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Column: What I learned from watching a 24-hour police pursuit channel

Column: What I learned from watching a 24-hour police pursuit channel

There are car chase fanatics, and then there’s me.

During high school, I suffered through weekend reruns of “Little House on the Prairie” and “M*A*S*H” in hopes that the stations would cut to a live police pursuit. In college, I wrote a term paper exploring their allure and even interviewed a man who charged a dollar a month to alert subscribers via beeper whenever one started.

When I earned enough money for a Sony Playstation in the mid-2000s, one of the first games I bought was “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” so I could live vicariously through my character as he crashed through blockades while blasting “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals. I live-tweeted real-life chases for years, à la ManningCast, and I still tune into KCAL-TV Channel 9 every night at home for their three-hour news block — just in case.

I’m a fan despite knowing I shouldn’t like them. Pursuits are a waste of police resources. Watching them encourages stations to air more of them, which encourages copycats. Too many end with innocent bystanders maimed or killed. And yet, like too many Southern Californians, I just can’t quit. Seeing someone flee the law at 90 miles per hour while caroming across crowded freeways taps into a Jungian desire to buck authority, channels the American love for the open road and offers a cheap adrenaline rush — all from the safety of our living rooms.

So I was excited when Pluto TV, a free streaming service best known for airing classics like “I Love Lucy,” “Dr. Who” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” debuted a 24-hour car chase channel last week. I left it on for an entire day, expecting to be endlessly entertained.

O.J. Simpson car chase

California Highway Patrol chase Al Cowlings, driving, and O.J. Simpson, hiding in rear of white Bronco on the 91 Freeway in 1994.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Car Chase — that’s the direct, if unimaginative, name for Pluto TV’s new channel — airs each pursuit from the first breaking news chyron to its inevitable end. Almost all first appeared over the past few years on Channel 2 and Channel 9, both owned by Pluto TV’s parent company, Paramount. Mundane commercials — cellphone games, Toyota, some prescription drug hawked by Queen Latifah — break up the pursuits, so that each feels like a play with acts.

The day I tuned in, I saw a stolen black pickup wheeze up the Sepulveda Pass. A big U-Haul barreled down the 91 Freeway in Anaheim. A woman made it all the way to Fallbrook. Most passed through the San Fernando Valley, that speedster paradise of long, straight highways and streets. The best one lasted all of two minutes, ending with a car skidding out of control and crashing into a building before the driver tried to make a run for it and got tackled by law enforcement officers. Nearly all happened at night and still had the timestamp, station logo and temperature of when it originally aired.

It was all as surprising as Old Faithful.

Newscasters and helicopter reporters offered the same pablum. No one ever got away at the end. This is what millions of people like myself have obsessed over for decades? The only attempt at anything original came during the commercial breaks, when an overly dramatic announcer offered boilerplate slogans: More from this car chase when we come back. Stand by, for more — Car Chase. Helicopter to base, we’re in the air with more Car Chase. We’re back up — over the Chase.

After sitting through hour after hour, I realized that watching people peel potatoes offers as much excitement — and there’s even more potential for blood.

You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all — yet you can’t turn away. I was so mesmerized by Car Chase that I forgot to watch the much-anticipated Monday Night Football matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles.

By hour 9, I realized that the siren call of police pursuits isn’t the possibility of violence or even escape, but rather how comforting they are. We’ve collectively seen so many televised police pursuits that they’re part of our Southern California experience, like beautiful sunsets and screeching green parrots. You can instantly summon the sound and look of a car chase in your mind. The din of the helicopter blades in the background as the chopper pilot-reporter offers his play-by-play. The hushed tones of the newscasters. The grainy, widescreen shots of the getaway vehicle and the cops who want to catch it.

In our increasingly fractured society, car chases are one of the last collective Southern Californian experiences. When there’s one going on, all of our problems take a break, if only for an hour. If there weren’t any more car chases, something would be terribly wrong. We stare on, even as we look away from the fact that the central characters are people in extremely troubled moments, risking their lives and those of others.

No wonder Pluto TV — whose nostalgia shtick is so thick that one of their channels is devoted to Ed Sullivan’s best musical and comedic guests — was the network that thought it up.

Police stand by an overturned vehicle.

The aftermath of a police pursuit in Echo Park in 2019. Three robbery suspects were killed and a fourth hospitalized in critical condition.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“Data and research show that car chases have been of huge interest to audiences for many years,” a Pluto TV spokesperson told me via email. The streamer has no plans to change what they’re doing right now but promised “we will continue to listen to our audiences” and tweak as needed.

On that note, Car Chase should dive into the vaults of KCAL and KCBS and pull out the classics. Like the time a guy stole a tank in San Diego County and was stopped only because he got stuck on a highway divider. O.J. Simpson in his Ford Bronco, of course. And remember when bank robbers threw dollar bills to cheering bystanders before finally getting arrested?

Group them by theme — motorcycles, RVs, funny endings — with appropriate soundtracks (“Yakety Sax,” for sure, but don’t forget “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”). Pull from Paramount’s collection of films with legendary car chases — “Mission Impossible,” “The Italian Job,” even “Grease.” And for crying out loud, bunch your commercials together at the start or finish of a car chase, the way public television thanks its sponsors. I don’t need the Charmin bears harshing my buzz.

Car Chase could be the Southern California scrapbook we didn’t know we needed.

Then again, maybe Pluto TV doesn’t need to change a single thing. My friend called at one point during my marathon. He’s a serious guy, a political strategist by trade. I had barely explained the channel’s premise before he interrupted me.

“Bro, sign me up. Where can I get it?”

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