This week, we continue our look back at the year that was (a shitshow). After last week’s exploration of the non-2016 books we read over the previous 12 months, we’re continuing the inquiry with this question:
What was the most noteworthy non-2016 pop culture you finally got to this year?
I don’t listen to many podcasts. It’s not because I don’t like them; it’s mostly because I spend my ears’ free time trying to keep up with music. But in 2016, between listening to old music for my Binge And Purge column and listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, I barely had time left for anything new. (My best-of music ballot will reflect this lack of imagination.) But I was happy to give up some new tunes for Hardcore History, which was recommended to me by some of the fine folks of our sister site, ClickHole. On the surface, it doesn’t sound all that exciting: kinda overwrought history geek explains events from history in greater detail than you thought you’d ever want. But Dan Carlin is a mean storyteller, and he’s deeply invested in the on-the-ground stories that he tells, filling every episode with the kind of detail it’s hard to forget. (And at episodes regularly topping three hours, he has plenty of time.) I started with “The American Peril,” from 2013, which covers Teddy Roosevelt, the Spanish-American War, and lots more. Since then, I’ve plowed through all six episodes about WWI, totaling about 24 hours of listening.
It’s not a particularly radical thing to say that Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is an incredible work of art. But after finally discovering it for myself this year, I have to agree with the critics who defended the film’s honor after it was mired in years of legal battles and released extremely quietly in 2011. I sought the film out in preparation for the writer-director’s Manchester By The Sea, and even though I watched the theatrical cut that Lonergan has disavowed, I was still completely taken by it. (For what it’s worth, Tony Kushner also first fell for this version.) The movie is vast in scope, but it’s also one of the most exquisitely detailed portraits I’ve ever watched. Upper West Side teen Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is messy and whole, a fully realized creation burdened with her own naïveté. I feel like I know her in a way I know few other fictional characters.
Getting heavily into electronic music in recent years has, in many ways, been like trying to catch up on the entire history of an ancient civilization, one whose existence I was passingly familiar with, but whose various sovereigns, customs, and mythologies were completely alien. In that respect, it’s fitting that this year I finally stumbled across Drexciya, one of the most deliberately obscure acts in the genre. The Detroit duo was made up of Gerald Donald and the late James Stinson, although the two deliberately never publicly acknowledged this, hiding instead behind the story that “Drexciya” is an underwater, Atlantis-like nation “populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women who were thrown off of slave ships” and who have since learned to breathe underwater and work a TR-808. Drexciya’s releases, spanning 1992 to Stinson’s death in 2002, were sporadic and seemingly spontaneous, boasting crazy artwork and groove etchings that spelled out their strange manifestos, eventually lapsing so far out of print they now go for insane prices on Discogs. They were also involved in numerous side projects, like The Other People Place and Dopplereffekt—or allegedly, anyway, which only deepens the mystery. Untangling it has been a passion for more dedicated fans than me for more than a decade now, and to be honest, I haven’t really worked too hard at it myself. I’ve got kids now; I’m busy. But this year I did find used copies of reissues of Neptune’s Lair, Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller, and Harnessed The Storm, and I now get why fans were so obsessed. Drexciya found a lot of expressive shades within its rigid formula, touching on Kraftwerk’s hypnotic robotics, explosively frayed techno, and an appropriately watery version of electro that was unique to their sound. I’ve really enjoyed digging into it—as well as the reminder that, as always, I’m just barely scratching the surface of this world.
I was one of the many people who derided Telltale Games’ Tales From The Borderlands when it was first announced. At the time, I was burned out on the studio’s episodic release model, and as someone who is turned off by Borderlands’ obnoxious, forced irreverence, a character-driven game within that world sounded like absolute torture. But after the series wrapped in 2015 and was getting lots of “best of the year” buzz, I bought it on sale and ended up loving it. Some of that grating Borderlands “humor” sneaks in there, but for the most part, it’s just a solidly entertaining romp with an intriguing framing device and a cast of bumbling losers that managed to grow on me. As it turns out, the lighter tone is actually a boon. It distances the series from the gloom and stress of Telltale’s recent games and even allows the studio some room for self-deprecation. The only thing that would’ve made it better is if Claptrap never showed up at all.
One of my favorite things to do during the summer movie theater slump is to catch up on documentaries via streaming services. Netflix offered up a real gem this year with 2014’s The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. The Barkley Marathon, which is five loops approximately 20 miles each, takes place in rural Kentucky and is so arduous that a mere 14 people have managed to finish it. However, 40 people are allowed to run it each year, accepted only after they submit an essay detailing why they should be allowed to run the race, a $1.60 application fee, and other submissions—such as a white collared shirt for the race’s director, Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell—subject to change. And it only gets more fascinating once the marathon starts, which happens any time from midnight to noon on race day, with a one-hour warning signaled by the sound of a conch. To top things off, this film is well-edited and -scored, making it a must-see as both an oddity and a documentary.
I was super excited when two of my favorite well-established music weirdos, Brian Eno and David Byrne announced their second collaboration, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. I gave it a listen when it released, but it didn’t immediately grab me. I think I was hoping for something closer to Eno and Byrne’s first collaboration, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts; something strange and up-tempo. This, in comparison, came off as conventional and subdued. I didn’t consciously decide to give it a second chance this year. It would just start up regularly on YouTube’s auto-play after a Talking Heads album. And for that, I thank you, otherwise-annoying pushy media feature! The album cover, a Sims-like digital sprite of a perfect brick home, perfectly encompasses the album’s themes: a contemplative exploration of home, identity, and an encroaching digital disconnect. I don’t know what clicked this year that didn’t in 2008, but I’m certain as I sit here in my basement office, working remotely in front of a computer all day, some connection will occur to me.
My girlfriend is obsessed with mermaids, to the point that one of her prized possessions is a massive framed poster of Daryl Hannah from Splash. (It’s taking up most of the wall in our kitchen right now.) But despite growing up in the late ’80s, when Ron Howard’s charming little seaside comedy was an inescapable mainstay of the local TV channel’s afternoon movie, I somehow missed ever sitting down and actually watching the thing. (I think, in hindsight, that I was afraid of all the kissing.) Which means it wasn’t until she forced me to watch it this year that I learned an amazing fact: Splash is really funny. Given that it’s a movie in which Tom Hanks, John Candy, and Eugene Levy take turns trying to out-screwball each other, I guess that should have been obvious. But what can I say? I was expecting The Little Mermaid in live-action, not a miniature SCTV reunion.
I’ve always preferred the DC heroes over Marvel’s, but since DC doesn’t have a convenient/cheap digital service like Marvel Unlimited, I tend to stick to reliable books that predominantly feature Batman. This year, though, I finally got around to reading what is basically the ultimate DC comic: Crisis On Infinite Earths. The book has a reputation for being particularly difficult to follow for people who aren’t scholars of superhero history, and that is absolutely the case, but I actually liked that about it. It’s an artifact from an age where crossovers and big events weren’t as much of a regular occurrence in comics, so writer Marv Wolfman basically threw everything at the wall and didn’t really care what stuck. Plus, for a storyline that destroys an entire multiverse, one of the most interesting things about it is how many of its huge plot points have been reversed or repeated over the years. It’s like a barebones, outdated textbook from a really weird history class, but in the best way.
I actually have a good one to brag about this year! I finally finished The Wire, which I technically started in 2015 but consumed pretty rapidly on either side of a months-long break. If I’m being honest, prestige dramas have never really been my jam, mostly because “grueling” isn’t the dominant emotion I want from a TV show. So I was pleasantly surprised by how non-grueling I found The Wire. Sure, its subject matter is heavy, but the show approaches life in inner-city Baltimore with a surprisingly light touch. The chess scene is often cited as the perfect encapsulation of The Wire’s ethos, but for me it’s the scene where the Major Crimes Unit tries to move a heavy desk through a doorway only to realize they’ve been pushing against one another the whole time. Like many things on The Wire, it’s equal parts funny and revealing. Coupled with stellar performances from basically everyone in the show’s massive ensemble, The Wire never felt like a chore to watch, which is the thing that had been putting me off it for so long.
This was the year I finally discovered the charms of What’s My Line?, the classic 1950-67 panel show hosted by John Charles Daly. Even when I was a Game Show Network addict in the early 2000s, this program was not really on my radar. It is now, though, thanks to YouTube. There’s not much to it, really. Four panelists try to guess the unusual occupations of contestants, using only yes/no questions, then they put on blindfolds and attempt to ID various celebrity “mystery guests.” Very little money is at stake here, which puts the emphasis on game play. I love every aspect of this show, especially how focused it is on the New York literary and theatrical world. Everyone here is so polite and civilized and witty. Even when an intruder walks onto the set of this live broadcast, it barely fazes them. What’s My Line? seems to emanate from an alternate universe, and I can’t help wishing I lived there.
On paper, the late, lamented Earwolf podcast The Reality Show Show seems like a project with a perversely short shelf life. For 39 episodes in 2012 and 2013, Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport, who would go on to host the hilarious Hollywood Handbook, would make gleeful satirical sport of the millions upon millions of terrible, terrible reality shows afflicting our culture like a plague. I had seen almost none of the reality shows they talked about and didn’t even recognize the names of most of the shows they riffed on, but that did not keep the recording from being an utter delight. If you like Hollywood Handbook, which is both a particular taste and also maybe the greatest thing ever, then you should definitely binge-listen to all of The Reality Show Show. The subject matter shouldn’t be a deal-breaker; in fact it’s pretty perfect for Hayes and Sean’s smartass sensibility.
Every year I resolve to watch certain movies missing from my forever-ongoing cinematic education, and each year I inevitably rewatch and/or catch up with entirely different movies instead based on the whims of various writing assignments. This year, one such project was my Run The Series piece on Star Trek movies. Almost all of these movies were a rewatch for me, but I’d never actually seen 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture before I pitched this essay. I was surprised to find out that, despite its middling-to-bad reputation, it turns out to be one of the best Star Trek movies! It’s better sci-fi than most Trek adventures, plus it includes endless, almost punishingly reverent footage of the Enterprise docking and undocking, which I find perversely delightful. I may not have watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance yet, but I am now the kind of insufferable dork who prefers Star Trek: The Motion Picture to the fun one with the whales, so I guess that’s something.
Terriers! I’ve spent years listening to my fellow TV colleagues sing the praises of this little-seen one-season wonder, a 2010 show that FX president John Landgraf still periodically refers to as one of the more painful cancellations on which he’s had to pull the lever. It’s not that the series is some profound reinvention of the medium, or that it conveys some brilliant People V. O.J.—level meditation on society, or any other such groundbreaking achievement. But now that I’ve finally watched all 13 episodes on Netflix, I can tell you what it is that makes people still talk about it: It’s just really, really damn charming. Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James have chemistry to burn as private detectives in this sunny beach-noir murder mystery that unfolds over the course of 13 episodes, with nary a dud in the bunch. At long last, I can nod knowingly and share in the moment when someone says, “Oh, man—Terriers, right?” As should you, since its fleeting length is perfect for a weekend binge.