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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 6, 2014

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


Intelligence, Mache, Brooklyn, Faithful Place

I have a long list of things that drive me crazy on TV shows and in movies.

Of course, I say that and I hear my dad saying, "Drives you crazy? Son, that's not a drive, that's a putt."

So let's just say it makes me crazier.

For instance, there's the way they compress time in detective shows by having a pair of detectives say, "So the question that matters is ..." And right then, in walks another detective or the medical examiner or a lawyer from the DA's office or there's a phone call -- with the answer to exactly that question.

That's OK on Castle. It was originally listed as a comedy, and they still play a lot of things for laughs. But CSI? NCIS? Law and Order SVU? Elementary?

I get it -- it keeps the show moving along.

Ditto with getting DNA results. When the story needs a delay, the DNA evidence can't get processed for weeks. But when the story can't wait around, DNA is processed in minutes -- an hour or two after the samples were picked up. They just set the bar wherever they want it to be.

But the one that really fries me is the magical ability to enlarge photos on a computer, getting closer in again and again, until they reveal information that could not possibly be there.

I don't care how high-res your photo is. There's a point where the image pixelates and when you enlarge it any further, you don't suddenly get a clear shot of the perp's face, or some readable words, including an address, on a prescription bottle in a mirror at the back of a dim room in an online video image.

Online video images are not infinitely enlargeable. Even so-called high-res video images are only high-res compared to old broadcast TV images. They are not high-res like 10-megapixel cameras, and even those could not be enlarged that far.

What we should see is that at some point -- a very early point -- the enlargement reveals nothing but ever-larger rectangles. No higher resolution is possible. Even the best extrapolation software cannot resolve a blurry grey box into a readable number. The information simply isn't there.

And we all know it. Come on -- even computer illiterate people know that a computer can't work on information that it doesn't have.

But we see it on all the shows. Computers are the new gods. You just pray to the computer, or give your heartfelt request to the priest/techie, and in a moment the god replies with the answer you need.

The detectives are there only for the arrest, and to get shot at or punched or kidnapped or run away from. The computers do the rest.

Which brings me to Intelligence. It's a pretty good show, with a pretty good idea. Basically, it's the idiotic idea from Six Million Dollar Man made a bit more plausible by having the guy's brain be "bionic" instead of an arm and a leg, or whatever it was.

That was always so dumb. You can't have one arm be super strong if it's attached to a normal body. Arms work because they have something to leverage against. Attach a celery stalk to a potato chip, and then try to hold it by the potato chip, and the chip will break every time. So dumb I could never watch a single episode.

But the chip in the brain, that's more promising. So every week in Intelligence, even though the spy stories are clever and exciting and the acting is good and the human stories have a lot of twists and turns and I'm enjoying the show, everything depends on this guy getting constant data from the Internet.

OK, raise your hands, all of you who've had your web connection shudder and die. Or been in a place where you just can't get reception. That's why I can't even imagine relying on "cloud computing." If it isn't on my local hard drive, I can't count on getting it because the internet itself is highly variable and access to it is hit and miss.

But in the middle of a foreign country, this guy gets instantaneous downloads of huge amounts of data. No lag time, regardless of distance. And we're talking high-res 3D full-motion and stop-motion images.

Who's taking these pictures? They're mostly coming through spyware. Tiny cameras. Cellphones. Security cameras. None of them famous for getting anything but barely adequate footage, mostly because high-res would chew up memory so fast they'd have to have terabytes of memory in order to record what the camera sees in a day.

No, you say. Intelligence is near-future sci-fi. It's a future where everything is under surveillance by incredibly high-resolution cameras with infinite memory -- except when the story needs us not to see something, in which case the bad guy carefully got himself into one of the sixteen blind spots left in the world.

But near-future or far-future science fiction, what the camera can never, never see is what's on the other side of any object or person.

Yet there we are in Intelligence, seeing the virtual image that Sawyer -- pardon me, I meant Gabriel, played by Josh Holloway, who played Sawyer on Lost -- the virtual image that Gabriel is seeing, downloaded to his brain through the magical chip inside his head.

And in his 3D virtual reality, he walks around the van to see the open door, and then to look inside it and see things the camera didn't show.

We're given a little rigmarole about how his brain is involved so what we're really seeing is the insights from his own mind, imposed on the virtual image.

But then it's just guesswork or bias or free association. His guesses shouldn't be right with such perfect regularity.

I know. It moves the story along.

But as Judson Jerome once said to me, "If anything can happen in a story, who cares what does happen?"

*

Sometimes I just pick things up on a whim. But each for our own reasons, my wife and I are specializing in a lot of salad-eating lately. This means that I have a strong interest in finding the very best available ingredients.

So the other day I'm in Whole Foods looking at the tubs of prewashed salad greens, and I'm deciding between the baby spinach (tragic, that its life was cut so short) and the spring greens, when I see something I'd never seen before: a salad leaf called "mache."

It's also called "lamb's lettuce," I have since learned. It consists of little sprigs of sweet, slightly crisp yet tender little leaves. Even smaller than watercress.

The flavor is delicious. Put it on a sandwich and it gives you some of the crispness and fresh taste of a good lettuce -- but it isn't lettuce. It's way better-tasting.

It's new, but getting more popular all the time. The brand I first tried was Organic Girl, but then at Fresh Market I found another brand of prewashed mache that's just as good.

For three nights in a row, my wife and I had salads made of mache with tomato, pine nuts, and some really good dressings from Cindy's Kitchen (that's a store brand, not a friend's homemade dressings), and we couldn't get enough of it.

(For what it's worth, my favorite Cindy's Kitchen dip/marinade/dressing is the spicy Coconut/Lime; my wife's is the Asiago/Peppercorn.)

On that trip to Fresh Market, I happened to notice a small clear jar of Tonnino Tuna Filets in Spring Water.

It looked like there were four firm, perfect slabs of tuna in that jar. And it made me think of the tuna that was served on the Nicoise salads we enjoyed in Paris -- though in Nice they had no idea what a "Nicoise salad" might be.

Maybe on the Isle of Capri they have no idea what a Caprese salad is, either. Reminds me of a line from Disney's musical from the 1960s, The Happiest Millionaire. An Irish immigrant says, "Ask for Irish stew in Ireland and see what you get. In Ireland, all the stew is Irish."

Anyway, a Nicoise salad has green beans (it's where I acquired my love of haricot verts, the only kind of string bean that I think is actually edible), hard-boiled egg, Nicoise olives, and ... canned tuna fish.

Yes, that's what it is. But not the way it comes out of an American tuna can. Though we've long since determined that the best canned tuna is Kirkland brand from Costco, it is not coherent like the tuna on a Nicoise salad.

Inside that Tonnino jar, the tuna looked exactly like what I had been served on those salads in Paris.

So I bought the jar, fully prepared for it to be a complete disappointment when I got it home.

If I wanted to be disappointed, I was doomed to disappointment. Er, wait, that's meant to be a double negative but it still doesn't sound positive. So here we go: This tuna was brilliant.

With canned tuna, after you crank it through the can opener, you leave the lid on it, turn it upside down over the sink, and press the lid into the tuna to force out the excess water. Then you fork it into flakes with mayonnaise to make the tuna salad to put on a sandwich, right?

But this tuna, you simply pour off the water, then pull the slabs of tuna out with something small -- I used a shrimp fork. No need to press it to force out the water. You take it straight from the drained-off jar and add it to the salad and it's perfect.

And even though the jar is small, it's exactly as much tuna as you need for a serves-four salad. Of course, we were only serving my wife and me, so it stretched over two salads. Good stuff.

*

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a cop comedy starring Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher, created by Daniel J. Goor, who worked on Parks and Recreation and The Office, and Michael Schur, also with The Office on his filmography.

But the vibe is pure Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town). That is, it's an ensemble of weirdos (so far we're with The Office and Parks & Rec), but they are completely aware of their eccentricity, and speak of it openly -- that's where we cross over into Scrubs and Cougar Town territory.

In other words, the characters cannot pass for believable -- nobody would get away with this stuff. But because they're aware of their own weirdness, it becomes somehow trans-real. Hyperclear. As if everybody had a label over their head, and everybody else could see the label and talked about it.

All this is fine with me, because I really liked Scrubs and Cougar Town -- though I came to both comedies rather late in the game, in reruns on latenight television.

But heck, that's who Law & Order became such a monster franchise. Only when TNT started running L&O in strip syndication did people start catching up on the series and then watching the new ones. So getting discovered in reruns isn't bad -- as long as you somehow managed to stay alive that long.

Firefly didn't, which is a shame, because good as Nathan Fillion is on Castle, he was better in Firefly and it was a better show.

Here's why such shows can be slow to catch on. Chuck Lorre's sitcoms -- Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory -- are instantly graspable. The ensemble is tiny, and there's a definite hierarchy: These characters matter, the others are just there for distraction.

But the Scrubs format, even if it has a strong viewpoint character -- like Zach Braff in Scrubs, Courteney Cox in Cougar Town, and Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine-Nine -- they remain only one in a full assemblage of loons.

It can be hard to take, and the pilot episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine was, in fact, a mess. We didn't know the characters yet. Therefore they were merely unbelievable. It felt formulaic and empty.

But that's because the pilot starts at ground zero. It has to introduce us to everybody and still tell a story. Therefore neither job is done particularly well.

Yet the pilot has to convince network execs to pick up the show and commit to it. So all that stuff that seems way too obvious to us, normal viewers, is actually the thing that network suits have to see: This is the engine that will drive this series. This is how we'll get "funny" out of every episode -- the interreactions among the loons.

The good news is that, by episode three, it's beginning to click. There are characters we actually like.

Alas, Andy Samberg's character is still too overblown. He's the desperate class clown, the loser who thinks he's cool. In real life, I'd desperately try to flee any room he was in.

I'm still waiting for him to have moments of real humanity, like Zach Braff and Courteney Cox have (or had) all the time in their shows.

Maybe Samberg is simply not actor enough to bring it off. After all, his roots are in Saturday Night Live, which has proved again and again that sketch comics are not necessarily actors (cf. Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell) -- they tend to play for the laugh, not for the soul of the character.

But I think Samberg will eventually relax into the role. And in the meantime, he's surrounded by a pretty good cast.

Still ... Brooklyn Nine-Nine is on probation. There is a tendency to go for the laugh every time, when a police show sometimes has to go for the shock, the way Scrubs did. Police work is no less life-or-death than the hospital. It's supposed to be dark comedy, not antic comedy.

I think what all these comedies -- Office, Parks & Rec, Scrubs, Cougar Town, and Brooklyn Nine-nine -- have in common is that, unlike the Chuck Lorre formula-fests, these are not sitcoms. Situation comedies depend on coming up with a situation week after week, and the humor comes from getting through it and out the other side.

Instead, these shows are comedy of humors. They are the children of Commedia dell' Arte, filled with characters who have one dominant trait each -- greed, anger, lust, gluttony, stupidity, vanity, sloth, ambition, fear.

It's not about getting into a situation from which they must escape. It's about the interplay of character traits from which they can never escape because that's who they are.

In real life, people aren't that simple, of course. And because these are modern shows, we will get (or have already gotten) glimpses of why the characters became the way they are (something that Commedia or the plays of Moliere never bothered to do). But that doesn't mean they're going to change -- only that we'll understand and like them a little better.

Scrubs and Cougar Town, The Office and Parks & Rec worked because all the characters became endearing. That's only happening with a couple of the characters on Brooklyn Nine-Nine so far, and it might well be that this show will never get there. But I'm still tuning in, giving it a chance.

*

I just listened to the Audible.com download of Miss Manners Minds Your Business. Judith Martin is one of the best writers of witty formal English in my lifetime, and this is her take on the way we mess things up by confusing office relationships with social relationships.

The book is a superb guide to drawing clear lines between work and home, between real friends and office chums.

What makes the audiobook particularly amusing, though, is that the last quarter of the book wasn't edited.

When a narrator is reading into a microphone, there are errors. You say a word wrong, you get the wrong intonation in a sentence. You have to stop and start over.

You're supposed to have a director and producer reading along, marking every spot where you stop and have a do-over. Then the editor is supposed to come back through and use only the correct version, snipping out the bad bits.

Well, they didn't snip them out, in the last quarter of this book. So you get, not just the blooper reel, but also the narrator's caustic or skeptical comments.

Narrators feel free to say what they think at such times, because they know that the editor will cut out those comments. But in this book, a significant number were not cut out. And apparently, nobody took the time to listen to the whole thing and see if the correct, edited version was what ended up in the final version.

I'm sure there was a clean, fully edited version of the last quarter of the book. The editor made, not many mistakes, but one: sending out a half-done file instead of the final cut.

Maybe by now they've realized the mistake and gone back and found the clean edit and replaced it. But in the meantime, I found it a delight, because not only did I get to hear Judith Martin's book in a fine performance, I also got a glimpse of the recording studio -- and the personality of the narrator.

What made it all the funnier to me was that when the narrator is a bit sarcastic about the text, it's because she didn't have the same mastery of English that Judith Martin has. So the narrator is critical of the text -- but the text is invariably right, the narrator invariably wrong.

So many layers of irony.

*

Tana French's fourth novel, a mystery called Faithful Place, is a jewel.

OK, it's a very rough jewel, but not in the writing -- the writing is deft, forthright, powerful. It's the characters who are rough. Set in Dublin, and starring a detective who is trying to juggle his devotion to his daughter and to his ex-wife with his duty to the undercover squad he works with, Faithful Place has the rough language of working class Ireland, and if you're squeamish about that, this novel won't work for you.

Oddly, though, when Irishmen swear, there's a kind of music to it that makes it something between a prayer and a jest. And in the audiobook, narrator Tim Gerard Reynolds is absolutely brilliant.

I've long said that the best thing to emerge from the English conquest of Ireland is that the Irish have the most beautiful, musical, expressive pronunciation of English in the world. Nobody speaks English better than the Irish, and this audio performance proves my point completely.

But the story -- that's the thing. Frank Mackey is dragged by the family he's avoided for twenty years into a situation that threatens to unmake his whole life. A body is found in the long-abandoned house at the top of their street -- called Faithful Place, hence the title -- and it turns out to be someone from his past.

It soon becomes clear that solving the mystery of how she died will destroy his family -- but it's also clear that his family has been bent on its own self-destruction for all of Frank Mackey's life.

What emerges is, yes, a good detective story, but more than that, it's a powerful novel about a family that is filled with rage and resentment -- and yet cannot help but be devoted to each other all the same.

And out of the ruins of the family that raised him, Frank tries to take home to his daughter, to his ex-wife, some of the things that he has learned. It's a hopeful novel, in the end.

I've heard complaints that Tana French's first novel, In the Woods, was infuriating because, after all that good and powerful writing, she doesn't tell you what happened. How did the kid get blood in his shoes? We're never told, and that's infuriating.

French has grown up as a writer since then. At the end of Faithful Place you absolutely know what happened, in detail. And that's a good thing. The story is told. All promises are fulfilled.

Along the way, we get a group of memorable, believable characters. More to the point, we get community. That little working-class neighborhood in Dublin, where everybody knew everybody and nobody could ever really get away from their past -- that's the kind of life that Americans used to lead and can almost never find anymore. We live now in an anonymous society.

Which is why this is such a strangely schizoid book: Even though people are completely awful to each other, and grind each other down to the point where happiness seems almost impossible, they all know that they are known. And you get the feeling that being known is such a precious thing that it's almost worth the pain.


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