The Dallas Cowboys are in real trouble, people. Serious trouble. Dogs-and-cats-living-together Ghostbusters trouble. The franchise isn't making progress. It's sliding backwards. Say what you will about the team not winning a playoff game since the 1990s, at least the last couple of seasons ended with the Cowboys, like, actually in the playoffs. Next month, the Cowboys will be watching football games on television like the rest of us. Get your popcorn ready, indeed.

Jerry Jones, he of the pompous "owner/president/general manager" title, better do something quick or he won't have much to show for his hundreds of millions of dollars, which includes his new gleaming Jerryworld stadium set to open next open. Dallas fans expect a Superbowl every year.

The humiliating 44-6 drubbing this past weekend by the Philadelphia Eagles merely confirms what many of have feared. This team is a complete disaster on just about every level. As Bill Parcells famously said, you are what your record says you are. That means the Cowboys at 9-7 are no better than fellow disappointing underachievers like the Chicago Bears, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the New York Jets.

Here's an eight-step plan to get the Cowboys back on track. It's what we'd do.

1. Fire Wade Phillips. He's done. Goodbye, God bless, and don't let your ass hit the doorknob. Savvy football fans knew back when he was hired in 2007 that he's no head coach. He's soft. He makes excuses for his team. He shrugs off criticism. He relies on a frustrating "nothing to worry about here" mantra. With the exception of Bill Parcells, Jerry Jones is an abject failure when it comes to picking head coaches not named Jimmy Johnson. Remember Chan Gailey? Dave Campo? Wade's runner-up for the job was Norv Turner for crying out loud. This season Norv ran a talented San Diego Chargers team into the ground and squeaked into the playoffs by the skin if his teeth. Until Jerry gives up control, he'll never recruit a real head coach. Note that the only real success the Cowboys have had in the recent past is under Parcells, who assumed a lot of control. Jerry may not know as much about football as he thinks he does.

2. Cut some veterans, too.
This is a team that needs to feel fear. Players should worry that their jobs aren't safe unless they produce on the field. Obviously, you can't cut stars like Romo, but if a bubble player like Bobby Carpenter makes a dumb move on game day, show him the door. The other players will get the message.

3. No more "Hard Knocks." Tell HBO to find some other franchise to jinx. Fans love to see the inner-workings of training camp, but it sends the wrong signal. It tells the players that cameras and drama are not only tolerated, but desired. To Jerry, media exposure is everything. But shouldn't the win-loss record be everything?

4. Play with urgency and precision. This is one sloppy, lazy football team. How could the most penalized team in the NFL truly hope to compete for a Superbowl? If there's not a drinking game that calls for a shot to be taken every time Flozell Adams gets a false start penalty, there ought to be. Why can't this guy figure out the snap count or just watch the ball? And if it's not stupid penalties by the offense, it's poor tackling on the defense. You get the sense that after rolling to a 3-0 start this season, the players started believing the hype, figuring they'd just have to suit up and they'd get the W by default. You have to still play the game, idiots.

5. Fix the offense. Why did Jerry Jones pay all those millions (and give up draft picks) to Roy Williams if he wasn't going to be a factor in the passing game? Williams had one touchdown catch. That's one more than the Cheese Fry had and we're not even on the damn roster. You can gripe at Terrell Owens all you want, but the guy had a point about Romo's looks in the last few games. Romo, for whatever reason, doesn't trust his receivers. When the going gets tough, he throws it to Jason Witten. That makes the Cowboys very one-dimensional in he passing game. This leads us to...

6. Be willing to let Jason Garrett go.
If the Detroit Lions want to hire the boy genius, let them take him. His play calling ain't what it was last season. Maybe those critics are right - maybe the rest of the league has figured out Garrett. He sure hasn't done a good job proving that he's figured out the rest of the league's defenses. In games where it counted against legitimate opponents, the offense rarely found a groove. For example, Garrett has a frustrating tendency to get clever in grave 3-and-short situations. When a simple running play would work, twice in two games Garrett called some kind of high-risk, weird trickery that failed to get the first down. Those decisions raise real concerns, concerns that even Romo has started to voice. If the players don't believe in the system, they won't execute. And we already know from #4 above that execution isn't their strong point.

7. Reduce the turnovers.
No good team should tolerate this many turnovers. Romo is the worst offender. He's got to take care of the ball. He makes too many mistakes still, whether it's an inexplicable (and inexcusable) miscommunication with the center, a fumble on a sack, or an ill-advised throw. This has got to be an off-season priority for him. Romo has to ratchet his game up to the next level. As we learned from the awful Brad Johnson Experiment, the Cowboys need Romo's A-game to win.

8. Get angry. The Cowboys are not a come-from-behind rally team. They can protect a lead. But when they get down, they tend to lose their confidence. They get glum. They point fingers. They pout. A good coach, however, (and good players, too) should be able to turn that emotion into rage and determination. Pissed-off teams with chips on their shoulders play smart and win ballgames. Bill Belichick has been a master at this - he managed to make his peerless mid-2000s Patriot teams feel like underdogs. The Cowboys, like the Tin Man, are in dire need of some heart. More proud athlete, less spoiled children.

The sad truth is that it may already be too late. Last season may have been the best chance for the Cowboys to go all the way. Football 101 suggests that teams flourish best the first season after a coaching philosophy change. That is, teams that move from the hard-nosed disciplinarian coach to a laid-back father figure coach (or vice versa) have their best chance at success that first season in the new regime. 2007 was that season for the Cowboys. They went an amazing 13-3 and got home-field advantage and a first-round bye. But the wheels came off, thanks in part of Wade Phillips' lackadasical approach to December. Rather than keep the foot on the gas, he let the Cowboys get complacent and lazy and sloppy, figuring they could turn it on again in January. They didn't.

And now here we are.

Food that makes life worth living

* fried shrimp with tartar sauce
* Snuffers Cheese Fries (with bacon and chives, of course)
* crisp, crunchy Red Delicious apple
* Kentucky Derby pie
* seedless grapes
* green bean casserole with the crunchy fried onions on top
* pepperoni pizza
* Jack's Burger House french fries
* prime rib
* club sandwich
* cranberry whip
* you make a sandwich out of a biscuit, scrambled egg, and a sausage patty
* DISD's fiesta salad
* Zankou Chicken's garlic paste
* cornbread/sage dressing
* Plain M&Ms
* mackerel nigiri sushi
* Chili's Bottomless Chips and Salsa
* Lays potato chips, barbecue flavored
* guacamole
* Hostess Cupcakes
* hot beef chili on a cold day
* Cracklin Oat Bran
* Father's Office sweet potato fries
* fajitas, heavy on the sour cream and grilled onions

Previously on the Cheese Fry: Beverages that make life worth living.


Knee-jerk review: "Marley & Me"

1. Way better that you think it will be. Way better than it probably should be.
2. It's quite good.
3. Be warned, though. By the closing credits, the theater will be filled with the sounds of sniffling. It's that kind of movie.
4. Which can be a very good thing.
5. A lot of movies try to explore the old adage about life being what happens to you while you're making plans. It's not an easy thing to dramatize. Life is boring. That's why we go to the movies. But this film succeeds about as well as any. There are no cops, no shootouts, no blood, no witty courtship dances. It's just a sophisticated, adult look at what happens when you're 40 years old and life hasn't followed the plan you had in mind when you were 20. It's about the simple joys and unexpected tragedies of life.
6. The PG-rating usually means simple-minded and dumb. Not here.
7. It's probably the best Owen Wilson's ever been. He's dialed down the quirky snark he typically uses as a crutch. He's playing a real character here.
8. Jennifer Aniston's good, as well. She's also a total babe. But we'll save that for another post.
9. Highlight of the movie is a very fresh, very energetic montage in which Owen Wilson's character tells us how he spends his weeks. You really don't expect this kind of bracing creativity in a big Hollywood movie.
10. Oh, yeah. And the dog is very cute.


"Saturday Night" resurgence?

We're not ready to claim that "Saturday Night Live" has returned to its glory days. Too often the show fails to hit on any cylinders whatsoever, such as the painfully lame Tim McGraw show back on November 22, an episode packed full of unfunny sketches and underdeveloped ideas. You see episodes like that and you wonder how much better "SNL" might be it weren't working under such an ambitious schedule. For example, what if it limited itself to 60 minutes every other week? Any regular viewer knows that the final half-hour of the show is a wasteland where bad sketches go to die.

But the recent presidential election showed us all how inspired and genius "SNL" can be when it really digs in, thanks mostly to the serendipitous emergence of an easy-to-mock vice presidential candidate who looked like Tina Fey. But the last couple of seasons have also seen the rise of memorably oddball performers like Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg. And Amy Poehler will be a hard cast member to replace.

But most of all, this newest "SNL" incarnation has given us the "SNL Digital Short" feature. They aren't all funny, but they're often unusual and odd in ways the rest of the show isn't. "Lazy Sunday" started it all back in 2005 and "Dick in a Box" in 2006 continued the trend.

But now we have a new champ:

Holiday knee-jerk review: "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"

1. We remember well the snowmobile delivery man voiced by Fred Astaire...
2. ...but we don't remember much else. All in all, it's a pretty weird holiday special.
3. This was made by Rankin-Bass several years before "Year Without a Santa Claus" and the stop-motion animation is indeed much cruder and clunkier. The figures jerk and move with such little fluidity that it feels like you're having a mild seizure just watching it.
4. The special is pretty clever, however, in creating a detailed backstory to Santa Claus that explains the details of the Santa myth, much of it involving Santa's status as a fugitive wanted by the head of Sombertown (i.e. to escape detection he starts entering children's home via the chimney).
5. For some reason the Sombertown bad guys all have German accents, but "funny" ones that call to mind "Hogan's Heroes."
6. That odd German slant plus the fugitive subplot lends the story a strange World War II vibe with Santa acting as some kind of underground resistance leader to the anti-toy Nazi rule.
7. Mrs. Claus is a hot dish until she married Santa, then she really lets herself go. He must be a poor influence on healthy living.
8. If you ever face death by a Winter Warlock, just offer him a toy train.


Ingredients: "Law and Order"

"Law and Order" debuted on NBC way back in the fall of 1990. George H.W. Bush was president and the Gulf War hadn't even started yet. With so many episodes now in the can and airing around the clock on various cable outlets, certain narrative "Law and Order" tendencies have become very apparent.

Here's a quick primer in how to make an episode.

1. Honor the show's "ripped from the headline" sales pitch. Use as a jumping-off point some salacious real-world crime or criminal situation that viewers will immediately recognize (i.e. fundamentalist Mormon polygamists, a construction crane collapse, Jack Kevorkian's assisted suicides, dogfighting rings, crooked athletes, Scientology)...

2. ...but change the facts around enough to avoid any pesky real-world lawsuits. If needed, kick off the episode with one of those ominous "any connection to real-life people is coincidental" disclaimers.

3. Be sure that the aforementioned real-world crime or situation in the first-half "Law" portion has little to do with the second-half "Order" portion. Things are never what they seem in any good "Law and Order" episode. What begins as a murder investigation must lead our heroes to a bigger crime, a shocking conspiracy, or a ruthless villain.

4. The prologue must feature some mundane (yet colorful and possibly ethnic and/or blue-collar) New Yorker tableaux suddenly interrupted by the discovery of a bloody corpse.

5. The detective characters examining the corpse should offer some pithy (possibly funny) one-liner that will take us to the opening credits. In screenwriting they call this a scene's "button." Jerry Orbach always got the best ones.

6. Whoever the detective characters first consider a suspect must be a dead-end red herring. The real culprit should be someone they meet in the first 10 minutes of the show but who seems at first completely inconsequential.

7. A detective character will use "LUDs" to uncover a vital piece of evidence.

8. Another good source of evidence are video surveillance cameras, whether at an ATM or a toll booth or a subway.

9. A defense lawyer will arrive to stop any interrogation.

10. The detectives' boss will order them to check another angle or ask more questions.

11. The detective characters must talk to the coroner character, preferably over the body of the victim. Some arcane, CSI-style bit of forensics will come into play here, helping steer the detectives to the truth.

12. If at any point in the investigation, special knowledge is called for (about teen subculture, about military protocol, about international diplomacy), one of the detective characters will have it, no matter how implausible it might seem. And this knowledge should be delivered in a clunky speech that might as well have the word "exposition" flashing underneath it.

13. If anyone's going to be arrested, the arrest must happen in a public forum to make it as humiliating as possible for the suspect. In "Law and Order" no one's allowed to turn himself in and detectives exercise zero discretion.

14. Something the detective characters did (or didn't do) will be tossed out by the trial judge and ruled inadmissable. This will make things very difficult for the D.A. characters. This will typically occur shortly after...

15. ...a defense attorney serve the D.A. characters with one of those blue motion forms. It's never good news.

16. The female D.A. character will conduct her own investigation. Why this is necessary isn't always clear. Didn't the detectives spend 30 minutes on this case already?

17. The male D.A. character - who never conducts investigations - will face a big setback (because of the judge, a witness, or the accused) and devise a very creative, possibly unethical, solution to get around the setback. This new solution will be conceived either on the courthouse steps or in his wood-paneled office.

18. Include a scene in the caged witness room on Riker's Island. Hopefully this will involve a defense attorney asking the D.A. characters "What are you offering?"

19. The offer is never appealing to the defense.

20. At trial, the D.A. characters will do more arguing than questioning when there's a witness on the stand. Your lawyer friends hate this part of the show.

21. Include this dialogue: "Objection!" "Withdrawn." Also good to use: the judge growling "Watch it, counselor."

22. At trial, one of the witnesses will reveal something he/she didn't intend thanks to the cross-examination skill of the D.A. characters. When this happens, it's a good idea to show the jury box's reaction.

23. About 45 minutes into the episode, all hope will seem lost. The case falls completely apart. The accused looks like he'll get away with it.

24. But the D.A. characters go back to a part of the case (a witness or a piece of evidence) that had been previously neglected and find a new way to use it.

25. When the truth about the crime is at last going to be fully revealed, slowly, slowly fade in the volume on the violin soundtrack. Often this will occur in the D.A.'s conference room or on the witness stand.

26. End the episode with a final pithy one-liner from one of the D.A. characters that perfectly sums up how A) justice always prevails or B) the real bad guy got away.

Ars gratia artis

Neatorama.com takes a look at the origins of the Hollywood movie studio logos. Probably for shameless movie nerds only. That is, those of you who know who Alfred Newman is and why he's so important to movie logos.

"The world's biggest toy store"

Us Generation Xers all grew up with this TV spot. Images of Star Wars action figures dancing in our heads. Happy holidays!


Holiday knee-jerk review: "The Year Without a Santa Claus"

1. You know this one. It's the stop-motion 1970s Christmas special with the Heat Miser and Snow Miser.
2. They're the best part of the show, although their whole subplot is effectively moot: our heroes visit the Snow Miser and Heat Miser to try and make it snow in South Town, which will in turn free reindeer Vixen from the dogcatcher. (When we write it all out like this, it really seems ridiculous but it sorta works in the show.) But by the time they make their case to the Miser Brothers, Vixen's already free so the whole thing was pointless. Makes you wish they'd just done one more rewrite on the script.
3. Interesting how active Mrs. Claus is here in trying to save the day and go behind Santa's back.
4. Also interesting that Santa's doctor is such a crabby anti-Christmas jerk. Can't they fire that guy? How'd he get this job?
5. The melancholic "Blue Christmas" song at the end, paired with kids' crayon drawings, is cheesy stuff. But good cheese.
6. But the real showstopper is of course, the Miser Brothers' songs.
7. "I'm Mister White Christmas, I'm Mister Snow. I'm Mister Icicle, I'm Mister Ten Below. Friends call me Snow Miser, whatever I touch turns to snow in my clutch... I'm too much!"
8. "I'm Mister Green Christmas, I'm Mister Sun. I'm Mister Heat Blister, I'm Mister Hundred and One. They call me Heat Miser, whatever I touch starts to melt in my clutch... I'm too much!"
9. As sleek and beautiful as Pixar-style computer animation may be nowadays, there's still something cozy and tactile about these sorts of old-school stop-motion specials, with their moth-eaten wire-frame dolls and schmaltzy songs.
10. Or maybe it's just another example of lame Generation X nostalgia.

Progressive Flo

Is it just us, or is there is something strangely beguiling about Flo, the chatterbox spokesperson for Progressive Insurance with the "tricked out namebadge"?

Just us, then?

Just us and a reporter at WSBTV in Atlanta, apparently. They tracked down the actress who plays Flo... Stephanie Courtney.

Knee-jerk review: "Australia"

1. This is a whole lot of movie. Chock full of subplots and themes and homages and characters. Probably a few too many, truth be told. It's a little fuzzy around the edges.
2. The idea is clearly to offer the romantic sweep and thrilling historical action of Gone with the Wind. Give director Baz Luhrmann credit for ambition.
3. Nicole Kidman in the real world is becoming more plastic-looking with every passing day. And that smug little smirk she always wears doesn't do her any favors. But in the movie here she resembles an actual human being. And a likable one at that.
4. The cattle drive sequence is probably the highlight. Despite what the TV spots may suggest, this is in many ways an old-school Western.
5. Luhrmann, as usual, is very interested in filling his work with pop culture allusions. The Wizard of Oz plays a big role in the action here. It's not just discussed, but characters are shown watching it, and the tune "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" features prominently. More interesting, though, is the way Luhrmann's cinematography often calls to mind the big Technicolor epics of the 1930s.
6. Yeah, the kid who plays little Nullah is pretty good.
7. Hugh Jackman's solid as always. Why isn't he a bigger star? He only draws crowds when he's playing Wolverine, which is odd.
8. The opening few minutes is pretty weird tonally and formally, but the movie settles down soon enough.
9. A lot of it is familiar, but still fun. The freshest element is the class/race subplot involving the cruel treatment of Australian aborigines and the half-caste offspring of whites and Aborigines.