The Blotter Presents 134: McMillion$ and Rotten

Plus: Dr. Drew, HBO docs, and Netflix's 25 best

Episode 134 with Marcia Chatelain is out now! I’m so glad Marcia took some time from her book-tour schedule to talk to me about the last few episodes of HBO’s McDonald’s-Monopoly-game scam docuseries. You probably recall that Eve and I both talked about it on Extra Hot Great last month, but neither of us has written a book called Franchise: The Golden Arches In Black America, so I wanted Marcia’s take on the “characters” in the McMillion$ story; whether the series is too long, or we wanted more…or somehow both; and getting the #sometimestheycatchthemselves hashtag trending.

In the Cold Case section, we discussed a Big Food exposé docuseries from Netflix, Rotten, and it’s informationally watchable, but also disappointing. Like, “compared unfavorably with Pete Buttigieg” disappointing. The more figurative take on the politics of food, and that there’s such a thing as “blood guac” (NB: I gritted my teeth and ordered it for Taco Tuesday last night), has some construction problems in the execution. Before you head to the Avocado Capital of the World to steal that rad sign for Sarah’s roof, have a listen. — SDB


Sometimes I look back at my old TV reviews and wish I’d come down harder on the property in question. This 2013 review of Dr. Drew On Call is one of those times. Is this show still on? Should I be force-fed conflict guacamole for not hating it when I reviewed it?

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I don't blame Dr. Drew for Celebrity Rehab, or anything that has happened on/after it. I should, probably, but 1) jerks like me who watched every episode (and every episode of Sober House as well) didn't help, as far as encouraging the franchise to continue pretending televised therapy could make a substantive difference; 2) this civilian doesn't see what else could reasonably have been done in the case of, say, Jeff Conaway; and 3) Drew Pinsky has always projected an air of confident competence and decency, which makes it hard to believe that he knowingly fucked over any of the sufferers in his care, even if it's obvious in retrospect that the solution to Mike Starr's problems wasn't more camera time. Pinsky is smart, but not that interested in proving he's smarter than his patients; funny, but doesn't go for cheap punchlines; and reassuringly silver-foxy without tipping over into intimidating hotness.

That comforting combo of traits saves Dr. Drew On Call. According to the network's brief on the show, "Driven by current events, 'Dr. Drew' on HLN focuses on the human -- and human behavior -- at the heart of the story." In other words, he and his panel sit around psychoanalyzing the folks at the heart of the day's top stories, so if, like me, you enjoy armchair head-shrinking, it's a lot of fun.

If, un-like me, you don't care for true crime, Dr. Drew is a big-time miss, especially lately, as he and the Freudenklatch spend the bulk of their time on the Jodi Arias case. Particularly given this week's headlines, it's a bit odd that Pinsky and his team of legal and psychological experts chose Arias over the Boston bombings, and the attempt at Pop-Up Video humor in the opening segment's chyrons -- a state witness dryly noting she understands the question while a bright red caption unhelpfully "jokes," "yeah, GOT it" -- isn't a success.

Then again, HLN is more or less The Nancy Grace Network, and what ol' Stiff Bangs cares about, everyone has to care about -- and once you get past the gimmicky split-screens and into the heart of the show, it's got a few good tidbits. Yesterday's ep, for instance, examined how detectives get suspects in general, and borderline personalities specifically, to feel comfortable enough to tell the truth. The panelists discussed what makes an expert witness effective or ineffective, and what subtypes of borderline personality might be expected to commit a crime like Arias's. (Excuse me: "alleged crime." In brief, she's accused of murdering her lover, Travis Alexander.) Is Arias "bad," or mentally ill -- or both?

Pinsky and his experts get just gossipy enough to make it fun, without undermining their own authority in their fields. It's obvious he's invested in the story (viz. a thunderous "Feh!" that greeted the idea that Arias's BPD means she's not responsible for her behavior), and the tricksy stuff like grading witnesses and Dr. Drew's Jury doesn't go on long enough to get annoying. It's a good show to have on in the background while cooking, and covers issues civilians would likely care about better than straight trial-analysis programming. — SDB, 4/19/13


I covered just about every HBO doc, regardless of its focus, for Previously back in the day. Toe Tag Parole is a more tangentially true-crime doc than some, and not one of the stars of HBO’s firmament in that regard. Should you HBOGo it? Here’s my Spectrum Analysis from 2015.

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Compelling Subject

3/10

The "honor yard" of Toe Tag Parole: To Live And Die On Yard A's title is called the Progressive Programming Facility by CA corrections staff: a racially integrated section of the prison, with no drugs and no violence, reserved for prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

We hear a lot of their stories, and those stories -- and the story of a dedicated area of a state prison that's about giving these lifers' lives some hope and worth -- are interesting on a human level and a crime-story level, but there's a lot of non-fiction TV and film about prison. Foreign prison, death row, you name it: you can watch an hour about it on Netflix. It's tough to make another one stand out.

A+ C.V.

3/10

Alan and Susan Raymond also directed the Oscar-nominated (and relevant!) Doing Time: Life Inside The Big House, and a couple of docus about the Louds of American Family.

Doin' Your Homework

3/10

It depends on the section and who's speaking. Most of the inmates interviewed have an aptitude for storytelling, and the cumulative effect of their stories and their emotion is powerful, but from a structural standpoint, sometimes Toe Tag Parole's build feels a bit expected, like the pointed contrasts among the inmates' paintings or the focus pull along the chain-link fence.

Great Depression

3/10

The number of subjects who got life without parole for not committing, but knowing about or helping to clean up or standing nearby during, a murder is sobering. That, and California's willingness (which is not unique) to give up on gang teenagers as soon as a half-decent reason presents itself.

The section focusing on the veterans' support group isn't bleak, exactly, but the number of former military; the realization that that group isn't something they might have access to or take advantage of on the outside; and their plaintiveness took me aback. "I didn't go [to Viet Nam] to fight women and kids! It just turned out that way," sighs one wheelchair-bound inmate. And thereby hangs a long and unforgiven tale.

It's An Outrage!

5/10

See above. Listening to Edgar Gomez, still only 22, talk about getting locked up at 14 and not letting what-ifs destroy him and his positivity, you wonder if it's possible for our system of punishment and "rehabilitation" -- never mind so-called justice -- to do anything worthwhile as currently designed.

On the other hand, you have inmates consistently distancing themselves from their crimes with their language. Perhaps this is on counsel's advice, but the first guy we meet, Dortell Williams, refers to his wife as "the person who got killed." Richard Fontes is very emotional when talking about his sentence, but seemingly in denial that killing his ex-wife and two other people might have resulted in a life sentence at best. Duncan Gordon Martinez, near tears, says he's "supposedly the mastermind" of his best friend's death, but can't quite bring himself to say what actually happened.

That said, just as many can admit without flinching that they killed people, and they all express deep gratitude for the chance to do things like paint, play softball with a metal bat in the yard, and attend therapy and prayer groups without what is euphemistically called "politicking" (allying with prison gangs along racial lines, for all the reasons you'd imagine).

Intrusive Filmmaker Agenda

2/10

Not really. Hat tip to whomever's doing the interviews occasionally prompting the speaker out of a passive-voice third-person dodge of accountability with interruptions like, "That 'individual' was your wife, right?" But the soundtrack is a little pushy, a little dated, and a little too Hoop Dreams (not the good parts with the MC breaking it down over the credits).

Exclusive Footage/Materials

7/10

The Raymonds' crew appears to have had fairly free rein in terms of whom they spoke to and where they went. Lord knows how they got equipment into the cell, designed for one guy, that Jon Grobman and Chris Branscombe are sharing, along with their six cubic feet of allowed possessions each. (Branscombe: "It's like gettin' locked in your bathroom. For a reeeeeally long time." Hee.)

Talking Heads

6/10

Interspersed pretty well with footage of "group"; the talking-head parts move a bit better than, for instance, the testimonies in chapel. The interviewees are smartly selected for the most part and put in an order that lets the film accumulate a weary, heavy regret.

Further Research

4/10

If the topic interests you, I'd recommend subscribing to The Marshall Project's daily "Opening Statement" email roundup. — SDB, 8/4/15


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I had an intro here about how, if you thought the Gabriel Fernandez series was rough, you should probably avoid the film Love Child — but as it turns out, it’s eminently easy to do so, as the documentary, which aired on HBO in 2014, is not on HBOGo any longer, and JustWatch.us can’t find it anywhere, not even for rent.

My review from 2014 is below, and I’d proceed with caution with that as well (there are some upsetting facts)…but I’d also be interested to hear from any of you who saw this film when it aired. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the film’s success overall, but it did raise some interesting questions, questions that reflected back to that line in Gabriel Fernandez about how a society treats its most vulnerable, and what it sees of itself from that.

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Compelling Subject

7/10

A Korean couple returned home from a marathon online-gaming session to find their three-month-old daughter dead. What's worse, nothing had happened to her on that particular occasion, as this was far from the only time they'd left her alone to immerse themselves in the RPG "Prius." The child had starved.

That this happened in Korea, a country committed to online-infrastructure development on the governmental level but also a traditionally communal society on the cultural level, raises all the obvious questions, and others, about the role of the government in treating gaming addiction; whether gaming addiction exists in the first place; how its attendant crimes should be punished (i.e., with leniency, as with the more common diagnoses of mental illness); and what exactly went wrong here.

A+ C.V.

1/10

I've heard of director Valerie Veatch's first feature, Me @ The Zoo, but I haven't seen it.

Doin' Your Homework

4/10

It's a lot of subtitles. It's also a lot of interstitial graphics and pointed shots of baby blankets on clotheslines, children playing, B-roll of couples going into gaming "labs" hand-in-hand, etc. Not dry per se, but too long at 75 minutes.

Great Depression

8/10

The blurring of the official photos of the child's body doesn't quite manage to disguise how slender and wizened Sarang (the name means "love" in English) is. Later, we're told that she was born early and underweight at 2.9 kilos -- and died at 2.5 kilos. I'm not the greatest at the metric conversions, so I looked it up, and I shouldn't have; I immediately felt nauseated (5lb 8oz).

It's An Outrage!

7/10

The presiding judge accepted "game addiction" as a mitigating factor from the couple's public defender; the father served a year. The mother served no time. This, after hearing testimony that "there were hairs in the bottle" of milk that they'd left at the child's bedside like she was a feral cat. Rotten milk, by the way. The timeline is unclear, but they've conceived another child in the interim, and their reassurances to the court and media that they've quit online gaming and are actively seeking the help and pre-natal care they failed to the first time around don't really reassure me that these people -- who, not for nothing, lammed it after initial questioning and hid with their parents -- should have custody of a Tamagotchi.

That, and most of those interviewed -- the lead detective, the PD, psychiatrists, a British journalist -- seem to feel sorry for these people. We keep hearing that the mother had no idea how to care for the baby, didn't know how to respond to crying, and so on; the journalist adds that, because her family didn't approve of all the time they spent pretending to be green-haired elves on quests -- AND RIGHTLY -- the couple moved out and had no support system, nobody to tell them to stop playing "Prius" and fix a fresh bottle. And I suppose this is what the addiction looks like, but on the other hand, an infant died, and someone has to be responsible...and who doesn't know that you can't just leave your THREE-MONTH-OLD alone for TWELVE HOURS. Who doesn't know that, if a newborn is crying, it's either wet or hungry?

Who's clever enough to try to economize by buying ten hours of gaming time for the price of seven, but can't figure out that a bad smell means the milk is bad?

I'm not saying gaming/online addictions don't exist. I'm saying these people were either sociopaths who didn't give a shit about the baby one way or another, or suffer from a serious delay that should at the least mandate state supervision of their parenting.

Intrusive Filmmaker Agenda

2/10

Not really. I wish Veatch had pushed harder on the relationship between these Korean cultural identities and this case. The journalist mentions shamanism as the oldest aspect of the Korean culture, and talks about the similarity between operating between the worlds of the living and the dead (shamans) and the real and the virtual (gamers), but it seemed like almost an afterthought.

Exclusive Footage/Materials

2/10

The couple is not named; we never really get a clear shot of either of their faces.

Talking Heads

5/10

Solid and informative, if unexceptional overall. Hat tips to the video-game designer, who explains his goal of making "Prius" and other RPGs serially new and alluring without getting defensive; and to the translator whose spare wording is at times the hardest to take, as with this testimony at one of the couple's hearings: "Things were messy...and the baby was dead." Oof.

Further Research

3/10

A passing mention of an online "visiting room," where parents of a horrific kindergarten fire could take nature walks with their lost children as a way of dealing with the grief, made me want to watch a documentary about THAT and all it implies, good and bad (would the children age? is this the best way to move on, and is that really necessary to do?).SDB, 7/29/14


Keepin’ it cheery here today with my review of Erin Lee Carr’s first feature, Thought Crimes, which is about the so-called “cannibal cop” case. But there is a woodcut of this film’s poster in the dictionary next to the term “assured debut” — and Bob Kolker is in it to boot. (So is Alan Dershowitz, but…you know. There were things we didn’t understand in 2015 the way we do now.)

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Compelling Subject

6/10

Your mileage will vary, but I haven't cared much about the so-called Cannibal Cop case on the merits. First of all, Gilberto Valle didn't actually kidnap, torture, violate, or kill and eat anyone in...I was going to say "meatspace," but let's go with "real life" instead. Second, the online conversations allegedly threatening or conspiring to do those things, the ones that sent his then-wife running to the authorities once she found them and initially got Valle convicted, just do not read as very frightening to me. They're so over-the-top with the Lecter posturing, they come off as almost childish.

Third, the debate about where the line is between pure fantasy and intent, and whether we should prosecute the former when we have credible evidence that it's become the latter, is what drives a lot of the coverage of the case. It's a worthwhile debate, but in narrative practice, you end up with a lot of experts in various fields asking where we should put the line, but not answering their own questions, or trailing off after the phrase "case-by-case basis." In other words, it's an important and interesting argument to have but not a great story engine.

Thought Crimes sucked me in, though.

A+ C.V.

2/10

Thought Crimes is the first feature for Erin Lee Carr, who, per her IMDb page, "has been exploring the intersection between the internet and crime since she began working at VICE." She's also the late David Carr's daughter, which I guess doesn't matter, but the film is dedicated to his memory -- and there is a certain Carrishly snarky quality to the cuts (and their repetition) between experts discussing cannibalistic fetishes and Valle making lunch.

Doin' Your Homework

4/10

The overall pacing is good and this doesn't affect it all that much, but the references to Minority Report and Orwell feel kind of expected. The beginning of the picture might have benefited from more of an information dump, in fact; I was Googling the timeline and how Valle ended up getting caught.

Great Depression

2/10

"Safe spaces" online getting driven underground; Big Brother is everywhere; it's a miscarriage of justice that the jury's decision got reversed. I did not find it especially bleak, but there's bleakness to be had.

It's An Outrage!

3/10

See above. Part of me has always had trouble taking the Cannibal Cop case very seriously because of the internet aspect of it -- not that the internet isn't a serious medium per se, but that I don't think most people outside of law enforcement correlate what people say on the internet and what they would actually do out in the 3D world as directly as cops (well, not Valle) and prosecutors seem to. Carr does a subtle job showing the bullshittiness of Valle's rationalizations several years after the fact, and I can't swear Valle won't ever, or would never have, harmed anyone, obvi. But a lot of shit, good and bad, happens on the internet that doesn't "convert." Maybe I've just worked here too long but it's tough for me to get too worked up about the idea that the internet grows this kind of pathology like a mold culture.

Intrusive Filmmaker Agenda

2/10

Maybe the jump from that law professor saying nobody wants to let a guy like Valle go "and he goes out and eats somebody" to Valle stirring a very bright red pasta sauce is tacky. Maybe doing that kind of thing a few times is tacky. I snickered, because I'm tacky for sure, and compared to the tasteless tabloid punnery surrounding the case for months on end, those edits are positively Victorian. (Even Valle himself can't entirely avoid it, noting after he posts his dating profile that he's "craving some companionship." Phrasing, fella!)

Carr doesn't make herself too much felt, aside from questions from off-camera, and I would have scored this even lower, but a few visual choices really don't work for me, starting with the "stock" -- Thought Crimes is frequently ugly to look at visually. The talking-head interviews don't suffer as much from that weird flatness, but overall it looks kind of cheap, which is too bad. Carr is clever about "filming" the IM conversations, cutting in some voice-overs so it's not just a tedious animation, but the industry generally needs to work on not straining to give, say, texting recreations visual pizzazz. It's a true-crime docu; there's going to be some reading. The audience will get over it. Relax. I am not a crackpot.

Exclusive Footage/Materials

7/10

Carr couldn't get everyone involved to talk to her, but I believe she got an exclusive interview with Valle while he was still in jail, and he seems cooperative and open with her, as do his parents.

Talking Heads

8/10

Slate's Daniel Engber collaborated with Carr on tracking down Valle's contact info, and appears in the film, along with Bob Kolker, whose solid take on CC I would have linked to even if he hadn't showed up onscreen. The experts, including Alan Dershowitz, boil down the ethical and psychological complexities in the legal situation without sounding glib; Carr lets them do some visible thinking or struggling with answers.

Further Research

3/10

Thought Crimes covers the subject pretty well, but I'll look forward to Carr's next project, and I recommend Kolker's Lost Girls. — SDB, 5/12/15


I missed Brian Tallerico’s list on Vulture last week of the best 25 true-crime docs on Netflix right now. The list includes series as well as features, and I’d have made a couple of substitutions (Dirty Money, for one), but thinking about my own Netflix top 25 made me wonder what a list of only the top 25 Netflix true-crime films would look like — and whether that’s what Tallerico set out to write before discovering that films like Tabloid and Crazy Love were no longer available on the service. (No shade on Tallerico, whose work I enjoy; just wondering what the brief was.)

…Not that I have time to do this today, but now I kind of want to comb through and do that list. What about you guys — would Tell Me Who I Am make the cut? What about Screwball and Roll Red Roll? Do we need to make this list together? — SDB


Thursday on Best Evidence: The Verified pod, more Knox-nuptials shenanigans, and more.


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