Review of HBO’s: Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered

The Atlanta Child Murders were an American tragedy.  Anytime a serial killer targets small children it is horrific.  What the authorities did after Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the 29 murders was gut-wrenching.  They closed all of the murders – slamming the door on the victim’s families.  If you watched Netflix’s Mindhunter, it isn’t too far off from the reality. 

This short series cracks open the case files as the City of Atlanta starts looking into the cases anew.  I came into it hopeful to get a well-rounded documentary series that would give me a solid sense of the crimes, evidence, and witnesses.  My expectations were not met – despite the stunning production quality. 

It is clear that this series is focused on Wayne William’s being innocent of these crimes, almost the point where they gloss over and downplay the evidence against him.  The producers throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it sticks with the viewers.  We get everything from Klan informers to pressures allegedly from the White House to smother the investigation because it was bad for Atlanta’s public image.  The producers quickly mention that many of the accounts and alleged killers were cleared by alibi and polygraph, but instead drill in on a web of speculative intrigue that is hard to contemplate.

I wanted something that was balanced, but what I got was something crafted to try and manipulate me.  As a true crime author, I know that pushing an agenda is dangerous. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I strongly doubt that Williams was responsible for all of these murders. That isn’t the same as being innocent.  Three of the witnesses against him admitted that they lied, but there were other witnesses, including family members, who saw Williams with some of his victims. 

The claim that the fiber evidence was tainted by the FBI overlooks the fact that the GBI did their own analysis and could map fibers and hairs from William’s environment to 23 of the victims.  Remember as well that Williams was first on their radar when he was caught on a bridge when a splash was heard in the river, and a body was found a mile downriver days later.  He lied about his reason for being out at 2am on that bridge, just as he lied about his music promotion business being a viable entity.     

Much of this series is William’s defense team making the pitch that he is innocent.  Rather than admit they didn’t do a good job, they point of a vast conspiracy by the prosecution against them and their client.  I get it, that’s their job.  Again, evidence contrary to their theories is disregarded or ignored by the producers. 

Williams revels in the role of victim.  He accepts zero responsibility for any of his crimes.  That is maddening and sick.  Did he kill all 29 victims though?  No.  I doubt it. 

Some of the misdirection presented was obvious.  A person claimed a Klan member said he killed one of the victims who had run into his car with a go-cart.  In reality the victim was at a shopping center with a family member at the time of his abduction, left alone for only a few minutes.  There was no go-cart. No witnesses saw a go-cart.  Rather than point that out the producers chose to ignore the inconsistency to plant the seed that this alleged confession was valid.

Material presented said that another victim had been seen with a known pedophile who was named at or near the time of his disappearance.  That is useful information, but we don’t know why that individual was excluded at the time.  I have spent hundreds of hours of my life reading police reports from that era.  Often times in a murder you will get a half-dozen different witnesses who will point out completely different suspects. Investigators run those things down – they want to solve crimes.  We don’t know why investigators cleared this individual – either the case files were incomplete or the producers simply didn’t say. 

In the middle of all of this is the surviving family members.  Some believe Williams is guilty of some of the murders, others believe he is innocent.  They have been told so many things over the years, sometimes by those in authority, some appear unsure what to believe.  One thing they all share however is the anger and frustration that the authorities arbitrarily closed their cases. 

Reopening the cases is good public relations and long overdue with the family members – but it is unlikely to result in new charges or change anyone’s mind in the end.  The seeds of doubt were planted decades ago and even compelling evidence for or against Williams is going to change most people’s minds.

Having said that, this was a good and compelling documentary series.  You are torn emotionally by the stories and the terrible way that the community and victims’ relatives were treated during all of this.  At the same time you get a sense of frustration on the part of the investigators interviewed because most are quite sure they caught the right man.  As much as I have taken shots at the approach of the series, I still recommend it. 

True Crime Series Review – HBO’s McMillion$

Mcmillions
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

chernob
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

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.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-hUV9yhqgY

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