Here’s a fun game! Guess which reviews I wrote before armageddon, and which I wrote after!
Last Week Tonight: November 6, 2016 — Well, it survives the election by not being primarily about the election. But interestingly, it also announces itself as a “web video” in spite of the fact that it’s on television. Which is interesting, and demonstrates that Oliver has entirely embraced his role as the most viral comedian.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: “Post-Election” — First off, getting Lizzo to perform at the end of the episode where Samantha Bee’s natural enemy became the most powerful person in the country was a masterstroke. When everything is shitty, Lizzo. I dunno if she would have been there regardless, but it worked well as an ending to the episode. I admire Bee’s optimism in the face of the worst possible outcome. She closes the episode by echoing the most worthwhile sentiment in Clinton’s concession speech: “there is more work to do.” During the Bush administration, Jon Stewart was the comedic voice that held the right’s feet to the fire and kept progressive people sane. Of the available heirs to the throne, my money’s on Samantha Bee to do the same during the Trump administration.
Doctor Who: “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” — This is a mess. The story is boilerplate adventure serial nonsense and there are too many moments where an attempt at a heartstring-tugging catharsis falls totally flat because of bad acting or obvious manipulation. But there are positives. Firstly, the on-location shooting makes this one of the most visually distinctive early serials, and there are actually some really great shots in there. You know, between all of the crap edits that obscure cause and effect. Also, William Hartnell has thoroughly figured out his role at this point. He’s completely charming in this. He’ll never be one of my favourite Doctors, but he’s adorable when he gets to be a hero. For the first time, you can start to see the universal characteristics of the Doctor that would be expanded on in iterations I like better (Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi). In this, you see the Doctor as a humanist, an ingenious man of action and a loveable weirdo. The one thing Hartnell doesn’t pull off is the scene where he bids Susan farewell, and that’s not his fault. That is quite simply one of the most completely bungled emotional beats in this show. It would have been so simple to just have Susan decide for herself to stay behind with David. Then, the Doctor could be forced to say goodbye in his way. And that is something you could see Hartnell pulling off brilliantly: trying to stay aloof while the emotions well up. As it stands, it looks like what it is: a presumptuous old man stranding his granddaughter on a foreign planet. A fitting end to a really not very good serial at all.
Mean Girls — It transpires that almost all of my Vancouver guy friends have moved away, and I now find myself in a social circle of almost entirely women. And, apart from occasionally feeling like the fly in the ointment, this is fine. It also means that I occasionally find myself in a room where a movie is playing that I didn’t necessarily feel like I’d ever watch. But when that movie is Mean Girls, there are no protests to be raised. Mean Girls is singularly brilliant. It’s astonishing the extent to which Tina Fey’s writing has maintained its aesthetic through this film, 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. This movie is joke dense to a level that would not become standard for at least another several years. (30 Rock premiered in 2006, but Fey was clearly ahead of the curve. On the other hand, Archer premiered in 2009.) The acting is uniformly fantastic, with the titular mean girls stealing the show. Rachel McAdams offers an uncanny performance as the queen bee we can all remember as part of our high school experience. And it’s hilarious to see Amanda Seyfried playing dumb when she’s been taking totally different roles since then. Also: I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually seen Lindsay Lohan in a movie before. She’s always just been a pop culture reference point — and specifically, one relating to drug abuse and lost innocence. So, to see her offering an actually very sympathetic performance in this movie was something of a welcome shock. Amy Poehler does that thing she does where she’s funny every time she’s in the frame, even if she’s not saying anything. But what’s really remarkable about this film is that it manages to conform to a standard comedic plotline while remaining honest to the realities of high school: Lohan’s character gradually becomes the very thing she detests, which is both narratively ripe and truthful to the experiences of adolescence. And if Tina Fey has a tendency to put the moral of the story in her own character’s mouth, at least that character is something of a feminist role model — and not at all a drug pusher. I completely enjoyed watching this, and I’m happy to have seen it in the company of a number of people for whom it appears to be a formative text: a quotable and relatable film that maintains its power twelve years on.
Leonard Cohen: New Skin for the Old Ceremony — If there’s an upside to great artists dying (and let’s be fair, Cohen’s death is less sad than Bowie’s or Prince’s because he was 82), it’s that they get to be back in the conversation for a while. And that means I can listen to his music and talk to people about it with the benefit of a news hook, which is basically necessary. I’ve learned that I can’t just talk at people about Jethro Tull for no reason other than being obsessed. (Though nothing will, and nothing should, stop me from doing essentially that on this blog. You can opt out. And the fact that you haven’t is frankly bizarre.) So, I figured I’d give a spin to one of the classic Cohen albums that I hadn’t actually heard. New Skin for the Old Ceremony is firstly one of the best album titles ever. Think about it for a second. Good. Also, it seems to me on first listen to be essentially the equal of Songs of Leonard Cohen in terms of consistency (high, but not 100%), although it is more the stylistic cousin of the somewhat better Songs of Love and Hate. What I’m saying is it’s better than its “lesser classic” reputation would suggest. Also, this is the album on which Cohen seems to most embody Joni Mitchell’s characteristically dismissive description of Cohen as a “boudoir poet.” But that’s not a strike against the album. He puts aside some of his more existential questions here, but they’re replaced with compelling, intimate pictures of specific relationships. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is the obvious highlight in this sense. I reckon it’s not merely the most romantic song to have a blowjob reference in the third line, but possibly the most romantic song ever to be written about a one-night stand. Famously, it’s about Janis Joplin, and famously Cohen regrets having revealed that. But putting that indiscretion aside, “Chelsea Hotel” is one of many reasons I feel that Leonard Cohen is an effective model of non-toxic masculinity. There’s no sense of self-congratulation in this story, and Cohen emphasizes the value that he places on his lover’s entire self. That sort of thoughtfulness is rare enough in songs about long-time romantic partnerships, let along hookups. (If anybody reading this disagrees with me, I’d be interested to hear. Because I’ve been wrong about these sorts of things before.) The rest of the album stays the course. It’s not entirely about love and loss, but enough of it is that you come away from it feeling like those are the key themes. I’d say this is Cohen’s Blood on the Tracks, but frankly just about any Leonard Cohen album could be his Blood on the Tracks. Blood on the Tracks is Bob Dylan nicking Cohen’s schtick (and doing it better, but that’s not the point). Leonard Cohen was awesome. I hope the rest of the world is also spending some time with his records right now. Pick of the week.
David Remnick: “Leonard Cohen Makes it Darker” — I read this just before Cohen died, so I kind of assumed that he was exaggerating the extent of his illness. He did, after all, say that he was. But regardless of any of that, this is a really fascinating portrait of Cohen at the end of his life. He seems happy, fulfilled and resigned. And he’s completely in possession of his faculties. It really highlights how Cohen’s lyrics are darker than his personality. This is a lovely companion piece to You Want it Darker, if only to add a touch of levity to Cohen’s final chapter.
Sala Suleri: “Meatless Days” — Suleri’s prose is truly wonderful, and her descriptions of food are worthy of the best authors in the “food writing” genre. Which is definitely not what this is. This is a memoir about childhood, and how food plays into how we see the world as we grow up. Lovely.
Philip Sandifer: TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 1: William Hartnell — I bought this ages ago and it’s taking me a ludicrously long time to get through, for reasons that have nothing to do with Sandifer. I just find it hard to dredge up the will to actually watch these dull old stories from the earliest days of Doctor Who. My enthusiasm for Sandifer’s writing is such that I’ll put myself through the dull-as-shit experience of watching a story written by Terry Nation, just so that I’ll be equipped to read Sandifer’s essay on that story. In this period at least, Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum entries are often superior works of art to the television that they critique. I just read the book version of one of my favourite posts on Sandifer’s blog, which is on “The Rescue.” His observation of how clever it is to have a man in a rubber suit actually turn out to be a man in a rubber suit as opposed to being a monster is brilliant, makes watching “The Rescue” more fun, and is exactly the reason why I like reading Sandifer’s criticism. But, since the next Doctor Who story that I haven’t seen is “The Romans,” for which I have exactly no enthusiasm, it’ll probably be another several months before I get any farther in this book.
Slate Election Day Special — This is the reason for the “etc.” in the heading. Slate did a clever thing here, by putting out updated editions of the same podcast (sort of) periodically throughout election day, adding and updating stories as they become relevant. It’s like a newscast, except more polished, more discretely packaged, and without the need for an anchor who can fill time, which has always been a stupid idea and is part of the reason why traditional broadcasting is largely so stupid. This is definitely a format I could see working in other situations in the future. As for the content itself, Alison Stewart and Zoe Chace are both brilliant and covered the stories they chose with rigor and fairness. It was nice to hear Mike Pesca show up from time to time, since he’s got the fastest brain in the business. He was made for this sort of thing.
Fresh Air: “Trump And The White Working Class” — George Packer’s take on this election is hugely informed by his work on The Unwinding, which I haven’t read, but which sounds fascinating. He comes down mostly on the side that views Trump’s voters as disaffected, but his position is more nuanced than many who claim this, and he’s well aware of the extent to which the white working class does not actually make up Trump’s base.
A Point of View: “America Votes” — Adam Gopnik has been, along with Bob Garfield, one of my most treasured voices of reason in this election. This is possibly his most succinct summation of why Trump is awful. It’s ten minutes. Just listen to it.
On the Media: “Poor Judgement” — The final instalment of Brooke Gladstone’s poverty myths series takes the form of an OTM news consumer guide, which is a really good idea, because the media apparently cannot portray poverty in anything close to an accurate semblance. This series has been among the best radio of the year.
This American Life: “Master of Her Domain… Name” — I listened to this on November 8th. It has a story about how Hillary Clinton does not know how to use a computer. Then it has a story about a man making cat puns. Then it has a story about a police officer who was bested by a squirrel. Then the United States elected Donald Trump as their president.
On the Media: “Now What?” — This was the first podcast I listened to after the election of Donald Trump. It is the most difficult 17 minutes of radio I’ve listened to all year. On the Media has been one of my favourites, and possibly my very favourite show of 2016. Bob Garfield is a big part of that. His call to arms, where he implored reporters not to settle into familiar routines as Trump’s campaign went on — to acknowledge that he is a totally unique candidate and highlight his obvious unfitness for office at every opportunity — was one of very few moments in this election season where somebody said something that I thought made sense. His closing line was a killer: “The voters will do what the voters will do, but it must not be, cannot be because the press did not do enough.” And Brooke Gladstone has always been one of the most valuable people on the radio, because she’s one of the few who can explain to people how they’re processing information, so that they can then examine their own interface with the media and arrive at something closer to the truth. This was massively evident in the poverty myths series that just wrapped. So, hearing Garfield and Gladstone disagree so vehemently in this taped conversation with Katya Rogers about the future of the show is extremely disquieting. At the risk of infantilizing myself, there’s an element of “mom and dad are fighting” to this. It’s two people you’ve come to deeply trust, and who you take for granted will present a united front, not seeing eye to eye. At no point during this episode did I know whose side I was on. I kept listening, but I wanted it to stop. I think these next four years are going to be very bad. And when even the most reliably sane and measured source of analysis is existentially spiralling in the wake of the election, it seems like an indication that things might be worse than I thought. Pick of the week, if only because it’s the most preoccupying thing on the list.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Election and Political Comedy” — This is either the last, second-last, or third-last pre-election, election-related podcast I will listen to. It’s just too painful to listen to missives from that more innocent time. *sniff. Also Glen Weldon doesn’t understand that John Oliver’s show doesn’t have any jokes on it, and that’s distressing.
The Heart: “Love, Harry” — One day I will go back through the entire archive of The Heart and Audiosmut. Because it is such engrossing radio. This extremely gutsy and vulnerable piece details the near-romantic relationship between the show’s host and one of its early producers. It feels like listening to something you’re not supposed to be listening to. I love it. And, as always, it has some of the best, most subtle, least ostentatious sound design in all of radio. I think it’s Kaitlin Prest who does the mixing? I don’t really know. But it is top shelf, always.
99% Invisible: “Ten Letters for the President” — Listening to this post-election is distressing. Because, it’s clear that President Obama’s dedication to reading a sample of the citizenry’s correspondence will not be continued by President Trump. Ruined my listening experience.
Code Switch: “A Muslim and Mexican Walk Into A Bar…” — It’s as good as you could expect from a clearly shell-shocked Code Switch team. It’s funny, for much of its duration. But I would have been just as satisfied, or more, if Gene Demby had just unloaded all of his fears and doubts into the microphone for 25 minutes.
On the Media: “Wrong Number” — A deeply unsatisfying post-election hour. But, to be fair, Brooke Gladstone knows that and directs listeners to the existentially terrifying podcast extra from earlier this week. Part of me feels like Nate Silver ought to have been made to sweat a bit more, but the rational part of my brain knows that he’s justified to say that Five Thirty-Eight’s predictions were within the margin of error. But frankly, if the margin of error can encompass such drastically different outcomes as American fascism vs. no American fascism, then my faith in data remains slightly shaken. Call me a plebe. Go ahead.
The Bugle: “Tony The Tiger: RIP” — This has its moments, but there are long stretches of laughlessness. I’m confident that Andy Zaltzman will reach equilibrium eventually, but the key is going to be finding collaborators that think he’s funny, as opposed to just a weird old dude who’s good at puns. Also, it is legitimately weird that this is a Radiotopia podcast now. Zaltzman doesn’t even seem to have a clue what that means. Or maybe he’s just being funny. Who can tell?
The Bugle: “ZERO DT” — It must be a good sign that I went on to listen to another episode of The Bugle right away after listening to the season premiere. However, it was mostly just because I needed to hear how these same two people reacted to Trump’s election. Short answer: not well. Longer answer: this is a better episode than the other one I listened to, even if Hari Kondabolu sounds like he’s been severely beaten in the interim. Which he sort of has. We all have.
NPR Politics Podcast: “The Election of Donald Trump” — This is about all I need in terms of election wrapup, I think. Gonna try to not think about this too much until Trump takes office. For my own sanity.