Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 21, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Burgers, a dying Practice, Deep Pockets, a songwriter's child, and Samurai Jack
I'd heard for a long time that Steak 'n' Shake had the best milkshake in
Greensboro, but had never gotten around to trying the place.
On the outside it looks like any other free-standing fast-food joint, but
inside, it's much closer to an old-style diner -- without the faux-fifties decor.
With waiters to bring food to your table, first-rate burgers with great
flavor and no delusions of grandeur, and delicious milkshakes, it offered a meal
as enjoyable as anything I've eaten at, say, Johnny Rockets or LA's Café 50's.
However, a deli it is not, which means that if you order a turkey
sandwich, you won't be getting the quality of meat and cheese you get at Lox,
Stock and Bagels (though it's a lot better than at the pseudo-deli Schlotzky's).
So when I'm next in the mood for a sit-down dinner at a burger house, I'll
be at Steak 'n' Shake, just in front of Target and Bi-Lo on Lawndale.
It makes me wistful to watch my favorite actors from the original cast of
The Practice work their way out of a job this season.
ABC already plans a spinoff starring the James Spader character, Alan
Shore, who was introduced this season in a successful attempt to revive a
show that had descended into the usual death-rattle of a series where the
characters' relationships had become more important than the weekly
At the beginning of this season, the four most annoying characters,
played by Dylan McDermott, Kelli Williams, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Marla
Sokoloff, were jettisoned at once. (They were not annoying because of the
actors -- as usual, writer David E. Kelley had simply driven them to excesses of
melodrama beyond the patience of an ever-larger portion of the audience.)
And even though James Spader's new character has been fascinating,
with Spader himself a delight to watch (an actor of this caliber actually on a
primetime network series?), we can already see Kelley's careless hand
overwriting him beyond the bounds of credibility.
The death of a Kelley series is always visible even at its delightful
I'm looking forward to more of Spader's character next season. But I
have to say that I already miss Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim, and Michael
Badalucco as they take an ever-more-subservient role in the series they have
served for so long.
I won't shed any tears for them -- they made a lot of money during the
run of the show, and now that they're free of the weekly commitment, I expect
to see them all in character parts in film and television over the years to come.
Still, Harris and Manheim especially are among the strongest, most
talented, and least predictable actors ever to have been on the glowing box in
our living rooms. As with Andre Braugher, whose star turn on Homicide: Life
on the Street marked him as someone to look forward to watching, we can
count on them to wring from every future role the last ounce of brilliance that
the writing allows.
Last year, with Big Dig, Linda Barnes took her Carlotta Carlyle mystery
series to new heights -- or perhaps I should say, new depths, given the
With Deep Pockets, Barnes locks in her position as one of the foremost
practitioners of middle-of-the-road, character-based mystery.
If you think of Dennis Lehane as staking out a position on the dark,
bleeding edge of cruel and morally turbulent mystery, and Joan Hess as the
epitome of the frothy and funny character mystery, you'll get a good idea of
what you find in the vast middle ground: Robert B. Parker, Robert Crais,
Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and North Carolina's own Margaret Maron.
Michael Connelly leans toward the dark edge; Sharyn McCrumb toward
the lighter side. But all of these are about characters, answering the abiding
question of why people do the dreadful things we sometimes do -- and the
equally inexplicable good things, too.
Barnes's sleuth, Carlotta Carlyle, is a former cop now working as a
private investigator. Her personal life is a fascinating mess -- her childhood
friend, Sam Gianelli, is now a fulltime mobster but still the only man who rules
a place in her heart; her new love from the previous book just doesn't
understand her, probably because she won't let him.
Meanwhile Carlotta deals with a "little sister" who shows signs of heading
toward a love life as disastrous and self-defeating as Carlotta's own; the irony
of her telling the girl that sleeping around is fine when you're thirty but very
bad when you're fifteen is more telling than mere hypocrisy.
Fortunately, though, Barnes never lets the soap opera aspects of her
stories take precedence over the crime-solving. In Deep Pockets, what begins
as a fairly routine divorce investigation ("Catch him cheating so I can soak him
for everything!") turns into a mess of corporate greed and dishonesty, sexual
hijinks with quasi-therapeutic camouflage, and other biota floating on the
cesspool of humans who have "transcended" civilization -- i.e., descended into
I suppose I could have put it down. But I didn't want to.
Jonathan Schwartz's book All in Good Time is a memoir by the son of
Arthur Schwartz, composer of such songs as "Dancing in the Dark" and "That's
Jonathan grew up surrounded by the stars of the music world in the late
'40s and the '50s -- Judy Garland coming up to say good-night to him did not
seem out of place. He also spent extended visits in the home of the Simons of
Simon & Schuster, so he knew Carly Simon when she was a stammering kid in
a musical family.
But amid this glamorous-from-the-outside upbringing, Jonathan was
always burdened by the constant suspicion that he was excess baggage in his
parents' lives. His mother's eventual fatal illness and his father's savagely
painful colitis kept their son at the fringe of the family he grew up in; their idea
of spending summer with him was to take him to camp and then ignore his
pleas to be taken away so he could escape the persecution that beset him there
for reasons owing as much to his father's sojourn in the same camp years
before as to any action on Jonathan's part.
After his mother died, though, the real separation from his family began,
when his stepmother, the actress Mary Grey, proved to be pathologically
jealous and grimly determined to drive him out of the home and out of his
father's life. The tragedy is to what degree her husband allowed her to
Amid the family tragedies, though, are delightful stories of young
Jonathan's first ventures into broadcasting and performing -- the broadcasts
coming out over an early-model baby monitor in his Manhattan apartment
building, and the performances consisting of improvising on the piano
Stravinsky-like accompaniments to standard songs.
Eventually, young Schwartz grew up to be an important musical arbiter
as a disk jockey (he still announces and selects music on XM Radio) and also a
performer of the Great American Songbook in the years before Michael
Feinstein took the lead in keeping that great tradition alive in a world ruled by
rock and rap.
There was, I'm afraid, more detail in this memoir than I wanted of the
abusive language between Jonathan and his stepmother, and I was saddened
by his account of being initiated into the wonderful world of sex without love or
The worst flaw of the book, however, comes from the fact that Schwartz
is a "literary" writer who doesn't understand why his critically praised novels
found few readers. This memoir contains the full answer, as he often
overwrites, making obscure what would be better clear, or pretentious what
would be more credible if simply presented.
But these flaws don't erase the compelling honesty of the book, or of the
fascinating life he has lived. Perhaps most illuminating is the way that the
personal vices and foibles of very talented people are indulged by those around
them for the sake of their talent -- but the talent does nothing to compensate
for how miserable they make the people who most love and need them.
The videogame Samurai Jack comes out this week, easily the best of the
games based on Cartoon Network series.
I'm no fan of the tv show, I fear -- I'm not even sure where the Cartoon
Network is on cable (and don't write in to tell me, please; if I cared, I could find
it easily enough).
And even though I've been a fan of the lead designer of the game ever
since he pre-played computer games for me back when I reviewed them for
various magazines, I can assure you without the slightest shred of bias that in
Samurai Jack you get to do some moves that are cool enough for teenage
players, as you move through some fascinating landscapes and meet unusually
A lot of the humor in the game is definitely aimed at adults, so if you find
yourself watching a younger family member play it, you won't be bored. In
fact, you might just enjoy it enough to pick up the controller and play it
yourself after the kids are in bed.