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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 31, 2004

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


Leaves, Lost, Halloween, Elantris

This is my favorite time of year in Greensboro. The autumn colors are even more beautiful than the dogwoods and crepe myrtles and azaleas in bloom.

And this year is especially colorful, with an almost infinite variety of yellows and golds and reds and purples. I even enjoy the leaves that line the streets like candy wrappers discarded from a thousand passing cars.

*

I kept hearing the Lost on ABC was the finest new series of the year, but since it came on opposite Smallville I didn't bother.

Then it finally dawned on me that we were not watching Smallville on Wednesday at 8, we were recording it on DVR and watching it when we wanted. We could do the same with Lost, couldn't we?

Besides, my daughter in LA was getting insistent. As if it were some kind of moral failing that I had not yet seen the show.

Well, my daughter was right. This is smart, deep writing -- the kind of thing that one doesn't see on TV very often.

It's the story of the survivors of an airplane crash. Stranded on a strange island, far off the course they should have been on, they still cling to the beach, hoping to be rescued.

Yet, being humans, they soon begin to form a tribe, coalescing around leaders who seem to offer some sense of direction. In that, it somewhat resembles Lord of the Flies, but with a little less pessimism.

There is also more than a hint of strangeness. There are bizarre healings and even more bizarre visions. A strange transmitter broadcasts a message in French. A marauding beast turns out to be an animal that could not possibly exist on a tropical island.

Each story follows a fascinating structure. On one level, it chronicles a single day in the survivors' lives -- how they work out their conflicts and struggle to meet their survival needs. Each episode is about the day following the previous one, so the show takes its time moving forward through the adventure.

Yet each episode also gives us the backstory of one of the characters, telling us of his or her life before the plane flight. A picture begins to emerge: The survivors were all people with deep unsatisfied needs, as if fate had brought them here together to transform them in some way.

The series works as an adventure and as a study in character. You can't stop watching; there's plenty of suspense. Yet we're also caught up in an exploration of the way people form and break bonds. And before long, there are characters we really love.

We've seen some of these actors before. Matthew Fox, who plays the doctor whom everyone looks to for leadership, was on Party of Five. (That show's stars have all had a pretty remarkable string of successes after the show ended.)

Dominic Monaghan, who plays the drug-addicted guitarist, will be familiar from his delightful turn as Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Most of the actors are new to a national audience -- but they are compelling and real. An especially difficult achievement is to have two characters who speak only Korean -- yes, complete with subtitles. Yet they are fully realized characters, with their own surprises and enigmas.

We've come a long way from Gilligan's Island, boys and girls. This is going to be one of the great shows in the history of television. Who knew that J.J. Abrams, the writer of the utterly empty formula flick Armageddon had something like this in him? Then again, he also wrote Regarding Henry, which was a pretty good movie about a character in transformation. So maybe Lost is a combination of the adventure of Armageddon and the self-discovery of Regarding Henry.

Or maybe it has to do with co-writer Jeffrey Lieber, who brought us the wonderful screenplay of Tuck Everlasting. Or maybe it's the series' third co-creator, Damon Lindelof, who came up through the school of TV writing relatively unscathed, or so it seems.

The trouble with starting the series now is -- how do you catch up?

The answer is: The writers are doing a good job of making each episode self-contained. Anything you need to know in order to follow the action in the current episode, you're shown; but they also do a good job of protecting the secrets of the previous episodes, so that you can still watch them with great pleasure, out of order.

You can get the gist of things on various websites -- ABC's website at http://abc.go.com/primetime/lost/ and a list of episodes at http://epguides.com/Lost/.

Meanwhile, as to that other Wednesday night show, the latest episode of Smallville was back to being about something other than naked teenagers. Have they got past some "heat up the sex" promotional campaign at the WB and gone back to making great television? Or was this clean-and-fascinating episode just an aberration? We shall see ...

*

Am I the only one, or has anybody else noticed that grocery stores seem to be running out of Halloween candy early? Our local Harris-Teeter was stripped of all but the nastiest Halloween candy by a week before. And when we needed an emergency restocking on Halloween Eve, after our church's trunk-or-treat party cleaned out an obscene amount of candy, all I could find was Christmas candy at the local Eckerd's.

Meanwhile, we really appreciated the availability of little tiny pumpkins with painting kits attached. We actually enjoyed painting faces and other things on the little guys every bit as much as carving the big ones.

Oh, and parents: You might want to teach your kids that it's bad form to ask for a second handful of candy. If somebody is running out and can only spare a couple of pieces for each visitor, it's not good manners to make them feel bad about it. Besides, greed is no more attractive in children than in adults.

And while we're at it, trick-or-treaters, if you're shaving or buying bras, you're too old. Parents of teenagers should have a Halloween party, but don't let your adult-size offspring go around taking candy that's meant for little children. It's fun to give sweets to cute little kids in their costumes. It's just irritating to have to give treats to "kids" who are bigger than I am and who often seem to be dressed up as "a greedy, lazy adolescent."

*

For those of you who are always on the lookout for excellent heroic fiction of the Robin Hobb and George R. R. Martin tradition -- heroism, intrigue, and inventive fantasy world creation -- I have good news.

For those who are sick of fantasy series that go on and on, never seeming to come nearer to an ending, I have even better news.

Elantris is the finest novel of fantasy to be written in many years. Brandon Sanderson has created a truly original world of magic and intrigue, and with the rigor of the best science fiction writers he has made it real at every level.

What makes this novel unforgettable, however, is the magnificent characters he has created. True heroes who, in the face of adversity, find strength they did not know they had, make mistakes from whose consequences they do not shrink, and sacrifice to save what is worth loving in their world.

Best of all, the story is complete. Oh, there's room for a sequel - and I hope there'll be one. But this does not feel like "volume 1," with all the important questions yet to be answered. Sanderson brings off an impossibly complicated resolution only a few pages from the end of the book, and you finish the book satisfied.

Sanderson writes within a moral universe where people are rarely sure who the good guys and the bad guys might turn out to be. But the difference between good and evil is clear even though it's subtle and sometimes hard to find.

It's rare for a fiction writer to have much understanding of how leadership works, how communities form, and how love really takes root in the human heart. Sanderson is astonishingly wise.

I'm glad I didn't write this book. I'm not the least bit envious. Because if I had written it, I wouldn't have had the pleasure of letting it unfold before me as this story did, in all its ugliness and beauty and excitement and pain.

Here's the bad news. This book doesn't come out until May of 2005. But in the spirit of movies that get hyped for many months prior to their release, I want you to be anticipating this one. It's worth the wait.


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