Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 5, 2007
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Simpsons Movie, Spare Change, Roma
Back in the previous century, I was a fan of the "Hell" books -- collections of
comic strips by Matt Groening entitled Life Is Hell and School Is Hell, featuring
an array of long-eared bunnies whose approach to life included both hostility
I was delighted when I found out that Groening was developing a television
series based around characters that first appeared on the short-lived Tracey
But when I watched the first episodes of The Simpsons in 1987 I quickly
realized that it was not really aimed at me. It was mocking family life from the
perspective of the children, not the adults: just another Dad-is-stupid sitcom,
only Dad was even more appallingly stupid than usual.
I guess The Cosby Show, where Dad was given a spark of intelligence and
decency, had spoiled me. You don't have to indulge in habitual male-bashing
to be funny, and yet The Simpsons chose to rely on it; so it was not a show in
which I needed to invest any more time.
Oddly enough, the show that got all the attention for being anti-family came
out the same year as The Simpsons -- Married With Children in 1987. And I
loved that show.
Married With Children was from the point of view of the parents, and
particularly the father. It made fun of Al Bundy because it made fun of
everybody; however, we saw him, not as the cause of the family's distress, but
as a victim of it, and perhaps the prime victim.
More to the point, Married With Children absolutely knew what a good family
was, and took care to make the Bundys the opposite of that in every
conceivable way. It was funny because we knew what good families looked
like, and this wasn't one -- and not because (like the Simpsons, to me at least)
the show didn't believe there was such a thing as a good family.
Twenty years later, The Simpsons is still going strong -- and people actually
seem to love the family, heaven knows how. While the writing on Married With
Children eventually came to focus on Al Bundy, turning him eventually into an
icon of stupid masculinity -- not my kind of show after all. They had five good
years; they lasted five years after that.
The American people had voted -- either that or The Simpsons had hung on to
a better writing staff than Married With Children was able to keep.
Last week my thirteen-year-old and I had time to go see a movie while my wife
was busy with something else. She had never watched a whole episode of The
Simpsons and I hadn't done so for longer than she had been alive.
There was only one reason we decided to go to see The Simpsons Movie, and
that was the promo in which we saw Marge (the wife) wonder aloud about why
there were pig footprints on the ceiling, whereupon she sees Homer (the
husband) holding the pig over his head, walking it along the ceiling, while
singing, "Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig, does whatever a Spider-Pig does!"
The comic timing was so exquisite (film editors are the make-or-break talent in
comedies, and nobody outside the industry seems to realize it) that we broke
up laughing and knew we would go see the movie.
To our delight, the Spider-Pig sequence was far from being the funniest part of
the movie. We laughed almost continuously. Even when we were part of the
group being skewered.
(I even laughed when they showed a global-warming-skeptic thug beating up
an environmentalist -- the opposite of what actually happens in the real world,
where you don't get tenure or your job is threatened or you get no grants if you
dare to speak against the very bad science involved in the global warming
movement. They were offensively wrong-headed -- but funny.)
The writers of The Simpsons Movie get many of their laughs from irreverence or
shock. (If you haven't seen the movie, but might, skip the rest of this
paragraph.) For instance, there's the sequence where Homer dares his son
Bart to skateboard naked to a fast-food joint. Bart takes the dare, but as he
skateboards along, his genitals are constantly concealed behind a seemingly
infinite array of strategically placed flora, fauna, and signage. Until he comes
to a tall hedge where the only part of him you can see is his crudely drawn
childish pizzle. Offensive? Yes. Funny? I almost cried with laughter.
This movie is not for everybody. In fact, I could make a case for its success
being a symptom of the American people's loss of a sense of decency,
proportion, respect, fairness, and respectability.
At the same time, it's very well done and we both enjoyed it. My 13-year-old
did not come away resolved to Live Like Bart -- quite the opposite. But she
was able to enjoy his antics.
The characters are, in other words, clowns. This is not a sympathetic comedy
like You've Got Mail or even Surf's Up; you actually agree with the characters
who loathe Homer Simpson and want to exile him if they can't actually lynch
The characters exist to be ridiculed. They do not invite sympathy, with the
possible exception of the long-suffering females; and yet we recognize
something of ourselves, or of people we know, in them.
I'm still not a fan of the weekly series. But for two funny hours in a theater,
following which I won't see these characters again for years, the Simpsons are
well worth the time and money spent on this movie.
Robert B. Parker's new novel, Spare Change, features his female sleuth,
I've seen few mystery writers who successfully introduced multiple sleuths who
live in the same world and whose stories overlapped with each other. But
Parker has brought it off. Sleuth Sunny Randall is seeing Sleuth Spenser's
main squeeze, Susan Silverman, as her shrink, and she just ended a
frustrating affair with Jesse Stone, the third sleuth.
As the heroes pop up in each other's books, it only enriches them all and
makes clear the differences among them. The message is: There are many
different ways to be good at the same job.
In some ways, you could say this is "just another Parker novel." It's another
paean to psychotherapy, with angst-filled characters who solve mysteries in the
outside world, save lives and take them as appropriate, and yet who still
agonize over matters of love.
In fact, I actually disagree with Parker's core assumption, that lasting love is
something that you discover rather than create. I also disagree most strongly
with the "if it makes you happy it must be right" premise, which is the source
of a considerable portion of the misery in the world today.
But I also don't mind that I disagree with Parker's worldview. Because even
though his writing is spare to the point of miserliness -- as if Parker were being
charged instead of paid by the word -- nobody constructs a scene with more
flair or dialogue with more wit than he does.
Unusually for Parker, the villain in this piece is a serial killer. We know very
quickly who the bad guy is; the only mystery is why, and the only suspense is
whether Sunny Randall will be killed. But we kind of know she won't, and
when the "why" of the serial killings is explained, it doesn't really explain
And yet it is a completely satisfying experience to read the book. It make me
wonder if this writer can do no wrong. I hate writers like that, but only
because of abject envy.
Parker's books get briefer and briefer, and so the paper gets thicker and the
text gets more spread out among the pages so the editors can pretend it's a
full-length novel. But brief as the actual page count is, it feels like a full
Maybe the problem is that the other guys write long.
Stephen Saylor has devoted his writing career to taking modern readers into
the life of ancient Rome, during the crucial era when the Republic was dying.
His Roma Sub Rosa mystery series now spans more than a dozen books and
stories. Starting with tales of Gordianus the Finder, Saylor has created novels
that are structured around mysteries -- and Gordianus is certainly a sleuth --
but they actually function as superb historical novels.
Historicals were once one of the strongest genres of fiction, but have faded in
recent decades. Perhaps one reason for the fade is that so many historicals
were really Christian historicals -- Taylor Caldwell's Dear and Glorious
Physician and Lloyd Douglas's The Robe being more modern followers in the
footsteps of Lew Wallace's epic Ben-Hur.
That tradition is nearly dead, at least for the large popular audience. But what
can explain the fading of brilliant non-Christian historicals like Mary Renault's
unforgettable novels of ancient Greece? (If you haven't read The King Must Die
and The Bull from the Sea, along with her many other books, then your life is
So Saylor was definitely swimming upstream when he launched his series of
historical novels about Rome. It was, therefore, an inspired move to make
them mysteries at a time when the mystery genre was burgeoning and
becoming far more inclusive.
There are others who have written historical mysteries set in Rome, but all I
have read have been thinly disguised romance novels, of which I soon wearied.
Saylor takes on the tough issues. Much of Roman history is, in fact, gossip
about a few powerful families, so the stories are inevitably personal and
convoluted, the way only family stories can be. But they also deal with crucial
political struggles and movements.
Apparently, however, Saylor has long been frustrated by the fact that stories
linked to Gordianus the Finder and his family can only take place in a limited
period of time, while Roman history is fascinating from the beginning.
Saylor is not one of those who dismiss ancient, oral-sourced history as
"legends" -- he sees those legends as having roots in real events (as
archaeology and anthropology repeatedly bear out).
So he decided it was time for a full-fledged historical novel, Roma, that would
take on the whole epic story of the place.
And to do it, he learned a bit from James Michener.
I remember when I first read The Source. The frame of the novel was a modern
archaeological expedition that uncovered a series of artifacts at Tell Makor
(good heavens, I still remember the name; unless, of course, I remembered it
wrong; let's gamble and not look it up). The book then proceeded to offer a
short story or novelet that explained at least one of the artifacts.
Thus the whole history of the place for thousands of years could be combined
in a single overarching story.
Saylor's continuity device is an amulet created in worship of Rome's original
god, who was later supplanted by so many others, from so many different
cultures, that the original was forgotten -- except by one family that preserved
the amulet through the ages.
The danger of such a book -- one to which Michener, in many of his novels, fell
victim -- is that the book is only as good as the weakest of the connected
Fortunately, even the weakest of the stories in Saylor's Roma is still
The paradox of the novel is that its ambition is ultimately self-defeating.
Roman history is simply too large to tell it all; even as much of it as Saylor tells
is hurt by the fact that we rarely have time to really get to know the characters
the way we do in the mystery novels.
The mysteries take on a very narrow slice of Roman history, but explore it at
satisfying, novelistic depth; Roma takes a whole bunch of narrow slices and
explores each at the much quicker and, alas, less satisfying depth of the short
Still, at the end of the novel, while you have certainly not been brought to the
present day a la Michener, and many great stories and characters have been
mostly ignored (or left out entirely), you have a very good picture of the life and
growth of the great city-state, not as histories are usually written, at the
political and military level, but rather at a very personal level of members of a
family whose fortunes fall and never quite rise again.
At San Diego ComiCon a few weeks ago I picked up a book called The Best of
Mr. Oblivious, by cartoonist Mark Gonyea.
In a sense, as Gonyea himself points out, all the Mr. Oblivious comics have
exactly the same premise: Mr. Oblivious is simply unaware of the world around
But each comic shows a different absurd situation, too many of which reflect
things I've done or have seen others do in the real world.
As with all comic strips, Mr. Oblivious has some winners and some losers. I
don't think it would necessarily work as a daily strip, either. On his website
there are only 108 strips. Not what the world of daily strip syndication
Rather these strips would be best presented on the fronts or backs of T-shirts.
Like some of our recent favorites ("National Sarcasm Society: Like We Need
Your Support"; "Here I am: What are your other two wishes?" "Embarrassing
My Children: Just Another Service I Offer"), the best Mr. Oblivious cartoons are
meant to be asserted in a public space.
Gonyea needs to be offering his art on objects sold on CafePress.com or
Meanwhile, though, check out http://www.mroblivious.com, where you can
see the whole range of comics and decide for yourself what's funny and what
For those who first tried the new bakery Panizzo (at Muirs Chapel and Market)
following my announcement of their grand opening a month ago, I'm afraid that
only after I wrote my announcement -- and it was too late to change the
opening date -- did they discover that there was something disastrously wrong
with their computer software, causing a lot of mixed-up, late, or lost orders.
But the computer problems have been ironed out, the system moves smoothly,
they have the great breads I promised, and the sandwiches are coming out
quickly and correctly. If you didn't have a perfect experience the first time you
stopped by, I urge you to try again.