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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 26, 2003

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


Halloween, Great Harvest, Out of Time, DVR, and TV Shows

In these parlous times, Halloween just isn't what it was when I was a kid. In those days, I lived in a neighborhood with about a billion other baby-boom children, and we played in the street all through the summer, well into darkness on many a night.

So having a whole slew of kids wander around the neighborhood on Halloween was different only because we wore costumes and got candy. Our parents didn't go with us -- that would have been humiliating.

Because it was a scary time of year, we were full of stories about horrible people who preyed on little children on Halloween. Razor blades embedded in caramel apples. Poisoned Rice Krispie treats. After all, this was before Stephen King, so all we had to spook us were urban legends.

Eventually, though, adults lost their perspective and started believing all those legends. Parents began to insist that before their kids could eat any candy, the parents had to go over every bit of it. Anything that was homemade or unpackaged got thrown away.

Now you see very few children going out without their parents, and many of us hold "trunk-or-treating" parties in the church parking lot so that every piece of candy comes from someone we know and trust.

All this despite the fact that there has never, in all of history, been a recorded instance of somebody really poisoning candy or blading apples and giving them out to strangers. The only actual cases always turned out to be parents who victimized their own children in copycat crimes. Strangers never did any such thing.

So why did we believe such terrible stories? Why did we change our Halloween customs on the basis of rumors and legends?

I don't think it was really the urban legends that spooked us.

I think it's because the old-fashioned kind of neighborhood died when air-conditioning, color TV, videogames, hyper-organized kid sports, and insane levels of homework combined to move kids indoors or out of the neighborhood.

That plus the fact that as most moms moved into the workforce, nobody was home to supervise, to provide a haven for the kids with skinned knees or hurt feelings.

Eventually, most of us no longer knew our neighbors -- because our kids weren't out there on the street to draw us together. So in many neighborhoods, even the people a few doors down are strangers, and we aren't quite sure we can trust them.

So the great change isn't that we don't let our kids out at Halloween -- it's that you hardly see neighborhoods where kids play together in the streets at any time of year.

Except, ironically, in lower-income areas, where there's less air-conditioning and less room indoors for playing. Now and then I drive through such neighborhoods on a late afternoon or early evening errand, and as I look at the children playing games in the street and yards, I am almost overcome by a melancholy yearning for my own childhood. If only I could have provided such experiences for my kids.

Sometimes, progress costs too much.

More than it's worth? I don't know.

It's not as if I'm suddenly going to turn off the air conditioning, cancel the cable TV, and force everybody out of the house. What good would it do? The only people my only still-at-home kid could play with are passing joggers.

*

Years ago, when the Great Harvest Bread Company opened in Friendly Center, I was thrilled -- I knew the bakery's quality from their store in Orem, Utah.

But to my dismay, I found on several visits that the bread and rolls were soggy or doughy. Now, maybe that's because they were bagging them while still too hot, or -- my guess -- they were using a recipe designed for cooking at a higher elevation. A recipe that gives good results at 3500 feet (the elevation in Orem) is going to fall flat in Greensboro.

Recently, we gave Great Harvest another try, and whatever the problem was before, they've solved it. The quality is excellent, with lots of healthy and delicious choices. And since they give away a free slice of very hearty bread to each visitor, you can buy a loaf at noon and get your lunch thrown in for free.

*

Somehow September slipped away and most of October, too, before I had a chance to see Denzel Washington in Out of Time. Thus by the time my review comes out, this movie will probably be heading for the dollar theaters.

Even if you rent it on video, it'll be well worth seeing. As a thriller, the only thing that doesn't work is that the trailer to the film gave away so much of the plot that there's really only one twist left -- and it's not that much of a twist. While the storyline piles up plenty of complications, there are times when it pushes too hard.

So don't go to be shocked or surprised or "thrilled." (Does any "thriller" ever actually thrill anybody?)

Go instead to see Denzel Washington give a strong performance as a man who has always seen himself as a guardian of his small town, but now has to face the fact that for the best of motives, he has gotten himself into such deep trouble that he might well lose everything he ever valued.

The women in this movie are splendid -- Eva Mendes as the tough-cop almost-ex-wife, Sanaa Lathan as the high-school sweetheart who came back into his life as his marriage collapsed.

And John Billingsley darn near steals the movie as the beach-bum medical examiner who is the only one Washington's character can confide in.

*

As Time-Warner Cable subscribers, it's not as if we have any fierce loyalty to the company. But I've got to give them credit -- just when we're about to move to a new technology, they come up with something that meets our needs.

For instance, when dial-up internet connections were about to drive us insane, Time-Warner came up with their Road Runner cable modem service. I hear stories about cable modem systems elsewhere in the country that give sluggish service, but our experience with Road Runner has been excellent -- good speeds all the time, and prompt service whenever there's a problem.

And because we no longer needed so many phone lines in order to allow several people to be online at once, the service ended up costing us very little above what we were already paying.

Now, just as I was about to buy TiVo, Time-Warner started offering DVR. With this digital package, the cable converter contains a hard drive that can record many hours of television at better-than-VHS quality. Not only that, but you can set it to always record certain shows, and even record two shows going on simultaneously (but that's the maximum -- and you can't record two and watch a third).

You do have to watch a show on a TV attached to the DVR box you used to record it, and all the recordings are temporary and can't be shared.

But that's only a slight inconvenience. Far more than with a VCR, our DVR has freed us from dependence on the TV's own schedule.

*

DVR came just in the nick of time, with Lyon's Den and The Practice running simultaneously on Sunday nights. Now we don't have to choose between them.

Though if I had to choose, I think I'd go with The Practice.

Lyon's Den has a good cast -- though Rob Lowe is surprisingly weak, I suppose because his character is that dullest of creatures, an earnest do-gooder. James Stewart used to be able to make such characters interesting, as did Kyle Chandler in Early Edition. But in this series, Chandler plays the bad guy -- at which he's not terribly effective. If only they could switch parts.

Meanwhile, though, Frances Fisher rules the screen on the rare occasions when they give her something to do, and David Krumholtz makes more of his part than the writers actually put there.

But that's the real problem with Lyon's Den -- the writing. It's as if the writers have studied Law and Order and L.A.Law and The Practice and tried to incorporate all the good bits -- without ever actually understanding what a story is.

So there are nice moments, and plotlines that show great promise, but then they'll toss in an empty scene in which there's lots of earnest dialogue that accomplishes exactly nothing except filling a few more minutes before the commercial.

If this series is going to survive, it will do it because they bring in a writer who knows how to create and sustain characters; until that happens, this excellent cast is being held back in a B+ effort when they're capable of doing A level work.

Meanwhile, just when I was about sick of The Practice, they went and made it great again. Shows written by David E. Kelley follow a predictable curve: Dazzling and innovative at first, within a couple of years, as Kelley gets tired of "the same old thing," they degenerate into a weird mixture of bad soap opera and ever-less-believable stunt plotting.

But when, in order to cut salaries to keep the show running, Kelley and ABC agreed to axe Dylan McDermott and Kelli Williams, it worked. While the actors were likeable enough, their characters had hit a brick wall, with nowhere interesting left to go.

With them gone, Steve Harris and Camryn Manheim, who were always the best actors in this show, get a chance to shine.

Of course, because life isn't fair, they still don't rule completely -- because the brilliant James Spader has been brought in to play one of the best characters Kelley ever created, a corner-cutting lawyer who sometimes seems completely self-serving and cynical, and other times brilliantly generous.

Unlike Lyon's Den, where good actors are miscast into parts that don't use their best talents, The Practice offers James Spader a part that is arguably even better than the role Kiefer Sutherland gets to play on 24.

*

Good as The Practice is, the one show I find that I must see is -- to my own surprise -- Judging Amy.

Amy Brenneman, the NYPD Blue graduate who created the series and plays the title character, is joined by an extraordinarily good cast and team of writers.

Tyne Daly, one of the best actors ever to work on television, plays her mother, a social worker who struggles to save children in jeopardy without treading on the rights and needs of their parents.

Kevin Rahm, sort of a James Spader lite, plays an engaging role as a substance-abusing doctor who really thinks he's cleaner than he is. And Richard T. Jones seems sometimes like the only grown-up character in the whole ensemble -- though there's plenty of fire burning in him, too.

Only one of the plotlines from last year got out of control -- the woman who awoke after a year-long coma to find her baby already a toddler who doesn't know her. Unfortunately, this storyline is being handled as if it were a leftover bit from Thirty-Something, with the result that the husband is always a well-meaning oaf and the wife is always prickly and self-obsessed. If I wanted to live in that world, I'd hang out with other writers.

Apart from that one lapse -- which, with luck, will soon be wrapped up and shut down -- there's simply no better domestic drama on television. And when you add to that the fact that it can cover plotlines from medical, legal, and police dramas, not to mention the best of the sitcoms, and what you've got here is a one-hour show that basically includes all of primetime television.


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