Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 17, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Akeelah, Networks, BrushPicks, SpringBoard
We really wanted to see Akeelah and the Bee when it was still in the theaters
this summer, but we were distracted by overhyped nonsense movies just often
enough that we missed our chance. So when we saw the DVD in Target the
other day, we bought it and watched it the very next night.
What a wonderful story! Akeelah is a 7th grade girl in a broken-down middle
school in South Central Los Angeles, but she has a mind like a sponge -- she
learns things so easily that she tries to conceal her excellence from the bullies
at school who like to beat up smart kids.
Almost against her will, she gets involved in a spelling bee and discovers that
she actually likes both the competition and the chance to be really good at
something. Her father, who died when she was six, used to play Scrabble with
her; words are something she uses to stay close to him in memory.
Her school principal finds her a coach -- a semi-retired UCLA professor with
problems of his own, who demands the best from her and gets it.
This is structured like a sports film -- a fictional one, so that it's not
necessarily about winning, but about people transforming each other's lives in
a good way. So deftly has writer/directly Doug Atchison created his story that
there are not just one but five relationships that become important to us in this
The most important one is Akeelah's relationship with her widowed mother
(played magnificently by Angela Bassett), a hospital worker who is struggling to
keep her family fed and sheltered while keeping her second son out of gang life.
She barely has time to notice Akeelah's brilliance, and at first resists what she
sees as a waste of time.
Then there's Dr. Larabee (a smoldering performance by Laurence Fishburne),
the coach who was once in the national spelling bee himself, who has his
problems of his own that Akeelah ends up helping him to heal.
Two of the kids she meets in competition are important to her. Javier Mendez
is a cheerful kid who placed thirteenth in the nationals the previous year. He
befriends her at once and includes her in his life -- which is in Woodland Hills,
a long, long bus ride away from South Central. J.R. Villarreal plays him with
such warmth and insouciance that we feel like we've made a friend.
Naturally, there has to be an arch-rival, a Chinese-American boy, Dylan Chiu
(Sean Michael), whose father drives him to the point where there is no joy in
competition for him. But this movie doesn't hate anybody: We watch as
Akeelah refuses to accept Chiu's disdain for her and insists on caring more
about him than she does about herself.
Akeelah's best friend (Sahara Garey), who pushed her into the competition,
feels shunted aside when Akeelah starts to hang out with new friends from the
But then there's Akeelah's relationship to her whole downtrodden community.
When Akeelah's victories in spelling bees become fodder for the local news, her
brother's gang-banger friends insist that he help her study. Her mother, her
friends, the postman, the erstwhile gang members -- all become a part of her
effort to learn five thousand new words on flash cards.
Amid this excellent cast, Keke Palmer, who plays Akeelah, shines forth as the
heart and root of the story. Her performance is absolutely unaffected and real;
what we see is genuine talent, not child-star chops; this girl is going to grow up
to be genuine Oscar-bait. And since all the children give superb performances,
we can also see Doug Atchison as one of those rare directors who can and
should work with children -- he brings out the best in all of them.
Naturally, with a mostly-black cast, this movie will be perceived as being aimed
at an African-American audience. But it is not. It is aimed at an audience of
people who believe that excellence is worth aspiring for and that it's a good
thing for people to seek and get help in achieving worthwhile goals. It's about
sportsmanship, and keeping the important things in life in perspective.
Which makes it sound almost like medicine, doesn't it? But it's not. It's a joy
to watch such a well-written, well-acted, well-made movie. So sensitive is the
director's touch that we never feel like we're being squeezed to wring emotion
from us. The whole thing feels real, and at the end, we're glad we spent time
with these good people.
A brief salute to Panera for their new "crispani" -- thin crust, delicately
flavored pizzas that are exactly what I wish pizza to be. If you're a hearty-crust, thick-toppings pizza eater, then no, this will not satisfy your cravings.
But for a delicious, light supper, crispani with a salad or bowl of soup is a new
favorite of mine.
Last week I renewed Lynn Flewelling's powerful fantasy trilogy, The Bone Doll's
Twin, Hidden Warrior, and The Oracle's Queen. I can't recommend this trilogy
highly enough, as entertainment and as literature (for mature readers -- think
of it as PG-13).
When I turned to her earlier work, however, I found that while her talent is
obvious in her first novel, Luck in the Shadows, she had not yet learned how to
structure a novel, and the roots of the story in fantasy role-playing games are a
bit more obvious. Not that I advise against this book and its sequels -- they're
still quite entertaining -- but it is in the later-written trilogy that we see her
achieve real mastery as a writer.
Having once had a tv series idea of mine picked up by the WB for a year or so,
before being dumped, I've had my taste of network pitch meetings and the
search for good shows. It's easy to get the impression from watching television
that the networks are headed by gangs of dolts, and good shows only get on
television by accident. Not so.
As a general rule, the people in charge of programming at the networks are
very, very smart. The trouble is that no matter how smart you are, nobody
knows which series are going to become instant hits with the public and which
are going to tank miserably.
That doesn't mean that it's nobody's fault when bad television comes on.
Everybody in television knows that it's a writer's medium -- while the public
comes to love the stars, the shows that succeed to so because the writing is
very good. Even the shows that the critics detest, but the public loves, have
excellent writing at their heart.
But writers are no better than network executives at knowing which shows will
be good -- or successful. We've seen many examples of writers who are
brilliantly talented but who have their own quirks that can drive their own
shows into oblivion. Glenn Gordon Caron, for instance, the brilliant series
creator behind Moonlighting and Medium, was the reason why Moonlighting was
so brilliant -- and why it died of self-cannibalism after only three seasons.
David E. Kelley, arguably the most brilliant writer in the history of television,
responsible for series like Doogie Howser, M.D., Picket Fences, Chicago Hope,
Ally McBeal, Boston Public, The Practice, and Boston Legal, still goes off on weird
tangents where he destroys the reality of his own series because he starts
having fun and forgets what the audience tunes in for.
So it's not as if the networks could turn programming over to the writers and
have any better luck than they have now. Writing for television is one art;
choosing which shows to produce and put on is another. And nobody is
perfect at either of them.
For a brief course in how the whole system is hopelessly broken, I've never
seen a better book that Bill Carter's book Desperate Networks. In recent
years we've seen huge swings in programming prowess.
NBC, long a powerhouse with its must-see TV on Thursday nights, suddenly
crashed and burned. If they didn't have the Law and Order franchise, you
could buy the network for a nickel and still feel cheated.
Fox surged forward on the strength of "reality" shows, even though the network
was often embarrassed by just how low their reality programming went. Then
when we began to think of Fox as the junk network, they stick with 24 till the
ratings finally come, and pop up with creative hits like The O.C., Prison Break,
The WB carved out its niche of teenage-girl-oriented programming, while CBS
watched its news division dribble away into third place.
ABC, perpetually an also-ran, suddenly surged forward on the strength of Lost
and Desperate Housewives.
Each new hit seems to come out of nowhere (which often means the Brits did it
first), and then all the others imitate the original. American Idol hits, and then
everybody has to have a gimmicky talent show. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
hits, and suddenly quiz shows are popping up in prime time. Fox sells its soul
to the sleaziest possible reality shows, and soon the other networks sell their
souls, almost as cheaply.
Carter takes us inside the networks and production companies where we can
see how personalities drive what's happening. Conflicts between east-coast
and west-coast offices, ambitious climbers and paranoid bosses -- it's all there.
Now and then, however, you find programmers who do something very brave.
Desperate Housewives was the product of a has-been writer (i.e., he had
worked on Golden Girls and he was over 40), and it was turned down
everywhere before somebody at ABC finally saw it as a brilliant dark comedy.
Lost was the brainchild of a network executive, Lloyd Braun, who gave the idea
to J.J. Abrams to develop -- a perfect choice. Ironically, it was also Braun,
along with Susan Lyne, who gave the go-ahead to Desperate Housewives. This
marked the first time that Disney's over-controlling top execs had actually
allowed Braun and Lyne to make their own programming decisions -- and look
what they came up with!
But ... because this was network television ... both of them were fired as the
scapegoats for all the previous seasons, which they had not been able to pick
with a free hand, before Lost or Desperate Housewives could debut. In other
words, the people who got it right and put their network on top lost their jobs,
while boneheads who put on absolutely lame comedies and copycat dramas
The whole saga of the season makes fascinating reading, even when Carter's
talking about shows you don't watch. (I've never watched Desperate
Housewives -- somehow I think I'm not in their target demographic.)
Another angle on television show-making is Created By: Inside the Minds of
TV's Top Show Creators, by Steven Priggé. Most of the book consists of
interviews with showrunners -- the "executive producers" who are really the
head writers driving the hit shows.
Naturally, by the time this book got published, some of the "top shows" referred
to had been canceled, and there are some very hot writers who aren't
represented. But it's still a good sampling: J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), Yvette Lee
Bowser (Living Single), Mark Brazill (That '70s Show), Larry David (Seinfeld),
Tom Fontana (Oz), Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia), Brenda Hampton (7th
Heaven), Max Mutchnick and David Kohan (Will & Grace), Joseh Schwartz (The
O.C.), Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), and
Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly). And I even left some out.
The book is officially oriented toward would-be television writers, but on that
score, it often might lead to despair -- too many of them got their break
because they knew somebody. But lots of them simply wrote spec scripts and
submitted them, just to show how they could handle existing series characters;
they almost never got hired by the show the spec script was officially intended
for, but they got hired ... because they could write.
Even if you don't fancy yourself a future tv writer, though, it's fascinating to see
how these writers approach the shows they create. As consumers of television
shows, we benefit from knowing how they're made, and by whom, and what
they're thinking when they create them.
Since I've met with many a tv writer and network executive -- the good, the
bad, and the ugly -- I can tell you that wherever either of these books
intersects with things I know from personal experience, they get it exactly right.
That's enough for me to trust the rest of what they say.
When you wear braces, you think about your teeth a lot more often than usual.
One of the problems with braces is that flossing is a lot harder at precisely the
time when you need it more. But even if you don't have braces, there are times
when floss simply isn't appropriate -- but it's still driving you crazy that there's
something stuck in your teeth.
Enter Doctor's brand BrushPicks, a box of plastic toothpicks with ribbing on
one end and a teensy brush on the other. The brush end is perfect for flexing
and getting up under and behind wires; the ribbed-pick end slides between
teeth at the gum line and pushes through the shreds of Mongolian beef from
P.F. Chang's or picanha from Leblon or smoked chicken from Positano or veal
sausage from Café Pasta. Wonderful dishes all, but you don't want them in
your teeth through the whole movie.
Needless to say, the use of toothpicks can be unpleasant for others to watch.
Save it for the car or the darkened movie theater. But I don't go to restaurants
anymore without a box of BrushPicks in my pocket, and even at home, I find
that they're easier to use than floss.
The SpringBoard reading-and-writing program is mandatory for language
arts teachers in Guilford County seventh and eighth grades this year. The
slogan of the manufacturer, CollegeBoard, is "connect to college success." I
The program first came to my attention when my wife attended an open house
about it and heard that one of the assignments for seventh graders was to write
about "the worst thing that had ever happened to them." The teacher giving
the presentation talked about how she had chosen to write about the death of
her father when she was a child, and how cathartic it was to be able to pour
out her feelings on paper.
My wife and I both thought: That's great when you're forty years old, but what
about when you're twelve, and whatever you write is going to be read and
graded by a teacher -- and quite probably read by fellow students as well.
A program like that wouldn't be "reading and writing," it would be "group
therapy," and frankly, I don't think school's the place for it. Suppose a child
really was dealing with the death of a parent or sibling; what right would a
teacher have to demand that he or she write about it?
So we got our hands on a copy of the Level II teacher and student manuals to
see just what was going on.
To our relief, what's actually in the book is not as therapy-group-sounding as
the presentation had led us to believe. The actual assignment is to "think
about a childhood disaster (falling off a bike, breaking an arm, etc.) or perhaps
a memory they have of something in the past (preferably before they were eight
years old) that is very vivid." Not a bad writing assignment at all -- the student
still has the discretion to decide how intimate the self-revelation would be. It
could even be presented comically -- always the safest choice, especially for
I looked through the entire program and, while not impressed, I wasn't
dismayed, either. I could imagine a relatively harmless course being taught
from this book.
There are some really awful missteps -- an utterly boring, pointless reading
selection called "Phaethon" which is discussed in conjunction with clips from
that classic film Cool Runnings, for instance -- let's make sure every seventh-grader in Guilford County has those masterpieces in their shared culture.
And much of what they teach kids about how to write is simply wrong -- but
it's wrong in the usual ways, so I don't know that this course would be worse
than what most English teachers do anyway.
The thing I don't understand is why anyone felt the need to make this mediocre
English course mandatory for all our middle school kids. The district monitors
to make sure that all the teachers are on schedule with it, four days a week --
which means that even the teachers who know how to teach a better course
than this -- which is most of them, I should hope -- are forced to use this
program and no other.
In other words, a good teacher is forced to do all of her real teaching in the
leftover time that isn't taken up by doing what the district mandates.
Weren't we trying to hire excellent teachers? Isn't that the single most
important thing we need in our schools? But how can you keep a first-rate
English teacher in our district if we force her to teach a second-rate course and
leave her precious little time to do the very thing she is trained to do?
What problem is the district trying to solve by imposing this program?
I have given presentations in many schools around America, usually sponsored
by English teachers, and never once has any English teacher ever said or
hinted that she wished somebody would just tell her how to teach a writing
course. They never whine about how they can't think of writing assignments
for their students and they just can't find good things to have their students
What I usually hear -- everywhere -- is that they wish the district would get off
their backs and let them spend their time doing what they love: helping kids
get excited about reading and writing. Most of them already know how to do a
better job than they're allowed to do.
Now, if there are a few English teachers who are really awful and dim-witted,
then by all means, provide SpringBoard as an optional, minimal guide for the
But how many years do you think a good teacher can spend making kids read
that miserable "Phaeton" story and doing the same mostly-unhelpful exercises
in order to make them slightly worse writers than they would naturally have
been, before the teacher gives up and moves on to another career?
I have a vision of some district employee in charge of curriculum development,
desperately trying to justify his or her higher-than-the-teachers salary, working
frantically for months or years to get the whole district to adopt the
SpringBoard program. Then this administrator can point with pride at how he
or she made a real difference in the education of children in Guilford County.
Meanwhile, the teachers bend a little lower in the yoke and plow on, trying to
salvage some means of giving a good education to the children.
We don't need more top-down mandates to improve our schools. We need more
classrooms where good teachers are free to inspire their students with love for
the subject matter they're offering.
We don't need to spend our money on highly-paid administrators who come up
with cool new programs. There are no programs that are remotely as good as
having good teachers in front of relatively small groups of students. We would
make a far greater improvement in our students' education if we fired
everybody involved with forcing the SpringBoard program on our middle
schools and used the money we used to pay them to hire a handful of English
Or ... here's a thought ... just spread that money around to the English
teachers we already have, and then get out of their way so they can teach the
literature they love and help their students love it too.