True Crime Series Review – HBO’s McMillion$

Dipped in awesome sauce!

Okay, this isn’t your typical true crime series – there is only one dead body.  This is about the greatest scam in modern times.  It covers the crimes tied to McDonalds’ Monopoly game and that for years, the game was 100% rigged.

You didn’t know?  I remember bits and pieces of this story, but I never knew the entire story.  A friend turned me onto this HBO series and my wife and I got hooked.  The FBI agent who started the ball rolling made it for me.  I wish everyone in the FBI was a gung ho as this guy.  The undercover sting videos were wonderful!

The series begins with a simple tip – that the McDonald’s games are all rigged by someone called “Uncle Jerry.”  It turns out to be much bigger than that.  The mob is involved, as well as multiple Jerry’s.  There’s a questionable death, shady characters, and some remarkably bizarre twists. The spider web of winners and middlemen in all of this is incredible.

You are left, until the last episode, not knowing just how the pieces got stolen and switched out – or who the informant was.  We were shocked on the last episode, which means the producers did it right.

Some of the winners try desperately to paint themselves as victims which I disliked.  All but one, in my opinion, knew exactly what they were doing as part of this criminal conspiracy.  They paid money to middlemen for the winning tickets.  They knew the game was rigged and were cheating not just McDonalds but everyone who played and thought they had a chance of winning.

We were riveted to each episode, so the pacing is good.  I think if you tune into this you will not be disappointed.  It is a top-notch true crime production.  You’re stuck in the house anyway, so use your social distancing time appropriately and watch this series.

Mid-Series Review of HBO’s Chernobyl

The two plant managers on the right – you learn to hate them right off the bat

When I heard this miniseries was coming from HBO I wondered how they would walk the tightrope between realism/documentary and thriller.  As it turns out, they did it masterfully.  HBO sucks you into this horrible event, taking you on twisty and deadly twists and turns along the way.  In the wastelands of the post-Game of Thrones era, Chernobyl is nail-biting, tense, and sad.

Chernobyl is the story of the most horrific nuclear disaster in mankind’s history.  I’ve read two books on the subject so I wondered how close HBO would stick to the real story. As it turns out, they do adhere to the events…with some added drama.  Some of the characters are quite real, where others are composites. Some of the events, like the helicopter crashing because of the radiation…well, I don’t remember that instance.  It is okay, HBO doesn’t wander far from the grim truth here.  I can suspend reality for an hour dose at a time.

What I like the most is that the series mirrors the real world events.  For months the Soviet Union did not know what had caused the explosion of the reactor.  I am four episodes in and they are only beginning to piece it all together.

You get a feel for the Soviet Union I remember from my younger years.  This was a place where even the KGB head is followed by the KGB – where the phrase, “bullet to your head,” is tossed around like a casual threat. It is easy and comforting to forget how oppressive the Soviet Union was – and how their air of secrecy actually contributes to the disaster.

The series has music that makes you edgy.  The effects of radiation on the victims makes you cringe.  It is strange that all of the cast have accents other than Russian, but oddly, it makes it passable.

Episode Four is hard to watch because it involves shooting pets.  It really was gut-wrenching.

Like Game of Thrones, you shouldn’t expect a good ending to this series either.  The fact that it really happened should resonate even more with people.  If you are not watching Chernobyl, get started now!  You will come away with sleepless nights and an appreciation of disasters caused by man’s folly and arrogance.

Review of the HBO series Gunpowder

Only HBO can make Guy Fawkes a medieval superhero

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes and his companions

Did the scheme contrive,

To blow the King and Parliament

All up alive.

Threescore barrels, laid below,

To prove old England’s overthrow.

But, by God’s providence, him they catch,

With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

A stick and a stake

For King James’s sake!

I have to admit a fondness for Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. Oppressed, they sought to change the course of history. There is a bit of a rebel in all of us and in some ways Fawkes and his fellow conspirator’s appeals to those feelings on their most base level.  Of course, in reality, the suppressed Catholics became even larger targets of oppressions as a result of the infamous Gunpowder plot’s horrific failure.

I would say that this review of spoiler-free, but I can assure you, it is not. Series based on history cannot be spoiler free.

When I saw HBO was doing a series on this, starring Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones, I was pretty excited.  Americans only know Guy Fawkes from the movie “V for Vendetta” so I thought that this was going to be a great docudrama that was both entertaining and educational.

It is a dark series, both story-wise and visually.  There are a number of characters introduced that we never really get to know and invest ourselves in.  As such, their fates do not mean much to us as viewers – which is a lost opportunity.  That isn’t to say that this is a bad series – in fact is very captivating and stimulating, with a bit of a let-down at the end.

The story of English Catholics during King James reign is played out in dramatic fashion in the opening episode.  The scenes of the crushing death of a Catholic resistor was disturbing and unfortunately historically accurate.

Guy Fawkes emerges in the second episode as a bit of a bad-ass. When push came to shove, the plan is hatched to blow up Parliament and the King. The second episode does a great job of building up for a confrontation and conflagration.

The third episode is a cascade on many levels.  One, the bombing plan unravels.  The explanation of the Spanish as the exposers of the assassination is far-fetched (and likely inaccurate) but adds to the intrigue of the story.  Guy Fawkes, who was such a larger-than-life figure in the second episode is quickly subdued and the explosives diffused.  Harrington’s character Robert Catesby, digs in for a fight to the finish, a battle he does not win.  (Sidebar:  I understand that Harrington is related to Catesby, which is incredibly cool.)

I had to research this period for my book on the cannibal clan of Sawney Bean, which certainly helped my personal enjoyment.  I will say that the end of the series was disappointing.  The characters you embrace are dead (not Game of Thrones style either) and you don’t know what happened after their demise.  Even the contemporary impact of the Gunpowder plot is ignored.  The viewer is left wanting more – even some closure.  I anticipated the poem above to be read, or images of Guy Fawkes Night in modern times.  We don’t get these.

Despite the depressing ending, which mirrored real life, the series has a grittiness and realistic feel about it that is entertaining and chilling.  It is well worth the three hours of your time to watch.

HBO’s Silicon Valley is a Must-Watch Show

A show of geeky awesomeness.
A show of geeky awesomeness.

I stumbled onto Silicon Valley last year in Season One after Game of Thrones and immediately loved this.  It is the hilarious story of a tech start-up (Pied Piper) and the struggles and strains the founders go through.  It’s not the kind of comedy with a lot of sit-com moments.  The humor in Silicon Valley is a little more subtle.  There’s a lot in his series to enjoy yet I rarely see press about the show.  That’s a shame.

The show comes from Mike Judge who brought us Office Space and Bevis and Butthead.  If you even remotely enjoyed Office Space, Silicon Valley is going to be perfect for you.

The parallels to real companies is fantastic – Hooli is Google (or maybe Apple, honestly it doesn’t matter) in the show as an example. You get a sense that Silicon Valley is a nation on its own, and culturally it is.  The personalities in the tech industry that are portrayed are sometimes wild…yet oddly realistic.  Silicon Valley strips back the illusion that tech giants try to project about themselves.  What is revealed is petty, backstabbing, almost childish behavior with millions of dollars on the line.

This is about a group of guys that create a new company with an earth-shattering compression algorithm that is potentially worth billions.  Companies try to buy them up, offering millions in investment, but somehow the group stays true to itself.  They get sued, accused of stealing their technology by Hooli just because Hooli’s owner wants to crush them.  The guys survive, but every step they make towards prosperity means they have to give up a little more and deal with a never-ending series of hurdles.  The show is about underdogs trying to carve out a bit of the American Dream.  We root for them, despite their sometimes strange if not stupid behavior.  As a viewer, you want them to succeed because they are pursuing what we all wished we did – our dreams.  Theirs just happens to be code.

The main characters draw you in.  They are not out to crush people to get their company up and running.  Richard (the main character) just wants to build neat stuff.  Gilfoyle, the systems architect, is one of my favorites.  If you’ve ever worked in IT, you know more than one Gilfoyle.  He’s self-assured to the point of arrogance, yet laid back, devious with a twisted sense of humor.

Erlich, the more senior person on the show is a part-time stoner running a technology incubator in his house.  He sees himself as a visionary but in reality his ego far exceeds his talent.  His dialogue is awkward and hilarious.  Jared, the geeky business support to the team, is an idealistic dreamer with vision who lacks the social skills to fit in anywhere.  Big Head, the dorky friend of Richard’s, finds himself constantly promoted at Hooli for no reason at all – pushed way beyond his level of competence.

For those of us that embrace our nerd lifestyles, the show has delivered us some incredible moments. In season one, at TechCrunch (a competition for tech startups) the guys start crunching the math on what it would take to jerk off everyone in the main auditorium.  They fill white boards up with the calculations and process.  While this may sound gross or immature at first, if you have ever worked in technology, these kinds of pointless mental endeavors happen all of the time.  When I watched this episode I realized that it hit the mark. My wife kept asking, “are they serious?” and I responded, “You have no idea how close this is to reality.”

Go out and watch Silicon Valley.  Binge it!  There’s 20 episodes out on HBO.  Watch them – enjoy them. I do – it is one of my favorite shows. #SiliconValley