Books: Moneyball, Star Wars on Trial
TV: The Fosters [2x01], Married [2x01], Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll [1x03], Wayward Pines [1x05], You're the Worst [1x10]
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
This is financial journalist Michael Lewis's book about the Oakland A's, whose general manager ruthlessly took advantage of economic inefficiencies in major-league baseball to build a phenomenally powerful team with a minuscule budget.
First off: duh. Of *course* I was going to like this book. It's basically Revenge of the Nerds for statisticians. It pits the old guard -- the jocks, the ex-players, the wizened baseball scouts, the guys (always, always guys) who bray about their 'gut instincts' with specialized jargon and old, unexamined, absolute rules about who is valuable to a baseball team -- against the nerds, with their statistical models and their laptops and their Ivy League educations and their willingness to question *every* bit of received wisdom in baseball.
The jocks and the nerds clash, and the nerds win.
And beyond that, it reflects the overall culture war between science and various forms of mystical woo. Between Blink and a zillion vacuous, BuzzFeed-y list-icles reassuring people that "my feelings are as predictive as your brilliant expertise", it's always refreshing to read something that says, "Nope, there are many situations where math works and feelings don't." And this is especially true when probability is involved -- humans are fantastically poorly designed to assess probability.
So of *course* I was cheering on the Oakland A's as they gathered data, performed thorough probabilistic analyses, and knocked aside all of the rules of scouting that were revered, and ancient, and wrong. If a player doesn't "look like a baseball player" -- complete with a "good face" that completes that classic look... y'know what? That doesn't matter. If a player is overweight, *that* doesn't matter. If a player has a weird-looking pitch, that doesn't matter. What matters is whether the player can get on-base. And if getting the best on-base percentages means you're hiring a bunch of losers, misfits, and has-beens for bargain-basement prices -- well that's a hell of a story, isn't it?
Michael Lewis is always a phenomenal writer -- The Big Short is a fascinating read about the subprime mortgage crisis -- and this is no exception. He's as good as most novelists at sketching in characters efficiently and indelibly. He explains all the complicated baseball and statistical information so well you can't even see how hard he's working at it. And he builds excitement over the course of the book, as you watch this scrappy nobody of a team run circles around the bewildered league.
It's one of the most fun nonfiction books I've read in a long time.
Star Wars on Trial, edited by David Brin
This is a book of essays arguing for and against the merits of the Star Wars franchise.
Most people I know feel a strong ambivalence towards Star Wars. It's a great piece of science fiction, but really it's just fantasy with robots. It's got one really good female character, but quick: name five female Star Wars characters aloud. It was a phenomenal step forward for special effects, but it paved the way for endless empty, special-effect-laden blockbusters. Han Solo, lightsabers; Jar-Jar, midichlorians.
At its best, Star Wars on Trial plays into this ambivalence, with clear, logical arguments for and against, say, "The Politics of Star Wars Are Anti-Democratic and Elitist". Both arguments are quite compelling, leaving the reader to puzzle their way to some synthesis of the two that's wiser and more nuanced than what they thought before. A particular high point were the pro and con arguments on "Star Wars Novels Are Poor Substitutes for Real Science Fiction and Are Driving Real SF off the Shelves" -- in a way, it was a lovely distillation of all the current arguments about the artistic merit of fan fiction, neither side of which is easily dismissed.
Of course, no book is always at its best. The sections debating "Women in Star Wars Are Portrayed as Fundamentally Weak" were particularly disappointing, feeling like grudgingly completed high-school essay assignments. And any time the "cross-examinations" that followed each essay devolved into cheesy jokes about how the other side were probably Sith, I felt like I was wasting my time.
On balance, though, it was an entertaining book, and one that gave me a lot to think about. I'll keep on enjoying Star Wars (well, most of Star Wars [okay, *some* of Star Wars]), but now I'll always know that there are interesting, and perhaps worrying, questions that we can ask about the material.
The Fosters [2x01]
This is Peter Paige's drama about a lesbian interracial couple raising a set of biological, adopted, and foster children.
At last year's festival, I saw Men of a Certain Age, and Fargo, and Enlisted, all for the first time. It was a hell of a set of shows to discover. This year's festival was more like... "Yay, I'm glad that show exists, but I don't feel any strong need to watch more of it."
And so it is with The Fosters. I love that this show is... I'm reluctant to use the word "diverse", because instead, I want to say that it just reflects real life. It's set in modern-day San Diego, and it's not all straight white people. It's not straining to be *more* diverse than reality -- it's just doesn't have extreme, vaguely Aryan whiteness of other TV shows. And that makes me heave a sigh of relief. I mean, I'm a straight, cis, white dude, so I have *plenty* of representation of me onscreen, especially as I approach middle age (Troubled Male Antiheroes FTW!). But even *I*, the epicenter of TV representation, get vexed by TV. I want to see people that look like my friends onscreen. I want to see a world that looks like the world around me.
Still, The Fosters felt a bit like Beverly Hills, 90210, of all things. Now, this is a hell of a lot better-written and -acted than 90210 -- The Fosters is, in fact, well-written and well-acted. But it's the same sort of teen-friends-soap-opera storylines, and the same tendency to hit Socially Meaningful Storylines with Important Messages. It all feels a little stale, like retreads of other teen soap operas, only with better writing and, again, characters that are *gasp* not all straight white folk.
It's a good show, but in a world where I haven't seen The Americans yet, it'll just have to wait. All the same, I'm so glad the show exists, and I love that ABC Family has made a name for itself with smart, well-written family fare.
This is the FX comedy about a long-married couple with three young children.
What's good about this show is that it gleefully refuses to sugar-coat anything about being in a long-term relationship. In the Q&A after this episode, one audience member asked the showrunner about reviews that described the central relationship as 'unloving'. "NONE OF THOSE CRITICS ARE MARRIED," yelled the showrunner. The current promotional image for the show is a depiction of the central husband and wife in the style of The Scream.
In a way, it feels like a lovely (if un-peaceful) sitcom complement to Friday Night Lights. We're not seeing the gauze-lensed, lovey-dovey honeymoon. Yes, couples fight. Yes, they get used to each other. It's not the gooey magic of love at first sight, it's the day-to-day hard work of building a life together. Of raising kids. Of keeping a house from falling apart. It's where most of us spend most of our lives -- in the trenches, in the chaos, with someone we love who's got our back -- and most TV seems unaware of it, falling into stories of twenty-somethings mired in the hookup/breakup churn of Massive Relationship Drama, or of comfortable, toothless sitcoms featuring the fat guy with a hot wife.
So, yet again, I'm glad that this show exists, but I have no compelling reason to watch it. The jokes are pleasant. The characters are fun. Judy Greer is strikingly beautiful. But for all that, it feels like it's just another conventional sitcom, with an A-story, a B-story, banter, and amusing misunderstandings. I certainly won't mind it if I find myself watching it again sometime, but there's just a ridiculous queue of more compelling shows in the queue.
I can't make time for this when there are whole seasons of Louie that I haven't seen.
<< I suspect I'm under an embargo on this one 'til it's released -- I'll post this review in a few weeks. >>
Wayward Pines [1x05]
This is the FOX drama about a Secret Service agent who investigates the disappearance of two fellow agents in a mysterious town in Idaho.
I'm posting this fairly late in the evening because this episode was broadcast tonight. The episode title is "The Truth", and true to its name, it spells out exactly what the secret of Wayward Pines (the town and the show) really is. And let me be clear: I am delighted that this show that basically tells you "this is what the island is" halfway through its single season.
Basically, they're planting a flag in the ground here and saying that a TV show is not a math problem. If your show is just a serious of baffling clues terminating in an explanation, then your show is emotionally vacuous. TV shows are about people, and if you let these *people* figure *out* the Giant Mysterious Mystery... well, now they have new and troubling information. Now you get to explore the stories on the *other* side of that.
Put another way: blowing the secret halfway through affirms that shows are about characters, not puzzles.
All of which is to say that I'm glad the show exists.
That said, I don't think I'll be watching this season any time soon, if at all.
I'm told that the pilot of the show -- which usually determines the tone -- was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who has remained onboard as an executive producer throughout the run. I'm not a huge M. Night fan -- I liked Sixth Sense and Unbreakable well enough, but there was a huge falloff in quality afterwards, and his treatment of Avatar still fills me with rage -- and I think Wayward Pines feels like bad M. Night Shyamalan in places.
You know how a Hallmark movie can be a positive, life-affirming drama -- but it tries a little too hard at it, to the point that it's cloying and jarringly unrealistic? In the same way, it feels like Wayward Pines tries very hard to have all the signifiers of a mysterious thriller. The effort is so strenuous that you never feel like a real person has entered into this scenario. Instead, it feels like maybe these broad-stroke, simple characters have wandered in from a soap opera or a Very Serious Medical Drama.
And unfortunately, without characters I can really empathize with, the big reveal of The Truth in episode five has no emotional heft. Now, the secret that's revealed is in fact a very satisfying explanation of all the town whackadoo that has come before. And it's a good thing that the reveal is so *intellectually* engaging, because said revelation happens in the flattest, most unengaging way possible. It would be bad enough if an authority figure gave a lecture, with slides, about the secret behind Wayward Pines. (Yes, that really happens.) But no, we're actually intercutting between *two* authority figures, separately giving long-winded explanations of what the truth is.
And if these characters on the receiving end were characterized a bit more sharply, even *that* wouldn't matter, because we could focus on the characters' emotional *response* to the truth. Ideally, your character will complement the secret they discover: the guy who hates damn, dirty robots will discover he himself is an android; the lady who loves her local government discovers it's run by the Illuminati. They should even clash, in an interesting way, with the mysterious plot twists that the secret generates -- see: every character on LOST, for whom the Island provided a means of personal re-invention.
But no, the characters learn the terrible truth about Wayward Pines, complete with CGI effects and creepy cult activity, and they just non-respond. The math problem is solved. Move along.
You're the Worst [1x10]
This was the season-one finale of FX's comedy about the tentative romance between two toxic, cynical millennials in Los Angeles.
It's hard for me to say much about this, especially since I dropped in on its last episode. It's refreshing to see the show at least attempt to give a realistic glimpse of the romantic lives of the Damn Kids Today, with most of them outright rejecting the more traditional dating/courtship of earlier generations, but facing a whole new set of problems as they navigate a new terrain with far fewer traditions.
And it's great to see a show shot in L.A. actually fess up and be set, y'know, *in L.A.* So many sitcoms are nominally set in some flyover state, but never *feel* like they take place there. Because of production logistics, such a show takes place on a few standing sets. Because the writing staff is based in L.A., such a show's scripts know nothing *about* the flyover city. So instead, the sitcom is set nowhere.
Beyond that, though, I can't really say anything about the show except "it's funny". The characters pull off that sitcom magic trick of playing very broad caricatures while still caricaturing something real and relatable. I'll never meet anyone who hides his homelessness by hiring a local actor to pretend to be his roommate, but in the show, that just feels like an extension of how we all sometimes cover up for dire personal-life scenarios.
Of all the shows I caught at the ATX Festival, I think this is the only one I'll feel compelled to track down and watch.
For next week: I'm watching RWBY and Last Week Tonight while exercising, and continuing my slow drift through season three of Mad Men. I liked the trailer for The Martian, so I'm giving the novel a whirl. Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale and watching season two of Community.
Also next week, I hope to catch up on writing about *more* stuff I saw this week (it was a busy week), including Mad Max: Fury Road and a few Ghibli movies I saw as part of an Alamo series.
 ... which is why gambling is a thing.
 What's even funnier is that the league insists that this is all just some kind of consistent, multi-year 'lucky break'.
 If you've done this successfully, anybody within earshot now thinks you've started speaking in tongues.
 And I don't think anybody even *mentioned* Mara Jade. Boooo.
 Though one of the book's highlights featured a lawyer-essayist gleefully annihilating his entire cross-examination by pointing out every logical fallacy in his interlocutor's questions.
 The second claim is more restrictive than the first.
 And hell, TV shows usually make for crappy puzzles. Usually the situations they put forth are "underdetermined" -- i.e., the given clues and problems allow for an *infinite* number of solutions.
 And yep, that's why I'm not a writer.[8b]
[8b] Also, please tell me somebody has written this Parks and Recreation fanfic. Please?
 Quick: where was Home Improvement set?[9b]
[9b] It was set in Detroit, which you could only guess from the show's occasional references to the local sports teams.