Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 21, 2003
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Gifts, television, comedy, traffic, and earphones
So Christmas is over for another year. Have you learned your lesson?
I'm speaking to you married couples who make a ridiculous pact that
you won't exchange gifts this year. "We can't afford it, and it just doesn't make
sense to spend a lot of money buying each other gifts. We'll just buy something
for the house or the whole family and that's it."
There are only a few outcomes of such a pact. Either both husband and
wife will keep the pact, or both will break it ... or one will keep it and the other
will break it.
But no matter what the outcome, nobody is happy. If both of you broke
it and exchanged gifts, then you both feel guilty, both about the gift you got
and the gift you gave.
If both of you kept the pact and did not exchange gifts, then both of you
felt let down and just a little bit unloved on Christmas, and the worst thing is
that you can't even tell the other person you hated this non-exchange of gift,
because it'll make you sound greedy. So you're both telling each other that it
was such a good idea not to exchange gifts, even though you're both lying
through your teeth.
The worst outcome, though, is when one person kept the pact and the
other broke it.
The person who kept the pact feels guilty because of not having loved the
other one too much to refrain from buying a gift, and angry because it was the
other spouse's perfidy that led to this guilt. And the person who broke the pact
feels guilty for having broken it -- and also hurt that the other person didn't
break it, too, and find some romantic or even practical gift that love made them
Remember this next year, please. If you can't afford expensive gifts, then
make a rule that any gift you exchange must be created by hand; or set an
absolute price ceiling and stick to it.
But no more of this nonsense about not exchanging gifts at all. As my
wife says, "Your spouse is the only member of your family you actually chose."
You can't choose your parents, your siblings, your kids, or even your in-laws.
But your spouse was your choice. So why should that be the one person in
your life for whom you won't buy a gift during the season of giving?
Of course, exchanging gifts doesn't mean that you'll be happy on
Christmas Day. Haven't we all known that awful moment when our spouse
opens the gift we bought and hesitates, just a moment, before putting on a fake
happy face and pretending to like it?
Few of them are heartless enough to say, "Well, apparently we must have
had an agreement this year to give each other only tasteless, useless gifts. Too
bad I didn't find out about it until I opened this present." But we know that's
what they're thinking.
That's because, between husband and wife, expectations are always too
high. After all, we know each other so well, right? And yet we remain
perpetual strangers, never quite sure what the other person's secret desires
Well, here's a clue. Don't keep your desires secret. Next year give your
loving spouse a list.
Not a hint. Hints are vile things, raising your hopes while giving your
spouse no help. Name a whole bunch of stuff that you'd enjoy. They might get
creative and buy something that wasn't on the list; they might go crazy and try
to buy the whole lot; but at least they had a chance to please the one they love.
The Year's Best on Television
Television serves several vital roles in our lives.
It's the primary means of disseminating the culture -- where we find out
how to be Americans.
It's the most powerful tool for influencing public opinion -- partly
because we often watch it without paying much attention, so our normal
ideological filters are often disengaged. In other words, it can change us
because we don't notice what's getting pumped into our brains.
It's also passive -- once it's on, it flows to us without our having to
expend any further effort. You can't do that with books and magazines, which
require active attention with every turn of a page, or even with movies, since
they make you leave the theater when the movie is over. So we can receive
content accidentally. How else to explain how many episodes of Murder, She
Wrote I've seen? I'm just too lazy to switch away from A&E.
Still, we're not forced to receive it passively or unintelligently. We can
actually seek out quality. And with an increasing number of ways to control
what's on, we can turn television into a positive contribution in our lives.
For instance, you can use TiVo or DVR or (the most difficult) the timed-recording powers of your VCR in order to view programs when you want to see
them. (Of course, many people are so passive they don't go to the trouble of
watching what they've recorded.)
You can rent or buy tapes or DVDs.
You can simply read TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly or the daily paper
to find out what's on, including special events or movies or syndicated series,
allowing you to select the best.
TV can only numb our brains if we're too lazy or inattentive to take
The irony is that we are living, right now, in a golden age of television.
The standards of TV writing have risen so high that some of the old "classics"
like I Love Lucy are almost unwatchably bad compared to what we routinely see
And yet often those badly written older shows are far preferable to
contemporary ones, because back in the old days, writers had to be clever
about their choice of language and their handling of sexual subjects. Thus we
have some of the best writing ever in a series like Sex and the City, and yet the
attitude toward sex and the raw language used to describe it can easily numb
us to outrageous crudity and make us think that self-destructive sexual
behavior is somehow normal.
After a few episodes of Sex and the City, despite the brilliance of the
writing and the charm of the performers, I'm ready for a nice healthy dose of
Andy of Mayberry or Leave It to Beaver or Dick Van Dyke or Mary Tyler Moore.
And you know what? There were a lot of pretty good stories to tell that never
required the use of crude language or sexual aberrance in order to entertain
So as 2003 draws to a close, here are the things I found on my television
that not only were excellent as art and entertainment, but also might have
made me at least a little bit better or smarter as a human being.
The best television show, period, is Judging Amy. The writing is
excellent -- maybe without the flash and dazzle of some shows, though it has
its share of stunts -- but what makes this such a noteworthy achievement is
the uniformly high quality of the acting.
Amy Brenneman and Tyne Daly, playing the two dominant roles in the
series, set the tone: the tossed-away zingers, the understatement, the
intelligence, the nuances, the outward veneer of cheerful civility, the absolute
lack of showiness. The result is that viewers are constantly taken by surprise
as humor and pathos sneak up on us; meanwhile, we see a reality of human
relationships that is rarely even attempted on series TV.
With a supporting cast that includes the notable Richard T. Jones as one
of the most dangerously mature men on television, and the well-meaning and
self-destructive character played by Kevin Rahm, along with many other
delightful characters, this show creates the best simulation of reality I've ever
seen on television, in this sense: Instead of being relentlessly about one
profession (Law and Order), or one profession plus a soap opera (The Practice),
Judging Amy is about a family whose members are struggling to do a decent job
in their careers and in their family lives.
Think about it -- a family in a show that isn't a sitcom.
It's no surprise, then, that the best actress in a series award goes to
The best actor in a series title goes to James Spader in The Practice,
as he breathes life into a complicated character. David Kelley has a way of
making his characters so contradictory and quirky that they become
predictable, and most actors resort to a sort of general spunkiness to make
them work -- but Spader is managing to make the character of shady lawyer
Alan Shore seem real and secretly decent without ever making him predictable
or playing him on one monotonous note (which is where some of the earlier
characters in The Practice met their demise).
Best sitcom? I love the sitcom form, and there are comedies I've followed
for years. But right now, the best we can say is that a handful of sitcoms have
charming characters so they remain watchable, despite the predictable (and
usually way too dirty to be funny) writing that seems to be the rule in
sitcomland right now.
Best thrill ride is the intense 24, in which the action and suspense are
so dominant that Kiefer Sutherland's formidable acting talents are only
occasionally used. In theory, it ought to be unbearable to have the events of a
single 24-hour period spread out across a season of television viewing -- but
the antidote is to buy the DVDs of each season and watch them all in a row.
Best TV movie series ever is the magnificent Horatio Hornblower
series on A&E. Though they have left the structure of the original C.S.
Forrester novels far behind, the writers of this series of two-hour films have
kept the spirit of adventure, heroism, and noble service that keeps us on the
edge of our seats, and yet teaches us to admire those who sacrifice in a cause
they believe is noble.
Production values are high; the ocean filming looks mostly real (because
it mostly is); and without bogging the story down in tedious explanations, you
get a decent grounding in the history of Britain's naval war against Napoleon.
You also get Ioan Gruffudd, probably the best good-looking actor or the
best-looking good actor every to appear on television, with supporting
performances by an ensemble that harks back to Far From the Madding Crowd
or A Man for All Seasons for the depth and intelligence of the casting.
This year's two entries, Loyalty and Duty, were made available on DVD
the day after they were first broadcast. If you have to choose between watching
one (or both!) of these movies and going to the movie theater, there have only
been a handful of weekends this year when the movie theater would have been
the better choice.
The best talk show award goes, as usual, to Jon Stewart on The Daily
Show on Comedy Central. With none of the smug neediness that Craig
Kilbourn had when he originated the show, Stewart is merely bratty and smart.
And, of course, politically correct. But he shows the occasional willingness, a
la Chris Rock, to surprise his audience by mocking one of the shibboleths of
Meanwhile, it has been sad to watch the steady deterioration of the late-night shows. Letterman shows signs of growing up, but perhaps it's too little,
too late; Leno just gets dumber and dumber as he reaches for the lowest
common denominator in American tastes. Even as Conan O'Brien finally
begins to look at ease on camera, the last vestiges of wit have been sacrificed to
repulsive stock characters and unfunny running gags.
It makes me wish for the days of Johnny Carson. With him off the air,
it's easy to forget that it was once possible to be funny and intelligent and kind
at the same time. If, like me, you miss Carson, you might check out the three-volume DVD set of The Ultimate Johnn Carson Collection. I've seen it at
Borders in town and on Amazon.com.
It's not the same thing as watching an entire Tonight Show -- you miss
seeing him converse with people (especially children), making something out of
nothing when he has to, and making great television when he has a good guest.
But you get some of the marvelous old sketches and bits, and it reminds us of
what a talk show could be.
The best political comics working today are Dennis Miller and Chris
Rock. Because they both jab at stupidity from every part of the political
spectrum, I have seen them both tagged as "conservative" by some
commentators, but they're not. They're truly middle-of-the-road snipers at the
idiocies of political life; I think they're funny and intelligent even when I
disagree with them. It breaks my heart that HBO dumped both their shows.
Above all, Miller and Rock are both honest, which is more than you can
say for the worst political comics working today: Michael Moore and Al
Franken. To his credit, Franken was once funny -- one thinks of Stuart
Smalley and of his bits as a one-man TV reporting team during the first Gulf
War. But today, both Franken and Moore loudly proclaim that their political
enemies are liars -- and both are quite willing to lie or misrepresent or distort
the facts in order to "prove" their point. Dishonesty might be a tiny bit
excusable if they were even slightly funny.
But they both gave up on funny long ago. Now they're just mean and
smug -- exactly like Rush Limbaugh, when he used to get laughs from his
audience of racist dittoheads just by putting up a picture of Senator Carol
The best standup comic working today is Jerry Seinfeld. If you're
lucky enough to catch him in a live show, you get a chance to see how great
comedy arises from a combination of good material, exquisite timing, and a
likeable personality. Now that Seinfeld has taken the plunge into family life, he
has opened up vast new subject matter -- and has discovered a warmth that
was never there in his TV series.
I can't possibly talk about the best movies of the year yet, because I
haven't seen Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Mystic River, the
former because it had not come out at the time I wrote this column, and the
latter because I was traveling too much when it first hit the theaters.
But I can tell you that Stuck on You, The Cat in the Hat, Elf, The League
of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hulk, and Piglet's Big Movie will not be on my list,
just in case there was any suspense about that.
About Lord of the Rings, though, I'm happy to report that the extended
version of The Two Towers includes several sequences that were sorely
missed in the original theatrical release -- most notably the orc-swallowing
trees after the battle of Helm's Deep -- and the way it expanded the role of
Eowyn was much appreciated, since I could look at that sweet-faced and
talented actress (Miranda Otto) all day.
Worst speed limit in Greensboro: 35 mph on Cotswald, the pass-through between Lake Brandt Road and Lawndale. This stretch of road has no
driveways, no cross streets, and no sharp curves. Since it begins and ends
with a traffic signal, I can understand why it isn't 55. But couldn't it at least
be 45 mph?
Second worst speed limit: 35 mph on Cone Blvd, between St. Regis and
Church. No driveways open onto this stretch of boulevard, and turn lanes and
good visibility make unexpected stops unlikely. It's ludicrous to have the same
speed limit here as we have on narrow residential roads with lots of driveways
and a high likelihood of kids on bikes appearing out of nowhere.
Most badly designed traffic flow: The whole commercial complex on
West Wendover. Because the same road has to bear the burden of most of the
traffic between Greensboro and High Point and the heavy local commercial
traffic between I-40 and Bridford Parkway, driving there is always a nightmare.
Where are the frontage roads that should take us easily from store to
store without forcing us back onto Wendover? And where are the traffic lights
on Bridford to allow shoppers to rejoin the outside world without getting pasted
by speeding traffic from north or south?
Worst shame in road design: The lack of sidewalks, crosswalks, and
walk signals throughout the city. It's as if Greensboro wanted to kill off its
pedestrians as if they were a dangerous disease. We won't even talk about
what the lack of reasonable shoulders on the road does to the survival chances
What Greensboro drivers most need to learn: The rules at a four-way
stop. They're not hard -- even California drivers master them.
1. Whoever got there and stopped first gets to start up and go first.
2. If two cars arrived at the same time, the car on the right goes first.
How do you know if you're the car on the right? Look to your right. If there's a
car there, you're not the one on the right. If there isn't, then you are.
3. If two cars face each other across a four-way stop, they can both go at
once, unless one of them is turning left, in which case that car waits for the car
that's going straight.
How hard is this, folks?
Most maddening habit of "nice" drivers: We're both stopped at a four-way stop. You have the right of way. But being "nice," you signal for me to go
The trouble is, you don't have the authority to give me permission to break
Think about that for a minute. If I actually do what you signal, but you
go ahead and do what the law gives you the right to do, and we collide, who do
you think will get cited? Me, of course -- even if you say that you signaled for
me to go ahead.
So instead of wasting my time with your unauthorized law-breaking
"niceness," why not just take the right of way that the law gives you, so that we
can all get on our way that much sooner.
In other words, follow the rules. You don't own the road; you aren't the
state legislature; you don't have the right to authorize exceptions.
Best noise-cancelling headphones: Bose. I've tried several others -- on
airplane flights and elsewhere -- and they all do about the same job when it
comes to canceling out low-pitched ambient noise.
But the Bose headphones completely enclose your ears, are marvelously
comfortable, and actually support your head if you fall asleep in an airplane
seat while listening to them.
Don't bother bringing them, though, if you're flying Alitalia. Apparently
this one airline hasn't got the message that not every electronic device causes
airplane navigation systems to go south. They won't let you use any electronic
device, period, through the entire duration of the flight. And they're rude about
telling you, since the Italian National Attitude of those in authority is "You
should already know."