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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 3, 2004

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


Naked in Smallville, Ladder 49, and Shark Tale

There's good news and bad news about the new television season.

The good news is that Boston Legal is a terrific show. Born of James Spader's and William Shatner's characters from the last season of The Practice, this series is writer David E. Kelley at his best.

The only surprise is that instead of Spader dominating the series, as we expected from last season, it's more truly an ensemble show. But that's potentially a very good thing.

The only quibble I had with the premiere episode is the plotline about the little black girl who was denied the lead in a Boston production of Annie because she didn't look like the comic strip character.

The fact is that American professional theatre is actually quite open to race-neutral casting. It's hard to imagine where in America a professional company would reject the best actor for a role just because she was black. In an era when Laurence Fishburne can play Henry II in A Lion in Winter and a black actress can play Madame Thenardier in Les Miz on Broadway, that plotline simply wouldn't happen.

But David E. Kelley is a television guy, where race-neutral casting is still considered too outre for the American audience.

The bad news is the wretched change that has happened in Smallville.

Here's a completely imaginary scene from an executive office at the network:

"The numbers on Smallville just aren't good enough."

"But it's building. Word of mouth. And the audience is so passionate."

"When you're getting a 2.5 'passionate' is nothing. Look what people are watching. Sex, my friend. Nudity. Sex it up."

"They're high school kids. It would be sick to make the audience pant after their bodies."

"Come on, you've already had plenty of implied sex."

"We've had sexual tension. That's part of high school. But it would be irresponsible to ..."

"You know what? Maybe we need to bring in different writers."

As I said, that scene is imaginary.

Maybe it was the writers' own idea.

Though this sort of thing does not happen without the network's agreement, and it's the kind of no-integrity show-wrecking decision that usually comes from "above," if one can use that geographic description to refer to whatever bottom feeder came up with this vile change in what was one of the few great series in the history of television.

The first two episodes of Smallville's fourth season were promoted by showing every bit of nudity and sexual innuendo, as if this were a piece of prurient soft-porn garbage. And when we watched the episodes and saw the juvenile, pointless way the nudity was used, it made me embarrassed for everybody connected with the show.

First of all, the nudity had nothing to do with the storyline. We had an overhead shot of Lana in bed, sleeping, and enough of the covers were off her that we could see she was naked. We saw silhouettes of people showering. We had an amnesiac Clark who randomly dropped a blanked off his shoulders for no reason whatsoever, just so some patient in a hospital could ogle him.

Second, it was false to the characters. For instance, when Clark was caught by his parents, wearing only a towel, with Lois in the bathroom with him, it would have taken the real Clark one second to say, "I didn't invite her in here and I told her to go, but she's such a jerk she has no respect for anyone's privacy."

Instead, a completely unbelievable misunderstanding was allowed to continue because the writers were oblivious to how damaging such falseness is in a series that depends on a fragile suspension of disbelief. The reason we bought the magic stuff about superpowers was that the characters were so real. But when you throw that away, what's left? Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Family Ties. Popular shows in their time, but nobody ever actually cared about the characters.

Third, this is a show aimed at young people -- it has an audience of teenagers with a strong showing among preteens. What exactly are they thinking, when they show a girl between her junior and senior year, going off alone to Paris and there having a relationship with a guy that includes a weekend in Nice?

Kids imitate what they see on TV. That's what we need -- more role models showing them that if they were really cool, they'd be having sex without reference to marriage. Because we don't have enough teenagers having sex in this country. We need to use Smallville to get those numbers up.

Fourth, even if the actors are over eighteen, the characters are not. So this show is now inviting the audience to ogle the bodies of putative teenagers and think of them with desire. After all, that's what soft porn is all about -- getting the audience to stop caring about the characters and instead want to have sex with them. Only ... given the ages of the characters, in effect it's child soft porn. And even if they were eighteen, it is still sickening to invite the audience to lust after characters we have cared about as human beings.

Fifth, the promos for this week's episode heavily promote what porn-site spam refers to as "girl on girl action." Yeah, that's so great for the ten-year-olds in the audience.

I should say, the ten-year-olds formerly in the audience. For the first time, we're having to keep ours from watching the show.

Why should the network care? "It's not your show," they might say. "It's our show, and we have a right to do what we want to get the ratings we need." Er, pardon me, "to achieve our artistic purpose as we see it." (Because whenever you try to market porn and stay respectable, you pretend it's about art.)

But it is our show. We took it into our lives and made it a part of us.

If somebody built a beautiful building that the whole neighborhood loved and took pride in and pointed out to their friends, and then the owner of the building pained it bright orange and posted nude pictures on it, they would find out that in fact their neighbors get a vote.

"But it's different from a building. You can change channels when it's a show on tv."

Exactly. Though presumably they weren't doing this to get us to switch channels, now, were they?

We cared about this show. This story was the best treatment of the Superman story ever. It wasn't losing money. It was something truly fine.

Now, while the nudity and sex go up, the writing is going downhill. The result is that unless they do a radical fix, right now, Smallville is over. It ended with the third season. And the series that is now airing under the same name is a cynical piece of junk.

That will break my heart.

*

I watched Ladder 49 with a good friend who has been a firefighter for seventeen years. We figured he could advise me on how accurately they handled the technical stuff.

And on that score, this is the best movie about fire, ever. Not that it's completely accurate. The fact is that in real fires, there's invariably so much smoke that you can't see three feet away. That's why it's not just a simple matter of rushing into a burning house, scanning for all the people there and getting them out. You can't see the people. You have to feel for them. Listen for them.

The thing is, you can't film that. A movie where you can't see anything? They call that "radio."

Even so, Ladder 49 did have one fire -- the one with the babysitter on the third floor -- where they actually made an effort to show the visibility problems in smoke. In other words, they did as good a job as a movie can do.

But my friend was most impressed with the nontechnical aspects of the movie. "They got what the life is," he said. "You live with these guys. They're your family."

And that's precisely the reason why even for someone like me, who never even wanted to be a fireman, this is a great movie.

That's not hyperbole. I mean it. I know People Magazine gave it only one-and-a-half stars, but that's because their reviewer is so jaded he's forgotten how to watch a movie like a human being. If you can watch this movie and not laugh, not cry, not care, then you better turn in your license as a member of the human race until you study up and requalify.

Joaquin Phoenix and Jacinda Barnett (who, incredibly enough, got her start on MTV's Real World in London in 1995) are absolutely, utterly real in this movie. It could so easily have been a soap opera between them. Instead it felt like a marriage.

The writing was wonderful. Lots of light-hearted moments, and the emotionally tough ones weren't milked, they were understated.

I never saw Backdraft because it looked from the promos like fakery and schmaltz to me. Maybe it was better than I expected. And maybe I wanted to see Ladder 49 because after 9/11, where whole companies of firefighters were wiped out as they tried to bring out the last few savable people from the World Trade Center, we realized that these guys are playing for keeps.

My firefighter friend told me that in his seventeen years, only one Greensboro firefighter has been killed on duty. But there have been many close calls, and many acts of astonishing heroism. Many prayers said by firefighters in smoke-filled, burning houses who have only seconds to find a person and get out.

We pay them to put their lives on the line in order to save ours. But it isn't for the money that they do it. Ladder 49 shows us what it's really about.

It's a great piece of filmmaking. It's a wonderful story. Don't miss the chance to see it on the big screen.

*

On the other hand, don't waste time on Shark Tale.

OK, if you have a kid, you were dragged there anyway, and it wasn't intolerable. I stayed awake. Our ten-year-old liked it fine -- though without much real enthusiasm.

And as an example of the animators' art, it's pretty darn good. The concept here was to make it a sort of fish-in-the-hood movie. The sharks are the mob, see, but the ordinary people are all black. They do hip-hop and rap, they have black moves.

Which could be really embarrassing if the animators got it wrong. But they don't. The lead fish, Oscar, looks like Will Smith and he's got the moves. The fish have great attitude.

And the sharks -- despite having a weird mix of Yiddish and Italian in their dialogue -- are genuinely funny as a parody of gangster movies.

So why was it so tedious to watch?

Because somewhere in there, they forgot to get a story. It takes half an hour just to get to the premise -- Oscar is present when a shark that's chasing him is killed by a falling anchor, but he claims to be a shark slayer, loves the fame, but then has to deal with the problem when more sharks come to town.

What do we have before that? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

In live action, they could have gotten away with it, because Will Smith is so darn charming. It worked for Bad Boys (and would have worked for Wild Wild West if they'd just given Smith more screen time).

But no matter how good the animation is, Will Smith is not on the screen.

Another problem is the level of realism.

Finding Nemo chose to make the fish very fishlike (for animation). They couldn't carry things. They swam everywhere. Their surroundings were genuinely reeflike. They might do humanish things like have school field trips, and, of course, they talked -- but the physical realities were largely adhered to.

Not all animation goes that route. For instance, Mickey Mouse might have big ears and a tail, but starting with Steamboat Willie, there was never a moment when he actually acted like a mouse. And that's a legitimate choice for a cartoon series.

Donald Duck never acts like a duck. Goofy never acts like a dog. Pluto, however, acts like a dog ... and they coexist in the same cartoon universe.

Shark Tale opted for the level of reality more or less like that of Bugs Bunny. He's an actual rabbit, and hunters want to shoot him, and he steals carrots from Elmer Fudd's garden. But he lives in a rabbit hole that is fully furnished and he walks on his hind legs and holds things in his hands.

But what drives the Bugs Bunny stories is the reality: The interface between hunter and hunted. The real world.

What drives Shark Tale has nothing to do with reality.

It doesn't help, either, that the movie tosses away its pretense to making sense in the effort to make a politically correct point at the end. The vegetarian shark Lenny (voiced by Jack Black) is in hiding, so he paints himself (underwater paint ... right) to look like a dolphin. It's a disguise, pure and simple.

But when he is forced out of disguise, from that moment on they treat it as if he were a cross-dresser -- as if it were something that he did because he preferred to pass as a dolphin. And suddenly we getting sermonettes about how his dad needs to learn to love his dolphin-dressing son, while we see the newly enlightened shark gangsters painting themselves to show how liberated they are.

I don't know about you, but I prefer my stories not to be hijacked by preachers slapping me in the head with an irrelevant moral at the end.

This was a movie about, first, how telling lies to make yourself look cool ends up hurting everybody, and about, second, a vegetarian shark's search for the approval of his father.

Wasn't that enough? No! They were afraid we were so stupid we might not get it that Lenny represented homosexuals' quest for acceptance: They had to ram the point home by throwing in cross-dressing at the end, even though it had nothing to do with the actual story.

But frankly, by that point you don't care. The movie was already so boring in the first half that by the end, you are grateful even for a politically correct moral because at least something is happening.


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