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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 21, 2007

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


Ugly Idol, 24, Ticket to Ride, Games, Bonefish, and Snape

Another season of American Idol has begun, and once again I remember just how much I hate this show.

Later on in the season, there'll be another show by the same name, with the same judges -- but that one will be an honest talent show that I love to watch.

The show called American Idol that's running right now is a sad little freak show, where people with personality disorders that prevent them from seeing themselves as they really are attempt to fulfil their wild dreams of being somebody. Unfortunately, their personality disorders keep them from having friends who will tell them the truth and spare them the embarrassment of showing up at a talent show without talent.

But it's not the talentless ones that bother me. It's the ones who are clearly not playing with a full deck. And even then, I pity them, and wish that the people producing this show had even a spark of human decency, so that they would not expose them to public ridicule.

Worst of all is the contemptible behavior of the judges. I don't mind their being candid and sometimes brutally honest with people who have enough talent that you can see they might profit from it. I don't mind their honestly telling people with no talent at all that they should find another dream. That is almost kind, really.

But when they get viciously personal with people who are clearly not playing with a full deck, that's just out of line. When a very large girl with hideous red lips shows up -- accompanied by a mother with the exact same lipstick and body shape -- surely they should recognize that they are seeing a weird combination of heredity, environment, and a misguided desire by the mother to help boost her child's "self-esteem." The fact that the delusional girl has chosen not to wear a bra, so her enormous bosom is pendulous and appalling, should have been a further clue: Have pity on this girl, tell her that she has no talent, but don't be cruel. Instead, they laugh at her behind her back after she has left. Isn't there already enough pain in her life? Does she have to watch this on television? Don't they know how hard it will be for her ever to come out of her house again?

They tell the young man with large, wideset eyes, that he looks like a lemur. What exactly is he supposed to do about this? If he had a great voice, then his lemur eyes would become a bizarre selling point -- it wouldn't stop his career. The problem is that his voice isn't great, not that he looks strange. He can't do anything about those eyes, so what's the point of taunting him about them?

The worst moment, for me, was when Randy lit into a vocal coach and, on national television, declared that he didn't deserve to have any students. The truth is that the guy merely made a bad choice of song -- he was bel canto and Broadway trained, and he should have chosen a song in one of those categories instead of the rock number that he chose.

But his voice was good, and no doubt he's a good teacher, helping others develop their voices. That is, back when he had students. Instead, as punishment for the sin of trying out for American Idol, Randy decided he deserved to lose his livelihood.

It's true that anybody who auditions for American Idol should know that they are as likely to get past the early screeners and in front of the judges because they're comically awful as because they're competitively good. But the voice coach wasn't awful, he had talent and training and made one dumb mistake, his song choice; and the people with social and mental problems should be treated with compassion and kept off camera.

What they show us is as exactly as amusing as a quiz show making fun of retarded people, or a beauty pageant ridiculing ugly children, or a fashion show taunting poor people for the way they dress.

I think I'm going to stop watching this American Idol, and wait till they get the surviving contestants to Hollywood. Then American Idol will be a talent contest instead of a cruel carnival sideshow.

*

The new season of 24 began with a bang -- literally. It takes amazing writers to set up personal stories so powerful that when a nuclear bomb goes off in LA, it feels almost anti-climactic.

If ever there has been a television show about impossible moral choices, it's this one. Time after time, characters -- not just the hero, Jack, but many different people -- are faced with choices where nothing they do is right. They just have to choose what seems best at the time.

There's the father who actually commits a murder and delivers a key component to the people with the nuclear bomb, just on the chance that his wife and son won't be murdered by the terrorist holding them hostage. Yet he had to know that once he had completed his assignment, there was zero chance that they would be left alive -- these were terrorists whose whole purpose is to kill American civilians!

Still, faced with that choice, what would I do myself? I'd like to think that I'd recognize that I and my family were already dead, and therefore refuse to cooperate in any way, or deliberately disobey whatever instructions I was given. But I suspect my emotions would overcome my reason, and I'd act pretty much as he did.

I won't tell you about the terrible choices Jack Bauer faced, in case you haven't watched those episodes yet -- the nuke isn't a surprise anymore, people have been talking about it pretty openly in the media. I can only say that this is starting out as well as any episode of 24 ever has.

And even though the nuclear explosion felt like an afterthought, it was still so emotionally devastating that I woke up the next morning filled with an ineffable sadness, echoing what I felt the morning after the towers fell in New York City. I know 24 is just fiction -- but it's fiction about the kind of war we're fighting now, and about things that are not just possible, but, I greatly fear, likely.

Meanwhile, Smallville began the second half of their season with a lame little episode whose whole purpose was to bring together the Justice League. Ho hum. If you're a fan of the comic books, great, enjoy yourself. But those of us who are fans only of the TV series Smallville don't have any real emotional investment in these semi-interesting superheroes. We watch this show to see Clark Kent learn how to be a superhero and a human being at the same time; by flooding the screen with other superheroes, they diminish Clark while adding nothing in return.

So I hope they go back to what the series is actually about, and give these other guys whatever spinoff series they have planned for them.

Any episode in which Clark exists mostly so the other guys can rescue him from a room full of Kryptonite is a waste of our time.

*

We got so many games this Christmas that we haven't yet gotten halfway through them. But we've already discovered some that are worth playing over and over again.

For those of you who only have a couple of minutes, let me go straight to the big one: Ticket to Ride, from Days of Wonder. This is a railroad route-building game for up to five players -- which is perfect for us, when we have one other couple over for a game night and our twelve-year-old joins in.

The players draw randomly assigned routes across America, which they must "build" by assembling enough cards of the right color to buy a connection between cities. If you draw, for instance, the New York to LA route, you then have to buy six to ten different connecting lines, depending on which path you try to follow. Meanwhile, other players might be trying to buy some of the same connectors in order to assemble, say, a New Orleans to San Francisco route.

The game can stay in doubt right up to the end. Much depends on luck, but some smart planning is involved as well. But our twelve-year-old plays as well as any adult -- it really is a fun, competitive family game.

A good game for a larger group is Smart Mouth, from Think Fun (their slogan is "Everybody Plays"). There are no turns in this game, so there's no sitting and watching. Instead you have a little machine loaded with orange and green tiles showing randomly arranged letters. When you slide the machine back and forth like an old-fashioned credit-card imprinter, it leaves two tiles face up.

Then everybody tries to think of a word of at least five letters that begins with the letter on the left and ends with the letter on the right. This is harder than you might think, since our brains aren't organized by spelling, but rather by sound. Whoever gets the first valid word gets the tiles; when the machine runs out of tiles, then whoever has the most tiles wins.

We found that to keep the game competitive when it includes early readers -- or literary professionals -- you simply handicap players by word length. The early readers only have to come up with four-letter words. The professionals have to come up with words of at least six or seven letters. The result is a bit more balance so the same people don't win all the time. Whatever it takes to keep it competitive and fun!

Wits and Wagers is the trivia game that isn't. The questions are the worst kind of trivia -- answers are always numbers. How high, in feet, is the Aswan dam? That sort of thing.

However, you don't get points by being right. Instead, players bid for the right answer rather the way you bid on The Price Is Right: Whoever comes closest without going over is counted as "right."

It gets better. Everybody makes their guesses, but you still don't look at the answer. Instead, the answers are laid out on the board, highest to lowest, on a table that determines the odds. Then everybody bets on the one or two answers they think might be right. Only when the betting is over is the true answer revealed. If you bet on the right one, the bank pays you according to the odds.

The result is that you can come into this game knowing absolutely nothing, and still win. It's fun all the time, because you're always in the running. I think it's the best kind of trivia game for large groups with varying levels of experience and education.

Corintho (Family Games Inc.) looks, at first glance, like a really expensive game of tic-tac-toe. On a small game board, you place either the base, the shaft, or the cap of a corinthian column. The idea is to get three pieces of the same type in a row -- at the same level.

A couple of other rules complicate play, however, so that the result is a game that approaches Chess and Go in strategic complexity. Almost nothing depends on chance, and almost everything on your ability to think ahead. Think of it as a game designed to stretch your ability on the spatial relationships portion of an IQ test.

Not everybody enjoys deep-thinking games like this. But, like chess, it's possible for sharp-thinking younger players to compete with tired older ones and win. Plus, the game is really pretty.

In Faces (Buffalo Games), the players all study a group of cards showing random faces from ancient photographs, and then declare which of the faces best expresses an emotion or character attribute. You get points according to what the other players guess, so there's no right answer, just the most popular one.

We expected it to be more fun. I think the reason it was only so-so is that the faces themselves aren't interesting. They almost all have the severity of most photographs from the 1800s. If they could have gotten the clearances to use modern celebrity photos, it might have been really entertaining. But with pictures of anonymous, unfriendly-looking people, it's not a game you're likely to pull off the shelf to play -- not unless you're riding out a hurricane or you're snowed in and you've played all the really good games to death.

We love the original Blokus, with Tetris-like shapes that you use to try to fill in the board according to certain clear rules. The hexagonal variation didn't work -- the rules were too weird, so that pieces didn't feel connected. However, Blokus Trigon (Educational Insights) is, if anything, easier than the original game, and I recommend it highly.

It's a game that has more to do with your ability to reason spatially than any skill or information you might have learned, so even pre-teen players are more or less even with adults, as long as they enjoy thinking and concentrating that hard.

Five Crowns is actually a game we got at Christmas of 2005, but due to its getting hidden behind a stack of other games, we didn't actually open it up and play it till after this Christmas. We had already played Quiddler, an earlier game from the same company (SET Enterprises), and the gameplay is quite similar -- only Five Crowns is more fun.

That's because Quiddler is a word game, and the bigger your vocabulary, the better you're likely to do. The result is that people who live by the written word, like me, are likely to win most of the time against people who don't, which makes it less fun for them and me.

Five Crowns, however, is all about numbers. It's rather like an insane game of gin, in which the size of your hand varies with each round. Three cards, four cards, five cards -- on up to a hand of thirteen cards. You try to assemble runs (sequential numbers in the same suit) and sets (same number in different suits) of at least three cards, until all the cards in your hand are part of a run or set.

What complicates things is that there aren't just four suits, there are five, and not just one deck of cards, but two. The cards are numbered from 3 to 10 and then the jack, queen, and king, and in each hand, the card with the same number as the total of cards in your hand is wild. So when you have three cards, the threes are wild; when you have thirteen cards, the kings are wild.

They say you can play with 2-7 players; I've only played with three, and it was a lot of fun. That is, if you like card games. I grew up in a family that eschewed face cards -- but that just meant we played most of the same games with Rook cards. (I'm not sure whether these cards count as face cards. I mean, they've got faces, but there is a suit of stars, and the stars, clubs, and diamonds are yellow, green, and blue. But it's not my problem -- I don't see anything wrong with face cards, and my parents play this game, so it must be OK.)

*

Bonefish Grill is one of those restaurant names that I found quite discouraging. It reminded me of that class of seafood restaurant that I simply do not go to, viz., any restaurant with "Calabash" or "shack" in the name, or where the kind of fish is not specified with every dish.

Fortunately, I have friends who are more eclectic. They took me to the Bonefish Grill in Loudon County, VA, and I was pleasantly surprised. The restaurant aims to be a cut above Legal Seafood, and succeeds. The crab cakes used Chesapeake Bay crabs -- but they actually had flavor, and the seasoning enhanced it instead of replacing it. Their spicy shrimp appetizer and the sashimi tuna (which my friends allowed me to finish all by myself) were excellent.

When you add in salads that are actually works of culinary art themselves, instead of being a time-filler while you wait for your entree, it's almost redundant to tell you that all of us love our entrees and side dishes as well. Meanwhile, our waiter, Vincent, was what you want a waiter to be: attentive, informative, cheerful, but busy enough not to be chatty.

My friends assure me that the Bonefish Grill in Poughkeepsie, NY, is exactly as good (though lacking Vincent, of course). This suggests that the whole chain keeps their standards high. Which bodes well for my liking the Bonefish Grill in Greensboro, which I haven't had a chance to try yet. (In Greensboro, it's at 2100 Koury Blvd., and the phone number is 851-8900.)

*

I just reread all six Harry Potter novels, and you know what? They're still terrific.

I was reading them in preparation for writing my chapter in a book called The Great Snape Debate, which consists of arguments on either side of the question of whether ex-professor Snape is a good guy or a bad guy. So at first I merely skimmed, looking for Snape references.

But I kept getting hooked, and I daresay I read most of the billion pages in these first six volumes.

It was fascinating to see that Rowling made the same kind of progression Tolkien did between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit began as a children's book, with jests and japes and little asides to an audience of children.

Ditto with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which told a strong story (or it would not have been so successful) but was also full of jokes, puns, and sight gags. Dumbledore is rather a silly old wizard, something of a clown, really; Snape is used merely as a red herring; the whole book is in keeping with the tone of the Dursley section at the beginning.

Gradually, though, the later books take themselves more seriously, until it's a fullblown fantasy adventure series for grownups as well as children -- and a significant work of literary art.

It is ironic that the litterati of the New York Times removed children's literature from their bestseller list for the sole purpose of getting the Harry Potter novels out of the number one, two, and three spots. Here we have the most significant even in English language literature in decades -- a book that turns nonreaders into readers! -- and they kick it out of their pages.

Well, they've been kicking real readers out of their pages for years anyway. The Harry Potter books will endure as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has endured -- because the readers love it so much that they refuse to let it go away. That's what determines what will be studied in literature classes a hundred years from now -- not what's on the adult list in the New York Times, and not what academics of today think is respectable literature.

When The Great Snape Debate comes out, I hope you'll read it. Of course, I think my essay proves that my opinion is correct -- but I would, now, wouldn't I? The book itself, as a commercial enterprise, is a blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of Rowling's work. But I still can't think of what's wrong about that. Because what it really is is a public conversation about one of the most pivotal story points in the most significant work of literature of our day. I thought it was worth taking part in; I hope you'll think it's worth listening in on when the book comes out.


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