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Review: 'Steve Jobs -- One Last Thing' on PBS

November 2, 2011 |  1:56 pm

GettyImages_72959782The death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs on Oct. 5 was not unexpected, and PBS has his video obituary ready to air. "Steve Jobs -- One Last Thing," which premieres Wednesday night at 10, offers a decent enough survey of the ups and downs and ups of his career and of the products he helped create or understood how to sell. But in broad terms it won't tell you anything about Jobs you couldn't have just assumed -- that he was a brilliant, difficult person whom some people loved and other people did not -- and in narrower terms offers nothing that has not already been discussed at great length elsewhere. (There is a small bit of unseen interview footage, from 1994, that is getting promotional play -- the gist of it is, don't let other people define your life -- but it contains no revelations.) Network press releases call the show "unflinching," and it's true that  the hour is not given completely over to praising him, but all in all it is a brief for Jobs' Promethean importance and makes him look cooler than his critics even when his critics have a point.

Which is, of course, what Apple itself does: Their computers represent not the triumph of the nerds, but the continuing hegemony of the popular kids who look down on the nerds from above the roll of their expensive black turtlenecks. Although the Mac is the favored tool of design and film and music professionals, the PC -- cheaper, customizable, easy to upgrade -- is the people's computer. (The company's fortune is founded on those other machines, the iPod, iPhone, iPad, the must-have heralds of the post-computer world.) That Jobs' drive and Apple's drive -- the two elements being virtually synonymous at least since Jobs' return to the company 15 years ago -- to constantly improve the product supports a business model based on rapid planned obsolescence is really not so cool at all. (For the record, I am writing this on a PC, and I don't feel one whit less groovy for it. Of course I am also a person who has just used the word "groovy" in a sentence.)

Jobs' life unrolls here in a number of brief chapters variously titled "Misfit," "Whizz Kid," "Innovator," "Buddhist," "Tyrant," "Saviour" and, finally, "Genius." "Closest childhood friend" Bill Fernandez recalls how he midwifed the meeting between Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who designed the first Apple computer, and points out the more or less exact suburban-sidewalk spot where it happened. ("Fernandez," runs the narration, "had no idea at the time that the meeting between his two friends would change our world." Nor could he have had, unless he were psychic, or from the future.)  It is pleasant to imagine the man in a Mercedes as a boy on a bicycle, but apart from these sidelong glances there is almost nothing in "One Last Thing" about his life apart from work, and little about the forces that might have shaped him, beyond an abiding interest in Zen Buddhism and a calligraphy class he took at Reed College in Oregon. (Not to discount those influences -- Apple is as much as anything a kind of spiritual-aesthetic expression of graceful simplicity.)

 The documentary begins and ends with images of a grieving post-Jobs world -- "The news that Steve Jobs had finally logged out made headlines everywhere" -- young people weeping outside Apple stores, holding aloft iPads flickering with the memorial moving image of a lighted candle. (I mean it moves, though it is also moving.) If Jobs was less an inventor than an instigator of invention, he was neverthless the portal through which all Apple products had to pass on the way to market; everything took on his shape and his taste. He was the seal of approval on his brand, the guarantee of its quality, a computer mogul on the Disney model, one with his product.

Among the talking heads who look to have been enlisted especially for "One Last Thing" are designer Dean Hovey, who describes how he began to assemble the Apple mouse from cans of roll-on deodorant and a plastic butter dish; Ross Perot, a major investor in Jobs' NeXT computer company -- Jobs was exiled from Apple for more than a decade -- who praises his executive style; and Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith, who found that style less congenial. ("Steve's genius is to move when he has a good idea," he says. "I don't think they're necessarily his ideas to begin with.") Eddie Izzard represents the celebrity as consumer as big fan, and Black-Eyed Pea remembers having to ask what iTunes was. He knows now.

--Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Photo: Getty Images.