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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 buy.

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 are.

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 control.

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 today.

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 us.

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 Amy Brennaman.

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 the Left.

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 Moseley Braun.

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 of bicyclists.

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 ahead.

The trouble is, you don't have the authority to give me permission to break the law.

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."

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