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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 23, 2007

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


Heroes, Friday Night Lights, Colicky Babies

A friend just sent me this "thought for the day":

Some people are like Slinkys. They aren't really good for anything, but they bring a smile to your face when they're pushed down the stairs.

At least, I'm pretty sure she's a friend ...

*

The new shows are starting again. We watched Heroes' season premiere, and while it was nice to see characters we've come to care about, this was clearly nothing but a "here's the plot for this year" episode, doing the groundwork that, presumably, will lead to interesting episodes in the future.

The one really dangerous plot consisted of two new characters, a Latino brother and sister trying to get to the United States because the girl can apparently ... do something. We still don't know what.

The writing in this section was embarrassing. They were trying so hard to bring off a surprise that they couldn't tell us anything about them. So all the actors could do was speak in Spanish accents and look really upset and urgent all the time.

Note to all writers, everywhere: Don't try to surprise us by not telling us things fully known to our viewpoint character. That's how you produce impatience, not tension. Instead, let us in on the secret -- it creates far more interest and suspense when we know what's going on.

(There are exceptions to this, but they are so rare that the average television writer should only run into such an exception once every other season.)

Some of the characters' actions were inexplicable; the angst-ridden character we liked, the painter, is dead now; the cheerleader's real father is not a viable substitute in the angst department.

It is painful to watch the little girl acting. She's pretty and clever, but she has no emotional reality. It is possible to get fine performances out of smart children like this, but few directors know how to do it, and so it is not being done; I don't blame the child for her inexperience, I blame the adults for not caring to take the trouble to help her become better. She is killing every scene she is in, and my guess is that the producers of Heroes' don't know why.

But other things are going well: The impossibility of the cheerleader and her adopted father passing for normal is quite amusing, and the new friend she just made is promising. I was glad that the cop lived through the bullets he took at the end of last season because he's a strong asset to the show.

Fortunately, several characters that I did not miss were not in the opening episode. Unfortunately, the promos for the next episode assure us that they will be back.

The split-personality woman got boring halfway through last season, and any scene she's in now feels like an interview with the vice-principal. And it is absolutely shameful that the writers had so little sense that they have brought Sylar back.

This is a spent villain. He made his play. Time spent in his presence is deeply unpleasant. We needed new menaces this year. No doubt they have some insane idea that they can "turn" him -- make him a questionable ally of the good guys. This is time-wasting, mere formula. They shed viewers like dandruff if they keep that up.

*

For the past year, our oldest son and his wife have been telling us that the show to watch was Friday Night Lights. "It has everything you love about good TV, Dad," said my son. "It's about relationships. The writing is good. The acting is good. You have to watch it."

But last year I was already watching more shows than I had time for, and I didn't want to come into the middle of the season anyway. So I decided to wait for the DVDs.

Well, the DVD set of the first season came out just in time for my birthday a few weeks ago, and that's what I got.

Now, there's a little history here. Years ago, the same son gave us the Firefly DVD set for Christmas. I thought: Sci-fi TV? I don't like sci-fi on television. So I kept putting off opening it until I forgot. The next year, our son found the DVDs on our shelves, still in the shrinkwrap.

He wasn't offended or hurt, he was compassionate: He realized that this meant we still hadn't watched the best sci-fi series in the history of television. But he was not above using guilt to get us to watch the show. It turned out he was right, the series was brilliant, I became a fan, and I felt like an idiot for waiting a whole year to watch it.

So even though Friday Night Lights has a huge, huge strike against it -- it's about high school football, which I never cared about (nay, not even when I was in marching band and was required to attend every game and take part in spelling out the score on the field with our bodies during halftime, so we cared very much about whether they were going to leave us easy or hard numbers to form) -- I also knew that we were going to watch it right away.

We did, and my son and daughter-in-law get huge points again for having guided us to great television.

It isn't actually about football. It's about the people of a small town and a small high school and how football shapes their lives, bringing out the best in some of them and the worst in others.

The writers are bringing a lot of characters to life. I don't like all of them -- but you don't like everybody you live with in a small town, either, and at least none of them are boring.

My favorite characters are:

Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the sweet kid whose life is an endless circle of doing what other people want. While his dad is serving in Iraq, Matt takes care of his grandmother, who is in the midst of Alzheimer's inexorable progress; he also holds down a part-time job; and, after expecting to warm the bench as backup quarterback on the football team, he suddenly finds himself thrown into the starting job and discovers that he likes it. That he wants it. And that he really wants to be good at it.

Matt's weird geeky friend Landry (Jesse Plemons), who is simultaneously loyal and oblivious.

Jason Street (Scott Porter), the championship-level quarterback whose spinal injury in the first game of the season throws the whole town into turmoil -- and puts his own life plans into the toilet. We only get to know him after the injury, but we can see that he is imprisoned not only by the paralysis, but also by the way other people try to control him in order to make their own lives all right.

Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), the absolutely clueless fan who does not understand how he is hurting, not helping, the team with his complete disregard for anything sportsmanlike about the game. He thinks it's all about winning, but in fact it's about control: He wants to be in control of the team even while pretending to be the coach's ally.

Herc (Kevin Rankin), the crippled athlete who goads Jason into getting out of his self-pity and into serious work at rehabilitation.

Smash Williams (Gaius Charles), the cocky but talented running back who gets his comeuppance when a truly brilliant football player temporarily joins the team and shows him how arrogance is really done.

And, above all, the Taylor family -- the coach, Eric Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler, an actor we came to love for his wonderfully real performances in Early Edition; Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), who knows her job as "supportive wife" but sometimes resents how her husband lets the job consume him at the expense of his family life; and their daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden), who is much more than the cliche pouty teenager usually inserted into this position in a TV family.

I don't care about football (I used to, when Jim McMahon played for BYU and then for the Bears, but I guess I was a one-player fan). But I care about the games in this show because they matter so much to these characters.

The show is not perfect. There's too much sex in it, to put it bluntly. It's distracting and tedious and unpleasant and sad when all romance leads to bed. I wish the writers would remember that there is far more sexual tension when characters merely want to sleep together and then don't. However, having once decided to go that route, they certainly write it well.

I think of the bittersweet episode in which high school student Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), waitressing at Chili's, meets a way-too-good-looking investment banker from L.A. who is in town to evaluate the feasibility of reopening the local oil fields, and allows herself to dream of him as her ticket out of this dead-end town. It was a heartbreaking story; but I believe it would have been even better if she had not gone to his hotel room his last night there.

Now and then, you know, it's possible to show a powerful character who actually chooses to do the right thing, the smart thing, even the moral thing. Who knows? It might actually influence a few American kids to refrain from giving themselves over to their sexual desires (or, even worse, to someone else's); it's not as if American teenagers have a shortage of sexual activity these days and need a TV show to spur them on.

But let me make it clear: The writers may not have reached my optimal "uses of sex in storylines about high school students," but they are way above average, compared to the really sleazy let's-encourage-more-teen-pregnancy shows like The O.C.

And the stories are so much bigger than who-sleeps-with-whom that I find the lapses barely noticeable (which, by the way, makes them more rather than less influential on viewers).

Even with its flaws, even with the handful of characters whose stories I find uninteresting precisely because they are the cliches that writers always think of as their coolest, most interesting characters (the inarticulate, utterly selfish hunk who was Jason Street's erstwhile best-friend; Street's clueless hypocritically Christian girlfriend who keeps pretending to love him while boffing said best friend), Friday Night Lights is compulsively watchable.

We're going to be TiVo-ing the new season until we can catch up with season one, watching at least two episodes each night we can all sit down together. By the end of this season, though, we'll be synched up with the rest of the people lucky enough to be watching one of the great shows in the history of TV.

I'm serious when I say this: This, right now, is the golden age of television. The movies are floundering about searching for some way to get good stories past the bureaucratic infighters who rise to power in studios, but somehow television has found a way to put fine writers in charge of the shows that get on the air. The result is, surprisingly often in the past decade or so, true brilliance.

In 2007, at least, I can safely say that, on average, American television is much better than American film. And good American television is a much larger percentage of the whole than good American film, which has been shockingly rare this year.

*

If you now have, or ever have had, a "colicky baby" -- an infant who cries and cries no matter what you do -- it is almost certainly not your fault. But hold on tight, because that's just the beginning of a long, tough ride.

An article by Jerome Groopman in the 17 September issue of The New Yorker ("Crybabies: The conundrum of colic") should be required reading for parents who have been led to believe that it's somehow their fault, that they're doing something wrong.

I wish I could tell you that the article points the way to a solution, but it doesn't. However, at least you know that you're not alone, that a colicky baby is going to be colicky regardless of how solicitous you are. And maybe knowing that will help the frustrated parent stay calm -- because colicky babies are, unsurprisingly, far more likely to be shaken or otherwise abused by parents at their wits' end.

But don't take my word for it. This is the kind of reporting that I read The New Yorker for; it will make a difference in your life to know what this article says, if only to improve the quality of the advice you give to parents whose baby just can't be consoled.


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