Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 30, 2015
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Fresh, Family, 42, Baltimore, Cause of All Nations
I was buying something completely unrelated on Amazon when up popped a
promo for a newish sitcom called Fresh off the Boat, about a Chinese
immigrant family trying to make a go of life -- and the restaurant business
-- in Florida.
I streamed the pilot last night and the show has much to recommend it. The
storyline mostly follows the oldest child, a boy who calls himself Eddie, as he
discovers just how much of a misfit he is in junior high.
A lot of the genuine humor comes from the contrast with his younger brother
Emery's brilliant success in elementary school. How does the little kid do it?
I'm not sure if it's a strength or a weakness that the dad, Louis Huang (Randall
Park), is trying to start a western Steakhouse instead of a Chinese restaurant.
I like the cast members involved with that storyline -- Paul Scheer and
Jillian Armenante -- but this is where the writing collapses into
unbelievability. The result is a lot of trying-too-hard-and-failing-to-be-funny. I
hope later episodes aren't so desperate.
The real gold in this series is the kids. Hudson Yang as Eddie is real and
likeable and funny without seeming to try; and Forrest Wheeler as Emery,
though he has far less screen time, is also believable and delightful.
The kids are at an age when they can be expected to have mastered American
English without an accent. But the parents are the ones who are "fresh off the
boat," and so they should have definite Chinese accents.
Unfortunately, they don't. Oh, they try, and I'm sure they believe their accents
are authentic. No doubt they have family members they've been imitating.
Unfortunately, however, the writing doesn't give their dialogue much of a
Chinese feel, and their accents are utterly devoid of the music of the
Chinese is a tonal language, which is why native Chinese speakers always
seem to be singing a random song with a lot of high notes. That style of
melodic intonation is almost always at the heart of the accent of Chinese
speakers who have learned English as adults -- but it's completely missing
from the parents' performances.
Which may be the right decision, because authentic accents might have been
too hard for American audiences to understand -- or too annoying for them to
listen for long. Still, it weakens the parents' believability compared to their
I'm hoping that the conflicts between the parents move to a more rational basis
than the mother constantly harping about why they shouldn't have left DC.
Since when is Washington the promised land, while Florida is awful? I
accept the potential awfulness of suburban Orlando for Asian immigrants; it's
Washington DC as an idyllic place that I find hard to believe.
Still, the show is enjoyable, and I'm looking forward to viewing more episodes.
I actually thought that this was a Web-original series because I had never
heard of it as a network show. I watch enough ABC programming that I should
have seen some kind of promotion of the show, but I didn't. Anyway, you don't
have to pay to download the show, since you can simply watch it when it
But I don't want to miss any episodes, so ... Amazon gets an itty-bitty dose of
Another show that I first got by downloading it is a TBS series called Your
Family or Mine. Starring the compulsively likeable Kyle Howard as Oliver and
Kat Foster as Kelli, this is a sitcom about a married couple trying to negotiate
ways of getting along with each other's weird families.
Fortunately, they're not too weird. I don't know about you, but I pretty much
hated Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, though because fate is sometimes
merciful, I have never seen even a moment of Little Fockers. Nothing about the
first two of these meet-the-in-laws movies had even a moment of believability
or, in my opinion, actual humor.
The first episode of Your Family or Mine had more laughs than I got out of both
Meet the films combined. Which shouldn't surprise me, since executive
producer Greg Malins comes to this show straight from being the show
runner on How I Met Your Mother -- which I loved, right up to and including
its brilliant and honest final episode.
The child actors are good -- which is so rarely the case -- and the in-laws are
not turned into caricatures. Or at least not as much as, say, Raymond's
parents in Everybody Loves Raymond. It's fun that one father-in-law is the
diminutive Richard Dreyfuss, who has aged by gaining almost as much
weight as I have, and the other is the very tall and slender Ed Begley Jr.
But it's not about sight gags. The writers have created scripts that create a
very different dynamic for each family, with a lot of promise for genuine
humor based on something approaching real family life.
The problem with in-law comedy is that in the effort to get laughs, scriptwriters
usually create parents that neither child could possibly love. In fact, you
usually can't tell how a sane person ever emerged from the family.
Your Family or Mine never goes far in that direction. Yes, when Oliver's mom
continues to refuse to put any of his childhood art on the fridge, his
consternation is completely justified. But his mother isn't evil, just oblivious.
OK, she's a little bit evil. But evil people have children, too -- I've met some of
them, though I sincerely hope that none of my kids' spouses think I am one.
What matters is that you can believe that reasonably happy and healthy
children could have emerged from both homes -- even if visiting the parents
always means tiptoeing through a series of minefields.
I must confess that my favorite episode was when Oliver tried to live down his
wife's family's view of him as "the birthday ruiner." It is possible to imagine
that they're simply teasing him and don't know when to stop ... but no. They
mean it. And yet there's no way he could have avoided any of his various
The humor arises from a very common and natural occurrence -- you know
you didn't mean to do anything wrong, but nobody sees it your way, and you
finally just give up and accept their unfair (but not all that harsh) judgment.
Mostly, what makes this work is that I like everybody, including even the
people whose behavior is pretty unlikeable. That takes a combination of good
writing and good acting -- and Your Family or Mine has both.
I recommend that you give both series a look -- up to and including
downloading the episodes you missed. But if I had to give one of them the
edge, I'd have to say: Your Family or Mine is simply a more mature show,
coming out of the gate.
But I have hopes that Fresh off the Boat will settle down into something equally
entertaining, given enough time.
I'm not sure why I didn't see 42 when it came out in theaters a couple of
years ago. The story of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color line in
major league baseball is an important one.
But a movie you miss in the theaters isn't gone forever. The other night I was
channel surfing when I caught a powerful scene between Harrison Ford (as
Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in
1947) and Chadwick Boseman (as Jackie Robinson).
I expected the actors to be excellent, and they were. What surprised me was
the high quality of the writing.
Usually, the writing in "inspirational" biographical films (biopics) is somewhere
between preachy and sappy. But writer-director Brian Helgeland has long
since learned his craft, and not one moment of 42 was either preachy
In 1947, racism in America was a one-way street, and there was no shortage of
whites, north and south, east and west, who wanted race relations to stay
where they were.
But there were also growing numbers of whites who were ashamed of the
treatment of African-Americans, yet felt themselves powerless to change
anything. And even those who tried to make whatever small improvements
were within their power soon found themselves subjected to intense pressure
not to treat blacks better than the norm established by the worst of white
Branch Rickey was one of those whites, and 42 certainly chronicles his
stubborn resistance to the pressure.
However, Rickey knew -- as Jackie Robinson soon learned -- that the success
of this effort to break the color line depended almost entirely on Robinson
himself being perfect.
Not perfect at baseball (though he was very, very good), but perfect in his non-response to the taunting, the shunning, the threats, and the violence that
he faced because he was the first black man in the major leagues.
I trust that Helgeland's research was excellent, because this film pulls no
punches. Names are named. The white people depicted as acting hatefully are
not made-up characters -- they're players and managers and hoteliers who
really existed and, presumably, said and did the things this film shows them
Some of them changed their minds and hearts. Those are thrilling moments in
the movie, when Dodgers who had originally opposed letting Robinson onto the
team grew fed up with the unbearable treatment that Robinson bore, and took
action to defend him.
It's also thrilling to see Robinson's forbearance -- like when he graciously
allows a gesture of public forgiveness to take place between him and Ben
Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the viciously racist manager of another team -- but
instead of a handshake, he suggests they hold on to the same bat, so they
don't actually touch skin.
It seems to be a concession to the manager's racism; but it could just as easily
be seen as Robinson sparing himself the shame of actually shaking hands
with someone who had treated him so abominably.
It was especially painful to those of us who loved Alan Tudyk in his role as
Wash in Firefly and Serenity. To see that much-liked face now spewing out
hideous racial invective was disturbing (though, as always, his acting was
superb and believable).
Yet that is part of the experience of this film -- to realize that racism was so
ingrained among white Americans that people who otherwise seemed perfectly
normal and likeable could suddenly jump from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when
confronting a black who was "out of line."
Who were the monsters? Ordinary white people. And that's something we all
need to keep in mind: Monsters aren't always obscure loners or people who act
mean and surly all the time. Sometimes the monsters can be otherwise nice
people who have simply decided that certain people or certain groups are
not entitled to civilized treatment.
And it's also worth remembering that arrogance and cruelty easily spring up
among any group that believes itself to have -- and deserve -- the upper hand.
It is a part of human nature that people of every community need to resist in
themselves, and fight against in others.
Uh-oh. I'm making 42 sound like a sermon full of moral lessons; but it isn't.
It's simply a terrific movie. The central dilemma is laid out by Rickey: Do you
have the courage not to fight back? And Jackie Robinson had that courage
-- though it was sorely tested.
Though 42 doesn't have the scale and scope of a true epic like Gandhi, a movie
that I found pivotal when I first saw it back in 1982, in a way it's our epic.
There are two great themes in American history, which have shaped our
national character for good and for ill: America's treatment of the native
peoples of our continent, and America's treatment of Africans imported as
Really? Our two great historical themes are the things we did badly?
That can't be helped, because we knew all along that we were behaving badly,
and both themes led to seemingly endless bloodshed and suffering. Our
treatment of Indians and Africans alike betrayed both our political claim to
stand for freedom and equality, and our religious claim to embrace the
Christian brotherhood of man.
Both issues tore at our nation, first with the struggle of land-hungry
immigrants to seize "unused" land from the "savages," so that every treaty
ended up being broken by uncontrollable pioneers and those who supported
and defended them; then with the South's unrelenting grip on power in the
U.S. Senate in order to protect the institution of slavery.
Against this political juggernaut the Abolitionists -- arguably the only true
Christians in America at the time -- fought what long seemed to be a futile
effort to abolish slavery. Especially since they were constantly vilified and
ridiculed by the press, a process that continues even today, as witness the
many vile lies about Abolitionists in the movie Amistad -- which should have
trumpeted their heroic and righteous struggle against slavery.
Our Civil War ended slavery, but the Republican Party eventually abandoned
the liberated blacks to seven decades of segregation, lynching, and constant
humiliation both in and out of the South. So in a way, 42 commemorates one
of the closing battles of the Civil War, fought this time not with guns but with
bats, balls, and moral courage.
Branch Rickey, like the Abolitionists, was a Christian whose moral beliefs
are quite unfashionable in our day -- but even though many whose racism
caused Jackie Robinson so much pain also professed to be Christian, Branch
Rickey had the courage to embrace the implications of his own faith, and then
to call on others to do the same.
So I especially appreciate the fact that 42 does not do what Amistad did, and
scorn Branch Rickey's faith. In fact, the script gave Harrison Ford a lovely
moment when his late-night call interrupted Dodgers' manager Leo Durocher
during a tryst with his mistress. Before ending the call, Rickey points out that
the Bible also has a few words to say about adultery.
Even though Durocher (played by Christopher Meloni) was perfectly willing to
be the manager who brought Robinson onto the team, he missed that chance
because he did not heed Rickey's mini-sermon about adultery: The
commissioner of baseball suspended Durocher for the year 1947 because of the
scandal when his affair went public.
Instead, another man had to be brought out of retirement to fill in for
Durocher, thus suggesting that Durocher's life might have been a little better
had he paid attention to Rickey's biblical advice.
It's easy to think that a docudrama like 42 won't be as "fun" to watch as the
latest comic book extravaganza. But 42 is just as enjoyable to watch, partly
because we walk into the theater knowing that the story does end well, and
partly because we never forget that this really happened.
I write fantasy and science fiction, so I have nothing against extravagant fancy
in film. Every genre has good and bad examples -- for every wonderfully
entertaining comic book movie like Guardians of the Galaxy and, reputedly, the
latest Avengers movie, there are wretched embarrassments like Silver Surfer
and Iron Man 2 and Hellboy and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Likewise, there are biopics that throw out any shred of truth (Amistad and,
most recently, The Imitation Game) , and there are boring biopics that leave you
convinced that history is dull.
No, history is thrilling -- it's bad movies that are dull.
42 is, in my opinion, as much of a home run in the genre of biographical
pictures and historical epics as Guardians of the Galaxy was in the genre of
comic-book space opera.
And when you do a good job of a biography of a great person and a great
moment in history, you've accomplished something with real substance. Not
just a moment's entertainment, but an invitation to the audience to think
clearly and insightfully about our own past, about what goodness and
greatness consist of; about the cost of change, of standing up for what's right
when it seems like the whole world is arrayed against you.
In other words, 42, unlike the comic book movies, is about something --
something that matters. So after you've given your admission money to the
comic book movies, get the DVD of 42 (or stream it from the Internet) and let it
have a corner of your memory. In the long run, its genuine pleasures will
mean more to you than the momentary fun of spectacular nonsense.
So Baltimore blossoms with the seed that Obama has repeatedly sown from the
beginning of his administration, when he publicly stated (or showed) his
immediate assumption that any white authority figure, acting against any
black person in any way, was completely unjustified in his actions.
As white police officers stood by this week during the riot, watching crimes
being committed on the streets of Baltimore, absorbing but not responding to
the objects thrown at them by the crowds, the message was clear: This is the
America that you get when the police do not enforce the law.
History has shown a constant pattern of excessive violence and unjustified
actions against black people from the Civil War to 1965. But for Obama and
other black "leaders" to act as if nothing has changed since 1965 is far more
damaging to the black communities of America than to the police.
Today, racism does not underlie most actions of most police officers. There are
mistakes, however, in every line of work, and those mistakes are especially dire
when police believe they are dealing with violent and potentially-violent
persons. Police have not just a right but a duty to answer resistance to their
authority with force. And the use of force always carries the risk of injury
In other words, where laws are enforced, then it is inevitable that from time to
time, some arrestees (of any race) will be injured or, far more rarely, killed by
police officers doing their duty.
Even with the best intentions, all humans misjudge their circumstances and
sometimes use more force than they needed to. And any police officer who
consistently errs on the side of using less force than was needed is likely to
If, whenever the police officer is nonblack and the would-be arrestee is black,
the police officer knows that any mistake might lead to him standing trial or
going to jail or to massive rioting, it only makes sense for the policeman to
shirk his duty, step back, and allow the black criminal to go about his
criminal activities. Thus life is safer for the policeman -- and far, far more
dangerous for the black communities in which most black criminals operate.
Black politicians harm mostly black people when they encourage riots and
other contempt for law and order. President Obama has consistently joined Al
Sharpton and other professional race-baiters in consistently taking actions and
making statements that encourage blacks to believe that the system never
works for them, and to act as if "justice" can only take the form of random
acts of rage.
So if it troubled you to see the police stand by and watch crimes being
committed, while taking no action, then take heed: This is where American law
enforcement is headed, since black leaders from the President on down act as if
there has been no improvement in the behavior of white law enforcement
officers in the past 50 years.
If law enforcement abandons black communities, fewer blacks will die at the
hands of police -- but more blacks will die at the hands of criminals.
However, because nobody riots when black people kill each other, those deaths
will remain a mere statistic.
The increased danger will vastly increase the cost of being black and poor in
America. But it will serve the purposes of black leaders whose careers depend
on blacks remaining unhappy and distrustful forever.
As long as I'm talking about the history of race relations in America, I have to
tell you about a truly valuable book called The Cause of All Nations: An
International History of the American Civil War, by Don H. Doyle.
Usually histories of the Civil War focus on battlefields, generals, or domestic
politics. But in Cause of All Nations, Doyle focuses on how people in other
countries -- mostly Europe, but also Latin America -- viewed our Civil War.
Lincoln had to pretend that the war was not about slavery, because he was
desperate to keep the slave states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and
Delaware in the Union. He could only do that by making only public
statements that declared the Union cause to be about putting down a rebellion
rather than abolishing the practice of slavery (which Lincoln had always hated).
Meanwhile, the South had to make the same pretense -- that the war had
nothing to do with slavery -- because their only hope of victory was to get
Britain or France to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation. This
was politically impossible for Britain, however, if the war was seen as being
about slavery, since the British Abolition movement had already won the hearts
and minds of the British people.
That's why the British Navy had waged war on the slave trade everywhere --
stopping any ship that might be a slave trader. There was no way, given this
proud history of anti-slavery, that any British government could recognize a
Confederacy that existed only in order to preserve slavery!
Ironically, of course, everybody knew that the only "freedom" the South
was fighting for was the freedom to own black people and force them to
labor; and the people who had voted for Lincoln were counting on the Civil War
to bring about the end of the immoral, unChristian institution of slavery.
The Cause of All Nations shows how the common people in most countries
embraced the anti-slavery cause -- but grew more and more frustrated at
Lincoln's inability to say that that was what the war was about.
One of the best stories in the book is about how Garibaldi, the great Italian
leader who was then engaged in the struggle to liberate and unify Italy, was
actually offered command of the Union army -- though not by Lincoln. One
can't help but wonder what General Garibaldi might have done in place of the
collection of clowns who led the Army of the Potomac for the first two years of
And I was startled to realize how many Union soldiers were recent immigrants
from Europe -- many of them having come to America for the free land being
offered through the Homestead Act, but then volunteered or were drafted into
the Union Army.
When Jefferson Davis complained about how the North had an endless
supply of soldiers fresh off the boat from Europe, he wasn't wrong.
Meanwhile, there was also Napoleon III's weird adventure in Mexico, when he
tried to take advantage of America's distraction to install a puppet "emperor" to
govern Mexico and bring it under French control. Napoleon III was perfectly
willing to make a deal with the Confederacy, allowing them to keep slavery.
But he didn't dare to do it unless Britain also joined them.
This book makes it clear exactly how pivotal and courageous it was for Lincoln
to issue the Emancipation Proclamation when he did. People now often
scorn the document (as some did then) because it only freed slaves in the
states that the North did not control, leaving them in bondage in the slave
states that were still in the Union.
But Lincoln could only do what was possible. What mattered most about the
proclamation was that it finally named the Civil War as an anti-slavery war.
From that moment on, any Confederate hope of British intervention on their
side was dashed. And that inevitably meant that the South would lose, and the
slaves would be freed.
It's a well-written, fascinating history from a fresh angle. I highly recommend
it, either in print or the audiobook narrated very well by Adam Grupper.