Media month in review: August 2020

A scene from S2 E2 of Mr. Robot
A scene from S2 E2 of Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot, S2 E2

Here’s what I’ve been watching and reading.

Note: I’m only discussing what I liked, unless something was so bad I can’t help but talk about it.

TV

Mr Robot, S1-4: Mr. Robot was a show that I kicked myself for skipping at the time. With its nerdy intrigue, conspiracies, themes of David v. Goliath, socialism v. capitalism, and culture jamming v. media manipulation, it promised great things.

To reclaim a recently abused IRL expression: Promises made, promises kept. Season 2 wasn’t great, but the series was tense, complex, thrilling, and moving. Even as Mr. Robot wrapped up its story, the show gave me reasons to spend time considering what I’d just watched.

Perry Mason, S1: The glamor, celebrity, stunning architecture, and endless opportunity 1930s Los Angeles hangs in place thanks to a counterweight made up of racism, violence, corruption, and manipulation. On his best days, Perry Mason lives in the crux of it all. Most of the time though, he finds himself waging war against the shittier parts of LA (and himself).

Early reviews bogged down this part detective story/courtroom drama for no good reason. I had minor quibbles about how the story shifted gears, but there was enough to like in the story, performances, and visuals to make up for any shortcomings. S1 would’ve worked as a complete, standalone story, but I was happy to hear it got renewed.

Movies

The Verdict: When I was a kid, it seemed like The Verdict – a “Boston” movie – was on the local UHF channel (WLVI 56 in Boston) once every few months. But that was the 80s, and the movie seemed too heavy on dialogue and too light on car chases or bad special effects to get my interest.

It was a smart move waiting until now to watch it.

Paul Newman plays a barely-functioning, alcoholic attorney. A sympathetic friend drops a shot at redemption in his lap. To get it, Newman must win his case against the Catholic church – connected, wealthy, and immoral – for botching the treatment of a young woman delivering a baby, killing the baby and leaving the mother brain dead.

The Verdict is a time capsule in more ways than one, but still worth watching. I was surprised it came out in 1982 and could’ve been convinced it was from 10 years earlier. It’s a “quiet”, drab movie that’s so even-paced, you could describe it as monotonous. But it executes on the main themes of power, (in)justice, and struggle in the pursuit of truth. And the performances and dialogue carry it. 1980s me was right… and wrong.

Books

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: Tolentino, a writer by trade, shares several essays about her life from her teens through to the present (approximately). Some of the topics include:

  • Growing up with the internet
  • Reality TV (Tolentino was on a show in her teens)
  • Body image and fitness as an industry
  • Religion, culture, and coming of age
  • Sexual assault on college campuses
  • Marriage

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book and in the end it left a mark. It’s entertaining and upsetting – sometimes within the same topic. At times, it was relatable (the internet, “celebrity”, and marriage). At other times, it was disturbingly foreign.

Tolentino’s perspective opened my eyes to things I hadn’t considered enough, if at all. There were passages in the book describing struggles, pressures, and frustrations that, as a man, would’ve never crossed my mind. They’ve never been part of my reality.

Beyond that, and surprisingly, this book made think a lot about my daughter. The age difference between Tolentino and I is about the same as the difference between Tolentino and my daughter. The essays made it clear(er) how life is more difficult now – and how much more difficult it could be for my daughter as she reaches adulthood (and beyond).

Some of these issues may get better with time and awareness of privilege and systemic forces at play. Others won’t. And others haven’t even truly arrived yet. When Tolentino was my daughter’s age, there was no reality TV. The internet was a handful of van-sized machines in a handful of university basements.

Being a supportive father – and a supportive individual – will mean that I have work to do now and I’ll need an awareness that adapts in the long term.

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff: Three families navigate a Bermuda Triangle of 1950s racism and the supernatural, ranging from the South to the Midwest to New England. It’s full of monsters – known and unknown.

I wanted to read this book when the trailer first came out for the HBO series. The hype following the premiere sealed it. But when it comes to sci-fi, I worry that the level of immersion involved is going to be too tedious and the pace too slow. I want to be entertained, not to take on a new field of study.

There was no danger of that here. Ruff sets up a rich world that’s anchored in history, but free to kick down the barriers to your imagination. The action’s never far off and the story moves quickly, while staying in focus. There’s one plot line/detour that I didn’t love, but it develops characters and helps transition the story to its conclusion. Hardly a dealbreaker.

If anything, the book now has me worried for the TV show. I can’t say how many episodes this story will need, but 1 season of 10 episodes probably isn’t the right number. There’s too much good in the book.