Unsafe on Any Sunday

SOS in America brings you fear lite.

Sandra Pinckney: stylized lite news

How—when things seemed so good such a short time ago—did we end up in these dust-bowl days of heat, suicide bombs, and financial scandals? You’ll get no answers on SOS in America, NBC’s syndicated study in mild, off-the-news alarmism. But after another week of terrible news, the low-impact exposés on SOS do offer a nice half-hourlong break.

On SOS, rumors of an Iraq-led apocalypse do not circulate; senators do not trade favors for wide-screen TVs; banks do not collude with fake companies. But neither does anyone pretend that everything’s fun and fine. Instead, the SOS team investigates the manageable, regional perils that define this country: speeding school buses, pets on drugs, gambling grannies. The show has been on for seven seasons, but such mad problems have recently become particularly soothing to contemplate.

On a mottled blue background spangled with stars, the letters S, O, and S undulate in a flaglike motion as the O turns light red, like a minor sore. The show’s rigid host, Sandra Pinckney, gives the overture to the show’s limited excitement. And viewers are then treated to an easy ride through minimally provocative service journalism—”investigative, consumer, and human-interest stories” in the language of infotainment.

On a recent episode, a reporter, clutching a miscellaneous gizmo from Brookstone, asked, “Could this simple kitchen tool be turned into something else?” Indeed it could. Before our eyes, the plastic item became a small serrated knife that—zoom in on a cantaloupe being slashed—could cause serious damage to “the jugular area,” according to a leather-clad Eastern European security expert, who warned of a “serious, raggedy cut.” Yikes. These jar openers are for sale in airports—right near the gates!

Next consider: Diabetics, who could easily pass out at any time, driving right alongside the rest of us. Also, have you ever really looked at your money? It could be counterfeit, cooked up in a criminal’s kitchen. Or what about your shredded documents—often they are still legible. And sweatshirts at thrift shops: What if your child gets one that still has a deadly drawstring, a detail that was outlawed years ago? And then, what if your own granny embezzled money to sustain her runaway passion for slot machines?

As the Cronkite-esque voice-over contends, “If it’s happening here, it could happen to you.”

But where is “here” on SOS in America? That’s the key to the show: location. SOS is an anthology—best of the hometown panickers—made up entirely of repackaged local news. Regional reporters who produce slightly scary stories with national interest—Heather Unruh at WCVB in Boston, say, or Jim Parsons at WTAE in Pittsburgh—get these stories picked up by SOS, where the pros embellish the segments with new graphics, bumpers, voice-overs, and teases; add an elegant host introduction; and finally dole out fleeting station credits. It’s a CFO’s fantasy: a bargain show in which local reporters get national exposure and NBC gets one cheap show.

Because it has virtually no original content, SOS is almost pure style. At the local level, news shows are made in the usual way, with field producers, writers, reporters, and shooters all tracking stories, playing gotcha, rushing to scenes. In contrast, SOS in America is the creation of designers, editors, and stylists. After Pinckney, SOS has only one producer and one director (presumably for Pinckney’s desk scenes), and then its credits go to a graphics director, a set designer, a graphic designer, a few editors, a lighting director, a technical director, a lighting operator, an engineer, a makeup person, a wardrobe person, and a hairstylist. No wonder the pride of SOS is its Look and Feel—the undulating letters, the geometric set, the whip sound that is used to separate one segment from the next.

But the razzle-dazzle that the SOS staff brings to the local low-res footage really stands out in the highway re-creations. SOS contains a surprisingly high rate of stories about drivers who are weary, bored, sick, dizzy, drunk, or insane. I can see why. These pieces offer prime opportunities for the high-placed graphics department to flaunt its best stoner eye-candy: artful, animated, Avid-edited, scratched, doubled, distressed imaginings of how the road looks to someone who’s about to swerve off it.

Each of these sequences is unique. Sometimes the screen is black with only a few bright slashes of light, suggestive of the curves of cars in an imminent collision. Other times a quick sequence is sepia and rocky, shot from a horrible angle, as if the viewer’s head were on the pedals, looking up at the bottom of the dashboard. Often the image goes double, then rights itself, then goes completely blurry. Color and black and white appear in alternation. The SOS graphic directors have gotten suspiciously adept at envisioning the mind of an impaired driver.

These lurching villain’s-eye re-creation techniques—without which all the sub-news shows would lose their drama—have grown so familiar to viewers (and have become such a hallmark of bad TV journalism) that it’s hard to remember that they still require imagination—and art. Here, SOS is in a class by itself. The SOS drunken-driving sequences are a kind of well-meaning, non-transgressive video art— perhaps the ultimate realization of the short-lived Italian aesthetic of F.T. Marinetti, for whom a speeding and eventually mangled car was the paradigm of modern beauty.

But SOS is not all art—or even kitsch. Its borrowed stories pulse with the very real drama of local news, in which voters, shoppers, motorists, pedestrians, and taxpayers fight and, yes, complain their way through the world that mystifies them. In New York, SOS is cut with ads for foamy baths and easy shaving—gentle scenes of water and skin with a take-me-away aura. At the sight of these ads, I lose the satisfying SOS feeling of being mildly alarmed; in its place, I get the bad feeling of being seduced away from reality. Olay’s soapy water makes me think of escapism. Which reminds me, almost as if I were watching the real news, that there is something to escape.