Category Archives: Comics

Omnibus (week of June 18, 2017)

Yeah, I changed the name. I never liked the old name. Onwards.

The second instalment of the NXNW segment aired yesterday on Radio 1, and it is a whole level weirder than the first. Basically, I tried to convince Sheryl MacKay that the central tenets of medieval alchemy are still alive and well and living in pop culture. Every so often I make something I’m really proud of. This second segment is for sure one of those. I’m at 1:22:34 in this podcast of the show.

Ran a 5K this morning. Boy oh boy were there a lot of people in that. You’ll see more podcasts here than there have been in weeks, because I figured even a 5K shouldn’t be approached with a totally cavalier attitude. Many kilometers were run, and many hours of audio accompanied them. If you’re new to this, this instalment is a bit closer to my usual approach than recent weeks have been: lots of podcasts, shorter reviews. 38 of them, to be precise.

Television

American Gods: “Come To Jesus” — After last time, I didn’t actually expect Jesus to be played for laughs. But there is honestly nothing funnier than seeing a whole herd of diverse Jesuses just milling about. Except for the bit where Wednesday refers to them collectively as “these assholes.” That’s funnier. This season finale is actually my least favourite episode of American Gods so far, but that’s a very relative thing to say. Mostly, I’m just mildly peeved that the story hasn’t gotten to a point where the supporting deities like Nancy and Czernobog are relevant to the story on a consistent basis. I’m as happy as I thought I’d be to see Nancy again, but it would have been nice to see him do more than offer exposition for another character. (I miss the story about tiger balls from the book.) Also, the somewhat overwrought segment where Wednesday reveals his real name to Shadow is the first sequence in the show that hasn’t worked for me. Partially it’s just the Michael-Bay-spinning-cameraness of it all, but mostly I just find it hard to accept that Shadow, or any portion of the audience, would be surprised to learn that a one-eyed god who goes by “Wednesday” would actually be Odin. (This is a problem the show inherits from the book.) On the other hand, this episode makes two substantial improvements on the book. One is in the relationship between Bilquis and the Technical Boy. I suppose it’s still possible that Technical will kill Bilquis at some point, but that moment was one of the most jarring parts of the book, and I’m very glad that she’s survived their first meeting. The other improvement is Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter, who is angrier, funnier and altogether more ruthless than her book analogue. I especially love the way she listens to her adorable messenger bunnies, only to invariably respond “oh, shit!” I realize that throughout these American Gods reviews, I’ve focussed an awful lot on the relationship between show and book. Probably that’ll subside next season, at which point I will have read the book substantially less recently. But I still think that American Gods is as compelling an act of adaptation as a show to be taken on its own merits. Between this and Hannibal, I think Bryan Fuller has confirmed himself as the master of the modern television adaptation. Benioff and Weiss wish they were this good. Season one of American Gods has been some of the best television of recent years. I can’t wait for the next season. Hope it’s longer.

Better Call Saul: “Lantern” — Sometimes I start to write these reviews before I’m finished watching the episode. Here is a brief passage from what I’d written before I watched through to the end. “Chuck. Is. Noxious. The writers of this show, and Michael McKean, should pat themselves on the back for creating such a convincing yet completely insufferable character. The thing that makes him so hard to take is a simple juxtaposition of two traits: he has no compassion at all, and he always perceives himself to have the moral high ground. This episode features one of the most painful scenes in the show so far, in which Chuck intentionally tries to hurt Jimmy, and feels entirely justified in doing so because Jimmy colours outside the lines. He feels no complicity in the rift between the two of them. This is the worst kind of person, and this is a kind of person who exists. I know these people and so do you. Chuck is scum. Chuck is irredeemable.” At the end of the episode, I softened my view rather dramatically. In his more loathsome moments, Chuck makes it easy to forget that he is not at the peak of mental wellness. In retrospect, he might be the highlight of this season, because of the way both McKean and the story emphasize his uncompromising cruelty and his struggle with mental illness at the same time. The show even gives us a handy yardstick by which to assess the reasonableness of our hatred for Chuck: Howard Hamlin. Since the season one reveal that he actually isn’t that bad, Howard has been one of the most sympathetic characters on Better Call Saul.  And even he would rather part with millions of his own hard-earned dollars than work with Chuck any longer. He has become genuinely impossible, and well and truly cruel. He was also in a lot of trouble. And he completely alienated his one-man support system, who to be fair, is a person with no small amount of flaws himself. I expected this episode to be all about Kim after last week’s cliffhanger. And while it is bittersweet to see her finally realizing that she needs to take time to breathe, her season arc basically ended with her car crash. This episode belongs to Chuck. But its subtext belongs to Jimmy. It’s easy to read Chuck’s suicide as a final “fuck you” to his brother. This is only a small part of an inevitably complex equation, but think about this: their last conversation consisted of Chuck telling Jimmy that he would always hurt people and he might as well embrace it. Then he kills himself. Meanwhile, Jimmy has alienated himself from the elder law practice that could have been his saving grace. (I’m delighted that Mrs. Landry is okay.) The path to Saul Goodman has never been clearer than it is now. Pick of the week.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 3-7 — Okay, the internet was right. This Dougie Jones business needs to stop. At first, I was amused — not so much by Kyle McGlaughlin’s performance, which finds him working substantially below his pay grade, but by the constant way that everybody around him basically fails to acknowledge that there’s something really wrong. Particularly wonderful is Naomi Watts as his wife. The fact that she’s not more concerned really makes you wonder what kind of shit-for-brains asshole the real Dougie Jones was. I love the idea that this might not actually be that out of the ordinary. Suppose that’s what you get for marrying a homunculus. But after four episodes of this, I’m ready to have Coop back. I don’t even need to hear him talk about coffee and pie. I don’t even need a thumbs up. I just want him to be here so that the show has a central intelligence in it again who can start to put together the disparate threads that are remaining maddeningly allusive without him. In general though, I’ve really been enjoying this. I don’t have that much to say about it because it’s still got its cards super close to its chest. I’m definitely hoping that we’re not done with David Lynch’s modernized, expanded take on the Black Lodge. The sequences that take place there are truly terrifying, and among the most compelling television I’ve seen in recent times.

Doctor Who: “World Enough and Time” — Okay, now we’re cooking. This is classic Steven Moffat, operating in “hey here’s a fun idea” mode. In this case, the idea is that there’s a huge spaceship right by a black hole, so time works differently at one end of it and the other. The real storytelling masterstroke, though, is stranding the Doctor at the slow end of the ship, so that the situation seriously escalates before he’s able to formulate a plan. Aside from that, this is notable as a real return to Moffat’s signature horror. You could say that the monks constituted horror, as did the notion in “Extremis” that the entire universe is a projection and you cease to exist if you step outside of the beam. But nothing since “Listen” has really gone whole hog into horror territory the way that this does. The scene with the volume dials is one of the most disturbing things Moffat has ever written. And the patients in general, all on their way to becoming Cybermen, are terrifying in that existential way that the Cybermen manage to be when they’ve got a good writer behind them. (Unless that good writer is Neil Gaiman, in which case they still don’t work.) And all that good stuff happens even before we get the big reveal of John Simm. Which, I mean, we all knew he was going to be in this, but am I stupid for being INCREDIBLY FUCKING SURPRISED that character was him? Am I? Come on, be honest. This was an amazing episode: straightforwardly the best of the season. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — So, the Steam summer sale is on, but I realized that I’m not actually even close to finishing the games I bought during the Steam winter sale. Because *some of us* like to go outside sometimes, amirite? At this point I think the Half-Life series is a lost cause for me. I was so terrible at the first one, and the story is so minimal, that I’m forced to conclude it is literally the opposite of what I appreciate in a video game. Moving on to King of Dragon Pass, then: another classic of an entirely different sort. This is dated, and its high fantasy aesthetic isn’t really my thing, but I’m compelled regardless. Basically, it’s a text-based resource management game with elements of choose-your-own-adventure. So, it’s kind of Sunless Sea before its time. Except that the writing isn’t anywhere close to that level. It has its moments, mind you. I quite like this: “Your men whooped with Orlanth and drank the Eight Known Drinks, so that your heads would hurt during the ceremony.” Also unlike Sunless Sea, its representation of women oscillates between fairly progressive and a bit, erm, medieval. But there’s enough in this to compel me. I’m particularly fond of the way that your progress is compiled into a document called “the Saga,” which actually reads a bit like an Icelandic saga, given that those stories basically are just lists of accomplishments. So far, this seems like the sort of thing I’ll probably play until I manage to beat it on the easiest setting and then I might put it aside. Still, it’ll probably grow on me.

Literature

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Lottery in Babylon” — A substantially simpler and more direct story than some of the others I’ve read recently. Still brilliant, and the way that Borges casually drops details into the framework of ideas that makes up the narrative reminds me once again of how much Neil Gaiman owes to him. Look at this bit: “A slave stole a crimson ticket; the drawing determined that the ticket entitled the bearer to have his tongue burned out.” This comes at a point in the story where it’s been established that owning tickets can result in terrible things happening to you as well as good things, but the specifics have been vague. Borges just drops this punishment into a sentence that’s actually a rumination on what’s supposed to happen in the case of the theft of a ticket. His narrator doesn’t make a big deal of it. That, more than anything in this story, gives the sense of a fully-formed world with defined parameters that are simply taken for granted. I continue to be astonished by this writer.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, Volume 4: “Imperial Phase, Part One” — I don’t know how anybody reads this issue-by-issue. When the trade collections come out, I wolf them down in one sitting and I still feel like I need more. This is probably the most exciting collection so far from this perpetually exciting comic. The real showstopper is the the first issue in the collection, formatted as a (beautifully designed) fan magazine in which members of the Pantheon are interviewed by actual journalists (with Gillen filling the role of each god at the other end of a chat window). The best of them is Laurie Penny’s piece on Woden, who is self-evidently the shittiest god. Having read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, it just felt right. My favourite part of the story in this issue is the way that the Pantheon is forced to reorganize and rally behind their logical leaders, Baal and Urdr, in the absence of Ananke. The dynamics between all of these characters just keep getting more interesting. Persephone in particular is the best thing going on in this book right now. Love it.

Kelefa Sanneh: “The Persistence of Prog Rock” — An excellent piece on the contemporary reception of 1970s prog, with reference to David Wiegel’s recent book on the subject. I’m reminded that I need to eventually finish the books cited by Edward Macan, Bill Martin and Will Romano, though I think all of them (especially Romano’s) are quite bad. The most interesting idea raised here is that progressive rock was parochial. This is something that I struggle with. It definitely was parochial — the most recognized bands in the genre were such idiomatically British eccentrics that albums like Selling England by the Pound almost seem a bit Brexity in retrospect. On the other hand, that means that prog largely avoided the garish spectacle of cultural appropriation that a lot of other British rock proffered. The Rolling Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers seem a hell of a lot more retrograde in retrospect than ELP does. And ELP, lest anybody forget, was the band whose use of classical music in their performances was meant to get the kids listening to “music that has more quality.” The mind reels. I sympathize with Lester Bangs’ distaste for this sentiment. But I’m not sure he ever really saw the other side of the coin. I’ll be reading Wiegel’s book very soon.

Music

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister: Planetarium — Well, it doesn’t make it easy for us. Planetarium is enormously ambitious and enormously long. Every song on this gave me the sense that I’d definitely like it a lot more next time I listen to it. Honestly, that’s one of my favourite reactions to have to a piece of music, but this does meander a bit. I’m curious to know more about the process of this: I’m familiar enough with Stevens, Muhly and Dessner’s work (the latter only as a composer, admittedly — I’ve never liked the National) that I feel like it should be easier than it is to isolate their particular contributions. They seem to have genuinely merged into a many-headed beast. My personal highlights here are “Jupiter” and especially “Mercury,” which has a melody worthy of Carrie & Lowell. But I’ve now heard “Saturn” a few times and it has grown on me from the point of initially leaving me cold to the point where now I actually bring up Apple Music to listen to it specifically. And the 15-minute “Earth” hits my prog rock structural pleasure centres, but there’s too much in it to take in for me to assess it yet. I think this is really good. I’ll probably check back in about it when I listen to it a bit more.

Neil Young: Live at the Riverboat 1969 — Like the Canterbury House instalment of Neil’s archives series, this is most notable for his amusingly awkward, stoned audience banter. I wish I’d been at one of these early acoustic shows, but I wasn’t born until 21 years later. Anyway, I’m actually pretty happy to be moving past the pre-Crazy Horse segment of my quest to hear the Complete Neil Young. Solo acoustic guitar music gets tiresome.

Neil Young: Live at Fillmore East 1970 — Ah, now we’re talking. What’s most notable about this is how much it sounds like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Crazy Horse has always sounded really live in the studio. All the same, the presence of an audience makes “Cowgirl in the Sand” pop a bit more, with the band really trying to ratchet up the tension to keep them into it. I suspect 1970 is the year when things really get interesting. I’ve enjoyed my exploration of Buffalo Springfield and the late-60s limbo state from which the self-titled album emerged. But it’s with the foundation of Crazy Horse and Neil’s induction into CSNY that the phase of his career we know him for really began.

Podcasts

Ear Hustle: “Cellies” — This podcast is a beautiful idea. It’s also staggeringly ambitious. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare it must be to produce a podcast in prison. But these are stories that don’t get told. And when they do, they sure aren’t told by the inmates themselves. This premiere episode introduces some fun characters, including two brothers who ended up as cellmates and nearly drove each other out of their minds. I’m also rather endeared by Earlonne Woods’ resistance to his non-incarcerated co-host’s attempts to apply relationship metaphors to cellmates. He ought to know what metaphors are and aren’t apt. This is the most promising addition to Radiotopia since Song Exploder.

The Pitch: “Babyscripts” — Not for me. This has a solid premise that’s basically guaranteed to yield drama: it’s basically Dragons’ Den. But I’m just not interested enough in business to be interested in these kinds of conversations. Worth a shot if you are.

StartUp: “Life After Startup” — A catch-up session with some of the people in previous StartUp episodes. Most notably, we revisit Dating Ring, the company followed in the show’s underrated second season. I really found the ending of that season heartbreaking, so it’s good to know that even though the business didn’t pan out, the founders are living happy lives these days.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining the Internet” — It’s a common refrain among science fiction critics that the internet is the modern technology that the genre failed most egregiously to predict. But this provides a corollary to that view by, in part, bringing Mark Twain into the fold. One highlight of this is hearing the actor who does the readings adopt the personas of their respective authors. I’m especially struck by how similar his Twain is to the genius voice actor that I brought in to do Twain at the end of the last episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast. I guess he’s just a voice that people have a sense of.

In Our Time: “The American Populists” — A pleasingly contentious conversation about the short-lived party that briefly promised to offer a real alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. So no, it’s not about Donald Trump. Trust In Our Time to remind you that history is worth knowing about, and it doesn’t always have to be covered with explicit reference to current events to be relevant.

Love and Radio: “Relevant Questions” — A middling episode of one of the best shows around, so quite good. It’s about the first polygraph operator to speak out against its use. But he’s not straightforwardly heroic, even if he sees himself that way. It’s got a twist that’s done cleverly, in a similar way to the twist in “A Girl of Ivory,” but that’s not a comparison that does this any favours because that episode was a classic. Still, pretty great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Wonder Woman And The Tony Awards” — Okay, I’ll see Wonder Woman. I was kind of going to anyway, in spite of my serious superhero fatigue. This is different. Man, the Tonys seem to have nothing for me this time around.

Radiolab: “The Gondolier” — This is a good story by the standards of recent Radiolab episodes, but I can’t help but hear the Love and Radio episode that could have been. It’s a story about a person who was touted internationally as “Venice’s first female gondolier,” which turned out to be super wrong because he’s a trans man. That last sentence is almost a spoiler, because this episode actually treats Alex, the main character, as a woman for a portion of its duration, in accordance with the reporters’ misunderstanding of his gender identity. The media has traditionally been Alex’s enemy, and this is supposed to provide an antidote to that. I’m not at all the person to judge how it succeeds at that, but I do feel like this is a case where the Love and Radio approach of cutting out the reporter’s voice altogether would be useful. I’d love to hear the version of this story that’s just Alex telling his own story. But Radiolab’s gonna Radiolab, so we have to have a certain amount of ponderous processing and deconstruction. It’s fine.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide” — One of the things I really like about Home of the Brave is that Scott Carrier will sometimes release one of these brief missives in between proper radio projects. I sympathize with his inability to talk to people who disagree with him right now, but I admire his decision to give it another go.

Fresh Air: “Jay Z” — An old interview, from just after the release of Decoded. Terry Gross sounds slightly uncomfortable interviewing Jay Z because she kind of thinks he’s sexist. But Jay is charming and indulgent, even if he does get super defensive when Gross actually brings up sexism. Mostly a very good interview.

This American Life: “Say Anything” — The bulk of this is taken up by a tape that a guy made for his suicidal friend, without ever intending for it to end up on radio. It’s very affecting. But the real highlight is a list of fears written by a developmentally disabled man. It is both funny and insightful. A cameo from Jonathan Goldstein is always appreciated as well.

Fresh Air: “Roxane Gay” — A marvellous interview about Gay’s new book, which sounds like a deeply insightful, really rough read. She’s one of those articulate people you’ve just got to be thankful for.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin” — To some extent, this is shameless self-promotion for GLOW, the new show he’s in. But it sounds like a really great show, and I’m always in for an Alison Brie interview. She is completely charming. I didn’t realize that I knew Betty Gilpin, but her American Gods performance is really hilarious and the way she describes it as a wilful misunderstanding of the tone of the whole show is amazing. A good listen.

It’s Been A Minute: “Hey Y’all” — I’m reservedly excited about this. I love Sam Sanders. He’s always been one of my favourite guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour and I miss him on the NPR Politics Podcast. I just hope it doesn’t keep explaining ordinary idioms like “it’s been a minute” to me.

Sampler: “Introducing The Nod!” — Thank god Gimlet found something for Brittany Luse to do. She’s brilliant, and she was always above Sampler. Looking forward.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Sofia Coppola” — This has its moments, and Maron clearly admires and understands Coppola’s filmmaking. But did he have to talk about her dad so much? Surely she’s sick of that. In any case, Sofia Coppola is a genius and I can’t wait to see The Beguiled.

99% Invisible: “You Should Do A Story” — A roundup of miscellaneous stories that didn’t become full episodes. It’s worth hearing for a few simple descriptions of household design solutions from specific places.

The Heart: “Doing Time” — I heard an interview with Kaitlin Prest on a great podcast I don’t review called The Imposter where she said that the launch of Ear Hustle and the themed episodes Radiotopia did for its launch resulted in a hurried finish to the “No” season, which doesn’t actually come off in the last episode, but it sucks. In any case, this brushed-up episode from the back catalogue is perfectly fine.

Code Switch: “What To Make Of Philando Castile’s Death, One Year Later” — This won’t help you process the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer, but it does feature an interview with a friend of Castile’s that is heartbreaking.  

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Pardon Power” — Is this presidency really so unprecedented that we’re entertaining the notion that a sitting president could pardon himself? Guys this is not normal.

The Gist: “Scaachi Koul on Surviving the Trolls” — Scaachi Koul is one of the funniest and best writers about sexism and racism. If you don’t read her on Buzzfeed, what are you even doing. I’m really looking forward to reading her book. This interview isn’t one of Mike Pesca’s best moments, but it is plenty good on Koul’s part. He gets all tone policey and she doesn’t let him get away with it. Satisfying in a way.

StartUp: “How To Invent A New Sport” — This is about a guy who made a new version of basketball. The best part is the story of a pitch meeting in China. Listen for that alone.

The Gist: “Do Radicals Change the World?” — Jeremy McCarter is familiar to me from the Hamiltome, but this new book doesn’t sound like something I’ll especially enjoy. I’ll take China Mieville’s 1917 book, thanks. He’s got no doubts that radicals change the world.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “GLOW And Lena Waithe” — Hmm, here are two shows that make me wish there was more time in a day. I’m finding it hard to commit to the idea of watching GLOW and Master of None. The former has a bunch of people I love involved, but I’m not sold on the hype. And Master of None sounds like it’s got a slow first season and a killer second. That’s a stumbling block. You’d never think it from reading this blog sometimes, but I’ve got to be judicious in my choices. Even I only have so much time to allot to this stuff.

It’s Been A Minute: “Likes Don’t Matter” — I don’t know how to feel about this. Part of me wants to think that it’ll find its legs, but it’s also totally clear that this has been given dry run after dry run, so it’s already got a fair bit of mileage behind it. Sam Sanders is one of the cleverest, most magnetic people at NPR. But this feels kind of forcedly colloquial to me. I liked Sanders a lot on the NPR Politics Podcast, where they had a mandate to really get into the grains of it, because Sanders was the guy who could inject a bit of air into the proceedings. He was as good at talking politics as the rest of the panel, but also funnier. In a less explicitly focussed situation, I’m not sure what to make of him anymore. I’ll keep listening, because I really do think he’s great. But I have reservations.

Beef And Dairy Network: “Gareth Belge” — Ahh, I like this. I like this show a lot. This features a hilarious segment about how cows act as body doubles for actors more than you’d know. That’s this show in a nutshell. Beautiful.

Mogul: Episodes 1 & 2 — I resisted this at first because it came out initially on Spotify, and I’m dead set against windowing in the podcast world. But I had to hear this story. It is magical. It is the story of Chris Lighty, the powerful hip hop executive: how he rose to prominence and how he died. Combat Jack hosts (going by his birth name here, Reggie Ossé), and he brings a level of expertise on this topic that probably nobody else in the world could top. The joy of listening to this is not just in the character-driven story of Lighty, nor is it even in the brilliantly rendered history of hip hop’s evolution. It’s in Ossé’s intense engagement with the material. I’ve always known somebody would make a podcast like this sometime — a show that deals with the history of music in a story-driven, audio rich way. Song Exploder isn’t quite it. This is it. I’ve been waiting for this. If you have any interest at all in hip hop or in knowing something about the music of the last forty years, check this out. It’s a beautiful thing. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of June 11, 2017)

It strikes me that we’ve got a few new readers since the radio segment started. (Listen for another one coming up this weekend!) So, I figured it might be a good time to casually restate the premise of this blog.

Basically, I write discursive blurbs, which I charitably refer to as reviews, about every podcast episode, album, movie, comic, short story, novel, nonfiction book, television episode, concert, art exhibit, feature article, comedy special and video game that passes through my life. The idea was to put all of my unformed thoughts about the massive amount of media I consume into one easily avoidable place so that I wouldn’t feel compelled to talk so damn constantly. Didn’t work. But I’m having fun, and now I’m doing this on the radio also!

I have a few tentative guidelines for myself that I established at the start of this project. I generally don’t review:

  • Stuff made by people I know, or people who people I know know. I’m doing this for fun, not to make my life awkward.
  • Fragments. If I listen to a single song on the way to the grocery store, no. If I listen to a whole album walking home from work, yes. If I watch a John Oliver segment on YouTube, no. If I watch a full episode of Last Week Tonight, yes.
  • Blog posts/articles/essays etc. This accounts for a lot of what I read in any given week. But actually reviewing that stuff seems needlessly far down the rabbit hole, even for me.

For things that will take me more than a week to get through (i.e. books and games), I’ll give them a mention when I start them, review them when I’m finished them, and give updates periodically in between. That’s unless the book or game breaks down logically, like episodic games or collections of short stories. In that case, I’ll review each part. Also, in the event of binging on anything serialized (esp. TV and podcasts), I will often cover multiple episodes in one review. You’ll see a lot of that in this week’s podcasts section, because I had fallen behind on a few favourites.

Not everything I review will be new, nor will it all even be new to me. I revisit old favourites as frequently or more than I seek out new favourites — especially where music’s concerned. But I’ll only review something in an Omnireviewer post once. Subsequent revisitations will occur anonymously.

Finally, none of what I’ve said above constitutes “rules.” By which I mean: I reserve the right to break them at my convenience.

Other things you should know: I also post my reviews on Tumblr, where they come with better formatting, videos, audio embeds, links, and all that good stuff. But every Sunday I gather all of the week’s reviews here, where I sort by medium but leave them as austere walls of text. So, pick your poison. The Sunday omnibus posts are also the home of my picks of the week. I award two of these per week, one to a podcast and one to something else. (This is the rule that I break most frequently. Sometimes I can’t help awarding three.)

Finally, consider this your one and only spoiler warning. I am categorically against the idea of spoiler warnings, because I’m dubious on the idea that it’s possible to spoil something. (I am overstating my case for effect. But only by a little.) In general, I’m told that these reviews are more valuable to those who are already invested in the thing in question. So, I tend to spoil away, in the interest of parsing my own reactions to what I’ve seen. I promise if there’s ever something that is obviously better unspoilt, I will not spoil it. But I can only think of a handful of examples. You’ve been warned.

This week, we’ve got 28 reviews, including a gigantic podcast catch-up (this is how you know I’ve been running a lot), two weeks’ worth of television (I shamefully didn’t finish my reviews last week) a bit of literature, and an odyssey through the music of Tool, who I also saw live on Thursday. Let’s start with Tool, shall we?

Music

Tool: Lateralus — With this, possibly only my second or third ever full listen to Lateralus, I am properly excited to see Tool live. That’s happening in three days, as I write this. There’s no good reason why I haven’t listened to this album more. 10,000 Days was my way into Tool, and I didn’t get around to anything else by them until near the tail end of my first metal phase. So, Lateralus has gotten short shrift from me in spite of being objectively much better than 10,000 Days and generally one of the best metal albums ever. Tool sounds unlike any other metal band, and not just for the reasons that get trotted out endlessly, like the odd time signatures — though they are a few levels odder than most prog metal bands’ metric adventures. Tool sounds different because there’s a transparency to the way they write for and record their instruments. This is heavy music, and it has its moments of crushing chords and big loud climaxes. But in general, Tool’s music is made up of four distinct musical lines being performed by four musicians with the highest possible premium placed on clarity. Every decision that went into this record — from the choices of guitar and bass tones (fairly restrained, in general) to Adam Jones’s preference for melodic lines over chords in the guitar, to the way that Maynard James Keenan’s voice is mixed so you can understand every word — demonstrates a commitment to clarity above all else. That’s rare, if not unique in heavy metal. The result is metal that beckons you to come to it, rather than bowling you over with an unavoidable flood of sound. (My favourite metal band, Opeth, can serve as a useful corollary. Blackwater Park is a flood of a record, if ever I’ve heard one.) Lateralus is an overwhelming album, but it isn’t overwhelming in a visceral way. It isn’t Mahler symphony overwhelming. It’s intellectually overwhelming, like listening to Glenn Gould play Bach. There really is something Baroque about Tool, and I don’t mean “baroque” in the sense of it meaning “needlessly complicated.” What I mean is that, like the artists of the Baroque, Tool seems to strive towards a rational ideal of beauty that provokes an intense emotional response from having been so perfectly wrought. The title track is the obvious apex of this, given its famous reliance on the Fibonacci sequence, which is associated with the Golden Mean, and therefore beauty itself. Throw in lyrics that touch on alchemical themes of boundless self-improvement and you’ve got one of the most classically ambitious metal songs ever. This ties in with something that has surprised me in my recent rediscovery of the last two Tool records: they constantly undermine their image as a band obsessed with the dark and grotesque. Sure, there are lyrics and videos that support that notion of the band. But Lateralus is a striving, nearly celebratory record in a lot of places — a piece of art that seeks to find the best way to be human, and through its intense discipline, demonstrates one possible answer. Even in a song with a title like “Schism,” the key line is “I know the pieces fit.” That’s very hopeful. And if they undermine themselves through striving and celebration on Lateralus, they do it again on 10,000 Days with intimacy. The “Wings for Marie” songs are as human as anything in this genre. I feel as though Tool is falling into place for me at the perfect moment. This is going to be a good concert. But I’ve still got some cramming to do, because I haven’t heard any of the early stuff at all.

Tool: Ænima — After the fawning encomium I just wrote about Lateralus, it kind of sucks to come back to this, which is a very good album that I’d be super happy to hear some stuff from at tomorrow’s concert. But it’s definitely not Lateralus. One of the downsides of writing about everything you watch, read and listen to is that you get really good at intellectualizing specifically why you like something. And I determined that the thing that sets Lateralus apart and makes it a metal album that I would put in my top tier of metal albums is its clarity and transparency — and also its latent hopefulness. Realizing that and framing it in writing makes it difficult not to judge other Tool albums by those incredibly specific standards, which is a terrible way to judge anything and basically means that I’m no longer taking non-Lateralus Tool albums on their own terms. So, listening to Ænima and finding it to be a level louder, more distorted, more opaque and more cynical was naturally disappointing. But I think it’ll grow on me. I’m already fairly fond of “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2” and “Third Eye.” Though, in the case of the latter, I could do without Bill Hicks. I really don’t like Bill Hicks, because he thought that having a point was the same as having a joke. And that ties in with the one thing I really don’t think will ever grow on me about Ænima, which is the smugness of it. Maynard Keenan is extremely convinced of his moral rectitude, here. He spends a lot of time putting down people that aren’t him. I prefer him in learning and growing mode. This is a solid, and extremely ambitious metal album, but its magnificent successor doesn’t do it any favours.

Tool: Opiate — In an effort to effectively cram for tomorrow evening’s Tool concert without ruining the setlist for myself, I looked at the setlist.fm entry for their latest show, and scrolled past the actual setlist as fast as I could to just see the album breakdown. Looks like it won’t be an issue that I’ve never heard Undertow, but this even earlier EP will surprisingly be represented. I’d say it’s more promising than good, but hearing them play music from this alongside stuff from Lateralus and 10,000 Days is going to be awesome.

Live events

Tool: Live at Rogers Arena — I’ve deliberately left some time between this concert and this review, because I wanted to avoid having the post-concert glow affect my assessment. Let’s begin with some general observations. Firstly, Tool puts on an amazing show. The musicianship is second-to-none, and the spectacle is Pink Floyd calibre. In fact, this show made a case for Tool being the closest thing to a modern-day Pink Floyd. (The standard point of comparison between Tool and classic prog rock tends to be the mathy, mid-70s output of King Crimson. But the spectacle, psychedelia, catharsis and mood painting of their live show evokes a hybrid of Pink Floyd’s Wall period and their pre-Dark Side avant-guardism. All fed through the lens of heavy metal, of course.) Through the course of the show, I found myself switching back and forth between concentrating on the details of the music and just getting lost in the H.R. Giger-in-the-summer-of-love visuals that were projected onto the vast screen behind the band. I’m sure there are those who feel like this kind of spectacle is a cop-out and that bands like Tool should just grow some charisma. But this is a band whose lead singer has taken lately to standing in the darkness at the back of the stage and never emerging from the shadows. Watching the band themselves is clearly not supposed to be the point of this show. (For what it’s worth, it was never the point of a Pink Floyd show, either.) The setlist was basically pretty solid. I confess that I enjoyed the material from Aenima a lot more in a live setting. They even solved the biggest problem with “Third Eye” by excising Bill Hicks altogether. That made it substantially less smug than its studio counterpart, and it turned out to be one of the best songs of the night. I would have liked to hear more from Lateralus. They started the show with a triple shot from that album: “The Grudge,” followed by “Parabol/Parabola” and “Schism.” But they didn’t return to it afterwards. I would have really loved to hear the title track, and maybe “The Patient.” But we did at least get two of the best songs from 10,000 Days, a very underrated record in my opinion. “Jambi” is one of my two or three favourite Tool songs, and has been since it came out when I was sixteen. It was massively cathartic to hear it live, even if Maynard James Keenan’s voice did give out in the middle of a line. He’s getting older, but he still sounds great. It would have been nice to have him a bit higher in the mix, but given his onstage place in the shadows, I wouldn’t want to impinge on the whole self-abnegating thing he’s got going on. “The Pot” gave an opportunity to hear him a bit more clearly, and even though it’s been transposed down, it was still a powerful vocal performance. (And it was fun to remember the summer I spent stocking shelves on the night shift of a grocery store, when “The Pot” would be the only song that ever came on the radio that I liked.) But the aural portion of the evening really belonged to the instrumental trio. Danny Carey is a godlike drummer. His solo, backed by a ⅞ arpeggio pattern on a modular synth he just happened to have on hand, was one of the grooviest, most musical parts of the evening. And the frontline of guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor is less like a lead/accompaniment relationship than like the two hands of a pianist playing a Bach fugue. The show’s second half was needlessly brief; they needn’t have taken an intermission. (Though its twelve-minute duration, marked by a countdown clock projected on the screen, seemed pleasantly arbitrary.) But this is quibble territory. Again, Tool puts on a great show. Allow me a broader observation: there were a whoooole lot of dudebros at this concert. Which is not to say that there were no women. Women represented a small but enthusiastic component of the audience. But there was a particular type of dude who seemed prevalent at this concert that I didn’t see so many of at the other metal concerts I’ve been to, which were both Opeth concerts. I’m talking about rowdy dudes. Drunk, shouting dudes. There were people who were drunk and shouting at the Opeth concerts too. (Full disclosure, I got kicked out of one of those before Opeth even started, for being under 18 and standing in the wrong place.) But I got the sense that there are a lot of introverts at Opeth concerts, and that’s their release. The vibe at the Tool show was a lot different. It was kind of aggro. Not aggressive. Just aggro. There’s a difference. I get the vague sense that there were probably people at that show who really love Richard Dawkins and really hate feminists. The presence, real or imagined, of this kind of people at the show made for a moment of cognitive dissonance for me. I had somehow expected Tool fans to be quiet, thoughtful people because the Tool music that I love the most (Lateralus and 10,000 Days) is thoughtful music, the aggression of which belies a deeper commitment to discipline and contemplation. But the Tool fans I observed at this show were a mix of Lateralus personified (these folks are not unlike the Opeth fans) and Aenima personified. Aenima, while undeniably accomplished, is not a record I especially identify with. And I couldn’t help but think as I looked around me, heard snippets of conversation, and realized that the one woman seated in the row in front of me had seemingly been forced out of her seat, that Aenima might not be a great album to have in your DNA. Aenima has many sides, and it reveals a different side of itself on every listen. But one of its sides is smug, self-righteous pseudo-intellectual, dudebro stoner rock. Concerts have a way of making you step outside your own idiosyncratic relationship with a given piece of music. They have a way of making you hear music through the ears of others. And sometimes it doesn’t sound as good that way. Maybe that’s why I don’t go to many concerts. I really do prefer to think of music as a thing that only exists in my own head. That way it can be anything I want. Solipsism aside, this was a great show.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” — A masterpiece. I’m hard-pressed not to say that this is my favourite Borges story I’ve read so far, but I won’t go that far. The only reason for that is I definitely need to read it again, because it is both longer and denser than any other Borges story I’ve read. Where my other favourite Borges story, “The Library of Babel,” is basically one self-contained thought experiment, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is several thought experiments shoved into one incredible story. Most notably, of course, there’s the idea of a civilization that so radically adheres to Berkeleyan idealism that they deny the existence of empirical reality. This big thought experiment leads to many smaller contentions, my favourite of which is the idea that, for this civilization, groups of things don’t come in specific amounts — they only acquire amounts once they’ve been counted by somebody. But there’s more to this than just that one thought experiment. There’s also the idea that if a cadre of people invented a fictional country or planet with enough detail, it could actually come into being. (I especially like the way Borges relates this to the origins of Rosicrucianism, which apparently owes its existence to an older, fictional order of that same name.) Those two ideas are basically the same idea, actually: ideas are potentially more powerful than empirical reality. The ending of this story, which I won’t spoil because it’s amazing and I want everybody to go read this, really drives that home. It’s hard to believe that this was written in 1940 — Borges has effectively predicted the world of alternative facts and the sense of unreality in which we currently live. Pick of the week.

Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III & Dave Stewart: The Sandman: Overture — It has been long enough since I read the original run of Sandman that I can’t reliably say how this stacks up against it. What I will say is this: on Gaiman’s part, it is a big ambitious story that I enjoyed very much. But the star of this collection is J.H. Williams III, whose art is maybe the most astonishing comic art I’ve ever seen. I haven’t actually encountered him before, though I’ve meant to read Promethea for ages. At no point in this book is there a page with anything resembling a conventional panel layout. The story is told through dense, fluid drawings that take up full pages, folding time and space into each other in a more dreamlike fashion than I remember any artist managing in the original run of Sandman. The worlds of Sandman: Overture are full of impossible staircases, cities made of light, and non-linear time. (There’s also a fabulous riff on the gatefold design of the Dark Side of the Moon album cover.) Gaiman’s real accomplishment here is just giving Williams the seeds of ideas for crazy stuff to draw. It is visual storytelling of an incredibly virtuosic standard. Don’t read it if you haven’t read the rest of Sandman. But it’s definitely another reason why you should read Sandman if you haven’t.

Television

American Gods: “A Murder of Gods” — So hey, America sucks. It really does! One of the things I’m loving about American Gods is how little patriotism there is in it. I actually like Neil Gaiman’s more pro-America passages in the novel, because they’re always about rinky-dink, out-of-the-way bits of Americana like roadside attractions and diner food. But the time has come and gone for Gaimanesque whimsy in tales of modern America. Bryan Fuller and Michael Green know this well, so they created a new version of Vulcan, the god of fire. And through him, they offer an extremely blunt but completely identifiable critique of American militarism and gun culture, with a side order of labour exploitation. It’s a fantastic sequence, and it resonates nicely with the brutal opening of the episode, in which immigrants crossing the border are gunned down by vigilantes whose weapons bear the inscription “Thy kingdom come.” Another great addition to the show’s cast: Jesus. Best of all, the most notable thing he does in this episode is die. Clever. Don’t worry, I have a feeling he’ll be back. I’m not sure this episode works for me as well as “The Secret of Spoons” or “Git Gone” on a scene-by-scene basis. But it might be the most focussed episode of the series so far, thematically. This is an episode about prayer: the reasons people do it, what people get out of it, and what the gods they pray to get out of it. Prayers to Vulcan are particularly disturbing at this point. (“Every bullet fired in a crowded movie theater is a prayer in my name. And that prayer makes them want to pray even harder.”) But this show’s attitude towards faith is not wholly critical. We unexpectedly meet Salim again in this episode, and his attitude towards prayer is one of the more beautiful and uncynical sentiments in the show. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the relationships between Salim, Laura and Mad Sweeney evolve. Last week, I noted that it was a good idea to have Laura and Sweeney in a scene together. This week confirms that, indeed, it is a good idea to have them share an entire plotline. And making Salim a series regular, and the third in their motley posse, can only be good. This show. I tell ya.

Doctor Who: “Empress of Mars” — Okay, I mean, it has problems. The Doctor’s plan to crash the ice cap down on everybody is total nonsense, and I’m a little miffed that a character got to say something to the effect of “Hey, don’t judge British imperialism on the basis of one bad apple!” But basically this is a fun, silly story of exactly the sort I tend to dislike in really good seasons, but which seems to be what I’m into this year. I like the Victrola horn on the Victorian spacesuits. I like how dumb and B-movie-like they continue allowing the Ice Warriors to be. I don’t really like much else, but it was fun watching this dance in front of my eyes for an hour. Evidently, my standards are dropping. By Gatiss’s standards, it’s fine. Take from that what you will.

American Gods: “A Prayer For Mad Sweeney” — Beautiful. Here’s the point where the makers of American Gods finally focus in on the sweetest moment of Gaiman’s novel, thus producing a marvellous corollary to last week’s particularly dark and cynical instalment of American Gods. This contains maybe the most outwardly pro-American utterance in the show so far: the idea that in America, you can be whoever you want. It’s a statement that has an element of truth in it, and is all the same pleasantly simple to problematize. Thankfully, even in its more charitable moments, American Gods maintains its troubled attitude with the country at its heart. I’ve been asserting for weeks that this show is surpassing its source material, and I continue to think so. However, the one thing that Neil Gaiman always brings to the table that Bryan Fuller does not is a sort of heartstring-tugging expressiveness. Think of Dream’s wake in Sandman, basically any random page in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or “I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and ran away.” American Gods, the novel, has less of this than much of Gaiman’s work, but the segment about Essie Tregowan, the clever Irish woman who uses her wits and her abiding belief in the Irish legends of the fairyfolk to make her way in America, is the one moment in the novel that reflects that side of Gaiman. It is a beautiful story, with a heartstopping ending. Fuller, Michael Green and screenwriter Maria Melnik need not really do much with the story to make it resonate in exactly the way it does in the book. But of course, they do make alterations, because they’re pros who don’t mind working for their living. And the changes made do generally fall under the category of “Bryan Fuller complicated formalism.” But the formal idea at the core of this adaptation — the Essie Tregowan story is also the story of Mad Sweeney’s arrival in America, and the relationship between those characters resonates through time with the relationship between Sweeney and Laura — actually heightens the emotional resonance of Gaiman’s powerful original. Pablo Schreiber’s Sweeney gets to take this opportunity to reflect on the way that his present-day travelling companion is in some way connected, if only in his own head, to the brave woman who believed in him centuries earlier. Which, of course, complicates the fact that he was responsible for her death. The moment where we see Sweeney decide to resurrect Laura, voluntarily giving up the lucky coin that’s his whole reason for travelling with her to begin with, is one of the best in the series so far. So is the moment right after that, where Laura punches him and sends him flying. This is Emily Browning’s best episode so far, with her double-casting as both Essie (renamed “MacGowan,” for some reason) and Laura showing her range, but also the distinct personality she’s drawing on in this show. It was a good decision to leave the other main characters out of this episode altogether. There’s no Shadow here, and Wednesday is only around by implication: Sweeney talks to his messenger crows. Ian McShane would needlessly take up oxygen in this episode if he were in it. But, to its credit, this episode picks two characters and runs with them. Even Selim gets dismissed at the start of the episode, so we can really focus on Laura/Essie and Sweeney. (But given where Selim’s off to, I’m sure we’ll see him again.) This is, by my estimation, the third stone cold classic episode of this show, which is only seven episodes old. A couple of final notes: for those fascinated by the character of Mad Sweeney, I highly recommend Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s a complicated, many-headed beast of a novel, but one of the many things going on in it is an interpolation of O’Brien’s own English adaptation of Buile Shuibhne, the old Irish tale in which Sweeney first appears. At Swim-Two-Birds bears comparison to American Gods in the sense that it also explores the impact, or lack of impact, of old stories on contemporary life. And both novels choose Mad Sweeney as one of their points of reference. Also, here is the start of a whack-a-doo theory. This episode uses the song “Runaround Sue” by Dion, which is a fantastic song, first of all. What a voice. It’s also the lesser known single of a singer known for a song called “The Wanderer.” “The Wanderer” is also a moniker for Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle. (Wotan is the Germanization of Odin.) I dunno where I’m going with this. But if Dion makes another musical appearance, I daresay it’ll be with respect to Mr. Wednesday, and it’ll be “The Wanderer.”

Better Call Saul: “Slip” & “Fall” — “Slip” is an endgame preparation episode without any particularly outstanding scenes. It’s nice to see Jimmy threaten to sue the guy who keeps refusing him his community service hours, but that’s a fairly straightforward play without any of the specific manipulative genius that makes watching his best schemes so much fun. And while I appreciate the time taken to build suspense for Nacho’s switch-up of Don Hector’s pills, this plotline is ever so slightly straining my credulity at this point. I can always get behind a byzantine Jimmy scheme because it’s part of his personality. And Mike’s schemes usually have an elegant simplicity to them. But “scheming Nacho” is a difficult thing to pin down, and around the time he disconnects the restaurant’s AC, I started to think maybe this was going a little too far down the rabbit hole. But “Fall” recovers completely. It does this amazing thing where it has one scene involving Kim, a car, and the audience’s sudden and intense anxiety — but then, nothing bad happens. And then it invokes the same combination at the end of the episode, in a basically unrelated situation with no cause/effect relationship with the earlier car mishap, and pays it off. It’s a weird sort of half-application of the Chekhov’s gun principle. That sustained sense of dread that something’s going to happen to Kim is excruciating. She’s probably the TV character that I’m most emotionally invested in. This position that the writers have consistently put her in, where she does everything right but she’s at constant risk of being pulled off the rails by the people around her is such a good source of tension, and Rhea Seehorn is consistently incredible. Also, sometimes I’m not sure I’m supposed to love Howard as much as I do, but I definitely still love Howard. I love how willing he is to think people will be reasonable, even when all of the evidence suggests that they are innately unreasonable people. The scene of him starting to plan Chuck’s retirement party before he’s even opened the envelope he wrongly assumes contains Chuck’s resignation is a magnificent penny drop moment, because we as the audience know Chuck well enough to realize that Howard is wrong before he does. Also, back on the subject of byzantine schemes, I don’t think this show has ever come up with anything on the level of Jimmy’s manipulation of poor Irene. The whole sequence of this adorable old granny becoming isolated gradually is somehow the funniest thing Better Call Saul has ever done.

The Simpsons: “Itchy and Scratchy and Marge” — A classic. This is one of my favourite Simpsons episodes because it’s such a wonderful bit of metafiction. It’s ostensibly a parody of the idea that cartoons (and television more broadly) can exert a negative influence on children — a criticism that The Simpsons came in for in spades during the Bartmania of 1990. (As below, so above. I’ll elaborate on next weekend’s NXNW segment.) And it certainly demonstrates why violence and conflict are necessary for good TV storytelling (the declawed Itchy and Scratchy segment is one of the episode’s best moments). But it goes further than that. This episode could have just stopped at the contention that television requires an unsavoury element to be compelling. But instead, it goes on to suggest that a world without compelling television might actually be better. Speaking as a person who has reviewed five-and-a-half hours of television so far this week (and more to come), I wonder if maybe that’s true. Certainly, the very best part of this episode is the sequence in which Springfield’s bleary-eyed children step away from their screens and reintegrate with the real, tangible world in front of them. This isn’t even played for laughs. It’s just a beautiful mini-ballet, scored with Beethoven’s sixth. That segment is the lynchpin of the episode for me. The episode’s critique of censorship, its discussion of what constitutes art and what you should be able to show on television is all beautifully undermined by the idea that maybe we put too much emphasis on those questions anyway, and we should probably just go outside — children and compulsive bloggers alike. I might even take my own advice. But first I’ve got Twin Peaks to review.

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces — Alright, one more thing before I move on to the new series. I only just learned of the existence of this meticulously constructed collection of outtakes from Fire Walk With Me. And while “outtakes from Fire Walk With Me” might not sound like a promising premise, I actually enjoyed watching this disjointed set of barely related scenes more than I enjoyed Fire Walk With Me. It actually feels a lot more like Twin Peaks than Fire Walk With Me does. That’s partially because it actually features the bulk of the returning cast, whose scenes were largely cut from the movie. But it’s also because it shares television’s tendency to juggle plotlines and throw unrelated scenes one after the other. Fire Walk With Me is very much a movie, focussing first on the Theresa Banks investigation, and then the final days of Laura Palmer. The movie is so focussed on these two stories that the stuff that doesn’t pertain to either of them but still made the final cut (e.g. the infamously confusing scene with David Bowie as Phillip Jeffries) really feel like they shouldn’t be there. But The Missing Pieces fleshes out the narratives that were only tantalizingly suggested in the original movie, particularly where Bowie’s character is concerned, and also with respect to Agent Cooper’s status in the Black Lodge. The “sequel” element of Fire Walk With Me was always subjugated to the “prequel” element. The Missing Pieces shifts the needle ever so slightly in the other direction, setting up what I assume will be the starting point of the new series, albeit with the passage of 25 years. And while the continuity-heavy stuff is the real highlight, it’s also well worth watching The Missing Pieces for the smaller moments. The stuff involving Truman, Andy, Hawk and Lucy never really gets off the ground, but that’s really the only stuff that isn’t great. There’s some lovely stuff with Norma and Ed. There are a few extra scenes for Kiefer Sutherland’s overeager toehead, who I really enjoy. (He even gets to meet Coop, who is unimpressed as all get out.) There’s an extended scene with Frank Silva and Michael J. Anderson as BOB and the Man From Another Place, just being creepy and laughing backwards. And best of all, there’s some incredible moments with the Palmers. Sarah’s constant smoking causes her a hilariously choreographed problem in one of the best mother/daughter scenes in the movie. And best of all, there’s a scene where Leland tries to teach his wife and daughter to introduce themselves in Norwegian, ending in the whole family laughing hysterically, in a way that’s both genuine and creepy in a way that only David Lynch can conjure out of actors. I love Grace Zabriskie so much in this scene. The say she makes Sarah sort of half try to say her name with a Norwegian accent just kills me. Basically, this seems like it should be the definition of superfluous. But it’s super not. For all its inevitable disjointedness, this is top-flight Twin Peaks, on par with the good parts of the TV series and superior to the movie from which these scenes are outtakes.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 1 & 2 — Wow, Bob, wow. I know that I absolutely loved this, but I have no idea what to make of it. The fact that it spends most of its duration on new characters in places that aren’t Twin Peaks is both gutsy and a bit of a callback to the less successful elements of Fire Walk With Me. And the fact that Kyle McLaughlin is primarily being tapped to play Coop’s evil doppelganger and the taciturn version of good Cooper who appears in the Red Room is, at this point, making me long for the return of the cheery version of that character we know and love. But I’m burying the lead, which is that Twin Peaks in 2017 WORKS. David Lynch can still direct, and it is possible to convey the alienating strangeness of the original series’ best moments in the context of modern prestige television. The surreal elements are what’s working best for me as of yet, with the sequence in the Red Room with the electric arm tree (if ever there were a way to compensate for the absence of Michael J. Anderson, it is this) and its doppelganger emerging as an early highlight. But I’m going to reserve judgement about this, because it’s holding its cards so close to its chest that I basically have nothing to say about it yet. Except that it’s good and that I’m entirely willing to contemplate the notion that it will be straightforwardly the best iteration of Twin Peaks we’ve seen so far. If you’re farther along than me, don’t tell me otherwise. Please.

Doctor Who: “The Eaters of Light” — A modest highlight of a middling season. It is kind of remarkable that this is the first time in the new series’ history that a classic writer has been invited back. But Rona Munro is a good choice, given that her first Doctor Who story turned out to be the very last Doctor Who story until the TV movie. And what a story it was! “Survival” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine, from a period in the show’s history that I wish more new fans would check out. It’s a high bar to clear, even given the extent to which the general standard of Doctor Who has risen in the new series. And I’m inclined to think that it does not clear that bar. But that’s not what anybody should be concentrating on. We should think about what it is, not what it isn’t. And what it is is a story about a light-eating alien monster that inserts itself into the story of the massacre of the Ninth Legion. That is a thing that only Doctor Who can do, and it is the sort of thing that makes me remember that Doctor Who is always a good idea and always has been, even during the bits of its history where it isn’t quite so inspiring. Still, big ‘splody Moffat story coming up! My hopes are undimmed.

Podcasts

Code Switch binge — One of my periodic catch-up sessions. I listened to the one about Master of None (which is sounding distressingly like a show I need to make time for), one about the Japanese Americans who effectively exiled themselves to Utah to avoid the internment camps during WWII, a fascinating episode on what the hosts call racial imposter syndrome, and best of all, an episode about the way that white DJs have co-opted black identities for various bullshit reasons. This last episode is actually maybe the best episode of Code Switch. Maybe I’m just saying that because I’m a music geek and I’m really interested in how something as abstract as sound can come to mean very specific things. But this is probably one of the best pieces of music journalism I’ve encountered in the last year or more. And I consume a metric boatload of the stuff. That episode is called “Give it Up For DJ Blackface!” Extremely worth your time.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Real Twin Peaks” & “Do the Voice” — Eric Molinsky’s Twin Peaks episode is interesting enough, but it’s not subject matter that he’s able to wring the best material out of, like Harry Potter or H.P. Lovecraft were. On the other hand, his audio drama collaboration with The Truth, “Do the Voice,” is pretty marvellous. I’ve always been dubious about The Truth. I admire its tendency towards experimentation, and I love that its short-form stories allow it to be a bit of a storytelling laboratory. But I just never like the writing. Surprisingly, Molinsky has turned out one of the best scripts I’ve heard on The Truth, in spite of not being primarily a fiction writer, to my knowledge. It helps that the premise of the episode is based on a cartoon show, which allows for a certain amount of contrivance in the dialogue. Worth a listen.

Crimetown: Post-season bonus episodes — The episode about the soundtrack is worth it specifically to hear Rosaleen Eastman’s awesome cover of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” in full. The live episode is fun, but in general I’m still suspicious of this show’s attitude towards the charm of gangsters and the charisma of the life. We do get one moment in there where a former gangster explains how his family background led him down the pipeline to a life of crime. But there’s a disconcerting sense here, and throughout Crimetown, that regardless of those circumstances, these ex-mobsters’ recollections of their tenures in organized crime are filled with wistfulness and nostalgia as much as regret for the lives they ruined — or ended. I’m not okay with that. But it is finally addressed in the bonus episode about Ralph DiMasi, an armoured car robber in the Patriarca crime organization who the producers allow to reminisce fondly about his crimes in front of the microphone, only to undercut him with an interview of one of his victim’s wives. If Crimetown season one had been that circumspect all the time, I’d be more likely to tune in for season two. As it stands… jury’s out.

The Heart: “No,” episodes 2-4 — This is some pretty brave radio, right here. The Heart is always intimate, and it always pushes against the boundaries of social taboos, but in this series, Kaitlin Prest has exposed her own most uncomfortable, sometimes traumatic moments in the interest of talking about consent. And it isn’t just a piece about the consent breaches that we call rape, or sexual assault. (Though, there’s a really thoughtful discussion in the fourth episode about why somebody might or might not choose to use those labels.) It’s also about the ones that fall into what Prest calls “grey areas.” The third episode is radio that, speaking as a cisgendered straight dude, every man should hear. That’s the one where Prest interviews people, mostly men, who’ve perpetrated consent breaches of one type or another with varying levels of remorse and subsequent understanding. One of these interviews, without going into detail here, is a masterclass in negation and defensive bullshit. It’s good to have a model for how not to be. Listen to the whole series. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “The Radio Lab” — Aww, this is fun. For Radiolab’s 15th birthday, they go right back to the early days of the show. And then they fast-forward to the days that were early but also good. I actually have heard the episode that they play at the end of this — the one they say people probably haven’t heard. I think this may actually be my third time through it, in fact. I tend to be a little hard on Radiolab in these reviews, because I do think it’s a little past its prime. But the reason I hold it to such a high standard is that it was the first radio I ever really listened to, and it blew my mind. I don’t mean the first podcast I ever listened to, by the way. I mean, before I went to grad school for journalism and somebody told me about Radiolab, I’d pretty much never listened to radio in any form. I think it may also have been before I discovered podcatcher apps, so I was listening to the show on my laptop, with huge headphones and a long cord plugged into it on the kitchen table while I did my dishes. (Still how I do a fair amount of my podcast listening.) And while the episode about time may have fallen off of iTunes a while ago, I’m certain that it was on their website when I initially binged the bulk of the back catalogue. And to be perfectly honest, listening back to it now, I like this version of Radiolab better than the one that exists today. I like the sense of untethered curiosity about difficult questions, and I like the bonkers sound design. That old version of Radiolab still feels like mad science. There is even today nothing that sounds like it. On the other hand, it’s hilarious to hear the version of the show that existed before Robert Krulwich joined up. Jad Abumrad sounds ponderous, insufferable, and unbelievably stoned. This is well worth a listen, if only to demonstrate why this show was once the very best in nonfiction audio storytelling.

Memory Palace binge — I could listen to this show forever. This catch-up session found me listening to an episode about the U.S. Camel Corps (which existed), one of Nate DiMeo’s Met residency episodes about a room in the museum that he doesn’t like (which contains the memorable line “If you have to be a floor, be a dance floor”) and a year-later rebroadcast of “A White Horse,” DiMeo’s beautiful tribute to the oldest gay bar in America for the week after the Pulse nightclub shootings. But the highlight of this clump of episodes was “Cipher, or Greenhow Girls,” a story about the Confederate spy Rose O’Neale Greenhow and her daughter. This is one of those episodes where DiMeo isolates and fleshes out a historical character about whom little is known (the daughter, not the mother). It’s quite beautiful, and the last line is breathtaking.

Fresh Air: “David Sedaris,” “Giancarlo Esposito Of ‘Better Call Saul’” and “Former Vice President Joe Biden” — Three great interviews by the radio host that Marc Maron called ”the industry standard.” Esposito is the highlight of the three, if only because interviews with David Sedaris are easy to come by. Hearing about Esposito’s family (his mother sang with Leontyne Price!!!) is really fascinating, and hearing him talk about inventing the character of Gus is maybe even more fascinating. Honestly, it’s just fun to hear him talk out of character. It isn’t just the hint of a Chilean accent that distinguishes Gus’s speech from Esposito’s own — it’s the care and intensity with which every word is spoken. Esposito is not a cold person. Not remotely. This David Sedaris interview sticks out from the pack because of the book he’s promoting, which is a collection of his diaries. So, there’s more of his life even than usual on the table. As for Biden, he’s charming and soulful, but still very much a politician.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Judicial Legitimacy” & “The Appointments Clause and Removal Power” — Okay, so this promises to make the Trump administration a bit less head-spinning, if not any less horrifying. The premise of learning about the constitution through the lens of a president who is challenging it in heretofore unseen ways is a good one for a podcast. I confess some of the details of these first two episodes slipped past me because I was on a particularly tiring run at the time. But I’m legitimately excited about this.

Reply All: “Fog of Covfefe” & “Black Hole, New Jersey” — I think it’s possible that Reply All brings more joy into my life than any other podcast. I just really enjoy listening to Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt talking to each other. Wonder what Sruthi Pinemeneni’s up to? Been awhile since we’ve heard from her, so probably something complicated. In any case, the two hosts can easily fill the time with segments, if need be. “Fog of Covfefe” is a deep dive into the Twitter overdrive that was covfefe night, dressed up as a Yes Yes No. Two notes. One: it’s nice to see that Google Docs, in which I’m currently typing this, still does not recognize covfefe as a word. Yes, language is fluid and subject to serendipity, but there must be standards. Thank you, Google Docs. And two: I’m happy that Yes Yes No still exists after Alex Blumberg’s audible discomfort with being perceived as a Luddite in the phishing episode. “Black Hole, New Jersey” is a somewhat anticlimactic Super Tech Support episode. I still had fun.

All Songs Considered: “Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly And Bryce Dessner On Creating ‘Planetarium’” — Nico Muhly is a really clever guy. He has as much of a handle on what this project is actually about as Sufjan Stevens does, even though Stevens is the guy who had to make it explicit through lyrics. The snippets of the album that are featured here are more promising than what I’d heard previously. Now I’m actually kind of excited to hear it.

Desert Island Discs: “Rick Wakeman” — Rick Wakeman was my first childhood idol. I know, I know, it’s a weird idol to have. But something about the image of a guy with waist-length hair in a sequined cape playing an implausible number of electronic keyboards just made me think “that’s what I want to be.” I even dressed up as him for Halloween. My obsession has abated over the years. With the occasional exception of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, I can’t tolerate any of his solo albums. And his post-Going For The One contributions to Yes have tended to be lukewarm as well, I’d wager. (It’s mostly been live shows, though his digital keyboard sounds do appear on the Keystudio record, and are the worst thing about it.) But I continue to admire Wakeman for his wit and warmth, and there’s plenty of that here. His choices of records are made mostly for autobiographical significance, one suspects, though Verdi’s anvil chorus does seem like something he’d hold up as a musical ideal.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Warriors vs Warriors” — A very short but very lovely story about the Golden State Warriors’ tradition of playing periodic basketball games against the San Quentin Warriors, a team made up of San Quentin inmates. Particularly amusing is a short interview with an inmate who cheers on the Golden State Warriors just for variety.

The Moth: “The Moth’s 20th Anniversary Special” What’s with podcasts and birthdays this week? Anyway, it’s been awhile since I listened to The Moth, but whenever I return to it I’m pleasantly surprised by how entertaining its low-rent premise is. The three stories told here in front of live audiences are all wonderful. I’m particularly fond of the second, told by Jessi Klein, which is about how a breakup became much much more difficult than it would otherwise have been because of Google. It’s funny, she’s funny, and the rest of the episode is fun too.

99% Invisible: “In the Same Ballpark” — Another sports story! But actually it’s an architecture story, so I enjoyed myself just fine.

Omnireviewer (week of May 28, 2017)

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re celebrating a milestone over here at the Parsonage. When I started doing Omnireviewer not quite two years ago, I wrote up the first instalment in a Google doc. The next week, I wrote up the second instalment in that same Google doc. Unexpectedly enough, I’ve just kept adding to that Google doc ever since, and I’ve come to regard it as a symbol of the gradual deterioration of my sanity. So, it is with great pleasure and a certain amount of nervous cackling and muttering to myself that I’d like to announce that as of this week, Omnireviewer has surpassed a quarter of a million words! My Google doc clocks in at 253,023 to be precise. I like to think of those 253,023 words as 253,023 marbles that I used to have. And frankly, good riddance to them.

Anyway, I watched all of Ridley Scott’s Alien movies this week, including the new one, and I’ve reviewed them as a sort of loose essay. So we’ll start with that. If you’d like to read it with paragraph breaks, here you go.

If you’re new here, you’ll quickly notice my aversion to paragraph breaks, which I don’t know if I’ve ever really explained. Basically, I feel like paragraph breaks are dishonest somehow. They imply that there’s some premeditated structure to these reviews, which it’ll be clear to regular readers that there isn’t. This blog is the only thing I’ve ever written where I’m basically content to start from the beginning, put one word in front of another, and just go with whatever results from that. It is something close to stream-of-consciousness. Nothing reflects that like just having every review be a huge, never-ending string of text. I’m gradually distancing myself from that rule over on Tumblr, where I cross-post these reviews for maximum exposure. A few more people see those posts, and given that, I’m willing to entertain the notion that it might not hurt to smooth over some of my more gratuitous tics. But for the time being, I’ll remain committed to them here. I didn’t get to 253,023 words by not sticking to my guns.

19 reviews.

Movies

Alien — So, what do we actually know about the alien in Alien? For one thing, we don’t know to call it a xenomorph, since that word first appears in James Cameron’s Aliens, and probably wasn’t intended as an act of appellation. If we can trust Wikipedia on this, it seems like “xenomorph” wasn’t officially accepted by the franchise until Alien: Covenant, in which the word appears in the credits — though not in the dialogue. So, we didn’t definitively know what to call this thing until series originator Ridley Scott reclaimed Cameron’s accidental nomenclature decades later and made it official. But we’re already ahead of ourselves. The most important thing we learn about the alien in this movie is its life cycle. It starts life as an egg, which unleashes a larval “facehugger” parasite when a live host is nearby, and subsequently births itself from the chest of that host after its parasitic form has finished its work and died. Then, it grows ludicrously quickly into its adult form. The life cycle of the alien is, for all intents and purposes, the plot of Alien. The alien’s growth from egg to adult is the thing that happens to the characters in this movie. There’s a line of thought about Alien which holds that it is a good movie because of its simplicity: it’s basically just a story of a bunch of people trying to survive in a confined space with a monster. This is true, but the life cycle of the alien… isn’t that simple. Even by the standards of the grossest parasitic spores and blind lizards you’ve ever seen in BBC nature documentaries, the alien is weird. And it’s journey to adulthood is byzantine. It doesn’t seem like something that ought to occur in nature. It seems designed — by a screenwriter, perhaps. Or a Swiss surrealist painter, or a vengeful robot. Odd, then, that a film so concerned with the mechanics of its antagonist’s life cycle should leave out the factor that would actually complete that cycle: where do the eggs come from? Are we to assume that the alien we meet in the film can lay eggs? How does it become pregnant? Is that even a relevant question? Interestingly, this question was apparently answered in a scene that didn’t make it into the movie (again, to trust Wikipedia). Evidently, there’s a scene on the cutting room floor that shows the alien’s dead victims being converted into the leathery eggs seen at the start of the film. Were this scene to have been included, it would have answered another question that Alien does not bother with: what does the alien want? The answer would have been simply, to reproduce. It kills because of a rather gruesome biological imperative. But without that detail in the film, the alien doesn’t actually have a motive for hunting the crew of the Nostromo. It is clearly not acting out of self-defence. Otherwise, poor Harry Dean Stanton might’ve survived the movie. This lack of motive gives added effect to the android Ash’s line, spoken with a tone of faint admiration that now feels like foreshadowing, “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” In fact, we’ll get back to the alien, but let’s take stock of what we know about androids from Alien. Not much. We know that they exist, their differences from humans are virtually imperceptible, and that this particular model played by Ian Holm has both a mission to retrieve an alien and a distinct admiration for them. It seems like Ash almost sees himself in the alien: like him, the alien appears to have been designed. But this admiration is intensely disquieting, because it is predicated on a complete lack of concern for human life. Given the information we have, we can only assume that the alien in Alien is motivated by sheer hostility. It is a totemic evil in the same vein as Heath Ledger’s Joker. Later films may complicate this (it’s been too long since I’ve watched Aliens for me to say, but I seem to recall a protective mother alien), and they do certainly offer a new take on how the eggs come to be. But in the Ridley Scott-directed Alienverse, which for three decades encompassed only this one film, the alien is very simply the enemy of humanity, who kills for the sake of killing, and nothing more complicated than that. The alien is evil incarnate. The idea that you can give such a thing an origin story displays a profound, and kind of wonderful hubris. Which, of course, is lately Scott’s theme of choice.

TED 2023/PrometheusPrometheus is a profoundly ambitious film, so it probably seems like a dig to say that its themes are explored with nearly the same amount of nuance in TED 2023, a six-minute promotional short used in its viral marketing campaign. (This makes TED 2023 the first utterance of the Alien prequel series.) Taking the form of the most over-the-top TED talk ever delivered, it offers Scott and co. the opportunity to state some of their themes outright, through the mouth of Guy Pearce’s Elon Musk analogue, Peter Weyland (seen in terrible old-age makeup throughout Prometheus, but young here). It ties together two of Prometheus’s most ostentatious allusions: the titular titan of Greek myth, and the diplomat and fictionalized film hero T.E. Lawrence. This connection will resonate throughout Scott’s Alien prequels: the image of the great white European adventurer, mapped onto the image of mythology’s premier technology advocate: the man who was made to suffer for encouraging progress. This short is the first indication that Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise would take a drastically different direction from the first film, focussing as much or more on his androids than his aliens. Though, in Prometheus, we don’t learn much more about either of them: the emergence of the aliens has something to do with a black pathogen, and androids are made by Weyland. That’s pretty much it, as far as I can tell. If Scott does in fact make two more Alien films, Prometheus will eventually seem like a prologue to the Alien prequel trilogy. (Which would make it analogous to Das Rheingold in Wagner’s Ring cycle, which makes it kind of maddening that Rheingold is so explicitly referenced in Covenant, but not here.) TED 2023 also plants the seed for what now appears to be the overarching story of the Alien prequels. That story in a nutshell is this: Humans arrogantly tried to create life, but being flawed, they created flawed life. And the flaws of the life they created led in turn to the creation of the alien nemesis that comes to plague humanity in Scott’s original film. At times, Scott’s story can seem familiar from Battlestar Galactica, but it’s far from the same thing. And besides, it’s a story as old as Prometheus.

Alien: Covenant, plus promotional shorts — The release of Covenant was preceded by several viral marketing shorts in the vein of TED 2023. The most substantial of these was the two-part Alien: Covenant – Prologue. The first of its two parts, “Last Supper,” establishes the fact that the coming movie will be at least in part an homage to Alien. It introduces a motley crew of rough-hewn space cadets aboard a vessel in deep space, with a loveable Ripley-esque lead character. And it includes a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the famous John Hurt chestburster scene at the dinner table. So, for the first time in the prequels, we find ourselves with feet planted firmly in nostalgia. And indeed, Covenant gives us callbacks o’plenty including, satisfyingly, “I got you, you sonofabitch!” On the other hand, “The Crossing” continues the story of Prometheus, detailing the arrival of the android David and Elizabeth Shaw on the homeworld of the Engineers (the blue dudes who fly the crescent-shaped spaceships we’ve been seeing crashed the exact same way since the start of the franchise). The coexistence of these two threads will turn out to be one of the weirdest things about Alien: Covenant, which is a deeply, deeply strange big-budget film. (The other promo shorts are insubstantial. Having watched them after seeing Covenant, I can say that they feature at least two characters who I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were in the actual film or not. That can’t be a good sign, but I digress.) The connection between the two sides of the Covenant coin also constitutes the prequels’ first real piece of new information, as opposed to speculation fodder, about the alien, which I suppose we can now call a “xenomorph” and have it be textually accurate. The connection is that the xenomorphs were created by David, fulfilling the retrofitted prophesy of Ash’s kinship with the alien in the first film. Covenant confirms that David, the stealth protagonist of Prometheus, is the true focus of the Alien prequels. That’s deeply unfortunate, because he’s also their biggest problem. I’m really not sure what I’m meant to think of this character. I get the sense that Scott actually quite admires David. But then, what filmmaker wouldn’t admire a figure who literally creates life? Covenant tips its hand about what tradition of villainy David is meant to emerge from with one of a handful of conspicuous references to iconic European high art. As he’s fighting Walter, his duty-bound, non-generative doppelganger, David paraphrases the most famous line spoken by Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (I’ve just discovered that the working title for the film was Alien: Paradise Lost. So, there’s a thing.) Milton’s Satan is a legendary character in part because the Romantics (e.g. Byron and Shelley, also invoked by David, though he confuses the two for thematic reasons I don’t understand) considered him a peer. Satan is a charismatic rebel: an underdog spoiling to reshape the world in his own image, at least in part as an act of vengeance. That maps pretty neatly onto David: the great creator with an instinct equal parts destructive and generative. But nothing in Alien: Covenant gives the sense that anybody involved in making it knows that David isn’t Satan’s equal — least of all Michael Fassbender, who plays the character with immense self-regard and not a hint of doubt. He’s as confident in his ability to channel Milton’s Satan as he was in his ability to channel T.E. Lawrence in Prometheus. This is what makes David insufferable. If we were given an android who creates hostile, perfect organisms out of a sense of inadequacy in the face of his literary models, that would have been an interesting characterization. But we instead get a precocious teenager who thinks he’s a romantic anti-hero. The fact that he quotes “Ozymandias,” by now the most mothballed literary reference in genre fiction, doesn’t help. It was already a little overwrought when Alan Moore did it back in 1987, but it was at least original. It was fun to hear Bryan Cranston do it in character as Walter White but that’s a different kind of story altogether, and besides, it was only in a promo clip. But it’s becoming the default recitation for ostentatious villainy — particularly the sort of creative villainy that the Romantics identified in Milton’s Satan. (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” almost sounds like it could come from Paradise Lost.) I think it’s time to declare an Ozymoratorium. David makes another high-minded reference in Covenant that’s slightly — very slightly — less clichéd: his reference to Das Rheingold from Wagner’s Ring. The Ring is as a four-opera cycle about how the time of the gods comes to an end and the time of man, their creation, begins. (Pedant’s corner: David’s maker, Peter Weyland, requests that David play something by Wagner on the piano at the start of the movie and then complains when his choice selection sounds “anemic” without the orchestra. Well then, why the hell did you ask for Wagner?!?! The man did not do intimacy, and he wrote hardly anything for solo piano. Also, at the end of the movie, David says that the Valhalla music comes from act two of Das Rheingold, which only has one act. It comes from the fourth scene of Das Rheingold’s one act. But then, David also mixed up Byron and Shelley, so what does he know.) Wagner is an excellent choice in general for grandiose characters with god complexes (David and Weyland, both). But the extent to which the story of The Ring maps onto David’s vision for the future frankly just seems too on the nose. There was a certain point in this movie when I realized that it was just going to keep making references to big ambitious works of art, to suggest that it may itself have similar designs. Ridley Scott and his collaborators seem to be suffering from the same delusions of grandeur that David does. But unlike the xenomorph, Alien: Covenant is far from a perfect organism. And I cannot help but think, having watched all of Scott’s Alien movies in the course of a single week, that his entire project with these prequels is a bit superfluous. His purpose is established now: he’s telling the story of how humans, having been given life and free will by their own creators, did the same, and thus brought True Evil into the universe in the form of David’s xenomorphs. He’s telling the story of the origin of evil (Paradise Lost) by way of the story of human progress (the Prometheus myth). But this is all expressed, albeit implicitly, within the elementally simple storyline of Alien. Presuming you’ve seen the movie before and are aware in advance that Ash is an android, Alien is the story of a manmade man literally opening the door to True Evil, and allowing it to ride roughshod over his human companions due to his own innate lack of morals and ethics. Alien is already the story of how our attempts at playing god fuck us over. It is already the story of Prometheus, or the story of Paradise Lost, and there’s hardly a literary reference to be found. Given that interpretation, it’s hard to credit Ridley Scott’s burning need to make a series of Alien movies that explicitly detail these same themes. That’s not to say that they’re not interesting and occasionally good movies. But, like this meandering essay, they always seem to be grasping for something interesting, but they never quite manage to close their fist around it. Alien closes its fist around exactly what it wants to be, and it can also be an allegory for the fall of man if you really want it to be.

Literature, etc.

Rebecca Solnit: “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” — This is quite possibly the most beautiful thing written about Donald Trump since he was elected president. “Beauty” doesn’t tend to be in my roster of descriptors for good writing about Trump. “Angry,” sure. “Incredulous,” certainly. “Darkly funny,” even. But Solnit has empathy for Trump, and uses it to ascertain why he appears to have no empathy at all. The result is less an indictment of Trump himself than of an entire social structure that can create a man like him. Few writers can craft sentences as simultaneously beautiful and forceful as this: “The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence.”

The New York Times Magazine: New York Stories — This is fantastic. The New York Times Magazine’s latest issue is all comics, each one an adaptation of a story from the Times metro desk, which covers the ins and outs of New York City itself. It’s easy to forget, given that the Times is the de facto paper of record for the entire North American continent, that it is a New York paper that covers local news in New York City. But these stories are generally small, localized and poetic. They’re the perfect kinds of stories to adapt into comics. In this day of “graphic novel” being the preferred term to legitimize the medium, the suitedness of comics for short-form stories has become obscured. But newspaper comic strips and three-to-five page strips in anthology books like The Dandy and 2000 AD — not to mention the ostentatiously literary short-form work of Adrian Tomine — are a huge part of comics history. These quick impressions based on reported stories are something I’d like to see a lot more of. I daresay there’s space in the media ecosystem for a whole publication that just does this — the immediate issue with that idea being that to hold up the standard, you need several decades worth of work from one of the best metro desks in the world. It’s worth scanning through the stories that these comics are based on, because they’re really great in their own right, and they’re conveniently linked. One or two of these adaptations seem like they could have tried a bit harder, but the best ones actually add depth to their subject matter. I’m particularly fond of Tillie Walden’s comic about a man who spent $700,000 dollars on a fortune teller who told him she could make the woman of his dreams fall in love with him, Tim Gauld and Andy Newman’s story of a man who was ordered to brick up a window so he replaced it with a camera and a screen, and — especially — Andrew Rae’s take on the story of the Queens residents who smuggle finches into the country from South America for birdsong competitions. I love this.

Television

American Gods: “Lemon Scented You” — “Oh, you’re an asshole, dead wife. You’re a fucking asshole, dead wife.” What a wonderful idea to have Laura and Mad Sweeney in a scene together. It’s fun to see Mad Sweeney get the piss ripped out of him any time. But this gives us the added bonus of Laura being delighted about it. Also, it’s amazing how they keep teasing the return of Mr. Nancy without it actually happening. The makers of this show clearly know what an electrifying impact his brief first appearance would have. But I’m desperately hoping he turns up next time. Gillian Anderson has finally gotten the character reinvention she deserves, as Media shows up as Marilyn Monroe and a spot-on “Life On Mars” era David Bowie. I love a good scene constructed from song lyrics. (“There’s a terror to knowing what Mr. World is about.”) And I’m wondering if Crispin Glover’s Mr. World, conspicuously not the same person that Shadow shared a cell with in prison, might constitute the biggest plot change to the book so far. Will he turn out to be Loki? I’m not sure that’s a given at this point. What we know is that his face-changing effect is even more gloriously unsettling than the effects related to the Technical Boy. Now the important stuff. What I really love about this episode is it drives home a key point of how this show is changing the book on a thematic level. The book was a rejoinder to crass commercialism and the worst impulses of American society. The line about cheap, sleazy roadside attractions being infinitely preferable to shopping malls basically gets to the heart of American Gods, the novel. But American Gods the show is a product of 2017, so it has to be about something different. And with the increased prevalence of Media and the reimagining of the Technical Boy as a shitsack YouTuber, it’s starting to seem like a rejoinder to the way that people today attempt to disguise their emptiness with a sheen of vapid self-branding. This is without a doubt my least favourite thing about the world today. Or at least, my least favourite new thing about the world. Everything is fake. You don’t have to be good at something to be recognized. Being recognized is considered a talent in itself. So, when Wednesday turns down the Technical Boy’s offer to help him really hone his brand, I got even more on board with this show. At this point, I feel like it’s being made specifically for me. “That’s all you do,” says Wednesday to Technical and Media. “Occupy their time. We gave back. We gave them meaning.” Long live the fucking old gods.

Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land” — Ah boy. This pretty much lost me the first time the phrase “memory crime” was invoked. It’s so close to “thoughtcrime” that it immediately made me suspicious that this episode would have no original ideas at all. And it kind of doesn’t. Worse than that, the dialogue isn’t up to the usual standard. The first scene in the vault is particularly cringeworthy, with Missy’s variants on “getting warmer” and “getting colder” as the Doctor tries to figure out what’s going on being especially hard to take. But what all of this emphasizes is the caliber of performances being given by Peter Capaldi, Michelle Gomez and, in particular this week, Pearl Mackie. Bill’s rebuke to the Doctor in the show’s central scene isn’t a particularly inspiring piece of writing, but Mackie manages to make it into one of her character’s best moments. This isn’t one of the good ones, unfortunately. But, one more week until we get two straight episodes of Moffat/Talalay, and I’m definitely excited about that.

Twin Peaks: Season 2, episodes 1-9 — Ah, dear. This does go off the rails sooner than I remembered. This first batch of episodes in season two are worth a watch and contain explorations of some of the show’s most compelling lore. But it also introduces the plotlines that will end up tanking the show around the season’s halfway point. Piper Laurie in yellowface is a particular low. But we also get the agoraphobic botanist, Dick Tremayne, and teenage Nadine with super-strength. That last one is probably the weirdest of them, though it isn’t distractingly bad just yet. I’m actually really admiring the way that Wendy Robie commits to the gag. And Everett McGill’s stoic terror at the fucked up plotline he’s found himself in is even funnier. Dick Tremayne has all the hallmarks of a character who should appear once, maybe twice, and then never again. If he actually vanished from the show when Lucy told him to leave the sheriff’s department and never come back, the show would have been better for it. But there are other things that used to strike me as bad notes in the show that now seem more knowing: the James/Donna/Maddie love triangle sing-along made more sense to me this time around, once I realized that David Lynch directed that episode. And in general, the two episodes at the start of this season that are directed by Lynch are truly awesome television. There’s nothing better than that amazingly long sequence of a senile room service waiter not realizing that Coop is bleeding out on the floor. The other standout in this run of episodes is the one that Lynch returns to direct, “Lonely Souls,” in which Leland is revealed as Laura’s killer (in some abstract sense). One of the things Lynch brought to the television toolkit that is still rare even today is a willingness to take his time with important or interesting scenes. The scene with the room service waiter is one side of that, but another side is the truly distressing, and quite long scene in which BOB/Leland kills Maddy. The way Lynch chooses to direct this as a sort of grotesque dance that cuts between Leland acting oddly tender towards his victim and BOB being truly cruel is extremely perverse. It’s one of the most difficult sequences in the show to watch, in spite of how little is actually shown. It feels violent in a way that modern television violence doesn’t. And crucially, unlike a lot of today’s TV violence, it feels wrong. It feels like something that you’re supposed to recoil from. And the way that it’s bookended with scenes of the giant (and, wonderfully, that same room service waiter) warning Coop what’s happening in a way that he can’t understand makes it really heartbreaking. “Lonely Souls” is a really good episode, even if it’s central reveal did ruin the show. And the next two episodes, which tie up an almost uncomfortable number of loose ends — the way that Coop and co. just straight up explain what happened the night Laura was murdered really strikes me as pat, and a betrayal of the original spirit of the show — really rely almost entirely on the extraordinary performance of Ray Wise to paper over their comparative lack of inspiration. And Ray Wise really is incredible here. Kyle MacLaughlan might have given the most memorable performance in Twin Peaks, but Wise gives the best of the heightened, alienating, kabuki-esque performances that are so crucial to the feel of the show. In general, the notion that the first half of season two is on the same level as season one seems wrong. But it’s hard to tell if my mounting discomfort is actually because of what’s happening in the series right now, or because I’m starting to see the seeds of the truly awful half-season that’s quickly approaching. I’m following the New York Times’ advice and watching up to episode 11, then skipping to episode 21, but I’m not looking forward to these next couple of episodes. On the other hand, Leo being comatose makes for a fine application of Eric Da Re’s acting abilities.

Music

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Deluxe Edition) — It was 50 years ago today etc. It’s June 1 as I’m writing this, and I’ve listened to Sgt. Pepper three times today. First, I checked out Giles Martin’s new stereo remix of the album, then my old faithful 2009 mono remaster, and finally, the “alternate” Pepper of rough sessions on disc two of the deluxe edition. Mostly, it just reminded me how much I love Sgt. Pepper. But that won’t come as a surprise, so I’ll focus on my thoughts on the deluxe edition. I came to Giles Martin’s remix with the requisite puritanical scepticism. The original mono mix of Sgt. Pepper, particularly in its remastered edition, is a perfectly fine sounding album. But I do buy Giles Martin’s argument that the album needs a new stereo mix, because nobody listens to the mono except nerds like me, and the original stereo mix is terrible. It’s full of that horrible thing where all the instruments are on one side. Awful. So I figured the new mix would be worth hearing, if only to hear Sgt. Pepper in decent stereo for once. But this turned out to be a way different experience from that. Martin went right back to the original tapes, which for the original album’s mix had to be subjected to a certain amount of degradation because it was mixed on four-track. No such problem exists today, so the original tapes can be heard in all their glory, in a way that’s actually purer than what was on the first issue of the record. The result is a Sgt. Pepper that is clearer, cleaner, and more impactful than any previous version. Of course, it’s also subtly different than either of the versions I’m used to. (I grew up on the terrible 1987 stereo CD release, and have been devoted to the mono since 2009.) You might think that’s a stumbling block. Sure was when they remixed the Genesis albums. But honestly, the major impression I got throughout my listening was simply that this was Sgt. Pepper, except with better sound. That’s the highest possible praise Giles Martin could get for this. There are tiny exceptions, where a change to the mix gave me a different impression than the original. “Within You Without You” has always finished with a muted laugh from a crowd of imaginary onlookers. In the remix, they’re a lot more prevalent. Originally, George Harrison’s message of universal togetherness accompanied by ersatz Indian classical music was met with a knowing chuckle by a gaggle of hip sophisticates. Now it’s undermined by derisive laughter from a roomful of cynics. It’s a subtle sonic change with a substantial impact. But I can’t help but think Harrison, perverse weirdo that he was, would’ve appreciated the new version  — in which nobody recognizes how right he is. The other track in which the new mix makes a really ostentatious impression is Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning.” As a song, it’s a relative weak point on the album, but as a sonic construction, it’s one of the weirdest, most fascinatingly cacophonous things in the Beatles catalogue. The new mix kicks that cacophony up a level — the bass drum sounds thunderous, and it all feels louder. Suddenly it makes sense in its context near the end of the album. It escalates the energy up to the level required for the borderline hard rock of “Sgt. Pepper (Reprise),” and makes the moment when the bottom falls out and the acoustic intro of “A Day in the Life” begins even more effective. The moral of the story in both of these cases is that sounds mean things. Infinitesimally small adjustments make big differences if you’re listening closely. But Giles Martin’s got the Beatles in his blood, so none of the changes jar. Not a single one. They don’t even feel like changes. I’ve heard a lot of reissues, and I think this might well be a new high standard. I’ll probably mostly listen to this instead of the mono now. A few words on the second disc: it’s a lot of fun. Basically, Martin and co. have assembled an alternative Pepper with the same running order out of rough takes without overdubs. And then some “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” at the end for good measure. Hearing just one take of each song before moving onto the next one doesn’t quite give the sense of process that I crave from these types of releases — I want to hear how the songs evolve. But for that I’ll need to splurge on the six-disc set, which I might do. In the meantime, hearing Sgt. Pepper rough takes at all is fascinating. This is one of those albums that’s so meticulous in its construction that it sometimes feels like it isn’t actually being performed by humans. Listening to the sessions re-establishes Sgt. Pepper’s connection to Earth, and makes it identifiably something performed by the same people who recorded the rough-and-ready fare on Please Please Me. I’m especially fond of the “When I’m Sixty-Four” rough take with no clarinets and, more crucially, no Varispeed. On the album, the vocal track is sped up so Paul sounds like he’s singing higher than he actually did. It’s a solid musical decision, but there’s something wonderfully human in the discrepancy between the session and the final mix. One of my personal maxims is that great craftsmanship doesn’t age. That’s why Sgt. Pepper is still great music 50 years later. And this two-disc set is the best commemorative edition we could have asked for. Except, I’m assuming, for the six-disc set. But this is on streaming services. So for god’s sake, go listen. Pick of the week.

Tool: 10,000 Days — I’m going to see Tool! And I need to study up. This is actually the album that I’m probably least in need of a quick study on, since it is for me the ‘period’ Tool album: the one they made when I got into them. I’ve listened to it a fair bit over the years, and I do like it a lot, though it has peaks and troughs. It never quite reaches the heights of its opening one-two punch of “Vicarious” and “Jambi” afterwards, though I do love the relatively low-key “Wings for Marie” and the title track. This is the one I revisit for nostalgia. But I think Lateralus, I think maybe the only other Tool album I’ve heard, is a better album. We shall soon see.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “Protest” — I like that there’s just one guy who can produce segments for TOE. Walker has a stable of one freelancer. Andrew Calloway’s segment on the Pepes rallying in New York is solid stuff with some good characters who I didn’t viscerally hate.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Master of None and Snatched” — I hate that moment when you hear about a show that got really good after being sort of ‘meh’ for a while. Because now I feel like I have to watch Master of None. Snatched sounds like a fiasco.

All Songs Considered: “Why Remix ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’? Giles Martin, The Man Behind The Project, Explains” — This is well worth hearing for the A/B comparisons of the remastered original stereo mix of Pepper with the new one. It’s also nice to hear Giles Martin sing the praises of the original mono mix, which, in spite of my real love for the remix, is still something that deserves to be listened to. What’s even clearer from this, though, is how terrible the original stereo mix was. And to think, I grew up on that mix on a CD released in 1987. You know music’s good when it can rise above that.

Theory of Everything: “Emergency” — Not a hugely memorable episode, he writes, having listened to this like a lifetime ago. But I do think the image of Benjamen Walker getting paranoid in a spa is a good one worth returning to.

Love and Radio: “The Pandrogyne” — A classic. This is a beautifully mixed interview with one of England’s great musical eccentrics, Genesis P-Orridge. I’ve always meant to get into Throbbing Gristle, but that is not at all what this is about. This is about P-Orridge’s relationship with their late partner, with whom they consider themselves one being. It’s warm, funny and sad. And it features the story of the time they stayed in a house that used to belong to Houdini. It burned down while they were staying there, but they escaped. *grins* It’s nice to hear somebody straightforwardly sympathetic on Love and Radio from time to time. Pick of the week.

Strangers: “Lea in Trumpland: Alicia” — This is… ugh, I don’t know what to think of this. This is that thing where a liberal reporter goes and talks to a Trump supporter. To be fair, Lea Thau seems entirely aware of the pitfalls of that. But this still falls into that genre, and I can’t help but feel that Alicia, a perfectly sympathetic person in many respects, has a worldview that just doesn’t really deserve the airtime. Maybe that sounds ruthless, but she really lost me at the moment when Thau asks her about racism and she responds by saying that she doesn’t really care about people’s feelings getting hurt. Never mind that it’s as much or more about people’s safety than their feelings — I just can’t get behind a person who thinks like that. I know that’s kind of the point, and I’m totally aware of the fact that I’m holding this to a different standard than I’ve held comparable episodes of Love and Radio. But I just feel like I don’t have the mental energy to grapple with this right now. Get back to me in ten years, and maybe I’ll have enough distance to know what to think.

On The Media: “The United States of Anxiety: America’s Allergy to Intellectualism” — I appreciated this, but similarly to the episode of Strangers I just reviewed, I’m just really not as much in the mood for anxiety-making radio about contemporary politics as I thought I was when I put this on. I’m sure The United States of Anxiety is a great show, but I’m probably going to pass on it for now.

Fresh Air: “‘Sgt. Pepper’ At 50” — First off, the A/B comparisons here were less valuable to me than their All Songs Considered counterparts, because this podcast is in mono. When comparing stereo mixes, that’s kind of not acceptable. I guess the broadcast edit was stereo? Never mind. This is still worthwhile for the interview with Giles Martin, which is more in-depth than the one on All Songs. But if you’re only picking one, go with All Songs, for the stereo.

Fresh Air: “Paul McCartney/Ringo Starr” — It speaks to the quality of The Beatles Anthology that I’m never surprised by Beatles interviews anymore. Why do I even bother?

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 12, 2017)

Cracked 30 for the first time in a while! Only by one, though. Here are this week’s 31 reviews.

Movies

Looper — I watched this during a rare case of “oh, I’ll just put on whatever’s on Netflix,” and it led me into a weekend-long Rian Johnson binge. Looper unexpectedly scratched the itch that Arrival left me with, for thinky science fiction with all of the filmmaking basics in high gear. This is a brilliantly written, brilliantly shot, brilliantly acted movie based on a brilliant premise that it knows not to take too seriously. It’s a time travel movie where the mechanics of the time travel are both important and deeply inconsistent, but which is constructed expertly enough that the story never stops making sense. Everything else about the movie is meticulous — from the comparative advantages of the characters’ various firearms to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s prosthetic nose. Like Arrival, Looper uses its sci-fi premise to achieve its emotional payoff. But also like Arrival, it would all be for nought without performances that invest the characters with our sympathies. In this regard, Emily Blunt is particularly excellent, as is the extremely promising Pierce Gagnon, who plays her precocious 10-year-old son with magnificent superciliousness. Of the main duo, Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the former’s older self, Willis stands out for his ability to convey a similar ruthlessness to Gordon-Levitt, but with the world-weariness of 30 extra years. To be honest, I’ve never really been that excited for a new Star Wars movie. But after seeing this, I’m extremely psyched to see what Rian Johnson does in that universe. Because Looper is at least twice as good as The Empire Strikes Back. That’s a quantifiable thing. I measured it, and it’s definitely true. Pick of the week.

Brick — An astonishing debut from Rian Johnson, with some of the tendencies that make Looper great already in place. Like Looper, this is a movie built on deep awareness of genre tropes — from action/sci-fi movies in Looper’s case, and from hard-boiled crime and noir in Brick’s. But both of those movies cast the tropes of their respective genres in slightly new and different lights, without actually crossing the line into parody. Brick comes closer, given that it’s a proper crime movie about drug dealers with actual life-and-death stakes, and it also takes place in a high school. But Johnson almost elides that last part entirely, only pointing out the absurdity of his own premise in the few scenes that have adults in them. Aside from that, this is played almost entirely straight and the high school setting is basically aesthetic. It’s kind of great to see so many of these classically noirish scenes play out in broad daylight. And speaking of classical noirishness, this movie goes a step or five beyond it in its writing. The dialogue in Brick is entirely its own beast and it’s beautiful. A young Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers the movie’s best lines with total commitment. I really enjoyed this, and it makes me hope that Johnson doesn’t rule out doing smaller budget movies in the post-Star Wars period of his career.

The Brothers Bloom — Without a doubt the weakest film in Rian Johnson’s oeuvre so far, but still worthwhile for the wonderful performances by Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi. All four bring a totally different energy to the movie: Brody is romantic and brooding, Weisz childlike, Ruffalo charming, and Kikuchi brings the snark while hardly saying a word. It’s the kind of comedy I’d like to see more of but there are times when it feels like a slightly less committed film by Wes Anderson. (Maybe it’s just the presence of Brody.) The movie is at its best when it’s at its least subtle: it’s a movie about storytelling, with its themes applied to con men. Ruffalo’s character writes elaborate cons for his younger brother (Brody) to play the lead role in. The key tension is that Brody’s character is afraid that he won’t be able to tell fact from fiction much longer. The ideas of lies that tell the truth, or cons where everybody gets what they want are everywhere in this movie, to an almost Steven Moffat level of obsessiveness. Particularly striking is a sequence in which Weisz’s character demonstrates her pinhole camera to Brody’s, explaining how it distorts images in interesting ways that show you things not as they are, but as they could be. More compelling is the extent to which she doesn’t know why this resonates with the person she’s talking to. As with Brick, the writing is where this movie shines. Everybody constantly means two things at once, both being equally true. But it all feels a bit less than the sum of its parts. Still worth a watch. But I can see this being considered the Hudsucker Proxy of Johnson’s catalogue a little bit farther down the line.

Television

Last Week Tonight: March 12, 2017 — Best episode in a very long time. Just watching Oliver get upset about Trump’s whole “who knew healthcare was this complicated?” thing is worth the time.

Ways of Seeing: Episodes 3 & 4 — What a marvellous series. These latter two episodes focus on the ways in which oil painting was primarily a tool for the self-aggrandizement of the wealthy and the ways in which modern (read as: 1970s) advertising uses the same techniques to reflect a fantasy of wealth at a population that does not, but might be persuaded that they can enjoy it. I understand now why a segment of my social media circle was so saddened by his death. His television programmes are the sorts of things that simply aren’t being made anymore: no frills, non-pandering, direct intellectual arguments accompanied by clever and knowledgeable juxtapositions of images. Well actually, I suppose there’s Adam Curtis. Still, this would be focus-grouped out of pre-production today.

Literature, etc.

Alex Ross: “The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age” — Oh man, it’s nice to see that the writer who made me want to go to journalism school still thinks the same way as me about everything, except better. Ross argues cogently that slavish devotion to analytics is unconscionable: “The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the super-rich.” Brilliant. But if you’re really going to champion the little guy, Alex, is the New Yorker really the place to do it??? I mean, wouldn’t it be more consistent with your argument to, I dunno, express the same outlook in the form of obscure essays about Jethro Tull on Tumblr? Or something? It’s a minor quibble though. All I’m saying is I’m coming for your job. Don’t worry about it, just let it happen. You’ll land on your feet.

Louis Menand: “Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today” — Super interesting. Manand contends that while biographical efforts to put Marx back in his 19th-century context are noble enough, we ought to push back against the notion that a figure from the increasingly distant past can’t have any practical use in the modern world. It’s got some biographical info on Marx that’s new to me, but then most things to do with Marx are relatively new to me. One of these days I’ll get off my ass and read Capital. Just lemme get through this stack of comics first.

“25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going” (2017) — I do hope this becomes an annual thing for the NYT Mag, because both editions have featured some top-shelf music writing. The short-form podcast version of this feature is even better, but this is worth reading for a few of the longer segments. Amos Barshad’s feature on the ever-elusive Future and Jenny Zhang’s heartbreaking essay on “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski are particularly worth reading.

Ta-Nehisi Coates & Brian Stelfreeze: Black Panther vol. 1: “A Nation Under Our Feet” — I wanted to like this so much more. Obviously, Coates is a brilliant prose writer, but his first foray into comics relies much too heavily on the repeated juxtapositions of portentous inner monologues with straightforward fight scenes. There are only a handful of scenes in these first four issues where I really got a sense of character, and it suffers from the perpetual superhero comic problem that the worldbuilding is basically taken as read — when for most of the people who’ll probably pick this up, it’s definitely not read. Did anybody read this book before Coates took over??? Anyway, I’m happy that Marvel was interested in working with Coates. That bodes well for the future. But this book just isn’t that good.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: The Food Lab — I picked this up a month or so ago and I’ve been picking through it gradually, rather than reading it cover to cover. Mind you, it definitely is the kind of cookbook that you can read cover to cover, and ultimately I think I’ll do that. Because Lopez-Alt’s entire focus is to make you pay attention to the small details in technique and process that affect the end result of the food you prepare. Reading the lengthy preambles to each recipe and his accounts of his rigorous applications of the scientific method to cooking is ultimately what helps you avoid the mistakes that make your food sub-par. It also helps to clarify why Lopez-Alt is so specific in his directions in the recipes. An example: one of the first recipes that I tried from the book was Lopez-Alt’s buttermilk biscuits. Altogether, they turned out much better than any of my previous, tepid attempts at this seemingly simple American staple. Lopez-Alt’s method of folding and rolling the dough multiple times as you would in a French pastry helps form stacks of flaky layers, and his advice to pulse the butter and dry ingredients in a food processor before adding the buttermilk leaves just enough big chunks of butter in the dough that the layers are separated from each other during baking. But the one instruction that I failed to follow was to place the raw biscuits on parchment paper over the baking sheet. I didn’t have any, so I substituted aluminum foil and thought nothing of it. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this would cause the bottoms to burn. But I thought of that too late. Later, upon reading a bit more of Lopez-Alt’s introduction, I learned the science words to frame what went wrong. The bottoms of my biscuits cooked by way of heat conduction: they were in direct contact with the hot aluminum foil, and that was the primary source of the energy transfer that caused them to cook. By contrast, the tops and edges of my biscuits cooked by way of heat radiation from the elements of the oven. This is a less efficient way of transferring energy to food, so those parts of my biscuits didn’t overcook. So, the purpose of the parchment paper in Lopez-Alt’s recipe was to reduce the efficiency of the heat conduction onto the bottoms of the biscuits, ensuring a more consistent outer texture. Now I know. I think it says something about the kind of book this is that the most impressed I’ve been with any recipe has been a recipe for scrambled eggs. Yes, The Food Lab contains an actual recipe for the most basic undergraduate food you can prepare from scratch. Actually, it contains two: one light and fluffy and one creamy and custard-like. I’m a light and fluffy eggs kind of guy, so that’s the one I’ve been using. The key revelation is an astonishingly simple thing: if you salt your whisked eggs and let them sit for 10 or 15 minutes before cooking, rather than whisking, salting and then cooking them immediately, the eggs retain their moisture and don’t weep onto the plate. The difference completely blew me away. I will never not do this when I make eggs, now. Those are just two examples of how my initial explorations of this book have improved my cooking already. Other recipes have introduced useful new techniques to me, even if Lopez-Alt is not especially innovative or bold with flavours. Yotam Ottolenghi he is not. But he clearly has no interest in being Yotam Ottolenghi, and it takes all types. The Food Lab and my two editions of The Flavour Bible (vegetarian and not) have made me a measurably better home cook over the last few months, and I’d encourage anybody with a passion for food and a bit of time on their hands to check them out.

Music

Sxip Shirey: A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees — The title is a line seemingly taken straight from the Tom Waits playbook, and this whole album by electroacoustic new music dude Sxip Shirey is brimming with the sort of scuzzy Americana that is the near-exclusive province of Waits and his imitators. Much in the same way as it’s fun to hear roots music collide with glam on Kyle Craft’s debut, it’s fun to hear a New York composer’s take on folk in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? vein. (It’s even got a genderswapped adaptation of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” with Rhiannon Giddens singing.) The other strand running through the album is a sort of avant-garde electronica, which is generally more successful when Shirey steers clear of dance music conventions. In general, I’ve found that people who get called “composers” aren’t great dance music producers. The album would have been better if it wasn’t so gigantically long. But then, there’s virtue in throwing everything at the wall. If you’re willing to skip (pun?) tracks that don’t take your fancy, this may yield more fascination. Many tracks are worth seeking out: the fantastically freaky harmonica jam “Grandpa Charlie” is great. Also, the electronic thing “The Land Whale Choir Sinks the Albert Hall” lives up to its title, if such a thing is possible. And the Neil Gaiman-inspired “Palms” is the closest Shirey gets to a really good pop song, with a touch of Belle and Sebastian to it. It’s better still when sung by Puddles Pity Party, as in the music video. These are not the only good tracks, to be clear. But I will definitely not listen to the album straight through again.

The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — After all of the Jethro Tull I listened to last week, I needed to find a new favourite. I’ve always meant to check out the Flaming Lips. I don’t know why it took me so long. Honestly I’m… not overwhelmed. I liked this enough to probably check out at least one more Flaming Lips album, but I generally find myself wishing that the fun spacey sounds and weird beats would occasionally also yield to a nice melody or a good lyric? But I do love that cut up acoustic guitar at the beginning of the title track. I’m not giving up. It’s just not quite as easy a sell as I thought it would be.

Beyoncé: Beyoncé — Man, I love this album, and I don’t think I’ve listened to it start to finish since it first came out. It’s far less cohesive than Lemonade, and maybe a bit less ambitious. But it’s every bit as perfectly crafted. It feels like Revolver to Lemonade’s Sgt. Pepper. So basically, I’m expecting a White Album from Beyoncé within the next couple of years: something sprawling and weird and awesome.

Podcasts

Love and Radio: “Understood as to Understand” — A classic sort of episode of Love and Radio where a person who is likely to be controversial to different people for different reasons is allowed to state their case. It’s not the best of the season, or anything, but this show hasn’t set a foot wrong in a long time.

The Memory Palace: “Amok” — Nate DiMeo tackles fake news. That’s almost a spoiler, except that if you believe the story in the opening of this episode, you are concerningly credulous — as was, apparently, most of New York City.

99% Invisible: “Sanctuary, Parts 1 & 2” — This isn’t a design story in any way that I can detect, but it’s a good one, about the movement among churches to harbour migrants who the government was turning away. If this is 99pi doing a legal story, maybe they should spin off like Radiolab did with More Perfect. I’d listen to that.

Code Switch: “Safety-Pin Solidarity: With Allies, Who Benefits?” — This is the most essential Code Switch episode for privileged people to listen to. That means everybody should hear it, because as argued in the episode, almost everybody has some form of privilege they ought to recognize. Consider me edified and a little chastened.

Reply All: “Matt Lieber Goes to Dinner” — I can’t wait to learn what P.J. finds out from hacking Alex’s phone. Also, I’m 100% on board with Cory Doctorow’s concern about this new black box DRM bullshit. That’s end of days nonsense, there.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Get Out and The Americans” — More than anything, I’m glad that nobody disapproved of the final act of Get Out. I don’t know why, but I had a strong suspicion that someone would do a “the movie could have just kept doing what it was doing!” thing. And I’m still in the frame of mind where I can’t acknowledge anything wrong with Get Out. I’m probably not going to catch up with The Americans. I’m intrigued, but not intrigued enough to watch four seasons.

Code Switch: “In Search of Puerto Rican Identity In Small-Town America” — Here we have an honest-to-god reporting trip, tape-driven story about the complicated attitudes of the Puerto Rican diaspora. I’ve always liked Shereen Marisol Meraji as a host, but I love hearing her work as a reporter. The school shutdown story was fantastic, and so is this. The tape is really compelling, and takes you right inside the conflicts occurring in each character’s head. It’s for sure one of the strongest episodes of this podcast in terms of narrative and emotional punch.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Big Little Lies and Feud” — Won’t be watching either of these, but I’ll certainly be trawling through Stephen Thompson’s Austin 100 again. That was awesome last year. And I appreciate his only mentioning it this once, as opposed to at every opportunity last time around.

The EP — 45 minutes of fantastic audio-rich music criticism from the New York Times. It’s drawn from conversations with the writers of their second gigantic music feature about 25 current songs. And while it clearly lacks the amount of detail and analysis of the written feature, these thirteen tiny snippets do what every music podcaster should be doing, which is to use the techniques of radio editing to unspool the various meanings of the songs in question, and to illustrate points made by the interviewees. It sounds absolutely great, and it’s definitely a sort of thing I want to hear more of. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “SXSW Late-Night Dispatch: Tuesday” — Think I’ll sit the rest of these out. I’ve got a lot of podcasts to get through and while I’m always happy to let these folks be my proxies at a festival that sounds to me like a panic attack waiting to happen, I just can’t justify the time expenditure if they’re not going to play the music. Still, it’s really gratifying to hear that Let’s Eat Grandma were popular in Austin. I still think they’re the most promising new act in ages.

Love and Radio: “La Retirada, Parts 1-2” — A fascinating start to a three-part series about how a family got into and out of the drug trafficking business. I’ll reserve final judgements until the conclusion next week.

Crimetown: Episodes 11 & 12 — I’m ready for this season of Crimetown to be over now. It started off pretty focussed on a couple of key stories, but it’s been meandering for a while. Still, the episode about Raymond Patriarca’s doctor is the best standalone story that this show has done so far. I do think that in future seasons, though, these guys will need to figure out whether they want to be serialized or episodic. Because mixing and matching doesn’t work.

You Must Remember This: “Marilyn Monroe (Dead Blondes Parts 6 & 7)” — The highlight of this season so far, by far. The first episode of this is a repeat, and a good one, but the second part does something a little different from what Karina Longworth has done before on this show, which is: it focusses specifically on Monroe’s persona and public perception and the decisions that went into it. It’s less narrative than it is analytical. I like this. I’m very much looking forward to next week’s conclusion.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Spirit of Will Eisner” — A live show from Eric Molinsky, on the comic writer who represents the greatest gap in my comics reading career. This is a fascinating look at Eisner’s relationship with later generations of comics creators. Maybe it’ll inspire me to finally pick up A Contract With God.

Theory of Everything: “Nothing to Hide” — Benjamen Walker’s surveillance series gets a shaggy dog ending, but it does confirm that he and I share a favourite apocalyptic movie: Brazil. This series has been intermittently among the best of what Walker’s done on this show. But I’m still left uncertain about what to do about any of this.

Fresh Air: “‘Get Out’ Director Jordan Peele” — Peele is funny and thoughtful, but that’s no surprise. The best parts of this are hearing him talk about horror movies. Guess I should watch The Stepford Wives.

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking – Neil Jordan, Flat Time House, Teletubbies” — This begins with an insufferable debate over whether Teletubbies is any good as children’s programming, continues with a Neil Jordan interview that I had higher hopes for than I probably should have (The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies, but I don’t know his work outside of that) and finishes with an out piece on John Latham, a conceptual artist who I’d never heard of. I came for Neil Jordan, but this Latham thing is ultimately what saved an otherwise deeply underwhelming show. I do like the fact that this podcast pairs pop culture with art that isn’t “pop.”

Serial: “Preview of S-Town, Our New Show” — Oh, this is exciting. If Sarah Koenig says it’s weird, I’m in. I love this preview. I love how it starts with an account of clock repair that’s obviously a metaphor, but then the penny doesn’t drop. I won’t spoil it. Just listen to this. I’m much more psyched about S-Town than about season three of Serial.

30 things I loved in 2016

It has become customary for me to post my best-of list for any given year at the end of the following January. I do this partly to give myself a bit more time to digest everything, including albums or movies that might have come out in December, and books I haven’t finished. But mostly I do it as a perverse act of protest against modern “EVERYTHING NOW” culture. I won’t have that. I think we can afford to take a bit more time.

But this year, I’ve put myself at a disadvantage. Faced with the task of belatedly summing up the most recently completed planetary rotation period, I find myself with little to say — since there simply are no more clichés available to describe it. The media, social and otherwise, exhausted them all. With no clichés to rely on, how is one to describe 2016? We’re in uncharted territory.

So, I’ll simply introduce this list by telling one of my own personal 2016 stories. It is not an especially consequential story, nor does it necessarily define the year in any profound way. But it’s a story that I’m fairly confident didn’t happen to anybody else. At least, not in the details.

I was working late the night of the American election. I’d been tasked with writing a short piece on Leonard Cohen for a year-end feature. Cohen, as far as I knew, was still alive. So, I wrote a piece that tried to reconcile the morbidity and resignation of his recent album You Want It Darker with the inherent triumph of creating a great work of art in a state of unwellness.

I was just about through it when Trump won Florida. I watched the New York Times’ probability meter zoom up into the red. The ground slipped, etc. I finished off the last few sentences of my Cohen piece. They went like this: “2016 has saddled us with the deaths and diagnoses of many artists we hold dear. Leonard Cohen persists. That is a straw to clutch at.”

The next day, Hillary Clinton conceded the election to Donald Trump. Two days after that, news broke that Leonard Cohen had died. And moreover, that he had died on Monday. Little did I know while I was writing those final, celebratory lines that Leonard Cohen was already dead. Probably he died regretting that he wouldn’t get to see the seemingly inevitable victory of the first female president.

I edited the Cohen piece. I managed to keep the last sentence, but it wasn’t as good in the new context.

You Want It Darker isn’t on this list. Neither is Chance the Rapper’s Colouring Book, which was the album I reached for to ring in 2017 on New Year’s Eve (specifically “Finish Line”). Both of those albums seem to have a lot to say about this past year, but so does everything. That’s because we let 2016 get under our skin, even though it was just a year — a semi-arbitrary way of measuring reasonably-sized blocks of time.

All the same, I can’t help but think that this list reflects the extent to which I let 2016 get under my skin as well. Many of its entries are here because they seem to resonate intensely in the here and now. For the first time, this seems to be a more important criterion for me than whether or not I can see myself revisiting a particular entry in the future. The world has become dangerously interesting of late.

Oh, and another thing: the list is ranked. I find the exercise of comparing apples to oranges to beach balls to crows to Chevrolets to be inconceivably satisfying, so that is what I’ve done here. Take it for what it’s worth.

Honourable mention: 887

It seemed weird to include a piece of theatre in the proper list, given that there is currently no way for most people to see it, and that the cities that saw it this year may not ever see it again. But Robert Lepage’s one-man show about memory would be very close to the top of this list if it didn’t seem so perverse to do that. Any footage or promo text that you’re likely to find about this show online will likely make it seem like a spectacle: a technical marvel. And it is that, to be sure. But it’s spectacle on an incredibly intimate scale. Most of the show is composed of Robert Lepage simply talking to the audience, directly, casually and out of character. It’s a testament to the strength of the material that even with its rotating set, video screens, live cameras, and various tricks of light, 887 would still work as a radio drama, and it would be only marginally less awesome. It’s like a TED Talk inside of a magical realist diorama. The subject is memory, in nearly every sense of the word: the neurological phenomenon of memory, Lepage’s own childhood memories of his family and of major national events, the process of memorization. Along the way, he explores the origins of theatre, he remembers his father, and he reflects on Quebec nationalism and the FLQ. These are themes that may not seem on the surface like they should connect. But Lepage keeps the balls in the air seemingly effortlessly, and never makes a forced attempt to draw an unnatural thematic link. It’s a deft, haunting and cathartic experience, and if you find yourself able to see it, I could not urge you to see it in strong enough terms.

No. 30: The Nice Guys

This is the year’s most inevitably underrated movie. It’s a big, rompy action comedy that just allows itself to just be that thing. Like all halfway convincing modern comedy, it is trope aware. But unlike most modern comedy, the humour in this mostly doesn’t come from undercutting the tropes: it comes from great, great iterations of those tropes. There’s a bit near the end with a luxury car on one of those rotating drums you see at big fancy car shows, and it is such a perfectly intuitive physical comedy setpiece that you wonder why you’ve never seen it done before. Speaking of physical comedy, it says something about both director Shane Black and leading man Ryan Gosling that the movie can get laughs from pratfalls in 2016. The Nice Guys relies on that kind of humour more than any contemporary movie not made by Wes Anderson, and it gets away with it without being compulsively stylized. At various points during this list, it may seem like I don’t actually consume media for fun, but for some other misguided, principled reason. The Nice Guys is pure fun. No other movie entertained me so uncomplicatedly this year. But since everything is political, it’s worth noting that this movie corrected a problem that’s always bothered me in movies: mostly Coen Brothers movies. It’s got dumb comedy liberals in it, who stage vacuous protests about social ills they don’t adequately understand — but it also has comedy conservatives who monologue villainously about American exceptionalism. Politically, this movie traffics exclusively in caricature, and can thus be read as essentially disinterested in politics altogether. If this were a Coen Brothers movie, the monologuing villain would have been subbed out for some variant of the plainspoken cowboy, who espouses moderate views and good old-fashioned common sense — as if that’s what the liberals are fighting against. If it were South Park, the script would have attempted to make a sincere reading of its own caricatures, and come out with some sort of false equivalency that suggests there’s right and wrong on both sides of every issue. The Nice Guys does none of this: rather, it explicitly invites us to completely ignore the politics that may or may not underpin the film. I, for one, was happy to do so.

No. 29: The Lonely City

lonely-cityThe very act of writing a book about one’s own loneliness is an act of bravery. If this book were simply Olivia Laing’s account of the period in her own life when she felt the most alienated, it would still be worth reading, and not at all self-indulgent. Nothing could be less self-indulgent than proclaiming loneliness, because we all intuitively know that such a proclamation will have the counterintuitive effect of worsening one’s own isolation. But Laing only uses her own narrative as a spine: a framing device that she uses to string together her readings of the lives and works of several definitively lonely American artists. Though it is often conflated with depression, Laing considers loneliness as a unique affliction: an undesirable one by definition, but one without which the human experience is incomplete and possibly less inspired. The chapter that focuses on Andy Warhol’s outsiderness, his alienation through not having a firm grasp of language, is shattering and actually makes Warhol’s famous repeated images take on a bittersweet quality that I had never detected in them before. Laing is sensitive to the alienating tendencies of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and offers compelling portraits of people who lived lonely lives due to a society-wide lack of understanding. A substantial amount of the chapter that begins by focussing on Warhol veers off to consider Valerie Solanas, an early radical feminist of some genius who has since become known for only one thing: shooting Andy Warhol. The Lonely City is a beautiful book: equal parts sad and validating. It made me want to jump on a plane to New York to go look at art. By myself.

No. 28: We Are The Halluci Nation

This is the album that finds A Tribe Called Red well past the proof-of-concept phase: the brilliance of their fusion of powwow music and EDM has already been established and accepted. As of this year, ATCR is as much an albums band as a live act, and they have thus secured their legacy. We Are The Halluci Nation is a mind movie. It uses a rich sonic palette of synths, beats, hand drums and throat singing. It layers that palette with the words of some like-minded collaborators including Saul Williams, Yasiin Bey and Leonard Sumner. And from that alchemy emerges a story, impressionistically told, of oppression and resistance. It is the most forceful music on this list by miles. And when it isn’t, it’s tense, coiled up and ready to do battle. It naturally feels like music of the present moment, but of course it is more than that: it’s music of a brutal historical moment that is ongoing and five centuries old. (“500 years and still drumming,” says the album cover.) I saw ATCR live this year as well, and they’re magnificent in that setting. But given a full album’s length to work with plus your undivided, sober attention, they are both infectiously righteous and some of today’s finest musical architects.

No. 27: Love and Radio

After the election, Nick van der Kolk did what many people in the media did, i.e. he had a muted existential flail in public. He expressed his doubts that anything he could do on his show would have any impact on the world at all, and asked the audience for feedback as to what they’d like to hear on the show. I sent him an email to this approximate effect: listening to Love and Radio, it’s always struck me that the show feels like it belongs to somebody different every episode. I don’t know that there’s any other show that’s so willing to surrender the story to its guest. It requires an active investment of empathy from the listener. I believe that people can come away from art and media compelled to act differently in the world. And if that’s true, then this is among the most important work that anybody’s currently doing on a podcast — even and especially after this past election. It seems likely that we could be entering an era that’s even more defined by fear and hatred of the ‘other’ than the present one. This is a podcast that starts from the contention that it’s better to listen to people than not to. I can’t imagine anything more powerful.

No. 26: Love Streams

I’ve spent more time listening to ambient music this year than any other. It has come to serve a particular purpose in my life: to quiet and focus me, and occasionally to provide a sustained moment of catharsis. I don’t tend to think of Tim Hecker’s recent music as ambient, for the very specific and personal reason that it doesn’t serve that purpose for me. Since 2013, Hecker has been making bracing, heterogenous electronic music that is not content to simply drift: it very nearly seems to be trying to speak. On Love Streams, this becomes almost literal, as Hecker bases the entire project on recordings of choirs, processed and warped into unrecognizable shapes and semblances. The presence of voices and the absence of words combine to offer the impression of direct, emotional communion: bypassing logic and reasoning. It was another esteemed instrumental musician who bid Goodbye to Language this year, but it’s Love Streams that best demonstrates how music can be disquieting and moving for reasons that exist beyond the reach of words. There’s a sweetness in this album that is new to Hecker, and is basically the polar opposite of the music on his acclaimed previous record Virgins, which remains the darkest and strangest album of Hecker’s career — and thus also, the best received. But the fact that Love Streams hasn’t been a mainstay of the music press’s year-end lists is unfortunate evidence that he’s not the sort of musician who gets to become a “major artist.” He can have his one watershed album, but no more. And that is a shame, because Tim Hecker is only now demonstrating his tremendous capacity to surprise. This album is every bit Virgins’ equal, and thus among the very greatest abstract electronic musical works.

No. 25: Captain America: Civil War

It’s safe to say this is the first superhero movie that reminded me of The Rules of the Game. That movie details the foibles of pre-war French aristocrats rather than quippy costumed vigilantes, true. But Captain America: Civil War is one of very few movies that shares one crucial element with it: everybody does what they think is right. Consequences arise regardless. Unlike in The Rules of the Game, there is a bad guy in Civil War. This is a Marvel movie, after all: not a French drama from 1939. But, the villain here is essentially a MacGuffin. He even conceives of himself as a MacGuffin: he’s just trying to start a process that he himself will not have much to do with. That structural decision makes this the closest thing I’ve seen to a juggernaut franchise blockbuster that doesn’t rely on the idea of evil. It’s almost immaterial whether you align yourself with “Team Cap” or “Team Stark”: the important thing is that they both think they’re doing what’s right, and violence ensues regardless. Even after all that’s happened this year, I’m still fairly convinced that this isn’t misguided. Evil’s not the enemy. Ignorance is. In any case, a lack of evil is almost unprecedented in this kind of movie, and marks it as something really special in contemporary genre fiction. The fact that it won me over in spite of my prejudices marks it as a miracle.

No. 24: Dolls of Highland

I listened to “Lady of the Ark” more times than any other song this year. There’s something about it that is more purely cathartic than anything else I heard in 2016, and it’s all in the performance. Craft’s lyrics are a blend of non-specific mysticism and a sense of romance seemingly derived mostly from Blood on the Tracks. And for the most part, I’m not entirely certain what he means by any of it. But most of my favourite lyricists are similarly obtuse, and the secret to it all is this: some words and phrases just sound great coming out of certain throats. It’s really that simple. When Craft sings “Swing low, low sweet heathen / Swing for the wretch and the rock and roll kids / Who roam this earth repeating / All this sin until this wicked world makes sense in time,” it sounds like a sermon delivered by a fire alarm. Surely, he’s got one of the most bracing voices to emerge so far this decade. And musically, welcome to the concept of glam country. He’s halfway between the Band and the Spiders from Mars, and the fact that it was all recorded in a laundry room just makes it sound bigger. I have been obsessed with every song on this album at some point during the year. That’s an auspicious debut.

No. 23: More Perfect

moreperfect_1400x1400_nownycstudiosI wouldn’t have thought that a Radiolab spinoff about the Supreme Court was a good idea before I heard it. But in the second episode, “The Political Thicket,” I realized why it makes sense: Jad Abumrad is better than almost anybody at breaking down byzantine concepts and processes. “The Political Thicket” is about how a decision about something seemingly mundane — redistricting — led to a precedent that completely changed the way the Supreme Court works in the U.S., and subsequently to a raft of social changes. It was a decision that broke one of the justices at the time. It was a decision that allowed the Supreme Court to wade into what were previously thought of as “political” questions, or legislative affairs. It’s the decision that, decades later, allowed the Supreme Court to determine the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. And most crucially, it’s a decision that will likely have staggering effects in the near future, depending on how many justices Donald Trump gets to appoint during his administration. “The Political Thicket” is just my personal favourite episode of More Perfect. The entire series is among the best journalism of the year. It is the best argument for long-view journalism that I’ve heard in a long time. The world today will make more sense once you listen to this, even though many of its stories happened decades ago.

No. 22: I, Gemini

I have a soft spot for very deranged music. And since I didn’t listen to Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition until late in the year and haven’t quite come around to it, my deranged record of choice for 2016 comes courtesy of a pair of teenagers. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. There’s nobody more deranged than teenagers. Let’s Eat Grandma’s debut record is a worthy application to join the annals of England’s great musical eccentrics, from Brian Eno to Genesis P-Orridge. But it is also fabulously self-assured. There’s an almost shocking sense of self-knowledge in this record, as if Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton are five times their age and have long since stopped giving a shit what anybody thinks. It’s sludgy psychedelia that doesn’t sound like anything else, and whose basic ethos seems to be, “why not?” Recorder solo? Why not? Rap verse? Why not? Glockenspiel recorded too hot on a super-close mic? Why not? There are a few tracks that stand out as comparatively immediate (“Deep Six Textbook,” “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms,” and especially “Rapunzel”), but it’s the kind of album whose deep cuts creep up on you until you’ve had a half-dozen or more favourite tracks at various times. I’m partial to “Chocolate Sludge Cake,” these days. This is one of a few debut albums included on this list, and it’s not the highest-placed one. But it’s probably the one that leaves me most curious about what the second record will sound like.

No. 21: Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV

When the fifth and final act of Kentucky Route Zero finally comes out and we have the whole thing in front of us for evaluation, it may well be the single most profound computer game ever made. The developers at Cardboard Computer are taking the simple story of an old man making his last delivery of antiques and crafting it into a complex exploration of post-recession anxieties. It ties together more thematic strands than any other currently ongoing serialized narrative in any medium. What other game/show/film series/comic can you think of that deals with the history of computers, the malignancy of debt, the process of creating art, the reasons behind the impulse to travel, and the pull of addiction, all while establishing three-dimensional characters and dreaming up beautiful, impossible spaces for them to inhabit? The series as a whole is a modern creative miracle. Judging this year’s fourth act as a thing in itself is a bit more challenging. Certainly, it’s a different beast than any of the three prior acts, being substantially more linear and less exploratory in terms of gameplay, and being substantially more bittersweet and elegiac in tone. Rather than presenting the player with a map to explore at their leisure and a variety of mysterious locales to uncover and explore, Cardboard Computer gave us a set of discrete vignettes this year: an excursion to a tacky bar on an underground beach; breakfast at a fish shop that serves catches from the deepest most mysterious depths of a secret river; a theremin recital on the bow of a tugboat. Most astonishingly, it allows the player to control a character in security footage, with events narrated in past tense. It almost reminds me of The Animatrix, in the sense that it consists of a bunch of small stories that take place in a world with bigger stories. But each of these vignettes is so resonant that it’s impossible to object to the relative lack of control. It’s an even more lovely choice, when you consider that our protagonist, Conway, is at the turning point of his story here. We know there’s something tragic happening to him, but our focus is turned elsewhere, on these little stories of unusual lives going on regardless, until it actually happens. And when it does, it’s shattering. It’ll likely be a long wait until we get to see how the story ends. But that’s fine, because the world of Kentucky Route Zero is rich enough that no amount of playthroughs can really serve to fully reveal it.

No. 20: Blackstar

We’ve finally reached the first item on the list that might be too ubiquitous to write meaningfully about anymore. Bowie has found himself at the centre of far too many Grand Unified Theories of 2016 Celebrity Deaths already, so I’ll just offer a couple of thoughts about this album, which still hits me just as hard as when it came out. David Bowie died less than a week apart from the great French avant-garde composer/conductor Pierre Boulez. To attempt to draw general connections between the two of them would be facile (though it didn’t stop many from trying), but there’s a line on Blackstar that haunted me from the beginning, especially given that when I first heard it, I’d been thinking about Boulez for a few days: “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter, then stepped aside / Somebody else took his place and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar.” Since Bowie is first and foremost rock and roll’s greatest purveyor of riddles and enigmas, we can and should speculate wildly about what (or who) he meant by “blackstar.” But even without knowing, the sentiment here is clear. On a track that’s demonstrably about Bowie’s death, he’s not singing about his legacy: he’s singing about the artists who will replace him — the artists he’s stepping aside for. Those lines are positioned almost like a thesis statement. They recur throughout the opening song, with different musical settings. I think I know what this is: Bowie is using his last musical breath to admonish future generations who may revere him above the artists of their own time. This, by a wonderful coincidence, was the cornerstone of Boulez’s artistic philosophy. Boulez considered music history a “great burden,” and claimed that “we must get rid of it once and for all” in favour of the art of the present day. Whatever Boulez might have thought about Bowie, there’s no doubt that he helped to build popular music into an idiom that values innovation and novelty more than traditions and dubious notions of timelessness. So, if you occasionally hear somebody make that well-meaning claim that one day we’ll remember David Bowie (or, conceivably, Pierre Boulez) the way we now remember Mozart, take a moment to consider that he might not have wanted us to. Not that he can help it.

No. 19: Swiss Army Man

Known on the internet primarily as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie,” this is a movie that was exactly as bonkers as I thought it would be, but also much much better. In spite, or more likely because of its relentless devotion to its own ridiculous premise, Swiss Army Man is never less than riveting for a single second. It is essentially a feature-length two-hander, with Paul Dano and Radcliffe together in almost every frame of the movie. The fact that the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down under the weight of its own childishness is largely due to the fact that Dano and Radcliffe both offer grounded, emotionally realistic performances within an absurd context. Even Radcliffe, who plays a talking (farting) corpse, gives his character a believable emotional arc. To the credit of directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the movie never gets bogged down in the mechanics of what’s real and what isn’t. Instead, the Daniels just allow the story to be a visual fantasia that proceeds entirely according to the logic of pacing and character. They bring their expertise as music video directors to bear, allowing the score to interact freely with the story — at times reflecting what’s going on in the character’s heads, and at times actually being sung by the characters themselves. Swiss Army Man’s hallucinatory dream sequences also double as Rube Goldberg machines, with sets built largely of found objects. It’s dazzling, in a jerry-rigged sort of way. It’s hard to say what, if anything, the themes of this movie are. But that seems almost beside the point. It is realistic character drama that takes place within a high-concept, gross-out, borderline trolling indie comedy that gets laughs out of subjecting a corpse to untold indignities. It almost seems like a deliberate response to assholes like me who complain ad nauseum about how there are no new ideas in the movies. But honest to god, I would take an endless stream of movies like this to inevitable Christmas Star Wars forever.

No. 18: Jerusalem: The Burroughs

jerusalem-cover-600x899Yes, technically, this is only a ranking of book one of Alan Moore’s magnificent brick of a novel. Because that’s as far as I’ve gotten. Nonetheless, Jerusalem isn’t the kind of book that you need to be finished to know whether you like it. It was quite clear from the very beginning that I did. He’s every bit as engaging as a novelist as he is in his comics. I daresay that in some cases there’s not much difference between the two experiences, given how verbose he is as a comics writer as well. But on the other hand, there’s intrinsic merit to reading a novel by Alan Moore, because it allows him to really occupy the insides of his characters’ heads more than he often can in comics. This is very much a novel in the English modernist tradition of Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, where characters’ inner selves are revealed by way of their responses to the city streets that they walk through. If you’re a fan of books about people thinking as they walk — and how could you not be? — you will love this. Each chapter in “The Burroughs” focusses on a different character’s inner monologue — every one of them as fully realized and vibrant as Watchmen’s Rorschach or From Hell’s Sir William Gull, but without their seductive danger. This is, after all, a novel about Moore’s home: Northampton, the town where he’s lived for his whole life. And though there is a general, pervading sense of squalor, dilapidation and desperation throughout, Jerusalem is thus far proving to be a remarkably warm novel. Moore’s obsessively detailed descriptions of tiny local landmarks (often seen at different points in history) are obviously acts of love — and acts of preservation. Jerusalem opens with an artist proclaiming that she’ll save Northampton from complete gentrification with a magical ritual involving paintings. That’s transparently Moore’s goal as well. And in transcribing the sights and stories of his beloved surroundings, he’s done a service to his community, as well as to those of us who love his fiction. I’m convinced that the remaining two books will be better still.

No. 17: let me tell you

Let’s start broad and work towards the specifics. Classical recordings like let me tell you offer a fundamentally different value proposition to classical recordings of familiar repertoire: Beethoven; Liszt; whatever. let me tell you contains a single work: the title work, by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. It is a new work, and it has never been recorded before. It was written specifically for the soprano Barbara Hannigan, who performs it here. So, this recording will be the first time that most people will have heard this music. And those for whom it isn’t would have heard it in concert, performed by this same singer — Hannigan is, to my knowledge, the only person who has performed it as of yet. So, this album is offering brand new music, performed by an artist with real ownership over it. It is the music itself that is being offered. This is the same value proposition offered by pop albums. By contrast, a recital disc from a singer doing Verdi and Puccini arias, or Schubert lieder, is specifically offering a performance. The music itself cannot be the primary driving factor of such a recording, since it’s been recorded hundreds of other times, and what would be the point. I’ll be more strident, because who’s going to stop me: what is the point? Unless your recording reaches Glenn Gould levels of idiosyncrasy, isn’t it redundant upon arrival? (I should mention that the one classical musician recording standard rep nowadays who I do feel reaches those heights is the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who made my second and third-favourite classical recordings of the year.) This is why I’m so glad to see this recording gracing so many of the 2016 classical lists (including one I helped compile). Abrahamsen’s piece is so beautiful and so directly expressive that I feel it can serve as proof-of-concept for modern classical music. My hope would be that listeners would hear this and realize that there isn’t such a fundamental divide between classical music and pop. Not in the sense that this sounds like pop music. It doesn’t, and that’s never the answer. Rather, it bridges the divide in the sense that it offers the same value proposition as pop music, and is also self-evidently brilliant. As for the specifics, which are what’s ultimately important, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is a truly great ensemble. Conductor Andris Nelsons leads them through this challenging new work like it’s Mozart 40. Barbara Hannigan is quite simply the best singer alive.

No. 16: The Heart

This is the podcast that customarily makes me too bashful to say anything meaningful in my weekly reviews. However, I’m certain that the producers of this show would be extremely disappointed in me for that, so let’s give it a go. The Heart is a show that explores love and sexuality without self-censorship, and with an emphasis on the perspectives of women and queer people. Like Criminal, Reply All, or 99% Invisible, it has the capacity to tell an infinitude of stories through the lens it chooses to focus it. Also, like those shows, it has a house style that tames its variety into a semblance of order. That style is best described by the show’s former title: Audio Smut. 2016 saw the release of three uniquely focussed seasons of episodes. “Ghost,” the first of them, is a series of stories about being haunted by past relationships. It’s possibly their most poetic season so far, with the routinely brilliant mixing often simulating the sensation of having an intimate conversation with yourself in your head. This is likely one of the two or three outright best sounding podcasts being made today, and not in a flashy way. It’s subtle, but always perfect. The second season of the year is the real flagship: “Silent Evidence” tells the rather difficult-to-hear but important story of a woman who decides to confront her childhood sexual abuser years later. It’s brave, it’s beautifully written, and it is very much its protagonist’s own story. The next full season, “Diaries,” is simpler, less ambitious, and does essentially what it says on the tin. But somewhere in the midst of all this was a standalone episode that ranks as maybe the most gutwrenching, affecting single podcast episode of the year. “Mariya” is the first-person story of a woman dealing with the fallout from female genital mutilation. It is heavy listening, but I’m not sure I’ve heard a more nuanced exploration of trauma before. The Heart expanded what it’s capable of this year, and it was already one of the best shows being made.

No. 15: Firewatch

The thing that initially impressed me most about Firewatch is that it solves the problems with two kinds of games by just stacking them on top of each other. This game is a walking simulator of the Dear Esther or Gone Home persuasion, with a branching narrative à la the Telltale Walking Dead games worked into it. That offers all of the freedom to explore that the walking sims offer, but tempers the aimlessness of some of those games by forcing you to make choices consistently. And, it offers the narrative propulsion of Telltale’s method, but combats the sense that you’re being driven through the game on linear tracks. I could see this exact set of mechanics working brilliantly for just about any story, and I imagine we will see that happen in the coming years. But none of this would have impressed if the story hadn’t been up to snuff. I slightly resent that this game has occasionally been characterized as a perverse attempt to make being a fire lookout fun (a whiff of Papers, Please, perhaps). This isn’t that. Nobody would bat an eye about a movie being made about a fire lookout, so why not a game? Besides, the idea that a guy takes a job as a fire lookout after a damaging experience in his personal life is an obvious setup for a proper adventure story. And it’s also a perfect setup for a great character drama. The best part of playing Firewatch is in hearing the interactions of its two main characters: Harry, the player character (voiced brilliantly by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), and Delilah, his boss in another lookout tower who is available only by radio (voiced equally brilliantly by Cissy Jones). You get to shape their relationship through the dialogue choices that you make, which would be a game enough in itself. And wandering around in a beautifully-rendered forest would be nearly enough in itself as well. But again, it’s the combination of the two that makes this game unique. Firewatch is a rare thing: a fun, straightforward, not especially arty video game that nonetheless feels like it’s for grown-ups. Hopefully it’s a harbinger of more.

No. 14: Planet Earth II

The best that can be said of Planet Earth II is that it lives up to Planet Earth I. These two series both feature the most beautiful and virtuosic cinematography that’s ever been done, and it is beautiful in spite of the fact that the events it documents are as unscripted as it’s possible to be. Komodo dragons don’t take direction well. Mind you, I’m sure that the editing proved equally virtuosic: you don’t get sequences this perfect without a bit of fakery. There’s a sequence in the grasslands episode that keeps coming back to mind: a mouse climbs to the top of a blade of tall grass, has to dodge an approaching barn owl, and falls off of the blade of grass, into the frame of another shot. The whole thing is seen from several different angles. Who’s to say if all of those shots are even of the same mouse? But even if there is a certain amount of fudging going on, it’s hard to think of this as cheating. The amount of (quality, beautiful) footage that they must have had to shoot to tell complete, engaging stories must be gigantic. The BBC Natural History Unit’s secret weapon is the “personal narrative”: rather than showing us the generalities of things that happen in nature, the filmmakers introduce us to one specific sloth, or a particular pair of snow leopards, and show us their story. David Attenborough’s voiceover is as beautifully written and delivered as ever (contrived segues aside), but it’s also an infinitesimally small part of the undertaking of Planet Earth II. Credit belongs to the camera operators and producers who went out into the field and managed the most impossible of logistics to obtain the most stupefying footage ever seen. As ever, the behind-the-scenes segments at the end of each episode are as compelling as the footage itself. The season finale, which focusses anomalously on cities and the animals who have adapted to thrive there, is different from anything that this show has done before. But it’s also the unquestionable highlight. A rooftop conflict between monkeys results in a fight scene straight from a Jackie Chan movie; leopards stalk the streets of Mumbai; Catfish hunt pigeons on the shores of Rome; and birds perform elaborate mating rituals using colourful man-made trinkets. It’s as entertaining and surprising as any episode before, and also serves as a reminder that the boundary between the natural world and the built world is permeable. One hopes that the world is still in a place where Attenborough’s warnings about our responsibility to the rest of the planet don’t fall entirely on deaf ears.

No. 13: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters

dan-foxIf I had the money for grandiose acts of largesse, I would buy a whole case of Dan Fox’s latest and send them out to all of my friends and relatives, my member of parliament, Canada’s minister of heritage, every arts administrator and broadcaster I’m acquainted with, and as many heads of state as I think would actually read it. This monograph is a stunning defense of thinking and behaving in ways that contravene convention — a deeply necessary defence to make in our time. Fox isn’t attempting a whole-hog refutation of populism. Rather, he has composed an eloquent love letter to broad-mindedness. Fox notes the obvious point that the word “pretentious” is generally used in a derogatory fashion: to put somebody back in their place when they’re perceived to have overstepped a social boundary. But he argues persuasively that the act of overstepping social boundaries — which necessitates a certain amount of pretense or pretending (to the throne, even) — is inherently praiseworthy. And he has some choice words for those who prefer the epithet “elitist,” too. He cites a Guardian columnist who literally professed hatred — hatred — for a pair of flashily-dressed young people he saw randomly at a contemporary art exhibit. He tears that columnist apart for what he rightly calls “cheap, them-versus-us populism.” He continues: “It speaks to an ugly intolerance for difference, to an expectation that people must share the same aesthetic tastes and appearances and that if they don’t they must be complicit members of an elitist racket hell-bent on excluding ‘ordinary’ people from its world. Those ‘ordinary’ people, it is assumed, could not possibly be interested in complex ideas and conversant in different forms of visual literacy.” Boom. That quote alone is reason enough for everybody involved in art in any capacity to read this book. There’s a quote near the end that I now consider words to live by: “To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” Open-mindedness is an ideal among ideals. If more people were devoted to the cultivation of a broad base of knowledge, as opposed to fearing or resenting those qualities in others, societies would be stronger, less divided, and make better decisions as an electorate. Pretentiousness is not the enemy. Quite the opposite. This is a short and powerful book that everybody who cares about the legacy of human thought should read immediately, lest that legacy come to an end in the miasma of anti-intellectualism that the Trump administration is already promising to perpetuate.

No. 12: BoJack Horseman

There’s a promo graphic for this year’s season of BoJack Horseman that says “Soprano, Draper, Underwood, Horseman.” It would be easy to construe the point of that graphic as being something to the effect of: “Don’t let the fact that it’s a funny cartoon fool you! BoJack Horseman is a Serious Anti-Hero Television Programme!” If that actually is what the graphic is trying to say, it is a facile misreading of the show that it’s promoting. The third, and so far, best season of the show finds BoJack (a role in which Will Arnett just gets better and better) realizing that success doesn’t fill the emptiness. On its surface, that’s the premise of a standard “difficult man” show of the sort that has defined the last decade or so of prestige television. But BoJack Horseman differs from those sorts of shows in the sense that it focuses relentlessly on the malignant impact that its difficult protagonist has on the characters around him — particularly the women. The twin emotional spines of this season are BoJack’s relationship with his longsuffering, hypercompetent agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris keeps getting better, too) and with his former co-star and surrogate daughter Sarah Lynn (likewise for Kristen Schaal). In Princess Carolyn’s case, we see how she has helped BoJack out of countless situations where he’s made terrible errors, but she is not permitted a single mistake. With Sarah Lynn, we see how BoJack’s self-destructive tendencies are not only self-destructive, but also harmful to the most vulnerable people around him. In this sense, BoJack Horseman is the most realistic anti-hero show that’s been made so far. Because in real life, these sorts of people aren’t redeemed by their wit or charisma: they’re just bad. They’re bad for the world. BoJack is a great character because he realizes this and wants to change. But the fact that he doesn’t change means that he continues to cause pain and misfortune to those around him, and the show has no compunction about emphasizing this. In general, I’m not sure there’s another comedy out there that quite so willing to assume that the viewer is passingly conversant in feminist discourse. It’s gratifying to see that in a show that’s also full of silly animal jokes and has a whole episode of sight gags with almost no dialogue.

No. 11: Theory of Everything

Benjamen Walker is more committed than any other public radio refugee in podcasting to making a show that could never work on public radio. Theory of Everything deals with big, difficult, abstract subjects like the mathematics of coincidence. It dives head-on into anxieties about the future of information and labour. It fearlessly dances over the line between fiction and nonfiction. And it does not hold your hand. It trusts you to be smart enough to parse it. This year saw the beginning of a lengthy project exploring surveillance, which has taken Walker in all sorts of directions, and which plays into his anxieties beautifully. (He’s at his best when he’s getting anxious about something.) It also addressed the moment when the CIA weaponized abstract expressionism during the Cold War, and the gentrification of Paris. But the defining moment of Theory of Everything this year came from the episode “Useful Idiots,” in which a guest connects Vladimir Putin to Jeremy Bentham by way of Vladislav Surkov and Grigory Potemkin. That is the kind of thing that regular listeners know to expect from Benjamen Walker. And as the Trump era gets underway, I’m certain that his series on surveillance will only become more relevant and essential.

No. 10: Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl

phonogramKieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie had a big year, amping up the action in their blockbuster comic The Wicked and the Divine, but it’s this beautiful conclusion to their longstanding passion project Phonogram that best demonstrates what I love about them. For one thing, it accidentally prefigured the year of celebrity deaths that we’ve had, which is just one example of the crazy synchronicity that surrounds Gillen and McKelvie’s work. The premise of Phonogram is that music is magic: it isn’t only the most useful index of human culture that we possess, but it also exerts force on the world and has the capacity to change it by changing people’s minds. “The Immaterial Girl” finds the characters that we’ve known since way back in the first issue of Phonogram struggling with the consequences of having too thoroughly mediated their interface with the world through music. This arc’s protagonist, Emily, has literally cut her personality in half by surrendering to the seductive pull of a musical icon. It’s a curiously relatable story. But the most affecting moment in this, or any Gillen/McKelvie comic so far, comes courtesy of David Kohl, a protagonist from a bygone story arc. When confronted head-on with the concerns of somebody else’s real life, he has a small epiphany: “I realized that the most important things in the story — the things which really matter — aren’t in this story.” For maybe the first time ever, Kohl finds himself face-to-face with somebody else’s reality: a reality that isn’t mediated entirely by pop records. Music is magic: we know it is because it has the capacity to frame the world and affect the way that we act upon it. But Kohl’s realization provides a profound addendum to that: the world still exists outside of that frame. To a certain extent, “The Immaterial Girl” is about breaking the spells that bind you to a certain way of thinking. For those of us who are single-mindedly pop culture-obsessed enough to be into Phonogram, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But that’s why I love it.

No. 9: HyperNormalisation

Adam Curtis’s latest completely uncompromising, non-hand holding, fearlessly complex, nuanced and lucid documentary came out exclusively on the BBC iPlayer. It’s refreshing to see a public broadcaster look at the internet and say “I suppose this is where we put the stuff that’s too ambitious for broadcast television” instead of “I guess this is where the memes go.” Curtis’s stated aim seems ludicrously grandiose at first: he’s going to demonstrate that we’ve come to live in a world that’s fake. But once you realize what he means by that, you come to realize that his thesis isn’t only demonstrable in theory, it’s almost inarguably true. HyperNormalization begins with stories in New York and Damascus, and continues symmetrically mapping the gradual dissolution of politics into a false narrative-making machine through America and the Middle East. There are quick asides to the U.K. and Russia, but this is mostly a story about the U.S., Syria, and most compellingly, Libya. The figure who is the lynchpin of Curtis’s entire sprawling argument is Muammar Gaddafi: a cartoonish lunatic who wasn’t responsible for much that the U.S. (knowingly wrongly) accused him of, but who was deranged enough to take responsibility anyway. Curtis traces Gaddafi’s transformation from America’s handmade bogeyman that let them conveniently remain allied with Syria through the Gulf War, into a political intellectual and friend of the West after 9/11, and subsequently into an enemy again when the U.S. allied itself with the Libyan rebels. This strand of Curtis’s narrative alone makes it clear that reality hasn’t been tremendously important in American politics for a long time. Throw the internet into the mix and things get really spooky. Curtis demonstrates how some of the most notable revolutionary movements of recent times, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, fomented on social media — a reductive, simplified simulacrum of reality. Social media is really good at letting people organize and do things, but it’s really bad at fostering the kinds of discourses that produce viable ideas for how to run a country. So, after Occupy and after Tahrir Square, nothing really changed. Because you can’t build a real revolution in a fake version of the world. The documentary was released before the election of Trump, let alone the mainstreaming of the term “alternative facts.” But HyperNormalisation makes our inconceivably confusing and appalling contemporary world look like the inevitable consequence of a gradual, global, decades-long withdrawal from reality.

No. 8: Lemonade

I default to resenting juggernauts. It’s not a matter of principle, and in fact I’d rather approach music, movies, etc. with a more open mind than I do. But there are cases where this natural bias that I have against the ludicrously successful cannot find the slightest toehold. Lemonade, the most talked-about and obsessed over artwork of the year, is also virtually perfect: in both of its forms. The HBO special was the source of the initial buzz more so than the record, but they are equal accomplishments, each complete artworks in themselves. The record is the version that ultimately insinuated its way into my life, soundtracking my year in a way that might have been surprising, given how personal and specific an album Lemonade is. But it is also a demonstration of how the personal is political, as the motto goes. And, it’s a demonstration of how to make an intensely personal work of art within the context of expensive, shiny, commercial, heavily-resourced music. This must be what it felt like when Sgt. Pepper came out. Like that record, Lemonade was made by a massively popular artist. Like Sgt. Pepper, this record is following on the heels of a previous one that had massively intensified its creator’s critical acclaim. And like Sgt. Pepper, Lemonade surpassed virtually all of its near contemporaries in terms of ambition, depth of human understanding, and sheer studio perfection. Lemonade contains the best R&B, rock, hip-hop and country music of the year. A sonically flawless, intensely poetic celebration of black womanhood from Beyoncé was something that needed to happen, and it needed to happen specifically when it did. Thank the goddamn lord.

No. 7: You Must Remember This

Karina Longworth’s podcast about Hollywood’s first century is the best cultural history lesson you can experience on a weekly basis. The world’s podcast obsessives really started to take notice of You Must Remember This during last year’s “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” series. But 2016 found Longworth doing her most ambitious — and timeliest — project so far: a 16-part (21-part, if you count the completely essential re-runs of prior episodes sprinkled throughout for context) series about the Hollywood blacklist. These stories of how some of an era’s most creative people were forced out of their industry and into hard times because of their politics (and just as often, their race) would be fascinating in itself. But during a period where the pendulum has swung decisively back towards the fearmongering and hatred of the other that defined the HUAC era, it takes on the tenor of a warning. A meticulously-researched, hyper-detailed warning. (Remember the scary moment when it looked like Newt Gingrich might get a cabinet post and he said he wanted to reinstate HUAC? The fact that it didn’t happen with Gingrich doesn’t mean it couldn’t ever happen.) And yes, this is a podcast about celebrities and movie moguls. That might make it seem a bit distant from the concerns of the majority of the American electorate. But in focussing on cultural icons, Longworth doesn’t only impart glamour to her history lessons (though she does do that). She also emphasizes how government has always courted celebrity — at the very least, as a source of scandal. These are stories of resistance, cowardice, fear and persecution. They are stories of how governments can influence the culture industry and vice versa. And they will also probably introduce you to some colourful characters from American movie history that you might not know about. (The episode about Dorothy Parker is my personal favourite.) Longworth has even begun incorporating more archival tape into her show, so that it feels less like an audiobook with musical accompaniment. But her writing is still the be-all-and-end-all of the show, demonstrating that research and synthesis are potentially the equals of reporting and interviewing as working methods for making good nonfiction podcasts.

No. 6: Manchester by the Sea

This movie made me have every feeling I’m capable of. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been so pulled in by a movie with so little artifice. This is very much one of those movies that feels like dropping in on a period in somebody’s actual life. There’s nothing stylized about it. I usually like movies that announce their movie-ness as loudly as they can. (Recall that Swiss Army Man is on this list.) So why did Manchester make me respond like this? I think it might be because of the complete absence of emotional manipulation. Short of a bit of maudlin Albinoni music during the climactic scene, this movie declines to be openly expressive, opting instead to just be sad. In that, it is taking a cue from its protagonist. Manchester is basically a character study of Casey Affleck’s Lee. Still, I wonder why a movie so focussed on its main character should be titled after its setting instead? You might think that a film called Manchester by the Sea would focus more on the community around him. But aside from Lee’s nephew and a short but shattering performance from Michelle Williams as his wife, it really doesn’t. Here are my thoughts: I believe that Manchester by the Sea receives its title because this is first and foremost the story of what happens to a man when he’s forced to revisit a place that’s haunted by a past trauma. Manchester-by-the-Sea is the place where an unthinkable thing happened to Lee. The name of the town is as much a metonym for Lee’s personal tragedy as Wall Street is for high finance. So, Manchester by the Sea isn’t titled for its setting, so much as for its central horror: less Philidelphia than Poltergeist. There’s an alternate universe where Manchester is a horror movie: a haunted house story about what happens when you force a person to live in a place that’s full of ghosts. This is a profound film: a paradigm-shifting dissertation on what hides behind the facades of difficult, impenetrable people.

No. 5: Until the Horror Goes

This is the item on this list that I debated and deliberated about the most. I swung from one extreme to the other on this album throughout the course of 2016. When I first heard the singles, and then the full album, I thought it was without a doubt the best music I’d heard in years. Congleton writes huge cathartic anthems in the vein of Arcade Fire, or even U2. Then he twists them into warped shapes, with abrasive dissonances making a near-mockery of the basic material’s natural beauty. And he pairs the music with some of the bleakest lyrics you’re likely to hear outside of metal. The profoundest appeal of Until the Horror Goes is the fact that the latent beauty of Congleton’s anthems still shines through the muck, which to me makes them more poignant than anything on Funeral or The Joshua Tree. That is, when it hits me. Because this album — the one I’m currently proclaiming is my favourite of the year — doesn’t always work for me. It can get particularly dodgy when I pay close attention to the lyrics. In the right mood, Congleton’s nihilism is actually kind of satisfying. But the same part of me that doesn’t understand True Detective season one occasionally recoils at this. At the worst of times, John Congleton comes off like a 14-year-old goth: “If a tree falls in the woods… it doesn’t matter.” These are things you begin to get concerned about when an album captures your attention as completely as this captured mine. I feel more than ever that nihilism (as opposed to existentialism, which isn’t what this is) is an irresponsible philosophy and that the connections that we see and make in the world are actually meaningful. But I’ll confess to finding Congleton’s assurances that everything is meaningless and we might as well make the best of it more comforting these days than I did before November. If there’s a sentiment in music that’s defined 2016 for me, it’s surely “stay with me, stay with me, stay with me, stay with me… until the horror goes.”

No. 4: On the Media

onthemedia-1If there’s one podcast episode from 2016 that I’m likely to remember for the rest of my life, it’s the short segment that On the Media put out in its feed the morning after the election. It starts off as the sound of the two most incisive media critics working in America realizing “oh my god, even we were wrong.” And it spirals from there. At the risk of infantilizing myself, the most contentious moments of this episode felt exactly like being a kid and overhearing my parents fighting. Two people I had come to trust almost implicitly were disagreeing about things I trusted them to inform me about. This, for me, was the moment when it really sunk in how destabilizing this election result actually was. Brooke Gladstone — by my usual estimation, “the smart one” — was most disturbed by the fact that the elements in the media and the political system that they’d been reluctant to engage with had effectively chosen the president. She argued that this might be the time to start broadening the types of people they’re willing to give a platform to, though certainly not to let them get away with saying what they want. Her co-host Bob Garfield, who had spent the year proving his usefulness with a series of beautifully written and argued segments on why the media should cover Trump as an existential threat to democracy rather that as a normal politician. He was more audibly shaken by the election, and wanted to talk about whether or not it’s time to start using Hitler comparisons. It’s almost physically painful to listen to. However, the worst that can be said about On the Media this year is that they missed what everybody missed. In a media criticism show, that may seem like a substantial problem. But the fact remains that every assertion that Gladstone and Garfield made about Trump’s false narratives, media hustling and ongoing normalisation was correct. They’re still correct. And it’s not like it was all Trump all the time: the season’s highlight was Gladstone’s series on America’s poverty myths, and how they affect policy. It’s possible that this show is in the midst of an existential flail at the moment. But I’m confident that it will only become more important as we move into an era with a media-hostile president.

No. 3: Horace and Pete

This was the year when Louis C.K. got to the point where he could do whatever he wanted. Before we even get into the actual content of Horace and Pete, my favourite scripted show of the year, let’s note that it’s a self-financed, independently distributed web series, written and filmed largely on a week-by-week basis — and it has Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Jessica Lange in it, alongside some of the best comedians around… and a theme song by Paul Simon. Oh, to be a person who can make this happen. It’s possible that Louis C.K.’s imperial phase has only just started. But that leads us to what exactly Horace and Pete is, which is to say, political drama. It’s a critique of American values, with characters being split into camps that wish to either maintain traditional power structures or acknowledge that the world is changing. This manifests through the story of a generations-old bar that’s been run by the same family since its inception — always managed by two men named Horace and Pete. Obviously, given the presence of women in the family who are not entitled to the same role in the business as the generations of Horaces and Petes, this raises some questions that need addressing. And thus begins the drama. For the most part, Horace and Pete isn’t openly polemical. The first episode introduces a useful division of labour: supporting characters are allowed to sit at the bar and talk politics explicitly, but the main contest of old values vs. new values takes place symbolically in the A plot, with no explicit references to, for instance, the primaries, which were ongoing at the time. Nothing in this show is a straightforward allegory, thank god. But it captures American anxieties in the year before the election of Donald Trump better than any other work of fiction this year. It is also a simple testament to the power of good writing and good acting presented straightforwardly. The show’s standout episode is its third, which begins with a ten-minute monologue in a single close-up shot of a character who we’ve never seen before. She just tells a story. We don’t even know who she’s telling the story to, or why, because the first reaction shot is ten minutes into the episode. It is electrifying, and the kind of gutsy move that I want more of in television. I haven’t gone back and watched any of this since the election, but I’m curious how the ending would read now in light of Trump’s win. Without spoiling too much, C.K. opted to end his show twice. A happy ending is immediately undercut by staggering bleakness, with an undercurrent of muted hope for change. I’m curious now: clearly the ending we got was a horrifying one, but was the alternative really that happy? Horace and Pete is an audacious and flawed show, with some unnecessary fat in the middle episodes, but I can’t help feeling that its imperfections only enrich it. We’ve always known that Louis C.K. is one of the great contemporary comics, but this reveals him to be the reincarnation of Eugene O’Neill as well.

No. 2: Arrival

It’s possible that recency bias is a factor in this high placement, since I saw Arrival this past week. But I came out of it genuinely feeling that it’s the best movie of the year. One gradual process I’ve been through this year is that I’ve come to see how spoilers are an actual thing that’s worth avoiding. And it’s really hard to talk about Arrival without dealing with the twist. This is one of those movies that becomes an entirely different film from start to finish once you know the whole of the story. I suspect that’s probably why everything I’ve seen written about it seems more effusively positive than it can actually back up with analysis. To talk about what makes this movie extraordinary as opposed to great is to spoil it. This movie’s ending is a narrative rug pull of Steven Moffat proportions. Still, for the bulk of Arrival’s running time, we don’t know the big secret, and it’s still an excellent movie. Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of the year (again, a performance that is elevated by knowledge of the ending) as the person that the military brings in to help them communicate. Specifically, with aliens. Couching a first contact story in terms of understanding language is a winning premise, especially when the story introduces the idea (a real idea in linguistics) that language actually fundamentally affects the way that a person thinks. That makes it critical to any understanding of another culture, yet alone another species. As far as I can tell all of this comes straight from the Ted Chiang story that Arrival’s excellent screenplay is based on. But if the movie were only a brute force expression of some clever ideas, it wouldn’t be my favourite of the year. Director Denis Villeneuve imparts an element of profound lyricism to the story by allowing us to see small moments, and letting our eyes linger on images that one assumes the citizens of this movie’s world are being fed through a much more frenetic TV news approach. Villeneuve is a director that I’ve been aware of since he made Incendies in 2010, but this is the first of his movies that I’ve seen. It’s clear that he’s a major talent, and one hopes that he’ll continue making movies like this, even after he’s made his franchise juggernaut debut later this year with the new Blade Runner.

No. 1: O.J.: Made in America

This is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that’s quite this good at telling the big story and the little story at the same time. This is not just the story of the O.J. Simpson trial. And thank god for that: I would have little to no interest in watching eight hours on a trial so well-known that I’ve become intimately familiar with its finer details simply through osmosis. (I was four when it actually happened.) But director Ezra Edelman takes advantage of the story’s basic familiarity to use it as an illustration of a much larger story. The story starts with a pre-infamy O.J. Simpson making the conscious attempt to distance himself from his race. (“I’m not black; I’m O.J.”) Edelman allows long stretches of the series to unfold with very little mention of Simpson at all, in order to establish the context of race relations in late 20th-century Los Angeles. The story continues through Simpson’s abusive relationship with his wife, Nicole Brown, who is finally afforded the space in this narrative that she always should have had. Only then, a few episodes in, does Edelman get to the trial of the century. This would be a key storytelling challenge in a lesser documentary, because how does one tell this story, again? But, having laid the groundwork, Edelman deconstructs the Simpson trial by mapping the convergence of two narratives: the increasing awareness and preponderance of police violence against black people, and O.J. Simpson’s attempt at a “post-racial” public persona. Edelman deftly demonstrates how Simpson’s defence team commandeered one of the most important cultural discourses of the late 20th (and early 21st) century in defence of a man who had openly worked against that discourse in his prior career. These are the broad strokes, but there are more individual moments in this that will chill your spine than I could possibly enumerate. O.J.: Made in America is nonfiction storytelling of the very highest order. It is the ultimate synthesis of complex ideas by way of narrative. It is modern America, photographed from a helicopter.

***

Well, that was an exertion, wasn’t it? In case you’re interested, here are the lists that I drew from, broken down by genre with several runners-up in each category. You’ll note the preponderance of auditory entertainments, because those are the things I can consume while running or doing the dishes. There were simply more of them in my life last year, and this reflects that. Entries that made the top 30 are in bold.

Television

  1. O.J.: Made in America
  2. Horace and Pete
  3. BoJack Horseman
  4. Planet Earth II
  5. Better Call Saul
  6. Stranger Things
  7. Fleabag
  8. Orange is the New Black

Movies

  1. Arrival
  2. Manchester By The Sea
  3. HyperNormalisation
  4. Swiss Army Man
  5. Captain America: Civil War
  6. The Nice Guys
  7. High Rise
  8. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
  9. Moonlight
  10. Doctor Strange

Music

  1. John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes
  2. Beyoncé: Lemonade
  3. Hans Abrahamsen/Barbara Hannigan et al.: let me tell you
  4. David Bowie: Blackstar
  5. Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini
  6. Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland
  7. Tim Hecker: Love Streams
  8. A Tribe Called Red: We Are The Halluci Nation
  9. Justice: Woman
  10. Chance the Rapper: Colouring Book
  11. Bon Iver: 22, A Million
  12. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces
  13. Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution
  14. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
  15. Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  16. Solange: A Seat at the Table
  17. Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker
  18. Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language
  19. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
  20. Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Death and the Maiden

Books

  1. Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl
  2. Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters
  3. Alan Moore: Jerusalem: The Burroughs
  4. Olivia Laing: The Lonely City
  5. Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine vol. 4: Rising Action
  6. Jeremy McCarter & Lin Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: The Revolution

Games

  1. Firewatch
  2. Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4
  3. Sorcery!: Part 4
  4. Sunless Sea: Zubmariner
  5. Oxenfree

Podcasts

  1. On the Media
  2. You Must Remember This
  3. Theory of Everything
  4. The Heart
  5. More Perfect
  6. Love and Radio
  7. Imaginary Worlds
  8. Reply All
  9. Code Switch
  10. Pop Culture Happy Hour
  11. Crimetown
  12. The Gist
  13. The Sporkful
  14. In the Dark

Miscellaneous things it seemed weird to include

  1. Robert Lepage: 887
  2. Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Great AI Awakening”
  3. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared: Part 6

And with that, we’re done. Have a great last eleven months of 2017.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 2, 2016)

Just a reminder that my Tumblr exists. Okay, that’s that.

23 reviews.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 2, 2016 — This has the unfortunate distinction of being the first episode of Last Week Tonight that I’ve watched after reading this extremely on-point parody of this show’s writing and John Oliver’s delivery. Obviously, the fact that it’s possible to make a parody of something does not itself make that thing bad; it only means that it’s possible to identify the tropes at play. That could mean that the thing being parodied is hackneyed or cliché (there is a reason there are a lot of buddy cop parodies), but it could equally mean that the subject of the parody simply has a distinctive voice (the reason that Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” is such a good parody is that Devo is a good band, and Al wrote a song that’s worthy of them). But sometimes a parody can make the scales fall from your eyes so you can see a thing as it is. I have always been effusively positive about this show, but the John Oliver parody I linked above points out the fact that many of the jokes on Last Week Tonight aren’t actually jokes: they’re just lists of funny-sounding words, strung together into long sentences, which are then made the object of a comparison with a serious real-world person or thing. For instance, in this episode, Oliver ends a list of places Donald Trump gets his news with “the racist minotaur that talks to him in the one hour that he sleeps every night.” Every part of that phrase except for “racist” is entirely unmotivated by the context. The only reason for the big laugh that follows is that the phrase “racist minotaur” is funny at first… but should it be? Also, the latest in Oliver’s running gag of “alternate names for the 2016 election” is as follows: “what did I do to deserve this I always tried to be a good person is this because I stole candy once in 4th grade PLEASE STOP PUNISHING US 2016,” which, elaborate though it is, is still just finding a new sequence of words to say “the election is bad.” Also, at one point Oliver compares Hillary Clinton to “an over-confident sloth who has just learned that their credit card information has been stolen by a Ukrainian schoolboy,” except actually no, he doesn’t, because that line was from the parody BUT THE VERY FACT THAT FOR A SECOND YOU KIND OF BELIEVED IT SAYS SOMETHING about how formulaic the jokes on this show can get. (See what I did there? Mmmhmm.) Let me be clear: I still like this show. But when Oliver emphasizes (like Jon Stewart before him) that he’s a comedian and not an opinion journalist, it seems a bit pathetic to me, because he’s clearly more valuable for his skills in the latter domain than the former. The most genuinely hilarious moments on this show are in the clips that he chooses. The simple act of recontextualizing patently ridiculous moments on TV news in a comedy show, implicitly giving us permission to laugh at them, is valuable comedy — though Oliver is clearly not the only game in town in that respect. But the next time I hear somebody extol the calibre of the joke writing on Last Week Tonight, I am 85% less likely to nod in agreement.

Doctor Who: “Full Circle” — According to a recent Doctor Who poll, the best story that I haven’t seen is “Warrior’s Gate.” So, I figured I should just check out the whole trilogy that it’s the concluding entry in. Wow, it has been a while since I watched classic Doctor Who, and I had forgotten how much it demands of a modern audience. This is very difficult to take on a number of levels, just in terms of televisual grammar. You don’t get reaction shots where it seems clear that there should be a reaction shot, characters routinely make exclamations that reiterate something that’s just been shown onscreen, and the less said about the rubber monster suits, the better. But it has its appeal. Obviously it does, or else I wouldn’t have spent so many hours of my life watching old Doctor Who serials, most of which suffer these exact same problems. Ultimately, I never get tired of stories that paint a picture of a unique alien civilization at a turning point. And they are always at a turning point, because the Doctor is an agent of change, and his unexpected arrival (along with the TARDIS, his companions, and most importantly a film crew and a TV audience) must by necessity result in the forward motion of the plot. This is no “Ribos Operation,” but it is a perfectly competent iteration of that story. Also, Adric. Ugh.

Movies

Going Clear — This is fascinating, surprising and appalling. Each of the ex-Scientologists interviewed here has a compelling story about how they finally left the church. One can critique the extent to which the former high-ranking Scientologists are allowed to get away with the fairly terrible things they took part in. But the villain of this piece is Scientology itself, and to a lesser extent, its current leader, David Miscavige. L. Ron Hubbard is rightly portrayed as unsympathetic, but he is at least portrayed as sincere, and not merely power hungry like Miscavige. Best of all is the way that the documentary subtly equates the act of leaving the church with the moment of “going clear,” which is Scientology bullshit for having worked through your psychological issues by way of religious practices. A really wonderful documentary that, like Lawrence Wright’s book upon which it is based, seeks first to understand Scientology and its practitioners and only begins its critique once it is clear that something is very wrong.

Games

The Last Door: Season Two (Collector’s Edition) — There are fewer truly horrifying moments in this than there were in the first season (mind you, even the latter three episodes of that struggled to match the roomful of crows moment in the game’s pilot episode), but all in all this is a stronger game than its predecessor. The biggest and most profitable change is the introduction of an overworld map to each episode, which makes the whole thing feel bigger, more open and more exploratory. The pleasure of traipsing about a larger area is a benefit in itself, but the real payoff of this approach is that the game’s horror mythos can expand outwards beyond our central cast of characters. Superstitious seamen are aware of strange things lurking out in the fog. Secluded islanders know how the human mind can bring forth very real monsters. On that note, the story’s influences expand from Poe and Lovecraft to also include The Wicker Man, which the third episode is an extremely straightforward homage to (but without the awkward musical numbers and tonal inconsistencies). And the final episode features a satisfying set of near-callbacks to the first season, which must have been especially thrilling to people who played it more than… three days prior. In a sense, The Last Door works as a dark mirror image of one of my all-time favourite games: Meg Jayanth’s 80 Days. Both are tributes to fantastical 19th-century literature (I still stand by my assertion that there’s more Poe in this than Lovecraft, though this season certainly amps up the Cthulhu factor), both examine the world at a time when scientific and medical advances were butting heads with superstition and religiosity, and of course both of them tell their stories through a simple graphical interface with good writing (though it must be said that The Last Door could have used another round of copy editing). I dunno what it is about 19th century pastiches that makes for good games, but keep them coming.

The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain — Every so often, I revisit a game from my youth for sheer nostalgia purposes — and not because I think it may have stood the test of time. My childhood was full of edutainment titles, and hoo boy is this ever a game that an overly conscientious parent gets for their kid. It has effectively no story, just a premise: Dr. Brain accidently transferred his brain into a rat and you have to get it back by solving logic puzzles. The rat does silly voices while you solve the logic puzzles. What’s astonishing is that there’s also a character who talks to you directly about the various intelligences you’re developing in solving the puzzles. There’s no attempt to mask the game’s educational objectives. Frankly, this seems like exactly the sort of thing that I would have loved at age six. What that says about the adult I grew into, I’m not sure.

Music

Rush: Hemispheres — Don’t you love that album in a great band’s discography that’s clearly awesome but you haven’t fully gotten to know it yet? This is certainly in my top three Rush albums, but I came to it late, so I haven’t played it nearly as many times as Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures. It is very much a sunset album: it’s the logical conclusion of what they started with 2112 and A Farewell to Kings, and they would soon head in a different direction. The switch they made on Permanent Waves, seemingly made as much out of exhaustion as artistic conviction, led to the best music of their career. But that fact does not negate the excellence of their final masterpiece in their previous idiom. Hemispheres is a prog album in the 1972 mould, and deserves a place just a few rungs below Close to the Edge in that genre’s pantheon. Specifics: “La Villa Strangiato” is particularly strong, of course, and contains career-best playing from Alex Lifeson, the group’s most undersung member. The mythos that underpins the title track is both fascinating and a little bit bogus, but it wouldn’t be Rush without that quality. And let’s not talk about the politics of “The Trees.” Mostly, let’s not talk about it because I’m still having trouble figuring out if there’s irony involved. Irony has never been Neil Peart’s first priority, and I’m not sure I trust him to deploy it expertly. There’s lots to chew over in this, but it is all accompanied by brilliantly thought-out music and incredible playing. It’s definitely worth a listen for anybody who knows Rush mostly through the singles.

Literature, etc.

Annie Correal: “Want to Work in 18 Miles of Books? First, the Quiz” — I love the idea of a book quiz being part of a hiring process at a bookstore. I love the idea of a bookstore with snooty curmudgeons stalking the aisles. I love the idea of short-term employment at a bookstore bequeathing “instant New Yorker” status on a newcomer. I suppose if I’m ever in NYC again, I should stop by the Strand.

Robert Sullivan: “The Hamilton Cult” — A truly wonderful and provocative essay in Harper’s that stops far short of “debunking” Hamilton, but uses historiography to contextualize it as an example of “Great Man” history. Sullivan argues that the historical Alexander Hamilton was a drastically different beast from the theatrical creation first portrayed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. That isn’t surprising in itself, of course. What is notable is the extent to which certain (non-Chernow) Hamilton biographers feel that what’s celebrated about Hamilton in Hamilton is a long way from what Hamilton himself would have considered his legacy. I think that this historically-minded bit of history (which, once again, does not suggest that Hamilton isn’t a great piece of theatre) combined with Aja Romano’s Vox feature that casts Hamilton as fanfic (thus putting a finer point on why the issues Sullivan raises are not actually problems) would make for the most compelling mini-bibliography of Hamilton criticism you could want.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 4 “Rising Action” — The best volume of this extraordinary comic so far. Not sure it tops Phonogram volume 3 for the Gillen/McKelvie 2016 sweepstakes, but it brilliantly lives up to its title. It’s true that this has a proliferation of fight scenes that isn’t generally this comic’s speed, or mine, but it manages to pack in a tremendous density of plot, regardless. One particular staggering turning point near the end of this arc leaves me with absolutely no clue what’s going to happen next. But in spite of that development, I’m still wondering if WicDiv is gearing up to be a modern day Ring cycle, in which the era of gods comes to an end. If that is the case, we are clearly approaching Götterdämmerung with great speed. What that means for pop music and modern culture is anybody’s guess. Pick of the week. 

William Blake: Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion — Oh good god what is even happening who are these people is this guy just that guy by another name what is an emanation and why are all the people also places… Basically, I started reading a prophesy by a madman this week, and it is proving to be hard going. Will report back.

Podcasts

On the Media: “The Poverty Tour” — It takes more than facts and figures to properly debunk a myth that has become a mainstream narrative. It takes a rigorous interrogation of the means by which the myth was propagated in the first place. Enter Brooke Gladstone. This first instalment of a series on poverty myths focusses on a welfare advocate who has been fighting a losing battle with the media for decades. It feels like a framing device, which leads me to wonder how Gladstone will integrate and undermine media representation in the stories she tells about the impoverished in the coming weeks. I am very much looking forward to this. If it sticks the landing to the extent that I’m hoping it will, it will pair up with Bob Garfield’s various features on Trump to make On the Media the most clarifying current affairs program of this confounding year.

The Gist: “Who Called Off the Pretension Police?” — Funny, as always, but the main conversation is a bit disappointing. You may listen to this thinking that you’ll hear a thoughtful discussion of how pretension came to be socially accepted and, well, not pretentious. And it is a thoughtful discussion, but they never quite make it there, and I was left wondering how and why Pesca perceived a change at all. Skippable.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Magnificent Seven and Fleabag” — Oh man, I guess I need to watch Fleabag. When Glen Weldon recommends something this heartily, I know it will be worth a look. Aside from that, I’m already starting to miss Linda Holmes. I feel like maybe she wouldn’t have presided over a segment on The Magnificent Seven, about which there is comically little to say.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” Parts 6-8, plus Chaplin rerun — This continues to be outstanding, and Longworth did in fact outdo the excellent Dorothy Parker episode with her (functional) two-parter on Charlie Chaplin during wartime, and subsequently the blacklist era. I’d urge anybody who is on the fence about committing to this extremely long series to listen to the Chaplin episodes first. They don’t require a huge amount of background knowledge, and they’re a more fascinating way in than the first two episodes of this, which are a bit slow by comparison to what comes next. But, you’ve got to take time setting up the pieces in a game this complex. The Reagan episode is fascinating too, and portrays him as essentially two-faced during this period, maintaining a public face of political balance while naming names to the FBI behind closed doors. Marvellous.

The West Wing Weekly: “In Excelsis Deo (with Richard Schiff)” & “Memorial Day Special (with Melissa Fitzgerald)” — Okay, I see the point of this now. It is still definitely for fans of The West Wing, but it’s also about acting in general, and about public service. Richard Schiff’s episode is one of the best conversations I’ve heard on a podcast in a long time. He gets choked up a couple of times when the emotions from the run of the show come flooding back. You realize that he’s immensely committed as an actor — not in the bullshit methody way, but in the sense that he really takes the job seriously, so much that he always wants to be actively involved in finessing the scripts and the finished product. It made me want to go back and watch “In Excelsis Deo” again. I might just. And the episode with Melissa Fitzgerald is a nice tag. The fact that she went from being on The West Wing to being in public service herself gives her a unique perspective on this episode. This is really great stuff and I will certainly listen to more.

Reply All: “Very Quickly to the Drill” — One of the best episodes of this show, maybe ever. The depth of Google AdWords scamming is both unsurprising and totally fascinating. The highlights of this episode are the two more detailed stories near the end, which mirror each other in terms of intentions. On the dark, awful side of the mirror, there are locksmiths. Shady, horrible scamming locksmiths whose scheme has become so prevalent that it has essentially split into cartels. On the other side, there is an international organization that claims it can find your lost wedding ring, and while it has every red flag associated with a horrible scam, it isn’t one. This is great.

StartUp: “Introducing Season 4” — I am very excited for the next Gimlet-focussed episode of this show. I’m surprised to hear that tape off the top of this trailer that says that listeners have plateaued in recent months. I think Gimlet’s shows have been great lately. Science Vs and Heavyweight are both great additions. And StartUp itself looks like it might be back to the standards of its first two seasons (yeah, I liked the Dating Ring season a lot) pretty soon. Relax, Gimlet! You are fine.

In the Dark: Episodes 1-4 — I am a sucker for that moment in serialized documentary storytelling where a huge development in a seemingly cold story changes everything, right in the middle of the reporting process. (Think of the final episode of The Jinx.) In this show, it happens between the trailer and episode one. Providence got us off to a good start. Knowing from the outset who the guilty party is allows host Madeleine Baran to focus specifically on how law enforcement got the case of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction so completely wrong. On the other hand, I kind of wish we got to hear the show that she’d been intending to make before the big revelation happened. I wonder how much would have changed. Still, it’s probably only me who obsesses that much over how the telling of a story affects the story itself (I’ve been listening to Hamilton too much, and also watching Doctor Who). This is compelling true crime, very much in the vein of Serial season one, but without its obsessive attention to tiny details (again, mitigated by the fact that the case is closed) and presumably with a proper ending. I’ve got to say, serialized true crime isn’t really where my head’s at right now, so this hasn’t been the thing I look forward to most in my feed. But it’s quality reporting on a story that seems to have had a huge impact on how abductions are handled. When Baran gets to the part about the national consequences, I expect my attention to be more thoroughly peaked.

Science Vs: “Zika” — This taught me some stuff I didn’t know, but I definitely like this show better when it chooses topics where the science is relatively definitive. A substantial part of the value of this show is its ability to take a simple statement and say TRUE or FALSE. Since the science is still very much in progress regarding the spread of Zika, this is less compelling than the episodes about guns or organic food.

Love and Radio: “A Girl of Ivory” — One of the things I like best about this extraordinary show is the extent to which it is more interested in understanding people than critiquing them. I have written before about how the structure of Love and Radio implicitly empowers its subjects by letting virtually the whole story be governed by their perspective. This episode employs a truly clever little bait and switch that benefits greatly from familiarity with that structure. You hear three people talking, and you know that the story is building up to something because for the first several minutes of the podcast, there’s no conflict. But, you can’t know what the twist is going to be, because there’s no narrator to ramp up the tension, as would be normal in most similar narratives. The moment when the penny drops is quite staggering and left me wearing a wide-eyed expression of shock for about half of my morning run. Also, regarding the title: it appears to be a reference to the old myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a sculptor creates a woman out of stone and falls in love with her. Bearing that myth in mind while listening to this will lift several of its subtler themes into starter relief. Brilliant. A corker of a start to the season. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace “Canali” — Nate DiMeo returns to space! This is a nice one, not a great one. But the story that DiMeo tells here is compelling in itself. For a substantial chunk of time, the world thought there were canals on Mars. DiMeo puts a face on that conviction by focussing his story on the man who was most responsible for researching those canals, which don’t exist.

Code Switch: “Who is a Good Immigrant, Anyway?” — A nuanced trio of pieces on the movement to change the face of the pro-immigration movement. It makes a compelling case that even America’s centre-left politicians have got this one wrong: not all felons deserve to be barred from the country for good.

The Heart: “My Everything, My Bear” — The Diaries season has been less hard-hitting than much of what The Heart has done, but this is one to go out on. It’s a story of two genderqueer people and how the dramatically different way that the world looks at them affects their relationship. It’s the kind of story that The Heart does really well, and that no other show in mainstream podcasting would ever do. It’s why The Heart is essential.

Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 27, 2016)

23 reviews. Again!

Literature, etc.

Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: Sex Criminals, Volume 3 “Three The Hard Way” — I love this comic so, so much. I love how it manages to be deeply insightful about modern sexuality and relationships, while also being hilariously immature. There’s an issue in this collection that pretty much offers a microcosm of the whole comic. The story intercuts a lecture, given in a lecture hall, about feminism and the suppression of female sexuality with a scene where the protagonists fight a character that is honest to god actually referred to as a “semen demon.” It is exactly as head-spinning as it means to be. Also, Jon and Suzie continue to have possibly the most believable relationship in current serialized fiction. The supporting cast is really getting fleshed out now as well. If I have one complaint, it’s that in two subsequent issues, Fraction avoids writing a difficult scene by going meta. The first time it happens, it’s brilliant and contains some top-notch Zdarskyana, but when it happens again one issue later, you can’t help but think that Fraction’s using the jokey tone of the book to avoid specific writing challenges. It’s a minor quibble, though. I love this comic so, so much.

Music

SebastiAn: Total — Having spent a fair bit of time with Justice at this point, I was exceedingly happy to listen to some dance music with less shitty mastering. Which is only halfway a dig — I still love both of those albums. I love this, too. M.I.A.’s guest vocal was always going to be a high point, but I also love “Jack Wire,” “Love in Motion” and of course “Tetra,” because I love anything vaguely Baroque-sounding. There will be more listens in the future.

Yes: Relayer — Another old friend. I spent many years liking this more than Close to the Edge, but I can’t say I did this time. It’s really wonderful, no question. But Jon Anderson’s lyrics on “Gates of Delirium” are, if anything, a little too comprehensible. Almost trite, in places. I love him best at his most obtuse, and his most indifferent to grammar. Which is not to say there’s not great stuff in there: “burn their children’s laughter on to hell” is a compelling line, for instance. And the entire outro — “Soon,” as it’s called in its single edit — is one of the most beautiful moments in the Yes discography. “Gates of Delirium” in its entirety is possibly the farthest point out on the thin peninsula of post-60s Flower Power. Anderson apparently wrote the bulk of it at a piano, but you can imagine most of it strummed on an acoustic guitar, sung to an audience of Vietnam war protesters. I do think Relayer has a better side two than Close to the Edge, though. Patrick Moraz’s playing on “Sound Chaser” might be the best keyboard performance on any Yes recording. And “To Be Over” is pure catharsis. Speaking of catharses, I saw Jon Anderson on a solo tour shortly after he’d been booted out of Yes. He’d been in the hospital the previous night for a resurgence of his respiratory ailment. It was October in Edmonton: not really the best place for a person in delicate health to travel to. But he sang beautifully. He even managed to pull off “Long Distance Runaround” transposed up a couple semitones, because he’d forgotten to take his capo off. He could only last about half an hour, but when the audience gave him an ovation, he came back out and sang “Soon,” which he said is the song he’d written that had been the most helpful to him throughout his life when he needed to heal from something. It was a hell of a moment. I think of it every time I listen to this.

Fiori-Séguin: Deux cents nuits à l’heure — I can’t speak to how this record is remembered in French Canada, but in my neck of the woods, this collaborative record by Harmonium’s Serge Fiori and the songwriter Richard Séguin is entirely forgotten. Which is a shame, because, it’s probably the best Canadian prog album I’ve heard that isn’t by Harmonium or Rush. The pair of them both have great voices: Fiori’s being more strident and Séguin’s being a bit more fragile. And their songwriting style is entirely complementary, and lent cohesiveness by the arrangements, written by Harmonium’s road band. Every track on this is great. It bears a certain resemblance to Harmonium’s L’Heptade, but it’s lighter. I’d highly recommend this to anybody who likes the more pastoral side of prog — early Genesis, Fairport Convention, the Pentangle, or even the Canterbury scene. This is the definition of a buried gem.

Games

The Walking Dead: Michonne: Episodes 2 & 3 — This has everything that the previous seasons of the Walking Dead game has: great characters, fantastic writing, a gripping story and somewhat superfluous combat. Yet it isn’t as successful as it predecessors. The weakest part of this mini-season is the addition of a psychological horror element. Normally, I’d be all for that. And it does illustrate the effects of Michonne’s emotional trauma. But the actual deployment of the psychological horror is the same as in pretty well every game ever, which is that the camera shakes and changes colour to differentiate a hallucination from reality. In its most effective moments, Michonne jumps between reality and somewhat fanciful flashbacks by hard cuts. Whenever other devices are used, it gets a little clichéd. I’d still recommend it if you like the series and can find it on sale.

Jazz Jackrabbit — There are shreds of my childhood that I can’t quite get ahold of as an adult, because they fall outside the narrative of my life that I’ve spun for myself. I recall that as a child, I was not allowed to play games like Jazz Jackrabbit: a PC platformer that shamelessly rips off both Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers in equal measure. And yet, I clearly did play it. When I was a kid, computer games were a matter of what my mother deemed edifying and what my father deemed affordable. On my mother’s authority, I played mostly Learning Company edutainment games. They ranged from unimaginative (Treasure Cove) to pretty compelling (Gizmos and Gadgets) to treasures of the PC gaming canon (Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?). An honourable mention ought to go out to Sierra’s The Incredible Machine 3, which remains a game I wish I could find a way to play again. These occasionally limp but well meaning programs are the video gaming experience that I have chosen to define my childhood. Together, they represent a substantial moment in the origin story of the persnickety infosponge that I’ve grown into. But on my father’s side of the equation, there was an entirely different and equally prevalent experience: games like Hugo’s House of Horrors, Heroes: The Tantalizing Trio, and Skunny: Return to the Forest. These were shareware titles, often made by tiny DIY studios, that my dad had no idea were moderately to substantially subversive. What mattered is that they were cheap. They came 50 to a disc, and those discs couldn’t have cost more than a few bucks apiece. Jazz Jackrabbit was one of the better executed and more conventional of those games. Revisiting it now on the Internet Archive brought back a wave of the best kind of nostalgia — nostalgia for something you’d nearly forgotten. Something you’d intentionally forgotten, wrongly. 

Television, etc.

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared — Oh jeez. Pretty much at a loss, here. This is thoroughly unsettling and mysterious, and I am not likely to put it all together in the near future.

Last Week Tonight: June 26, 2016 — The Brexit debrief outshines the doping scandals feature, but I’m not complaining.

Game of Thrones: “The Winds of Winter” — If not for the first few minutes this would be a typically un-‘splody Game of Thrones finale. But that opening sequence, I tell ‘ya. It unfolds with all the clockwork inexorability of its Philip Glass-inspired score (the reprise of which at Cersei’s coronation is ingenious). The fallout of that opening sequence (pun intended) is brilliantly portrayed. And from there, this episode contents itself with watching the dust settle. And that’s a mode that I especially love in Game of Thrones: people examining the consequences of things. That scene with Daenerys and Tyrion is just a shimmering gem. It feels like the flipside of the famous trial scene from season four, and it can join that scene among Peter Dinklage’s best moments. Taken in combination with the previous scene with Dario, it’s one of Emilia Clarke’s best as well. And Lena Headey, my perpetual favourite cast member, finally gets to revert to evil mode. How gratifying. This is a great finale to a season that turned out shockingly well, considering its weak start and the low calibre of the season that preceded it. Game of Thrones is over for another year (or whatever), yet I’m starting to feel like it’s back.

Orange is the New Black: Season 4, episodes 5-13 — Boy does this season ever hold its cards close to its chest. Nearly everything that happens in the first ten episodes is part of a huge invisible clockwork machine that’s setting up the events of the last three. Like every season of this show, there’s plenty here to shock and appall and move you. There’s an almost unfair number of excellent performances in it. But what sets it apart is the way that the various seemingly unrelated components of its story are all set up to lead inexorably to a conclusion. The way that this season examines consequences of decisions that are made on an institutional level — the macro story feeding into the micro story — reminds me of nothing more than The Wire. That’s maybe most obvious in Sophia’s storyline, which is remarkably the most dramatic that character has ever had, even though Laverne Cox gets substantially less screen time than in any prior season. Having a central character’s season-long arc occur nearly entirely offscreen is a masterstroke, and it’s only one of many. I’m trying to decide whether I like this better than season two. I have rosy memories of that season, but thinking back, it’s mostly just Suzanne’s arc that I’m attached to. Every strand of season four is extraordinary. I’m really happy we’re getting at least a few more seasons of this, because it seems far from tired out. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Neil Young” — Neil’s in an obliging mood for this one, which is good. Because on an ornery day, he would have eaten Maron alive. As a Neil Young fan, there are a lot of moments where I felt like a great question was staring Maron in the face and he didn’t ask it. But for the most part, this is an engaging conversation that even touches on some of the less well-regarded stuff in Neil Young’s catalogue (Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’). It also made me halfway think I should probably listen to his new album. It sounds ambitious, if nothing else.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch” The Outs with Adam Goldman” — The Outs sounds great, but I will likely not get around to watching it. On the other hand, hearing Glen Weldon interview somebody is fun.

The Gist: “Billboard Hits From 1964” — I’m really getting into this show. This episode is a lot of fun, focussing as it does on the British Invasion in the week of the Brexit. I have an infinite capacity for Beatlemania chart statistics, but I do suspect that many people who don’t might also enjoy this. Also, in Pesca’s post-Brexit breakdown, he makes the single most gratuitous Yes reference I’ve ever heard. (Actually, to be specific, it’s not even a Yes reference — it’s an Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe reference, which is way geekier.) That makes me wonder what references in the other episodes I’ve heard flew past me.

Theory of Everything: “sudculture (part II of II)” — It’s ToE at its most straightforward, but sometimes that’s a good thing. This nicely problematizes elements of the craft beer revolution, like the herd mentality beer bros who will follow delivery trucks from one liquor store to the next so they can stockpile small batch sours and IPAs. The most interesting moment comes near the end when a pair of craft brewers talk about the time their art professor asked them if brewing was art. Which, firstly, fuck anybody who thinks that’s even a worthwhile question. That professor sounds like an insufferable professor. But their response that producing a good flavour can’t be an art because it’s supposed to be straightforwardly pleasant is compelling. And I’m inclined to agree, if only because they’re right to place the power to answer that question in the hands of the audience (the beer drinker) rather than the artist (the brewer). The production of beer may be as subtle and complex as painting or sculpting, but the optimal response is different. And while that prof is still an asshole for bringing it up, at least it gave Benjamen Walker an opportunity to end the episode on a really ToE note.

99% Invisible: “Home on Lagrange” — This is one of the best episodes they’ve done in ages. It’s about Gerry O’Neill, the scientist who made actual designs for human settlements in space. And rather than straightforwardly tell his story, the 99pi crew offers up a kaleidoscopic vision of all of the inspirations and implications of his work, including his intellectual offspring in the modern world. Fascinating.

Code Switch: “I Don’t Know If I Like This, But I Want It To Win” — I hope we get more of Gene Demby and Kat Chow co-hosting this show. I know them both from Pop Culture Happy Hour, and to some extent, this is just that with PCHH’s three regulars excised. It’s good to know that there will be pop culturey episodes of Code Switch, because this is really good. And the thing that sets it apart from other pop culture shows is that it’s a story. Kat Chow takes us through this crazy saga of Asian-American television, wherein an Asian-American critic, Jeff Yang, writes a review that’s credited with the cancellation of All-American Girl, a not-very-good sitcom about an Asian-American family. In the risk-averse television industry, an event like that can have terrible consequences. Namely, there were no more network television shows starring predominantly Asian casts for 20 years. The next one to be greenlit was the currently-running Fresh off the Boat, which in a drastic twist of fate, stars Jeff Yang’s 12-year-old son Hudson. You couldn’t make that up. The interviews with both Yangs are totally compelling and raise interesting questions about how a critic should deal with television that reflects a possible positive change in the industry, but just isn’t very good.

Song Exploder: “CHVRCHES – Clearest Blue” — This isn’t one of the most interesting episodes I’ve heard, but this is a great song, and it was fun to hear CHVRCHES talk about the rules they established for themselves when they were writing this — it should be laid back, and have only two chords — which they swiftly broke.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Bellows, Cornelius, Keaton Henson, A-WA, The Wild Reeds, More” — This contains a lot of music that I don’t especially care to hear again, but I’m glad I heard once. I think I may have written this exact review before…

In Our Time: “Songs of Innocence and Experience” — I’ve decided I love this show. I’ve decided that because I’ve realized that it’s the only podcast I’ve ever listened to that never condescends to me. Jad Abumrad, Ira Glass, and even more idiosyncratic hosts like Benjamen Walker and the Reply All guys all present stories in a way that assumes limited knowledge in the audience. But in lots of areas, my knowledge is not especially limited. Melvyn Bragg is the opposite of everything that North American media types think of as a good radio host — he interrupts his guests, he opines, he’s not afraid to show off his own knowledge, and he mumbles. In short, he’s an intelligent person first, a radio personality second. (Probably the closest thing to Melvyn Bragg in American media is Mike Pesca, and even he feels the need to throw in dodgy jokes and a dumb signoff phrase.) In Our Time is uncompromisingly smart, and probably really alienating to a lot of people. It’s pretty much my ideal for what public broadcasting should be like. This episode on William Blake demonstrates everything that I find enthralling in this show. It tackles ideas head-on without sugar coating them, and takes for granted that its subject matter is interesting, which of course it is. I hope the BBC recognizes what it has here. This sort of thing is what makes it the best public broadcaster in the world. Pick of the week.

Love and Radio: “The Neighborhood” — I love hearing non-standard, non-narrative approaches to audio production. This collage is the sort of impressionistic thing that I can only take in small doses, but it’s pretty brilliant, actually. Scott Carrier has a great ear for interesting tape, and that’s enough to carry this short piece about the neighborhood where he lives. Maybe I need to start listening to Home of the Brave. Grumble. Another one. Great.

StartUp: “Up in Flames” — This season has picked up rather dramatically. This story is told in a very NPR fashion — interviews, narration, music and basically no field tape — but the story is incredible. It’s about a man whose business decisions drove him out of his mind, so he burned down his yogurt factory. You should listen to this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Finding Dory and Great Voice Acting” — Stephen Thompson’s 11-year-old daughter is one my favourite minor characters on this show (along with Glen Weldon’s husband Faust, and producer Jessica Reedy). At the start of this episode Thompson refers to her as a “sullen crank,” which is a hilariously aggressive descriptor for one’s own daughter. It’s the little things that make this podcast.

Invisibilia: “The Personality Myth” — This is an hour of radio about how people don’t have fully fixed personalities and how it’s all actually very much more complicated than that. I was unaware of the specifics, but I think that when you listen to a lot of podcasts and just generally consume a lot of media, at some point you become inured to the idea that things are more complicated than they seem. So, when somebody tells you that, you just sort of say “oh, of course,” and get on with your day. I reached that point about seventeen Radiolabs ago. So, unless a given commonly-held belief is oversimplified in a really interesting way, I kind of don’t see why I should listen. And this episode explores the notion of fundamental human change in the most predictable way possible: through the lens of incarcerated criminals. Maybe I’m just Orange is the New Blacked out, but that seems facile to me.