “not only a tremendous obligation but a wonderful opportunity to really change the future of the world.”

We shall see. Meanwhile, here’s an energy-saving suggestion: Only watch shows you really, really want to. Then turn that TV off! (And unplug it too, for additional savings.)