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Sit Down, Culpeper, New TV Shows - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 29, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Sit Down, Culpeper, New TV Shows

Yeah, I enjoy football. I don't care about football, meaning that I haven't adopted a team the way people adopt NASCAR drivers. The only time I ever cared about an NFL team was Ditka's Bears; the only time I ever cared about a college football team was Jim McMahon's BYU team.

If you even know what I'm talking about, you're either old or seriously committed to football.

But I have friends who love football, and BYU was playing West Virginia in FedEx Stadium in Maryland, where the Redskins play. We invited some good friends and made the trip. We dined at a couple of very good restaurants, the night before and the night after the game, and our friends drove my wife home while I stayed an extra night at the Reston Hyatt to finish a tv script with an ironclad deadline.

My script sucked, and so did the football game. The food was great, though, so don't go feeling sorry for me.

OK, wait. I want you to feel sorry for me. Because I have learned that it's as pointless to attend a football game in order to watch it as it is to attend a rock or country concert in order to hear the music and watch the band.

This is because the word "seat" is just a relic of another era. You pay for a seat, and so does everybody else, but if at any point during the game you actually sit, you're the only one.

Even if the people in front of you are nice and try to stay seated, they can't, because the people in front of them are standing.

I can see leaping to your feet at an exciting moment, but come on. There were, like, two exciting moments in the whole game. People stood anyway.

In rock and country-music concerts, you have a lot of people who think they were invited to a sing-along, so besides the way-too-loud wall of sound coming from the stage, you also have alcohol-fueled karaoke all around you. It's no good asking drunks to pipe down. They don't know why you're even there, if you're not drinking and singing.

Sitting in the BYU section at a football game, though, removes all the alcohol. Not, however, the karaoke.

That's right. It's not singing karaoke, it's coaching karaoke. The guy behind me was actually pretty sharp -- most of his comments made sense -- but he was relatively quiet. The obnoxious screamers always had either stupid or obvious advice.

And most of their yelling consisted of, Go! Get it done! Go for it! Jam 'em up! Move that ball!

I'm sure the coaching staff on the sidelines must have heard these karaoke coaches yelling, because by golly, they went! They got it done! They went for it! They jammed 'em up! They moved that ball!

Or at least they tried.

I was astonished when my diehard sportsfan friend -- the guy who knows almost all the sports answers in Trivial Pursuit -- actually suggested we leave early. It was obvious that this was not a BYU team that was going to be able to roar back and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat like Jim McMahon's team in the Holiday Bowl against SMU many, many years go.

This was a BYU team led by a quarterback who was so nervous about injuries -- his college football career was shredded by injuries so many times that he was twenty-six -- that when he had to run the ball, he usually hit the ground long before any defender could get him.

Only in the second half, when he could feel BYU's experienced second-string quarterback breathing down his neck, did he make one spectacular move on a running play, and I saw why he got the job in the first place, back before his body started breaking.

But the only way BYU was going to win the game, even though the score was still kind of close, is if they brought out a completely new team that they'd been keeping hidden since the beginning.

There was no such team.

So we left. It was a long walk to where we were parked, because, physics and geometry being the way they are, it had been a long walk to the stadium.

We called ahead and checked. What is the nearest parking? Well, if it had been a Redskins game, we would have been darn lucky to get the space we paid $35 for. But it was not a Redskins game, so as we walked a mile and a half from the car to the stadium, we passed acres of empty stadium parking where we could have parked five hundred times over and then walked a hundred yards. Frustrating, because I'm not in great physical shape and walking in both directions was hard for me.

But in my life, whenever I've started a serious exercise and weight-loss program, it's been because something in the real world -- and not my will-power or good sense -- triggered me to get my body moving. Maybe that day of walking four miles was the beginning -- I'm trying to follow through.

Restaurant names: L'Auberge Chez Francois, the top Zagat-rated restaurant in the DC area, and it deserves that rating, for the food and the service. Rosa Mexicano in National Harbor (in Maryland just southeast of DC), where you find out what Mexican food was always supposed to taste like. (And at Rosa Mexicano, you can walk right down to a plaza that overlooks the statue "The Awakening," of a giant coming up out of the earth.)

I'm never going to another live football game, because with all the people standing constantly I couldn't even see the big screens behind the end zones. I've made the same vow about rock and country concerts, too, because why go to a musical event where you need earplugs to keep your eardrums from popping, and where the only experience you really have is with the drunks seated around you. I'm done.

Classical concerts, oratorios, plays -- you go to Hamilton and the audience stays seated so you can actually see what's happening. Theatre people and classical music people are just more civilized. And if people stood up at the movies the way they stand up at football games and pop concerts, you'd demand a refund.

*

I've driven US Highway 29 to and from northern Virginia so often I don't actually need a GPS except at Lynchburg, where the highways are designed to funnel you to Appomattox if you don't exit from 29 in order to stay on 29. You don't want to miss those exits.

Before they built some bypasses, I used to get a real view of Danville and Lynchburg. You also skip the old part of Charlottesville, but the commercial district north of town is now kind of amazing, though it's almost impossible to see from the road what any unfamiliar stores might actually be.

But you don't mind the bypasses because there are plenty of shops and gas stations and stores right along the road, and best of all, there's scenery. Much of the country is "horse country," meaning that instead of dense woods with thick underbrush, there are lots of open grassy areas and even where there are trees, you could usually thread your way through on horseback. Because the trees aren't a solid wall, you can see the lie of the land, the streams, the hills, the folds, the grazing animals, the picturesque farmhouses.

The most beautiful part of 29, besides the mountains before Charlottesville, is the horse country near Culpeper. There was a cavalry Battle of Culpeper Court House, as I recall, during the Civil War, but US 29 bypasses the whole town. And since I was always in a hurry, I was content not to see it.

Once I did stop at a wonderful little Amish-style furniture store where I special-ordered the two beautiful all-wood gliders in our living room; but I won't review that store now because, like most things I love, it was out of business within the year.

Going home on Monday, though, I had a little time and I took one of the exits and drifted on through Culpeper. It's a charming old-fashioned downtown, and most of the buildings are occupied. Only one of the stores, though, induced me to stop my car, get out, and buy stuff: It was the Shenandoah Garden Spot, a florist/garden shop/decorator place that looks absolutely spectacular from the street.

They had the most gorgeous outdoor display I've ever seen at a garden shop or florist. I hope the Rhino has room to run the picture I took, even though the picture doesn't really do it justice. It was so perfectly emblematic of everything I love about autumn that I had no choice but to pull in.

Then I saw the crazy, gnarly, twisted, bumpy, ugly, beautiful gourds they had on a display table outside and I was in love.

I know, gourds are useless. But their colors say autumn, and the twisted gnarliness says Halloween, so ... nuff said. They're home now and my wife hasn't tossed out the gourds yet, even though one of them did have a spider on it when we got it into the kitchen.

The Shenandoah Garden Spot is at 410 South Main in Culpeper. Since anyone who knows anything knows that the fastest way to downtown DC from Greensboro is US 29 (I-85/I-95 not only have tolls and ugly scenery, they add an hour to the trip), I urge you to allow yourself a few minutes just to drive through downtown Culpeper and remember -- or show your kids -- what America looked like before malls and WalMarts killed traditional downtowns.

*

This, right now, is the Golden Age of television, and even though I don't even try to keep up -- if a show's premise bores me, as with Breaking Bad and Orange Is the New Black, I don't watch just because everybody's touting it -- I have recently seen how more and more writers have mastered the medium of television and are doing extraordinarily good work.

Admittedly, even the best series go off the rails -- Prison Break, Heroes, Mr. Robot, they took away any reason for me to watch anything after season one -- but some series don't. Suits was heading for implosion over the issue of Mike being a fake lawyer, but they found a solution that worked as a story and I'm actually eager to see the next season this winter.

Even the best series can overdo some things. I started watching 24 in the third season and stopped after just a couple, because there's only so much fake torture I can watch, especially because the writers seemed to think that torture always worked -- which is nearly the opposite of the truth.

My point is, there are no guarantees. Even the best writers are inconsistent; they can go astray and take the series with them, leaving the audience behind.

But I sure hope the writers of Designated Survivor have their act together, because the season-opening episode was the best episode of anything, ever.

No, I'm not going to compare it to payoff episodes, where the audience has already followed the characters for years. This is the first episode; we have no investment; everything has to happen right now in ways that make us care.

The "designated survivor" is a real thing. The State of the Union address is usually attended by the entire membership of Congress, the President, the Vice-President, and every member of the cabinet.

In such a case, a well-placed terrorist attack or missile launch could completely behead the American government.

Remember when Reagan got shot, and we had the spectacle of Alexander Haig, on camera, saying "I'm in control here"? The media, always quick to "fact check" Republicans -- especially Republicans with a military background -- had a field day pointing out that as Secretary of State, Haig had zero authority to take charge -- the Constitution provided for the Vice-President to step in.

The trouble was, Vice President George Bush was en route, Reagan was in an ambulance, and this would be the perfect time for the Soviet Union -- then very much an aggressive force in the world -- to make a bold, World-War-III causing move.

Haig hadn't taken charge of the country -- far from it. All he was doing was assuring our allies and our enemies that somebody was in the White House, completely prepared to take whatever steps were necessary to respond decisively to any adventurous actions. America had not been beheaded.

It might not have been good constitutional law, but it was excellent diplomacy, and that was Haig's job. (You remember: the Secretary of State used to be bold and decisive, back when we had a foreign policy.)

Because America's enemies are always alert to any sign of weakness.

That's just history. In Designated Survivor, Tom Kirkman is a dedicated public servant, head of one of the lesser cabinet departments. He has just been informed that the President will be firing him, however, the day after the State of the Union address, not because he was bad, but because it's time to shake things up or some such nonsense reason (meaning, in most cases, that somebody influential in the White House really hates him and has talked the President into it).

So here he is, knowing that he's about to lose his job, knowing that his wife is upset because she doesn't want to leave Washington -- she and the kids have a good life there -- and knowing that being named as the only cabinet member in the line of succession who is so unimportant that he is not needed at the State of the Union address is just rubbing salt in the wound.

Then the Capitol blows up and all of Congress, all of the cabinet, and the President and Vice-President are dead.

Tom Kirkman is president.

The Secret Service do their job. He is immediately rushed to the White House and placed in a hardened command center. He is given the oath of office. So far so good, except that he's terrified.

And instead of having Al Haig to rely on, Kirkman finds that he is dealing with a general who thinks he really is in charge. Iran has moved destroyers into the Strait of Hormuz, where they could disrupt the flow of oil to the US -- a big deal, as anyone affected by the brief disruption of the pipeline from Louisiana to North Carolina and Virginia can attest. The general is demanding that they take immediate military action -- and, in fact, if Iran really did interdict our flow of oil, that would be the only possible choice unless you really wanted to bring the U.S. to its knees.

However, Tom Kirkman -- who says, a bit sarcastically, that he has actually been paying attention in cabinet meetings all these years, so the world situation is not a complete mystery to him -- thinks that they need to give Iran a chance -- and a reason -- to back away. Which leads to a really great scene between Kirkman and the Iranian ambassador.

Because we're setting up a long-term series here, we hear treasonous talk from some people -- Kirkman is a danger to America and needs to be forcibly replaced, even if there's no constitutional way to do it. After all, America is one of the few democracies never to have had its government taken over in a military coup d'etat. South America, the Middle East, and most former colonies have suffered through many such events.

Personally, I question just how well American soldiers would obey even the joint chiefs of staff if they staged a coup. American officers are quite cynical about the quality of most of their commanders, and they'd rather arrest the Joint Chiefs in such a case than allow them to govern in place of the lawful executive branch. Their oath is to the constitution, and the soldiers I know really meant the words they said in that oath.

But of course in this episode such an idea was not put to the test. Yet.

Tom Kirkman has just been put in charge of a government whose every single member was appointed by and loyal to the dead President. Some of them even know, or heard rumors, that Kirkman had already been notified that he was fired. Did that constitute his actual firing? If so, he was not in the line of succession.

(Just so you know: Notifying someone he's going to be fired isn't firing him. In fact, it's iffy whether a president can fire anyone whose appointment was confirmed by the Senate -- Andrew Johnson was impeached over this very issue back in the 1860s. So Kirkman is absolutely in the line of succession. What matters, though, is how the people would respond to such news.)

The writing is excellent. So is the acting. Just like Dennis Haysbert or Morgan Freeman, Kiefer Sutherland is exactly the guy you would want to be in charge at such a moment -- especially because his character doesn't want, and never wanted, the job.

If the writing stays at this level, this series is going to last a long while.

But this first episode -- my gosh, what was the budget on this thing? It feels like a cast of thousands. There are several promising characters who are going to be working on the mystery of who bombed the Capitol and where they're going to strike next. Tom Kirkman and his family are obviously in great danger -- life is not going to return to normal, ever.

But Kirkman seems to have a moral compass, a sense of what is right for the country. He does what he needs to do, no matter how much he wishes he were not the one who had to do it.

And I get the feeling that as the season goes on, Kirkman is going to realize that if he resigned, the people who would take power would be the worst bunch of clowns ever to have control of a country. Yet he cannot move openly against them because they have alliances deep in every part of the government.

Whom can Tom Kirkman trust?

I hope we have years to find out.

I have not been this enthusiastic about a series' first episode ever. Please watch this show. I don't know what I'll do if it's canceled before we find out everything.

*

The TV series Bull won't be on for very long, so if you want to see what Michael Weatherly did straight out of NCIS, hurry up and watch it.

Then you, too, will see how a good premise and good actors can still be wrecked by really bad writing decisions.

Not bad writing, just bad decisions by writers. Not the same thing at all.

The premise is that Jason Bull (Weatherly) is a jury consultant. No, the juries don't ask him for advice; defense attorneys hire him to tell them how to work the juries so they get a favorable verdict.

This idea was handled brilliantly in the 2003 John Cusack/Gene Hackman film The Runaway Jury, based on a John Grisham novel. Hackman's legal team is trying to manipulate the jury, but they find they're dealing with an opposing jury expert who's got two things going for him: He's every bit as smart as their experts, and he's actually on the jury.

We watched as Cusack's character really worked over that jury from the inside. It was extravagant bushwa, but it was great fun because we believed it all. And why did we believe it? Because we saw it all and understood what it meant every step of the way.

The writers of Bull chose the opposite strategy. Instead of showing us everything, they show us almost nothing. We just have Michael Weatherly looking smug and superior while he makes weird predictions based on, as far as we know, either intuition or a Ouija Board.

We don't see any hint of the research they've done, we just see that Bull has the attorney he's working for ask a weird, unrelated question of every member of the jury.

After the fact, we're told what it was that Bull learned from the answers to that question. But it's really simplistic, and while, demographically speaking, people are fairly predictable in large numbers, juries aren't those large enough numbers. There are too many unknown variables, which is, after all, the point of Runaway Jury.

So the premise of Bull is that people on juries are completely predictable. (Naturally, later episodes will focus on the exceptions; but I'm betting that in every episode, what looks like an exception will turn out to be something that Bull understands completely, once he has the necessary data. He'll never be wrong, because the character -- based on talk show host Dr. Phil's earlier career -- is never wrong.

The courtroom behavior of the attorneys is absurd -- it would be shocking if a real judge allowed some of the questions and other antics. The American audience has had years of listening, ever since Perry Mason, to various objections, so we know kind of a lot about what you can and can't do in a courtroom. In Bull, it's hard to believe that the objections aren't flying thick and fast.

(Of course, the single biggest fakery is that in real courtrooms, lawyers stay at their tables unless they're given permission to approach the witness or the jury, and then it isn't so they can be all folksy with them, it's to show them something.)

Most of the lawyers' questions needed to be met with the objection that the lawyer wasn't asking questions, he was testifying -- or browbeating, or bullying. It was as if no actual lawyer came anywhere near the show.

But the unforgivable sin is that we aren't made to care about anybody. Since premise of the show is that the trial isn't about justice, it's about getting the jury to give you the desired verdict, we don't ever invest in the outcome (whereas in Runaway Jury we cared a lot).

The "bad guy" here isn't the opposing attorney, it's the attorney working for the rich guy who also hired Bull. This attorney, ostensibly on Bull's side, is set up as a vain, jealous straw man. He is only slightly less incompetent than the stuttering attorney in My Cousin Vinny. He exists only for Bull to be smarter than.

I know the kind of pressure TV writers are under. They had to tell the whole story in 44 minutes, with cliffhangers at every commercial break; but they let go of the wrong thing. They gave us a lot of time watching Weatherly be smug (his default attitude), but almost no time making the trial believable or the outcome important.

When you have an actor like Weatherly, it's tempting to think, "He's sexy, he's got charisma, women love him, just put his face on the screen."

But no. Weatherly is a very delicate commodity. In NCIS we could enjoy his bratty-boy smirkiness because there were grown-up characters who would reign him in, and no one actor in NCIS is ever bigger than the story.

In Bull, nobody can put Jason Bull in his place. Nobody can show us what a grownup would do. And in that circumstance, our attitude toward the character changes. Oh, Weatherly is still charming, but his believability is cracked or broken in scene after scene, so that while his die-hard fans might think he's doing a wonderful job (and his fans are completely right, so keep your complaints to yourself, please), we become almost as resentful of Bull's smugness as the other characters are.

This is why Dabney Coleman's TV series failed -- he was always such an obnoxious character that it was hard to root for him. Weatherly isn't so obvious about playing obnoxious characters -- but he is. And by the end of episode one, I wanted the character to fail. That's not how you build a hit series.

*

Lethal Weapon the TV series actually sounds like a pretty good idea. You have two cops, one with a death wish, the other one yearning for a nice safe retirement.

Because he doesn't care whether he lives or dies, Martin Riggs takes insane chances -- and Roger Murtaugh keeps seeing his own funeral every time they end up in some crazy situation.

How could that not make for a great TV series?

Well, here's the problem. It's pretty hard to forget that Mel Gibson played Riggs in the movies, and Danny Glover played Murtaugh, and they're each one of a kind.

In the new Lethal Weapon TV series (tag line: "Good Cop, Crazy Good Cop"), Damon Wayans plays Murtaugh, and while he isn't as brilliant at pure exasperation as Danny Glover, he makes this version of Murtaugh his own.

Clayne Crawford as Martin Riggs, however, is a different story. He's a smart actor, because he isn't trying to imitate Mel Gibson's performance in the same role. And there's nothing wrong with Crawford's performance.

There's nothing wrong with the writing, either. The pilot episode was smart and even though it felt a little rushed compared to the movies, they have to do whatever they're doing in 44 minutes instead of 100.

But no matter what Crawford does, he's not Mel Gibson.

Nobody else is Mel Gibson, either, though Tom Hardy showed, in Mad Max: Fury Road, how you make people forget Mel Gibson: You focus like a laser on the task at hand. No quivering eyes. No soulful looks.

Right from the first time we saw Mel Gibson in Road Warrior, we knew he had "it" -- charisma, sex appeal, whatever it is that makes it so we can't take our eyes off a performer.

Crawford tries to create the weird exuberant mix of despair and gallows humor that the script calls for, but like it or not, we keep comparing him with Gibson and, like almost every other actor would, in the same impossible situation, he falls short.

Here's what I think. If the writing stays good, we'll get used to Crawford. We'll stop looking for Mel Gibson. We'll start thinking, OK, this is the other Riggs. The one your wife doesn't wish she had married instead of you. And then this series can go on and be a long-running hit.

But if we can't get over Crawford's Not-Gibson-ness, then this show will peter out in a few weeks and too bad, because they did a darn good job.

*

So I'm talking about how brilliant Mel Gibson has always been as an actor, how unforgettable; and how smart he is as a director, even when I don't love the story he's telling.

Why hasn't he been on our screens lately?

OK, I didn't see The Expendables 3 so I didn't see him as Stonebanks -- in 2014. Mostly, though, since Apocalypto in 2006, Gibson has been consulting, advising, producing, and appearing in short films that nobody sees.

Under the radar. Because he doesn't want to poison any projects he cares about by bringing down the wrath of the whole Politically Correct Thought Police.

Mel Gibson's name was not used in the main promos on the poster for Hacksaw Ridge that I saw at the movie theater the other night. The poster led with: "From the director of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ."

Yes, that would be Mel Gibson. But his name only appears in that faint, jammed-together list at the bottom of the poster.

Why must we always forgive serious and criminal wrongdoing by leftists, yet never, never, never forgive politically incorrect words and opinions by equally or more-talented people of the center and the right?

Of course most decent people disagree with Mel Gibson opinions about, let's say, "the Jews." But surely he is still an unforgettably good actor and director. If he deserves perpetual punishment for getting drunk and saying mean and bigoted things, why does Hillary Clinton get a complete pass for criminal behavior and repeated perjuries?

This double standard of the Left is sickening. The only punishment for saying things that somebody disapproves of should be having people know you said those things, and letting them form their own opinion. It's one thing for regular people to decide whether they want to see any more Mel Gibson movies, and quite another thing for the media to forget he exists and the film industry to freeze him out or hide his name on the poster.

Well, we must give the film industry credit for this: If they think a bigot, outed by his own drunken mouth, can still make them money, they'll make the movie. They may hide his name -- once a huge box office draw -- in the fine print of the poster. But his movie got made, and you can bet that in the titles and credits of the actual movie Hacksaw Ridge, it won't be a secret who the director is.

Most of the people whose freedom or livelihood are crushed by the Taliban of the Left are not as famous as Mel Gibson, though. Once crushed, they pretty much stay crushed. Even if they beg for forgiveness, it never comes. Their obituaries, if they get written, will lead with the list of their sins against Correct Thought.

Funny. When I was a kid, that's one of the things they taught us about why America was better than the Communist countries: In America, you could speak your mind and still be a full citizen, while in the Soviet Union, you'd lose your job and because the government owned every business, you couldn't get another.

You'd have to live on the charity of your friends -- if the police didn't lock you up in an insane asylum because, of course, you'd have to be crazy not to agree with Marxist-Leninist dogma.

Now America is well on the way to becoming just like them. All, of course, in the name of tolerance.

Well, here's what I think about Mel Gibson. I disagree with his religious views and I really detest his attitude toward Jews. But his movies aren't a whit worse because we learned what he thought. He's a human being, one package wrapped up in a bag of skin. Maybe you don't like a few things in that bag. But unless he's committing actual crimes against other people, there's no reason to tear up that whole package just because it isn't perfect.

But there is a reason to call anti-semitism what it is, because a lot of people -- mostly leftist intellectuals -- are ready to consent to another Holocaust, unless we adamantly oppose the enemies of the Jews. This time, the Jews -- in and out of Israel -- must not stand alone.

So Mel Gibson can believe what he likes. The right response is not to silence him, or even to boycott his work so he loses his job; the right response is to answer him.

That's what America used to be, or tried to be, when I was a kid in the 1950s.

*

I like long layovers in Atlanta. That's partly because they've really tried to make the airport a place with lots of decent food and on-time departures. But it's the on-time departures that make me crazy, because they won't hold the plane for you even though they know you're in the airport rushing for your gate.

So when my flight into Atlanta lands before noon, I don't want to fly out until after two. That gives Delta an hour and forty-five minutes to screw everything up without making me miss my outgoing flight.

So I'm sauntering along in B terminal, heading for the train that will take me to A terminal. I get off the escalator just as "warning -- the doors are closing. They will not re-open" comes over the loudspeaker. (They do reopen, by the way. Slowly, but it's a safety thing.)

I could wait for the next train. They really do come along every three minutes. Also, back when I was healthier and thinner, I would occasionally run down the tunnel instead of taking the train, and never once was it faster to walk.

But I just got through walking a lot to get from my parking place to FedEx Stadium, and again around Reston Town Center, so hey: I'm walkin' man now!

That's why I found myself walking through the jungle.

No, I never needed a machete to clear the undergrowth. But above the noise of suitcase wheels clicketing along the slidewalks, you could hear jungle noises -- birds calling, mostly. The lighting looked as if it was filtered through many green leaves -- because it kinda was. There was a lovely fractal-seeming mosaic of cut-out leaf-edged pieces that interlocked in surprising ways. We were walking under the jungle canopy.

If there was a point to all this -- some theme or lesson -- I missed it. What I got from it was the pleasure of being in a public place where everything was made more enjoyable because somebody went to the effort of making something surprising and unusual (and pleasant) happen.

I don't know how long the leaf-canopy will stay up; I don't know if it's in any of the other tunnels. But I know it's installed between B and A, and if you aren't trying to make one of those ridiculous 45-minute connections, you might opt for a stroll in the forest.

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