Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 12, 2015
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Battle Creek, Ad Tricks, Engrish
When I lived in South Bend, Indiana, back in 1982, I once flew into Battle
Creek, Michigan. Because traffic from South Bend to Battle Creek was light,
to say the least, the airplane was not a jet.
That was when I learned that even when the airport is in an area that was once
scraped flat by glaciers, the pilot of a propellor plane is still likely to approach
the runway as if he were in a dive bomber.
He does this, I assume, because the sound of screaming passengers is music to
Why was I going to Battle Creek? I can't remember now -- presumably a book
signing or something. But the real reason was that, having grown up on
Kellogg's cereals, how could I pass up an excuse to go to Battle Creek,
Apparently that's how the producers of the new CBS cop show, Battle Creek,
felt as well. I mean, Battle Creek itself is not vital to the show's concept -- it
could have been any smallish city. It could have been Greensboro.
But then, Battle Creek has the word "battle" in the name. We could have had
that here, too. Instead of the bland, meaningless, unmemorable "Gate City,"
our nickname could have been "Battle City." Guilford Courthouse was an
important Revolutionary War battle, even a turning point. That could have
been our nickname, couldn't it?
It isn't, though, so Michigan gets the clever new cop show.
The idea is a pretty good one. It should be, because they got it from the
Sandra Bullock - Melissa McCarthy movie Heat, in which a rule-following
FBI agent is teamed with a frustrated, hardworking, streetsmart local cop.
(Bullock was the FBI agent, McCarthy the extremely coarse cop.)
In translating this idea to male actors in a small city setting, the writers have
done a pretty good job of making use of the actors' look and style, and also of
scaling the crimes to fit the milieu.
The writing is pretty clever, now and then, as befits the series creators. Vince
Gilligan also created Better Call Saul, an edgier but also less entertaining show
that debuted at nearly the same time as Battle Creek; and he wrote the Will
Smith film Hancock.
And co-creator David Shore has a created-by credit on House M.D. (He was
also an actor in Meatballs back in 1979, when he played "Kid Eating
So these are experienced TV guys, working with a concept already proven in a
The trouble is that there is nowhere to go with this premise except the obvious:
Local cop resents FBI agent, but FBI agent bails him out; meanwhile, FBI
agent lightens up a little.
It worked in the movie, and it worked in both of the first two episodes. But can
it work week after week? Can it be the engine driving a long-running
But a symptom of the ineffectiveness of this premise in the long term is that in
episode 2, they already resorted to the "turn in your badge and gun" bit for
the local cop. It took Law & Order: SVU far longer -- years, in fact -- before
they resorted to taking away Christopher Meloni's badge and gun.
It's a desperation storytelling move and it doesn't bode well that they went
there almost from the start.
Eventually, if this series is to last more than the first season, they're going to
have to turn ever-pretty Josh Duhamel (as FBI agent Milton Chamberlain) and
ever-manly Dean Winters (as local cop Russ Agnew) into something deeper
than the stereotypical roles they're starting with.
Fortunately, they're both very good actors, and the supporting cast shows
promise -- especially Aubrey Dollar as Holly Dale and Janet McTeer as
Commander Guziewicz. Their characters seem to have a core of reality,
whereas the others seem to have something of a one-joke attitude.
I guess the writers have to decide if this is Castle, a comedy with a lot of
serious bits, or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a farce with no one you can possibly care
Still, good writing and good acting can carry a series for a little while, even if
the premise quickly wears thin. I liked the first two episodes, in large part
because it isn't as savagely bleak as Law & Order: SVU and because the crimes
tend to center around genuine small-city problems.
Look, I'm sure it felt like a joke in the writers' room when they came up with
having a maple-syrup cartel that strong-arms and intimidates restaurants
into buying only their maple syrup. But the writers were smart enough to
make the maple syrup idea actually work in the story; and the physical set-up
in which tubes run from distant trees to the central maple processing plant
was an understated delight.
I hope the writers solve the problems and turn this into something. I'd like to
watch Duhamel and Winters as they grow into plausible characters with a
I'm not sure if Buzzfeed originated the idea, but they're definitely not the only
ones doing it. You are lured to a website that promises to show you celebrities
who look awful without makeup, or the worst prom dresses ever, or what
one-time child stars look like now.
When you get there, directly under and directly over the first picture that you
came to see there are big triangles pointing to the right. You click on one of
them, and instead of advancing to the next ugly celebrity/sad prom
dress/perfectly normal looking ex-child-star, you find yourself taken to a full-page ad on a different site.
When you get back to the page you clicked from, you realize that the big
triangle was part of an ad. So you scroll down, finding more arrows that take
you either to ads or to other best/worst/top 25 websites. Isn't there some way
to get to the next picture in the series you came to see?
It turns out that a modest-sized arrow under the first ad will take you to the
next picture. It's white on a grey background instead of neon green on white,
so it just doesn't show up.
When a page is designed to trick you into looking at an ad, does it
Well, it works for the people who own the web page. They assemble a few
pictures and add occasional captions. Then they sell ad space to companies
who will pay them for every click-through.
So those tricky clicks are profitable -- but the person who's really being tricked
is the advertiser. Because they pay by the view instead of by the length of time
spent viewing, tricking you into visiting their ad page pays the site owner
exactly as much as going to the ad page on purpose.
The advertisers don't mind, however, because between the time you see that
you're at an ad page and the moment you're able to press your back button (or
close the new window they opened), there's a chance that you'll be intrigued by
their "brilliantly designed" (aka "barely adequate") advertisement.
It's a long established principle of advertising that you only sell to a certain
percentage of people who see your ad. So when Buzzfeed (or Buzzlie, or
whoever it is) seduces somebody into looking at their trivial, often degrading
list, and then tricks that person into clicking through to an ad, you become a
captive of the odds.
Maybe one in ten thousand viewers of that ad page will end up buying the
product. But for the right product, with enough total viewers, that 0.01% see-to-buy ratio means you're in business.
Even though I know this, I still get roped into some of them. I mean, who can
resist seeing Worst Photoshop Fails Ever. How Embarrassing! This is a site
devoted to people who take selfies of themselves either partly naked or with
But they have also had some work done -- not on their bodies, but on the
photograph. There are guys who have spliced their lily-white neck and head
onto a buff, well-tanned body obviously belonging to somebody else --
sometimes so out of line that if you really had that combined body you would
need immediate surgery.
Or the women who have given their photo a tummy tuck or a breast
augmentation -- but they did it by stretching or shrinking one whole region of
the pic, so that the items behind them in the picture are also altered.
These mistakes are a dead giveaway that you are (a) vain, so you want people
to think you're fit, (b) exhibitionist, so you want people to look at you with
missing clothes or in a costume that emphasizes one body region, (c) ashamed,
so you feel the need to alter your picture before you display it, and (d)
completely inept at using photo-altering software.
But hey, they wanted to be looked at, they posted the altered picture
themselves, and some of them are clearly being ironic, so it seems to me to be
fair game for O&R: observation and ridicule.
Then there's the single-sponsor site with a theme related to what they're
selling: 25 Celebrities Who Are Surprisingly Loaded. Each celebrity picture
is accompanied by a caption that explains that even with millions of dollars,
they still clip coupons and drive the same cars until the wheels fall off.
The implication is that they are rich because they're so frugal.
And, in a way, they are -- though the coupon clipping is more a symptom of
their frugality than a significant cause of their wealth.
The main cause of their wealth is making huge paydays, followed by wise
investment and living within their means, so they don't spend away their
I mean, let's get real. When you get paid a couple of million bucks for a movie
or a season of a tv series, then frugal living will allow you to hang on to most of
And I salute these celebs for having that kind of self-control. Because the
"normal" thing to do with sudden money is to spend it on long-desired objects,
with no thought of the probability that each million-dollar job might be the last.
The history of show-biz (and professional athletics) is rife with stories of people
who made a lot of money, but kept spending as if they would always earn at
So I'm all in favor of the "lesson" about frugality and wise investment. But the
implication that on a non-windfall income you can become fabulously
wealthy by spending hours a week clipping coupons so you can save fifty
bucks a month -- that borders on fraud.
That's six hundred bucks a year. Even with compound interest, it's going to
take a while to reach a million bucks. And these days, a million bucks is not
that much money. In 1920 you could live like a king on the interest from a
million dollars invested at 4%. But today, that same $40,000 a year (if you can
get that kind of interest) is below the national median. By at least $13,000.
So even if you do become a "millionaire," you need to get at least fifty times that
amount to be what a "millionaire" was when the word first became cool.
In other words, when you have a million in the bank, don't quit your day
I'm glad some celebrities have handled their money well. I'm always sad for the
ones who don't -- or who are cheated by trusted friends and family members
so they find themselves poor.
But the real way to become wealthy is to spend significantly below your income.
If you're making $100,000 a year, but manage to live on only $60,000 a year,
then you can put $40,000 into savings or investments and, over a long period
of time, you can turn that into something your heirs can fight over.
But coupons ain't gettin' you there.
So one site warns you not to try to photoshop your selfies because people
can tell you altered the picture.
Though, come to think of it, we only notice the bad photoshop jobs. Maybe
there are millions of altered selfies where the fakery was so well-handled that
we have no idea that the picture has been changed.
Until we see the subject of the photo in person. Um, yeah, let's not forget that
there's a real world, in which you can't edit your image in other people's eyes.
And the other site urges you to be frugal, which is good idea, but it implies
that mere frugality will somehow make you be "like" celebs who are worth
millions but also clip coupons.
Some of my favorites sites are not even educational. They exist only to make
you feel superior in some way. Take http://engrish.com. Engrish.com is
devoted to displaying hilarious ways that foreigners make a hash of
English words and phrases.
For instance, there's the hotel elevator in Taiwan that wants to tell you that the
restaurant is on 2 and the pool is on 1. But their pool has a fancy name,
"water world," and whoever made the sign managed to screw that up so it says,
Then there's the Korean theater where management wants to make sure you
don't try to smuggle a whole family in on your one ticket. So the sign says that
you are strictly prohibited from bringing relatives in on your ticket.
The wording? "Strictly Prohibited to enter relatives."
The problem for me is that I have also attempted to speak foreign languages,
and I know I've made mistakes at least as bad as these. That's why, when
you're in Italy or France-outside-of-Paris, once you've spoken enough Italian or
French to prove that you have tried to speak the local language, the locals will
usually take pity on you and stagger along in their English, which is much
better than your version of their language.
In Paris, when they hear you butchering French, they deliberately speak
French more rapidly, and with a more obscure vocabulary, until you're so
humiliated you can hardly breathe. That is, if they don't ignore you
Then, if money is involved, they'll take yours and give you the thing you
thought you were trying to buy. But never will they show you any pity.
That's Paris. As people in Provence said, "They treat us that way, too." It's
nice to know that Parisians are rude even to French people with a regional
accent, and not just to Americans.
But they do take special pleasure in being rude to Americans.
Still, Engrish.com is a mixed bag. In many foreign countries, it's cool to have
random English words on t-shirts and other items, so they aren't even trying to
get it right. There's really nothing about that to ridicule -- it's just a sign of
America's temporary cultural supremacy.
It's the failed attempts at expressing an idea that are really funny. "Courage is
the first matter of success. I take decisive action decisively if I decided it once."
That's a quotation that trembles on the brink of intelligibility, so you start to
wonder if maybe it's your fault you can't understand it.
But statements like, "All friend are east, that are don't whelimely," clearly
suggest that the foreign speaker doesn't care whether it's actually English or
The saddest ones are the instructions or warnings written in the country of
manufacture, using the English that they absorbed in school. "When the yo yo
is swinging or turuing do not get your face or hair close to it,it minht cause
I'd be a little more contemptuous of this if I hadn't had American-born
students produce similarly misspelled, unintelligible paragraphs on
Still, I must salute the foreigners who try to use a dictionary (or, even less
helpful, a thesaurus) to help them put across a concept that they can express
easily in their own language.
Imagine that the following is a Chinese laundry checklist, allowing you to mark
which restrictions apply to the clothes you're leaving with them:
Can't bake the universe
The low temperature is whole and hot in the floorcloth
Ordinary the universe wash
Sprain lightly with hands
Can wash with the hand water under 30 degrees Centigrade
Keep flat drily in the shady and cool place after dehydrating
Perch up and air the universe in the shady and cool place after dehydrating
You actually have to decode this if you want your laundry to be done properly.
"The universe" seems to be the dictionary word they chose to mean "everything"
or "all items." "Can't water-wash" is obviously "dry clean only." "Dehydrating"
means they simply chose a fancier-looking word than "drying."
"Perch" was mis-chosen to mean "hang." But ... "The low temperature is whole
and hot in the floorcloth"? I really have no idea about that.
And now, here's the truth: Instead of being from a Chinese laundry, this whole
huge set of warnings seems to have been on a label on a single t-shirt made in
Japan. I have no idea how you could follow all those directions with a
Americans are the people in the world least likely to speak a foreign language
fluently, even after earning advanced degrees. We are the last people who
should make fun of how others stumble on their way into English, since most
of us never even try to learn a foreign language.
One of the most common errors is that many languages make no distinction
between the definite article ("the") and the indefinite ("a," "an"). And many have
no articles at all. So they are baffled by our weird rules for when to use
"the," "a," or nothing.
So one of my younger daughter's most treasured t-shirts is one she picked up
in the airport on the way out of Japan: "Give peace the chance."
This isn't really something to laugh at. Rather, I salute them for trying to say
something in a language they have not properly learned.
And since we can find equally embarrassing signs written by native speakers of
English, it's only fair to give equal time to Grammar Mistakes On Signs:
At this moment, the handlettered roadside sign that leads this site is "HO
MADE APPLE BUTTER."
So much for sounding it out.
"Get a brain, morans!" has the charm of being self-refuting, while a box labeled
"Art of Writting" makes you not want to reach inside.
The sign "Sometimes your the dog, sometimes your the hydrant" is all the
sadder because it appears on the marquee of Highland Park Junior High,
suggesting that the school is doing a deeply lousy job.
Ditto with a sign by Creative Kids Software that reads, "So Fun, they Won't
Even Know Their Learning."
And "We Bye Used Cars" is probably deliberate -- to provoke you into coming
into the dealership to correct their spelling, only to find yourself selling
them your car.
But now comes the sad truth: I know all the rules. I mean it. Every last one of
them. I used to get paid as a copy editor. But that doesn't mean I don't make
mistakes -- and I mean howlingly stupid ones. I'll type "their" or "there" when
I meant "they're," and vice-versa. Or "hear" for "here."
Why? Because we process written language through the sound centers of
the brain. So if you're a fast typist, you'll think a word, but your fingers will
respond only to the sound of the word and choose by reflex, not by rule.
In fact, the reflexes are so strong that one of my most common typos is to write
"the the" when I meant to write "and the." It makes no sense, except that both
"the" and "and" are extremely common three-letter words that have no meaning
on their own. So when my fingers need to type a common three-letter word, it's
far more likely to be "the" than anything else.
We're all imperfect. We just have to hope we'll be lucky enough not to stencil
the word "BMUP" on the asphalt as a warning just before a speed bump.
You can sue anybody for anything -- but you always run the risk that the
judge will be so annoyed with your stupid lawsuit that you'll end up paying the
attorneys' fees for both sides.
Recently Jessie Nizewitz, a contestant on the reality show Dating Naked,
sued Viacom, which owns cable channel VH1, because in a particular shot
they did not blur out her crotch, thus revealing intimate body parts specified in
She lost her suit. (Pun intended.) That's because the contract she signed
specifically does not promise to hide or disguise the contestants' naughty bits.
A producer orally told her that they always blur those parts, which is true,
except when it isn't.
So Nizewitz, a former stripper who used to show her body live onstage, without
any blurring, did not get to cash in by now claiming horrible emotional
distress and trauma because of a momentary flash of crotchal clarity.
Of course, there's nothing momentary on television in this age of DVRs. You
can be sure that in hundreds of thousands of homes, that moment was frozen
in time and studied, along with exclamations of, "Can you believe it? They
forgot to blur this!"
So sure, I might believe (though I don't) that Nizewitz was deeply distressed.
But nobody made her appear on the show, and nobody made her sign the
contract that completely absolved the producers from liability for showing
If you do a show like this, and then don't like how it turns out, learn from the
experience and don't do it again. But don't sue the producers for doing exactly
what the contract you signed permitted them to do.
I imagine she was hoping (or at least her lawyer was) that Viacom would regard
this as a nuisance suit and pay her something just to make her go away.
But that only happens when you sue somebody who really can't afford to pay a
lot of legal fees. Then they'll make the calculation: Even if I win, this is going to
cost me a lot. Settling now for $XXX will save me money. So ... I'll offer to
However, Viacom has lawyers on staff. Specifically, they have litigators on
staff. So defending the lawsuit doesn't cost them anything more than
they're paying anyway. Why, then, would they settle, especially when they're
obviously going to win?
Now Nizewitz has to pay her own legal fees, and she got nothing, and so
Viacom has made her an object lesson for others who might be looking for
a quick payday by crying "trauma" after the fact.