It's a wonderful idea, turning people-watching into art or journalism. It's so wonderful that it's been tried over and over. And it fails, over and over. See Allen Funt's Candid Camera footage of people walking up and down the steps of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street. See any number of photo essays and newspaper stories. Somehow, those tiny epiphanies that can liven our souls when we walk down the street don't translate into film or onto the printed page.

The footage in "Paradox on 72nd Street," tonight at 10 on Channel 26, is probably as good as it's going to get in this genre. People fistfight, sleep in doorways, pull each other back from being hit by cars, pick over tomatoes, strut, glide, limp, sashay. It's, you know, life at 72nd and Broadway.

It would be a good-hearted and even fascinating failure if it weren't for the narration. Superimposed on these shots of American life booming along as usual is The Message: "Many thoughtful Americans look at our culture in despair," says Philip Slater, author of "Wealth and Addiction," "The Pursuit of Loneliness," and formerly head of the department of sociology at Brandeis University. "There's something wrong here." There's everything wrong here, the way he talks, in a tone of tolerant irony whose sanctimony is heightened by the background music of a marimba playing Bach. (Get it -- a low-rent pop instrument playing exquisite baroque music? The street meets the elite?)

"They say freedom of choice is an American right," Slater says, over film of a woman choosing tomatoes in a market. "I often wonder -- if I get the good one, who gets the bad one?"

No doubt Slater, if that's what he thinks about when he goes shopping.

There are less polemic comments from Lewis Thomas, author of "The Lives of a Cell." He points out that "It is in our genes to live together and to depend on each other," and that this conflict between individualism and the masses is a paradox. Slater, however, pushes on to say that "individualism leads to fascism."

Oh, come on now.

And why is it that this wedding of the despairing intellectual to the lives of ordinary folks is always aimed at Americans? Why doesn't Slater go to an intersection in France or Sweden or Paraguay or Upper Volta and start saying that they've "wandered onto a cliff -- a false step at this point could be permanent." Or, "It's time to move on before they become permanently disabled by the handicaps in themselves." Imagine him trying it in a show about Harlem or New Orleans!

Then again, we should probably accept this show as another facet of the American character -- Slater is in the tradition of puritan hellfire preaching that makes us feel good by making us feel bad.

Some of us.