TV: Chuck [2x01-2x08], Better Off Ted [season one]
Books: Small Giants, How to Cheat at Everything
This is the second season of the NBC spy comedy about a slacker electronics-store employee who winds up with an entire government intelligence archive blasted into his brain.
As usual, it's hard to say much about Chuck.
Season two sticks to largely the same formula as season one: in the A-story, Chuck goes off on a spy adventure with Sarah and Casey; in the B-story, something wacky happens at the Buy More; perhaps in the C-story, there are some emotional family moments with Ellie and Captain Awesome. Maybe season two includes a little more serialization -- for example, Jordana Brewster gets a multi-episode arc as Chuck's heart-breaker ex-girlfriend -- but it's mostly the same old game.
That said, it's executing its formula flawlessly. For emotional storylines, the show keeps mining its original setup for questions to explore. What was the deal with Jill? What kind of past does Sarah have? Will Chuck ever learn anything about it? How does Chuck's family feel about his (apparently) underachieving lifestyle? It seems like the story setup has enough fuel for another couple of seasons of episodic storytelling.
They're also doing perfect guest-casting. Tony Hale comes in as a Buy More efficiency expert. John Larroquette drops by as a spy expert on seduction. And if I recall correctly, I've been all swoony over Jordana Brewster since The Faculty.
Even with all those assets, Chuck is still, at its core, reset-button television. It's kind of like that endless staircase in that Escher print: every episode has Chuck learn some valuable lesson or address some tortured part of his past, but at the end, he's pretty much back where he started. Sarah and Chuck still have the same wonderfully-ambiguous relationship. Chuck still keeps his secret. He stays at the same position in the Buy More. You could switch around the episodes without insuperable confusion.
It's the type of basic fun action show that network television used to do all the time, say, in the 80s. But now those shows have mostly migrated to basic cable, where you can watch something like Burn Notice or Damages or Justified. Chuck is part of that last bastion of network television whose sole ambition is to neatly balance out action and romance.
It's a lot of fun, but it doesn't have a lot to say.
Better Off Ted [season one]
This is a workplace comedy set in the offices of an evil mega-corporation. It's from showrunner Victor Fresco, who created Andy Richter Controls the Universe and worked on Mad Men.
If we were talking SAT analogies, we could say that Wonderfalls:Pushing Daisies::Andy Richter Controls the Universe:Better Off Ted. Wonderfalls was a show that clearly announced a new voice, but you got the feeling that there were limitations -- maybe the budgets were insufficient, maybe the filmmaking technology wasn't quite there yet, maybe the showrunner didn't have the experience to find exactly what he wanted or the clout to fend off the network notes. Then Pushing Daisies came along, and I thought, "Ah. Right. *That's* what goes on in Bryan Fuller's head."
I think the same thing is true of these two Victor Fresco shows. Andy Richter Controls the Universe was definitely a new voice. No other show would have included a suit made of kittens, or the ghostly presence of Mr. Pickering, the company's 180-year-old, incredibly racist founder. (Andy: "You know there are pills I can take that'll make it so I don't have to talk to you any more.") But at the same time, it felt a little bit muddled in some ways, as it bounced between romantic misadventures, office politics, and surreal left-turns into crazytown. Sometimes the production values weren't quite there (I recall a really bad CGI kangaroo in the pilot).
Of the two Victor Fresco shows, Better Off Ted is definitely the more Victor-Frescian. It narrows its focus almost exclusively to the unique setting from Andy Richter Controls the Universe: the evil corporation. Instead of just occasional dream-sequence bits of surreality, the whole world is almost relentlessly surreal. Even the one-liner jokes and the arbitrary details are beamed in from planet crazy.
There's a trade-off to cranking all of Mr. Fresco's unique qualities up to eleven. On the plus side, this show is a rollicking, bitter satire of banal, corporate evil. I don't think any other show really targets company malfeasance the way this show does. Sure, there might be an occasional procedural where the bad guy turns out to be some Fortune 500 bigwig -- cue the Important Speech about how "the fat cats can't push around the little guy!" at the end -- but no other show out there just pounds away, episode after episode, at large companies' gleeful lack of any morals.
And that's odd, isn't it? because we live in a world with Enron, and Halliburton, and BP's Deepwater Horizon well... there's a constant drumbeat of criminality that leaves you wondering if every CEO has a monocle, a persian cat, and a dramatic spinny chair.
So maybe the show lacks a relatable emotional core. But it's funny, and it's funny with equal parts surreal zany-town humor and biting satire. On balance, I think the show wins.
(Side note: I swear, my sister must have snuck into the writers' room for Better Off Ted and co-written the show. There have been countless family conversations that one of us has cut off with "I'm going through a tunnel", in spite of not being in a car, or on the phone.)
Small Giants by Bo Burlingham
... what is it with me and business books lately? This one has the subtitle "Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big", and that pretty much sums up what the book's about.
Again, like all business books, one can summarize the contents of this book in a paragraph. Everything you know about corporations -- that they have to maximize profits above all else; that they become ever larger, ever more efficient, and ever more impersonal; that absent any moral compass, they bring negative externalities to their communities -- is wrong. Or more specifically, it only applies to *publicly-traded* corporations. Companies that stay in private hands are often the dead opposite of that: they stay small, and they value other qualities -- such as contributing positively to their communities or focussing on product quality -- over efficiency and profit. The biggest companies are the publicly-traded ones, but most corporations are these privately-held ones.
Small Giants focuses on a dozen or so of the 'most private' private corporations -- companies that are as much unlike the publicly-traded behemoths as possible. On the one hand, they seem idyllic: they get to have some reason to exist besides "churn as much money as possible". On the other hand, there are relentless pressures to expand, go public, and become a behemo-corp. Simply put, everybody involved in advising the CEO could make a lot of money off of that expansion, so each of these companies has somebody putting their foot down and saying "no". (For example, Righteous Babe Records stays on target because Ani DiFranco says so.)
I found it interesting, because it was the opposite of everything I knew about corporations. And yet, it was also kind of useless. Like all business books, it's geared at business leaders who want advice about caring for their own corporations; I'll never do that, so I shrug at the advice.
Hopefully that'll be the end of business books for me for a while.
How to Cheat at Everything by Simon Lovell
Simon Lovell is a reformed con man, and this book is his "inside scoop" about how various cons and cheats work.
Honestly, I could have skipped over the book's exhaustive catalog of ways to cheat at cards and dice. Suffice it to say, there's a nearly infinite number of ways to cheat at each, and if they're performed with any degree of competence, they're indetectable.
I suppose that reflects my reaction to the book in general: the book isn't much concerned with the underlying principles about how cheats work and how cons are put together; instead, it just lists one method after another after another -- for instance, one section lists how every single game at a carnival is fixed -- and from that, you get a general idea of the big picture. These are the qualities of a good fixed carny game. These are the advantages you try to press in card cheats. This is how you ensure that the mug doesn't go to the cops after a con. And so on.
The prose isn't all that interesting, but it's readable enough and gets its points across. It tries to be a bit flashy by centering everything around a (fictional) con man called "Freddy the Fox" (basically an amalgam of a bunch of con men that Lovell has met), and it tries to include jokes occasionally, but you're basically reading a technical manual about con games.
It's a good book for giving you a feel for how cons work, and it's conscientious about listing the things you can do to avoid getting taken. I just get the feeling there's a shorter, better book somewhere in there -- one that consigns the bulk of the details to appendices.
For next time: some more episodes of Chuck, perhaps the DVD about Ok Computer, and I'll hopefully write something about my first exposure to Doctor Who. In an odd bit of synchronicity, I may start watching season three of Burn Notice *and* write up a quick review of Blowback, AKA "the RPG based on Burn Notice".
Plus, I still need to write something about The Tobolowsky Files beyond "It's awesome and you all need to listen to it."