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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 21, 2008

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


Fringe, Burn Notice, Mrs. Quent, Sunday Music

If you think an album of Tom Jones singing songs arranged for Dean Martin is a good idea, then you'll love Patrizio's The Italian. It left me wishing for Tom Jones singing Tom Jones songs, and Dean Martin singing Dean Martin songs.

*

The Fringe was supposed to be so good. With J.J. Abrams in command, how could it miss? After all, Abrams is the writer who created Lost and, before that, Alias and Felicity.

Alas, the J.J. Abrams who showed up for work on The Fringe was the one who wrote Armageddon, a movie so shallow it parodied itself. Weird that it's the same guy.

Fringe suffered from many of the same flaws as Armageddon. Sex was used as a cheap shorthand for "love"; as with Armageddon, the writer thought that it was enough to make us feel sympathy for the two main characters of the pilot episode. No further character insights needed.

Here's the trouble with sex on screen -- especially on the small screen: It might intrigue adolescents who've never had sex, but it doesn't involve them with the characters, just with the sex. As for grownups, most of us have figured out that even really horrible people have sex from time to time, so seeing two pretty screen people in bed doesn't mean diddly about how we feel about them.

Oh, wait. They're two FBI agents who are having sex without the knowledge of their boss. Apparently this is the last sexual tabu in American society. Or something. Are they daring? Or just stupid and selfish?

Anyway, in the midst of a scene of two pretty actors (Brad Chase and Anna Torv) engaging in empty post-coital banter, the phone rings. A strange plane crash; no one is allowed near it without haz-mat suits on.

Because this show isn't just shallow. It's also stupid.

The pilot episode actually began with an airplane undergoing serious turbulence -- as if Abrams wanted to remind us of how Lost began. During all the bouncing, one passenger seems particularly sick. He opens a briefcase and injects a fold of skin on his belly with ... something.

Moments later, he bounds up from his seat as if to head for the toilet; a flight attendant follows him, and when he spins around, we see that his face is melting. (Didn't I see that in Poltergeist?)

Then, only moments later, everybody on the plane has melting skin. So we're not exactly surprised that when the plane landed (by ground-directed auto-pilot), everyone on it was a dripping skeleton.

Oooooh. Icky.

Of course, the sci-fi writer in my brain was conducting a running commentary: What infectious agent could possibly spread that fast? If it was introduced by the injection, that means that only seconds after the injection, it not only spread to all the skin of the guy's face, it also spread from him to all the other passengers.

That is one fast virus.

Only we find out very soon (I'm not giving anything away here, folks) that it wasn't a virus at all. It was a mix of chemicals that caused the skin to dissolve!

A finite amount of each chemical, introduced into one person by injection, suddenly spreads, without physical contact, throughout the airplane and makes everybody's skin dissolve.

Not long after, a character on the ground gets a nearly identical effect, not from a delicately designed mix of chemicals, but from -- literally -- an explosion in the chemical factory.

These are chemicals so "contagious" that were able to spread throughout a plane in moments. But with the explosion, two other people who were near enough to be tossed around by the blast were not affected by the chemical mix at all.

Meanwhile, the guy who was in the middle of it seemed unhurt by the explosion itself, except for the dissolving skin thing. Only he doesn't die within moments. Instead, there's time to get him to a hospital and cool his body to a point where the skin-dissolve slows down, giving his girlfriend/agent a couple of days to:

1. Google "dissolving skin" and instantly find the one scientist on earth who has been working on this highly useful subject;

2. Determine that this scientist has been remanded by the courts to a mental institution and can only be visited by relatives, and no subpoena can possibly gain her access;

3. Fly to the Middle East to blackmail the mad scientist's son into taking her into the mental institution even though he absolutely hates his father; and

4. Get the scientist to develop the antidote.

Before the antidote can take effect, though, lovergirl is able to do a mind-meld with him -- again, rigged up by the mad scientist just in time. (Apparently, if you work on dissolving skin, of course you're also working on machine-assisted telepathy as well, because the fields are so closely related. And you can easily assemble all the equipment and materials you need on the spur of the moment, especially if you have a cow).

In this mental connection, she sees the face of the guy who blew him up and, presumably, created the evil chemical mix that killed the people on the plane. Working from a drawing derived from her description, the FBI searches for anyone in the world's vast database of former graduate students who has both a similar face and a connection with the science of dissolving skin.

And guess what? Oh, don't bother. Let's just say that the really ridiculously unbelievable stuff hasn't even happened yet.

When you add in the Homeland Security guy who already hates lovergirl because of something she did to a friend of his in the past, and then find out that the murderous grad student's terrorist boss was somebody we already know, it becomes clear that The Fringe takes place in a world consisting of only six people.

The employment situation is so bad that the heroes have to moonlight as villains and vice-versa.

And you thought Lost had an awfully small cast of people who actually did anything!

My wife and daughter (and several friends of ours who also had high hopes for the show) gave up partway through. I grimly watched to the end.

I thought of all the crossword puzzles I could have solved during the time I spent watching The Fringe and I admit, I was a little resentful.

Anyone who has said The Fringe is like The X-Files in any way owes X-Files creator Chris Carter an apology.

Yet somehow this shallow-character stupid-science coincidence-heavy cliche-ridden pilot episode earned a B+ from Entertainment Weekly and a rave from a friend of mine whose taste I usually agree with. So maybe I'm wrong.

Naw. This series is a waste of time.

*

You want a series that is not a waste of time? You can buy the whole first season of Burn Notice on DVD and I promise you one of the best TV shows I've ever seen.

The premise is that in the middle of a dangerous assignment in Nigeria, American spy Michael Westen is given a burn notice -- essentially, a notice that he's not only fired, he's considered dangerous to the U.S. and is not to be helped in any way.

He manages to bluff, then shoot, then motorscoot his way out of the immediate death threat, though he's beaten quite badly in the process.

Here's where I knew that this was going to be a smart series. Once the adrenalin-fueled escape was over, he collapsed ... and woke up, days later, in Miami, where he had been delivered to an ex-girlfriend, Fiona, whom he had known when she was a terrorist working for the IRA, back when you could make a living at it.

Even then, it still took him days to recover enough to function. She didn't just kiss it all better.

Do you understand what I'm saying? The hero of an action series actually had to take time to heal, and crippling injuries actually crippled him!

Then, in another episode, he tries the old "bet that the other guy can't hit a moving target with a handgun" gambit and ... gets hit in the shoulder by a ricochet! And the bad guy isn't hurt at all!

And I'm thinking: Are the writers of this series (led by newcomer Matt Nix and old-timer Jeff Freilich) actually smart? Do they -- and the network execs -- truly believe that we viewers are also smart?

That is the only thing about this series that is hard to believe.

One cool gimmick is that the hero narrates the series. His narration consists mostly of a sort of ongoing manual for spies. It adds to the humor, but also serves to explain what's going on, sparing us many minutes of exposition-in-scene.

Oh, did I mention that this series is funny? But not pratfall funny, or joke funny. It's funny because the characters interact with such wit and irony and genuine pain. It's funny the way good friends are funny, once you're in on the same jokes and know the shared history.

The star of Burn Notice is Jeffrey Donovan, who blew us away in 2004's short-lived but powerful series Touching Evil (a mini-franchise created by Paul Abbott). Donovan has been working steadily, but keeps getting cast in movies that even his giant talent can't save. But playing Michael Westen, Donovan has ample opportunities to show what he can do. For instance, his near-magical ability to make his face go as blank as if his brain had shut down; and then, without moving a muscle, change it to a look of absolute seething rage.

Or he can seem genially dumb, without ever looking like he's putting on a dumb act, or completely innocent without a breath of insincerity.

In other words, Donovan is a brilliantly skilled actor who never makes us notice that he's acting.

Pair him with Gabrielle Anwar as Fiona, who plays a saucy-dangerous-heartsick woman so believably that you almost don't notice that she's casually sexy without even seeming to try -- and the writers can give them any kind of dialogue -- Hepburn-and-Tracy level dialogue -- and they make it sing.

Add to the mix Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame and Sharon Gless, once of Cagney and Lacey, who is, I swear it, giving her best performances ever, and I'm so happy with this cast and these writers that I can hardly contain myself.

I'm not containing myself. I'm telling you.

I only heard about this series because my son put it on his Christmas wish list. He had gotten hooked on the series partway through the first season and wanted to see what he'd missed.

His description was so positive that I decided he shouldn't have to wait. I shipped it to him, ordered a set for myself, and then started watching it and could hardly bring myself to stop.

Because the show is on the cable-only USA Network, they don't follow the same rules as the big networks. So the second season began this past July and seems to have ended on 18 September (at least USAnetwork.com lists that episode as the season finale).

Repeat episodes will be aired at least into October, so you can set your DVR or TiVo to catch them. Also, Hulu.com has several episodes available, as well as a lot of commentaries.

The Fringe makes you feel smart because at least you're smarter than the writers of that series. Burn Notice makes you feel smart because you're in the company of excellent writers and great performers.

Try out an episode -- any episode -- and I bet Burn Notice will go onto your wish list, too. Or else it will magically appear in your DVD player ...

*

I'm such a sucker. After years of battling bugs and fungus on my tomatoes, I got taken in by the catalogues that showed me how growing tomatoes upside down would solve all my problems.

It's true that tomatoes will actually grow that way. In fact, they grow so profusely, if you fertilize and water them enough, that no matter how high you hang them, if they're low enough that you can still water them they will definitely hang right down to the ground, where squirrels and birds and bugs can eat the little green tomatoes before you get a chance to harvest them.

The real problem, though, is watering them enough. Tomatoes growing in the ground can send down roots to find deeper water. Tomatoes hanging from a bag only get the water that will fit in the bag. That means daily watering -- and, in really hot weather, twice-daily watering.

How convenient is that!

And while I haven't had much problem with fungus on the tomatoes, they have become infested with a billion tiny white flies that seem to scoff at any insecticide that you can use on plants from which you intend to harvest edible fruit.

The hanging planters came with watering pans that are supposed to use an osmotic strip to feed water steadily to the soil.

Two of them worked, two of them didn't. Even the ones that worked couldn't cope with really hot days. I ended up tossing them out (after three months) and watering the tomatoes directly.

So far I've harvested exactly three edible tomatoes from this source of constant amusement.

This winter, the stand from which I hung these baskets will become a hanger for bird feeders. That's pretty much what it is right now anyway.

*

Anybody who dares to write a book that deliberately reminds you of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters is an idiot. Austen is such a perfect writer that nobody can match her wit -- those who try merely embarrass themselves. And few who try to do Bronte-esque gothic have a clue as to how the genre works.

So it was with great skepticism that I picked up The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, by Galen Beckett. It was touted as a book that explains the "fantastical" reason why women were so "constrained" in Jane Austen's fiction.

Indeed, the book is dependent -- too dependent -- on Jane Austen. I got weary of counting plot devices that echoed Austen novels. The girl who gets sick at the rich people's house. The family house entailed to a repulsive male relative. The mother who has to be fetched by the frantic lover to care for the sick one. The gentleman of superior station who falls in love beneath his class but decides he doesn't care.

(And Beckett seems not to have understood that in Pride and Prejudice, the house was not just a house -- it included land with tenant farmers who generated income. In this book, it truly is just a house, and it is baffling to figure out where the family income, small as it is, comes from.)

All this would have been annoying, except ... Galen Beckett brings off the dialogue. The manner.

No, Beckett is not Jane Austen's equal as a writer of witty dialogue. Nobody is. Not even Oscar Wilde, who goes for a much showier effect.

Still, Beckett's witty interplays are as close as I've ever seen anyone come to getting the feel of Austen's dialogue.

Then, partway through the book, a key character drops dead and everything changes. I mean everything. Suddenly the book switches from narrative to epistolary -- the main character has gone off to be a governess and is writing letters home to her insane father, knowing that he can't understand them.

And we're no longer in Jane Austen country, we're now in the midst of a pastiche of Charlotte Bronte mixed with Henry James.

Once again, Galen Beckett brings it off. I read it with, I'll confess it, more interest than I could ever work up for Jane Eyre or Turn of the Screw.

In the midst of all these literary games -- delightful as they were -- Galen Beckett is also writing an intriguing and inventive fantasy/steampunk novel. There is the magery of men, the witchcraft of women, and magic from ancient forests that sometimes rise up and attack the human interlopers.

There is also a dangerous confluence of planets and mysterious soul-stealing creatures and secret societies who are fighting off one or another threat. And don't forget the group of people, part gypsy and part theatrical company, who can't make up their minds whether they are seducing or rescuing the heroes.

Did I mention that there is also a strong influence of Dickens on the plotting? Oh, indeed, yes -- we have the young man who has fallen from gentlemanly income but is trying to protect his sister from the consequences of such a fall by taking whatever jobs he can get while keeping her sequestered from public view.

If this book sounds like Beckett threw in everything but the kitchen sink, think again. The kitchen sink is most certainly there.

And I loved every minute of it. I got the literary references and enjoyed most of them, but at no point does Beckett allow his games to interfere with the inventive fantasy adventure tale he's telling. We are always moving forward through the story at a pace that, when you start realizing what's really going on, didn't waste any time on nonessentials.

I not only recommend this book, highly, I have already forced it on several friends and family members. Even though it will delight readers of Austen's novels, the book is by no means chick lit. Many readers of heroic, adventurous fiction will find plenty to keep them going.

Some amateur reviewers on Amazon have spoken ill of this book, but their reviews reveal that they are simply people who can't read their way out of a box. Here's a book that knocks down all the walls and draws from everything and tells a good story even while teasing just about every kind of audience -- and some readers just can't stand having their expectations defied.

Too bad for them. I'm glad this book exists, and so will you be, once you read it.

*

Our local Barnes & Noble doesn't have a full music section -- just a couple of racks where you wait to get to the checkout desk. But they do a much better job of selecting titles I'm likely to be interested in (about one in four) than, say, the music section of Entertainment Weekly, which reviews an album I'm remotely interested in only about three times a year.

On that B&N display a couple of weeks ago I picked up an album called Sunday Music. It's not a cd of hymns (though there are a few), but rather of music that fits a mood of sacredness or solemnity.

Composers include Handel, Schubert, Bach, and Dvorak. Performers include well-known orchestras and choruses -- and a few surprising choices, like Sting, singing "Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow."

Only after listening to the album several times did I look it up and discover that this is the fourth album in a Barnes & Noble series -- and the first of them to feature classical music.

Previous albums have included such performers as Rufus Wainwright, Peter Gabriel, Sara Tavares, Pat Matheny, and Cassandra Wilson. I look forward to trying the older ones as soon as I get them from B&N online.


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