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Seeing America through Californian issues

''In the beginning," wrote the political philosopher John Locke, ''all the world was America." And in the end, all America becomes California. The Golden State (linger over that name for a moment) is where regional present has long foretold national future.

So ''California and the American Dream," a four-part PBS documentary series, has both a rich subject to relate and a tall order to fill. And even if the order goes unfilled, some riches do emerge.

The first two parts of ''California and the American Dream" run tonight on Channel 2 at 9 p.m., the other two the following Friday at the same time.

Part one, ''California's 'Lost' Tribes," is the most successful segment. Focusing on Indian casinos, it folds together the state's origins -- although the Spanish named California, they weren't its first residents -- with an issue of up-to-the-minute relevance.

California has the most tribal casinos of any state. According to the series, out of 108 federally recognized tribes there, 53 have gambling operations. They take in $9 billion annually -- more than Las Vegas does. ''We've gone from poor drunk Indians to rich greedy Indians," says Brenda Souliere, tribal judge of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

Part of what makes ''California's 'Lost' Tribes" compelling is people like Souliere. The various tribal leaders interviewed are vivid and tough-minded. There's nothing reflexive or ideologically self-congratulatory in what they have to say -- not always the case with the academics and political activists who make up most of the talking heads in the other three parts.

Two exceptions are Sol Price, the founder of the Price Club chain of discount stores, and Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles union leader. Price figures prominently in part two, ''The Price of Renewal," which looks at a major private-public development effort in San Diego.

Price cries out for his own documentary -- as does Durazo, who lights up the screen every time she's on camera in part three, ''The New Los Angeles." By contrast, there's the onetime aide to Tom Bradley, the late mayor of Los Angeles, who describes ''the unrest of 1992," the aide's memorable term for the rioting that left more than 50 people dead, as ''a low point of the Bradley administration."

That comment suggests the degree of intellectual rigor in the episode, which examines the evolution of political power in LA from 1969, when incumbent mayor Sam Yorty race-baited his way to reelection against African-American challenger Bradley, to last year, when the city got its first Hispanic mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

The word ''community" comes to seem like a mantra in ''The New Los Angeles." In fact, it's heard more often in ''California and the American Dream" than ''island" is on ''Lost," albeit with nowhere near the specificity of meaning and rather more reverence. An air of public-policy piety informs the series. It gets to be almost as annoying as the chirpy soundtrack music, and it's not helped by the sour-starchy tones of narrator Linda Hunt.

Part four, ''Ripe for Change," looks at agriculture in California. More than half of all fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States come from the state. We may think of Hollywood or San Francisco as archetypally California, but the astonishing fecundity of the Central Valley is the state's heart, soul, and economic engine.

California agriculture is an enormous, and enormously important, subject -- but ''Ripe for Change" has a much narrower focus, preaching the goodness of organic food and family farming vs. the badness of pesticides and genetically engineered foods. Are the filmmakers right? Of course they are. But PBS is Whole Foods with pixels, and almost as superfluous as preaching to the choir is preaching to the kitchen.

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