TV Top Picks #13: Engineering the Future: 3 Episode Series

The first of these 3 one-hour films is on wind power. I was instantly hooked.  In just over 50 minutes, you get amazing views into the interior workings of massively large wind turbines; learn extraordinary details on how they are made and what it takes to locate them.   At first I was a bit put off on having to join a new streaming service, this one called “CuriosityStream” to watch it, but that turned out to be an unexpected bonus.  If nothing else, watch this first episode on the engineering revolution going on in wind power and let me know what you think.

Before I tell you a tad more about these documentaries, let me explain CuriositySteam.  It was new to me, but apparently over 13 million subscribers have already discovered and signed up since it began in 2015, founded by the guy who created the Discovery Channel.  You need to subscribe, and it’s $2.99 a month or $19.99 annually for an HD subscription, although right now they have special $11.99/yr. offer.  Having cut the cable on our COX programming, I’m saving about $90 a month.  Being able to spend my subscription dollar on precisely the content I value and want to watch versus paying for massive amounts of programming I had no interest in is a no-brainer.  The way I figure it, I can sign up for another 25-30 monthly streaming services (Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, etc.) and I am still getting better value for my subscription dollar.  CuriosityStream offers thousands of documentary films across a variety of categories like science, history, mathematics, technology, robotics and nature. Think of it like the online version of The Great Courses, much more entertaining and less academic, but still authentic and accurate.

The 3 episodes in the Engineering the Future series are Wind, Aviation and Fusion, each one just under an hour.  Production quality is some of the best you will find.  Narration is done by David Attenborough and Patrick Stewart.  Interviews are conducted with scientists and engineers at the leading edge of research and production in each of these three areas, and scripted in a way that is easily understood for non-engineers like me. This is all new, cutting-edge stuff: one of the wind farms was just completed and brought onto the electric grid in the fall of 2020.

TV Top Pick #12: Dirty Money (Netflix)

I found DIRTY MONEY, a new series on Netflix, shortly after watching the amazingly funny Netflix send-off of 2020 called “Death to 2020.”  If you’ve not watched it yet, do so. Death to 2020 resulted in at least a half-dozen belly laughs and more subtle snickers than I could count.  But now onto Dirty Money.

What makes Dirty Money great is each one-hour episode packs a full documentary movie.  The level of research, quality of the writing, visuals and skills of the interviewers are some of the best you will find on television today. This is genuinely in the same league as 60 minutes and similar top-notch documentary efforts.  I found the characters show-cased in these highly compelling stories, down-to-earth, real and articulate.

Each of these stories has two sides, and they do an incredible job of presenting both or at the very least, having both sides fully articulate their rationale for what they are doing.  In the Payday episode, I started with admiration for the drive and determination of an entrepreneur who built a business, then began seeing the impact his business model and approach was having on the lives and personal situations his business actions caused his customers. Then I see the entrepreneur fighting for his rights.  As the guy who trained him to race put it: “If you’re racing in a series, and there’s a big thick rulebook for white drivers, and a tiny little rule book for Native American drivers, you’re going to start hiring Native American drivers.” At first I admired his ability to have found a loophole to exploit, but then you realize that the loophole is illegal, and you see the gyrations the company has to go through to hide the way in which it cheats, and then they take you back to where you see precisely how little people are deceived and ripped off and the impact on the company and its employees.  It goes back and forth, with a bit more being revealed in each scene.  I suspect some will end up siding with the victims and others with the company founder.  That says more about you and your values than the people in the film.  Rotten Tomatoes reported 100% of critics gave the series a positive review.

The series has two seasons, with six episodes each.  They can be watched in any order.  So far I’ve watched the following ones.  Here are a few brief comments on each.

Season 1, Episode 2: Payday.  About Scott Tucker and the Payday loan business he builds from scratch, but then loses when he crosses the legal line.

Season 1, Episode 5: The Maple Syrup Heist.  The great Canadian maple syrup heist is about how (and why) someone manages to steal thousands of barrels of maple syrup. Unlike most crime dramas, this one really happened.

Season 2: Episode 1: The Wagon Wheel.  I bank at Wells Fargo Bank.  After watching this, I want to switch banks.

Season 1: Episode 3: Drug Short. Tells the story of Valeant Pharmaceuticals and is one of the best stories in this 12 episode line up.  This is an amazing story, remarkably told.  Were it not for a relatively small discovery and a failure of a company to quickly notice it and cover it up, no one would ever be the wiser.  You will learn about some of the built-in checks and balances with public companies.

Season 1: Episode 6:
The Confidence Man.  If you’re a big Donald J Trump supporter and don’t want to know any more about him, you might want to skip this one.  The episode chronicles Trump’s long business career, before he became a politician, in great detail. It charts most if not all of his business initiatives and results – where he did remarkably well, and the areas in which he did not. It also provides new insight into how he manages, some of his special talents and capabilities.

Season 1: Episode 1: Hard NOX.  This is about the Volkswagen emissions scandal.  As an owner of one of the TDI engines targeted in this story (ours is in an Audi Q5 and Audi is owned by Volkswagen), we’ve dealt directly with the results of this scandal.  Again, the story of what Volkswagen did and how they were exposed is absolutely riveting television. This episode is one of the key reasons I am so high on the series.

Season 2: Episode 3: Slumlord Millionaire.  This documents the rise of Jared Kushner from an heir in a prominent real estate empire to a top White House advisor.  Make no mistake, this is one exceptionally smart young man and the country will be hearing from him for years to come.

TV Top Pick #11: The Trial of the Chicago 7

I finally got around to watching this after a walking buddy recommended it, saying “It’s written and directed by Aaron Sorkin – you will love it.”   He didn’t mention it also features fascinating performances by Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen. He was right.  It is excellent.

If you were born in the 50’s era you lived through not only this trial, but the times this trial was all about.  Documentary films bringing such recent history to life are compelling and this one does its job very well.  This film is worth watching.  I recommend it highly.  The Vietnam War divided America, separating friends and tearing families apart.  Disagreements with my father about the war led to bitter arguments and our relationship took years to recover.  It bothered me a long time he never admitted I was right.  But watch the film because it so perfectly captures the late 60’s, the cars, the clothes, the attitudes and most importantly, the sense the country was standing at a crossroads and nothing would ever be the same. It never gets heavy-handed or preachy.

Last point:  Jerry Rubin stayed overnight in the same house in St. Paul I was crashing at when he was in town to speak at a big protest rally.  It may have been the protest I wrote about HERE.

TV Top Pick #10: Mars

I’m finally watching a 2016-2018 two-season television series called Mars. It’s on Netflix (and Amazon) and consists of seven 60-minute episodes in the first season and six in the second. I find it captivating. The premise is alluring but it’s the composition that makes it so stunning.  The show combines documentary-style science reporting taking place currently, with extrapolations of present-day technology to forecast a very believable science fiction story taking place in 2033 and beyond. We see the first successful manned mission from Earth to Mars occur and watch the crew confront a host of obstacles during the creation of our first outpost there. Alternating between interviews with Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson and other leading scientists who explain the hurdles we’ll need to overcome to fictionalized characters actually meeting those challenges as the first mission to Mars while keeping people alive is riveting.

One of the things I most appreciate and believe they get correct is the balance between anticipated and unanticipated problems.  Even after years spent preparing for every possible scenario, almost half of what they encounter in the first few episodes are situations they’d not even considered might happen, had never imagined or just didn’t prepare for, making the science fiction portions feel brilliantly true to life.  As my friend Frank who recommended this show reminded me in the Mike Tyson line, “Everybody has a plan …. Until they get punched in the face.”

While I don’t expect to live long enough to see man land on Mars, the show makes clear how much of the work and problem solving needed to make this event possible is actually occurring right now, in my lifetime.  Earlier this week, on December 9th, 2020, SpaceX launched a prototype of a rocket that is integral to Musk’s plans to take people to Mars.  This mix of documentary footage with the Sci-Fi drama could have gone horribly wrong and looked stupid.  Instead, it is the opposite.  It really works!

I would be remiss if I did not mention the 2015 movie, The Martian, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. It is available on Amazon Prime and a very good movie, too.  I liked both The Martian and Mars, but with Mars being directed by Ron Howard and produced by National Geographic, I find it displays an uncommon perspective with a unique and creative approach.  In the end, it gets my vote for being ambitious, for trusting in the intelligence of its audience, and for being so bold.