Shorter days (but a run of unusually hot ones here in the Bay Area) meant more TV and movies for me this month. Here are the ups and downs.

A still photo from 'Ted Lasso'
The AFC Richmond coaching staff

TV

Last Chance U, Season 5 (Netflix): For the unfamiliar, the series is a season-in-the-life documentary that follows a prominent junior college football team.

In Oakland-based Laney College’s case, the school is looking to follow up on their 2018 state championship season. The coaches are local guys who worked their way up from high schools or returned alumni. The featured players are all working through hardships they’ve experienced in their lives. The dream is to get out of Oakland on an athletic scholarship.

The East Bay provides an unforgiving backdrop. Poverty and crime are a factor in their lives, while they’re almost all frozen out of the opportunity that arrived with tech and newfound desirability. Oakland and it’s suburbs are both a point of pride and an obstacle. The series spends almost as much time featuring the area as it does the team, underscoring the connection between place and circumstance.

What makes Last Chance U work is the off-the-field focus. Sure, there’s football on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. But this is only relevant because by then you’ve spent Sunday-Thursday with the team commuting, studying, sitting in meetings, dealing with shit at home (wherever home may be), or putting down a few beers with the coaches. By the end of the season, dreams are extended and adapted. The coaches turn their attention to the future. Oakland keeps hustling and doesn’t seems not to notice much.

Somehow though, along with suspicions that I was being too naive, the series left me optimistic. The light is faint, but it’s there. And I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s a little brighter for those who let go of football first, instead of holding on the longest.

The Vow (HBO): It’s been a while since I’ve engaged in a hatewatch, but this documentary about a self-improvement group run amok is ticking all the boxes.

The shocking, unfamiliar tale is all too familiar and not all that shocking, right from the get-go. A “charismatic” “genius” develops a “system” and promises “great things” for an unreasonable fee and unnatural dedication.

Language is manipulated and controlled. Simple concepts and structures get complex names, which are then simplified again with oh-so-many acronyms. This makes the insiders feel “inside” and vulnerable outsiders curious enough to know the lingo and pay to pull the curtain back. The manipulations start before the uninitiated are initiated.

There’s recruiting, arbitrary hierarchy, and silly signs of achievement ($3 worth of satin in this case).

The bar always moves farther away and extends higher until those who only wanted so much of a weird and bad thing realize they’ve gotten too much of it. Suddenly, it’s all not what they (literally) signed up for. The genius and his inner circle are now villains. The awakened former dupes-turned-recruiters/tormentors are now victims.

It might just be me, but no true victim has ever worked so hard for the title and burned through so much cash, then in turn milked others of their cash, as the victims in The Vow.

Don’t get me wrong: Bad things took place in this cult. The leaders are villains. But even their final, desperate attempts at intimidation and coercion are gamelike, requiring cooperation and deference from the victims to work. The cage imprisoning the members is never truly locked and the one last joke played on the members is that they don’t think to try the door handle and walk out.

Watch The Vow as your occasional reminder that water seeks it’s own level. And note too that if you’re of a certain demographic, your voice will be heard no matter what your reputation is, how stupid or dangerous your own personal behavior was, and how much you encouraged others to join in. All this while true victims go unheard or worse yet, heard and unhelped.

Just as NXVIM invents and distorts language to convince the gullible, maybe The Vow is an experiment from the documentarians and the participants to see how many of us would go along with the idea that these people are actually victims. One last loyalty test, if you will.

Ted Lasso (Apple TV+): A quasi-successful college football coach takes a job as manager of an English Premier League team, knowing next to nothing about soccer or… England.
Light, funny, and heartwarming. I dare you *not* to like this show.

Challenger: The Final Flight (Netflix): The first major news event that I remember was John Lennon’s murder. The second was the assassination attempt on Reagan. I was 7-8 at the time, so my interest was mainly my parents’ interest. But fast forward 5 years, and like a lot of kids, the Challenger explosion was the first public tragedy that left me stunned.

The Final Flight was informative and engaging. It treated the astronauts’ legacy and their families thoughtfully and respectfully. It humanized the players behind the scenes while bringing to light the culture at NASA that contributed to the disaster. And it let us in on moments that we couldn’t have known about at the time or forgot about since then (this was all before 24-hour news).

For me and probably a lot of other people who were around back then, the event felt just as heavy and shocking as it did back in 1986. The 4 episodes offer a definitive retelling, inside and out. Something that had been missing for 30-plus years, best I can tell.

Movies

The Social Dilemma (Netflix): For over a year, from 2018 to 2019, I worked as a designer on the Google Ads team in Mountain View, so I was eager to watch this. The movie left me with a lot of thoughts, but none more prominent than:

You should watch this if you don’t know how social media or online advertising work in general.

But that isn’t a wholehearted endorsement. There’s a lot here that’s overstated or mischaracterized. After watching, you’re likely to feel informed, and possibly outraged or concerned. Ask questions. Do research. Know that the film has a slant and it’s trying to distill a communications media that’s complex and emerging in 2 hours.

And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or upset by your interactions online, turn your device off. There’s plenty of work ahead for those of us who design these products. But I sincerely feel that this remedy will be more effective than anything we’ll see for a long, long time.

Books

The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick: The idea behind this book was a fun and interesting, but the lack of a strong protagonist killed it for me. A great what can’t overcome a nonexistent who – if that makes any sense.

Or put it another way: Reading this book was like watching a sporting event featuring two out-of-market teams you don’t care about. Stuff happens, but you just don’t care that much.

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.