Nonfiction Authors Worth Reading

I have a love/hate relationship with nonfiction. I love reading nonfiction, but I have a serious problem with the values of nonfiction and the way it is written. This may be because of my tastes and interests (I am not a memoir, biography, or history buff- I’m more of a journalistic nonfiction guy), but I find much of the nonfiction genre too inconsistent and too long. And maybe because of that, it makes finding a good nonfiction book feel so, so sweet. 

Out of this relationship, I have learned, that when reading nonfiction, stick to the authors you like. 

Good nonfiction authors tend to fix the problems (as diagnosed by me) of the nonfiction genre. Because even though they are not all perfect, they are consistent in their strengths and their flaws. And even though they don’t all avoid the unnecessary digression into something that they, and only they, find interesting in vague regard to the topic of the book, at least you know how often and how egregiously they do it. And if you like one of an author’s books and merely move on to his/her next, it solves the problem of the book blackhole that I fall into when I get done reading one and begin the arduous search for what I might like next.

So here are the nonfiction authors that I believe have a significant body of work worth diving into to avoid looking for the needle in the nonfiction haystack.

Malcolm Gladwell

The undisputed heavyweight champ of nonfiction. The man has written so much and so well in both his career at the New Yorker and in his books that he has inspired his own adjective for a style of writing- Gladwellian. And I love Gladwellian writing. It is almost always interesting by any hand, but it is never better than with the originator.


Gladwellian writing takes a topic that seems so abstract and unattainable that nobody could possibly write or, at the least, say anything new about it (first impressions, success, underdogs, tipping points), then finds seemingly unrelated studies (to each other and sometimes to the topic) and looks at them in such a unique and refreshing way that our perspective on the entire topic changes.

Gladwell has a unique view on the world, and it fosters a style of writing that is replicable, but never as engaging as when whatever crazy amount of reading and thinking he does turns into a book or essay. I still read those books that imitate him, but Gladwell is the best.

Michael Lewis

In my opinion the only challenger to Gladwell in terms of quantity of great writing, Michael Lewis writes as a journalist who finds specific stories that have grand implications (Blindside and Moneyball) and can also dip into grand stories with a more specific approach (Big Short and The Fifth Risk). Either way his books rarely venture into the unnecessary and always find something interesting to share. He also has an ability to make complicated and inaccessible topics seem friendly and intriguing. 

I am overly fond of this style of writing which shows up in two other authors on this list, so if you find this is your favorite style as well, you will have hours of reading available to you as you make your way through his books. 

Mary Roach

Roach approaches her works as an investigative journalist looking into a topic (as opposed to Lewis who is looking into a story). She was doing ‘deep dives’ before deep dives were a thing, and her attention to minutiae as well as the dry wit in which she makes every kernel and nugget seem as important as the next, feel like a fair reflection and a more professional take on the endless type of searching we do on the internet every day. 

I was introduced to Roach when I read Stiff where I became inexplicably interested in dead bodies and found myself constantly wanting to talk to live bodies about our less socially acceptable counterparts. Once this happened, I knew I found an author who was worth spending time with.

Jeffrey Toobin

Am I allowed to pick Toobin now? Can he be on the list?

Despite some of his more ‘intimate’ actions recently, I want to add Toobin to my list, because he is quite good… at writing. And he can make a reader zoom through any book no matter what length. He also selects mostly modern American stories (OJ, Patty Hearst, Clinton-Lewinsky etc…), which makes each book feel like a history of something we lived through. With a stroke of the keys, Toobin makes his readers recall moments that at the time seemed muddled and confused, and he provides clarity and insight into why that American moment felt like it did and created the reaction it did. 

He may have a tendency to be a bit contrarian in his approach and therefore bate his reader into some argument about minor discrepancies, but the overall narrative he places on important events in America is helpful as we navigate other turbulent waters.

Naomi Klein

Klein shoots nonfiction bullets. And they strike at capitalism and corporate globalization. When attacking opponents of this magnitude, one cannot afford to pull punches, and Klein does not. Her desire to make her point strongly can feel doomsayer-ish, but even if we, in our discomfort, assume her books overstate her point, she still makes a hell of a point. 

Her comprehensivity is her greatest strength, not putting together light and fun reads, but tomes of examples and instances that make the strongest constitutions quiver. 

All things being equal, you gotta be a hell of a writer to get a point-by-point response from Nike.

Jon Ronson

If you haven’t found Jon Ronson yet, you are in for a treat. Ronson uses a gonzo journalism style, narrating his research in the first person, which brings his awkward and dry wit to the forefront of every book. Ronson is not the impartial observer, but the very human reaction to very bizarre corners of our world (psychopaths, extremists, modern public shaming etc…), and as he goes places we never would, to talk about topics we tend to ignore, we learn a lot about ourselves. 

Once I read one Ronson book, I read them all within half a year. If he’s your style he becomes an addiction. I also recommend his audiobooks, his voice can be startling at first, but after a while, there is no other way to read/hear his stories than through his own, soft-spoken British tone.

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Is [Die Hard] A Christmas Movie?

It’s about that time of year. The tinsel is out. The trees are lit. Houses are wrapped with the smell of baked cookies. And every movie fan debates whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

At this point, I understand if the argument elicits an eye roll and a sigh of exasperation. And if you feel the need to exit this post because of that, I appreciate you reading this far and have a Merry Christmas. However, I do believe this is an important discussion, because it blends two very important elements of movie culture- Christmas movies and Die Hard.

Christmas movies are a remarkable corner of the film world. Movies immediately glommed onto the mood and spirit of Christmas and created some all-timers right from the jump, Babes in ToylandMiracle on 34th StreetIt’s a Wonderful Life, and White Christmas. Then added a few in the middle, A Christmas StoryNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and Charlie Brown Christmas to name a few, and then some modern all-timers like Elf and Polar Express. Because of this, Christmas movies may be the most competitive and selective genre for movies trying break into regular circulation.

The other half of this conversation is equally as legendary (said with tongue only partially in cheek). Die Hard is an action movie that inspired a genre of subsequent action movies. Die Hard founded many variations including on planes, in the White House, on a bus, and on a boat to name just some of the renditions of what may be the perfect action flick. So whereas Christmas movies became selective and elite, Die Hard is the most inviting of all films, begging to be copied and emulated time and again (and not just by its own franchise).

Therefore, to debate whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, is to engage in a significant conversation from two fertile fields of film. Two fields that are also opposite of each other, Christmas movies deny entrance, Die Hard brings movies into its fold.

So a person’s stance as to whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie often depends on what she/he are a bigger fan of, Christmas movies or Die Hard. Inevitably, fans of Christmas movies will tell you that Die Hard  is not among its ranks, continuing their undefeated streak of preening and pruning ‘unfit’ films from their fold. However, if the person answering the question is more a fan of Die Hard, they will almost always say yes, because they are already used to grouping Die Hard with other films.

Therefore, the conversation is not a conversation about two genres of film, but more so a conversation between two types of movie fans, one side wanting to limit the amount of movies associated with their elite list, the other looking to encompass as many other movies as they can in their umbrella of filmography.

Even though this existential battle of ideologies arches widely over the discourse, the evidence remains largely in explanations of archetypes. So the argument goes… Christmas movies are about Christmas, not just movies that take place during Christmas. There should be Santa Clause and Christmas trees and candy canes and Christmas songs, and the storyline should revolve around holiday angst as do all the great Christmas movies since the beginning of Christmas movies.

Die Hard inculsionists though, cast a smaller net… Die Hard happens during Christmas while at a Christmas party, at one point there is a dead guy dressed as Santa Clause with ‘ho ho ho’ written on his sweatshirt, what else do you need?

The chasm between these arguments seems unbridgeable. 

So let’s take it a step further and see if we can bypass this particular standstill. What would happen if we admitted Die Hard into the holy subgenre of Christmas movies?

You might think nothing would happen. Die Hard would be considered a Christmas movie, this dumb post wouldn’t exist, and you would save 5-10 minutes at every Christmas party each year, not having to talk to that one dude (i.e. me) about whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

Patently false.

You may no longer be having conversations about if Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but every Christmas movie fan’s worst nightmare would come true, and they would have to both fend off people wanting to watch Die Hard at Christmas time (more than already), and then they would have to argue as to whether or not Die Hard is one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time. 

This, to me, is what Christmas movie fans are trying to head off at the pass. I don’t hear anywhere near the vehemence when Home Alone enters the Christmas movie conversation. There is just a lazy yay or nay for or against its inclusion even though it is about Christmas in the exact same way Die Hard is. This is because if Home Alone enters the genre, no one is going to argue it overtakes any of the elite films in the genre (as good as the movie is). However, Die Hard, if allowed into the hallowed ground of Christmas films, would then become an all-timer in the Christmas genre, because it is an all-timer for all movies.

This whole conversation, then, seems like it needs a compromise, and this is where I now stand. Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Every Christmas season I have a desire to watch it, TV stations play it, the movie takes place on Christmas… But in the particular field of Christmas movies, let’s downgrade its quality as a movie for its lack of Christmas-ness. Therefore, Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but it is a bad Christmas movie, a joke that comes around every Christmas season. It should not be taken seriously as a Christmas movie any more than Sharknado is taken seriously as an action movie. In this case, Die Hard would be a worse Christmas movie than it is an actual movie.

This compromise both satiates the desire of Die Hard fans to have a foothold in the Christmas season (which is always an ironic take anyway), and for Christmas fans to stop having to argue about the validity of Die Hard as a Christmas movie. No need to include it on the lists of best Christmas movies of all time, no need to add it to your Christmas movie watch list with your significant other. Instead, Christmas movie fans can look the other way as, rather than ‘Seasons Greetings,’ their stranger friends and relatives say ‘Yippe-Kay-Yay mother…’

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Raccoons In The Chimney [Succession]

If you watch [Succession]Did you blank it? has a lot more to talk about with you…Go to our Watch page, or scroll to the bottom of this post for more [Succession].

The first episode of the second season of Succession had plenty of storylines to work with. And, as any new season does, it needed to establish storylines as well. But it also added a small, inconsequential storyline, that served as a throughline in this single episode- what’s the smell in the house?

The answer is dead racoons- as they discover later- but the stench spawned an opportunity for characters to chat as they walked around the house looking for the smell, as well as memorable entrances aided by awesome one-liners like, “It smells like the cheesemonger died and left his dick in the brie.” Which is now what I say upon entrance to all family gatherings.

But this gimmick doesn’t end with the discovery of maggoty raccoons decomposing in the chimney. It ends with Logan going full Roy on the contractor who built the chimney and chiseling that contractor out of fair compensation. The confrontation is painful, portraying a ‘have’ (Logan) wheedling his way out of paying an inconsequential amount of money (compared to his bank account) to a ‘have not’ (the contractor) who is just trying to pay his workers and support a family. It could also be assumed that this was a big deal job for the crew, so the impact on his livelihood is compounded.

But was Logan wrong? For sure he is a bad guy, and this is just another example of his short fuse and lack of care for his fellow man. But what if that construction crew actually left the dead raccoons in the chimney? 

I think they probably did. How else would decomposing rodents end up in a multi-million dollar home? Only the strangest of scenarios, even by Succession standards, could lead to a bundle of raccoons in Logan Roy’s chimney. To be fair, Logan Roy has a ton of enemies, and I am sure many a man or woman would find satisfaction with stinking up his summer home, but also, who would have access? Especially to a chimney that is so new.

The only logical deduction is that the construction crew did indeed place the dead raccoons in the chimney. And for the sake of argument, let’s also assume it was not with the approval or knowledge of the construction manager that Logan Roy eviscerates at the end of the episode. It didn’t seem like he would take that kind of risk. Whether he knew about the racoons at the time Logan accuses him of doing it… that will have to remain an irrelevant mystery. 

With these premises, the construction manager has tentative footing at best. Your crew stunk up the summer palace of the biggest entertainment mogul in the world, and oh yeah, he is a grade A, world class asshole. And the construction manager knew this pre-dead raccoon shenanigans, because in the interaction at the end of the episode, they refer to a previous disagreement about the pricing of the materials and labor for the job. 

And this is where the argument gets more interesting. The crew should not have put dead racoons in Logan Roy’s chimney- fact. Nothing good would come of it, and it was a blunder of epic proportions. Logan Roy always wins. Just ask him.

But can we argue that these chimney workers were justified for that action? Could this level of stupidity be excused by an equal level of assholery (I am pleasantly surprised to find out that ‘assholery’ is actually a word) on the part of Logan Roy. Well now… this also feels like firm footing.

Logan Roy, a man born from poverty (the extent of which remains to be debated), and now has so much money he wouldn’t know if he lost a million, chiseled this poor construction worker out of every penny possible. ‘Cause why not? We like to imagine that there is some amount of money that we could reach, after penny-pinching and saving and slaving and wheeling and dealing, that would allow us to unclench our butt cheeks and relax about a few bucks here and there. And yet…. I don’t know if we have evidence to support that ideology. The truth seems to be more like what we see in Logan Roy- the journey he took to get to where he is now, was so formative that his cheap and ruthless mentality is now indistinguishable from the man himself. 

So, we can imagine that even prior to the raccoons in the chimney, when Logan saw an opportunity to save some money on the construction job, he probably took it, and took it hard. And the poor construction workers, who inevitably knew they were doing the job for a rich billionaire mogul probably felt a level of resentment unfamiliar to most, a resentment that may have been spurred on by the politics Logan espouses on his news channels, and out of that resentment we get- raccoons in the chimney.

But play it back further… maybe the construction crew, knowing who they were working for, hating his rhetoric against immigrants like themselves (based on the nationality of the man Logan talks to at the end of the episode) actually did run the price up on Logan, thinking he wouldn’t think anything of it. And maybe this is something Logan is used to and anticipates. Or maybe they didn’t run up the price on Logan, but Logan thought they did because he was so used to everyone else doing it to him… 

And the plot thickens.

Rising above all these details, the infinitely rich media mogul who chiseled the construction workers out of money, pre- and post-racoons, is the bad guy. But I think there may be room to understand Logan’s actions by guessing at some of the factors at play. Either way, it embodies the infinite gulf between people living within miles of each other, and the infinitely complicated relationships between them.

But more than any blame, this interaction seemed so poignant for the show. Logan Roy interacting with a non-real person, a norm-o, an average Joe, something we don’t ever see him do, and when he does, he does it with disdain and ruthlessness and no amount of reasoning can remove the impression of a 1% kicking one of the 99 while he’s down. 

“My lawyer used to work for the Justice Department. Who’s yours? Mr. Magoo?”

And the levers of power stay greased.

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Netflix And The New Made-For-TV Movies

My wife and I just finished watching Falling Inn Love. It was horrible. The characters were either too flat or too over the top with an impressive inability of any of them to find the happy medium. The story was poorly paced, often convoluted, with large chunks that were totally unnecessary and yet somehow still completely predictable. It was almost entirely bad (I use the qualifier ‘almost’ not because I can remember anything good, but because there had to be something good, right?) . 

The only thing worse than the movie’s general existence in the film world, was that I knew the movie was going to be bad, and I still was cool with watching it (my wife is pretty blah about movies in general, so she could take or leave any of them). And cool might even be an understatement. I was actually in the mood for a bad movie. And when I spotted that bad pun in the title of a made-for-Netflix rom-com, my life for the next 2 hours, was set.

But I am a critic of movies, both in my writing, and in my free time. I criticize every movie I watch. I selected this movie knowing that criticizing it would likely become a full-time job. Therefore, there was something strange about my gung-ho attitude about watching Falling Inn Love.

I am aware that there is a difference between entertainment and quality. They can be mutually exclusive. But that only explains the difference between John Wick and The Godfather, not why a grown-ass adult would want to watch a terrible romantic comedy with his wife, when he has four streaming services offering tons of awesome movies of both higher quality and entertainment value. At least it doesn’t explain all of it.

These kinds of Netflix movies, the ones that appear on the app with no fanfare and become back-end recommendations, buried in categories like “Rom-Coms” or “Christmas,” are the new made-for-TV movies. And made-for-TV movies not only had a home, but a following. Hallmark movies had an ethos and consistency that appealed to some people all the time and most people some of the time. And they were appealing because you knew what you were getting. 

Let me explain. Upon a quick Google search for ‘Hallmark movies’ I selected a couple examples from the results. I have never seen Mingle All the Way or Nature of Love, nor do I ever plan to, but I can tell you, from the title and the image, that they both will involve a good looking girl (in the traditional sense) and guy (in the movie star way). The girl will be very busy and very modern, constantly using her phone while living in a modernized home and making moves in the business world, despite the lack of appreciation she receives for it (this is currently being overtaken by women who run their own businesses and/or are struggling to do so, but the character stays the same). And this woman will get taken out of her comfort zone via something to do with ‘Mingling’ and ‘Nature,’ and in that moment she will meet a guy who appears easy to hate or condescending or overly macho to this woman who has been through the rigors of the male-dominated corporate world But the viewer sees a different side to him, and they will eventually end up in love. In Mingle All The Way it appears to happen while planning some sort of Christmas gathering (based on the photo provided), and in Nature of Love, during some camping expedition. Regardless, they both will break up at the moment we think they have overcome every other obstacle using some misunderstanding as the plot device of choice, and then in a rousing resolution, they will be brought back together in a culminating reveal with some quirky friends they met along the way.

I don’t know. I may be wrong, and if any of my readers have seen either of these, feel free to comment on what actually happened, because I am definitely not looking up plot summaries. But the point remains the same- I am likely correct on some of the key details in those movies, and far from working against the films, this predictability is what dedicated made-for-TV-movie viewers love about them.

The mystery of a film’s plot is important, in fact necessary, for serious films in any genre. A movie cannot, if it wants to be taken seriously, just copy the conflicts, devices, and character arcs of previous stories and hope to be successful. But maybe, sometimes, that’d be what we prefer…

Made-for-TV movies are atmospheric movies. They set a feel or tone that the viewer is looking for. And when you are trying to set a certain mood or tone, it is easiest to turn to music or movies with known quantities rather than unknown. Enter cheesy, clichéd, predictable, and overdone made-for-TV movies. We can put them on when we feel sad or want a laugh or after a long day, and we have exactly what we want, no surprises after a day that contained too many.

This also might be why Hallmark movies found their niche during the holiday season. Especially the Christmas season. Holidays are all about recreating a tone through traditions, decorations, food, and rituals. Selecting the right movie becomes another element in making the holiday feel special. So bring me the trite and the foolish, as long as it feels like Christmas.

Now, with so many people cutting cable and turning to streaming options, made-for-Netflix movies are the new wave of atmospheric film. And the other day, after a long day at work, and a desire to drink whiskey, eat popcorn, pet my cat, and hang out with my wife, I wanted to watch Falling Inn Love. And it was horrible. And it was perfect.

And as the holiday season approaches, I probably will select more awful made-for-Netflix films that make their plots known in the opening scene, filled with characters I’ve seen before speaking lines that make me cringe, with exposition that is rushed and conflict that is melodramatic. And I am looking forward to it.

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Addiction And Obsession: The Ending Of [The Queen’s Gambit]

The Queen’s Gambit can most succinctly be described as a series that explores the two-sided nature of obsession and addiction, and it uses one very engaging young woman and the world of chess to do so.

And it works really well. The seven-episode series is pure entertainment, easy to binge and rewarding if taken slow. It is well made, with beautiful shots and intricate themes that use both imagery and story, as well as a plot rife with conflict and suspense.

I really enjoyed it, and most of the people I have talked to enjoyed it as well.

I am going to repeat how much I liked the show, because the rest of this post is going to nitpick one part of the series that I have trouble wrapping my brain around, and I do not want the takeaway to be that the nitpick invalidated the show or decreased my appreciation for or enjoyment of it.

As I stated, The Queen’s Gambit illuminates the thin veneer between addiction and obsession. Beth Harmon is addicted and obsessed with chess as well as substances. And the two are not mutually exclusive, her substances aided her chess mind and journey, and chess aided her ability to use and experiment with substances. This worked in the negative as well, her obsession with chess deepened her addiction to substances and her reliance on substances harmed her ability to play chess.

This is best seen in the teaser scene in the beginning of the first episode, which is revisited later as a culminating moment in the show. Beth is awakened in her hotel room in Paris, which is a mess of empty alcohol bottles and drugs. She lunges out of a filled bathtub in full dress, scrambles to get ready, leaves her room and runs through a busy hotel, eyes following her as she does so. She enters a room where paparazzi light her up with their flash bulbs. She gains her composure, walks to a chess table and shakes hands with a mysterious and disapproving man, who we later find out is the greatest chess player in the world, as a chess clock already ticks away, indicating that Beth is very late, and the game is already underway. At this point, the teaser at the beginning of the series ends. When we revisit this scene later, in context, we watch Beth implode against the man she had spent her whole life striving for an opportunity to face. She was beyond dehydrated, guzzling pitchers of water. She was scattered and unfocused, her eyes darted everywhere (Her eyes and hands are the ways we understand what is going on in her chess matches, which is a competition without a scoreboard to tell an uneducated audience how it is going. When her eyes are focused and move with purpose and her hands are on the table or under the chin, we know Beth is kicking ass, when her eyes dart about and her hand covers her neck and her body hunches over the board, we know she is losing). She eventually lost the match and spiraled into more substance abuse.

The scene serves as a shorthand illustration of the echo chamber that Beth’s two addictions play in her life. She is in Paris because of chess. She met the person who convinced her to party the night before the big match because of chess. She has the money to afford these things because of chess. On top of that, her drug use has freed her mind to be better at chess, to help her visualize the game during times where she was not allowed to play. But she also uses them as an escape before matches she might lose and after matches she does. They make her irresponsible and absent from this world, because after all, when she was introduced to drugs as a child in a children’s home, that was the point, and now she relies on substances to help her disengage from life when it goes wrong. So Beth’s conflict was to separate her addictions and obsessions, that feel the same, into a healthy obsession with chess and an addiction to drugs and alcohol that she could fight against. 

And it is subtle and beautiful and haunting to watch. And in the final scene, after Beth Harmon beat the best chess player in the world and became the best in the world (no drugs needed), she walked the streets of Russia sober in mind and body. She came across some street chess players playing at a park full of old chess boards. She sat down at a board with the old men who play on the streets. She smiles and begins the game, showing her obsession with the game is intact after overcoming her addiction to drugs. In fact, she is better than ever, free to play a meaningless game in the park, not for study or competition but, for the first time in who knows how long, just for the love of chess.

It’s a good ending to the show. It’s cathartic and ties up loose ends, without dragging on forever.  But I admit… I struggled with it. 

The Queen’s Gambit convinced me for seven excellent episodes that addiction and obsession (at least for Beth) were two sides of the same coin. They were the white and black of a chess board, so thoroughly blended together in the form of chess and drugs that they combined to be the board on which she played life. Beth simultaneously hated and loved drugs and everything they did to and for her ever since she was a child. She used them as an escape from Methuen but became so dependent on them she broke into the nurse’s station and OD’d. And the point of the series was to see her slowly gain control of her drug and alcohol use and, in doing so, gain control of her obsession with chess. This control ultimately creates the serene Beth who decimated her opponents in the Soviet Union, who learned to rely on her friends that helped her along the way to come together and beat Borgov. But could she so easily separate her addiction from her obsession?

Part of the reason the show was fun to watch was because Beth always loved chess. Harry Beltik even told her, that he quit playing because he realized he could never love it like she did. But I struggle to see how she could love something so intricately entangled with her darkest addictions. Her chess enabled her drug use, and her drug use enabled her chess, yet somehow she is able to love one and not the other.

THE QUEENÕS GAMBIT (L to R) ANYA TAYLOR-JOY as BETH HARMON in episode 106 of THE QUEENÕS GAMBIT Cr. PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

It made for better watching, less frustrating, less dark than an already dark show. But I have trouble understanding how it is possible.

Because to me, based on this relationship the series established so well between her addiction and obsession, either one of two things is true. Either, because chess enables her addictions, she would hate chess the same as her addictions because they will forever be linked in her mind (leading to a much more conflicted journey for Beth as she tries to achieve her purpose while having to overcome it) or since her addictions enabled her chess, she would be unable to continue playing chess because they cannot be extricated from each other (leading to her having to walk away from them both which becomes her victory).

I guess there is a third way to approach this as well, from a bird’s eye view up above. In Beth’s life, what were chess and drugs for?

The answer is as easy as any in television analysis- they were an escape from an awful life. When she was in Methuen, drugs helped her escape the pain of her situation, and chess gave her a purpose and something to occupy her mind, and in this home their relationship to each other became forever linked. As she grew older they helped her escape a bad home life, social awkwardness, a lack of love, her mother’s addictions etc…

So in order to kick her addiction Beth needs to stop trying to escape life. And this happened. She felt the love of Jolene and Harry and Towns and Benny and the twins. She also controlled herself in order to win in the Soviet Union and beat Borgov and achieve her purpose and ultimately feel worthwhile. And she controlled her addictions in the process, both drugs and chess. But what seems strange is that once she achieved this goal and made her life worth living by overcoming her addiction and obsession (she’s the best in the world after all). She walked down the streets of the Soviet Union, sat down at a chess table and immediately fell back into her obsession.

Reading it from a storyline standpoint, this feels almost ominous. Akin to her stopping at a drug store to grab some more green pills to end the series. 

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (L to R) ANYA TAYLOR-JOY as BETH HARMON in episode 107 of THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2020

But it wasn’t portrayed that way. This was a happy ending, where she overcame her addiction, but was still able to maintain her love for her obsession. I’m just not sure that’s possible.

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Can We Talk About [Back To The Future]?

Wait a minute. Wait a minute, Doc.

One movie transcends time and space like no other.

Are you telling me you made a time machine…

It transcended the ’80s. 

Then it went back and transcended the ’50s. 

And ever since its release, it has been transcending every time period since.

…out of a DeLorean?

And I don’t have anything specific to say about it. But let’s talk about Back to the Future!

Michael J Fox

Zemeckis started shooting Back to the Future with Eric Stoltz cast as Marty McFly before deciding to turn back the hands of time and do a redo with a new up-and-comer who displayed a more youthful joy-de-vivre in his acting, Michael J Fox. And thank Scott he did…

Back to the Future is a great movie for many reasons, but without Michael J. Fox, it is easy to imagine the movie falling into rank with a bunch of other fun ’80s classics like War GamesBreakfast Club, The Goonies, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the like… all of which are great movies, but movies we lump together as the ultimate display of an era of film. But Back to the Future doesn’t usually get placed in that grouping. It is usually placed in the ‘Greatest Movies of All Time’ grouping, and Michael J. Fox, especially considering the way he received the role, could be considered the scale-tipper.

But it is not just that he was the late addition that put the movie over the top. He also put together an all-time performance and created a character for movie lore. He embodied Marty McFly and his complicated relationship to his parents, young and old. And his delivery and, maybe more importantly, his facial expressions, deliver re-watch after re-watch after re-watch.

Great Shot!

When I think about the greatness of Back to the Future, I remember how fun the story is and certain scenes that are unforgettable (hard to forget a mom jumping her own son in a parked car). But upon watching it recently (Okay…I watched it twice) I kept thinking about how killer certain shots were.

Some are iconic, like the flames jetting between the legs of Doc and Marty, but there are more subtle shots as well. I love the view of Marty skateboarding next to Einstein right before the DeLorean is revealed. I also love the over-the-TV shot of the picturesque ’50s family watching television at the dinner table. 

There are also shots that are funny, like when Biff stands in front of Marty after being tripped in the soda jerk, and we only see Marty’s eyes peak over Biff’s massive shoulder, widening with surprise at the size of the man. Or as Marty’s face slowly appears next to George McFly’s, after he realizes it is his father… as a teenager. Or even the hard cut from debating whether Marty could play guitar at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance, to him methodically strumming the red guitar. The movie is full of ‘em…

Johnny B. Goode

Although John Mulaney may have ruined some of the humor of this scene- well he ruined most of the humor in the entire movie- with his Back to the Future bit (If you don’t know what I am talking about, you need to leave this post immediately and look it up. Then watch all three of his stand ups on Netflix- don’t bother with Sack Lunch Bunch.  I’ll wait…) this scene is still a classic.

The scene is funny, as Marty woodenly strums his guitar, and tense, as Lorraine is taken from George’s grasp (Although I feel like they went to the well one to many times with a guy grabbing/groping Loraine. Couldn’t they have come up with another way to do this?). 

And then, in a moment of levity after a huge conflict is resolved, Marty let’s rip Johnny B. Goode, which is, for some unknowable reason, the exact song he should have played in that moment. I get amped every time he preps his band, “Alright guys, let’s do some blues riff in b, watch me for the changes, and uh, try and keep up, okay?”  Then the opening riff hits, and away we go into movie magic.

And then white people steal the song in a bit of cultural appropriation, but I digress…

Timeless Story of Love…

Ever since Oedipus did the dirty with his mom, Freudian pscho-analysts have had a field day with hot moms and the poor sons they birthed. And just when people thought the story couldn’t have another derivation (only repetition), Back to the Future swoops in and gives us Lorraine and Marty.

Their interactions are equal parts painful, hilarious, and cringey, shaken and served in a martini glass with lime. But this storyline, that could so easily become unenjoyable because of everything mentioned above, remains innocent and fun in the hands of Zemeckis.

Not only that- or maybe because of that- this plot-line also creates some terrific commentary on family life in the ’80s and ’50s. It pokes holes in the apple-pie-view that children of the ’80s had of their parent’s teenage years, smeared with the grease of wholesome good times and innocent adventures. But when Marty goes back in time, he sees the foundation, for his world of the ’80s in his parent’s world of the ’50s. He sees the way his parents became who they were (and who they could have been), the rebellion that was brewing under the ‘square’ establishment that was telling them how to live, and the beginnings of the disconnected families that so defines the ’80s, including families sitting together, but not together, while watching TV at the dinner table.

All of these stories are told through the love struck eyes of Lorraine as she navigates her feelings for her own son.

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Long Overdue Recap Of Season 1 [The Sopranos]

This is over twenty years too late. But as I re-watch The Sopranos, I keep getting a tug to write about it and sort out my thoughts on its greatness. And this is the place where I write about things… so two decades, two shmecades. 

I often struggle to consolidate my thoughts on The Sopranos into a meaningful post about one aspect of the show- as I do with my other posts. The show is too intertwined, too intricate. But, having finished the first season once again, I finally felt an angle that appealed to me. I want to look back at the breadth of the entire season (and the subsequent ones when I finish those). I think my past troubles with trying to write about The Sopranos is that no individual moment, or a person’s commentary on it, can do justice to the show as a whole (which I would not say is true for all shows). Instead, I want to paint with a broader brush and capture swaths of the show. It is in the broader view, that I appreciate The Sopranos the most and find the most to say (and maybe it will lead to some smaller commentary along the way).

So enjoy a stroll down TV memory lane, or analyze an amazing show a bit further with me. Let’s talk about season one of what I believe to be the greatest TV show of all time…

Storylines

Tony’s Depression

The Sopranos begins with the story of a mob boss dealing with depression and anxiety and hinges on his psychological well-being and fear of losing his family. The first season is the perfect microcosm of this arc, beginning with a panic attack and ending with Tony surrounded by his family (both immediate and crime), reconciled with all those he wants to bring close, and with all other loose ends tied up, except for one…

But in this final scene we see the resolution of the smaller, more specific sources of Tony’s anxiety- storylines that don’t deserve their own section in this post. His guys finally know about his therapy and have come to grips with it. Mikey P. lies dead in a ditch. All ended well with Artie and his restaurant, and their friendship remains intact. Meadow and AJ still love him as their father, despite both of them making heavy realizations about his profession. Plus, nobody is trying to kill him, so that’s always nice.

Tony and his Mother

Re-watching the early seasons of The Sopranos makes you wonder what they had in store for Tony and his mother if not for the untimely death of actress Nancy Marchand. But for this season, we got more than we could ask for out of this top tier TV villain. She sparks anxiety in Tony more than any fight with his wife, lazy son, or hit taken out on him ever could, and she is the cause of much of Tony’s woes all season. 

She is impudent, bitter, conniving, spiteful, malicious, and deceitful and then we get to the second half of the season. Tony’s care for such a ungrateful old hag can be baffling, and we are torn between wanting her to recognize the special child she has and wanting him to cut her off entirely.

The culmination of this tension has a big payoff- a chilling interaction between Tony and Livia as she is rolled away on a stretcher. Tony finally tells her off in the most satisfying, in your face, spittle-flying, finger-pointing way, and Livia smiles her wicked smile, having figured out another way to stay untouchable. She will forever remain the true OG of The Sopranos.

Carmela and the Priest

Carmela telling off that shnorer in the last episode of this season is an underrated Sopranos moment. I believe she said, “you have this M.O. where you manipulate spiritually thirsty women. And I think a lot of it is tied up with food as well as this sexual tension game.” Which is both a stinging insult as well as a succinct and well phrased summary of a complicated relationship. 

It is hard to fault Carmela her small indiscretions throughout the series (even though she always picks the most complicated ways to be indiscreet), but it is quite easy to hate Father Intintola, who in his own way is as two-faced as Tony, as he both criticizes Tony’s way of life and then tries to substitute himself into it in Tony’s absence. So, when Carmela rebukes him and, in her Carmela way, turns back to Tony, it feels good. But it also feels bad for Carmela, who, even when things go well, still ends up getting the short straw.

Christopher Finding his Arc

Chrissy tried to explain a character arc to Paulie, which was terrific because Paulie has no fucking clue what he is talking about, and also because Paulie is one of the few characters on the show who doesn’t really have an arc…

But Christopher has an arc. Oh Lord does he… He has arcs for days. But in this season, as he contemplates life in the mob, and his disillusionment with the glamor and accolades he thought it’d bring, he only sees himself as a useless pawn in someone else’s story. So he builds a mental escape hatch and makes himself the main character of his own story by writing poorly spelled screen plays that promise the fame and fortune he is not receiving in his life of crime, but that only leaves him empty as well. But a few hits, a mention in the newspaper, and an added workload with the disappearance of Pussy, bring him, momentarily, into the fold with the man who gives him too many chances. Well… until his next breakdown…

Junior Needing to be the Boss

Junior’s insecurity rages in this first season. The only trait Tony and Junior share is their last names. Junior thinks he is the boss Tony is, and Tony pines for the era Junior is from. And so they come into constant conflict with each other. The moment Tony’s love for his Uncle- and all he represents- brings him close, Junior’s ego and poor leadership drive a wedge right back in-between them. And the moment Junior feels like he has the reigns, Tony’s position with the other guys brings his insecurity rising back up like a whitecap. It only made sense that Junior tried to kill him, they could never work together. 

Then The Sopranos clever writing takes over, Junior’s hit misses, and then he narrowly escapes his own death- which was clever. But Junior getting offered a way out of jail if he admits to his greatest fear, that Tony actually runs things… that was damn Shakespearean. 

Thus, Junior holds on to the only thing he ever had, his inflated view of himself, and he ends up filling the role Tony intended for him since the beginning of the season, the lightning rod for any heat coming from the feds. Junior’s insecurity trips him up once again, and the part of Junior that Tony hated the most, ends up keeping Tony out of jail. Of all the storylines that wrap up nicely, this one… *chef’s kiss*.

Closing Thoughts

As much as I wish I could have watched The Sopranos while it was airing, there is something gratifying about watching it while knowing the whole story. The way each season provides its own arcs for each characters and new storylines to play out, and each episode has their own arcs and storylines that support the season, and then to look at all 6 seasons and see how they continue arcs and storylines from season to season- it is an impressive sight. And I look forward to reflecting on it all.

And that is what I noticed the most about this first season. I think a lot of first seasons hedge their bets by creating a season that can stand alone (in case they don’t get renewed) and one that can continue on for more seasons. I imagine writers of The Sopranos were assuming there would be more seasons, but I enjoyed the way the last episode wraps everything up (maybe besides Pussy) and makes it seem like no more episodes need be made, but also knowing that many, many more episodes were going to be made (thank God they were) made re-watching it all the more enjoyable.

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Rewatching TV And Movies

I’ve never been much of a re-watch guy. I always preferred the risk/reward proposition of a new film or show, the untapped potential, the raw possibility that this untrod journey may be one of my favorite journeys of all time. I anticipated meeting new characters, some which I may love, some which I may hate, and empathizing with a new set of conflicts and groups of people. 

But lately, I have found myself hitting play, not on new watches with infinite possibilities, but old shows and movies I have loved for a while. The one’s whose characters are as familiar as old friends, whose problems seem complex yet understandable, whose surprises are rooted in understanding rather than discovery. 

I like this new phase. Its less aggressive. I am not consuming as much as viewing. I feel like  a trained eye turned to a familiar task, rather than a novice learning a new trade. But I do wonder why I shifted to this new mode, why I am more comfortable on my third re-watch of The Sopranos, my fourth re-watch of Succession or my ‘enth’ re-watch of Mad Max: Fury Road or Vice or Fight Club

I know that one reason is because I have discovered that they still surprise me. When I was younger, I never understood re-watching a story you’d already seen. I assumed the surprises were gone, that the journey would somehow be diminished because I knew the destination. But this isn’t the case. I know what awaits Tony Soprano at the end of the sixth season. And far from diminishing the journey I have become a more observant viewer, understanding decisions in the light of their fatality as opposed to some notion of singularity. And didn’t I always know what lay at the end of these great stories? Hasn’t it always been about how we get there? 

I did not expect how often the twists and turns of a show or movie I have already seen would still remain hidden to me around an unseen corner. My memory is not as good as I thought, or maybe a good show will always make a viewer suspend their disbelief just enough to disconnect them from their knowledge and reality in order to surprise and delight, where Pussy’s death still hurts, where Logan’s manipulations still rankle, where MacKay’s jokes still have the same zing. 

I now look forward to my favorite moments and lines. Like in Mad Max: Fury Road, when everyone is working on a dying Furiosa, and Tom Hardy mumbles, in the most Tom Hardy of lines, “Max… my name’s Max…” or for the most Baltimore of lines whenever Stringer Bell is on screen, or when that single, uncovered bulb, dangling from the ceiling, illuminates Tyler Durden as he reads the rules of Fight Club. These aren’t moments that are experienced once. Great moments can be returned to time and time again.

And they have an uncanny ability to take you back. Every time I watch Django Unchained, I remember going to the theater with my brother on Christmas Day (I think it was his first Tarantino believe it or not). I remember a woman sitting down next to me and pretending to drink from my soda (the weirdest introduction I have ever received), and her leaning over to me to tell me “That’s the director” as Tarantino lit up the screen with his brutal Australian? accent. And when I watch Avatar (and when people dog it on Twitter) I remember, on opening night in a packed theater, those tiny droplets of water combining into one, seemingly right in front of me, during my first 3D feature film experience. These moments are like the warm covers of an old bed after a long day.

And the weight of experiences and expectations and understanding coupled with new revelations fit like a favorite pair of jeans. They don’t need any breaking in, there will be no unpleasant chafing, I know they fit just right. 

In a media age where I constantly feel behind on the new releases of TV shows and movies. I have taken a step back. I have stopped trying to keep up. It was, quite frankly, stressing me out. I have started watching what I want. I am just surprised that what I want is that which is familiar.

Maybe it’s a sign of a year where everyone wishes it was a different one. Or a symptom of growing just a bit older and more boring. But damnit, I love it.

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Top Ten TV Shows

Out of all the forms of entertainment to rank, television shows may be the most difficult. I would attribute this to the expanse of a single show, reaching across so many characters for so long, introducing new storylines and plot lines every season, growing and adapting the feel and mood of the show based on new budgets and the passage of time. The variables in both the storytelling and the story are so much greater. Because of this, the conversation becomes that much more fun and interesting. 

So below are my top ten favorite shows, ranked in order, but also separated into confidence tier. In each tier, I would be comfortable shifting the order around in whatever way. This is my way of hedging, but it also provides a deeper look into how much I like each show. There is a difference between a clear 2 and a clear 3, and a 2 and 3 that could switch depending on the day or how recently I watched each show.

Criteria:

  • Entertainment Value
  • Quality Assessment (i.e. pacing, acting, writing, and filming)
  • All shows must be completed (or else Succession and Stranger Things would be on this list)

Tier 3

There are a few honorable mentions that also make it into Tier 3, but I will not mention them because I wanted to keep this post to Ten TV Shows.

10. Silicon Valley

Sneaking onto the list out of the scrum of every other TV show I have watched, is Silicon Valley. A bit inconsistent because of exiting characters and diverting plotlines, but overall, a hilarious and sharp comedy poking fun at a region that has no humor… its namesake, Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley recreates companies like Google and the neurotic and socially unhealthy CEOs who run them and then tears them apart by making them navigate complex business and interpersonal conflict. The show works because in such a complex and larger than life area, surrounded in mystery and legend, the absurdity of the characters is believable- the key to any successful comedy. And those ridiculous characters easily slip into equally absurd plotlines and conversations based on their affinity for technology and computation (like a refrigerator that plays porn or if a man can actually jack off an entire conference room of people in a certain amount of time).

9. Downtown Abbey

Downtown Abbey is a dramatic play in six seasons. Every time I hit play, I felt like I was sitting down at a local theater waiting for the curtains to come up, and it was delightful.

I have found with distinctly British television (The Crown is another example that comes to mind), I rarely am exckted to begin a new episode, however, I am high on investment while the show is playing. Downtown Abbey is the epitome of this phenomenon. To the point where, whenever I didn’t want to watch the next episode, I just told myself to give it a few minutes, rarely did I get past the opening scene without finding myself transported to rural Britain and into the privileged lives of the Crawley’s and the hardworking lives of those that served them. 

The writing is top notch, the acting is top notch, the setting is scenic and engaging. From the fundamentals to the story everything is done so well that Downtown Abbey gets a spot on this list.

8. Arrested Development

This may sound silly, but Arrested Development is modern Shakespeare. It is deeply rooted in traditional comedy established in Shakespeare’s comedies, often using those reliable tropes like mistaken identity, a half-heard conversation, situational irony etc. Arrested Development cuts through an era of comedy based on one liners and clever observations and creates situational comedy, where lines are only as funny as the people who say them and the context in which they are spoken (“The money is in the banana stand”). Because of this, Arrested Development will always be funny (unlike shows like The Big Bang Theory which get stale), because it is a true comedy rather than a television show that is funny. This show may not have some of the bells and whistles of shows on the higher tiers, but I would put its writing up against any other.

Tier 2

This section, I think, has room for the most argument.

7. Mad Men

Let me pour a martini while I write this section. Mad Men is the most sophisticated of these shows, a smart and subtle period piece that is both entertaining and enlightening. Mad Men creates lots of layers and then thrives off of the drama created when those layers interact. There is an overarching narrative of 1960s disillusionment that affects misogyny in the workplace and family life that in turn affects office relationships which are made more precarious by business deals and politics which… so on and so forth. This creates the slow burn of a well-paced and confident show with an intelligent structure. It all just feels exactly like Don Draper looks.

6. Sherlock

A lot of these shows in Tier 2 and below have a base that is ‘take it or leave it’ but it seems like if you watch Sherlock, you love Sherlock. Part of this can be attributed to the topic, which is well known and therefore selects its own audience. Also, the episodes are so long, that anyone on the fence about watching deselect themselves. But maybe the greatest reason, is because this show slaps. 

Nothing seems less appealing to me the then ole ‘modernize an old classic’ shtick, but with Sherlock it worked scary well. Cumberbatch brings an old character to new life with a perfect rendition (I feel confident saying perfect because of how many other renditions tried to do it in the wake of Sherlock’s success, and frankly… sucked) of outdated antics and neuroticisms in a more modern approach, and the stories are rooted in the old plots, yet navigate the tough waters of new forensic tools and cell phones and a more sophisticated police force with a dazzling display of storytelling and thought. Each episode feels like a feature film, and each feature film is worth the price of admission.

5. Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones was destined to be in Tier 1 and maybe even the show that would become the definitive favorite and dethrone the triumvirate of commonly recognized ‘best shows of all time,’ forever ending the argument and residing as Queen. But instead, with a poor final season, they missed the landing and end up in the second Tier of great TV shows, a coveted spot for any other show, but when, with one season to go, GoTwas flying so high, it feels like a disappointment (I wrote about the last season here).

In the wake of that last season, I even heard rumblings of this show falling out of some people’s top 10 list entirely. I think that is an overreaction. Even if you are an extremist in your feels about the last season, there are still five top notch seasons of groundbreaking entertainment that prop up the weak final season. It could even be argued they are the reason the last season feels so bad (expectations vs reality). Game of Thronesbrought an entire generation of TV watchers over a decade of water cooler fodder and memorable moments of dragons and battles and deaths that didn’t seem possible before this series existed. To me, that easily places it in tier 2 of the Top Ten TV Shows.

4. Fleabag

This is my dark horse TV show that is probably higher than most people would have it. Fleabag may not even make it on a lot of other viewer’s top TV Show lists (Or maybe it would, I just don’t hear a lot about it, not trying to sound patronizing). But this two-season jab to the diaphragm is a clinic in comedy writing and acting, and it provides enough new content in a relevant plot that it feels groundbreaking in its approach.

Admittedly, this show might not age well, over time it may become niche, but I think the story told is significant enough, and the execution is strong enough, that it will grow in its esteem in relation to its availability and familiarity. 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a comedy star and created a character that should be placed in the pantheon of TV characters. I would also not be surprised if she creates another show that pushes its way onto this list. 

Tier 1

The argument sometimes changes, but in aggregate, it always comes down to these three. As it should…

3. Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is a common favorite for the #1 spot among avid TV watchers. It provides everything a viewer could want- intrigue, escapism, action, great writing, unforgettable moments, and a perfect ending- and it does so in a bingeable format. Lots of people (including, most notably, Anthony Hopkins) watch the series over the span of days rather than weeks or months. 

Breaking Bad is frighteningly relevant and relatable to the widest of audiences, which accounts for its popularity. The topics of drugs, the middle-class American rut, and the ambiguity of morality can apply to youth and adults alike. But Breaking Bad’s greatest strength is the confidence in which you can recommend it to just about anybody and know they will find something in it in which they can relate.

2. The Wire

The Wire might be a perfect series, and depending on the day, I may have it as my number one pick, but, in the words of the King of Gondor, today is not that day. I don’t want to delay on any criticism of The Wire, but I think I prefer the entertainment value of The Sopranos, which is equal parts light and dark to The Wire, which is perfectly executed but dominantly dark in tone.

But that is not a criticism as much as a preference. The clarity in which this show was created (which could be said about all of the shows in Tier 1) is a bit astounding. Rarely does a show feel like they were one hundred percent consistent from the first episode to the last, but The Wire does. Even though the characters and settings change in extreme ways, it is always The Wire. The extremity of the changes and the consistency of the show is one of the most astounding achievements in television. The cops largely stay the same, but the cast of characters that surround them, and the challenges of the streets of Baltimore are so wildly different it would be crazy to suspect any two seasons have anything in common. But the clarity of the writers and directors are able to wrangle in the broad sweep of the show and provide a united message. 

TL/DR The Wire has the power to change your view on the world.

1. The Sopranos

My favorite. The Sopranos introduced me to amazing television, the kind of television that makes the rest of the day feel like it’s in the way- ‘I got this show I need to go watch’ or ‘I got these characters I want to spend some time with.’ And no cast of characters is better than that of The Sopranos. Full of life and often in conflict with the roles they must fill, they may surprise you with their brutality or their tenderness. And the connection you build with them makes it that much harder to see one get whacked and know that their role in the show and your life is finally over.

But it doesn’t stop there. The political intrigue of the Soprano crime family, as well as the Soprano family, is layered and engaging. It introduces the viewer to a crime vocabulary that is as foreign as the familial angst is familiar. And all of it fits comfortably into an American commentary that so easily shifts, in those therapy chairs, from mob activity to issues with Tony’s mother to the struggle to find his American Dream. I was and still am in love with the story told throughout these seasons.

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For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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The Apache Relays: The Greatest Upset In Camp History [Heavyweights]

The 90s movie classic Heavyweights is a feel-good comedy that discus-tosses body shaming into the lake like an Apache Relay trophy and then asks viewers all across the world to judge people by their character in order to make them feel good about who they are, which will lead to better decisions and a healthier life.

But I got a real problem with this movie…

The whole film builds to a climax at the Apache Relays, where Camp Hope- the overweight reject underdogs- take on Camp MVP- the athletic reigning champs- in a relay race that presumably favors Camp MVP because Camp Hope has never ever won the Apache Relays before.

The logical assumption, then, is that the Relay relies on some sort of athleticism, endurance, or physical prowess that would benefit the athletes of MVP over the fat kids of Camp Hope.

Thus, when Camp Hope wins in a fat camp “do you believe in miracles?” moment, the audience feels good, the fat kids feel good, MVP, the arrogant bullies, receive their come-uppance, and Tony Perkis Jr’s Perkis System is replaced with kindness and self-esteem.

But let’s look a little closer at the components of the Apache Relay that Camp MVP has so long dominated…

The announcer informs us that the Relay will take place in three parts.

  1. The Obstacle Course
  2. The Hall of Intelligence
  3. The Grand Prix

Hmmm…

These three parts are separated into smaller components as well, some of which we get to glimpse in the movie. We witness parts of the following…

  • A sack race
  • Making a goal on a soccer goalie from the opposing team
  • A structure course including a balance beam, monkey bars, climbing wall, and…a zip line? Okay. I guess.
  • Throwing a football through a tire
  • And shaving a balloon… wait a second

After the Obstacle Course, the competitors move on to the Hall of Intelligence, where they are required to name five American vice presidents, and presumably, answer other similar questions. Then the competitors go skipping out of the Hall, side by side, to drive a go kart to the ultimate finish.

My issue is not that they leave the Hall of Intelligence side by side after clearly seeing Camp Hope take a major lead after the Vice Presidents question- I’ll allow it. 

But I am wondering how in the hell Camp Hope ever lost the Apache Relay.

Just look at the three main parts of the Apache Relay- The Obstacle Course, The Hall of Intelligence, and The Grand Prix. Two of these components have absolutely nothing to do with athleticism. And in fact, one of them actually benefits the sedentary lifestyle of the overweight, who are more likely to read books while at home and therefore be smarter than jocks who are constantly outside playing organized sports rather than learning.

The only way Camp Hope could lose, would be if Camp MVP were able to get so far ahead in the Obstacle Course that Camp Hope would never be able to make up the deficit. But even two of the obstacles had nothing to do with athletic prowess (zip line and balloon shaving) making it infinitely harder for Camp MVP to create a lead large enough to carry them through the other two parts of the Apache Relay.

On top of that, we have to assume, based on the development of the race, that there is some sort of fail safe for any individual obstacle that a team cannot pass. For example, that Camp MVP kid was never going to shave the balloon correctly, and that Camp Hope kid was never going to climb that wall, and that Camp MVP kid was never going to name 5 Vice Presidents, so therefore, they were probably allowed to bypass an obstacle after a certain amount of time elapsed or use some other such safety measure. A wise and fair addition to the Apache Relays. However, if this is the case, it would prevent Camp MVP from ever being able to gain a lead large enough to make up for the fact that two thirds of the race does not benefit them or is stacked against them.

I mean honestly, the Apache Relays is at best a wash for favorites. But I could easily argue that Camp Hope are the favorites. If Vegas had a line on this thing it would probably be Camp Hope -250. 

The only other way to explain a 33-year losing streak in a race where your camp is the clear favorite is if the relay changes every year (which would be a shit relay, the whole significance of the Apache Relays is that it is always done, and that Camp MVP has won it 33 years in a row, and that prestige and tradition go out the window if it is a different race every year). And if the relay is different every year then it would also seem safe to assume the host camp gets to choose the course. So in this year, Camp Hope hosted and created a new obstacle course on which they were able to break their 33 year drought. 

But now this is just cheating… That is not the lesson you want to teach these youth- when your out of shape and can’t do something, rig the damn system. That’s a whole different movie.

Much more likely, this course has those three main parts every year, and the components of those parts may change, but the overall relay is largely the same. In which case, every year for 33 years there was a Hall of Intelligence and a Grand Prix, and Camp Hope still managed to lose. This story was about a great upset, but it was the fact that for 33 years Camp MVP upset Camp Hope in the Apache Relays.

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