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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 9, 2014

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


Get a Skill, Mentalist, Gods of Guilt

America has been caught up in the self-esteem movement for several decades now. The basic idea is that since it "damages" children to feel inferior, we're going to make sure nothing in their school and extra-curricular experience (except, of course, serious sports) allows them to feel inferior.

Everybody gets a prize! Everybody's a winner!

Isn't that helpful? The result of all this self-esteem-boosting is that as American kids score lower and lower on international tests, they think they're smarter than ever!

But thinking you're smart, while not actually being smart, just makes you dumber. At least people who know they're dumb don't trust their own dumb decisions and might seek advice.

I think of our seven-month-old granddaughter who visited with us over Christmas and New Year's. Her parents are wonderful and loving, but as her dad described it, "I found myself noticing whatever she was reaching for, and handing it to her."

Then their pediatrician gave the opposite advice: "Put her toys just out of reach, so she'll have a reason to push herself to creep and crawl to them."

In other words, frustration and failure (at first) are the very things that cause us to stretch and grow.

When every child's a winner, they grow up to be the kind of President who thinks everything he thinks up will be right. It will baffle him that anyone thinks he might be wrong about anything. Because, doggone it, everyone has always told him he's really really smart.

The truth is that not everybody can always be the smartest person in every room.

What triggered these ruminations for me was an essay that one of my children linked to on Facebook. It's a vulgar and wise diatribe by David Wong that was published a year ago on Cracked.com.

Did I say vulgar? When the MF word is in the first two sentences, let's just say that some of you might find it more offensive than the humor and wisdom are worth.

But he's not writing to grown-ups. He's writing to the self-esteem generation. The people who assume that they should be loved just because of who they are.

His point is: What you "are" is nothing -- all that matters is what you do.

Think about it. While it's lovely to think that your parents, at least, love you for what you are, in fact your parents only know you because of what you do. Those loving parents watching over our little granddaughter are constantly evaluating everything she does. Every smile, every new sound, every movement -- it's all judged, constantly.

Yes, they love her unconditionally. But they are evaluating her all the time, and the only basis for that evaluation is what she does (or fails to do).

Your parents are the only people who are supposed to love you no matter what (and believe me, kids, there really are limits even to that). But strangers have no such obligation. "The moment you came into the world," says Wong, "you became part of a system designed purely to see to people's needs."

"Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving, and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold."

Harsh? Ah, but true. Though when he gets down to specifics, he is really distinguishing between actions and feelings. You might feel kindly toward others, but unless you actually have something to offer them that will help them, what are your kind feelings worth?

He ridicules the idea that saying, "You'll be in my thoughts" (or prayers!) is anything more than saying, "I don't care enough to do anything to help you."

Even if you believe in the efficacy of prayer -- and I do -- thinking or praying about suffering people, instead of doing something to help when such help is within your power, is just another way of blowing people off while feeling good about yourself.

In practical terms, what Wong says is this: Evaluate yourself. What skills do you have to offer the world? Name five things, he says, that you do better than most people. Not the best in the world or even the best in town, but you do them well enough that when you offer them to others, they value it.

My wife and I had that conversation just last night. Because we are not of the self-esteem generation, we were raised to dispraise ourselves. But we managed to convince each other of a pretty reasonable list of things we do well enough that people are glad to have us do them.

Every one of those skills, however, was acquired through learning, practice, and careful application. Yes, I can sing, but I don't just start singing in a store or in the middle of a lesson in a class. I sing at appropriate times, and using the right style and song for the occasion. It's a skill that I offer but don't force on people.

I won't give you my whole list because, of course, I would run the risk of having other people inform me that no, I don't actually have this or that skill at a level that leads others to wish me to exercise it.

Here's a link to Wong's funny, clever, obscene, and wise essay:

http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/

But whether you read it or not, here's the gist: Self-esteem, like love, is not a thing that the world owes you. It has to be earned. The kind of self-esteem that comes from having your head patted and getting a gold star no matter what you do creates lazy, useless, arrogant drones. Real self-esteem comes from accomplishing something -- especially when it's something hard!

And love, too, is earned. When we show people we have something to offer them, and then we give it to them freely, it attracts their favorable notice. If they, too, have something to offer, and both of us value each other's gifts and services, a relationship can grow into various levels of partnership. That's how love works in the real world.

Even parental love works this way. Babies offer cuteness and neediness, but they also grow and progress. We love them not just for what they are, but for what they are becoming, and for what they learn to do.

So Wong suggests that we take stock of what we have to offer others -- and then set out to get better at something until we have more and more value. Even if we're already super-good at this or that, we can get better, and we can learn to do other things.

No, I'm not going to start trying to play basketball. There's such a thing as showing mercy to others. But as long as we're beginning a new year, we might skip the vain resolutions to get prettier and pursue a serious effort to do better for others.

Because whether we lose those ten (or eighty) pounds or not -- and good for you if you do -- that doesn't actually increase our value to others. It just means we'll be slightly more decorative.

Whereas if we get better at spelling or math, or changing tires or cooking or dog-training or teaching or explaining -- or even reading so we understand things better before we offer an opinion -- we have something to put on the table in the great series of transactions called "life."

*

When The Mentalist started up back in 2008, the premise was this: Patrick Jane (played with enigmatic brilliance by Simon Baker) was a fake psychic (the only kind there is) when he inadvertently provoked a serial killer, Red John, into destroying his wife and daughter.

Now he uses his fake-psychic skills to help the California Bureau of Investigation close case after case, while all the time using the CBI's resources to help track down and, or so he plans, eventually kill Red John.

For five years, the series remained one of the top shows on television, but it always skirted the edge of a dangerous precipice.

The cast and the writing were unfailingly good. Robin Tunney as Teresa Lisbon played the same role as Stana Katic as Kate Beckett on Castle -- the serious cop who has to put up with the antics of a non-professional sidekick. There the resemblance ended -- where Katic was a very wooden actress at first and had to grow, slowly, into her present warmth, Robin Tunney was good from the start, and has never lost her ability to project skepticism, affection, rage, and intelligence by turns (or, sometimes, all at once).

Tim Kang sometimes steals the whole show as stone-faced agent Kimball Cho, and Owain Yeoman and Amanda Righetti offered the love-interest soap opera while becoming well-rounded characters in their own right.

But all of them ran the risk of being overwhelmed by the villain, Red John.

Because villains are the most seductive creatures in a series. They seduce audiences (of a certain kind) and, partly because of that, they seduce writers and network executives.

Remember how the Fonz took over (and destroyed) Happy Days? Originally, it was supposed to be a TV series about ordinary high school kids, in a cast led by ex-Opie Ron Howard, with his parents and sister. The Fonz was supposed to be the dangerous-hoodlum-with-a-heart-of-gold.

Instead, within a remarkably short time, it became The Fonz Show, more Bewitched than Happy Days. The Fonz became magic -- he could do anything -- and, therefore, boring. Long before the jumping-the-shark episode, Happy Days was creatively dead. Every episode belonged to the Fonz. The audience waited only for his appearances.

Happy Days ran long and had high ratings, so it's not as if this choice led to failure. Nothing is safer than taking your most dangerous and powerful character and building every episode around him.

But that was a comedy, so "dangerous" was a relative term. Think of a couple of other recent series that flirted with the same seductive strategy. Heroes died for me when they killed the dangerous villain Sylar at the end of the first season -- only to resurrect him immediately.

Prison Break did the same thing. Ignoring their real heroes, they could not kill off the hyper-villain, Theodore Bagwell (Robert Knepper), who was so vile that when he was on screen I felt like we needed to clean the house. They almost killed him at the end of season one -- but no, season two began with him alive after all.

Both Heroes and Prison Break proved that the writers didn't believe in their original premise or their cast. Instead, they stuck with their story-generating villain and couldn't let the series grow up.

It was in that context that I saw from the first episode that The Mentalist was in serious danger of having the character Red John become the dominant figure in the series.

But the writers of The Mentalist made sure each episode centered on some other mystery, and all the characters remained important, following their own storylines.

Part of The Mentalist's success arose from the decision never to show Red John or reveal his identity. But that wouldn't have been enough -- if every episode centered around the search for him, or if his minions had been the dominant enemy in every episode, The Mentalist would have been fonzified as surely as if Red John himself were present.

Indeed, the character of Red John was fundamentally absurd and grew more so as the series progressed. Serial killers are intrinsically boring -- after all, they are mindless machines for randomly killing people for the thrill of it. To make them interesting, mystery writers hype them up into criminal masterminds -- a species which rarely exists, and never exists among serial killers.

Serial killers are a low-functioning bunch. They only "outwit" police because their crimes are random -- with no actual connection to their victims, they can't be tracked down the usual way, by finding someone close to the victim who has a motive or a history of violence.

Not that they're actually stupid -- they're smart enough when focused on their immediate goal of trapping a victim. But because they are focused on one private, secret goal, they, like child molesters, barely hang on in their "regular" lives. Their ambition is completely focused on getting into a position to find and control another victim.

So when a character like Red John shows up -- the genius serial killer who controls a network of other people who do his bidding -- he becomes less and less believable, finally descending into complete absurdity.

But even as Red John became less and less believable, the writers kept him from taking over the series. Always he was there to provide structure -- certainly Red John was the maguffin of the series -- but each episode was almost always about something immediate and personal and, dare I say it, real.

I'm about to commit a spoiler. But come on, either you were watching the series and you already know, or you weren't so it doesn't matter. But if you don't want the spoiler, stop now.

This past fall, after a couple of false alarms, Patrick Jane actually catches up with the real Red John and kills him. Just as he always swore he would do (and twice before thought he had done), Patrick Jane shows that he is perfectly willing to kill the killer of his wife and child (and of many others).

His vigilante justice was always planned, and the writers followed through. There's little or no hesitation. He meant to kill this monster and he did it.

And I've seen interviews with key writers that affirm that this is not a scam (like the first "death of Red John" a couple of seasons ago). Red John is dead. He will not come back -- though some members of his conspiratorial organization might.

In other words, The Mentalist kept Red John from taking over the series for five long seasons, relying on the ensemble of real-and-present characters to hold us. And then they had the guts, as writers, to kill him off and leave him dead.

Not only that, but in the last two episodes before the Christmas break, they began to show us what the series is going to become without Red John.

They skip two years, hide Patrick Jane on an island where he barely speaks the language, and then arrange for the FBI to find him and make him an offer he can't refuse. He refuses.

As the former CBI crew begins to reassemble, we watch Patrick Jane solve the pertinent crime while also outwitting the FBI and proving to them that (a) they can't control him and (b) they really need him.

This is everything I loved about The Mentalist -- without Red John. In other words, while Red John was always kept (barely) under control, the writers understood -- or at least understand now -- that even without Red John they have a story.

Will the series last? I have no idea. After all, though I loathed the Fonz, Sylar, and Bagwell as characters, large audiences obviously felt differently; though I regard each as a marker of the creative death of their series, there has always been a large audience for creatively dead television shows.

And it's quite possible that even though The Mentalist is now, in my opinion, better than ever, with room to breathe and become something really wonderful, it's possible that the larger audience will fade away. It's possible, in other words, that what the large audience wants is the absurdly powerful and indestructible villain.

*

Admit it. To mystery readers, all you have to say is, "There's a new Michael Connelly novel," and anything else you say in the review is superfluous. They're going to read it, because it makes no sense not to.

You know it'll be good.

But to those of you who have never read Connelly, let me say this: He's such a thorough writer that you really can start anywhere. His heroes grow and change -- but each novel is still self-contained. So in order to understand the story of The Gods of Guilt, all you have to read is The Gods of Guilt.

You don't have to go back and read The Lincoln Lawyer, The Brass Verdict, The Reversal, and The Fifth Witness -- the other novels about Mickey Haller, a defense attorney who, to save himself the expense of an office and staff, operates entirely out of his Lincoln Town Car.

Of course, it would be a pleasure to read them all, because Michael Connelly is the king of noir today, ably filling the shoes of Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler. It would even be fun to watch, or rewatch, the Matthew McConaughey movie entitled The Lincoln Lawyer, which was not only amazingly faithful to the book, but also sports McConaughey's best (i.e., least annoying) performance up to that time.

Here's the kicker. Within the novel The Gods of Guilt, the movie The Lincoln Lawyer exists! That is, Mickey Haller and everyone else know that the Matthew McConaughey movie was based on a case of Mickey Haller's.

Now, that's just plain fun.

Connelly no doubt debated with himself long and hard before deciding to take that step. After all, Mickey Haller's half brother, Harry Bosch, the hero of Connelly's longest-running book series, has also had movies based on his cases -- but those movies don't exist within the world of the books.

Bosch has not had any movies based on his life (not even starring Clint Eastwood), while Haller has.

However, that movie did not make Haller rich -- he's still scrambling for a buck.

The case that shapes Gods of Guilt is an intriguing one. A former prostitute that Haller often defended is murdered. Haller had thought she went to Hawaii; instead she had changed names and was still in the online callgirl business in L.A. And Haller is called upon to defend the man accused of killing her.

Haller does not expect to believe in his clients' innocence -- most of them are guilty, and his job is to get them the best deal he can. In this case, his client freely admitted to being angry with the victim and even placing his hands on her throat in his rage. With the other evidence available, it's clearly enough to convict him.

But Haller's initial research into the case convinces him that his client is actually innocent. He really has been set up to take the fall for another killer, and as Haller and his team investigate, they realize that they've come up against some corrupt law enforcement figures who will stop at nothing to conceal their crimes.

The delight in reading the book is in the characters who pop up along the way: A disbarred lawyer who is in jail with a mob boss who might have been the cause of the victim's death; that lawyer's incompetent attorney son; another former prostitute who becomes a focal point for Haller's dangerous life; Haller's driver, Earl, who provides chauffeurage as a means of paying for Haller's legal services; Haller's ex-wives and his daughter; and basically everybody else who surfaces long enough to be named.

I listened to this book as a download, with Peter Giles doing a wonderful reading. Usually, when I listen to a book, I only "read" it when working out or running errands or driving around. I long since learned that if I try to listen to an audiobook in bed, I fall asleep and only catch bits and pieces.

In this case, though, I went to bed with three hours left in the audiobook. I couldn't bear to stop listening -- Connelly (and Giles) had really made me care about the story. And it's a measure of how good Gods of Guilt is that I did not fall asleep. I listened to every moment and even stayed with Giles's voice as he read the rather long acknowledgments and notes at the end.

I think this means I recommend The Gods of Guilt as one of the best works of one of our best writers.


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