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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 5, 2017

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


Young Sheldon, Good Doctor, American Made

When I was a kid, the resumption of new television programs with the new "season" in September was complete recompense for the end of summer vacation. Yes, we had to go back to school, but hey, there were cool new shows.

When I was young, that usually meant intriguing new westerns -- I remember the debuts of The Rifleman, Sugarfoot, Bonanza, Cheyenne, Have Gun - Will Travl, and Rawhide, which provided starring roles for Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford; Will Hutchins; Lorne Greene and Michael Landon; Clint Walker; Richard Boone; and Clint Eastwood and Eric Fleming, respectively.

I can still sing almost the entire Rawhide theme song from memory. I remember Micah (Paul Fix), the marshal on The Rifleman, and Wishbone (Paul Brinegar) from Rawhide, and I haven't even mentioned the most iconic TV western of them all, Gunsmoke.

Fall television season was more important than the start of school. More important, when I was young, than presidential elections, which came as an anticlimax later in the season, and then went on hiatus for four years at a time.

Nowadays, you'd think the "television season" thing wouldn't matter anymore. Cable channels like TNT, USA, AMC, HBO, Showtime, and others have mini-seasons of six, nine, ten, or a dozen episodes, and they start exactly when the traditional network seasons run out.

Instead of the summer being devoted to reruns of the preceding season's shows, it's now full of new episodes of favorite series. So when the networks open their fall season, we've usually just finished the most recent season of Suits, So You Think You Can Dance, MasterChef, Tosh.0, The Great British Baking Show, Game of Thrones, and People of Earth -- to mention only the summer series that I've been watching.

So instead of the autumn coming as a relief from the dead television summer, it arrives just as some wonderful shows have been drawing to a close.

But there's still plenty of excitement, because unlike the situation thirty years ago, the networks can't afford to coast, tossing out lame new shows in the belief that, having no choice, the viewers would pick among the cwap instead of rejecting them all.

It was ABC that seemed to catch on first, with the incredible 2004 season that launched Lost, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, and Boston Legal. None of these shows remained fresh for very long, but it was the first fall season in a long time that network programming, especially at hapless ABC, became the most talked-about ongoing event of the year.

Ever since then, the networks have been trying to come up with storylines, actors, and designs that will catch the eyes, ears, and hearts of viewers in numbers large enough to allow them to overwhelm the offerings from the cable channels and the streaming sources as well.

Last year we had Bull, Lethal Weapon, and Designated Survivor, the leaders in storytelling and sharp performances. And now, all three of them are holding up well in their second year.

Lethal Weapon has wisely resolved the Martin Riggs (Clayne Crawford) revenge plot and now will focus on the police work -- though I hope the writers quickly discovered that Keesha Sharp's offensive ball-busting as Trish Murtaugh is not going to wear well with male viewers, at least.

(It is always off-putting when writers make the father in a tv family grovel whenever there's a disagreement, even when he was not in the wrong; haven't we learned anything from Roseanne's constant abuse of John Goodman?)

Bull is still on the cusp of making us hate Michael Weatherly's title character because of his arrogance and the writers' unbelievable manipulation of storylines so that Bull is always right, or at least right-ish. But so far the series engine is still running and the wheels go round.

Designated Survivor, like Lethal Weapon, is getting us off of its paranoia plotline (really, does the conspiracy include everybody?) and showing us something about how government works -- and they're doing a pretty good job of portraying federal and international politics in a somewhat realistic way; and while Kiefer Sutherland plays an unabashedly liberal president, he is not surrounded by toadies the way Martin Sheen's character in The West Wing and Barack Obama's character in his real-world performance always were.

The danger is that both Bull and Designated Survivor will devolve into soap operas, losing the elements that first made them hits. If they don't stay smart, a portion of the audience will drift away.

You're the Worst, which really is a soap opera, came back wonderfully with an absolutely brilliant short season that showed us how Jimmy (Chris Geere) spent the three months after he ran away from Gretchen's (Aya Cash) acceptance of his proposal of marriage.

When he returned, sending Gretchen a very nebulous text message, we saw Gretchen give him the all-time most-powerful hate-filled in-person response imaginable. (If you missed it, there's still a chance you can see it later, so I'm not telling you about it here ... but those three little dots are crucial.)

What about new shows?

There are several that show promise, but the ones that made the most powerful instant impression were the socially-inept genius twins, Young Sheldon and The Good Doctor.

While Young Sheldon is basically the backstory of the nerdmost character in Big Bang Theory, it is far more real and far more emotionally involving than any Chuck Lorre series ever. Maybe co-creator Steven Molaro is bring into this story the heart and reality that have always remained out of Chuck Lorre's grasp.

Chuck Lorre sitcoms always seem to follow the same trajectory: Pretty good storylines about quirky characters, with lots of wit and laughs, decaying into laughless and heartless sex comedies that never allow the characters to transcend their one-note loglines.

With a ten-year-old hero, Young Sheldon really doesn't provide Lorre with grist for his low sex-comedy instincts, so maybe this series will age better than its predecessors.

But we won't know for a while. The pilot was wonderfully funny and engaging, but then the network put the series on immediate hiatus -- we won't see any new episodes till November.

This mind-boggling slap in our faces ("Have some candy!" "No more till November!") violates every common-sense rule about television programming, where continuity is the lifeblood of the episodic series. Clearly somebody at ABC didn't believe in this series at all.

Iain Armitage plays young Sheldon with a candor and honesty missing from most of the cast of Big Bang Theory. Good child actors are hard to find -- for males, think of Roddy McDowell, Freddie Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney, Elijah Wood, Jason Bateman, Ron Howard, Ricky Schroder, Christian Bale, Neil Patrick Harris, Daniel Radcliffe, Christian Bale, Fred Savage, Shia LaBeouf -- and almost nobody else in recent decades.

If that seems like a long list, please remember that it's spread across the entire history of film and television, and think about who isn't on it.

Most child performers are either barely adequate for their roles, or simply coast along on cuteness. We usually don't find out whether they can really act until they get older and try to sustain a character -- that's when we found out that Shirley Temple couldn't act, once cuteness stopped working for her. (Drew Barrymore did keep going on cuteness rather than talent, but only because we like her as a public person and it carries her through her barely-adequate performances.)

With its premise -- a genius-level ten-year-old is put into high school, so that he can have a more challenging education -- there is much fodder in Young Sheldon for ridiculing the social ineptitude of the smart kid. Instead, the writers make the wise and compassionate choice of showing us that yes, this kid doesn't understand the social dynamics around him, but he really is smarter than other kids, and it's their job as much as his to make the accommodations so he can be part of the community.

Iain Armitage seems to be able to act -- he makes the archly superior dialogue sound natural and even innocent, while still convincing us that yes, he is that smart.

Here's a rule of acting to keep in mind: Every actor can play dumber than himself, but no actor can play smarter than himself. Called upon to do so, most American "actors" flip to a quasi-English accent (right, like most Brits are naturally smart) and perform their roles in a constant state of panic.

Has anybody ever, for a moment, thought that the characters of Howard Wolowitz and Raj Koothrappali were actually smart enough to take part in a high-level scientific conversation with Sheldon or Leonard? Neither the writers nor the actors in Big Bang Theory ever knew what to do with the characters' supposed intelligence.

Armitage is verbally gifted, with a knack for seeming real. I hope this grows into a wide range of acting skills that will enable him to make the transition to adult roles.

Young Sheldon is a series that, for the pilot at least, succeeds brilliantly at a nearly impossible task: making us believe in, understand, and love a character who is more-or-less accurately portrayed as being somewhere on the high-functioning end of the asperger-autism spectrum.

I've known several kids who were on that spectrum, and I have to say that while every such child is unique, young Sheldon is written and performed quite believably.

The writers' crowning moment in the pilot episode was the very end. Instead of seeking a punchline, they show young Sheldon being drawn into a music room where an older kid is practicing a string instrument. Sheldon sits down at the piano and starts working out the melody and then some harmonies.

He correctly identifies the piece that the girl was playing, and she realizes, with growing awe, that he has, not just relative perfect pitch, but absolute perfect pitch, meaning that without looking at an instrument, he knows exactly which note or chord is being played.

I haven't watched enough Big Bang Theory after the first season to know whether that show ever develops the idea of Sheldon's having music skills, but it certainly came with a powerful jolt of wonder and warmth in this show: Far from ridiculing the smart kid, this show aims to treat him with respect.

Here's another thing that, coming from the near-complete atheism of America's artistic elite these days, really surprised me. Sheldon's mother asks if anyone will go to church with her on Sunday, and to everyone's amazement, only Sheldon volunteers.

"Why?" demands his sister. "You don't believe in God."

"But I believe in Mother," replies Sheldon, and at that moment I fell in love with this kid and decided to trust the writers for at least a few more episodes.

The other autism-centered series debuting this fall is The Good Doctor, starring Freddie Highmore as the very young-looking Dr. Shaun Murphy. We are shown nothing about his passage through medical school -- we begin when he arrives to being his employment as a resident surgeon in a prestigious hospital.

We also flash back quite frequently to Shaun's childhood, with Graham Verchere doing a powerful job of portraying young Shaun and Dylan Kingwell very strong as Shaun's younger brother, Steve. Presumably these flashbacks will decrease in frequency, because, while we needed the information they contained in these early episodes, the series will only survive if we are fully invested in the present-day Dr. Shaun Murphy.

The series was created by David Shore, who also created House M.D., though I hope Shore doesn't fall into the rut of having Shaun (a) never be wrong and (b) never be believed. Let's hope that the originally-hostile characters become believers after a while.

The Good Doctor was first developed for CBS, but it was ABC that finally cast the show and shot a pilot. Even they weren't sure it would work, because they only ordered two episodes and didn't decide until October 3rd of this year -- no, this week -- to order a full season of episodes.

This series deserves it. Some reviewers have sneered at the fact that the storylines are, essentially, medical soap operas, but I couldn't figure out, reading their reviews, what was wrong with a medical soap opera, as long as the medical and social issues are non-trivial. House M.D. was the quintessential soap opera and yes, I got tired of watching House (Hugh Laurie) stump around with a cane while abusing drugs and the staff of the hospital. But the series never stopped being smart.

The medical issues on The Good Doctor are well-explained, and they include both physiological problems and the often self-limiting social system at most hospitals. The arrogance of top doctors in The Good Doctor highlights the fact that there is more than one way to be incapable of communicating well with others.

From an apology that is never quite given to the stealing of credit that belongs to others, it is the hospital that is socially inept, more than the autistic Shaun.

While many oppose letting Shaun Murphy practice at the hospital, he is fervently championed by Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff), the president of the hospital. Glassman lays his job on the line to win employment for Shaun; if Shaun screws up, Glassman will resign -- and we can see that the board of directors intends to hold him to that promise.

Everything about this series works, and works well -- but the very best thing going for it is Freddie Highmore in the leading role. I never saw an episode of Bates Motel, in which he starred for fifty episodes, but I caught much of his performance in the calculatedly beautiful August Rush, whose storyline I never quite grasped.

Highmore's ethereal beauty and grace gave both a shape and a heart to August Rush, so that even when I had no idea what was going on or what was at stake -- which was most of the time -- Highmore himself was compulsively watchable.

His role in The Good Doctor requires him to spend a lot of time with a blank face, but that's fine, because his blank face is more expressive than most actors' active faces.

And he does a far better job of accurately portraying an autistic man as a human being than Dustin Hoffman ever managed in his soul-numbing one-note Oscar-winning performance as Raymond in Rain Man. (The Oscar really should have gone to Tom Cruise, who carried and gave life to the movie.)

Highmore is destined to join the pantheon of perpetual Oscar nominees, provided he chooses good roles as he gets older, and refrains from dying stupidly young like James Dean or River Phoenix. We're pretty lucky to have an actor of this caliber on the smallish screen and shortened format of television.

This is the new series not to miss.

*

Yeah, there's another series that debuted this past Sunday, this time on cable (and satellite) channel BYUtv. It's called Extinct, and while IMDb has omitted the created-by credit, this one originated with me and my longtime writing partner Aaron Johnston.

(Aaron is the showrunner and, despite other credits being listed, he is the sole writer of every word in every script in the first ten-episode season.)

This series began when Aaron and I met with Ryan Little and Adam Abel, who created the powerful independent film Saints and Soldiers. They were consulting with Aaron and me because they wanted to see if they could develop a low-budget independent sci-fi movie. They knew how to make low-budget films that were better than their funding, and, presumably, Aaron and I knew how to do sci-fi. (We've been writing the two Formic Wars trilogies for the past several years.)

The challenge was to come up with a sci-fi series that did not require the construction of elaborate sets or the creation of a lot of expensive special effects. If we wanted a robot, it had to be, in effect, a volleyball-sized drone with no visible moving parts. Any spaceships we created had to be ruined and rusted-out crashed spaceships.

With the deserts of Utah as the main backdrop, it needed to take place on a dry and ruined world; yet it had to take place on Earth because we didn't have the budget to create a genuine alien environment.

Our storyline focused on a time four hundred years in the future, after the human race was either wiped out or physically taken over by alien invaders. At first the humans thought their enemies were the Kareek, but we soon learned that these brutal fighters were actually under the mental control of the Skinriders -- and the Skinriders soon learned to jump from the Kareek to humans.

Possessed by Skinriders, humans cease to be human -- the human being is still alive, but has less freedom of choice than a well-tamed horse. The war against the Kareek ends quickly -- because the entire human race is either dead or possessed, and the ones enthralled by Skinriders have left Earth to invade other worlds.

Into this hostile, barren world, the lead characters are not so much reborn as reconstructed -- built by myriad tiny engineers called Sparks and then educated by drones controlled by ... whom?

The humans this time are reborn with all the free will and stubbornness of our species -- and even though they are dependent on the drones for almost all of their new knowledge, they don't trust them and, as time goes on, they find that they have ample justification for their mistrust.

We were still in the development stages on the feature film when we made a connection with Scott Swofford of BYUtv, who encouraged us and helped us shape the storyline for the needs of episodic television. Swofford's goal was to create television that reached beyond BYUtv's regular audience to attract viewers who were simply looking for good entertainment.

I think that in his brilliant script-writing, Aaron Johnston has created a series that is better than its budget should have allowed, while Ryan and Adam have made it look good.

What clinches the deal for me is the acting of Chad Michael Collins as Ezra, Victoria Atkin as Feena, Yorke Fryer as Abram, and Matthew Bellows as Jax. Other characters (and actors) will come to the fore in later episodes.

The first two episodes aired back to back this past Sunday (1 October), and episodes 3-8 can be streamed from byutv.org and extinct.tv. Episodes 9 and 10 will be released as a two-hour finale on November 19.

Meanwhile, I'm madly at work writing the novel adaptations of the series. Yes, that's right, I'm co-creator of the series and its storylines with Aaron Johnston, but now I'll be doing the novelizations of his scripts.

I could never have kept up the brutal schedule of the tv showrunner -- even if I had the skill and experience and knowledge for that role. So each of us did what we could do best, and I think the results of Aaron's (and Ryan's, and Adam's) genius speak for themselves.

*

The most recent issue of Publishers Weekly carried a highly unusual announcement. Regnery, the publisher of many bestselling conservative authors (for a full list, go to https://www.regnery.com/our-authors/ ), has decided to cut itself loose from the New York Times bestseller list.

This doesn't mean that they're forbidding the NYTimes list from including their books -- only that they aren't going to use "New York Times bestselling author" or "New York Times bestseller" on their book covers or any of their promotions.

Instead, they're going to use the much more accurate and politically neutral Publishers Weekly in their promotions. "PW bestseller" means more, to industry insiders at least, because it is based on actual sales, as far as they are knowable.

Why abandon the much-more-famous NYTimes list? A statement from Regnery president Marji Ross says:

"Increasingly, it appears that the Times has gathered book sale data in a manner which prioritizes liberal-themed books over conservative books and authors. The net result has been a bestseller list that has increasingly become less relevant to the Regnery audience, and less reflective of which books are actually selling best in the country, regardless of one's political persuasion."

A recent NYTimes bestseller list, for instance, showed The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi roots of the American Left as seventh on their list, despite the fact that the book was number one in sales compared to all the other books on the NYTimes list.

Now, the New York Times has long admitted -- no, insisted -- that their "bestseller list" was fictional and proprietary. When William Peter Blatty sued the NYTimes in 1983 for $6 million in damages because they didn't include his book Legion on the list despite its selling more copies than books that were on it, the newspaper's defense was that the list was "editorial content," not straight reporting, and thus they could leave books off the list if they felt like it.

The courts upheld that position.

Such was the public influence of the NYTimes list that despite this frank admission that their list does not reflect sales (along with many other flaws in its method -- see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_York_Times_Best_Seller_list ), publishers really had no choice but to heavily promote any New York Times bestselling book or author they had.

One publishing insider explained to me once that the bias in the list often begins with the bookstore. He told me that when he was a jobber, delivering books to bookstores, he noticed that he was bringing in huge stacks of a particular bestselling book to one New York Times-reporting store, yet when he asked the store's owner whether this would move the book onto the bestseller list, the owner snootily replied, "This is not the kind of book that our bookstore will report as a bestseller."

In other words, some stores report only books they are not embarrassed to be selling in large quantities. They have to maintain their image of appealing to an enlightened clientele!

But now that I live on the blacklist, I'm quite aware of how many publications do the cruelest thing they can do to any author they disapprove of: never mention him or her at all.

The New York Times list hasn't quite cut itself free from reality, but they go as far as they think they can to ignore the sales of conservative books and auhors -- or at least, so claims Regnery, and I have no reason to doubt their claim.

Regnery, knowing that their books were routinely underreported or unreported, finally decided that they owed nothing to the New York Times. Every time a book cover says "New York Times bestseller," it not only promotes the book, but it also promotes the New York Times list. Why should Regnery continue to do that, since the liberal bias of the NYTimes was doing no favors to Regnery?

So now Regnery's conservative-oriented books will promote the unbiased PW bestseller list. It, too, has its imperfections, but they aren't specifically aimed at books of any particular ideological stripe. PW isn't trying to be America's newspaper of record; it's just the publishing industry's paper of record. That means that if their list, based exclusively on sales, is wrong, publishers will figure it out and come to distrust them. Too much of that, and they're out of business.

Please notice that my publisher is not Regnery, so you'll still probably see "New York Times bestselling author" on the covers of my books.

*

American Made is a strong, entertaining movie. It also purports to be a true story.

Compared to every "true" story filmed by Oliver Stone, American Made is a documentary.

But compared to a genuine attempt at honesty, like Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, American Made is farcically inaccurate.

Will that matter to you while watching the movie? Probably not.

But afterward, you're going to wonder: Is that really what happened?

Well, let's take just one example. The film shows Tom Cruise's character, Barry Seal, walking away from a TWA plane that's nearly ready for takeoff, because he's decided to quit.

In reality, Seal was fired by TWA. Kind of not the same thing, do you agree? The one makes him a kind of free spirit; the other, an unreliable guy who finally pushed the company too far.

Another example: in the movie, Monty Schafer, the false identity used by the CIA operative who recruits Seal and keeps upping the ante (played by Domhnall Gleeson), initiates almost all of Seal's illegal activities; Seal never actually plans to enter the drug and gunrunning trades.

In real life, Seal was already smuggling such things for years before the CIA approached him.

In the movie, the Contras in Nicaragua are portrayed as idiots who never really wanted to fight; one wonders, then, why the Communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua regarded them as a threat.

In the movie, the real news footage is invariably employed to make it look like Ronald Reagan and George Bush are aware of, and deliberately lying about, all the illegal activities, and that only Republicans are involved.

The fact is that it was JFK who first turned the CIA into his personal instrument of Cold War fantasy operations, exploited local dissidents, and got them killed.

Now, I have no agenda here for Ronald Reagan -- I think his negotiations with Iran's hostage takers were shameful and counterproductive, as was most of his ham-handed foreign policy, beyond the occasional symbolic gesture ("Take down this wall").

What annoys me about American Made is that while it purports to be truthful, it is pretty much a pack of highly entertaining lies -- and all the lies are bent to make American conservatives look either evil or ridiculous.

There are plenty of evil and/or ridiculous American conservatives. There are at least as many leftists who could answer to the same descriptors -- but you'd never know it from elitist movies like this.

Now, forget the politics, because almost everything from Hollywood is skewed to the left and if you want to watch any movies at all, you simply have to get used to it.

Why does American Made work as a movie instead of failing as distorted fake-history propaganda?

The answer is simple: Tom Cruise.

The man can act. And his ebullient, joyous performance as Barry Seal turns an obvious anti-hero, a man making so much illegal cash money that he runs out of places to hide it, into someone we can enjoy watching, simply because he seems to be having so much fun himself.

Fun, yes, but he also gets a lot of scares. He's dealing with some of the worst human beings on the planet (though the Colombian drug cartel is treated far more kindly than Republicans in this movie), and at times he has excellent reasons to fear for his life -- and the lives of family members.

Only Tom Cruise could bring this off. Imagine two other excellent superstars, Tom Hanks and Will Smith, if either one of them had attempted this role. They would both have concentrated on showing how torn and conflicted Barry Seal was; but that's not what this script asks for.

We see that Tom Cruise does understand how much trouble he's in, and at times he reflects on the danger and hesitates to plunge any further in.

He tries to protect his family -- but part of that protection is keeping his wife from knowing anything about what he's doing to earn these ridiculous amounts of money. It's a strain on his marriage, and the promotions constantly show one of the two occasions when he asks, "Do you trust me?" and she replies with a firm negative.

So compelling is Cruise's performance that when he uses the f-word, it always sounds as if it's just a natural expression of his enthusiasm, while the same word uttered by any other character feels nasty and crude.

Whatever Cruise's magic is, it's working fine even though he's 55 years old and still playing characters much younger than himself.


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