Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 20, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Greek Yogurt, Churchill the Writer
I have observed the rise of Greek-style yogurt with amused dispassion ... until
now, as it drives good yogurt off the grocery store shelves.
It took the dairy industry decades to get Americans to eat yogurt, despite the
obvious health benefits, because the acidy tang of yogurt takes some getting
That's why frozen yogurt chains had names like "This Can't Be Yogurt" and "I
Can't Believe It's Yogurt." The message was clear: This is yogurt, but it's not
nasty like regular yogurt.
This message would not have been needed if most people didn't dislike the
natural taste of yogurt.
Of course, most of the flavor changes came through liberal applications of
sweeteners. But over the years, some truly wonderful brands of healthy yogurt
were developed, including my favorite: Wallaby brand.
But now, Greek yogurt is driving the good stuff off the shelves.
I had thought Greek yogurt was based on a different milk, like goat or ewe.
But no, the difference comes from the process. Greek yogurt is strained,
making it more solid (the whey is mostly gone). This increases the protein, and
with less sweetening, the calories are reduced.
But it tastes nasty again.
I'm proud of those righteous people opt for the "healthier" Greek (strained)
yogurt over the regular kind. I applaud their willingness to acquire a taste for
nasty foods just because they're Good For You.
But with limited shelf space in the grocery stores, the space for ninety kinds of
Greek yogurt came by eliminated every yogurt I actually like.
Because for me, Wallaby yogurt was healthy enough. And it tasted wonderful.
It was a pleasure to eat, not a medicine consumed out of absurd dietary
righteousness. But it's now gone from Fresh Market and reduced to only the
most unpleasant flavors at Earth Fare. (Maple? Really? As a milk-product
flavor?) Only Whole Foods continues to stock a few of the flavors.
How I wish yogurt were one of the products that could be easily shipped, so I
could order it from online suppliers. But it isn't, so when local stores go along
with food fads to such a degree that my favorites are driven out, there's not
much I can do about it.
When I say to Greek-yogurt eaters that I hope they gag on their nasty
yogurts, I trust they'll realize that I mean it from the bottom of my heart.
I've been saying for years that right now is the golden age of television.
The acting is better than ever. Film actors no longer regard it as slumming to
appear in a TV series.
The writing is better -- screenwriters have caught on that while movies make a
bigger splash, television writers have far more control over the final product
and they make way, way more money.
The stories are better. While some series rely on pathetic adolescent "shock" or
mindless action, many give us stories that depend on characters with plausible
relationships and with ideas worth thinking about.
That doesn't mean that there aren't still dreadfully bad shows on television.
Now and then I write about them, or about good series gone bad.
Sometimes, they don't "go bad," they just stop working for me. The Good
Wife was a great series at first, the best-written on television. But when
Julianna Margulies's character actually had an affair with her old boyfriend in
her law office, I lost interest.
I didn't decide to stop watching as some kind of protest. In fact, though I was
disappointed, I expected to watch the next season. But when that season came
around, and my wife and I sat down for an evening of watching shows we had
TiVoed, I was never in the mood for Good Wife.
The shows stacked up while we watched other things, until finally I told her
she could go ahead and watch them on her own. The story had, in my view,
betrayed the integrity of the character. She was no longer the character I had
thought she was, so I was no longer interested.
But it's as well-written as ever. When I happen to tune in on the last ten
minutes of an episode, I find that the writing has lost none of its sizzle and
sass. I just don't care about the people anymore.
Other series have come close to going astray: Person of Interest nearly killed
itself with the corrupt-cop storyline that dominated for far too long; they killed
off that storyline along with a character who had gone as far as she could.
Now the series is walking a fine line, because the computer-worshiping
madwoman (played brilliantly by Amy Acker) is really pushing the stories
beyond the limits of believability. But even so, it's still a pleasure to watch.
Intelligence uses some of the computer-shtick from Person of Interest,
but they haven't fully decided yet whether this is a superpower comic book or a
serious near-future sci-fi series. When they make up their minds, so will I.
The new series Perception is just ... bad. On stage, having a character in a
bunny suit be a "manifestation" in the mind of the earnest lead character, the
means by which his unconscious tells him things he hasn't consciously
realized, might be fun, but that's because it's live theatre and you can get
away with such things.
On television, it just slaps us around and makes the actor look silly and the
audience feel sillier.
Then again, ALF ran for years with actors talking to a bad puppet.
Right now, the best writing on television is in the legal series Suits. The
premise is that a young man with perfect recall (Mike Ross, played by Patrick
J. Adams) is pretending to be a lawyer.
At first only his mentor, high-powered alpha-lawyer Harvey Specter, knew his
secret. Now, though, an increasing number of people are in on it, and, frankly,
I don't see any way out of this. Anyone who knew he was practicing law
without a license and didn't report him will also be disbarred, so there's a
house of cards waiting to tumble.
In the meantime, though, the series writers have done a superb job of making
all the characters interesting and, mostly, believable. Not trusting themselves,
the writers have also resorted to pointless nudity and rougher language than
most television shows, but that isn't used instead of, but rather in addition to,
The tour de force of the series is the character of Louis Litt, played by Rick
Hoffman. At first he was simply a vile human being who delighted in
tormenting the first-year associates in the firm -- especially Mike Ross.
Gradually, though, he has been made into an eccentric but nevertheless
understandable person who aspires to be good, or at least to be honored by
others even if he has to earn that honor by being bad.
The last of USA network's short seasons left us with Louis Litt having
discovered, in a headhunter's "files of every Harvard law school graduate," that
Mike Ross is simply not there. When the new season begins in March, my
worry is that it will be one person-in-the-know too many.
I could see Litt, as they have developed him, coming to accept that there is no
way to expose Mike Ross without bringing down the firm. But the fact is that it
is truly idiotic for them to have allowed him to continue like this in the
It seems to me that there's no healing this. Even if he went off somewhere and
got a law degree -- which he could easily do, since he used to sneak in and
pass the bar exam for other people in order to earn cash -- it would not change
the fact that he acted as a lawyer before he got it.
Oh, for the old days, when a law degree was not required. You simply "read
law" and then passed the bar exam and that was it.
This series cannot go on forever. Mike Ross needs to leave the law firm, for
the good of the firm and for his own protection, and when that happens the
series is over. The fact that this has not become obvious to everyone -- inside
and outside the story -- is actually a serious mistake and eventually it will
break the series if it isn't remedied.
In the meantime, however, my wife and I -- having just binged on the last two
seasons all in a week's time -- share the opinion that if this isn't the best thing
on television right now, we have no idea what's better.
USA Network promotes itself with the slogan "Characters welcome."
Sometimes this means genuinely fascinating original series about believable
characters, as with the lately conclude Burn Notice, and the ongoing White
Collar and Suits.
Sometimes it means bizarre and, to me at least, boring eccentrics cavorting
around the screen, as with Psych and Royal Pains, both of which I find
My wife and I are split on Necessary Roughness and Covert Affairs. I don't
care enough about sports even to give the former a try, and the blind CIA guy
was just too icky-sweet and patronizingly portrayed on the latter for me to stick
Nor could I believe him doing the things he was doing. If there's a real blind
CIA employee who does all those things, it doesn't bother me. The fact that
something is true doesn't make it believable in fiction.
The cable channel USA Network doesn't always get it right. But their average
-- about fifty-fifty on their original series -- is so much higher than the big
networks, and on so much smaller a budget, that it's clear that money and
power are nowhere near as important as good writing and brilliant casting.
After all the biographies of Winston Churchill, all the commentaries, all the
collections of speeches and witticisms and anecdotes, the book Mr. Churchill's
Profession, by Peter Clarke, marks the first time someone has given us a
look at Winston Churchill as a writer.
Subtitled The Statesman as Author and the book That Defined the "Special
Relationship," the book deals with the fact that, while Churchill is most famous
for his achievements as a British statesman and a military leader, he
supported his family -- and his lavish lifestyle -- entirely from his writing.
He wasn't the first British Prime Minister to do so -- Benjamin Disraeli, for
example, was a popular novelist before he became politically prominent.
But because Churchill came from an aristocratic family, many assumed he
lived on family money. This was far from the truth. Churchill's father died
young, and his mother was even more profligate with money than Churchill
Very quickly it became necessary for Churchill to turn every moment of his
life into something he could write about -- and get paid for.
Not that he didn't take full advantage of his aristocratic connections. He might
not have great lands and wealth, but his beautiful American-born mother had
friendships and/or sexual liaisons with some very powerful men in the British
The result was that Churchill was allowed to earn money as a war
correspondent while commissioned as an army officer; and even when he
resigned his commission, he managed to get himself attached to campaigns
whose commanders definitely did not want him there.
They didn't want him because Churchill had a habit of second-guessing the
commanders in the field and criticizing what he saw as their mistakes quite
openly in his newspaper accounts. This won him their enmity -- but also
earned him the trust of the reading public.
Besides, Churchill's analyses were usually right, or at least defensible, so that
he also gained a following among the rising officer class, who also saw the
mistakes of their superiors and regarded Churchill as the one person who was
able to do something about them.
Churchill tried his hand at fiction, but it really wasn't his forte. He wrote well
enough (many worse fiction writers have made great fortunes), but his heart
wasn't in it. He wanted to write about the real world; he wanted to change the
course of history.
Clarke spends a lot of time on the business side of Churchill's writing career.
As a self-supporting writer myself, I found this fascinating, as will most
professional writers. And many who have no ambition to write will be
entertained, I think, by Churchill's constant juggling act. Several times he
came to the verge of losing his beloved estate, and while he was no gambling
addict, he did have a way of wasting money that he could ill afford to lose.
Yet in all his scrambling, things always worked out -- in part because
publishers were amazingly forgiving of his penchant for promising quicker
delivery of manuscripts than was humanly possible.
It's hard to believe that publishers and editors actually thought he could write
at such a pace while maintaining the political career that gave his writing such
authority. Rather I think they hoped that, while he was bound to be late, he
wouldn't be too late.
Churchill's constant financial woes are far from untypical for those who live by
the pen. No matter how glib one is at writing, the mental composition is always
tricky, and before words can flow, one must have a clear understanding of
what the story actually is -- whether it's fiction or non.
I think Churchill never actually lied, or at least hoped that his
hyperoptimistic promises wouldn't be too far off.
Clarke also deals with the fact that once he became established, Churchill
came to rely on researchers -- first-rate historians all -- to do his basic
research and, as years went on, to create drafts of chapters for him to work
The histories he wrote after World War II were, it seems, partially and, in some
cases, almost entirely the work of others, though always under his direction,
and always with a sharp awareness of Churchill's views and attitudes. In
effect, these were uncredited collaborations, and Churchill's Nobel Prize for
literature may have been granted for work that owed a lot to others.
But this should not overshadow the fact that Churchill had earned the
reputation that made this possible. People bought and read and talked about
Churchill's work because of his eyewitness accounts of campaigns and events
in India, Africa, and Europe, all most definitely written or dictated by him
And during his years "in the wilderness" (a British term for being a prominent
politician not involved in government or party leadership), he became the chief
-- and sometimes the only -- spokesman for those who clearly saw the danger
posed by Nazi Germany and advocated military preparedness and early action
to forestall a devastating war.
The powers-that-be ignored him, and the world got that terrible war. But the
people of Britain knew Churchill, and when events proved him right in every
particular, it was because of his writings that they demanded that he be
put at the head of a coalition government.
I think it's safe to say that no literary career ever had so much influence over
world affairs. Even Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin was
thought by many to be one of the factors that united the North against
Southern slavery in the Civil War, had only a fraction of the public influence
that Churchill won by his writing.
There was a time when Churchill was the highest-earning, most-read writer
in the English language, and therefore, quite probably, in the world.
Yet with all his success and prominence, it's almost a relief for a writer like me
to realize that Churchill was little different from Balzac, Twain, and most
others who lived by the pen. There were ups and downs, crushing debts and
loans from friends that kept him alive.
Again like so many writers, frugality was beyond him. When money came, it
came in large sums, and, instead of banking to provide for his future needs, he
had a tendency to make large purchases, or invest heavily in chancy
enterprises ... like the American stock market, whose crash in 1929 cost him
dearly. (Mark Twain's similar nemesis was investment in a typesetting
Mr. Churchill's Profession is not a good way to get to know Winston Churchill's
life and work -- it assumes a basic familiarity with his accomplishments, and
on some points Clarke assumes that "general knowledge" is right when in fact
it is quite wrong. But within the scope of the book, his research is thorough
and his reasoning is excellent.
A bit of a footnote: The title Mr. Churchill's Profession is a deliberate echo of the
title of one of George Bernard Shaw's most controversial plays, Mrs.
Warren's Profession. Her profession was prostitution; I think Churchill
himself would have been amused and not offended by the comparison.
He wrote for love, but he made very sure that he got paid for it every time.