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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 17, 2006

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


Akeelah, Networks, BrushPicks, SpringBoard

We really wanted to see Akeelah and the Bee when it was still in the theaters this summer, but we were distracted by overhyped nonsense movies just often enough that we missed our chance. So when we saw the DVD in Target the other day, we bought it and watched it the very next night.

What a wonderful story! Akeelah is a 7th grade girl in a broken-down middle school in South Central Los Angeles, but she has a mind like a sponge -- she learns things so easily that she tries to conceal her excellence from the bullies at school who like to beat up smart kids.

Almost against her will, she gets involved in a spelling bee and discovers that she actually likes both the competition and the chance to be really good at something. Her father, who died when she was six, used to play Scrabble with her; words are something she uses to stay close to him in memory.

Her school principal finds her a coach -- a semi-retired UCLA professor with problems of his own, who demands the best from her and gets it.

This is structured like a sports film -- a fictional one, so that it's not necessarily about winning, but about people transforming each other's lives in a good way. So deftly has writer/directly Doug Atchison created his story that there are not just one but five relationships that become important to us in this movie.

The most important one is Akeelah's relationship with her widowed mother (played magnificently by Angela Bassett), a hospital worker who is struggling to keep her family fed and sheltered while keeping her second son out of gang life. She barely has time to notice Akeelah's brilliance, and at first resists what she sees as a waste of time.

Then there's Dr. Larabee (a smoldering performance by Laurence Fishburne), the coach who was once in the national spelling bee himself, who has his problems of his own that Akeelah ends up helping him to heal.

Two of the kids she meets in competition are important to her. Javier Mendez is a cheerful kid who placed thirteenth in the nationals the previous year. He befriends her at once and includes her in his life -- which is in Woodland Hills, a long, long bus ride away from South Central. J.R. Villarreal plays him with such warmth and insouciance that we feel like we've made a friend.

Naturally, there has to be an arch-rival, a Chinese-American boy, Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael), whose father drives him to the point where there is no joy in competition for him. But this movie doesn't hate anybody: We watch as Akeelah refuses to accept Chiu's disdain for her and insists on caring more about him than she does about herself.

Akeelah's best friend (Sahara Garey), who pushed her into the competition, feels shunted aside when Akeelah starts to hang out with new friends from the spelling-competition community.

But then there's Akeelah's relationship to her whole downtrodden community. When Akeelah's victories in spelling bees become fodder for the local news, her brother's gang-banger friends insist that he help her study. Her mother, her friends, the postman, the erstwhile gang members -- all become a part of her effort to learn five thousand new words on flash cards.

Amid this excellent cast, Keke Palmer, who plays Akeelah, shines forth as the heart and root of the story. Her performance is absolutely unaffected and real; what we see is genuine talent, not child-star chops; this girl is going to grow up to be genuine Oscar-bait. And since all the children give superb performances, we can also see Doug Atchison as one of those rare directors who can and should work with children -- he brings out the best in all of them.

Naturally, with a mostly-black cast, this movie will be perceived as being aimed at an African-American audience. But it is not. It is aimed at an audience of people who believe that excellence is worth aspiring for and that it's a good thing for people to seek and get help in achieving worthwhile goals. It's about sportsmanship, and keeping the important things in life in perspective.

Which makes it sound almost like medicine, doesn't it? But it's not. It's a joy to watch such a well-written, well-acted, well-made movie. So sensitive is the director's touch that we never feel like we're being squeezed to wring emotion from us. The whole thing feels real, and at the end, we're glad we spent time with these good people.

*

A brief salute to Panera for their new "crispani" -- thin crust, delicately flavored pizzas that are exactly what I wish pizza to be. If you're a hearty-crust, thick-toppings pizza eater, then no, this will not satisfy your cravings. But for a delicious, light supper, crispani with a salad or bowl of soup is a new favorite of mine.

*

Last week I renewed Lynn Flewelling's powerful fantasy trilogy, The Bone Doll's Twin, Hidden Warrior, and The Oracle's Queen. I can't recommend this trilogy highly enough, as entertainment and as literature (for mature readers -- think of it as PG-13).

When I turned to her earlier work, however, I found that while her talent is obvious in her first novel, Luck in the Shadows, she had not yet learned how to structure a novel, and the roots of the story in fantasy role-playing games are a bit more obvious. Not that I advise against this book and its sequels -- they're still quite entertaining -- but it is in the later-written trilogy that we see her achieve real mastery as a writer.

*

Having once had a tv series idea of mine picked up by the WB for a year or so, before being dumped, I've had my taste of network pitch meetings and the search for good shows. It's easy to get the impression from watching television that the networks are headed by gangs of dolts, and good shows only get on television by accident. Not so.

As a general rule, the people in charge of programming at the networks are very, very smart. The trouble is that no matter how smart you are, nobody knows which series are going to become instant hits with the public and which are going to tank miserably.

That doesn't mean that it's nobody's fault when bad television comes on. Everybody in television knows that it's a writer's medium -- while the public comes to love the stars, the shows that succeed to so because the writing is very good. Even the shows that the critics detest, but the public loves, have excellent writing at their heart.

But writers are no better than network executives at knowing which shows will be good -- or successful. We've seen many examples of writers who are brilliantly talented but who have their own quirks that can drive their own shows into oblivion. Glenn Gordon Caron, for instance, the brilliant series creator behind Moonlighting and Medium, was the reason why Moonlighting was so brilliant -- and why it died of self-cannibalism after only three seasons.

David E. Kelley, arguably the most brilliant writer in the history of television, responsible for series like Doogie Howser, M.D., Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, The Practice, and Boston Legal, still goes off on weird tangents where he destroys the reality of his own series because he starts having fun and forgets what the audience tunes in for.

So it's not as if the networks could turn programming over to the writers and have any better luck than they have now. Writing for television is one art; choosing which shows to produce and put on is another. And nobody is perfect at either of them.

For a brief course in how the whole system is hopelessly broken, I've never seen a better book that Bill Carter's book Desperate Networks. In recent years we've seen huge swings in programming prowess.

NBC, long a powerhouse with its must-see TV on Thursday nights, suddenly crashed and burned. If they didn't have the Law and Order franchise, you could buy the network for a nickel and still feel cheated.

Fox surged forward on the strength of "reality" shows, even though the network was often embarrassed by just how low their reality programming went. Then when we began to think of Fox as the junk network, they stick with 24 till the ratings finally come, and pop up with creative hits like The O.C., Prison Break, and House.

The WB carved out its niche of teenage-girl-oriented programming, while CBS watched its news division dribble away into third place.

ABC, perpetually an also-ran, suddenly surged forward on the strength of Lost and Desperate Housewives.

Each new hit seems to come out of nowhere (which often means the Brits did it first), and then all the others imitate the original. American Idol hits, and then everybody has to have a gimmicky talent show. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? hits, and suddenly quiz shows are popping up in prime time. Fox sells its soul to the sleaziest possible reality shows, and soon the other networks sell their souls, almost as cheaply.

Carter takes us inside the networks and production companies where we can see how personalities drive what's happening. Conflicts between east-coast and west-coast offices, ambitious climbers and paranoid bosses -- it's all there.

Now and then, however, you find programmers who do something very brave. Desperate Housewives was the product of a has-been writer (i.e., he had worked on Golden Girls and he was over 40), and it was turned down everywhere before somebody at ABC finally saw it as a brilliant dark comedy.

Lost was the brainchild of a network executive, Lloyd Braun, who gave the idea to J.J. Abrams to develop -- a perfect choice. Ironically, it was also Braun, along with Susan Lyne, who gave the go-ahead to Desperate Housewives. This marked the first time that Disney's over-controlling top execs had actually allowed Braun and Lyne to make their own programming decisions -- and look what they came up with!

But ... because this was network television ... both of them were fired as the scapegoats for all the previous seasons, which they had not been able to pick with a free hand, before Lost or Desperate Housewives could debut. In other words, the people who got it right and put their network on top lost their jobs, while boneheads who put on absolutely lame comedies and copycat dramas kept theirs.

The whole saga of the season makes fascinating reading, even when Carter's talking about shows you don't watch. (I've never watched Desperate Housewives -- somehow I think I'm not in their target demographic.)

Another angle on television show-making is Created By: Inside the Minds of TV's Top Show Creators, by Steven Priggé. Most of the book consists of interviews with showrunners -- the "executive producers" who are really the head writers driving the hit shows.

Naturally, by the time this book got published, some of the "top shows" referred to had been canceled, and there are some very hot writers who aren't represented. But it's still a good sampling: J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), Yvette Lee Bowser (Living Single), Mark Brazill (That '70s Show), Larry David (Seinfeld), Tom Fontana (Oz), Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia), Brenda Hampton (7th Heaven), Max Mutchnick and David Kohan (Will & Grace), Joseh Schwartz (The O.C.), Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), and Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly). And I even left some out.

The book is officially oriented toward would-be television writers, but on that score, it often might lead to despair -- too many of them got their break because they knew somebody. But lots of them simply wrote spec scripts and submitted them, just to show how they could handle existing series characters; they almost never got hired by the show the spec script was officially intended for, but they got hired ... because they could write.

Even if you don't fancy yourself a future tv writer, though, it's fascinating to see how these writers approach the shows they create. As consumers of television shows, we benefit from knowing how they're made, and by whom, and what they're thinking when they create them.

Since I've met with many a tv writer and network executive -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- I can tell you that wherever either of these books intersects with things I know from personal experience, they get it exactly right. That's enough for me to trust the rest of what they say.

*

When you wear braces, you think about your teeth a lot more often than usual. One of the problems with braces is that flossing is a lot harder at precisely the time when you need it more. But even if you don't have braces, there are times when floss simply isn't appropriate -- but it's still driving you crazy that there's something stuck in your teeth.

Enter Doctor's brand BrushPicks, a box of plastic toothpicks with ribbing on one end and a teensy brush on the other. The brush end is perfect for flexing and getting up under and behind wires; the ribbed-pick end slides between teeth at the gum line and pushes through the shreds of Mongolian beef from P.F. Chang's or picanha from Leblon or smoked chicken from Positano or veal sausage from Café Pasta. Wonderful dishes all, but you don't want them in your teeth through the whole movie.

Needless to say, the use of toothpicks can be unpleasant for others to watch. Save it for the car or the darkened movie theater. But I don't go to restaurants anymore without a box of BrushPicks in my pocket, and even at home, I find that they're easier to use than floss.

*

The SpringBoard reading-and-writing program is mandatory for language arts teachers in Guilford County seventh and eighth grades this year. The slogan of the manufacturer, CollegeBoard, is "connect to college success." I wonder.

The program first came to my attention when my wife attended an open house about it and heard that one of the assignments for seventh graders was to write about "the worst thing that had ever happened to them." The teacher giving the presentation talked about how she had chosen to write about the death of her father when she was a child, and how cathartic it was to be able to pour out her feelings on paper.

My wife and I both thought: That's great when you're forty years old, but what about when you're twelve, and whatever you write is going to be read and graded by a teacher -- and quite probably read by fellow students as well.

A program like that wouldn't be "reading and writing," it would be "group therapy," and frankly, I don't think school's the place for it. Suppose a child really was dealing with the death of a parent or sibling; what right would a teacher have to demand that he or she write about it?

So we got our hands on a copy of the Level II teacher and student manuals to see just what was going on.

To our relief, what's actually in the book is not as therapy-group-sounding as the presentation had led us to believe. The actual assignment is to "think about a childhood disaster (falling off a bike, breaking an arm, etc.) or perhaps a memory they have of something in the past (preferably before they were eight years old) that is very vivid." Not a bad writing assignment at all -- the student still has the discretion to decide how intimate the self-revelation would be. It could even be presented comically -- always the safest choice, especially for class clowns.

I looked through the entire program and, while not impressed, I wasn't dismayed, either. I could imagine a relatively harmless course being taught from this book.

There are some really awful missteps -- an utterly boring, pointless reading selection called "Phaethon" which is discussed in conjunction with clips from that classic film Cool Runnings, for instance -- let's make sure every seventh-grader in Guilford County has those masterpieces in their shared culture.

And much of what they teach kids about how to write is simply wrong -- but it's wrong in the usual ways, so I don't know that this course would be worse than what most English teachers do anyway.

The thing I don't understand is why anyone felt the need to make this mediocre English course mandatory for all our middle school kids. The district monitors to make sure that all the teachers are on schedule with it, four days a week -- which means that even the teachers who know how to teach a better course than this -- which is most of them, I should hope -- are forced to use this program and no other.

In other words, a good teacher is forced to do all of her real teaching in the leftover time that isn't taken up by doing what the district mandates.

Weren't we trying to hire excellent teachers? Isn't that the single most important thing we need in our schools? But how can you keep a first-rate English teacher in our district if we force her to teach a second-rate course and leave her precious little time to do the very thing she is trained to do?

What problem is the district trying to solve by imposing this program?

I have given presentations in many schools around America, usually sponsored by English teachers, and never once has any English teacher ever said or hinted that she wished somebody would just tell her how to teach a writing course. They never whine about how they can't think of writing assignments for their students and they just can't find good things to have their students read.

What I usually hear -- everywhere -- is that they wish the district would get off their backs and let them spend their time doing what they love: helping kids get excited about reading and writing. Most of them already know how to do a better job than they're allowed to do.

Now, if there are a few English teachers who are really awful and dim-witted, then by all means, provide SpringBoard as an optional, minimal guide for the desperate.

But how many years do you think a good teacher can spend making kids read that miserable "Phaeton" story and doing the same mostly-unhelpful exercises in order to make them slightly worse writers than they would naturally have been, before the teacher gives up and moves on to another career?

I have a vision of some district employee in charge of curriculum development, desperately trying to justify his or her higher-than-the-teachers salary, working frantically for months or years to get the whole district to adopt the SpringBoard program. Then this administrator can point with pride at how he or she made a real difference in the education of children in Guilford County.

Meanwhile, the teachers bend a little lower in the yoke and plow on, trying to salvage some means of giving a good education to the children.

We don't need more top-down mandates to improve our schools. We need more classrooms where good teachers are free to inspire their students with love for the subject matter they're offering.

We don't need to spend our money on highly-paid administrators who come up with cool new programs. There are no programs that are remotely as good as having good teachers in front of relatively small groups of students. We would make a far greater improvement in our students' education if we fired everybody involved with forcing the SpringBoard program on our middle schools and used the money we used to pay them to hire a handful of English teachers.

Or ... here's a thought ... just spread that money around to the English teachers we already have, and then get out of their way so they can teach the literature they love and help their students love it too.


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