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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 4, 2007

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


Studio 60, 30 Rock, Scrubs, Clapton, Jackson, Gill, and books

This past fall, NBC brought out two comedies that seem, at first glance, to be the same show: A behind-the-scenes look at the people who make a comedy show very much like Saturday Night Live. But they could not be more different.

Studio 60 is the creation of Aaron Sorkin, the witty but vastly overrated creator of West Wing. The nature of West Wing forced the creation of interesting characters, because everybody's job was so different, so all Sorkin had to do was add glib wit to the job description and voila: characters.

Unfortunately, in Studio 60 the characters' jobs are much less clearly defined, and so we see all too clearly how incompetent Sorkin is at actually getting inside people who are different from him.

The performers do their best -- Matthew Perry (Friends), Steven Weber (Wings), Amanda Peet (Something's Gotta Give), and Sarah Paulson (American Gothic) are absolutely wonderful. If only they were given something real to do. Instead, they are limited to saying smart and witty things while flailing about in search of a soul.

For those whose highest ambition in life is to watch soulless people say snippy things to each other between ridiculously self-knowing or ineptly plot-driven "scenes," this is the series you've long been waiting for. And we must give Sorkin credit for knowing absolutely everything sick and bad about the television industry. If this series has any message, it's that Sorkin knows how to bite the hand that feeds him.

What he does not know is comedy. Admittedly, this show is not a comedy -- it's a one-hour drama. But it's about people who make comedy, and in the episodes I've watched I have to say that I'm not sure, but I think the big twist at the end of the first year will be the cancellation, with prejudice, of the comedy show these characters are all working on. Because never, for one moment, are any of these people actually good at the job of creating comedy.

But then, this show doesn't work as drama, either, because the only way the made-up problems of fictional characters can possibly matter to us is if the problems seem real and the characters are likeable. Sorkin provides neither; any likeability in the characters comes entirely from the actors playing them.

It is possible to write characters that we like and care about immediately. I don't ask that we like all the characters in a drama. But it would be nice to like somebody.

Plus, it's tedious in the extreme to watch poor Sarah Paulson as she tries to play the "Christian" character. Unfortunately, Sorkin doesn't just hate Christians, he also doesn't know any of them, so that his feeble attempts at giving the Christian point of view through Paulson's character are the equivalent of showing people fueling their cars with sugar or plugging their computers into the kitchen faucet. He has no idea what he's talking about, so that this character is an absurd parody of what an atheist thinks Christians are like.

But I suppose it evens out, because Matthew Perry's character has the misfortune of being Sorkin's voice, giving his bigoted, hateful, and deeply stupid ideas about religion (and, for thatmatter, everything else). Thus one of the most likeable and talented actors on television is reduced to spewing bile and trying to make a character out of it.

Still -- I did say the characters were really witty and clever and glib, didn't I? I bet Sorkin is a riot at parties. He seems to be the kind of guy that Truman Capote had in mind when he said, "If you can't say anything nice, come sit by me." Fun for one party, but I wouldn't want to sit next to that guy every week.

30 Rock, on the other hand, is the creation of Tina Fey, and the series has the blessing of Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live. This means that the people running the show actually know how a weekly sketch comedy show is made, and who the people are who make it.

The result is that we get good strong glimpses of the insanity, childishness, and off-the-wall bizarreness that have been well-documented among those who created SNL from the beginning.

Last week's episode, for instance, in which Tina Fey is dragged along with Alec Baldwin to a birthday party for the last Hapsburg prince, I not only laughed at the antic of the people from the comedy show, I also laughed out loud at the over-the-top but still vaguely sweet prince, a tragic victim if many generations of royal-family inbreeding.

The subplot about a family man on the writing staff who narrowly escapes being seduced by a hot babe reached an exuberantly absurd climax when, in a men's lavatory, two friends popped their heads out of Laugh-In-style windows high in the wall, playing devil and angel, complete with red versus white lights.

This show keeps as tenuous a grip on reality as Scrubs, but it's not The Three Stooges, either. It stakes out its territory somewhere between the Marx Brothers and The Dick Van Dyke Show -- with Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, and Jane Krakowski (Ally McBeal) giving us whatever hold on reality we maintain.

I think Tina Fey is ten times the writer Aaron Sorkin is. But that's hardly a surprise, since comedy is far harder to write than drama. Unfortunately, comedy gets way less respect. So you'll probably see Sorkin nominated (as usual) for awards that he doesn't deserve, while Fey will be passed over. She'll just have to console herself by knowing that her show actually works, because of her writing and because she's such a good performer, too.

*

Speaking of Scrubs, I had caught only glimpses of it in the past and concluded that it wasn't my kind of show. That's because if you catch only a moment or two, it's likely to feel like an Abrahams, Zucker, and Zucker comedy -- you know, Airplane! in a hospital.

But I finally broke down and watched an episode all the way through, and guess what: To my surprise, it's really funny. It's a strange combination of sketch-style comedy, in which character doesn't matter, and soap opera, in which character is all you have. In neither case, however, does believability play a huge role, and if 30 Rock finds its place between Dick Van Dyke and the Marx Brothers, it's only because Scrubs got there first and showed them how it's done.

Zach Braff provides the reality-anchor in this show, and he does it quietly but brilliantly. Most of the laughs come from other actors -- but they would not be funny, and we would probably not be watching, if we didn't have Braff in the middle, looking at everybody with elfin puzzlement. He is, in short, the Mary Tyler Moore of this show, and whatever they pay him, it's not enough.

Executive producer Bill Lawrence has, in my opinion, found a kind of comedy that can only exist on television. And he uses it well. Unlike Sorkin, he is able to deal with hot-button topics with even-handed dead-on satire. The episode I watched showed the whole hospital staff riven by arguments over the Iraq War -- but both sides' viewpoints were given fair voice, and also shown to be absurdly pig-headed and equally ignorant.

The result was a complete lack of smarminess. It was flat-out funny, and the audience for this show would be smarter after watching it than they were when it started. How often does that happen on TV?

*

Eric Clapton has always seemed to be like the shy guy at the party who mumbles when you talk to him -- but then somebody hands him a guitar, he starts to play, and the whole room falls still as people turn to look at him in awe.

It also helps that he can sing a little.

I've enjoyed the way he has seemed to follow his own tastes throughout his career, and yet managed to drag a lot of us with him into music we probably never would have heard if he hadn't taken us there. His most recent album, The Road to Escondido, consists of duets with JJ Cale, of whom I had heard nothing before I bought this album.

The result is a half blues, half country sound (which is where, if you think about it, Clapton has been headed all along), with guitar you could die for. The album jacket shows us a couple of old coots; the songs are old men's songs, world-weary but also hopeful, as if they've seen the whole road ("Hard to Thrill"), they're getting near the end, but they don't mind, it was worth the trip.

*

Another singer who's been around for a while is Alan Jackson, and you can feel it on his new album, Like Red on a Rose. You can hear it in his voice as he sings some verses of "O Susanna" as the lead-in and closing of the track "Where Do I Go from Here (Trucker's Song)."

There was a time when Alan Jackson was my favorite country singer -- partly, I think, because he was getting to sing some of the best songs, but also because he has always given me a sense that he was a grownup who actually knew what he was singing about.

The music industry being the way it is, Jackson isn't the country-music superstar he once was -- that's usually reserved for hot new artists -- but he's still doing terrific work, and this album proves it. Country music is not unkind to its older citizens -- the fans may not be screaming for Jackson anymore, but they still take him home and let him sing the songs of their hearts.

(Plus, I appreciate country albums that don't have a lot of honky-tonk drinking songs. As a nondrinker, I have no idea what there is about getting drunk that makes people want to sing songs about it -- I know that watching them from the outside would only lead me to sing the blues, about how sad and empty life must be if the only way you can have fun is to poison yourself and switch off your brain.

(So that's a whole range of country music that I'm just not part of. I'm glad when I get an album that is booze-free, so I can care about all the songs.)

*

When a singer puts out a big album of new songs, I usually find myself cringing, even if it's a singer that I like a lot. Why? Because whenever a pop performer tries to do something "important" it usually ends up being a melange of pretension and carelessness. They switch off all the skills and sense that made them popular in the first place as they try for "art."

So when I bought Vince Gill's four-disc album, These Days, it was with a sense of foreboding. The album sat there on my desk for a couple of months, still in its shrink wrap, before I finally sighed and cut the thing open and ripped the cds so I could listen to them on my computer while I worked.

I didn't get half as much work done as I expected. Because all four albums in this package are outstanding. Not a bad cut in the lot.

The first album is Workin' On a Big Chill: The Rockin' Record, and it lives up to the subtitle. Knowing Gill to be a guy who takes his religion seriously and who is known to put some of it unapologetically in his songs, I was surprised to have a whole album devoted mostly to songs that celebrate the lusty side of love -- as if we were to be treated to the Dark Side of Gill. The trouble is, they're really good songs of their type, not just for Gill's vocals (he totally gets this type of music, even though it's not what he's best known for) but also for the instrumental performances.

Then I moved to the second album, The Reason Why: The Groovy Record. Whoever decided to revive the word "groovy" for this needs to be slapped upside the head -- "groovy" music is that hideous perky stuff from the sixties, epitomized by Simon and Garfunkel's terminally silly "Feelin' Groovy." That has nothing to do with what Gill does here -- most of the tracks are duets with female singers, including Diana Krall, Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss, and Trisha Yearwood. And the style of singing is reminiscent of the Great American Songbook -- the old meaning of "groovy," from the heyday of cool jazz. I liked this album best.

Some Things Never Get Old: The Country and Western Record is exactly what you'd expect from the subtitle: It's a traditional country record, full of songs you'd expect to hear on the radio any time between 1980 and now.

Little Brother: The Acoustic Record, unsurprisingly enough, was reminiscent of country's roots in folk and gospel.

I loved every minute of this album. Gill makes the most of the long country tradition of singing duets with other singers. That's one of the traditions, born of stage performances on the Grand Ole Opry, that makes country music stand out in today's recording scene.

Oh, rock and pop have had their duets, but they always feel like stunts. When country singers do a duet, you get a feeling that they were just hanging out jamming together and somebody said, "Here's a new one I just got," and they pick it and sing it together and somebody says, "Hey, we're good together on this one, let's do a duet," and there it is. The duet grows out of a shared love for the music, and not some publicist's dream.

About half the cuts on These Days are duets, with a wide range of singers. But Vince Gill holds his own with all of them -- you never forget that it's his album.

These Days isn't a pretentious stunt, it's a genuine treasure. It feels deeper than anything you can get on the radio -- it holds together. It has a cumulative effect. At the end of my first listening, I was sorry to hear the music change to someone else's album; Vince Gill had given me a wonderful couple of hours of country music at its best.

*

I've never understood the appeal of Andrea Bocelli. Being blind doesn't make you a better singer, but Bocelli seems to have achieved a popularity and renown greater (at least in the U.S.) than much-better singers doing the same kind of music -- and with much better voices. Bocelli has an annoyingly rapid vibrato, and he glides his notes as if he were a bel-canto version of Dean Martin. He seems to be straining on notes that should be well within his range. He also has never grasped the rhythms of English, so that his songs in our language are annoyingly mannered and accented.

These are problems no worse than the vocal shortcomings of, say, Norah Jones, who has achieved far greater stardom than much-better singers like Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, and Shirley Eikhard. It happens in pop music all the time. You have to have talent, but the best voices don't always have the most success -- and the reasons are complicated and, probably, unknowable.

But I still buy Norah Jones albums -- and Andrea Bocelli's albums, too. Bocelli's newest, Under the Desert Sky, is best when he's not singing in (and butchering) English, but as long as you're using it as background music, it's just fine. As Simon Cowell would say, "It's a good cruise-ship voice." Play it softly during the hour before the dinner party starts.

Except for one song, which shows Bocelli at his best. "The Prayer" closes the album, and at the end of it, Bocelli's voice achieves surpassing sweetness. Unfortunately, the song begins with a solo by Heather Headley, who has an earnest but thin voice, which is not up to the task. Get through her part -- it's worth it just to hear the beautiful ending.

For truly gorgeous foreign-language bel-canto pop, what you want is the Italian Vittorio, whose album (modestly called Vittorio) gives us a voice that has far more power, understanding, and sheer beauty than Bocelli is capable of -- and his English-language work is better, too. I have listened to this album over and over for months, and I never get tired of it. This is one you want to stop what you're doing and listen to.

And when you're done with Vittorio, try Mario Frangoulis and Alessandro Safina, and you'll come back to Bocelli and agree with me: Nice, but what are people so excited about, when these other singers do the same kind of music so much better?

But then, the chief audience for these bel-canto males is women who are eager to swoon. And maybe the fact that Bocelli is so darn sweet and cute, rather than being a macho hunk like the other guys, actually is a plus for the female audience. I can't say -- I can only listen with the ears I have.

*

If you haven't already followed my recommendation and started reading Jacqueline Winspear's "Maisie Dobbs" mystery series, it's not too late to start. Set in the 1920s and 1930s in England, where the scars of World War I and the deepening Great Depression have twisted and scarred people's lives, these novels are not just first-rate mysteries, they are also serious historical novels.

The newest book in the series is Messenger of Truth seems to step away from the aftermath of the Great War as Maisie Dobbs gets involved in resolving the apparent murder of a young artist who has long been estranged from his family. It seems the young man had created a major work of art that promised to be unforgettably powerful -- his masterwork. But now that he's dead, nobody can find the multi-part painting.

We learn, however, that the subject of the painting was the war, and it was born of the artist's experience as a war artist. He had the morally dreadful task of creating recruiting posters designed to inspire young men to enlist -- to fight a war that was chewing up hundreds of thousands of soldiers' lives to no purpose whatsoever, as incompetent generals kept hurling them to their deaths against entrenched machine guns.

Usually when fiction writers describe imaginary great works of art, they're emotional but without content -- they tell us that everybody is moved, but their descriptions of the paintings don't move us. Winspear does it right -- when we find out what the painting is, it moves us as if we had seen it. Now that, my friends, is writing.

*

Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars, which I reviewed a few months ago, was a dark, powerful masterpiece of serious fantasy fiction, and her new series, Crossroads, which begins with the novel Spirit Gate, promises to be another good one. It's a world that has long been policed by Guardians, men and women who ride -- and partner with -- great winged creatures which are, to my relief, definitely not dragons.

As the story begins, our heroes learn that someone has been deliberately targeting these Guardians, killing the policemen so that no one will stand as protectors of the peace. But the story is much deeper than this dilemma. We are plunged into a lost past, where even more powerful figures than the Guardians once protected the people, and there is a clear indication that we will see them come again.

There is also a second plotline that promises to offer us the lush, majestic darkness of the Prince of Dogs in Elliott's previous series. But since fantasy, like science fiction, always sounds vaguely silly when you describe the storyline without all the supporting verisimilitude that sustains belief, I will say no more, except to remind you that Elliott has proven herself to be one of the best writers working today.

If Elliott has any flaw, it's that she's prone to get a bit too caught up in the religious aspects of her fictional mythologies. Sometimes it seems she thinks that she is tapping into real spirituality, but it is too much for a fiction writer to try to lure us into accepting imaginary religions as a source of genuine spiritual experience. Fortunately, this is only an occasion problem, and never lasts long. The power of the fiction remains, unassailable.


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