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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 5, 2015

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


Last Man, 2 1/2, Girls's Books, Old Loves

The Last Man on Earth wants so desperately to be funny. This new half-hour sitcom is nothing but a new way of doing The Odd Couple -- because, of course, episode 1 ends with star Will Forte (as Phil Miller) meeting co-star Kristen Schaal (as Carol Pilbasian), apparently the last woman on Earth.

And because Phil has degenerated into ultimate slobhood during his years of solitude, making him the Oscar Madison character, she is a hyper-controlling rule freak, so she can be the Felix Ungar.

The trouble with stealing Neil Simon's ideas is that you also need to have Neil Simon's talent for brilliant dialogue. And nobody associated with The Last Man on Earth even comes close.

There are going to be more characters -- or, at least, more actors are listed as playing characters in the series. But whether they're going to pop up like the guest stars on Gilligan's Island, or simply be part of various flashbacks, remains to be seen.

The promos for Last Man pretty much showed you all that Will Forte has to give, if the first two episodes are any guide. Believing he's alone, he can do cool stuff that would get him arrested if he did them now -- bowling in a parking lot, with lamps, then aquariums, as the pins; entering stores by crashing trucks through the glass fronts; stealing all his favorite masterworks from American museums -- and he lives like a pig, even though he doesn't have to.

Then, when the woman is brought in (and Kristen Schaal is very well cast -- quirky, real, not a ten, but not unattractive) we learn that the writers have almost no ideas. Every anti-woman cliche ever created seems to be drawn upon, as she immediately begins nagging him. She's a rule-follower and so she demands that (a) Will Forte stop the truck at stop signs, and (b) never end a sentence with a preposition.

Naturally, though she insists on this grammatical anti-rule, the writers make it clear that neither she nor they understand the grammatical distinction between lay and lie.

There is no reason that her need for keeping to the old civilized order should not work in a comedy -- but they make her an idiot about it. All she needed to say was, "I know that with only two of us in the world, the rules are whatever we say they are, but I need to feel civilized." You know, something to show that she's not insane.

She could even have said, "Please don't break this rule," making her far more likeable than the way they wrote her -- demanding that he obey the rules as if she were in charge and he didn't get a vote. Subtle differences in the writing, but they make all the difference in determining whether we in the audience like a character or not.

All she is is a list of what single men are supposed to fear about women. She demands that he marry her before they have sex. She demands that he propose to her on one knee, and demands a ring. Demand demand demand. How simple life was without women! Are they really creating a show about how horrible women are and how much better off men are without them?

Will Forte also seems to think that the main concern of a lonely man would be sexual fantasies. Of course that issue is part of the mix, but apart from trying to figure out how to deal with bodily waste, that's all they give Phil Miller to do. He's an extraordinarily boring person.

They make the mistake of having Phil watch Cast Away, and then give him a dozen game balls to talk to instead of Tom Hanks's one. Ha ha. But when you're making a stupid show, it's a really bad idea to remind us of a smart one.

Cast Away gave Tom Hanks a life, a reason to live -- and a reason to despair and die. We cared what happened to him because he cared what happened to himself, and he cared about somebody else somewhere in the world.

In Last Man, Phil seems not to have had a life before the end of humanity. He would have been tedious and uninteresting even with other people around.

Here's the biggest mistake they made: They didn't follow through with the premise of the series. Now, I'm biased here, because as a sci-fi writer I instantly noticed all the things they were missing from an end-of-the-species story. But I also know that every one of the horribly realistic things they omitted would have given them more possibilities for comedy, more possibilities for making us empathize with the characters, and more trust in the storylines.

After all, they want credit for being realistic -- coarse depictions of cutting a hole in a diving board in order to turn a pool into a vast toilet, all the masturbation "jokes" -- but they barely skim the surface.

If all of humanity except two people (so far) died from a terrible virus, where are the corpses? They're definitely aiming this show at a reasonably adult audience, and this is the era of Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. Why weren't there desiccated corpses in the Tucson house he squats in? After the first shock, it would be funny if everywhere they went, they had to move half-mummified dead people out of the way.

I think the reason they didn't do it was budget. Fake corpses aren't cheap.

Which is also the same reason they decided not to show us the constant danger from feral animals. With humans gone, various animal populations would boom, along with the predators who feed on them. There should be feral dogs in all the towns -- and since he's the largest source of walking meat, he would have to shoot dogs throughout his tour of all 48 contiguous states.

But animal wranglers are expensive, too.

Likewise, Carol Pilbasian would not be sleeping in a perky little tent -- not unless she carried a more powerful weapon than a pistol. Because she, too, would smell like meat to predators, of which there would be no shortage in the second post-human year, with the deer population exploding and rats and mice going to town, feeding on dead human bodies.

You see the possibilities for comedy here, don't you? Dark comedy, but ... funny.

Then there's the persistence of technology. Yes, they show that there's no longer running water in the houses so flush toilets don't work, and they've turned the power off, but ... how are they gassing up their vehicles? There are no gas pumps that don't require electricity. Are they siphoning from all the parked and abandoned cars?

If that's your only way of getting fuel, you don't just drive around pointlessly. You don't want to keep getting gas in your mouth.

In the dry atmosphere of Arizona, even in Tucson, despite its being noticeably less hot than Phoenix or Yuma, will there be any pool water after a couple of years? Evaporation is pretty relentless.

And once he starts adding nutrient-rich human doo to the pool water, there should be an eruption of plant life -- unless he's adding chlorine to the water.

And it doesn't take much imagination for even a total loser like Phil Miller to realize that eventually, he's going to run out of canned and packaged food. So why would he choose to locate himself in a place where dry farming of staple foods is nearly impossible?

He could choose any place in America where dry farming has a history of success. He could choose a place near perpetual running water, where he could always get fresh water upstream from where he pees and poops. But in Tucson, nothing you could live on grows without irrigation.

When Carol shows up, her first job should be to persuade him to move, with her, to someplace where things grow right in the ground, and thrive on rainfall most years. You know, like the Carolinas. Or Pennsylvania. Or Ohio, or Indiana, or ... really, anywhere east of Kansas City.

Even a modicum of interest in what happens to a post-human world would have given rise to hundreds of story ideas better than the nothing that they did with the first couple of episodes. But then, people trained into comedy on Saturday Night Live rarely think beyond the initial sketch idea.

Each episode has about as many funny bits as in the average SNL skit. Those rarely make a sketch funny all the way through; they certainly aren't enough to create a satisfying half-hour sitcom.

Maybe the series will get more interesting and believable as more episodes are filmed, but I doubt it. This group of TV writers seem to be as unambitious as Phil Miller -- they're just coasting on obvious jokes and sight gags, and have no concept of what makes characters interesting enough for us to come back and keep watching them week after week.

So we won't.

*

Then again, my ability to predict whether a sitcom is too bad to survive is clearly defective. Since 2003, Two and a Half Men has been a highly rated sitcom. It survived the rancorous departure of Charlie Sheen in 2011, when the series had already degenerated into endless boring repetition of the same dirty jokes, over and over. Adding Ashton Kutcher might have classed up the joint, but it didn't.

If you were not yet sure that series creator Chuck Lorre didn't care about the series and was just going through the motions, the finale removed all doubt. The whole episode revolved around the idea that Charlie Sheen's character was alive after all -- that he had been kept in the basement of his erstwhile stalker, Rose (Melanie Lynskey).

Ha ha. Except think about it: The characters who were actually in the sitcom were all so utterly boring to the creators of the series that the writers had nothing to do with them in the series finale. Nothing! The whole thing revolved around a character who was written out four years ago.

Why? Because the series finale was really about writer Chuck Lorre. He apparently still feels bad about the way Charlie Sheen's involvement with the series ended, and so the final joke is: Charlie Sheen's stand-in walks up to the door of his Malibu house and ... a piano drops from the sky onto his head.

Then the camera pulls back and we see, not a Malibu road, but a studio interior, with Chuck Lorre -- the real star of all Chuck Lorre series -- turning around in his chair to look at the camera, whereupon a piano falls on his head, crushing him flat.

How even-handed. How self-inflating. How vain.

Chuck Lorre has made created-by and executive producer money on hit series like Grace Under Fire (which showed his roots in Roseanne), Cybill, Dharma & Greg, Mike & Molly, Big Bang Theory, and Mom. He has such a track record of making profits for networks that they pretty much let him do whatever he wants, because in the world of television, there is no meeting room in which Chuck Lorre is not the 800-pound gorilla.

But somewhere along the way, Chuck Lorre stopped caring about story, about character, about any kind of integrity. Do sex jokes get laughs and bring back viewers? Then who cares if the series is ever about anything else? Not Chuck Lorre. He's the Aaron Spelling of today -- rich and powerful in TV, but pretty much worthless as a storyteller.

His contempt for his audience, his actors, his writers, and his own show became naked and pathetic in the finale of Two and a Half Men.

But people will keep on watching the stupid dirty joke-fest of Big Bang Theory because ... of some reason. It's safe? It's a habit? The likeability of the actors?

I have no idea. I stopped watching Two and a Half Men when it collapsed into nothingness in the third season. I stopped watching Big Bang Theory at exactly the same point in its trajectory.

Why did you keep watching, America? Why were both series hits long after they stopped having any imagination, any integrity, any truth?

Or, for that matter, any actual humor.

What should Lorre have done in the finale?

In my opinion, he should have made the move that was absurdly long overdue: He should have redeemed Jon Cryer's character. Let him do something smart. Let him succeed at something. Let him recover some self-respect and move out of the house and get a life.

We might have loved that series finale. And it would have been a reward for Jon Cryer, who has spent all these years playing the most despised and mistreated character in the history of television.

Instead, we found out how much Chuck Lorre hates his job and hates us for continuing to make it impossible for him to quit doing it.

*

One thing I've been told ever since I began writing as a career -- by librarians, publishers, editors, and booksellers -- is that while girls are perfectly happy reading books with male protagonists, if you start a book with a female protagonist you had better make it a "girls' book" because very few boys will ever read it.

I didn't believe them, because I knew I read books with female protagonists and I always had. As a kid, I loved Little Women, Gone with the Wind, and the Elswyth Thane Williamsburg novels. As an adult, my wife and I read YA and children's fiction with girl and boy protagonists interchangeably. Why should I abide by such a stupid gender rule?

Because, sadly enough, it's true.

Ender's Game, with a boy protagonist, is my best-selling novel. Speaker for the Dead, which won all the same awards, sells far less -- but the first long section has a girl protagonist.

Ditto with Xenocide, with an even-longer girl-protagonist opening.

My Alvin Maker series is, in my opinion, better than Ender's Game, but young male readers mostly never find that out because the opening chapters star a little girl named Peggy, and those boys never get to the story of Alvin Maker himself.

One of my best sci-fi novels is Wyrms, but the hero is a woman named Patience. Good-bye to the male audience.

I recently read an essay by Shannon Hale, author of Goose Girl and Princess Academy, who came at this gender divide from the other direction. In her essay, she talks about how, when she makes school visits, she finds that school administrators often presegregate her audience.

Because she writes "girls' books" some school leaders don't allow boys to attend her presentations.

But when male writers come to the school, they are allowed to speak to children of both sexes, all together, right in the same room.

This is not a matter of book sales. This is a matter of adults sorting kids by sex. I've shared a panel with Shannon Hale, and I assure you that she's a smart and witty person, an excellent writer, and a superb speaker. I can promise you that boys would enjoy her presentations as much as girls, because you don't have to have read her books in order to enjoy and learn from her presentations.

It's one thing to shake our heads and rue the fact that for whatever reason, boys don't seem willing to cross gender lines in their reading. That same attitude grows up into the moronic idea that guys are supposed to hate "chick flicks" the way they hate "chick lit."

But, as I tell boys and young men all the time, they should be flocking to see chick flicks and to read chick lit, because for most of them, any chance of happiness in their lives depends on their getting some idea of how women think and what women want.

Admittedly, they won't learn much about either from Bridesmaids, any more than women will learn about men by watching the Hangover movies. Still, watching movies that women love is excellent preparation for (a) learning how to persuade a woman to marry you and (b) helping her to be happy once you're married.

So instead of enforcing gender lines by keeping boys from listening to female authors, educators ought to give boys a chance to find out that maybe female writers -- or books about females -- can be as entertaining and informative as their male counterparts.

Here's Shannon Hales's entire essay

*

On a night when I could ill afford to waste time on social media, I got hooked on a Tumblr site called "Old Loves."

In the world of celebrities, a good memory is not a valuable social asset, except when making out seating charts. When a celebrity has finally found the love of his life, it's just rude to bring up pictures of him with the previous five loves of his life.

Does Justin Timberlake want us to remember the passionate undying love he repeatedly pledged to Britney Spears? I think not. Though it is rather sweet.

The thing about http://oldloves.tumblr.com is that you don't actually have to care about the love lives of celebrities ... because I don't. I don't know any of the celebrities personally, and the self-defeating tendency for famous people to be seduced by other people's fame leads to many relationships that are obviously doomed and therefore hard to care about.

As I browsed through 91 pages (so far) of celebrity fotos, I was not actually amazed by how many couples I didn't recognize. In fact, I was rather smug about it.

Often I had no idea of ever having heard the names before, or seen the faces. I had no idea what either of them was famous for, and in many cases I didn't even know which of them was the famous one.

I simply have to admit that I'm not impressed by or interested in fame or those who have it or value it.

I found my greatest interest was in their clothing and the way they were photographed.

Clothing first. Lots of the pictures are apparently culled from red-carpet stills at the Oscars, which is the occasion when women are most likely to humiliate themselves by wearing costumes created by designers who hate women.

Then there is the spate of photographs of celebrities at various Halloween parties. I'm pretty sure few of them sat home and stitched their own costumes, so the real interest comes from how utterly stupid they looked. Sometimes they seem to be wearing the costume with humor and irony. But sometimes it looks like they think they're pretty cool. They're not.

Since these celebrity-couple pictures stretch across decades, it's amusing to remember what ugly-but-fabulous looked like in the sixties and seventies, as opposed to what it looks like now.

Then there's the way they pose. I have no idea what Tom Cruise's and Nicole Kidman's relationship was like in 1991, but their pose on the red carpet is kind of sad -- Cruise looking complacently down the runway, Kidman smiling as she leans her head against his.

Maybe she's just trying to hide the fact that she's taller than he is (at least in heels). Or maybe she's really in love. But to me, it looks like actors playing a couple in love.

I don't mean to imply that they were not sincerely in love. I'm only saying that actors who know how to act lovey-dovey work from the same demonstrative tool set when they actually are in love.

And because it's a well-known fact that acting like you feel a certain way pushes you firmly toward really feeling that way, it's no surprise how many actors fall in love on the set.

Often, though, the pose is sad because you realize that these famous people, supposedly in love, are allowing the photographer to make complete asses of them in the way they are arranged for the shot. John and Yoko weren't the only idiots to pose naked or in bed, and some of the poses are so absurdly arty that you just have to laugh at these "respected" celebrities for actually saying yes to a truly embarrassing pose.

As several photographers can attest, I don't let them take shots that I know will be used to embarrass me, as sci-fi writers are usually demeaned in newspapers -- by putting a bunch of rocket ships and planets around our heads. When I had kids at home, I usually allowed them to take pictures of me only with one of my kids so close to my head that the picture was virtually uncroppable.

Of course, they can crop anything, but I also made it clear that if the picture ran with the standard demeaning "cute" drawings added to it, I would never do another interview with that publication again.

My memory is long, and I enforce such bans. It causes them no harm, because any story about a sci-fi writer is going to be a feature anyway, not news -- but I'm not going to reward a shlock outfit for openly despising me and my work.

Usually the particular publication or station doesn't find out about the ban until the next time they ask me for an interview, and that reporter or photographer invariably says, "but I won't do that!" to which my reply is, "Yes, but your editor will."

So, knowing how easy it is to exercise reasonable control over official photograph sessions (paparazzi do what they will), I can only sigh or chuckle over what these celebrities permit others to do to them.

That's why I spent hours that I didn't have, perusing the Old Loves tumblr.

It's like Buzzfeed without the absurdly intrusive ads.


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