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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 4, 2009

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


Pei Wei, Flash Forward, Amazing Race

For those who think P.F. Chang is the best Chinese restaurant chain in America, here's some good news: The same company is establishing a chain of Asian fast-food restaurants called Pei Wei.

There are five (so far) in northern Virginia, where I recently spent the weekend, and the one I tried had very good food. I actually liked their spring rolls better than the ones at P.F. Chang, and the crab wontons seemed to be the Chang's recipe.

The fear when creating a "lower grade" restaurant chain is that people might actually prefer the cheaper place to the original. You don't want to end up competing with yourself (or so the paranoid thinking goes).

This is the mindset that led to the "Peanut," or PC jr. Remember back in 1983, when the IBM PC was the monster hit of the business world? Well, IBM got the bright idea of going head to head against the Commodore 64 and the Atari 800 by bringing out a family-friendly version of the PC.

It was a wonderful little machine. When the official PC still had only two colors, the PC jr. had four, along with a cleverly designed built-in BASIC computing language that used the best music-handling routine that anyone had thought of. It was a pleasure to program, and it could run most of the same software as the PC.

Then it dawned on the corporate thinkers (often an oxymoron, alas) that people might buy the PC jr. instead of the PC.

To which the answer should have been: Quick! Let's get all the best features of the PC jr. into the PC, so people won't have an incentive to "upgrade" to the cheaper machine!

Instead, they thought: Quick! Let's cripple the PC jr. so nobody will want to use it for business.

So they put it out with a lousy little chiclet keyboard -- buttons for keys, instead of the slightly concave key surfaces that touch typists need.

Well, it worked -- the PC jr. couldn't be used for business.

In fact, it worked so well that the PC jr. wouldn't work for anything.

Nobody wants to program on a chiclet keyboard! And they crippled the PC jr. in a couple of other ways, too, so that it quickly tanked.

I have to think that Wolfgang Puck, the creator of some wonderful restaurants in the LA area (though my favorite, Granita in Malibu, is long gone), had something of the same philosophy in creating a chain of "fast casual" restaurants bearing his name.

("Fast casual" is the industry term for the midrange order-at-the-counter-but-get first-rate-food restaurants like Panera, Atlanta Bread Company, Chipotle Grill, and Pei Wei -- a big step up from "fast food" burger places.)

The Wolfgang Puck restaurants should have been excellent. But the one I tried just didn't measure up. The food quality was disappointing with every single dish I tried.

Was Puck trying to keep this chain from competing with his flagship restaurants? Or was his business organization unable to maintain quality in a chain? Hard to guess -- but you'd think he would have wanted to protect the "Wolfgang Puck" name ...

Anyway, I worried that Pei Wei was going to be sabotaged by its own management from the start. But to my great surprise, there was a pleasing amount of crossover from the P.F. Chang restaurant.

Still, the comparison point wasn't P.F. Chang itself, but rather restaurants with a comparable level of informality. Even Chin-Chin, the great southern California Chinese chain has table service, so Pei Wei is entering the market at a lower price point than that.

By that standard, Pei Wei is absolutely brilliant. If we had one in Greensboro, it would earn a strong spot on our "quick supper" list: Panera, Mediterraneo, Chipotle Grill. Which would be nice, to have a Chinese restaurant on that list, along with the sandwich, Italian, and Mexican places!

So even though the spicy chicken salad was only OK (the chicken was great, but the salad as a whole just couldn't compare to the Chin-Chin Chinese chicken salad), everything else was pretty much up to P.F. Chang standards, which would blow most Chinese restaurants out of the water.

My friends vouch for the lo mein and the sweet and sour, and I'm going back to see if the Dan Dan noodles are as good as the version at Chang's.

The sad thing is that even if there were an enterprising investor in the Greensboro area who wanted to open a Pei Wei franchise here, he'd be out of luck -- Pei Wei, like the P.F. Chang Bistro, is corporate owned. Maybe that's how they make sure they can keep up the quality, but ... it means that Greensboro will be a low priority to them -- they're only just opening up in major metro areas, and we won't come onto their radar for years.

*

I watched the first episode of Flash Forward the other night and found it intriguing.

It's clear that they're going for the Lost audience. They didn't quite open with a tight closeup on Joseph Fiennes's eyes, but they were darn close -- and because they added kumquats, I think they gave us the whole tropical experience, too.

The premise of the series is full of danger, loss, and mystery, as with Lost: All of a sudden everybody in the world blacks out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. During the blackout, most people see flashes of future events.

Some of those events are wonderful -- a man whose daughter died in Afghanistan finds out that her body must have been misidentified, because she's alive and he sees himself visiting her in a tent there. But a loving married couple are both frightened -- the man because he sees himself drinking and knows his wife will leave him if he goes off the wagon again; the woman because she sees herself in a loving relationship with a complete stranger.

And both of them get evidence, before the first episode is over, that they are definitely on track to have those visions come true.

But the FBI agent who sees no flash forward vision -- does that mean he's going to be dead by then?

And what does it mean when another FBI agent from the team assigned to try to find out the cause of this worldwide episode discovers that in a stadium in America, a security camera shows an apparently masked man up and walking around during the blackout?

Joseph Fiennes, who plays the main character (i.e., Flash Forward's "Jack," first among equals in an ensemble show), FBI agent Mark Benford, sees himself in his own office, writing himself a note: "Who else knows?" when armed men wearing masks come looking for him, presumably to kill him.

But he also sees the wall on which the data they're collecting is posted -- and so he starts the investigation by posting on the wall everything that he saw in his vision, even though he has no idea what any of it means.

Of course, in terms of causality we've got a little knot here, as with time travel paradox stories -- he only knew to post these things because he saw that in the future he had posted these things. The causality is circular and therefore impossible.

We also have the question of whether the future as seen in these visions can be changed. For instance, why doesn't he just decide not to take that first drink to go off the wagon?

But that would depend on which way the causality goes. Does his wife leave him because he drinks again? Or does he drink again because his wife leaves him, so he doesn't care any more?

As their little girl says, "There aren't going to be any more good days."

So how does this series measure up? I'm not sure yet.

The actors are very, very good -- this is a championship cast, again with deliberate echoes of Lost -- Sonya Walger, who plays/played Penny on Lost, Dominic Monaghan, who played/plays the dead Charlie on Lost (he still shows up from time to time as a vision of Hurley's). The new people are just as good, and Joseph Fiennes in particular bids fair to become known as "the talented one" of the Fiennes brothers.

But the writing is merely serviceable, and the thing that concerns me is that whereas Lost had me caring about the characters from the start, and only gradually hooked me on the mystery, Flash Forward is trying to hook us on the mystery, while the characterization is still formulaic.

That doesn't mean that the characters can't grow, but right now they pretty much all alike -- reacting to the experience of the blackout and the fears/hopes that come from the visions they had (or didn't have).

In other words, the premise is everything. Whereas in Lost, their interrupted lives were full of quirks, memories of past choices, and motives that had real depth and subtlety to them. I am willing to commit to this: Backstory is a richer source of character than forestory.

So I hope that the writers have more up their sleeves than just the premise, because the premise alone will only give you Heroes, more or less -- a series I stopped watching after the first year, the way I stopped watching Prison Break, because the writers were too timid to go into the second season without holding on to their villains, and because the characters consisted of (a) their gimmick plus (b) the personality of the actor.

It's the job of the writers to create the personality of the character instead of just writing generic situational dialogue for the actor to turn into something living.

Then again, these are very, very good actors, so maybe they can get away with it.

Still ... when I saw the kangaroo hopping along an L.A. street, I couldn't help but think: The polar bear in Lost was just about the weakest of their gimmicks. Maybe Flash Forward would do better if they didn't keep treating Lost like a template and instead learn something of the creative process that made it work so well.

*

I have never seen The Amazing Race, even though I have several friends and family members who are addicted to it. The reason is simple: I don't care about races. Not car races, not footraces, not horse races, not dog races, not even the "Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

I especially don't care about them when they're turned into a reality show in which part of the entertainment is to watch people coming apart under stress.

The nice thing about Olympic and NASCAR races is that you don't have to listen to the racers bicker with their spouse/girlfriend/brother/father/boyfriend/soon-to-be-former fiancé, etc.

The idea of the show -- and I am probably the only person in America who didn't already know this -- is that pairs of contestants are sent to various faraway corners of the world and assigned to do various absurd, repellent, humiliating, or just plain silly tasks.

For instance, in the episode I watched, which took place in Vietnam (mostly in Saigon, which is now called "Ho Chi Minh City" the way St. Petersburg, Russia, was for decades called "Leningrad" -- to remind the inhabitants who won the war), the tasks ranged from snatching a ribbon out of the mouths of dragon puppets (which, since they were under the control of puppeteers, were being deliberately elusive) to taking all of the components out of VCRs (and you could get your ticket to move on if you simply bashed everything to smithereens).

There were also brief footraces -- one in which the teams had to push awkward concrete sculptures on carts through a park, collecting different-colored balloons before they could deliver them to their destination; another which was flat-out running as fast as they could to the place where the host of the show was waiting to tell them whether they were going to be eliminated or not.

Most of this would be utterly boring if you had to watch it in realtime, so the show is artificially made entertaining by the editing -- lots of extremely rapid cuts, which adds a kind of fake urgency and energy.

Now, a good friend of mine is a regular on a long-running reality show, and I've seen how the "story" of the show requires that his "real" life be faked in order to add to the entertainment. So I had to wonder: How much of the urgency and the bickering and so on is real, and how much is faked or at least exaggerated because the contestants have been told what was expected of them?

It happens that I have another friend who is the professor of one of the contestants from a past year, and he reports that according to his student, "What you see on TV is exactly what happened. They were not prepped, they were not coached, they were who they were and did what they did. He loved the experience and would do it again in a minute. It was three weeks of hard, involved, constant movement."

So the show seems to be honest, at least from one report. But I'm still just a little cynical: How long into the process is it before they figure out that they get way more screen time if they're rude and nasty to each other?

The episode I watched was entertaining -- as eye candy it certainly worked, and there were amusing moments, and no scene lasted long enough to become very boring.

But I never could bring myself to care (a) who won or (b) about the people.

I guess this means I won't be watching more of the show. But at least I understand why people watch it.

Even if the participants are honest and uncoached, the editors know what story they want to tell, and they tell it in whatever way will get the best ratings and make the most money from selling ad time.

You know, just like the last presidential election.

*

I recently saw Triad Stage's presentation of William Inge's classic play Picnic. I admit I've stayed away from Triad Stage until now -- when they first opened, I was put off by what seemed to me to be a pretentious selection of plays, aimed at a certain kind of audience that I graduated from about thirty years ago.

Since then, though, the play selection has moved in a more mainstream direction, and I began to hear from friends that they were actually worth going to. This was certainly true of Picnic, which I read and studied in school but had never seen produced.

The actors were quite good (though the youngest cast member had apparently not yet been taught to act during her speeches instead of having lots of feelings during tedious long pauses), and the set and lighting were outstanding.

The only drawback was the audience -- there was one woman's voice that kept outshouting the actors. Either she was very drunk or very deaf -- or both -- but I was astonished that the ushers did not escort her out. The actors, however, stayed heroically in character even when she babbled during some of their most telling, climactic scenes.

So I can happily report that there really is a professional theatre in Greensboro, and if there were aspects of the direction of the play that I did not care for, neither were there any disastrous directorial decisions, such as I've seen on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and London's West End in past years. I'm going to be buying a season ticket (www.triadstage.org).

When you go to a professional show, you bring a different set of expectations from those with which you approach amateur and educational theatre. Which is why I've been very happily surprised with the high quality of high school plays put on at Weaver Center ever since Keith Taylor took over the drama program there.

Where Triad Stage brought us a classic -- Picnic -- Mr. Taylor's students are about to open in a brand-new play called Almost, Maine, written by John Cariani, a young character actor we've seen on Law and Order (CSU tech Julian Beck). Cariani has not given up on acting -- quite the contrary -- but his debut as a playwright is auspicious indeed.

Almost, Maine is a series of very theatrical vignettes about love in a very cold place. But the short plays hang together to make a single play that is entertaining every moment. The play was recognized as one of the best of the year by the Wall Street Journal, and besides an off-Broadway production, it has been produced by 300 theatres around the world.

So Mr. Taylor really is searching out the best of contemporary plays for his students to work with. This play has quite a few challenges for the tech students -- lighting the stage to suggest nighttime in winter is tricky, and there are lots of cues requiring split-second timing.

And the actors are given some difficult but delightful roles to play. The cast is large, and while there's a bit of political correctness that might put off some potential audience members, most of the time it's just a headlong plunge into comedy and drama.

The actors are young, but in educational theatre we expect to see some who have not yet learned that "anger" doesn't always mean shouting, or how to find a light and stand in it so you can be seen, or when a scene requires a flurry of activity or a methodical pace. That's what the "educational" part of educational theatre is all about.

What counts is that this production is never boring, and most of the scenes work very well indeed. The play itself is clever and self-mocking (when the "other shoe drops" I was delighted), but also sincere and quite sweet (the last little kiss at the end, for instance).

Almost, Maine plays October 8-10 at seven pm and October 11 at 2 pm. There's a small admission charge. (And just so you know, the cast member named Card is related to me, but I reviewed Weaver shows before she was in them and I will review them after she graduates -- I've been following the vicissitudes of our county's best drama program for many years now. Just because I have a daughter in the program is hardly a reason for me to stop!)


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