Tag Archives: Love and Radio

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 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 Apr. 16)

Lots of good stuff this week. Also one very bad thing that I enjoyed regardless. 22 reviews.

Movies

The Wicker Man (2006) — Oh, good lord. Firstly, be warned (BEE warned) that the infamous “NOT THE BEEEES” scene is actually not in the theatrical release of this movie. It’s in an alternate ending only on the DVD. I guess when they were editing the movie they found the line they couldn’t cross, and that was it. If you haven’t seen this, you should definitely watch it. Watch it with some people around. Nicholas Cage’s scenery chewing results in one of the most compellingly terrible performances I’ve ever witnessed. Everything about this movie is so crazily off the mark that I have trouble believing any actor attached to it (maybe Cage more than anybody) took it seriously as they were making it. It’s laden down with severely inept writing (“Of course. Another plant!”), weirdly benign jump scares (that bit where he wakes up twice) and badly-directed child extras (“Phall-ic sym-bol, phall-ic sym-bol”). I must confess, I never saw the appeal of the original, acclaimed version of The Wicker Man. But seeing some of the stuff that this version gets wrong makes me appreciate it a little more. For one thing, the remake de-emphasizes the protagonist’s religion. We do see a crucifix in Cage’s house early in the film, but that’s about the extent of it. In the original, the detective’s religiosity is what compels him to investigate the missing girl’s disappearance with such vigor: he inherently distrusts the Hebridean islanders because of their paganism. And that’s really what the original film is primarily about. Its horror derives from Christian anxiety over lingering paganism in rural places. This is substituted out in the remake for two ill-advised alterations: making the missing girl the detective’s daughter (“there has to be stakes” says American cinema) and making the island not merely pagan but also a matriarchy. Because to secular, urbane, 21st-century Americans, paganism isn’t scary. But women running society? Heaven fucking forfend. And then there’s the fucking bees, which are somehow both ham-fistedly symbolic and a seemingly arbitrary addition to the story. But all of this is just me wilfully missing the point of watching this movie. I said before that I didn’t really enjoy the original Wicker Man all that much. I think it has a good story with interesting implications about religious anxiety. But it also has tonally jarring musical numbers and Christopher Lee at, frankly, not his best. On the other hand, I completely enjoyed the Nic Cage remake. This is the rare case where I’ll happily recommend a ridicule-watch of a bad movie over a sincere screening of an objectively more accomplished one. Seriously. Watch this.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, episodes 14-20 — Let’s make this a full-on appraisal of the complete season, shall we? Okay. Starting at the beginning. The New Caprica arc is outstanding, if far shorter-lived than I’d expected. It’s remarkable how close to the season two status quo (and in fact, the pre-”Pegasus” status quo) we end up in, a mere four episodes after everything changes. Still, the decision not to belabour the point of New Caprica is probably a good one, and it allows for a remarkably brisk start to the season. The “Exodus” two-parter is up there with the season two finale, the first episode of the miniseries and “33” among my favourites in this series. Once we’re past that arc, the show returns to something like business as usual, but with the extremely satisfying addition of a plotline that takes place on a Cylon baseship. I brought this up last week, but it bears repeating: the set alone is one of the best things this show has ever done. The way that the editing is deliberately disorienting in the baseship scenes is brilliant. And every new glimpse we get of Cylon society — of the ways that they interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that are both human and alien — adds depth to the show. It’s in the small choices: like the way that red characters are projected over the Cylons whenever they’re in their control room and the water-filled interfaces with the consoles. The Cylons aren’t creepy because they’re mechanical. They’re creepy because they’re weirdly organic, and yet they live like this. I’m particularly enamoured with the Hybrid: a Cronenbergian horror that puts the interior of the Cylon raiders to shame. Number Three getting her own honest-to-god(s?) plotline is a welcome development. At this point in the show, nearly half of the known Cylon models (Three, Six and Eight — the women, not coincidentally I imagine) have at least certain sympathetic aspects. I love that we’re seeing more from that side of the conflict. The Galactica-based plotlines of the mid-season are more hit and miss. Starbuck, my favourite character in the first two seasons save possibly for Roslin, gets particularly short shrift. She’s jammed into an inelegant love quadrangle in which neither of the inconvenient marriages involved makes a lick of sense. (There’s still satisfaction in seeing her at her triumphant moments, though. Every time she triumphs I get this warm fuzzy feeling like I’ve just punched Dirk Benedict in the face.) Still, one episode takes these flawed storylines and makes them sing, and that is “Unfinished Business.” Weaving together a recreational boxing tournament onboard the Galactica and flashbacks from the almost good times of early New Caprica, it establishes that the characters in this show don’t need to be dogfighting, fomenting revolution or barking commands to be compelling. It leaves out everything I love most about this season — the Cylon baseship, Baltar’s plotline aboard said baseship, weird spirituality — and still manages to be the best episode of the season. However, like season two, this has some serious clunkers in its second half. “The Woman King” is a shitty would-be conspiracy thriller with Helo in the lead. Even so, while the actual crimes that Helo’s investigating are deeply unconvincing plotting, it does develop his character in an interesting way that I wouldn’t have thought to observe: he’s the character on the ship who is constantly on the wrong side of everything. Among the crew, he’s possibly the most liberal. Speaking of politics, another disappointment in this season is the transformation of Tom Zarek from a revolutionary freedom fighter to an abuser of executive power. That’s dispiriting. But then, it has happened frequently enough throughout history. What’s really bizarre is how the show suddenly recast Baltar as a farmer’s son and he was briefly the fleet’s primary voice of radical politics. So, effectively, both of Battlestar Galactica’s far-left figures are compromised: Zarek because he eventually perpetrates the abuses he once professed to hate, and Baltar because he’s using leftist rhetoric for cynical, personal means. At least there’s kickass union boss Chief Tyrell. (I also love that this entire plotline is scored with a sort of quasi-bluegrass from space.) And I do like that the show is willing to have its two broadly sympathetic leadership figures, Adama and Roslin, be completely and committedly wrong and insensitive about labour organizing and issues of class in general. That rings true. But back to the negatives for a moment. “A Day in the Life” is an Adama feature episode that’s not worthy of the character. It finds him wilfully hallucinating his own dead wife, whose line readings are bizarrely terse and suck the energy out of every scene she’s in. That takes us to the season’s endgame, I suppose. In general, I approve of the plot developments in these episodes as broad strokes — Starbuck dies and returns enlightened, Baltar is found not guilty, everyone is a Cylon, etc. — but I don’t think they make especially good television on a micro level. It’s little choices that let them down, not big ones. I understand that there’s a twist in this show somewhere that people disapproved of. I can’t figure out what it is. But there are little things creeping in that make it seem a little bit less sure-handed than it once was. The whole contrived thing of Apollo being called as a witness at Baltar’s trial to deliver his speech, for instance. That speech needed to happen, but why go about it in such a weird way? And really, the whole decision to focus such a big chunk of the season finale on something as relatively low-stakes as Baltar’s trial. Or the “All Along the Watchtower” thing in the finale. That was a little overcooked. (Though I’m curious about how a song from contemporary Earth ended up in this show, given what we’ve been made to understand about when in human history it takes place. I have an obvious theory. Don’t tell me if I’m right.) The final shot of the season, with all of the cosmic zooms finishing on the reveal of Earth feels like it’s from a completely different show, aesthetically: a much more 2001 sort of science fiction show. Could it be that we’re hurdling headlong into crazy for season four? (That much I know.) And finally. Fat Apollo. Fat fucking Apollo. This is a good season of television. The highs are super high, and the lows aren’t much lower than previously.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” — Ohhhh yes. Oh, I’m so glad it’s back. The title flags the most interesting thing about this episode, which is that it is functionally a new start. Doctor Who isn’t the first show to make a pun on the word “pilot” in an episode title. Lost comes to mind immediately, and there must be others. But I don’t know of another that does one 10 seasons into its run (or, indeed, 36 seasons in). This feels like Steven Moffat challenging himself to restate the premise of the show and express its fundamental romantic joy without too much reference to continuity. It is enormously successful in that, and I found myself as overwhelmed as ever by the reveal of the TARDIS interior. I’ve written before about a concept I call “wonder surrogacy,” where a show or movie establishes a character inside of its narrative whose specific role is to marvel at what’s going on around them in the hopes that their wonder will rub off on an audience who may be skeptical. I first noticed this in Jurassic World, and I’ve been extra cognizant of it ever since. It nearly never works. Certainly, Doctor Who is the sort of text you may expect wonder surrogacy to rear its head in. It’s been around for over 50 years, and the key elements (the TARDIS, Daleks, regeneration, etc.) are part of the public consciousness. And yet, every time a new companion is introduced, we’re treated to the phenomenon of a person being surprised and aghast and overjoyed to find the TARDIS “bigger on the inside,” as if this is not common knowledge. So, why does the elongated “bigger on the inside” sequence with Bill work so well? Why does this seeming example of wonder surrogacy (like all of the “bigger on the inside” scenes in the new series) give me chills while the rest leave me rolling my eyes? The best answer I can come up with is that the TARDIS is a genuine wonder. A CGI dinosaur is not a genuine wonder. It’s just an image, and an increasingly banal one. The TARDIS is the entry point to an entirely new understanding of the cosmos. Crossing the threshold from its outside to its inside requires an entirely new concept of how physical space works, and when you cross the threshold again to the outside, everything may well have changed completely. As an image, the TARDIS is purposely banal. As a concept, it is the perfect metaphor for imagination itself. There is no wonder surrogacy required for such a thing. Only wonder. Love him or hate him (and I believe there are reasons for both), Steven Moffat understands this better than anybody else who has ever written for this show. That’s why I’m excited for this season, and why I’ll be fairly disconsolate about his departure.

Doctor Who: “Smile” — Still the most interesting thing about this season so far (and I am quite favourably disposed to this season so far) is the way that it is reiterating certain basic elements of the appeal of Doctor Who. The moment that really stands out in this episode for me is a small one right after Bill asks the Doctor why it has to be him that saves the people of the planet they’re on. Naturally, being Twelve, he doesn’t give a satisfactory answer. But Bill, being cleverer even than the people who initially dreamed up this show, sees the notice on the outside of the TARDIS that proclaims, in the manner of even the most non-bigger-on-the-inside police boxes, “advice and assistance obtainable immediately.” Why does the Doctor keep the TARDIS in its police box form? Because he lives by that notice on the door like a code. This is fundamental to the show, and it squares with Steven Moffat’s view of the Doctor as a different, worthier kind of hero. So far, it looks like Moffat has decided to use his final season on the show to revisit the first principles of the show, and compose a love letter to the glorious legacy of Doctor Who, which he recognizes that he’s an infinitesimally small part of. A good part, though. A really good part. The rest of this, with a script written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (whose “In the Forest of the Night” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine), is a fun Doctor Who romp that allows Bill and the Doctor plenty of time alone to get to know each other. The Emojibots are deeply scary in a way that conventionally terrifying monsters are not. They throw our own vapidity back in our faces and then kill us. I love that. This series is two-for-two. If Sarah Dollard delivers next week like I think she will, it’ll be off to a massively better start than its predecessor.  

Literature, etc.

David A. Banks: “Podcast Out” — An interesting critical look at the limitations and potential consequences of NPR’s major podcasts. Broadly I agree with Banks’s assessment, though to me the biggest problem with Radiolab and its ilk is not their reliance on the sciences to explain the world, but on the stories of individuals to explain science. There’s no room in most public radio-derived podcasts for any huge, world-defining story that can’t be localised into a personal narrative told by, like, a single dad in Newark or whatever. It’s a weirdly closed-minded approach to curiosity. Note that I still listen to a boatload of these kinds of podcasts, but I increasingly appreciate the ones like Theory of Everything and Love and Radio that break from the structure and challenge rather than confirm the listener’s assumptions.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — Okay. Enough podcasters have told me to check out Audible that I’m doing it. This edition of the audiobook features a full cast, including a really brilliant fellow (Ron McLarty) doing the role of Mr. Wednesday, and it features Neil Gaiman himself reading certain interstitial chapters. As a listening experience I’m pretty sold on full-cast audiobooks. Gaiman’s presence is much appreciated as well, as he’s always an engaging reader of his own work and he’s got a wonderful and distinctive voice. I also appreciate that he’s deployed sparingly. Makes you really lean in when you hear him. The only issue with the audiobook so far is a sex scene that becomes distinctly unsexy when read aloud. These actors can only act so much. It’s not a play, after all, and we listeners have lives to get on with. But hearing a sex scene read aloud in a fashion somewhere between matter-of-fact and actually dramatic is, well, awkward. As for American Gods itself, I’ve been meaning to get around to this since I read and adored The Sandman a few years back. With the show coming up soon, with both Bryan Fuller and Ian McShane attached, I figure I’d best do it now. I’m three chapters in and I love it already. The idea of ancient gods finding their place in America is outstanding, and I’m already very curious about who this youngster is who wants them gone. I know enough of Norse mythology to know that Odin won’t live forever, so the stakes are already high. As for Shadow, he’s a compelling enough protagonist. His relationship with his dead wife is proving to be the most interesting thing about him. But so far, I’m really in it for the lore. I’m enjoying this enough that I’m actually rushing through writing this so I can get back to it. More next week, I’m sure.

Music

Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench — This is my favourite music of the year so far. Admittedly, it hasn’t been a busy year for me in terms of discovering new music. But this is really, really good. I was familiar with Hearne from his oratorio The Source, which has moments of staggering brilliance (especially the chorus “We called for illumination at 1630”) but which I generally found a bit literal and earnest. The choral music on this collection has no such problem. The title work is the centrepiece and the highlight, featuring guitars and drums backing up the chorus. The text is drawn from both Supreme Court decisions and ventriloquism textbooks. This unorthodox and rich choice of texts helps to combat the earnestness that I found slightly offputting in The Source. Sound from the Bench is a genuinely funny piece of music. Its primary subject is the Citizens United decision that deemed corporate campaign spending to be a form of free speech protected under the first amendment. This is patently absurd and implicitly hilarious. Of course, it has some rather dire connotations, but unlike the war-adjacent texts of The Source, it isn’t directly a matter of life and death. But holy crap is it ever musically powerful. The other three works on the disc are nearly as good as the main event, but the short piece “Consent” stands out. It gets dark partway through, but the opening — is simply a mixed chorus singing the words “I want you, I want to” — is absolutely staggering. Hearne is one of the most explicitly socially-conscious composers working right now, and while I wasn’t certain whether it was working when I heard The Source, I have no doubt now that it absolutely can. And the recording itself is fantastic as well. None of the fuzziness that you sometimes hear around the edges of choral recordings. This isn’t pretending to be a live concert. It’s music that happens right in your head. The Crossing is a miraculous ensemble with a distinctive sound that ranges from symphonic choir to glee club. I can’t wait to hear more from them. This is beautiful. I desperately want an opera from Ted Hearne. Not the usual kind with arias and duets and things, but an Einstein on the Beach sort of opera that takes advantage of his facility with found texts and choral writing. If someone could please commission that from him (I’m looking at you, Opera Philadelphia) it would be epochal. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. — Ah man, this is going to make me work, isn’t it? Kendrick Lamar’s music always takes a gigantic amount of listening to sink in for me. It’s entirely possible that he’s my favourite rapper around right now, but I’ll never connect with him as directly as, say, Run the Jewels, because the beats are so raw and spare that my mind wanders. And you can’t let your mind wander with this guy. Here’s what I love: “DNA,” with its Fox News samples. “DUCKWORTH,” with its (maybe specious?) storytelling. “FEAR,” with its tripartite structure and uncharacteristic repetition. And “LOYALTY” with Rihanna rapping. This is approximately the same number of high points I detected on my first listen of To Pimp a Butterfly. If things proceed similarly, I will like and understand this better many many months from now.

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — Here’s an album that took a while to creep up on me. I’m still not convinced it’s the second coming that some claim it is, but I enjoy a larger percentage of the many many tracks on this than I did when I first heard it. “Vincent,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are still the highlights, but I’ve come to love “Fill in the Blank,” “Cosmic Hero” and “Drugs With Friends” as well. In general, this is music that occupies the same space as the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian: you listen to it for a catharsis. It’s at its best when your life isn’t. But for all its structural ingenuity, Will Toledo’s songwriting doesn’t have the wit of Stuart Murdoch, let alone Morrissey. So I’m not sure this can transcend those moments of needing catharsis the same way that other sad guy music can. This isn’t every day music the way that Strangeways, Here We Come is, for instance. No shame.

Podcasts

Containers: “Welcome to Global Capitalism” — The episode on 99pi convinced me to check this out, but I’m not going to make it through. There’s some good tape in this, but there’s also tape of the host literally flipping through archives. An eight-part series on how shipping containers changed the world was always going to be a maybe/maybe not proposition. At another time, in another state of mind, I would love this. But I think I’d prefer it if it didn’t take such a public radio approach of insisting that its subject matter is interesting every step of the way. Maybe I don’t need all these personal narratives to keep me involved. Maybe I can just hear you out and be interested in your thesis for its own merits. Anyway, I tried.

Love and Radio: “The Secrets Hotline” — This has been a truly great season of Love and Radio. As a final episode, this is a nice capper, though it’s insubstantial compared to, say, “A Girl of Ivory,” “Doing the No No” or “Blink Once For Yes,” which are three of my favourite episodes the show has ever done. The original scoring in this is a nice touch, and some of the secrets proffered here by anonymous callers are truly juicy. The feeling of sanctioned voyeurism is a good one. If you’re reading this, do listen to this episode, but seek out the three I’ve mentioned first if you’ve never heard this show. It is one of the miracles of podcasting.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall: Part 1” — My god, the tape in this is so beautiful. It’s just nature sounds from a riverside, recorded beautifully. More broadly, I’m very happy that Scott Carrier is doing a larger piece on Trump’s wall. That promises to be some of the best radio of recent years. And doing short updates like this is a good way to keep us sated.

Radiolab: “Nukes” — For everything I said about Radiolab earlier, they can make straightforwardly compelling radio. This episode poses the question, who gets to call the President’s decision to use nuclear weapons into question? The answer: it has differed from one administration to another. But the specifics are really fascinating.

Criminal: “420” — Ah, hilarious. This episode tells the story of how three teenagers’ tongue-in-cheek codeword for pot became universally acknowledged, with a substantial assist from the Grateful Dead. It also broaches the hilarious subject of Colorado’s 420 mile-marker signs getting stolen so consistently that they had to be replaced with 419.99 mile-marker signs. This is why Criminal is the best true crime podcast.  

Crimetown: “Family Ties” & “Bonus Episode: Gangster’s Daughter” — I have nothing more to say about this season of Crimetown. These are both adequate standalone episodes of this season. But I’m basically still in this solely because I’m susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy. Good thing it’ll soon be done.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Tony Schwartz: 30,000 Recordings Later” — This may be the third time I’ve heard this, but it’s good every time. The story of a guy who devoted his life to going out into the world and preserving sounds with a microphone, only to succumb to agoraphobia late in life. There’s a doc like this to made about R. Murray Schafer, but don’t tell anybody I said that or they’ll beat me to it.

99% Invisible: “The Architect of Hollywood” — A new classic from this old standby. It’s the story of Paul Revere Williams, the architect who single-handedly conceived the Hollywood style of architecture. This story reveals how that  intensely hybridized style grew out of this one architect who learned to do every style out of necessity, because he was a black man working almost exclusively for white people whose instincts were not to trust him. This is super. I’ve missed Avery Trufelman’s stories. Is it just me, or has it been a while?

Code Switch: “The Beef Over Native American Hunting Rights” — I dunno, there’s a major source in this who kind of sounds like a bigoted fool to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the first time I’ve felt the bad kind of uncomfortable while listening to this show. Also, there’s some super ham-fisted writing at the end. An off week.

The Gist: “The Handmaid’s Fail” — Alexandra Petri is a fantastic guest host, though I do wonder if she’s just doing a Mike Pesca impression here. She really is a lot like Mike Pesca in her questions and her delivery. Also, this reminded me that I really need to read The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know how I’ve read four Margaret Atwood novels and that isn’t one of them.

This American Life: “The Other Mr. President” — The best part of this Sean Cole’s segment on Vladislav Surkov, and that’s not nearly as good as Benjamen Walker’s.

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “Bill Comes Due Edition” — I had forgotten how dull I find this. There’s been some stuff happening that compelled me to return to it — I mean, North Korea, Bill O’Reilly… this is fascinating, disgusting stuff — and I still couldn’t help myself from getting bored.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Fate of the Furious Plus Clapbacks and Feuds” — I hadn’t realized how funny Sam Sanders is. Now I’m extra excited for whatever the hell he’s developing. This is really good episode of this show, by the way. If you want to know why it is my preferred example of this format, this is a good episode to go with. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of March 26, 2017)

I listened to 35 podcast episodes this week. For interested parties, you can generally be sure that I’m living well when my podcast intake is especially high. This week I did a lot of running, a lot of cooking and a lot of cleaning. Thus, a lot of podcasts. That said, this week also marked the first time in several years that I’ve felt compelled to just sit down and listen to a podcast while doing nothing else. That is because seven of the 35 podcast episodes I listened to this week are among the best podcast episodes ever made. If you travel in these circles, you already know what I mean. If not, read on.

This was going to be a full post of nothing but podcasts and one album. I decided to do yet another review of a game I occasionally dip into just so I’d have something worthy to offer my second pick of the week. But it’s been an auditory sort of week, broadly speaking.

30 reviews. (Because a bunch are lumped together.)

Music

William Basinski: A Shadow in Time — The second Basinski piece I’ve heard, after The Disintegration Loops. This is entirely different and on the whole, less conceptual than The Disintegration Loops. This doesn’t entirely work in its favour, since a big part of The Disintegration Loops’ appeal comes from its premise. The fact that you’re listening to audiotape fading away is part of what makes it so sad. The closest thing A Shadow in Time has to a conceptual hook like that is its first track’s dedication to David Bowie. But it’s hard to relate the dedication to the content of that track, which is basically a less effective version of the kind of music on The Disintegration Loops. And regardless, it is by far the lesser of the two tracks on this album. The title track is monumental, producing vast waves of electronic sound that build and collapse in on themselves in succession. It reminds me of nothing more than John Luther Adams’ vast orchestral masterpiece Become Ocean. High praise, from me.

Games

Sunless Sea — For those who are following my gaming exploits, I have decided that Half-Life is not for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t finish it, but I’m putting it aside for now. Somebody once told me that my problem is I want games to be books. I can’t really contradict that. And Half-Life is nothing like a book. It has many positive attributes that I can objectively recognize, but it ultimately comes down to how good you are at firing pretend guns at pretend monsters whose presence is the result of the one genuine story event in the early game, which happens essentially at the very beginning. This is neither the kind of thing I tend to appreciate, nor the type of thing I am remotely good at. So, even on easy mode, Half-Life has been mostly a mixture of boredom and frustration. That was a realization from about two weeks ago. This week, I cleansed my palate with Sunless Sea, which is as much like a book as any game I’ve ever played. A very fancy book. Every time I revisit this, I’m astonished at how much I haven’t discovered. I know there are whole branches of lore, and whole organizing principles of the gameworld that I’m not familiar with because I’ve spent relatively little time playing the sister title Fallen London. I will eventually rectify this, because the world that these games take place in is one of my very favourite imaginary worlds. As far as I can tell, it is unique in its mode of expression, which I might characterize as unyielding, glib understatement in the face of abject terror. I’m constantly curious about the larger forces at play in this game’s byzantine geopolitics and theology, and I’ll probably take up Fallen London again in an effort to find some of that out. But for now, I’m going to focus on actually finishing Sunless Sea’s main quest. Because at my glacial rate of progress, the sequel will be out by the time I manage that. (Seriously, Sunless Skies is going to be awesome.) Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Shittown (S-Town) — If you have not heard S-Town, do not read this. It’s best to go in knowing nothing. My purpose here is not to convince you to listen to it, it’s just to process it for myself and others who already have. But you should definitely listen to it right now. S-Town is among the very, very best work ever done in the podcast medium. (I will henceforth call it Shittown, because I see no need to demure.) Shittown is the story of a man who lived his life as a character in a story, and who actually found somebody to tell the story. It is other things aside from that, but it is that more than it is anything else. A weird tic of mine is that I usually find myself more fascinated with the telling of a story and the person doing the telling than I am with the people the story is about. Not so with the story of John B. McLemore. Like Hamlet (yeah, I’m pulling out the big guns), McLemore exerts such a magnetic pull over his own narrative that he overtakes the role normally occupied by the storyteller. And even though McLemore answers Hamlet’s existential question with a definitive “not to be,” thus removing himself as an agent in Brian Reed’s radio story two-sevenths of the way through, he continues to exert the same pull in death as he had in life. It’s as if he constructed his own life like an elaborate clock, inserted Reed as the final cog, wound it and, by drinking cyanide, finally set it off. He was the author of his own demise, but also the author of his own characteristically secular afterlife. If my clock metaphor seems laboured or obvious, I can’t wholly take the blame. Shittown itself is full of obvious, overtly literary metaphors, a fact that Reed lampshades in the first episode, noting that McLemore knows he couldn’t resist the symbolic valences of his potentially unsolvable hedge maze. Shittown is full of obvious metaphors because McLemore filled his life with obvious metaphors. Reed’s job is basically to transcribe the ongoing novel that this extraordinary, complicated person fashioned out of his own life. In Shittown, Reed plays Nick Carraway to John’s Jay Gatsby. John even cultivates a Gatsbian isolation from the members of his community, and is rumoured to be fairly well off. And by leaving his affairs in disarray upon his death, by spreading rumours of buried treasure, and by leaving countless relationships in states of tension and irresolution, he ensured that the story of his death’s aftermath would be as complicated and compelling as everything that had come before. In emphasizing McLemore as the author of his own story, I don’t mean to take anything away from Brian Reed’s accomplishment, which is substantial. It may be a new high bar for audio nonfiction. I can’t think of another show that’s so willing to completely divorce itself from traditional journalistic methods of story organization. (What even is the story of Shittown? Nothing happens throughout its entire duration that is unusual enough to warrant reporting in itself.) Love and Radio is the closest thing I can think of, but even that show is frequently confined to the studio. It couldn’t hope to introduce us to somebody like Uncle Jimmy, the sunny-dispositioned relation whose communication is hampered by a bullet that’s been lodged in his brain for 20 years. But even this emphasizes the extent to which Shittown succeeds on the basis of its astonishingly good tape and the people on the other end of Reed’s microphone. Woodstock, Alabama is a stranger-than-fiction town with implicit metaphors baked in. John B. McLemore was a stranger-than-fiction man who saw the metaphors and cast himself as the tragic outcast protagonist of the story that he was clearly living in. Brian Reed knew to hit record. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Reza Aslan” — This is aggravating. I love Aslan, but Maron’s habit of just saying things without questioning whether they’re right makes a fool of him multiple times here, and not in an endearing way. It has its moments, as even the weakest of Maron’s episodes do. But fundamentally, a Marc Maron interview with Reza Aslan isn’t a good idea. I should have known better.

Judge John Hodgman: “In-lawful Gathering” — My newfound love for this show continues. The highlight of this episode is a introverted husband who is clearly being tortured by his family’s tradition of eating with 20 extended family members five nights a week. This poor fellow’s basic nature is at odds with his goal, here. On one hand, he’d love to simply enumerate the evidence that this is a terrible and very strange practice that’s killing him slowly. On the other, he definitely does not want to say anything bad about anybody. That would be unthinkable. This is worth it just to hear this guy attempt to walk that impossibly fine line.

The Heart: “Bathroom Bill” — A heartbreaking, mutedly hopeful story about the effect of Washington state’s proposed bathroom bill on one young trans girl and her mother. The bill didn’t pass, but it came stupidly close and shocked this story’s pseudonymous narrator out of her blue state complacency. It’s a story from the podcast How To Be A Girl, which has also been featured on Love and Radio. It’s staggering stuff, and definitely unlike anything else being made adjacent to public radio. Listen to this, it’s really beautiful.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Memes, Fads, Advice, and Neil Gaiman” — I want more Guy Branam on this show. I don’t like Pop Rocket all that much, but he’s very funny and brings out the best in the three main panelists, who I don’t think are always necessarily operating at full funny capacity. Also, do they have an intern doing their packaging right now? There’s a retake left in an ad, and there’s no extro with credits and theme music. Not that I care, but what an odd thing. I only bring it up because it really points out how familiar the rhythms of these shows become. When it changes, it’s kind of like listening to a familiar album and for some reason the tracklist is backwards.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Beauty and the Beast & SXSW” — I’m sad that Katie Presley’s only ever on this show around SXSW. She should have her own show. Between her appreciation of “the erotic potential of the Beast,” the angry experimental music of Moor Mother, and her fellow panelists’ bemusement about Moor Mother, she is a welcome monkey wrench in this episode.

Love and Radio: “La Retirada, Part Three” — This is easily the best instalment of this fascinating series about a family that found themselves embroiled in a drug cartel. This part deals with the particulars of being in the witness protection program. That’s a story I’m not sure I’d heard before. This would have been a great episode of Love and Radio, even if this was all there was to it.

The Memory Palace: “A Washington Monument” — One of the best episodes in a while. Nate DiMeo asks you to imagine an alternative to the Washington Monument that actually exists, and it is a truly outstanding alternative. Much better than the current one. Also, I love hearing DiMeo stumble and “um” his way through his promo copy. It makes this show feel more intimate than others.

Radiolab: “Shots Fired: Parts 1 & 2” — Best thing Radiolab’s done since “The Rhino Hunter.” This two-parter about police shootings in Florida contains some extremely disturbing tape of violence. But the most distressing moments all come in interviews with the surviving family members of the victims. Both episodes are essential, and they each demonstrate a different facet of the topic at hand. The first examines implicit bias as a motivator for police violence, and the second examines how good information can turn bad in a matter of minutes and lead to tragic results. Horrifying.

Crimetown: “The Network” — Thank god Buddy Cianci is back soon. This show has gone too far adrift. In the next season, they need to either aggressively tell one story, or just abandon their format altogether.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Sam Phillips, Sun Records, and the Acoustics of Life” — This is one of the podcasts on the Radiotopia network that I’ve unfairly neglected. The Kitchen Sisters Present (a more unwieldy but also more descriptive title than the original Fugitive Waves) feels on the one hand radical and singular and on the other like good-old fashioned public radio. The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that it never allows itself to stay bolted to the studio. I really don’t mind podcasts that are largely studio based, with phoner interviews etc. But they’re definitely becoming the norm, even among podcasters with public radio backgrounds and approaches. The Kitchen Sisters’ work is a large monument to the dying art of going places while holding microphones. I owe it to myself and them to hear more of their catalogue. This episode about Sam Phillips resonates with their methods because Phillips was a guy who started off doing the very same thing: going out into the world with a tape recorder and capturing sound. The fact that he later became famous for his work in a studio is almost a moot point because the studio he opened operated on a philosophy of allowing the whole world to come inside. It’s a compelling and unusual look at a life’s work that’s normally thought about exclusively in terms of legacy: “the man who invented rock and roll,” etc. This isn’t that. It’s a lot more interesting than that.

Code Switch: “The 80-Year Mystery Around ‘Fred Douglas’ Park” — A tiny little thing about how an iconic abolitionist’s name has been misspelled in his namesake park for ages. I like these little podcast extras showing up in my feed. More shows should do six-minute or less mini episodes.

Homecoming: “Final Season One After Show: Season Two?” — Catherine Keener is charming and I am definitely looking forward to the return of this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dave Chappelle and CHiPs” — Wow, these Chappelle specials sound like a disaster. But maybe I’ll go back and watch the old ones now. Stephen Thompson is a bit overzealous as a substitute host, I think. But I still like him.

99% Invisible: “The Falling of the Lenins” — I’m not sure what’s up with 99pi right now. I’ve enjoyed a number of their recent shows, but I miss the days when they had focussed design angles to every episode. This is a political story, and not only that, it’s one that doesn’t add much to what I learned about Ukraine’s history from the newspaper coverage after Putin annexed Crimea. I hesitate to suggest that 99pi should stay in its wheelhouse, because the sanctuary churches episodes were pretty good, I thought. But these sorts of stories just aren’t the sort of thing they can reliably do.

Code Switch: “A Bittersweet Persian New Year” — More than anything, this made me hungry. Also, Persian New Year is a thing I knew nothing about, so, two counts of time well spent.

On the Media: “It’s Just Business” — Come for the segment on coal miner photo-ops, stick around for the bit on ISPs selling your browsing data, and then maybe sit out the true crime thing. That’s less pressing.

Imaginary Worlds: “Beyond the Iron Curtain” — Russian science fiction sounds crazy. I will likely not read any of what’s mentioned here. But I love the story explaining socialist realism. That’s fun.

Reply All: “Favour Atender: The Return” — A repeat episode with a small extra segment. But it’s mostly worth it for the amazing extro by Breakmaster Cylinder, who I am at this point 90% sure is PJ Vogt.

All Songs Considered: “Sufjan Stevens, Gorillaz, Perfume Genius, More” — That Gorillaz song with Noel Gallagher is terrible. It’s one platitude after another. Dire. Don’t understand how anybody could like it. On the other hand, the tracks by Perfume Genius, the Family Crest and especially Hippo Campus are all fantastic. I’m on the fence about the Sufjan Stevens/Nico Muhly/Bryce Dessner/James McAlister collaboration. I’ll definitely listen to the album when it comes out, but I’m not sure I’ll like it. Much as I want to.

You Must Remember This: “Jayne Mansfield (Dead Blondes Part 9)” — What a weird liminal figure Jayne Mansfield was. This is basically the story of how an actress of the immediately post-Marilyn Monroe era found herself obsolete in the hippie era. Stories from this transitional period in time are always fascinating to me because it’s a reminder of how quickly the culture can do an about-face. That’s why I love Mad Men. It’s why I loved the Charles Manson season of You Must Remember This. And it’s why I’m looking forward to this horrible period in history that we’re living in being over so that we can at least begin to process it by way of similar narrative constructions.

Crimetown: “Bonus Episode: Cat and Mouse Part II” — I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this show’s attitude towards murderers. It’s essentially the same as Martin Scorsese’s attitude in Goodfellas, which is basically that they’re terrible but also unspeakably glamorous. But Scorsese is dealing with actors who are only pretending to be murderers. This show features tape of interviews with actual murderers. It’s a genre-wide problem, mind you. But the glib, tough-guy approach to talking to mobsters sometimes strikes me as a bit tasteless.

The Gist: “Step Away From the Screen” — Leggings, Mike? You’re basking in the opportunity of a slow news day and you decide to talk about leggings? Even the interview isn’t especially compelling. Anyway.

99% Invisible: “Manzanar” — Well, there’s mention of a plaque, at least. The stories 99pi has been doing lately are important stories, but they’re important stories that should fall to news reporters to tell. Not 99% Invisible. The legacy of the Japanese internment camps is extremely important to remember in America’s current political climate. So, newspapers should definitely send reporters out there. But when this show is at its best, I find a different sort of value in it. It tells important stories that don’t necessarily have any resonance with the current news cycle at all. It tells important stories that are not matters of life and death, but just about how people can make life a little better by thinking a little harder. That’s a worthy task, and it gained this show a big following. I miss that.

Code Switch: “Sanctuary Churches: Who Controls the Story?” — A complex account of the balancing act that the new sanctuary movement faces: be public about your actions as an open protest of the government, or be quiet out of respect for the privacy of those who seek sanctuary?

The Memory Palace: “Roots and Branches and Wind-Borne Seeds” — This is proof that any story can be told well. Nate DiMeo foregrounds the fact that there is no drama in the story he has to tell, and by foregrounding it, he introduces a new thematic layer to the narrative. Nice.

Crimetown: “Renaissance Man” — This is what I’m talking about. If this season had laser focussed on Buddy Cianci and Raymond Patriarca, it could have been glorious. I cannot believe that Buddy Cianci was the mayor of a major city. I cannot believe he got reelected. There is much in the world to shake one’s faith in democracy. Add this to the list.

Criminal: “Rochester, 1991” — This is an absolutely horrifying story of a person who ended up, first, in an abusive relationship and second, on the wrong side of the law. What this woman has been through is unthinkable. It’s not easy to listen to, but it does have something of a happy ending, so that’s not nothing.

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.

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 12, 2017)

19 reviews, mostly podcasts.

Literature, etc.

Amanda Hess: “How a Fractious Women’s Movement Came to Lead the Left” — This isn’t just an account of the women’s march on Washington and its various internal controversies; it is also a brief history of conflicts within feminism since the days of the women’s suffrage movement. Extremely edifying.

Movies

13th — This is an intensely powerful film with such a tremendous roster of eloquent interviewees that its lack of narration hardly seems like a stunt. Together, the guests gathered by Ava DuVernay (including Angela Davis and Cory Booker) tell a long, fucked up story about the political processes that led to the staggering rise in incarceration of black people at the end of the 20th century. It leads with the racist myth-making of D.W. Griffith, and traces those myths through the increasingly covert dog whistle rhetoric of “law and order” presidents: Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton. It isn’t just powerful argumentation, it is deft and irresistible storytelling, even as it becomes increasingly horrifying as it nears the present day. Every talking head is beautifully framed (DuVernay isn’t just a documentarian, after all) and the soundtrack is a brilliant mix of the likes of Nina Simone, Killer Mike and Lawrence Brownlee. (Look him up. Do it.) If the Academy chafes at the nomination of what is definitely a TV show and not a movie for its Documentary Feature award, this would be a stellar alternative to my preferred nominee, O.J.: Made in AmericaPick of the week. 

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 18-20 — Oh, and they pulled the season together. “Downloaded” is a classic, and the premise of having Caprica Six have her own “Head Baltar” as a reversal of Baltar’s situation with his own hallucinated (?) Six is the best addition to the show since Pegasus. Watching Tricia Helfer and James Callis play the opposite of their usual roles is a delight and demonstrates just how much they’re the best pairing in the show, and two of the most skilled actors it possesses. Grace Park… less so. The finale is a stunner, far exceeding the season one finale with its clever time jump mechanism, but also with one of the most compelling political plotlines the show has done so far. BSG season two is intensely patchy, but when it’s good, it’s staggering.

Music

Philip Glass Ensemble: Einstein on the Beach (1993 recording) — I don’t know why it took me so long to listen to this in its entirety. I have known a few of its more substantial chunks like the back of my hand for a lot of years, but had never made my way through the entire opera. It took Laurie Anderson to make me finally do it. (And hoo boy, does “O Superman” ever borrow liberally from this. In the best way.) This week, Einstein on the Beach accompanied my bus commutes, my writing, my running and my IKEA furniture assembly. (Einstein on the Beach plus IKEA furniture might not be your idea of a Saturday afternoon well spent, but I was happy as a clam.) I think if you’re going to listen to all of Einstein on the Beach, the way to do it is to take it in bits and be otherwise occupied for at least some of it. I can imagine that it would be mentally exhausting to listen to the entire recording — even though it runs a solid hour shorter than actual productions do. But what may be tedious taken all at once is often euphoric when heard in pieces. Some sections are more enticing that others, and since the sections are so long and so repetitive, that means that the lesser ones tend to outstay their welcome. (The “Night Train” scene, with its dated electric piano sound is a particular offender. Why is it that sound gets on my nerves but I’m completely fine with the omnipresent Farfisa organ? We’ll never know.) But the best scenes in this are actually curiously moving, in spite of having virtually no content. The opening and closing “Knee Plays,” where poetry is recited repeatedly alongside a chorus that’s just counting out loud is, I dare say, beautiful. But I’ll be damned if I know why. I’ll be damned if I can figure out what any of this means at all. I’d love to see it, though I halfway think it might be insufferable. The best bits of this are possibly Philip Glass’s finest achievements. Certainly I prefer it to anything he’s written for conventional ensembles of acoustic instruments. I intend to check out the 1978 recording as well, though it is less complete than this second one. Actually, come to think of it, that might be more of a feature than a bug.

Podcasts

Reply All: “Second Language” — Sruthi’s cyborg interview isn’t the real anchor of this episode, which is mostly notable for a Yes Yes No in which I was proud to be a yes while Alex Goldman was a no. But it was about Norm Kelly and I’m Canadian, so it almost doesn’t count.

On the Media: “See You In Court” — This features a useful primer on what exactly a constitutional crisis constitutes, another primer on the differences between conventional liberal values and anti-fascist tactics, and a news consumer’s handbook on coverage of protests. So, it’s meat-and-potatoes On the Media of the sort that I suspect Brooke Gladstone is most in favour of. And, as much as I enjoy Bob Garfield’s impassioned editorials, I confess I’m really still in it for the analysis. This is great. Pick of the week. 

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The LEGO Batman Movie and MasterChef Junior” — I’m inclined to check out both of these things. Hearing Glen Weldon enthuse about The LEGO Batman Movie feels like the culmination of an entire thread of discourse that’s existed in this podcast for years. And MasterChef Junior sounds like just what I need to make myself feel inadequate just as I’m upping my own cooking game. You can’t be too humble.

Radiolab: “Radiolab Presents: Ponzi Supernova” — I’m not sold enough on this to listen to Ponzi Supernova itself, but I’m happy to have heard a bit of this story with interjections from Jad and Robert.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Grammys” — The Grammys are a joke. That is all.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Philip Pullman To Follow-Up ‘His Dark Materials’ Trilogy” — I don’t know if I’m happier about the fact that Pullman is writing more His Dark Materials or the fact that Glen Weldon got to talk to the guy who is indirectly responsible for him meeting his husband. Regardless, they are both lovely things.

The Gist: “David Frum Beseeches You To Focus” — The interview with David Frum is well worth your while to hear somebody talk who is smart and involved with supposedly elitist coastal media, but is also Republican. I can’t ever quite like him, but I’m glad that he exists. If only all Republicans were like him.

Chapo Trap House: “The Devil in Mother Jones” — It would have been great to hear them talk to Bauer a bit about his piece on private prisons, but I’ll take right-wing militia infiltration too.

Love and Radio: “How to Argue” — A follow-up to “The Silver Dollar,” a back episode I’m fairly fond of. I’m honestly a bit conflicted on Daryl Davis’s advice about how to talk to horrible people. One of his premises is that everybody deserves to be heard, even if they’re wrong or hateful. Much of the time I’m not convinced of this. But honestly, the thing that I’ve been praising Love and Radio for over the past several months is its ability to present people with whom I disagree in all of their complexity. I’d never say that this show should stop featuring guests that I don’t agree with. So, why do I find Daryl Davis’s radical acceptance of hateful people so hard to accept? I can’t easily answer this. But how like Love and Radio to be troubling, even in a basic, utilitarian discussion of tactics.

On the Media: “Out Like Flynn” — I think the idea that General Flynn’s resignation might have actually thrown the Trump spin machine off kilter is ludicrously optimistic, but that’s just me.

99% Invisible: “Usonia the Beautiful” — I preferred the first part of this story, that detailed the actual development and history of the Usonian homes. But this is interesting for the details about how those homes succeeded and how they failed to live up to their promise, a generation later.

Arts and Ideas: “Rude Valentines. Neil Gaiman, Translating China’s Arts” — Yeah, I can get behind this. This is BBC’s major arts and culture podcast, and it’s as fun and smart as you’d expect. I understand there are Brits who think the BBC is severely wanting, and maybe if I lived there and was more inundated by it (and if I watched their news), maybe I’d see some of the problems. But I more or less think that it’s the platonic ideal of media and that we should all have a licence fee model to pay for a public broadcaster.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Legion and Planet Earth II” — I feel that Glen Weldon is overstating the extent to which Planet Earth II anthropomorphizes the animals it features by a smidgen. Linda Holmes is right to point out that it mostly portrays them as wanting to find food and reproduce. I’d add that the farthest David Attenborough goes in his anthropomorphic writing is to portray an animal as making a choice. Which, of course, they do. To what extent is the baby lizard in the now viral clip with the racer snakes anthropomorphized? The film is showing something that is true: the lizard’s life is at risk, and it has to either outrun some snakes or stay perfectly still. Tension can and should be allowed to rest on the decision that the lizard has to make, because it’s a real decision, even if not a conscious one, and it is legitimately high-stakes. I have little to no interest in Legion.

On The Media: “Leak State” — The highlights of this are the segments on why we should be careful with our use of the word “treason,” and why we should be careful when comparing Donald Trump to various other strongman leaders. Basically, the thing to take from this is that the stuff you say means things — specific things, if you’re using language right — so if you’re on TV or writing in a newspaper, you should be aware of the specific things that the stuff you say means. Has this become less than self-evident?

Beef and Dairy Network: “Dr David Pin” — Okay, we’ll see where this goes. I’m aware that this is semi-serialized, so I’m hoping that they can build on the continuity they establish without relying on it too heavily. Because this tiny episode would in itself be a fairly excellent longer segment in a sketch show. But I’m optimistic about this — it is actually produced like the thing it purports to be, thus eliminating the largest problem with the other serialized comedy podcast I listen to (Welcome to Night Vale).

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 29, 2017)

At long last, I’ve decided to trade in my long serving podcatcher, Stitcher, for something a little shinier, namely Overcast. I just figured I’d try it out because I’m deeply sympathetic to the developer’s commitment to an open, RSS-based future for podcasting, which would ensure that my beloved medium doesn’t have to start competing in the attention economy and grubbing for clicks on Facebook and similar cesspools of deviance and decrepitude. But before I made this decision, I made sure to check my final listening stats on Stitcher. Since first downloading the app on September 19, 2014, my total listening time is the rather pleasing sum of 1,000 hours. Less roundly, 1,000 hours and 29 minutes. That’s an average of about 52 minutes a day. Not bad.

17 reviews.

Movies

Sicario — This confirms that Denis Villeneuve is a director that I definitely want to see more from. This is a crazily tense movie with great performances from Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro in particular, but also Josh Brolin. It’s definitely most notable for being a) a great thriller, and b) a really interesting take on the “strong female lead” trope. This is a movie that doesn’t just mindlessly let its protagonist kick ass, but rather sees her face intense negation and danger at the hands of her male superiors — but without ever leaving Blunt’s character’s perspective or denying her interiority. This strikes me as rare and interesting. (See the AV Club review for more.) It’s no Arrival, but I’m happy to have seen it, and excited to be moving backwards through Villeneuve’s catalogue. Next stop: Prisoners.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 1-8 —  Well, they’re expanding the uses of their made-up cursing. In the second episode, we get “mutherfracker” and “godsdamn” in the same conversation. So far, this season has more or less kept pace with the first. I’m beginning to feel that the show is copping out by having all of the military’s most dubious moves happen on Colonel Tighe’s watch. He’s an innately unlikable character, so this seems like a way for the show to motion towards a nuanced portrayal of its military-aligned protagonists without compromising the integrity of its central figure, Commander Adama. Part of me feels that this would be more interesting if it were Adama, with all of his moral posturing, who was making the shitty calls. Still, I’m very much enjoying this and as early 2000s political genre television goes, this is well ahead of 24 in terms of nuance. Not that that’s a high bar.

Music

Chvrches: Every Open Eye — I spent a bunch of this week listening to Bleachers’ “I Wanna Get Better” on repeat. But I can’t seem to get through that full album. Chvrches is the antidote to this. The first record had monstrously good singles and a couple of prime album cuts, but this second record is great from start to finish. It’s 45 minutes of pure pop catharsis. Only “Make Them Gold” lets down the side. Where most of the album is openly making the best of negative experiences, “Make Them Gold” is like a self-help book rendered in verse. That aside, though, I find new highlights on this every time I listen to it. This time around, it was the elegant chorus of “Keep You On My Side” that hit me hardest. Check out how it glides through the first two lines, before hitting hard only on the third. This has turned out to be the album from 2015 that I’ve continued to listen through. Pick of the week. 

Games

Replica — During the Steam winter sale, I can never resist a two dollar 8-bit indie game. But good lord is this one ever ersatz. The idea is clever on its face: you’ve been imprisoned by the security arm of an authoritarian government, and all you have in your possession is somebody else’s cellphone. Periodically, you’re contacted by an agent of the state who nudges you to begin collecting data on the person who owns the cellphone. You have to crack codes, scan text messages and so forth to find evidence that this person is a terrorist — though, of course, they may not be. But once you’re past the premise, everything falls apart. The character who serves as the primary voice of the authoritarian regime is horrendously overcooked and says things along the lines of “Knowing who Che Guevara is DEFINITELY means you’re a communist.” It’s fictional totalitarianism in the highest possible register. And while modern authoritarianism does seem to be getting more and more overt, I’m still always going to be interested in fiction that depicts more realistic (i.e. surreptitious) systems of control. Like Papers, Please, for instance. This game is aping that one right down to its 8-bit aesthetic. But where Replica features a rabid ideologue talking shit at you throughout the whole game, Papers, Please tells a story of oppression by way of a border patrol and the people who pass through it — who generally decline to monologue at you. Much cleverer. Also, there are generally a few things in this that display an unsophisticated understanding of the politics the game is dealing with. The words “terrorism” and “revolution” are used effectively interchangeably, which could be clever — if the writer (or, to be fair, possibly the translator) didn’t have the perpetrator of these acts also use the words interchangeably. And most of the game’s multiple endings (yeah, this guy really just wanted to make Papers, Please) conclude with the famous Mussolini quote that starts “All within the state…” It’s a nice touch, but the developer also uses that quote at the end of the game’s credits, missing an opportunity to use an opposing quote. It really feels like the place where you’d put an anti-authoritarian quote from Orwell, or Thoreau, maybe. As if that’s not enough, the game contains at least two blatant references to superior indie games (The Stanley Parable and, yes, Papers, Please) that have no function within the story, but serve simply as a way for the developer to say “look at me, I’m making a game!” Replica is one of those games that still occasionally passes muster in the indie games community, in spite of being pretty far below the average level of sophistication of political art in more established media. I daresay even the film adaptation of V for Vendetta has a more nuanced outlook on authoritarianism, and that is not something one wants to say about anything, ever. Perhaps it seems bellicose to pick on a game by a solo, part-time developer whose passion project this is. But there’s very little to recommend it. Even in these unsubtle times, this game is not subtle enough.

Podcasts

The Bugle: “How bad can it get in a week?” — Fairly laugh-light, this, except for a couple of moments near the end, some of which come from listener mail, and one of which comes from Andy Zaltzman’s ten-year-old daughter. You know it’s bad out there when even Andy Zaltzman can’t convert his abyss gazing into jokes.

Chapo Trap House: “No Country For Gorilla Men” — Oh man, it’s great to hear Matt Taibbi on this show. He’s basically a Chapo who can write magazine features. I have already decided that Taibbi’s new book, Insane Clown President, which I have not read and only found out about through this podcast, is a modern classic and the sort of journalism that will save the world. But also, this is the funniest Chapo Trap House since I’ve started listening. This is one of relatively few shows that became essential listening for me almost immediately.  

All Songs Considered: “How Laurie Anderson And Philip Glass Were About To Change The World” — Somebody should give Tom Huizenga his own podcast. This interview with Laurie Anderson is certainly better than what Boilen and HIlton usually muster, and it’s fun to hear Anderson talk about the days when she and Glass traveled in the same bohemian circles. Also, hearing Anderson talk over Philip Glass music really made me want to listen to “O Superman.” Man, does that ever sound like Philip Glass.

In Our Time: “Parasitism” — Is it weird that I found this comforting? It’s an hour of scientists talking about parasites. But it turns out we need parasites! So, things are looking up.

The Heart: “Ultraslut” — This “Pansy” season is already super promising. The first episode was an exploration of what it’s like to be a feminine straight, cis man. And now this one chips away at the orthodoxy that gay men are universally accepting of femininity. Good work, right here. And beautifully mixed, as always.

Love and Radio: “Snakes!!!!!!!!” — Once again, Love and Radio makes it impossible to write off a difficult person. This guest is a challenging listen right from the start, because the producers decided to begin this episode with him refusing to answer a question. In some circumstances, I’d think that was mean. But in this case, I think it’s an entirely reasonable response to his manners. If somebody treats you unpleasantly, you need not treat them unpleasantly in return. But when put in a position where you have to accurately portray that person to somebody else, you’re within your rights at that point to make them seem like a bit of a jerk. This guy claims that immunization is the key to treating snake bites, rather than antivenom. He immunized himself against the bite of the Black Mamba by gradually introducing venom into his system. All well and good, but when confronted with the idea that this isn’t actual science, which it obviously isn’t, he goes on a rabid, resentful, anti-intellectual rant in which he claims to be better than any normal scientist because can they withstand the bit of the Black Mamba? No, they don’t have the balls! It’s a kind of bullshit that I find particularly hard to stomach in today’s, erm, climate. But we also learn that this guy is really, really good at the specific thing he’s devoted himself to. It isn’t science, but it is definitely impressive. He’s capable of both extreme meticulousness and crazy bravery. And it’s worth noting that he’s managed to immunize himself against the bites of several of the world’s most venomous snakes without a degree in immunology. Also he’s a Tool fan, which earns him, like, two points in my book. The point is, I wanted to say this guy is an asshole and wash my hands of him, but the show didn’t let me. Again, the value of this show is that it proves it’s better to listen to people than not to. People may be wrong, but they are seldom (never?) actually worthless. Pick of the week. 

Code Switch: “So, What Are You Afraid Of Now?” — Everything. I’m afraid of everything.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Rachel Bloom on Mary Tyler Moore” — I have never actually seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but hearing the creator of a contemporary show about a single woman (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) talk about how Moore’s show paved the way makes me want to investigate.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Oscar Nominations” — I share Stephen Thompson’s enthusiasm for Arrival’s nine nominations, and Glen Weldon’s for The Lobster’s screenplay. But the category I’m most excited for didn’t get a mention: the documentary feature category. Of the nominees, there’s only one I’ve seen (and at least two that I will be seeking out prior to the ceremony) but that one is O.J.: Made in America, which is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I don’t care that it isn’t a movie. It deserves an Oscar. Frankly, the category looks like it’s got an embarrassment of riches, with Ava DuVernay nominated for 13th, along with the extremely buzzy I Am Not Your Negro. But Ezra Edelman’s O.J. Simpson documentary is a thing of history-making heft.

Radiolab: “Stranger in Paradise” — A somewhat ineffectual little story about how the raccoon became the national animal of Guadalupe, in spite of not actually being native to that island. On another show I might praise this, but it’s mostly just another episode that made me miss the old Radiolab.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Riverdale and Other Teen Soaps” — Wow, I haven’t heard them hate something this much for ages. Riverdale sounds tragically misbegotten, but it’s always nice to hear Linda Holmes and Sarah D. Bunting talk about television.

Desert Island Discs: “Desert Island Discs at 75” — This gigantic, three-hour celebration of 75 years of one of the most absurdly specific programmes in public radio is well worth a listen. I’m not sure if Desert Island Discs actually invented the concept of the “desert island disc,” but regardless, this is a pretty unbelievable archive of interviews with notable people the world over. Where else will you get to hear Jacqueline Du Pre request Daniel Barenboim as the one “luxury” she’d take with her to a desert island? Obviously, it’s spotty. Even within these three hours, it’s easy to see that they show’s original host Roy Plomley was a bit of a lightweight. An interview with Margaret Thatcher is almost entirely apolitical, and thus almost entirely uninteresting. But still: the fact that this show is still going, and with such a similar format as the one it started with, demonstrates its value.

The Gist: “The Case of the Frozen Trucker” — Emily Bazelon is the person you need to explain Trump’s Supreme Court pick to you. He’s bad. But he’s not stupid. So, there’s that.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Oscar Documentary Roundup and a Foreign Language Film We Love” — I wrote too soon. Lovely of them to do a whole segment on the documentaries. Mostly, this just confirmed that I don’t need to see Fire at Sea or Life, Animated, and that I should just stick to the three frontrunners. (Wow, it’s only a really stacked category that you say that about.) It also confirmed that I need to see The Salesman, and also that I need to see The Past, because I loved A Separation enough to warrant watching this guy’s life’s work, basically.

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 Jan. 15, 2017)

A modest 20 reviews, because I’m binge-watching again. By the way, there’s never been a better time to follow me on Tumblr, because tomorrow marks the start of my customary late-January week of reflection on the stuff I liked from the past year. I’ll be counting back from 30, finishing next Saturday. But if you abstain from Tumblr, never fear, because as usual I will post an omnibus of all 30 on this site.

Television

Sherlock: “The Final Problem” — You know, it wouldn’t be so disappointing if it weren’t probably the last episode. There are good things here, not least of which is an opportunity for Mark Gatiss to play Mycroft at the moment when the condescension finally wears too thin to bother. I never thought I’d say this, but between his performance in this episode and his script for the first one, Gatiss is the best thing about Sherlock season four. But there are other clear weak points here. After two weeks of brilliant directing from a couple of the best in the Mofftiss-adjecent stable, first-timer Benjamin Caron turns in a mixed effort, including a really dumb-looking take on the classic “guys jump out of windows to escape an exploding building” shot, a bit where Sherlock swoops down into the camera like Batman, and a shot of Watson passing out while the camera spirals about. This all feels like it belongs in some other show. It’s worth noting that I’m not one of the people who has been disappointed by the James Bond-esque action in this season. Honestly, I didn’t remember it not being there before. The way the action has been handled is still very much in the visual universe of this show. But there are amateurish moments in this episode, to an extent that we haven’t seen since the first season. Okay, now a plus: Moriarty’s back for a final bow, and he’s dancing to Queen. “Do you like my boys? This one’s got more stamina, but he’s less caring in the afterglow.” That entire scene is sublime. Andrew Scott is brilliantly over the top. Alright, now back to the negatives. This episode worked really hard to show Sherlock having become “a good man.” But in having him act in a conventionally human fashion in pretty much every situation, rather than ever being ethically compromising or cold, the writers seem to have lost track of the fact that we know he’s a good man, and the beauty of this version of the character is that we continue to feel that way even when he makes decisions that we wouldn’t make. If they wanted me to sympathize with Sherlock to the degree that I normally do during the course of an episode, they should have made his evil sister put him in situations that would emphasize the areas where his character is weak, as opposed to ones where he’ll be forced to act honourably. In fact, this was the wrong approach entirely to the villain of this episode. Eurus shouldn’t have been a calculating arch-manipulator who uses humans as lab rats; she should have been somebody who knows Sherlock’s worst attributes and wishes to put them on display. She should have tried to demonstrate to him the extent to which he is fundamentally lacking in empathy, only to have John Watson reaffirm his value. That would have been a character beat to end the show on. I could say more, like how I wish there’d been more jokes, or how bits of this were legitimately scary in a way that Moffat scripts haven’t been for a while, but the details will largely fade into the background with this one, in the face of how bizarrely these two writers misinterpreted the appeal of their protagonist in the final episode of their show. Mary’s closing monologue is an obvious attempt to paper over that (final) problem, but the thing is that in this particular reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes corpus, it does matter what kind of people Holmes and Watson are. The adventures themselves account for a certain amount of what’s great about this show, but if the true motivations of the characters really mattered as little as Mofftiss are explicitly trying to tell us in that speech, then I wouldn’t have spent the previous hour and a half being so pissed off about why Sherlock’s being portrayed in this light. I think I’ll leave it there. Sherlock, at its best, was a huge achievement in television storytelling. However, it was infrequently at its best and it unfortunately didn’t end there. I mean, I guess it still could. But after this season, I can’t say I’m that interested in more.

Downton Abbey: Season 3, episodes 1-5 — I’ve been trying to decide what it is about this series that keeps me coming back in spite of literally everything about it. I think part of it is that it’s the only thing with a sense of humour as dry as I require. More shade is thrown and with greater subtlety in this show than basically any other. Only in this show could the line “a great many noses will be out of joint” serve as very nearly a cliffhanger.  This season is more like a straightforward soap opera than the show has ever been. But the presence of Cora’s mother, a truculent American bulldozer with about as little respect for the Edwardian aristocracy as I have, is extremely refreshing. Whether or not it comes off in the end, the idea to have a character in the show to whom it is necessary to justify the function of Downton is a very clever idea. Surely Julian Fellowes is entirely aware that he’s got people in the audience like me. Also, I quite like the organ arrangement of the meditation from Thaïs that’s played right before Edith’s almost-wedding. Wonder where I can find sheet music for that?

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 4 — Last we checked in, I was hopelessly stuck and wandering around a part of the map that there was literally no way out of with the items that I had. I was worried that this would be the bit where I stopped enjoying myself, but I’m actually glad that I got to spend a bit of time in that area because it’s one of the best parts of the game so far. Basically, just outside the huge castle that you’re trying to get into is a complex of stone towers that were once a great college of magic. They’ve been left in a state of dilapidation in recent years, but they’ve still got dangerous magic around them. That’s the best concept in this game so far: an abandoned magical college full of traps and impossible rooms. That would be a good game in itself. Anyway, I never did find a proper way out of there. But I did find an elegant way to die, which is the only way that you can really go back and make your choices again. So that turned out not to be an annoyance at all, but rather a lovely excursion away from the main plot. Having gotten back to the main plot, I swiftly realized how much I’m not used to having to think through simple puzzles in order to finish games. I died nine times within the game’s very last section, in the big castle I spent hours trying to get into last week — all because I failed to see one extremely obvious way to solve the problem that kept happening. Anyway, this is just another example of me wanting games not to be games, because I’m bad at them. If you’re not, I think you probably ought to play this. The fourth instalment is good enough to justify the sometimes tedious schlep through the first three.

NORTH — Nothing special. For two bucks and an hour of your time, it’s good value. But while this game is to be commended for its attempt to win the player’s empathy for a refugee, it doesn’t have a lot to say about the specifics of that experience. It sets its narrative in a hazy, purposely abstract city populated by anguished deformed ghouls. And while its visual style is completely wonderful and gets across a sense of loneliness and alienation that befits its theme, NORTH falls flat in that it doesn’t take the extra step and establish more acute consequences for its central character’s decision to flee to this place. NORTH deals in generalities. You learn that your character has moved to a place that distrusts his religion, will only allow him to do the most menial and dangerous work, and doubts that he was even persecuted at all in his home country. This all rings true, but the structure of the game is such that all of these hurdles are jumpable, and there’s no sense here that the character suffers the sort of sustained discrimination and hate from his fellow citizens that are presumably the attitudes this game is trying to combat. Rather, he is simply made to live in a rather stylish dystopian surveillance state. (Perhaps one that surveils him more closely than others, but even that is not entirely clear.) So basically, this game is really good at inspiring empathy for an isolated person who has been forced to move far from home, but its attempts to generalize the refugee experience to the point of abstraction make it substantially less powerful than it wants to be.

Movies

HyperNormalisation — Before we discuss the content of this troubling, mesmerizing masterpiece, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the BBC has (at least in this instance) figured out what a public broadcaster should do on the internet. For context, this is a three-hour web-exclusive documentary by the BBC’s weirdest longstanding contributor, Adam Curtis. It covers the 40-year story of how the world got to a point where obviously horrible things can happen routinely (suicide bombings, Trump, Putin) while most people continue to think the world is still normal. So basically, it is extremely ambitious and engages in exactly no handholding. Oh, you don’t know who Andrei Tarkovsky is? Fucking Google it. We have the world at our fingertips. We shouldn’t insist that documentarians, broadcasters and journalists fill us in on shit like that. If Curtis took the traditional broadcasting approach, HyperNormalisation would be nineteen tedious hours long. By circumventing basic explanatory parentheticals and trusting his audience’s intelligence and curiosity, Curtis is able to present three hours of pure analysis and evaluation. Less time spent explaining equals more time spent synthesizing. This is easier to do when the documentary is open in one of many browser tabs and easily rewindable than if it’s on BBC Two. Many legacy media outlets, public and not, have looked at the internet primarily as a threat, and of course they’re not wrong. But they are damn well wrong to react to that threat by making themselves more similar to the vapid sorts of web-native operations that command competitively-sized audiences to their broadcast platforms. The internet was once the proud home of the stuff that’s too weird and difficult for what used to be called mainstream media. The BBC’s release of HyperNormalisation exclusively on their iPlayer feels like a beautiful glimpse into an alternate universe where legacy media joined the party where the cool, smart kids were. It’s an acknowledgement that the internet offers the opportunity to do exactly what they’ve always done, except smarter and more niche. Meanwhile, two browser tabs over, there are National Post headlines shouting at me to click on them so that Facebook will see them as profitable and display them more prominently so that more people will click on them and see ads on the National Post website and not learn a damn thing from the article and then do it all again and again until they’ve spent half the running time of HyperNormalisation consuming the media equivalent of marshmallows and feeling a bit sick. So, it’s appropriate that towards the end of its staggering exploration of how everything became fake, HyperNormalisation asserts that we know the world less well than ever because we view it through the simplified, personalized lens of algorithmically-curated social feeds. The Wikipedia synopsis actually sums up the effect of this better than I probably could: “The American Left’s attempt to resist Trump on the internet had no effect. In fact, they were just feeding the social media corporations who valued their many additional clicks.” There’s more on social media in this, particularly as it applies to the fruitless revolutions in Egypt during the Arab Spring and on Wall Street during the Occupy movement. But it’s actually expressed with even more clarity in Curtis’s interview on Chapo Trap House, which I recommend. Putting my usual hobby horse aside for a moment, this documentary is tremendously clever in its structure. It 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. The documentary was released before the election of Trump, but this makes that completely unthinkable event look inevitable in retrospect. Pick of the week.

Music

Jethro Tull: Bursting Out — Now, naturally, I would say this. But this is one of the best live albums ever. If you’re trying to convince somebody why live albums are worthwhile, and why they were such a big deal in the ‘70s, this is possibly the very best one. I’d put it at number two on my personal live list, edging out Yessongs and Magma’s Live/Hhaï by a fraction and losing out only to Gentle Giant’s Playing the Fool. By the height of prog rock in the ‘70s, the studio recording had long supplanted the live performance as the platonic ideal of a piece of music. (Think of a Beatles song. You’re thinking of the record, not a live track.) Since then, as music has become increasingly producer driven and recordings have become fussier and fussier and piled with more layers of artifice (by no means a value judgement; it’s just true), live records have become increasingly superlative as live performances inevitably come to resemble the records more and more. But the ‘70s represents an interesting transitional phase, where albums were becoming increasingly elaborate, but they were still basically made by people who played instruments. So, live performances from this period are a hybrid between the profoundly expressive act that music making always is, and the thrill of watching a series of stunts. Jethro Tull is one of the bands that succeeded most consistently in existing at that intersection. The performances on this live record are unique to the studio versions because the studio versions are irreproducibly complex. Instead, they are compelling reinterpretations of the material for a different setting. This is a kind of record that I don’t think we’ll ever see again. And that’s fine. But thank god we have this one.  

Igor Stravinsky/John Eliot Gardiner, Ian Bostridge, Bryn Terfel, etc: The Rake’s Progress — I used to listen to this a bunch back in music school but man, it’s been a while. It came up at work recently, and I figured it was about time to revisit this. This is one of those recordings that seems like the platonic ideal of the opera in question. (Mind you, it’s also the only Rake I’ve listened to more than once. There’s a reason for that, though.) Gardiner treats the material with the unsentimentality that it begs, and that matter-of-factness allows the score itself to express its own natural beauty. And the singing is absolutely peerless. Bostridge and Terfel are two of the best singers of their generation, both at their very best here. Terfel’s Nick Shadow is very much a classic Bryn Terfel characterization: a touch of the clown, but threatening nonetheless. Along with Anne Sofie von Otter’s bearded lady, he breathes life into a story that isn’t always naturally invigorated by Stravinsky’s compulsively austere music. That’s especially relevant in the first act, because this opera famously takes a while to get going. Act two has a lot of great stuff in it, but it’s the third and final act that’s the real masterpiece. Honestly, I’d recommend that any classical music fan take the 55 minutes to listen to act three and the short, brilliant epilogue to hear Stravinsky at the absolute height of his abilities in neoclassical mode. It’s Stravinskian music clothed in Mozartean garb, and the three scenes of act three show three distinctly different takes on that concept. The auction scene is total chaos that must take untold hours of rehearsal. The graveyard scene is creepy and muted, and a magnificent two-hander for the singers in the leading roles (Terfel and Bostridge are unspeakably entertaining together). And the final scene in the madhouse is the best of all. Stravinsky does something really clever here. The Rake has gone insane and believes himself to be Adonis. Stravinsky’s music seems to support that delusion, as it’s suddenly filled with ambrosia, and the distance between the beauty of the music and the reality of the Rake’s madness makes the scene gloriously sad. The epilogue is two and a half minutes of Stravinsky’s most addictive music. I love this. Listen to this.

Podcasts

Welcome to Night Vale: “worms…” — The episodic plot of this episode gradually melted away into the larger story arc, but it’s fine. I do think Hiram McDaniels is played out as a character, but I know he sticks around for at least twenty more episodes, and probably more. One of the most pronounced weak points of Welcome to Night Vale is that they don’t know when things are played out. Their continuity is a crutch that they use in place of new jokes, because they think they can (and perhaps they actually can?) rely on their fan base to be delighted at the mere mention of the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, or the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. Which, granted, are both fun combinations of words. But the novelty wears off when the thing they’re attached to doesn’t actually have anything new to contribute to the story. For a show about the mysterious and unknowable, Night Vale sure does rely an awful lot on familiarity as a positive trait in itself. If I space out my listening enough (and my increasing behindness should indicate that I do), I can tolerate it. But after listening to three episodes last week (even though one of which was “Voicemail,” which is one of the few to break the structural mould) I’m already starting to get sick of this again.

Chapo Trap House: “Better Call Saul Alinsky” — The Chapos are joined by MST3K’s Bill Corbett to talk about the single most hilariously misguided and offensive documentary of recent times: Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America. I am so happy they watched it so I don’t have to.

Love and Radio: “No Bad News” — This is about a hypnotist who stopped watching the news and ended up treating Uday Hussein because he had no idea what was going on in the world. It is less frustrating (in the good way) than many episodes of Love and Radio but that may just be because of the hypnotist’s soothing voice, which probably made me more amenable to his self-enforced ignorance.

Theory of Everything: “Entrapment” — Excellent, but particularly excellent for the segment from ten years ago, in which a younger, more naïve Benjamen Walker tells a story about his cell phone ruining his relationship. Oh, for the days when the most insidious invasion of privacy that your cell phone could manage was a butt dial.

Theory of Everything: “The Twentieth of January” — Firstly, the novel they’re talking about in this is real. There actually is a spy novel from 1980 about a Republican president who gets elected in spite of having no political experience and an amount of wealth that’s inconsistent with his image as a populist. And then a British intelligence agent reveals a plot by the Russians to influence the election. That much of this episode — the part that describes the plot of the novel — is entirely true. But just finding this book and noting its similarity to our contemporary shit cyclone wouldn’t be enough. So Benjamen Walker and his guest Josh Glenn spin a bizarre conspiracy theory that the book is one of the few that Donald Trump has actually read, and that it was given to him by the KGB. That’s the beauty of this show. It would never squander the knowledge of a weirdly prescient espionage thriller on mere reportage. It takes it several steps further.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Did He Remix Race?” — A fine conclusion to the trilogy, with some really excellent tape from the poet Richard Blanco, who read at Obama’s inauguration. The best part is hearing the panel take apart the optimism of Obama’s farewell address, look at it from a few different angles, and not quite be able to come to a decision on it.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: DJ Khaled” — So, I listened to this at 1.5X, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been more entertained. But even at regular speed, I’m sure Khaled’s explanation of why it’s important to have a lot of pillows will delight you.

The Sporkful: “The Great Office Coffee Election” — This is fun. WNYC voted on what the new free office coffee was going to be, so Dan Pashman obviously had to make a Sporkful out of it.

Song Exploder: “Solange – Cranes in the Sky” — First off, I’m confused about how Hrishikesh Hirway was able to isolate the drums and bass from this track if the stems went missing. Did they find them after the fact? But in any case, this is really illuminating. Basically, Solange took an instrumental that she couldn’t do much with except loop and built a song on top of it that actually has direction and manages to go somewhere because of her skill with harmony. I love this show because it focusses in on the craftsmanship of music. That’s especially useful with music like this, where it intersects so perfectly with a big social conversation. The vast preponderance of criticism about A Seat at the Table has focussed on Solange’s social message, as well it should. But there’s space to recognise that Solange is both very thoughtful about feminism and race and she is very good at making music. Pick of the week.

The West Wing Weekly: “What’s Next? featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda” — Worth it for the lines about Yo-Yo Ma alone.

The Gist: “The 12-Step Program of Highly Effective People” — Nick Thune is a funny fellow. I saw him live last year, and was pretty impressed. This is a good conversation that gets into the craft of his comedy a bit, and gets to why he resists tightening up his set to just the lines that get the biggest laughs. I respect him for that. I found him entertaining to listen to, even when the punchlines were spread a fair way apart. Mike Birbiglia can get away with this too.

Criminal: “In Plain Sight” — It’s been so long since I listened to Criminal. I really should go back and listen to the whole archive. This is an incredible show. It reminds me as much of Reply All as anything, because it takes a really broad view of its premise. Anything that could ever have been interpreted as criminal is fair game. So, this story of two slaves escaping so that they could have a proper marriage in a church — an escape that involves a pretty insane disguise — is the sort of thing you can rely on this show for. Lovely.

The Memory Palace: “The Presidency of William Henry Harrison, or Back in the Saddle” — One of the really slight ones. It’s nice, and a good tie-in for inauguration day, but not one of the episodes that’ll sell you on this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Young Pope & Hell or High Water” — Here’s one of the episodes that makes me want to watch both of the things they’re talking about. The Young Pope in particular sounds exactly weird enough to be just what I want out of life.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 25, 2016)

And so, Omnireviewer limps improbably into its third calendar year. Speaking of traditions, for a couple of years now I’ve been compiling a list of my favourite things of the year at the end of January. Not December. I stubbornly insist on not dealing with such things until the year is actually over, and I’ve had a solid month to take stock, and also to fit in a couple more books or shows. (Though, I imagine a certain exceedingly long and strange novel will make the list regardless of the fact that I will be AT MOST halfway through it by the end of the month.) But for now, I have this week’s 15 reviews for you.

Movies

Star Wars: Rogue One — I feel like I was Jedi mind tricked into seeing this. I talked a big talk about how I wasn’t going to go to this, as a tiny protest against the notion of never-ending Star Wars movies. Like I’ve said before, when the Star Wars cinematic canon constituted two trilogies and that’s all, the batting average may have been low — but at least there wasn’t a saturation problem. That’s inevitable now. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic, but I like the idea of movies telling stories that end. It’s what makes them distinct from TV shows. I mean, really, you can even take a few movies to tell your story! That’s fine! But the notion of a cinematic “universe,” as opposed to just a “series” seems like it stems more from the studios’ impulse to make as much money as they can off of recognizable brands than from its value for storytelling. So, I had planned a tiny, personal boycott of the non-numbered Star Wars movies. Especially ones that were getting reviews as mixed as this. Still, I got pulled in by the inexorable force (hahahahahahahahaha) of this unavoidable franchise. I got pulled in by my general amenability towards seeing a movie, any movie, on a night when I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I got pulled in by my uncharacteristically non-antisocial wish to see a couple of friends after having spent a week away. I got pulled in by the fact that I’ve got Cineplex gift cards now, so at least it’s somebody else’s money that’s doing the talking. (Yeah, I know that’s really feeble. And yes, I do hate myself. Go away.) So basically, this movie had a nearly insurmountable task ahead of it if it was going to persuade me not to resent its very existence, and not to resent myself for caving in, and not to resent my friends for convincing me to abandon my principles. This movie did not rise to that challenge. My favourite thing about this movie is that it answered my burning question: “How does Darth Vader take a bath?” Aside from that, I did not enjoy myself. And at this point, we’ve reached the crucial question of the extent to which the movie is actually to blame for that, versus the extent to which my distaste is mine to own. And, without attempting to take the easy way out of that question, I can’t honestly answer it, because I don’t have access to a parallel universe in which I was more favourably predisposed towards Rogue One to use as a point of comparison. What I can say is that there’s nothing I can immediately point to in this movie that makes it the equal of other popcorn blockbusters from the last year, like Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War or Doctor Strange. Those movies have characters with immediately discernible personalities. Rogue One’s characters are blank slates, possessing only the most generically heroic of character traits: tenacity, bravery, etc. Captain America, on the other hand, is not generically heroic but rather follows a moral code that’s well-established enough for his behaviour to be internally consistent — and different from the other heroes in his movie. (Thus the Civil War, you see.) And even Doctor Strange is quippy and fun, which isn’t unique in itself. But his quips are good. The only character in Rogue One that rises above this standard is Donnie Yen’s eccentric blind martial artist, who is unfortunately also a bit of a racist caricature. And aside from that, the actors in this that you’d most expect extraordinary performances from are deeply underwhelming. Forest Whitaker gives his character a completely ridiculous hybrid accent that might work for one of the CGI aliens, but is extremely distracting in a live-action human character. And the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen is completely miscast as a man whose defining quality is supposed to be his inability to lie. We’re told in dialogue a number of times that Galen Erso is a terrible liar, but the fact of the matter is that Mikkelsen delivers his lines with such affectlessness that you can’t imagine how he could possibly fail to fool anybody, at any time. I’m all for seeing him in more heroic roles, but a role that comes down to this specific characteristic isn’t right for him, and moreover, he was pretty much the exact wrong choice for the role. For comparison’s sake, just think back to how much fun Rey, Finn and Poe were in The Force Awakens. That’s the bar. That’s how well you have to do in a new Star Wars movie. It’s a shame that the story features such bland characters and prosaic dialogue (even the funny robot is one of the franchise’s lesser funny robots), because Rogue One does present some unique ideas about what can happen in a Star Wars movie. It is the bleakest film in the franchise, save possibly for Revenge of the Sith, and I daresay it’s a touch more competently made than that. And it offers an intriguing focus on the notion that there are good people working for the Empire because they see it as their only option. That’s uncharacteristically nuanced for Star Wars. But those ideas are wasted in a movie that’s so aggressively unfun to watch. I’m getting tired of writing this review. Rogue One is pedestrian pap that exists only to leverage a recognizable brand so that dummies like me will buy a ticket. I imagine that the actual content of the movie was an afterthought.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 2, episodes 7 & 8 (plus Christmas Special) — I didn’t actually know that this was going to finish with a Christmas special, but it turned out to be a nice thing to watch at Christmas. This season has been really hit and miss. Julian Fellowes’ preference to cut away from any given scene when somebody’s about to say something we already know has the double consequence of ruthless efficiency in his storytelling and also that we never see people’s reactions to receiving news. This, and probably a few other things, results in certain characters’ plotlines taking what feel like extremely abrupt turns within the course of single episodes. Lord Grantham is served the worst by this, but it also finds its way into Mary and Matthew’s plotline. It’s hard to be too disappointed by this, however, since Downton Abbey never really rises above the level of “very, very fun but also extremely silly.” The occasional melodramatic turn is to be expected. I still love this. But I’m going to return to Battlestar Galactica for a while before I move on to season three.

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace: “Love and Power” — I was entreated to watch this by a friend with whom I’m working on a podcast about what happens when we let the machines make the important decisions. Clearly, Adam Curtis got there first. This BBC documentary series focuses on how computers have failed to free humanity in the way that Californian techno-libertarians assured us they would. The opening episode traces that worldview from Ayn Rand through early Silicon Valley to its mainstreaming with Alan Greenspan — who, as chairman of the Fed under an embattled Bill Clinton, was possibly the most powerful person in the world. It is fascinating to watch, and I’ll for sure have more to say next week when I finish the other two episodes. But for now, I’ll just say it’s great. Pick of the week.

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Parts 1 & 2 — Here beginneth the playing of the sixteen games I bought for thirty bucks during the Steam winter sale. Even as an avid fan of Inkle’s 80 Days (I would count it among my top five favourite games), I had planned to give their Sorcery! series a miss. There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, it’s not written by Meg Jayanth, whose incredible script is responsible for almost all of 80 Days’ appeal. Secondly, it’s an apparently straightforward adaptation of a gamebook, which is a lot less ambitious than, say, an interactive adaptation of a Jules Verne novel that expands the text by hundreds of thousands of words and also goes out of its way to correct that text’s misogyny and pro-colonialist stance. And finally, I have a limited tolerance for high fantasy bullshit. It’s just not an aesthetic that works for me. But after the fourth instalment of Sorcery! started to get raves, I figured that maybe this is the sort of series I might do well to pick up cheap. The beautifully designed opening sequence of Sorcery! part one can’t quite match 80 Days’s “It would seem… he is a gambling man.” (That moment gives me chills just to think about.) This continues to be the case: this Sorcery! two-parter can’t measure up to its esteemed successor. But it does what it does extremely well. Once you get past the relatively slight first episode, this expands into a pleasing (if not especially literary) adventure game. Inkle’s games have that quality about them that the best of the old parser-based interactive fiction titles did: they give the sense that there is a truly massive world set out before you, and that any course charted through it will be unique and will leave the vast bulk of the territory undiscovered. Also, it’s hard. There’s a mechanic baked into the second part that allows you to go back in time to a certain point on your journey and pick up crucial story elements that you missed. (This is in fact a necessity for finishing the game — unless, by some miracle, you get everything you need on your first pass through.) I had to use it twice to get ahold of some crucial clues, and I died a lot on all three of my journeys through the game. This in itself is not frustrating: the game’s difficulty never feels unfair, and the constant deaths made me feel more satisfied when I did eventually find my way out of a tight spot that had killed me numerous times already. What is frustrating, though, is the game’s almost-but-not-quite open world approach. (This is a problem I understand is solved in the third instalment, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works.) If the player were simply allowed to roam freely and backtrack at will, the time travel mechanic wouldn’t be necessary at all. And that would be preferable, because that mechanic causes some untoward bugs when coupled with the game’s other rewind mechanic, which allows you to actually rewind the gameplay itself, extra-diegetically. (Wow, that is a confusing sentence, even for me. But what are you gonna do? Writing about time travel is hard. Play the game and it’ll make sense.) Aside from those little nitpicky details, this is pretty extraordinary. By the end of it, I even managed to overcome my high fantasy allergy and look at the story on its own terms. Much of this takes place in Kharé, a city populated by thieves and tricksters, where traps lie everywhere and the city itself forms a massive trap for all those who live there. That is an absolutely delightful sort of environment to spend a bunch of time wandering around. I expect to enjoy the coming instalments more than this, but I’ll miss Kharé. Lovely stuff.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Favourite Podcasts of 2016” — I’m taking this as an opportunity to start listening to Judge John Hodgman. Most of the other podcasts mentioned here are either ones I don’t like very much, or ones I’m interested in checking out, but not interested enough to overcome the inertia.

StartUp: “MAGIC” — This isn’t one of the this season’s best episodes, and it isn’t a perfect ending, but this has been a pretty good season of StartUp overall. There’s nothing really wrong with not having a great ending to your nonfiction story. That’s part of what was weird about the way Serial season one was received: people didn’t accept that in journalism, you can just say “We’ve been at this for long enough. Now we stop.” Same goes for this.

Reply All: “Past, Present, Future 2” — The unquestionable highlight of this is Breakmaster Cylinder’s update on how his beat harvesting is going. But this series of updates on the year’s stories is a lovely thing to have become an annual tradition. It’s like Reply All’s own miniature Undone. Could’ve done without Alex Goldman’s Gollum impression, though.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “2016 Favourites and Unfinished Business” — These wrap-up episodes are always good fun. There’s probably a lot of stuff that was mentioned here that I should check out, but who has the time. (hehehe) Glad that Stephen Thompson favourited O.J.: Made in America, even if he did frame it as “the welcome return of Marcia Clark!” which is a weird way to frame anything. Also, it’s nice to have Sam Sanders on here, partially because it’s always nice to hear him on this show, but also because he’s been around less often, so his favourites come as a bit more of a surprise than some of the more frequent fourth chairs.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Westworld” — Absolutely lost. This is one of those things that I listen to for the sake of completion alone. Can’t let this be the only PCHH of the year that I didn’t hear. But I haven’t seen Westworld, I’m not likely to ever watch Westworld, and I haven’t the slightest clue what Glen Weldon and Audie Cornish are on about here. Ah, well.

Homecoming: Episodes 3-6 — This is really good for the most part. I can’t say I’m completely overwhelmed by it the way I had hoped to be overwhelmed by a podcast with the budget to hire several movie stars. The biggest issue here is the plot twist about the true intentions of the shady corporation at the centre of the story. It’s not that I predicted the exact nature of the reveal, so much as I knew it would be something sort of like what it actually turned out to be. I could discern the general shape of it. And in a way, that’s worse than being outright predictable, because it betrays a certain lack of specificity in your premise. “Shady government contractor… is, in fact, bad!” There’s something about that that just sort of makes me go, “right, okay,” and then file this away under the heading of “things I liked, but won’t be thinking very hard about.” It’s great that Gimlet is big enough to do something like this, now. But it would have been nice for the first podcast featuring performances by movie stars to actually be obviously much better than other scripted podcasts, and I don’t think this is. I’m looking forward to season two of Limetown far more than I’m looking forward to season two of this. Still, I’m content to merely damn it with faint praise. And with the knowledge that this is what I’m doing here, I’ll happily backpedal and say it’s well worth a listen. It is, after all, a podcast. And therefore free.

Judge John Hodgman: “In Moto Parentis” — I dunno. For one of the supposed crown jewels of comedy podcasts, this episode (a recommended starting point from no less an authority than Linda Holmes) left me cold. Hodgman is a great presence because he comes off as crusty and cold, but when pressed reveals warmth and humanity. The human drama of whether or not a teenage boy should be allowed to have a motorcycle was actually pretty fascinating. But the laugh count was low. So, I think I’ll leave this for a while and maybe come back when somebody else recommends me another possible way in.

Twice Removed: “Dan Savage” — This is such manipulative treacle. Good god, I haven’t heard a host try to make somebody cry this hard outside of the reality television shows that are occasionally on as ambient noise in my mom’s house. The stories that are presented, all based around members of Dan Savage’s extremely extended family, are fine in themselves. But the structure is so contrived, and so specifically manufactured to wrest emotion out of the guest that I almost didn’t make it through this episode. The strings were obscuring my view of the puppets. I’m unlikely to listen again, and if I do, it will only be to cement my opinion that this is the worst show Gimlet has produced thus far.

Theory of Everything: “The Fairest of Them All?” — Benjamen Walker goes to a surveillance museum! Well, not quite. It’s an art exhibit about modern surveillance. It sounds like a great exhibit, which is a good thing, because this episode lives and dies based on the descriptions of the premises and objects that come into play as you walk through it. And it’s great. I’ve loved every instalment in this surveillance mini-season, and while this may not be quite as earth-shaking as the last one, it’s keeping pace nicely, and I’m continuing to get more and more scared of the future. 😀 😀 😀 😀

Love and Radio: “Blink Once for Yes” — There’s a review to be written about this episode where I use it as a stick with which to beat the episode of Twice Removed I just reviewed. The argument of that review would be that this is how to actually elicit emotion: by simply asking people about things that make them unavoidably emotional, and playing the resulting tape. No fancy footwork required. But I’m not going to write any more of that review, because Love and Radio always deserves to be taken on its own terms. One of the things that I love about this show is its willingness to just be incredibly sad. Three of the four saddest podcast episodes I’ve ever heard have been on this show, “The Living Room” being the obvious number one, but also “Welcome to Coney Island,” and now this one. (The non-Love and Radio one is Radiolab’s “Gray’s Donation,” if you were wondering.) In this documentary, producer John Facile interviews his whole family about the debilitating brain injury and subsequent death of his brother. I won’t say any more about the story, because you really should just listen to it and hear how it unfolds for yourself. But the thing I love most about it is how it demonstrates how a large number of people (there were five kids in the family, plus the parents and a couple of devoted caretakers) react in their own specific, different, yet inevitably human ways when presented with an absolute horror. Facile is confrontational in his interviews at times, but never for the sake of narrative conflict: he is always actively trying to come to terms with difficult emotions and differences of opinion with his family. I listened to this while doing laundry, and there was a stretch of four or five minutes where I was just standing by the dryer, about to put the load in the basket, but I was too involved in this podcast to do anything but stand there blankly. My building has a public laundromat, so I imagine it looked seriously weird. That’s how good this is. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “A Chitlins Christmas: Bah Humbug!” — This is worth the time just to hear Kevin Young’s reading of his “Ode to Chitlins.” This is a worthwhile Christmas postscript to a year of great podcasts about food and race — mostly from The Sporkful, honestly. But it’s good that Code Switch has waded in. I hope they do more on food, because I don’t think there’s a single social concern that can’t be addressed through that lens.