The Orville

I’m normally not big on reviewing things here, but I had thoughts to share that made this worth a mention. My wife and I watched the premiere episode of The Orville from our DVR last night, and after comparing our impression to some of the critiques online, I find we’re once again at odds with the critics, who seem to have lined up against this show. So I’m going to explain why the critics are wrong.

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room. Family Guy is a deeply polarizing show, as is all of MacFarlane’s other work. As a rule I don’t like his style of humor. I saw about one minute of an American Dad episode once, after the TV was left on that channel the night before, in which he failed to land an easy pot shot at Zamphir and followed up with two pedophilia jokes. So yeah, not a MacFarlane fan. But I am a sci-fi fan, and it looked like he was going to tone things down for this show. It was worth a watch.

Immediately I noticed—and I think this is what set a lot of critics off-kilter—that the show takes itself more seriously than I expected, though not so seriously that it can’t find room for jokes. MacFarlane’s own love of Star Trek comes through loud and clear in the way the show acts as a loving homage to its more serious predecessors. So you get the sweeping majestic music, the fun space battles, the away team missions, but then there’s the dialogue that goes places Star Trek would never have gone because it was just a smidge too stuffy.

Just as MASH and Scrubs were crossover types of shows called dramedy, the Orville is a sci-comedy. It lands more on the sci-fi than comedy side, but that’s okay. And it is a very different beast from anything that came before that blended sci-fi with comic relief. Babylon 5 was dead serious much of the time, but marbled through with occasionally funny or touching moments from its brilliant cast. Firefly was all heart, and reveled in those splashes of wit that made it special. The Orville is less serious than those, putting its humor more up front, and yet the plot is driven by the same conventions as its forebears.

This is where the critics are getting lost, because they’ve never seen anything like it. And rather than roll with it, they’re complaining that it’s not something it was never trying to be.

For a look at how stupid some of these critiques are, check out Katharine Trendacosta’s piece at io9. First she complains about how some parts of the episode are “boring”—which they weren’t at all, really, but they weren’t incredibly fast-paced. Remember this was a premiere episode, and it had a lot of exposition and introductions to get through after all, but during those times there was still humor and it tended toward the socially awkward variety. She also complains about “low-brow sex jokes”, but nothing really came close to that—especially for MacFarlane. (Yes, his character Ed Mercer did talk about how his friend drew penises on things, and there was a sight gag at the beginning, referenced in passing later as a callback, that I guess could sort of qualify as a sex joke, but honestly none of it was bad by modern standards and those jokes actually landed.) Then Katharine goes on to compare The Orville unfavorably to several blatant parodies like Galaxy Quest, Spaceballs, etc. Even Mars Attacks. Anyone who calls themselves a critic who thinks you can just idly compare anything to a Tim Burton weirdfest without getting into the weeds on minutae is an idiot.

The Orville is not Galaxy Quest or Spaceballs. It never meant to be either one. Because it is not a parody at all; it’s a sci-fi that means to stand alone but doesn’t mind making a few clever references to, and occasional well-meaning jabs at, the material that inspired it. Katharine doesn’t get that at all.

Erik Kain of Forbes gets it and had some nice things to say, but I won’t link to Forbes because of the rotten things their site does to paranoid readers. He points out that Kelly Lawler of USA Today—and I’m not linking them either for the same reason—makes many of the same mistakes as Katharine Trendacosta, believing the show has to be a direct parody or a serious sci-fi to work and that mixing the two is somehow bad. It isn’t. And Kelly makes the same egregious comparison to Galaxy Quest, as if there’s some law that the presence of humor demanded it be a parody. Quoth Kelly:

There are too few jokes for it to truly feel like a comedy (despite appearing that way in early promos), but attempts at humor muddy the series’ ambitions as a pure sci-fi adventure.

Indeed there are too few jokes to truly feel like a comedy, which is quite obviously by design because the show isn’t strictly a comedy. And its ambition is just as obviously not to be a pure sci-fi adventure. How did you miss all that, Kelly?

Speaking as a guy who’s actually writing a comic sci-fi series (of novels), I find the attitudes of these critics (except Erik Kain) perplexing. Like they literally can’t understand there’s more than one way to approach humor or science fiction, let alone when combining the two. Especially because normally it’s the other way around: Often it’s the critics who see brilliance in a show that simply never clicks with me. They’ll run rings around the moon to swoon over how wonderful Curb Your Enthusiasm is, a show that approaches humor in very much its own way, yet throw some sci-fi at them and they turn to gibbering morons. These people, supposedly trained to find nuance, are like alien food snobs trying to make sense of a grilled cheese sandwich. They think they know everything there is to know about cheese and bread, but because this isn’t a fondue it baffles them as thoroughly as quantum physics.

Taking that analogy and running with it, basically all of the strong criticism I’ve seen so far boils down to “Not make sense! Why you not fondue?!” Comparing a work to something it never tried to be is ridiculous.

I am an unapologetic sci-fi fan, and I found that in spite of my many, many differences with MacFarlane, he captured the fun feeling of a pre-gritty Star Trek type of show that has been lost for a while. That came from his love for the franchise and especially what it used to be, and as someone who shares that love I felt it hit all the right notes. My wife feels the same way about it.

This is a show that included a bit where a guy was on his way to the bathroom, not because they wanted to go for crude toilet humor (which they didn’t) but because the original Star Trek never once acknowledged that the crew had bodily functions. Throwing that gag into the very first episode was a wink to fellow Trekkies that this show gets it. The parts where it takes itself seriously and wears its heart on its sleeve were the same thing. MacFarlane set out to make a version of Star Trek with all the fun and a little less starch, and at least after one episode I’m prepared to say he succeeded.

Maybe he’ll lose me at some point down the line. Like I said, I don’t trust his humor. But so far I found The Orville surprisingly inoffensive, witty without trying to grab me by the head and say See how witty it is, peasant!, charming without being cloying, and most of all unabashedly fun. Fun is important, and it sometimes gets short shrift on TV these days. Fun was the lifeblood of the ’80s, and of the myriad syndicated shows in the ’90s. So far this show is fun, and I’m in.

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Sepia sky

Normally I’m pretty pumped about the arrival of fall. When I was younger it used to be my favorite season, return to school notwithstanding, a time of contemplation and tucking into TV shows, the excitement of upcoming holidays, and of course the cooler weather to finally relieve us from the heat of summer. I grew up without an air conditioner until I was in my teens; only in the last twenty years have I really come to appreciate summer properly.

But today fall comes upon us hard. I know of course that technically it doesn’t start until nearly the end of September, but technically doesn’t count. Summer ends with Labor Day and always has; everybody knows that. And nature herself concurs. It rained all last night and is still gross and wet out today, with a deep dark overcast of sepia. Sepia, a color that says “I hate color so much, I puked in the monochrome mix.” Nature itself is flipping me off today.

As is only fitting for a Tuesday, really. Tuesdays are the worst, especially when they’re performing double duty as a surrogate Monday.

The aggressively bad weather has put a predictable damper on my spirits, making it hard to jump back into the work week like nothing happened. It does not help that I have a few projects on my slate that don’t seem easy to deal with, and my brain keeps trying to throw off the yoke. So it’s a matter of finding the right motivation, which will probably involve food.

This weekend I picked up the fixings to make cheesy Stove Top chicken bake, a high-level comfort food. I wish I’d made it last night just to have leftovers today, but I’ll bake it tonight and that will have to be good enough.

Speaking of comfort food, I did an experiment recently to try to replicate my grandmother’s extra homey version of Kraft mac & cheese. I actually bought powdered milk, and added a teaspoon of it to the recipe. The result was, I think, closer than I’ve ever come. The cheese sauce gained an extra thickness that was spot-on, although the flavor wasn’t quite there. I used real butter however, and I don’t think she did. (Also I used whole milk, which I know she never used. In fact she frequently just reconstituted milk from the powder. But that makes skim milk, and skim is evil; besides, I don’t see how adding more healthy milk fat would be a bad thing flavor-wise.) My suspicion is that the butter was the main thing throwing that off, and there’s probably a particular margarine brand that will do it. I don’t believe the brand I prefer is the right one, but it’s probably another push in the right direction.

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Somebody sell me a tree!

I know it’s the end of August, but the time to shop for a Christmas tree is now. I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m in the market again, because last year I was forced to get a new tree (the old one couldn’t handle another year), and I discovered to my great horror that hinged trees are the devil’s work. You can’t put a hinged tree together in a small space. Fluffing its branches is amazingly difficult, lighting it is even more difficult, removing the lights is worse still, and unfluffing to put the tree away is frelling impossible. So this year I’m buying a hook-style tree like my last one. It has to be just under 7.5′, preferably another Douglas fir because I really liked my old tree.

If I can.

There’s the rub! Almost everywhere you look online, all you find are hinged trees, everywhere. Hinged trees are awesome, they say. Hinged trees are so easy to setup and take down. LIES. I think hinged trees are simply easier to make for cheap prelit trees, which is why they’re everywhere. On top of everything else, I want an unlit tree so I can have my own lights and not ever have to worry about replacing the whole tree just because a section went out.

The closest I’ve come in my search so far is Timeless Holidays, a company that makes hook-on trees only and seems to have the exact tree I want—sold out for the season. Only thing is, I’m not sure if “the season” means 2016 or 2017, because if it’s the latter I’m screwed but the former means it ought to come back IN stock. So I tried contacting them, but nobody responded to my email query and their number goes straight to voice mail, and nobody responds to that either. Are they merely operating at skeletal staff levels over the summer and planning to pick up in the fall? (It seems to me that they’d be doing all kinds of manufacturing over the summer, though!) I don’t get it.

Looking around other sites hasn’t been particularly helpful. Most sites seem to only carry a few brands, all hinged. Some have a variety, but you can’t search by tree type and every time you look at a contender, you’ll find hinged design—if they’ll tell you at all. I now know for sure that when I see National Tree Company, Vickerman, Northbright (a lot of these show up on multiple sites), those trees are not for me because they’re all hinged. Freaking Balsam Hill, the supposed Cadillac of trees, only does hinged trees too.

I don’t mind that hinged trees are a thing! I do mind that they’re just about the only thing, because if they work well for other people—and frankly I find that nearly impossible to believe already—they certainly do not work for me.

I’d even buy a more expensive tree, pay a premium, just to get the hook design and the style I want. I’m not being unreasonable! Tree makers of the world, I want to give you my business!

Good gads. Christmas shouldn’t make me want to get so stabby, but this tree search might finally drive me to take up drinking.

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A chicken finger experiment

I want to make my own chicken fingers. I’ve made potato chip chicken before, but I thought something more like a classic finger would be a good idea. So to that end, I looked up some recipes and found this one from Betty Crocker making use of Bisquick. Last night I put that recipe together.

Off the bat I had some questions. I thought it might be good to brine the chicken first to retain flavor and juiciness, but I was afraid it would interfere with the breading. The method used in the recipe does not include flour, so I figured it was better to limit the variables on my first attempt.

For the breading I made only a couple of changes. I used salt, not garlic salt, because I didn’t want garlic to color my initial assessment of the flavor. I did not use paprika; I don’t really care for it enough, and used a small amount of black pepper instead. (In hindsight it was too small. It was probably 1/8 to 1/4 tsp. and it had no impact whatsoever on the flavor. But using too much would have been a problem, so better to go light.) And although I didn’t mean to change this part, I used slightly less butter than it called for for drizzling, but I also don’t think that impacted the result in any way.

Now comes the post mortem.

I was disappointed with these chicken fingers.

After cooking for 14 minutes at 450°, even flipping them halfway as directed, the chicken was done but the breading never browned up very well or crisped properly. It tasted all right and was flavorful, but I think it would have tasted better and been more flavorful had I moved up the rack from the center and hit it with the broiler for part of the cooking time. This is the biggest problem I have with the recipe, because I followed the cooking time and temperature exactly (and my oven keeps temperature pretty well I believe) and it came out nowhere near what the recipe or all the people who’ve commented about it have said it would. I even watched a YouTube video beforehand that followed the very same recipe, and their results were nothing like mine. I don’t get it!

Now that I’ve tasted the basic breading, I think it definitely would benefit not only from a little garlic but also some Italian herbs and a little more black pepper. The breading stuck to the chicken fairly well during cooking for the most part, but using flour before the egg like a regular breading probably wouldn’t have gone amiss at all. I don’t regret leaving out the paprika, even though something was missing.

The chicken itself also came out all wrong. It was tougher than I wanted, and had a sort of basic unseasoned chicken flavor inside, which means my first instinct to brine it was totally on the ball. And again this goes back to my being disappointed about the temperature and time in the instructions, because I knew I couldn’t just throw the chicken back into the oven to cook up the breading a little more; the chicken would have been way overdone if I had.

So the next time I make homemade chicken fingers, it’s gonna go differently.

First, my chicken is getting brined. My brine of choice is 1 qt. water, 1/4 cup kosher salt, about 1 tbsp. of Italian herbs, 1 tsp. dried minced garlic, and 10-20 black peppercorns, brought up to a near boil (to steep the herbs) and then allowed to cool before brining the chicken in it. I may leave out the herbs if I don’t want to go the Italian route, which means I won’t really have to do the whole heat-and-cool thing either.

Second, the breading mixture will include half a teaspoon of garlic powder in addition to the half teaspoon of salt, and I’ll add half a teaspoon of black pepper. If I want to try Italian seasoning I’ll add some herbs to the breading as well.

Third, I’m flouring the chicken after patting it dry, before it goes in the egg.

Fourth, I’m moving up the oven rack and broiling at least one minute per side, if not two, near the end of cooking.

For now I have a couple baggies of leftover chicken fingers to use up. I’ll eat them, but as I said I am disappointed. They’re a little tough to share with the cats, too, because the chicken didn’t come out as moist as it should have inside. I did say it was an experiment, though, and next time I’ll know more going in.

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An unexpected break, and bacon grease French fries

Holy crap, has it really been a month? Sorry about that! No cooking posts or anything, and that isn’t right. I’ve been busy working and also obsessively keeping an eye on how Below is being received. And so far so good; the reviews are all overwhelmingly positive, and lately starting to pick up a little steam. Family drama (my wife’s side) somewhat dominated last month, throwing a lot of things off, and the weekends got busy with returning shows. How I’ve missed those.

This month brings us the typical end-of-summer runaround, with last-minute weekend things and of course preparing for the Great New York State Fair. Last year’s Fair was a mixed bag, with the half-finished renovations throwing everything out of whack and the Fair managing to tick quite a few vendors off, but hopefully everything will be settled this year. My mouth is already watering for steak tips and mushrooms, fried mac and cheese, fried mashed potatoes, and other favorite goodies.

I owe you guys an interesting cooking post, so here’s a quickie. Last weekend for Game of Thrones night, I decided I wanted to make loaded fries again, with cheese and crumbled bacon. I did that a couple of times before and it’s always worked out nicely, but I make the cheese sauce myself with sodium citrate and that takes a little time. This time I took the easy route, and bought a box of Velveeta cheese sauce packages—the kind you get with shells and cheese—at Walmart. (I can’t buy it at Wegmans for some reason. It always saddens me when Wegmans doesn’t carry something they should.) This saved me some time, which was nice, and I’ll probably do that more in the future. One packet of sauce was just right for a bowl of loaded fries.

Not too long ago, I also discovered that you can use bacon grease to cook French fries, and holy crap is that amazing. I take a couple tablespoons and melt them in the microwave, then put my portion of frozen fries in a plastic bag and pour on the bacon grease, and mix it all around to coat every fry. Finally I dump the fries onto a baking sheet, and once the oven is preheated I throw them in. They still need salt at the end, but the extra flavor from the bacon grease is totally worth it. If you’ve never tried this, and like me you keep leftover  bacon grease around to cook with, you have to give this a shot.

This time I also nuked up my bacon crumbles a tad to improve their texture (and temperature) a little bit. When you buy them they’re more chewy than anything else, and while I didn’t want crunchy I wanted them to head somewhere in that direction.

This is totally going to be one of my go-tos for football season. That and teriyaki chicken wings and chicken Parmesan meatballs, of course.

Sometime soonish I’m also going to have to buy a new Christmas tree. I bought one last year to replace the old one that dropped plastic needles everywhere, but I was wildly unhappy with the new tree. I’m used to a hook design for the branches, and the new tree was hinged. The thing about hinged trees is, fluffing them sucks and de-fluffing them to put them away sucks harder, and all this is a hundred times worse in a small space. I need to go back to a hook tree, no exceptions. Preferably another Douglas fir.

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Josh was wrong (or, how not to make waffles)

I had leftover steak from the weekend. Instead of grilling on the 4th like a true patriot, I made waffles so I could have waffle tacos. (Okay, I actually did grill that evening. But it was just hot dogs, so I don’t think that counts.)

I looked around for some ideas on how to make waffles even better—not that I ever had any complaints about the standard Bisquick waffle, but I thought there was room for more awesomeness. A few months ago I found out that adding 2 tbsp. of lemon juice and 2 tsp. of baking powder to the default Bisquick pancake recipe was worth it, so it stood to reason that the waffles could be improved.

Thus I found a post on a blog called Josh Loves It, where Josh shared his secret to the awesomest Bisquick waffles ever: up the milk to 2 cups instead of 1⅓. (I always use 1½ already.) And that’s it. So I thought: Cool, I’ll try it!

Gads did that not work.

Maybe Josh’s variation works in a Belgian waffle maker like the one he was using, especially as his is a flip model the batter would have been able to coat both sides very easily. But in my non-Belgian waffle maker, because Belgian waffles are nowhere near as good as regular waffles and I will fight you on that, the batter never rose far enough to reach the top plate very well. The result was that the waffles were a little too thin, instead of being fluffier. They worked fine for their intended purpose and they still taste good, but I’m disappointed in their thickness for sure.

Now I’m not at all unhappy with the standard recipe, or at least the minor variation I use which is a much less drastic increase in the amount of milk. But I think if I’m going to use 2 cups of milk in the future, I’ll have to make the same modifications I did for the pancake recipe: 2 tbsp. of lemon juice to simulate using buttermilk, and 2 tsp. of baking powder to add much-needed lift. If I try that I’ll be sure to post the results here.

Now go buy Below. It’s better than Josh’s waffles.

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The FTC’s robocall division is a joke

There, I said it. The FTC isn’t doing enough to stop illegal robocalls.

Robocalls exploded for me just a few months ago, and I think they did so for everyone else on the planet—or at least in North America—at the same time. I used to get a few annoying ones now and then, but now they come in on average 1 to 1.5 times a day, counting my home phone and cell phone both. This morning I got a nice little surprise: the robo-scammers randomly called my business phone—which isn’t publicly listed anywhere to my knowledge—which rang through to my cell via Google Voice.

If it’s not Rachel or Sara from card services promising me a lower interest rate, it’s Heather from the vehicle warranty center, or some other heinous creep trying to steal my money. And that’s just the robocalls! Although the Indian Windows tech support scammers have slowed way down, they haven’t stopped completely. But the robocalls have increased in frequency by a dramatic degree, so these days they’re the big problem.

I did some Googling to find out if the FTC is doing anything about this. Well, good news. There’s an article from frickin’ January that says they took down two massive robocall organizations.

Except they didn’t.

It’s pretty obvious from my own timeline that the robocall escalation started around March, which means it happened after the FTC supposedly made a huge dent in the problem.

What actually happened with the FTC  was that they filed a lawsuit, and got the defendants to agree to stop robocalling. That’s right, a voluntary agreement, albeit signed under force of law. So basically you have these criminals running wild doing whatever the frell they want, and when the FTC finally gets around to busting them, they go to civil court instead of criminal court, and get the defendants to sign a paper saying “We acknowledge we’re doing highly illegal crap but we pinky swear we’re not going to do it anymore. WINK.

This is like if the police busted up a drug supplier, and instead of hauling the dealers off to jail they filed lawsuits and made them promise not to sell drugs anymore. If they were willing to break the law in the first place, they’re obviously going to break the agreement. Duh!

This is disgraceful. An absolute joke, and I’m disgusted my taxpayer dollars were wasted on such a mealy-mouthed “solution” that, if anything, made the problem literally ten times worse.

Listen up, you clowns. Your job is to make a federal criminal case against these companies, the people who run them, the people who work for them and are knowingly in on the scams, and the people who hire them to perform scams. They’re not only violating all kinds of criminal laws just with their phone abuse, but they’re committing actual fraud that can be prosecuted. That means you take it to criminal court, stupid, not to civil court, and you don’t settle for a dumbass “promise” to stop doing what they’re doing. You make sure the co-conspirators, all of them except those who turn state’s evidence, rot in jail and then in prison.

I want police raids on these companies. Tear apart their call centers. Arrest everybody, including the voice actors behind the audio. Seize financial assets. Seize financial records and follow the money, then arrest those people too. Hand out immunity to anyone who cooperates and wasn’t so big a part of it that they still need to pay. Utterly destroy these companies until there is nothing left, and salt the earth where they stood. Rain down terror on anyone who participates in this, so that a generation from now anyone who so much as gets the idea of starting up a new robocall outfit will piss the bed screaming and flee to a remote corner of the world to die in obscurity.

This has to stop. I can think of many ways I’d like to see it come to a stop, and I’ll legalize them all when I become a supervillain, but until then I’ll more than happily settle for watching a big ol’ criminal court case against these choads, and seeing their empires of filth burn.

Meanwhile it’s time we hold the FTC’s feet to that same fire. It’s not acceptable to spend years going after a robocall group only to slap them on the wrist and send them away with a promise to do better. You’re not their mommy; you’re supposed to be the freaking scourge of the law. You could solve this problem in a trice by offering a bounty and immunity for any information leading to a criminal conviction, creating a world of whistleblowers who will give you all the information you need and then some. (You’d solve it much faster by offering a bounty on the heads of the people who run these scams and robocall centers, but I know, I know, it’s illegal. For now.) It can be done, and from where I’m sitting all I see after three months of radically increased call volume is a lack of will to do the job.

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