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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 21, 2004

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


Burgers, a dying Practice, Deep Pockets, a songwriter's child, and Samurai Jack

I'd heard for a long time that Steak 'n' Shake had the best milkshake in Greensboro, but had never gotten around to trying the place.

On the outside it looks like any other free-standing fast-food joint, but inside, it's much closer to an old-style diner -- without the faux-fifties decor.

With waiters to bring food to your table, first-rate burgers with great flavor and no delusions of grandeur, and delicious milkshakes, it offered a meal as enjoyable as anything I've eaten at, say, Johnny Rockets or LA's Café 50's.

However, a deli it is not, which means that if you order a turkey sandwich, you won't be getting the quality of meat and cheese you get at Lox, Stock and Bagels (though it's a lot better than at the pseudo-deli Schlotzky's).

So when I'm next in the mood for a sit-down dinner at a burger house, I'll be at Steak 'n' Shake, just in front of Target and Bi-Lo on Lawndale.

*

It makes me wistful to watch my favorite actors from the original cast of The Practice work their way out of a job this season.

ABC already plans a spinoff starring the James Spader character, Alan Shore, who was introduced this season in a successful attempt to revive a show that had descended into the usual death-rattle of a series where the characters' relationships had become more important than the weekly mysteries.

At the beginning of this season, the four most annoying characters, played by Dylan McDermott, Kelli Williams, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Marla Sokoloff, were jettisoned at once. (They were not annoying because of the actors -- as usual, writer David E. Kelley had simply driven them to excesses of melodrama beyond the patience of an ever-larger portion of the audience.)

And even though James Spader's new character has been fascinating, with Spader himself a delight to watch (an actor of this caliber actually on a primetime network series?), we can already see Kelley's careless hand overwriting him beyond the bounds of credibility.

The death of a Kelley series is always visible even at its delightful beginning.

I'm looking forward to more of Spader's character next season. But I have to say that I already miss Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim, and Michael Badalucco as they take an ever-more-subservient role in the series they have served for so long.

I won't shed any tears for them -- they made a lot of money during the run of the show, and now that they're free of the weekly commitment, I expect to see them all in character parts in film and television over the years to come.

Still, Harris and Manheim especially are among the strongest, most talented, and least predictable actors ever to have been on the glowing box in our living rooms. As with Andre Braugher, whose star turn on Homicide: Life on the Street marked him as someone to look forward to watching, we can count on them to wring from every future role the last ounce of brilliance that the writing allows.

*

Last year, with Big Dig, Linda Barnes took her Carlotta Carlyle mystery series to new heights -- or perhaps I should say, new depths, given the topography.

With Deep Pockets, Barnes locks in her position as one of the foremost practitioners of middle-of-the-road, character-based mystery.

If you think of Dennis Lehane as staking out a position on the dark, bleeding edge of cruel and morally turbulent mystery, and Joan Hess as the epitome of the frothy and funny character mystery, you'll get a good idea of what you find in the vast middle ground: Robert B. Parker, Robert Crais, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and North Carolina's own Margaret Maron.

Michael Connelly leans toward the dark edge; Sharyn McCrumb toward the lighter side. But all of these are about characters, answering the abiding question of why people do the dreadful things we sometimes do -- and the equally inexplicable good things, too.

Barnes's sleuth, Carlotta Carlyle, is a former cop now working as a private investigator. Her personal life is a fascinating mess -- her childhood friend, Sam Gianelli, is now a fulltime mobster but still the only man who rules a place in her heart; her new love from the previous book just doesn't understand her, probably because she won't let him.

Meanwhile Carlotta deals with a "little sister" who shows signs of heading toward a love life as disastrous and self-defeating as Carlotta's own; the irony of her telling the girl that sleeping around is fine when you're thirty but very bad when you're fifteen is more telling than mere hypocrisy.

Fortunately, though, Barnes never lets the soap opera aspects of her stories take precedence over the crime-solving. In Deep Pockets, what begins as a fairly routine divorce investigation ("Catch him cheating so I can soak him for everything!") turns into a mess of corporate greed and dishonesty, sexual hijinks with quasi-therapeutic camouflage, and other biota floating on the cesspool of humans who have "transcended" civilization -- i.e., descended into barbarism.

I suppose I could have put it down. But I didn't want to.

*

Jonathan Schwartz's book All in Good Time is a memoir by the son of Arthur Schwartz, composer of such songs as "Dancing in the Dark" and "That's Entertainment."

Jonathan grew up surrounded by the stars of the music world in the late '40s and the '50s -- Judy Garland coming up to say good-night to him did not seem out of place. He also spent extended visits in the home of the Simons of Simon & Schuster, so he knew Carly Simon when she was a stammering kid in a musical family.

But amid this glamorous-from-the-outside upbringing, Jonathan was always burdened by the constant suspicion that he was excess baggage in his parents' lives. His mother's eventual fatal illness and his father's savagely painful colitis kept their son at the fringe of the family he grew up in; their idea of spending summer with him was to take him to camp and then ignore his pleas to be taken away so he could escape the persecution that beset him there for reasons owing as much to his father's sojourn in the same camp years before as to any action on Jonathan's part.

After his mother died, though, the real separation from his family began, when his stepmother, the actress Mary Grey, proved to be pathologically jealous and grimly determined to drive him out of the home and out of his father's life. The tragedy is to what degree her husband allowed her to succeed.

Amid the family tragedies, though, are delightful stories of young Jonathan's first ventures into broadcasting and performing -- the broadcasts coming out over an early-model baby monitor in his Manhattan apartment building, and the performances consisting of improvising on the piano Stravinsky-like accompaniments to standard songs.

Eventually, young Schwartz grew up to be an important musical arbiter as a disk jockey (he still announces and selects music on XM Radio) and also a performer of the Great American Songbook in the years before Michael Feinstein took the lead in keeping that great tradition alive in a world ruled by rock and rap.

There was, I'm afraid, more detail in this memoir than I wanted of the abusive language between Jonathan and his stepmother, and I was saddened by his account of being initiated into the wonderful world of sex without love or honor.

The worst flaw of the book, however, comes from the fact that Schwartz is a "literary" writer who doesn't understand why his critically praised novels found few readers. This memoir contains the full answer, as he often overwrites, making obscure what would be better clear, or pretentious what would be more credible if simply presented.

But these flaws don't erase the compelling honesty of the book, or of the fascinating life he has lived. Perhaps most illuminating is the way that the personal vices and foibles of very talented people are indulged by those around them for the sake of their talent -- but the talent does nothing to compensate for how miserable they make the people who most love and need them.

*

The videogame Samurai Jack comes out this week, easily the best of the games based on Cartoon Network series.

I'm no fan of the tv show, I fear -- I'm not even sure where the Cartoon Network is on cable (and don't write in to tell me, please; if I cared, I could find it easily enough).

And even though I've been a fan of the lead designer of the game ever since he pre-played computer games for me back when I reviewed them for various magazines, I can assure you without the slightest shred of bias that in Samurai Jack you get to do some moves that are cool enough for teenage players, as you move through some fascinating landscapes and meet unusually fun characters.

A lot of the humor in the game is definitely aimed at adults, so if you find yourself watching a younger family member play it, you won't be bored. In fact, you might just enjoy it enough to pick up the controller and play it yourself after the kids are in bed.


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