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Feel-good 'Random' has deliberate impact

Between ''My Name Is Earl" and the new feel-good reality series ''Random 1," TV has a rising sub-genre. With its scruffy, B.O.-scented angels, call it ''Touched by a Slacker" programming.

How many conversations have you had, or overheard, about the passivity of today's youth? As the argument goes, and has gone since the 1960s, kids feel helpless because of too many global problems and media overload, or they're just tube-numbed narcissists. A&E's ''Random 1," which premieres tonight at 10, tries to put the lie to these epic generalizations. Its guerilla team of young, unwashed Robin Hoods swoop into a city, commit a random act of kindness, and move on. They're not political activists, but they are clearly trying to change the world, one life at a time.

Fitness guru Andre Miller and documentary filmmaker John Chester are the two chief members of the Random 1 organization, which they began in the mid-1990s. Initially, the two men helped strangers on their days off; eventually, they began filming their adventures and expanding their team, until they got a production deal from A&E this year.

Now they focus on the street work, literally approaching strangers to inquire after their dreams, while another three Random 1 workers do the phone work while sitting in a donated RV. Tonight, Andre and John meet Bruce, a homeless beggar in Baltimore, and hear about how a new artificial leg -- which he estimates will cost $22, 000 -- could help turn his life around. They feel his plight, and quickly phone the RV. The RV folks immediately begin begging organizations that manufacture prosthetics for help, while they also fish around to find Bruce a job in construction. They're like an MTV ''Road Rules" cast, but without the bathing suits and face-slapping.

There is some bickering among the Random 1-ers, as they stress over getting their jobs done. Most of the footage tracks Andre and John and their current ''victim," and we get to see the two friends pick at each other while they try to do good. Andre is a theatrical, touchy-feely guy who likes to hug those he's helping. He carries a bag filled with symbolic props, including a boomerang. John is more cynical and grumpy, but remarkably effective. They push each other's buttons, forming a little subplot-like repartee; but they never lose their focus.

It's an old TV convention for men in suits to help sad sacks become ''Queen for a Day," or for Amy Grant of ''Three Wishes" or Oprah Winfrey to shed some of their glory on the nation's needy. With its unwashed heroes and its ramshackle filming techniques, ''Random 1" doesn't seem as grandiose and sanctimonious as those efforts. Nor does it appear to be as rooted in corporate PR (although clearly those who donate to Random 1 do expect a plug). It's a rough-hewn venture, with a narrative that doesn't always build to a rousing ''Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" finale. The episode denouements aren't unequivocal; Bruce, for example, still has a long way to go before his life improves -- if, indeed, he truly wants his life to improve.

Ultimately, ''Random 1" is a portrait of the giving spirit in action, not a fantasy show about happy endings.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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