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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 14, 2012

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


Top of the Rock, Cipriani Pasta

If you think that your toilet paper has been shrinking, you're right. Most brands have changed the size of each square from 4.5 to 4.2 inches.

That may not seem like much, but over the length of the roll, that can amount to several feet. Since you have the same number of squares, they can still call it a "double roll" while giving you a lot less paper.

I first noticed it because we put a dozen rolls at a time on a shelf in our bathroom. The rolls used to fill the space -- the front rolls would extend over the lip of the shelf. But now they're back more than an inch, and there's room to stack three rolls high instead of two!

However, I'm not complaining. Yet. The current size is still adequate, but if they get to the width of the rolls in airport restrooms, I'm going to have to sue.

Actually, this is a perfect opening for one of the toilet paper companies to offer "premium extra-comfort full-size" toilet paper for a higher price -- just to get the size that our dispensers were designed for! Wait for it ... it's coming.

*

I'm not much for celebrity biographies. I used to buy them if I liked the celebrity, but with rare exceptions, their lives are uninteresting. Athletes had a life devoted to athletics; actors stumbled into acting and got some parts and their careers took off, and they fell in love a bunch of times. Writers sat somewhere and wrote. Ho hum.

Now and then the biographer is thorough and insightful, and we can actually learn something about the celebrity's art. But it's rare enough that I no longer think it's worth the time sampling these books just in case one is worth reading.

Celebrity autobiographies, however, have a much higher chance of being good -- if the celebrity actually wrote the book. Some of them are very smart and we really can learn something. However, most often what we learn is inadvertently revealed.

For instance, in Tina Fey's Bossypants, she just couldn't stop congratulating herself for having gay friends.

Most of us have gay friends. It's not a triumphant achievement -- they're people, and they make excellent or terrible friends in pretty much the same proportions as non-gay people.

But Fey can't leave it alone. It's as if the only thing that matters about them is that they're gay. Which reveals a kind of bigotry. She wears their gayness as a badge of her own condescending liberality.

Personally, I don't choose my friends by their sexual orientation. I choose them by their loyalty, honor, intelligence, talent, conversation, common interests, and ability to put up with me. Sexual orientation doesn't even make the list, unless they're offensively belligerent about it (and that applies as much to heterosexuals as homosexuals).

So Tina Fey's inability to go more than a couple of paragraphs without reminding us how many gay friends she grew up with and how very gay they were and, by the way, did you know that her friends were all gay? -- I stopped listening to the book because I could only conclude that she was using attitude-toward-homosexuality as a litmus test, and couldn't stop waving around her positive test results. It made her seem too shallow for the rest of her book to be worth listening to. Though I did wonder if she ever had any gay friends.

Best of all are the memoirs that are about, not the celebrity's life, but the work that brought them to public attention. That's why Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV is far more than Warren Littlefield's memoir -- it's actually the collective memoir of many of the people who contributed to NBC's dominance of broadcast television from Cheers, LA Law, and The Cosby Show through Seinfeld and on to ER and Friends.

That was a long string of hits, and Warren Littlefield played a key role in all of it. At first he was working under Brandon Tartikoff, who rightly got the lion's share of the credit for the initial decisions that launched NBC's glory days. But Littlefield was an observer and participant, and doesn't claim any more than that.

I remember very clearly reading essays about how "the sitcom is dead." And it was true that in the early 1980s, Fantasy Island and Love Boat had coopted the short-and-trivial-comedy format by weaving multiple storylines together with interchangeable guest stars in the leading roles.

We had spent the 1970s with Three's Company and Happy Days and Norman Lear's and Grant Tinker's comedies. And M*A*S*H. And they most of them had collapsed under the weight of repetition, banality, or smug political correctness.

"Jumping the shark" comes from this era, but what nobody realized was that long before the Fonz jumped that shark, Happy Days had self-destructed by letting the Fonz become the center of story after story.

The Fonz was the shark, wrecking the series just as Latka Gravas wrecked Taxi -- by being so wonderfully funny at first, that lazy writers drove the characters, and with them the series, into the ground.

So the sitcom was dead. Except that Tartikoff -- and Littlefield -- didn't believe it. They turned the "dead" sitcom into the foundation of Thursday night dominance that is deservedly legendary. Because it wasn't just a couple of seasons, and it wasn't just a couple of series. It was three or four generations of new series that became absolutely dominant and paved the way for a complete reinvention of television.

Usually network executives are portrayed as the hideous nightmares that destroy all creativity in the TV series they put on the air -- and usually that portrayal is absolutely correct.

The reason Littlefield's era was so successful is that Littlefield trusted in the creative people whose vision and talent everything depended on; he would offer suggestions, but didn't let his ego get in the way. If the creative people blew off his suggestions, fine; he trusted that when he was right, they'd recognize it and use his ideas, and when he was wrong, they'd ignore him and do something better.

And, because the series creators were very, very good (though not perfect!), the results were extraordinary.

The book is also extraordinary. It consists of 321 pages of almost nothing but short statements by lots of different people involved in all the key decisions. We not only hear from Littlefield, but also from actors, directors, producers, and other network executives, together building a fascinating composite portrait of how great television is made.

I couldn't put it down. I stayed up half the night and finished the thing in one sitting. I felt like I had received a college course in the management of creative people in this most collaborative of arts.

Movies are the high-prestige art form of our culture, but television is the heart and soul of it -- it's the experience we all share. And while today the TV audience is scattered among a much wider variety of shows, a dominant show still penetrates the culture in a way unavailable to film or books or even music.

Cheers. Cosby. Friends. Will & Grace. Frasier. Seinfeld. Third Rock. Mad About You. And dramas like ER and Law and Order and L&O: Special Victims Unit. Top of the Rock tells the story of why these series worked; why other series failed; how the key decisions were made; and why no one person is ever responsible for everything.

There's also a bit of irony and a tiny bit of revenge -- because Littlefield was fired by a jealous boss, whereupon NBC collapsed into ruin and became the bottom network. All kinds of reasons for that collapse can be and have been offered -- but one of them is that Warren Littlefield's way of nurturing talent works, and when he left NBC, so did the culture he fostered.

Quirky, wonderful series were developed at other networks and by other people: Scrubs at ABC, Married with Children and That '70s Show at Fox, How I Met Your Mother at CBS, The Larry Sanders Show on HBO, and many others that extended the genre.

But in a time when the sitcom was declared dead, it was NBC that created Must See TV; and Littlefield was there, and played a key role in that era. The book is terrific. Credit for that probably goes to co-writer T.R. Pearson.

Might even be the best book about television yet.

*

In the search for the perfect packaged pasta -- well, I was searching, even if you weren't -- I think I've found the best candidate yet: Cipriani's tagliolini.

No, it's not as good as making your own noodles from scratch -- if you have the time, the experience, the skill, and a great recipe.

But if you just want to drop a packaged pasta into a pan of boiling water and, two minutes later, have a bowl of delicious, delicate, healthy pasta that will go with everything pasta is supposed to go with and even tastes good plain or with a dash of parmesan cheese, this is the stuff.

They also make tagliardi, pappardelle, tagliarelle, and some of them in green and red as well as white flavors. (That's what "verdi," "rossi," and "bianchi" mean.)

These pastas come from recipes developed in Venice, and made and served in a worldwide chain of first-rate restaurants in New York, Hong Kong, LA, Miami, Monte Carlo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi.

Probably not Greensboro any time soon. But in the meantime, you can find their tan-and-green boxes in some local stores, and also online, sold by Amazon. Or you can buy them directly from Cipriani: http://shop.cipriani.com.

They also sell pasta sauces, vinegar, and, weirdly, luggage and clothing, including a $1,300 bathrobe. Trust me, the pasta is priced far more rationally, though it isn't cheap.

Figure ten bucks a box for the pasta at Amazon, or seven-fifty at Cipriani (but shipping costs even it all out). But this isn't pasta for a batch of spaghetti for the kids. More like what you fix for an evening in -- but with eating-out quality.

*

The actor who played Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies has been doing a brilliant job as Michael Britten, the main character in the NBC series Awake. This is the show about the cop who was in a traffic accident with his wife and son. His wife died, his son survived; except when Michael goes to sleep, he dreams that he's in a life where his wife lived and the son died.

Only which one is the dream? Both storylines are real; things he learns in one life help him solve crimes in the other.

Either storyline in each episode would be worthy of the best cop shows, but what really drives the series is the complex and illuminating relationship with his wife, his son, his son's tennis coach, and the other cops he works with.

We recorded the whole season, so I'm now about halfway through, and it's one of the half-dozen best dramas ever. Favorite episode so far: Guilty. A guy Michael got convicted ten years before escapes from prison and kidnaps Michael's son.

An absolutely gripping, emotional story -- but what makes it really sing are the brilliant performances of Michaela McManus as the tennis coach, Laura Allen as the wife, and Dylan Minnette as the son, along with Clifton Powell's outstanding turn as the kidnapper.

Bad news: NBC canceled Awake.

Yeah, that's right. Warren Littlefield isn't at NBC anymore, so they make deeply stupid decisions like this one.

They had a great series, but because the numbers weren't there instantly, they killed it. When you read Top of the Rock, you realize that while some of the Must See series were instant hits -- ER, LA Law -- others took years to catch on.

For instance, the idiots who canceled Awake would certainly have canceled Law and Order; its first season did nothing, numberwise. It took people a while to understand the new format -- cop show becomes lawyer show in the second half -- and it took brilliant network executives to keep it alive.

Only NBC hasn't had a brilliant executive in the top programming spot since Littlefield was fired. And we're the losers.

But at least you can download the whole thing from Amazon Instant Video or Netflix. (But don't confuse it with the 2008 movie of the same title. It might be good, too, but I haven't seen it.)

*

You might want to read my thoughts about the great writer Ray Bradbury


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