Jon Hein knows TV. In the late 1990s, he coined the phrase "Jump the Shark" when he founded the site of the same name. Since then, he's written about television everywhere from The New York Times to TV Guide. In his column for Primetimer, he shares his thoughts on what's new and good on TV and the shows on his radar for the coming week.
The inevitable Netflix documentary about the 2019 college admissions scandal involving actors, masters of the universe, admissions counselors and Photoshop has arrived. Everyone will want to dig in to Operation Varsity Blues.
There's a distinct formula for most docs these days. An outlandish story involving privilege and deceit ripped from the headlines that features lots of talking heads, reflections from involved parties, archived footage, and last but not least, reenactments to fill in the blanks.
Chris Smith, who directed the Netflix Fyre Festival doc, handles Operation Varsity Blues in a unique way. There's plenty of news footage from the scandal and the prerequisite talking heads, but the reenactments do not consist of shadows or no-name actors.
Matthew Modine stars as Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the admissions scandal, and his dialogue is entirely based on FBI wiretaps. You might recognize some of the other actors in the reenactments, but let's face it, this story tells itself.
Modine is very good reciting his Feds dialogue as are the actors portraying the parents who pay to walk through "side doors" to get their kids into high profile colleges. I respect trying something different to bring those Bureau conversations to life, but it's simply not necessary when you consider the subject matter.
The interviews with former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer are jarring because the actual person (not an actor playing him) is explaining his interactions with Rick Singer. The coach's recollections coupled with actual footage of Singer, Olivia Jade, and the other parties involved in the scandal overshadows any reenactment.
I know a thing or two about the college admissions process. The last job I held before joining The Howard Stern Show was Vice President of Marketing at The Princeton Review. We helped students raise test scores by teaching them to understand the nature of the test. The only thing the SAT (or any so-called aptitude test) measures is how well you take that exam on that day.
My former employer, and other test prep services, do not come off well in this doc as they've long been a tool for those who can afford them. The real problem is the SAT and standardized testing itself which should have been abolished a long time ago. Test preparation companies provide an advantage, but it's nothing compared to what Rick Singer was up to.
Talking heads in this doc point out how the admissions crunch is really about the parents. They couldn't get into Stanford or Yale, but their financial success enables them to use Singer to get their child into the college of the parents' dreams. The prestige of "name" colleges and its perceived value in today's society are also rightfully called into question.
The crafty and despicable Singer details three ways to get into the college of your choice. The front door is merit-based, the back door is a multi-million dollar donation, and the side door is his way in. The willingness of parents to walk their kids through that side door gives new meaning to doing anything you can for your children.
Operation Varsity Blues provides an education in taking advantage of the tremendous pressure high school kids are put under by their parents. Cyndi Lauper sang it best… "money changes everything."
(Shows Premiering That I'm Not A Fan Of But You Might Be!)
Waffles and Mochi (NETFLIX) - Michelle Obama, two puppets and a score of celebs teach us all how to eat better. Yes, I'm serious. The ten-episode series drops Tuesday.
Keeping Up With The Kardashians (E!) - The final season premieres Thursday, don't let the door hit you…
Overserved with Lisa Vanderpump (E!) - The first season premieres Thursday, don't let the door hit you…
Country Comfort (NETFLIX) - Katherine McPhee is an aspiring country singer and… you can fill in the blanks. The complete first season drops Friday.
Q: Into The Storm (HBO) - This QAnon profile is the perfect depressing follow up to Allen vs Farrow Sundays at 9.
THIS WEEK'S PICKS
This week features two actors at home, phone calls, the next Marvel series and the queen of soul…
Tuesday, March 16th Season 2 premiere
David Tennant and Michael Sheen return in arguably the most compelling programming created during the pandemic.
In the six-episode first season, Tennant and Sheen play fictionalized versions of themselves bickering as they try to rehearse for a play via videoconference. The saga of the furloughed actors is reminiscent of Larry David in Curb - how much of the real guys are we seeing here?
Back for an eight-episode second season, the "real" Tennant and Sheen find the first Staged season was a big success and is being brought to America, but they have not been asked to reprise their roles. A litany of well-known actors pop in for season two as you question once again who is acting or really being themselves.
Calls (APPLE TV+)
Friday, March 19th
Yet another adaptation with a big name cast for Apple's streaming service, but this premise is truly a unique one.
Based on a French TV series, this compilation of short stories has no visual element. It's voices and subtitles...that's it. After figuring out which actor is playing the part, there are some scary stories to listen to and imagine the worst in your mind.
I'm all for shaking things up on TV, but having no visual component lends itself to a different medium. I make my living on the radio, and these would be really interesting to hear on the air. On my TV screen, well, I'm just going to have to see what I'm missing. Watch trailer.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (DISNEY+)
Friday, March 19th
Bucky and Sam step out of Steve Rogers' shadow to take the lead in the newest TV chapter in the Marvel universe. Time for them to grab the shield.
The success of Wandavision raised the bar for this twosome. The mind of the Scarlet Witch was not what people expected as it generated tons of buzz during the pandemic.
This six-episode series shapes up to be more traditional in the Marvel sense and picks up right after Avengers: Endgame. Expectations have been set, but bank on the creators shake things up a bit in phase four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Genius: Aretha (NAT GEO)
Sunday, March 21st
The first genius was Einstein. Next was Picasso. Now it's Aretha Franklin's turn
Cynthia Erivo steps up as the queen of soul. The long anticipated eight-parter chronicles Aretha's career and influence on culture around the world. The award-winning actress will perform many of the songs, and her singing can make or break the latest chapter in the Genius series.
We all know the tunes, but this is a good reminder of how Aretha affected civil rights and other causes during her storied career. Not only was she arguably the greatest singer of all time, but without knowing how to read music this gospel prodigy taught herself how to play the piano.
Nat Geo will air two episodes nightly for four consecutive nights, with each episode available to watch on Hulu the next day. Watch trailer.
If you love or hate my picks, I'd love to hear from you.
Wear two masks. Get vaccinated. Stay healthy and safe.
Jon Hein is the creator of "Jump the Shark" and author of three books. Follow him @jonhein on Twitter.