Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 3, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Naked in Smallville, Ladder 49, and Shark Tale
There's good news and bad news about the new television season.
The good news is that Boston Legal is a terrific show. Born of James
Spader's and William Shatner's characters from the last season of The Practice,
this series is writer David E. Kelley at his best.
The only surprise is that instead of Spader dominating the series, as we
expected from last season, it's more truly an ensemble show. But that's
potentially a very good thing.
The only quibble I had with the premiere episode is the plotline about the
little black girl who was denied the lead in a Boston production of Annie
because she didn't look like the comic strip character.
The fact is that American professional theatre is actually quite open to
race-neutral casting. It's hard to imagine where in America a professional
company would reject the best actor for a role just because she was black. In
an era when Laurence Fishburne can play Henry II in A Lion in Winter and a
black actress can play Madame Thenardier in Les Miz on Broadway, that
plotline simply wouldn't happen.
But David E. Kelley is a television guy, where race-neutral casting is still
considered too outre for the American audience.
The bad news is the wretched change that has happened in Smallville.
Here's a completely imaginary scene from an executive office at the
"The numbers on Smallville just aren't good enough."
"But it's building. Word of mouth. And the audience is so passionate."
"When you're getting a 2.5 'passionate' is nothing. Look what people are
watching. Sex, my friend. Nudity. Sex it up."
"They're high school kids. It would be sick to make the audience pant
after their bodies."
"Come on, you've already had plenty of implied sex."
"We've had sexual tension. That's part of high school. But it would be
irresponsible to ..."
"You know what? Maybe we need to bring in different writers."
As I said, that scene is imaginary.
Maybe it was the writers' own idea.
Though this sort of thing does not happen without the network's
agreement, and it's the kind of no-integrity show-wrecking decision that
usually comes from "above," if one can use that geographic description to refer
to whatever bottom feeder came up with this vile change in what was one of the
few great series in the history of television.
The first two episodes of Smallville's fourth season were promoted by
showing every bit of nudity and sexual innuendo, as if this were a piece of
prurient soft-porn garbage. And when we watched the episodes and saw the
juvenile, pointless way the nudity was used, it made me embarrassed for
everybody connected with the show.
First of all, the nudity had nothing to do with the storyline. We had an
overhead shot of Lana in bed, sleeping, and enough of the covers were off her
that we could see she was naked. We saw silhouettes of people showering. We
had an amnesiac Clark who randomly dropped a blanked off his shoulders for
no reason whatsoever, just so some patient in a hospital could ogle him.
Second, it was false to the characters. For instance, when Clark was
caught by his parents, wearing only a towel, with Lois in the bathroom with
him, it would have taken the real Clark one second to say, "I didn't invite her in
here and I told her to go, but she's such a jerk she has no respect for anyone's
Instead, a completely unbelievable misunderstanding was allowed to
continue because the writers were oblivious to how damaging such falseness is
in a series that depends on a fragile suspension of disbelief. The reason we
bought the magic stuff about superpowers was that the characters were so
real. But when you throw that away, what's left? Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Family Ties. Popular shows in their time, but nobody ever actually cared about
Third, this is a show aimed at young people -- it has an audience of
teenagers with a strong showing among preteens. What exactly are they
thinking, when they show a girl between her junior and senior year, going off
alone to Paris and there having a relationship with a guy that includes a
weekend in Nice?
Kids imitate what they see on TV. That's what we need -- more role
models showing them that if they were really cool, they'd be having sex without
reference to marriage. Because we don't have enough teenagers having sex in
this country. We need to use Smallville to get those numbers up.
Fourth, even if the actors are over eighteen, the characters are not. So
this show is now inviting the audience to ogle the bodies of putative teenagers
and think of them with desire. After all, that's what soft porn is all about --
getting the audience to stop caring about the characters and instead want to
have sex with them. Only ... given the ages of the characters, in effect it's child
soft porn. And even if they were eighteen, it is still sickening to invite the
audience to lust after characters we have cared about as human beings.
Fifth, the promos for this week's episode heavily promote what porn-site
spam refers to as "girl on girl action." Yeah, that's so great for the ten-year-olds in the audience.
I should say, the ten-year-olds formerly in the audience. For the first
time, we're having to keep ours from watching the show.
Why should the network care? "It's not your show," they might say. "It's
our show, and we have a right to do what we want to get the ratings we need."
Er, pardon me, "to achieve our artistic purpose as we see it." (Because
whenever you try to market porn and stay respectable, you pretend it's about
But it is our show. We took it into our lives and made it a part of us.
If somebody built a beautiful building that the whole neighborhood loved
and took pride in and pointed out to their friends, and then the owner of the
building pained it bright orange and posted nude pictures on it, they would
find out that in fact their neighbors get a vote.
"But it's different from a building. You can change channels when it's a
show on tv."
Exactly. Though presumably they weren't doing this to get us to switch
channels, now, were they?
We cared about this show. This story was the best treatment of the
Superman story ever. It wasn't losing money. It was something truly fine.
Now, while the nudity and sex go up, the writing is going downhill. The
result is that unless they do a radical fix, right now, Smallville is over. It ended
with the third season. And the series that is now airing under the same name
is a cynical piece of junk.
That will break my heart.
I watched Ladder 49 with a good friend who has been a firefighter for
seventeen years. We figured he could advise me on how accurately they
handled the technical stuff.
And on that score, this is the best movie about fire, ever. Not that it's
completely accurate. The fact is that in real fires, there's invariably so much
smoke that you can't see three feet away. That's why it's not just a simple
matter of rushing into a burning house, scanning for all the people there and
getting them out. You can't see the people. You have to feel for them. Listen
The thing is, you can't film that. A movie where you can't see anything?
They call that "radio."
Even so, Ladder 49 did have one fire -- the one with the babysitter on
the third floor -- where they actually made an effort to show the visibility
problems in smoke. In other words, they did as good a job as a movie can do.
But my friend was most impressed with the nontechnical aspects of the
movie. "They got what the life is," he said. "You live with these guys. They're
And that's precisely the reason why even for someone like me, who never
even wanted to be a fireman, this is a great movie.
That's not hyperbole. I mean it. I know People Magazine gave it only
one-and-a-half stars, but that's because their reviewer is so jaded he's
forgotten how to watch a movie like a human being. If you can watch this
movie and not laugh, not cry, not care, then you better turn in your license as
a member of the human race until you study up and requalify.
Joaquin Phoenix and Jacinda Barnett (who, incredibly enough, got her
start on MTV's Real World in London in 1995) are absolutely, utterly real in
this movie. It could so easily have been a soap opera between them. Instead it
felt like a marriage.
The writing was wonderful. Lots of light-hearted moments, and the
emotionally tough ones weren't milked, they were understated.
I never saw Backdraft because it looked from the promos like fakery and
schmaltz to me. Maybe it was better than I expected. And maybe I wanted to
see Ladder 49 because after 9/11, where whole companies of firefighters were
wiped out as they tried to bring out the last few savable people from the World
Trade Center, we realized that these guys are playing for keeps.
My firefighter friend told me that in his seventeen years, only one
Greensboro firefighter has been killed on duty. But there have been many
close calls, and many acts of astonishing heroism. Many prayers said by
firefighters in smoke-filled, burning houses who have only seconds to find a
person and get out.
We pay them to put their lives on the line in order to save ours. But it
isn't for the money that they do it. Ladder 49 shows us what it's really about.
It's a great piece of filmmaking. It's a wonderful story. Don't miss the
chance to see it on the big screen.
On the other hand, don't waste time on Shark Tale.
OK, if you have a kid, you were dragged there anyway, and it wasn't
intolerable. I stayed awake. Our ten-year-old liked it fine -- though without
much real enthusiasm.
And as an example of the animators' art, it's pretty darn good. The
concept here was to make it a sort of fish-in-the-hood movie. The sharks are
the mob, see, but the ordinary people are all black. They do hip-hop and rap,
they have black moves.
Which could be really embarrassing if the animators got it wrong. But
they don't. The lead fish, Oscar, looks like Will Smith and he's got the moves.
The fish have great attitude.
And the sharks -- despite having a weird mix of Yiddish and Italian in
their dialogue -- are genuinely funny as a parody of gangster movies.
So why was it so tedious to watch?
Because somewhere in there, they forgot to get a story. It takes half an
hour just to get to the premise -- Oscar is present when a shark that's chasing
him is killed by a falling anchor, but he claims to be a shark slayer, loves the
fame, but then has to deal with the problem when more sharks come to town.
What do we have before that? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
In live action, they could have gotten away with it, because Will Smith is
so darn charming. It worked for Bad Boys (and would have worked for Wild
Wild West if they'd just given Smith more screen time).
But no matter how good the animation is, Will Smith is not on the screen.
Another problem is the level of realism.
Finding Nemo chose to make the fish very fishlike (for animation). They
couldn't carry things. They swam everywhere. Their surroundings were
genuinely reeflike. They might do humanish things like have school field trips,
and, of course, they talked -- but the physical realities were largely adhered to.
Not all animation goes that route. For instance, Mickey Mouse might
have big ears and a tail, but starting with Steamboat Willie, there was never a
moment when he actually acted like a mouse. And that's a legitimate choice
for a cartoon series.
Donald Duck never acts like a duck. Goofy never acts like a dog. Pluto,
however, acts like a dog ... and they coexist in the same cartoon universe.
Shark Tale opted for the level of reality more or less like that of Bugs
Bunny. He's an actual rabbit, and hunters want to shoot him, and he steals
carrots from Elmer Fudd's garden. But he lives in a rabbit hole that is fully
furnished and he walks on his hind legs and holds things in his hands.
But what drives the Bugs Bunny stories is the reality: The interface
between hunter and hunted. The real world.
What drives Shark Tale has nothing to do with reality.
It doesn't help, either, that the movie tosses away its pretense to making
sense in the effort to make a politically correct point at the end. The vegetarian
shark Lenny (voiced by Jack Black) is in hiding, so he paints himself
(underwater paint ... right) to look like a dolphin. It's a disguise, pure and
But when he is forced out of disguise, from that moment on they treat it
as if he were a cross-dresser -- as if it were something that he did because he
preferred to pass as a dolphin. And suddenly we getting sermonettes about
how his dad needs to learn to love his dolphin-dressing son, while we see the
newly enlightened shark gangsters painting themselves to show how liberated
I don't know about you, but I prefer my stories not to be hijacked by
preachers slapping me in the head with an irrelevant moral at the end.
This was a movie about, first, how telling lies to make yourself look cool
ends up hurting everybody, and about, second, a vegetarian shark's search for
the approval of his father.
Wasn't that enough? No! They were afraid we were so stupid we might
not get it that Lenny represented homosexuals' quest for acceptance: They had
to ram the point home by throwing in cross-dressing at the end, even though it
had nothing to do with the actual story.
But frankly, by that point you don't care. The movie was already so
boring in the first half that by the end, you are grateful even for a politically
correct moral because at least something is happening.