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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 9, 2015

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


Cougar, Undateable, Cold Food, 'Possums

Television shows come and go. The successful ones usually begin well; but how they end depends on a lot of things.

If a show is canceled unexpectedly, then you're simply left dangling. But with traditional episodic television, that hardly matters. Only in the kind of series that allows regular characters to grow and change does this make any difference.

Cougar Town was a show that had already died and come back to life, switching networks and plowing on ahead. Reduced to simple terms, it was the story of a bunch of obsessive wine-drinking friends who lived in four houses in a Florida cul-de-sac.

Everything depended on our being charmed by characters who were obnoxious and endearing -- for exactly the same behaviors. Everything centered around Jules Cobb, a 40-ish real estate agent played by Courteney Cox, who did a brilliant job of making us care about an ignorant, demanding, but also generous and loving mother of a teenager-turning-adult, Travis Cobb (Dan Byrd).

In the final episode, her husband, Grayson, works with the rest of the cul-de-sac crew to keep her from spoiling her own birthday -- which she usually does, because her expectations are absurdly high and she gets disappointed and angry when everyone fails to meet them.

As a series finale should be, this absolutely works as a standalone episode. If you didn't know it was the finale, there is nothing in it to tell you that it's all over now.

And yet the story is artfully crafted so that everyone gets a chance to say good-bye -- to Jules and to us. It's quite touching, and yet also very, very funny. I'd say that in its own way, it meets the standard set by the Mary Tyler Moore Show finale by not forgetting what we loved about the series.

By happy design, the station where I record episodes began rerunning the whole series from the start in daily syndication, and I was delighted to be reminded that it began very, very well, with that same mix of believable people and comic exaggeration, of self-conscious farce and genuine emotions.

To the creators and writers of the show, I offer my congratulations. While it was started by the makers of Scrubs, it was not just Scrubs with wine. It was something else entirely, and I, who have never tasted wine and therefore did not share their obsession with it, nevertheless found myself both impatient with and delighted by these people. I'll miss them.

And in a week when a magazine anointed Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the funniest actress ever, or some such hyperbole, I must point out that while Julia L-D is indeed charming and often funny, she is far from being the best or funniest. Indeed, at the moment I'd have to place Courteney Cox far higher on the list. She made the jump from single urban 30-something in Friends to rural-born menopausal parent and professional with panache.

As one show closes down, others begin. I was skeptical of Battle Creek. But now that we're several episodes in, I'm beginning to trust the writers and the actors.

Apart from the fact that I usually have to turn on closed captioning to understand what Aaron Funkhauser is saying, the cast is excellent; and the writers have made the main characters quite intriguing as they go back and forth in a game of one-upmanship.

Josh Duhamel gets to be a lot more than merely pretty, and Dean Winters does skepticism and longsuffering better than anybody. Janet McTeer is superb as the police commander.

And, best of all, the writers really use Battle Creek, and the idea of Battle Creek. Yes, it's a small town, but it's not a generic small town. Nowhere is its character better explored than in the episode centered on the 31st annual Breakfast Day, where the whole town is invited to sit down to eat cold cereal together. Until there's an assassination attempt on the mayor.

The twists and turns of the plot are terrific, and through it all, the byplay among the characters is always surprising and funny and mostly believable. I look forward to this show as one of the best 44-minute spans of my week.

Another favorite show isn't exactly new, but it's new to me. The title Undateable is, of course, a euphemism for an appalling Hollywood term, and as a title it sounds like it will be a story of a bunch of losers that nobody wants.

But that's only the jumping-off point. Brent Morin plays Justin, the owner of a struggling Detroit bar. He's unsure of himself and can't even ask out a waitress in his bar that he really, really likes.

Then Danny (Chris D'Elia) comes along as his roommate. They couldn't be more different -- of course, or this wouldn't be a sitcom. Shaggy and calculatedly cool, Danny has no problem making time with the ladies.

Only he's a one-night-stand kind of guy and he doesn't get Justin at all -- because Justin is looking for something real and long-lasting, not just something to pass the night.

This relationship could so easily have been as shallow as, say, the brothers in Two and a Half Men. But show creator Adam Sztykiel is too good a writer to settle for that. Instead, Justin isn't a nebbish. In fact, he has a really good singing voice, and while he loves to show it off at odd times, it's a pleasure to hear him.

Likewise, while Danny is "cool," he's also a loser -- sad and lonely even while being hyperconfident and bossy. He condescendingly calls Justin "Baby Bird" as he teaches him how to make his way in the world -- even though Justin has actually accomplished something in his life, and Danny hasn't.

Danny's sister, Leslie, played by Bianca Kajlich, who was wonderful in Rules of Engagement, is there to deflate him by pointing out how utterly selfish and insensitive he is -- even as she loyally stands by him.

And, best of all, Justin immediately gets a girl -- a terrific one -- and it looks like true love. In other words, from the start Undateable has treated all its characters better than any of the characters in Two and a Half Men. Which means that maybe I won't have to stop watching it after a season and a half.

That's a good thing, because we're about halfway through the second season, and I want to keep watching.

I downloaded the whole first season from Amazon and binge-watched it, and my only regret is that I've now seen every episode and have to wait a week to watch the next one.

Here's why I started watching Undateable in the first place: Several cast members have been on @Midnight, most notably Ron Funches (five times). That was where I first heard of Undateable and, because they were so entertaining, I decided to give it a try.

At first I was disappointed at how little Funches was given to do on the series, but now I understand the proportions of the show. All the supporting cast get some very good moments, and none of them is a relentless loser.

From gay bartender Brett (David Fynn), who came out of the closet but still can't get a date with any of the guys he's attracted to, to Burski (Rick Glassman), who is a really nice guy with a gift for saying truly repulsive things that drive away anyone who might have wanted to date him, the writers start with stereotypes and then leave them in tatters as interesting, entertaining characters emerge.

And even though the women -- or girls -- usually enter the storylines as targets for the romantic or lustful males, most of them instantly rise above that objectification to become interesting. This is a show that likes all its characters and is determined to give its actors delightful scenes.

At this moment, I have to rate Undateable as my favorite sitcom now on the air. And to me, sitcoms, done well, are the reason television exists. I'm a romantic comedy guy at heart -- sci-fi is just an accident of my career path -- and sitcoms are where good romantic comedy is on offer today.

Partly this is because film rom-coms constantly go after stars, and then they have to write them into every scene in order to justify the absurd salaries. They're usually built around "high concepts" which destroy believability. Often the big stars are cast without regard to whether they know how to do comedy, and scripts go for "gags" instead of relationships. So good film rom-coms are rare, while a show like Undateable can bring off good romantic comedy week after week.

Undateable is so good that I'd rather watch it than Jeopardy -- and there aren't many shows that that is true of.

*

For various reasons, Susan Gregersen, author of Life Without Refrigeration, has spent a good portion of her life "off the grid." In this case, not the grid of traffic cams or electronic spying, a la Person of Interest. Rather, she has been off the grid of electricity, or lived in circumstances where the power came on only a few times a day.

What do you do without a refrigerator? There's no way to keep frozen meat cold enough to be safe, right?

Well ... usually not, but there are ways to keep some foods cold enough to remain edible for a while, or to taste better when you do eat them.

It happens that Gregersen has lived on land that included running streams and natural springs, which allows access to cold water. It was a common practice, before refrigeration, to build a "spring house" over a cold spring or a cold stream. If the spot is shaded by trees, so much the better.

Jugs of milk or cheese could be set in the stream or hung over it, and even on hot days, the temperature could be quite low. Not low enough to keep meat safe -- which is why those same people would salt or pickle or smoke their meat to preserve it.

It's good to remember that ice cream was first made before electric freezers. You had to have ice -- but there used to be a brisk trade in ice. In the North, people could cut blocks of ice out of lakes (or pools of water designed to be frozen by Mother Nature) and then pack them in straw.

In the South, ice was shipped in on wagons or barges, where the well-to-do could maintain a steady supply for the "ice box."

These blocks of ice were not clean, but that didn't matter, because they were never going to be eaten or put into food or drinks. Instead, you would saw out a block of ice the right size to fit in the top compartment of an ice box, with a drain that would carry the water from the melting ice out of the ice box so it wouldn't get all over the food you would put lower down in the box.

And you could use your ice pick to chip away enough ice to fill the outer bucket of an ice cream maker. Then you'd sprinkle rock salt into the ice while churning and scraping the inner bucket of flavored cream, until the melting and evaporating ice froze it into ice cream. You had to eat it right away, because without electric freezers there was nowhere you could keep it long enough for it to become the hard, scoopable ice cream we often prefer today.

Even in the desert on a hot day, there are ways to keep things -- and people -- relatively cool, and while Gregersen does not pretend to offer an exhaustive list of Ways to Make Things Cold Without Electricity, she does explain the basic principles and gives enough detailed examples that inventive people could extrapolate solutions to different problems.

These days our worst "coldness" problem is often how to get ice cream home from the store on a hot summer day. (Hint: air-conditioned cars make it possible for you to carry ice cream farther than you can carry it on a bike or on foot.) But what if you live an hour from the store?

And what if you're growing your own produce, and milking your own cow or goat? Humans have wrestled with the need to store food for thousands of years, and clever inventions like cheese, smoked meat and fish, root cellars, spring houses, and sealed jars have made it possible to keep some foods in edible condition long enough for people to survive long past the harvest season.

Life Without Refrigeration is a short enough book that I could have used this review to list all the cooling techniques Gregersen talks about. But I think you'd much rather read her book yourself.

Neither she nor I is advocating that you give up your refrigerator, or deliberately shut off your own power. But the fact is that our electricity comes from the grid -- and the grid can fail. Winter storms often come with low enough temperatures that if the power goes out, you could just set your frozen food in the yard till the power comes back on.

But summer storms can also knock out the power. And in tough times, power bills can go unpaid and the juice gets turned off. What then? Is there any hope of ever having a cold drink?

Gregersen's answer is, Yes, of course.

And sometime you might be camping and get lost, or be driving and have your car break down in the middle of nowhere, and you need to find a way to cool yourself off on a hot day. You know, so you don't die. And she has some ideas for that, too.

We really are just one bad storm or unlucky driving decision away from being off the electrical grid. We don't have to live like the Amish to profit from some knowledge of how to survive without refrigeration.

*

The Fresh Market has recently been included in Consumer Reports's evaluation of grocery store chains, and came off quite well. There aren't many things started in Greensboro that end up getting national attention. One thinks of the late lamented Piedmont Airlines, long since swallowed up in the awkward maw of Allegheny Airlines ... oops, pardon me, USAirways.

Fortunately, nobody has swallowed up The Fresh Market the way Bestway got absorbed into Harris Teeter. Instead, The Fresh Market has expanded wisely, carefully, and gradually into underserved markets that have a potential clientele who can afford to pay a little more in order to get excellence.

On my visit to The Fresh Market on Friday, ostensibly to pick up deli meats and cheese for a backyard luncheon, I made two key discoveries. Not as world-changing as discovering a new, highly civilized continent. But still noteworthy, in my narrow little world.

The bakery section had a single small plastic tray of fresh mini-eclairs. Now, because I've had the perfect eclairs at Gelson's bakery department in southern California, I have become a complete eclair snob.

Not that I have much opportunity to exercise my snobbery. Like brioche, eclairs are a pastry that takes a lot of work to do right. So I can hardly turn my nose up at pastries that aren't even on offer.

But because The Fresh Market has a reasonably good track record, I thought it was worth a try.

Our verdict on the mini-eclairs is that they are, in fact, the real thing -- good pastry, custard filling, real chocolate icing. If there's a flaw, it's that they're too sweet. This would be a problem if they were full sized eclairs, but since you can easily eat them in one bite, you don't have time for the sweetness to cloy.

So whenever I see a tray of mini-eclairs at The Fresh Market, it will probably end up in my shopping cart.

Then, for some reason having to do with traffic flow or insanity or uncontrollable impulses, I found myself standing in front of The Fresh Market's display of fine candies. I didn't want a big chocolate bar, not even a really good one.

No, let's be honest, I did want a big chocolate bar, but I didn't want to buy one, or eat one, or, worst of all, buy one and not eat it.

While I stood there, I noticed two packages labeled "Belgian Chocolate Thins," one Dark, the other Milk.

The package showed what looked like a Pringle -- a perfectly shaped chip, but made of chocolate.

I thought: These packages are lonely and need a home. I have a home. Therefore ...

My wife and I can assure you that if you want to crunch these pure chocolate heaven-chips, you can -- they're crisp and delicious. They have tiny bits of crisped rice in them, though hardly enough to notice.

And if you want to let them melt on your tongue and transform your outlook on life more slowly, that, too, is an extraordinary pleasure.

The Belgian Chocolate Thins really are made in Belgium. Then they're imported to the USA by way of their subsidiary in the town of Alpharetta, Georgia. It's a southern thing.

It turns out that Royal Belgian Chocolate Thins are not exclusive to The Fresh Market. Many websites report having them -- and in other flavors, too, like Hazelnut, Caramel, Orange, Almond, Cappuccino, and Mint. I'm assuming that these are as good, in their own way, as their kin.

The Fresh Market, though, is a good place to pick up samples and see if they're as excellent as I'm suggesting. They are, but I don't object to your testing for yourself. And I'm going online to try out a couple of the flavors that The Fresh Market doesn't offer at present.

Meanwhile, not only are these Belgian Chocolate Thins a lovely treat all by themselves, they're also the perfect "cookie" to set like a sail on a dish of ice cream, or at the crest of a sundae or banana split, or atop a cupcake.

They would also be fun to dip into a dish of fresh whipped cream. But if I get too graphic in describing that experience, this column will have to be rated R, so I'll stop here.

*

A friend of mine wrote to me, mentioning that when I referred to the possums in my backyard, I really needed to put an apostrophe in front: 'possum. That's because the American possum is really an "opossum."

Well, I knew that, but I thought we had long since lost the need for the apostrophe because there weren't any other possums.

Wrong. The problem was started by Joseph Banks, the naturalist who traveled with Captain James Cook on his voyages of exploration. While everybody else was busy naming newly-discovered places, ignoring the fact that they had names in aboriginal languages, Banks was busy naming plants and animals.

And when, in Australia, he found a really cute little squirrel-sized marsupial, he decided it resembled the American opossum enough to give it the shorter, cuter version of the same name: "possum."

Hey, thanks, Banks!

Bad enough that we call some poor innocent American bird "robin" because somebody thought it resembled the unrelated British robin. Bad enough that nobody remembers how to form the plural of octopus (octopoda or octopuses, but never octopi. Never. The dictionary includes it because they record the way English is spoken by uneducated as well as educated people. Educated people never say "octopi" except sarcastically. It makes as much sense as pluralizing "foot" as "fooi").

Fortunately, because we aren't speaking Arabic, we don't pronounce the apostrophe, so as long as you're talking and not writing, you don't have to make a distinction between possum and 'possum.

Still, it's annoying and unnecessary to have two unrelated species named possum (Australia, scientific name Didelphimorphia) and 'possum (America, Phalangeridae, which has something to do with fingers).

I will never have a possum in my back yard in Greensboro, North Carolina. But I have 'possums all the time.

Which is kind of too bad, because by all reports Australian possums are really cute, while American 'possums are sharp-toothed and rat-tailed, and have the dead glassy eyes of serial killers.

But my friend told me I was wrong about that, too. She sent a picture of an American 'possum that had a furry, friendly white tail, which was really fat at the base and not ratlike at all.

She also said that 'possums usually live only a year or so in the wild, so I shouldn't assume that this year's 'possum visitor is the same one I saw a couple of years ago.

I can't claim that I'm truly devastated by these discoveries, though, because I lived my whole life without ever seeing a single 'possum, for the good reason that they don't appear in California or Utah or Arizona where I grew up. Not even as roadkill.

So to me, all 'possums are creatures out of fantasy, come to life in my yard.

And I'm delighted to have one more piece of information with which to make myself tedious at dinner parties. You pay a price for being seated next to me!


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