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To Live and Try in L.A.

Since becoming governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger has emphasized promoting California’s business climate, but so far the state’s most burgeoning industry appears to be the frenetic merry-go-round of sensational trials.

From Scott Peterson to Robert Blake, Michael Jackson to Phil Spector, the true growth sector has been in attorneys seeking exposure as cable-TV legal commentators as well as in coffee shops near courtrooms. (Journalists are notoriously cheap when it comes to spending their per diems.)

As the Jackson circus comes to town, Blake and Spector will be temporarily sidelined, but that doesn’t mean they can be ignored for long. Indeed, at times it’s as if L.A.’s TV and radio stations should revise their slogans, adopting something like “There’s more to life than trials, weather and sports; we just don’t have time for it” or “Give us 22 minutes, and we’ll put you on your way to a law degree.”

All this is particularly perplexing for those who live and work around the area, given the vision of local life conveyed to the rest of the world since O.J. Simpson’s trial a decade ago. Through the TV screen, everyone from Bakersfield to San Diego is simply an extra in the ongoing road show, a mix of red-carpet arrivals and sequestered juries, interrupted annually by the Rose Bowl.

Some residents actually embrace this peculiar side of Southern California life as a perk of living here. Take Vitello’s, the Italian restaurant situated near CBS’ Studio Center in Studio City, Calif., where Blake was a regular (there’s even a “Pasta à la Robert Blake” on the menu) and had dinner with his ex-wife shortly before her murder. Business is booming for the place, in a way I can’t remember despite having gone there for roughly 15 years.

In fact, the first time I went in for dinner after the murder took place, there was a 20-minute wait on a Thursday, hardly par for the course. Going in, I bumped into a comedy writer I knew and asked why he had come to the restaurant. “Well, Mezzaluna closed,” he quipped, referring to the Italian bistro that figured prominently in the Simpson case.

This flippancy isn’t to say these cases aren’t interesting or even newsworthy. Michael Jackson is an enormously recognizable and disturbing figure, perhaps the ultimate example of the eccentricity (he says politely) that early fame can inflict. He’s the reason all parents should think twice before they drag their kid to an audition.

Moreover, the relationship between the criminal- justice system and drama is hardly a new one, though these real-life cases are commanding so much attention that Law & Order might actually have to dream up stories instead of ripping them from the headlines. Then again, that series offers the catharsis of investigation, trial and verdict in an hour (or 44 minutes if you zap through the commercials), so it’s an efficient way to get one’s legal fix.

Still, watching the local and even national cable channels last week as they began to fill up with all things pertaining to the Gloved One (including a flurry of cable specials), it’s hard not to fret about what’s pushed to the margins. There’s a war in Iraq, last I checked, and a second-term Bush administration talking about bringing freedom to the globe and blowing up Social Security. The Democratic Party is in disarray, and tsunami victims are still sorting through the remnants of that mind-boggling disaster.

So what do we obsess about? Well, for a stretch last Monday, it was Wacko Jacko simultaneously on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. Even CNN’s Hannity & Colmes took a break from applauding the Bushies long enough to chime in.

To put this in perspective, the big news this month from the largest city in the country’s most populous state boiled down to a courtroom rotisserie of Jackson, Blake and Spector, along with what (or in fashion parlance, “who”) Nicole Kidman will wear on the red carpet.

Admittedly, the preoccupation with lifestyles and deathstyles of the rich and famous is hardly new, and it certainly has its place. Still, those who see this place as La-la-land—a dreamy world of artifice and make-believe, freeway-close to both Disneyland and Jackson’s Neverland estate—should remember that we all help keep this warped image alive, as we stare collectively into the media haze and can’t stop inhaling the fumes.