Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question is an oldie but a goody:
If you were Santa and you could gift everyone in the world with just one book, film, comic, TV series, album, or what-have-you from 2014, with the implicit understanding that they’d definitely read/watch/listen to it, what would you give them? In other words, what personal favorite of yours would you like to foist on to everyone else?
My first instinct is to give the world “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes,” my favorite television episode of 2014 from my favorite new show of 2014, Comedy Central’s Review. But to feel the full impact of that one, you need to see the first two telecasts from Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly), America’s foremost critic of “life itself.” Instead, I leave you with Forrest’s most succinctly brilliant statement: “There All Is Aching.” It’s a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, swaddled in the idiosyncratic syntax of a Jedi master. (Plus an Emo Philips cameo!) The segment captures Review’s singular comedic POV in less than six minutes, a blend of sketch comedy and faux-documentary that puts a darkly comedic spike through the “everything profound, all of the time” bubble of our think-piece age. “There all is aching”: A mantra for 2014, and a comic puzzle box that keeps unfolding until the very last seconds.
My gift of 2014 is Calvary. If a B review from the notorious “C+ Dowd” isn’t enough to sell you on it, the stellar performance from Brendan Gleeson should. As Father James Lavelle, he authentically conveys a man that, for the most part, has found his true peace. This doesn’t mean he’s altogether perfect, but it does instill in him a leveling calm. The rest of the cast also provides convincing performances full of wry humor and dark charm. Set against a stunning countryside, it’s the sort of film I wish you had viewed in theaters, but I’m sure it will hold up at home on plot alone. A turn of events pits the priest as the genuine good guy (which isn’t always the case) faced with a dilemma that in theory should test his faith and builds to an ending worth waiting for.
One of 2014’s most flat-out enjoyable offerings was the sweet, simple Obvious Child. The thing is, a DVD is merely a stocking stuffer and I know that the holidays are all about giving, so I decided to splurge this year: My gift to this world is Jenny Slate. Like a Target gift card, Jenny Slate is the present that anyone would be thrilled to receive—as evidenced by her guest roles in Parks And Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Kroll Show, House Of Lies, and Married, Slate is a gift for all seasons. It’s been a breakout year for the actor-comedian-author, as she released yet another undeniably adorable Marcel The Shell With Shoes On video and book, was a guest on a number of talk shows (see: her appearance on The Pete Holmes Show, which is so cute you will probably explode with giggles), and completely owned the aforementioned Obvious Child. This year, she has finally been able to shed that “girl who said the F-word on SNL” label and unveil new layers of depth and talent. She is massively appealing and is, without a doubt, going to do big things in the years to come. I could gush forever about why I want to share her with the world, but I’ll let Slate wrap things up herself: “I’m a present for the present, a.k.a. a gift for now.”
My pop culture gift to the world is a beautifully told and animated mini-series, quick and easy to get through with only 10 episodes at 11 minutes each. You’re welcome. Cartoon Network’s Over The Garden Wall depicts the adventures of a neurotic adolescent boy (voiced by Elijah Wood) and his precocious little brother, lost in the woods trying to find their way home. The creator, Patrick McHale, also served as writer and storyboard artist for Adventure Time and The Marvelous Misadventures Of Flapjack. Fans of those shows will see some of their influence in Over The Garden Wall, as well Hayao Miyazaki-reminiscent creations and some cues from The Nightmare Before Christmas, but the show rises above its reference points into something fresh. It’s a nuanced tale gently upending expectations of the genre, a meta take on the tropes and conventions of children’s media. It takes those elements—like coming-of-age, Disney musicals, and the talking-animal cartoons playing alongside it on Cartoon Network—and transforms them into something darkly beautiful, silly but a little haunting, as there are real stakes for the brothers’ actions and a real possibility they won’t find their way home. A shadow pervades the forest, in which the brothers encounter The Woodsman and The Beast in a mysterious, perpetual struggle over souls and light; a heartbroken teacher trying to teach animals to speak and write; and a sickly girl seemingly trapped by an evil caregiver named Auntie Whispers. There is also sublime artistry, fun musical numbers, and bonus voice acting from guest stars John Cleese, Christopher Lloyd, and Tim Curry.
This would be a complicated gift to deliver, but I’d do my jolly best to give everyone a copy of Sportsfriends and the full suite of video game controllers it takes to play its collection of offbeat digital sports. Multiplayer video games, the kind you play in a room full of hooting friends and family, have had an exciting rebirth in the last year, and Sportsfriends’ slick four-games-in-one bundle is a crown jewel. There’s enough variety in it to appease players of just about any skill level or taste: Super Pole Riders’ goofy slapstick; Hokra’s accessible minimalism; BaraBariBall’s demanding complexity. The star of the package is Johann Sebastian Joust, which makes a TV-less physical game out of the sibling slap-fests Sportsfriends’ multiplayer-inspirations used to devolve into anyway. It’s a great way to bring the family together—and to let them vent their pent-up rage. Sounds like the perfect Christmas activity to me.
I was initially tempted to go with Nathan For You, but I showed my Mom “Dumb Starbucks” and “Daddy’s Watching/Party Planner” a couple months ago and she loved it so much I feel like I’ve already done my part to spread the gospel. Instead my gift would be the music of Moses Sumney, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who I mildly resent for forcing me to use words like “soul-folk” to describe his sound. This year, Sumney nailed his contribution to Beck’s Song Reader and released his debut EP Mid-City Island, which sounds more like the arrival of an important new talent than anything I’ve heard in a while. He has yet to record anything as impressive as his live-looped YouTube videos, but “Man On The Moon” is easily the prettiest song I heard in 2014, if perhaps not the best one.
As if I haven’t already thrust this movie down the throats of friends, family, and random party patrons, I now have a soapbox to express my outright love and respect for E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills. I went in knowing next to nothing, except that it was “fucked up.” That description is apt, but it’s so much more. I have to be very careful about spoilers, but if you grew up as a kid devouring Tales From The Crypt past bedtime, you’ll appreciate the gallows humor and irony. It’s ultra-violent, funny, and ultimately moving. Essentially, two friendships are destroyed by greed in one night, and the performances, universally, are career best. Ethan Embry is the real star here, nailing every nuance of a permanent fuckup, who accepts his lot in life but hides dark shadows of regret under weary, bloodshot eyes. David Koechner simultaneously projects menace and camaraderie. Pat Healy, as the “protagonist,” pushes away easy sympathy to a state of maniacal greed that is a mesmerizing transformation. I’ll close with the film’s tagline: What doesn’t kill you makes you richer.
I really wish I could cheat and give the world a LaToya Ferguson 2014 Starter Pack. (I draw inspiration from Seth Cohen on all things that are truly important.) Since I can’t, due to this “rules” situation, I’m going to narrow it down to a new television sitcom that I won’t stop talking about until I peer pressure everyone I know (and some I don’t) into watching it: BBC Three’s Siblings. It stars Charlotte Ritchie and Tom Stourton as Hannah and Dan, “the world’s worst brother and sister.” Along with FX’s You’re The Worst, Siblings is my favorite new comedy of the year and probably the one that best defines my sense of humor: terrible people doing terrible things, because that’s what makes me feel good deep inside my cold, dark soul. Siblings’ humor as akin to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s, right down to the cheery score and theme song and the borderline incestuous vibes between the brother and sister duo. These are characters who get their significant others to renounce God in order to have more fun and Talented Mr. Ripley complete strangers, and that’s really the gift that keeps on giving. You’re welcome, world.
There are all sorts of interesting odds and ends I could shove in people’s stockings this year: Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams’ fascinating puzzle box of a novel, S, or my perennial oddball favorite, Archer creator Adam Reed’s brilliantly weird Frisky Dingo. But I want to give people the gift of consistency in 2014, and that means the collected works of John Allison. Allison has spent the last 16 years posting comics about the residents of the quaint English hamlet of Tackleford, as unlikely a hotspot for supernatural shenanigans as you could hope to find. Like a more whimsical, bright, and silly version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Allison’s work (including Bobbins, Scary Go Round, and Bad Machinery) follows a wide cast of quirky British teens and twentysomethings as they struggle with life, love, and metaphorically resonant ghosts, monsters, and demons. It turns out that doing something for 16 years is an exceptional way to get good at it, and watching Allison’s cartooning and dialogue mature over the years has been an absolute pleasure. (His ability to consistently end strips on punchlines that work perfectly in his characters’ distinctive voices is a special delight). Although the density of continuity and the constantly evolving relationships in Allison’s work can sometimes be overwhelming, The Case Of The Good Boy, from the recently concluded Bad Machinery, is an excellent entry point into his melding of supernatural comedy, teenage angst, and deftly executed wordplay.
If you’re giving a gift to everyone, you want it to have something for everyone, so my gift for 2014 would be Richard Linklater’s remarkable film Boyhood. The movie—shot over the course of 12 years to allow its actors, children and adults, to age realistically on film—could have simply been an impressive formal exercise. But from one segment to the next, Linklater manages to craft an engrossing character study, not just of the title boy, but of his whole family. We don’t just see 6-year-old Mason grow up to be a college-bound teenager, having discovered drinking, girls, and perhaps his artistic calling; we see his parents grow up as well, as Patricia Arquette’s overwhelmed single mom grasps for stability, and deadbeat dad Ethan Hawke gradually embraces adulthood and builds a relationship with his son. Family is universal, but with this movie, Linklater finds a unique way to show us how those relationships change as both children and parents grow up.
My pop culture gift to the world is technically two gifts—Scruffy The Cat’s Time Never Forgets - The Anthology (’86-’88) and The Good Goodbye: Unreleased Recordings 1984-1990—but they’re such a perfect pairing that I can’t separate them, especially since they came out within a few days of each other. As one of my favorite bands of the late ’80s—and one that’s always been far too unheralded, as far as I’m concerned—I couldn’t have been more excited about Scruffy The Cat getting a brief return to this spotlight earlier this year when the announcement that their entire back catalog was belatedly receiving a digital reissue was accompanied by the news that they’d also be releasing an odds-and-sods collection to go with it. They might never have made the big leagues, but their single “My Baby She’s All Right” made such a huge impression on me the first time I heard it that I was instantly turned into a lifelong fan, and I’d like to think that the one-two punch of these two albums could still pull in a few new fans even now. Call them jangle pop, cowpunk, or whatever the hell phrase strikes your fancy, but just give Scruffy The Cat a try.
Since Caitlin has everyone covered with Over The Garden Wall (you’re welcome, the world), I’ll go with the other (semi-) recent discovery I can’t shut up about, Jane The Virgin. This series has a substantial critical following and plenty of buzz online, but I’ve yet to meet anyone in my daily life who’s seen it and when I tell people they should check it out, their eyes invariably glaze over. The series seems to be struggling with the same problem Buffy The Vampire Slayer faced early on—people can’t get past its title to see the promise of this beautiful, hilarious show. So I’m going to force it on them. Jane The Virgin is a tonic for the glut of gritty, dour dramas that have kept coming all year. It’s colorful, earnest, and energetic, with a sense of humor about itself and charisma to spare. It has an excellent cast and features a breakthrough lead performance from Gina Rodriguez. Most importantly, it tells the story of a group of generally good people trying their best in a complicated situation, something everyone should be able to relate to, particularly during the holidays. I’m tired of getting blank stares and subtle judgement from people when I tell them Jane The Virgin is the best new show of the fall season and I’m confident once everyone watches the pilot I sneak into their digital holiday stocking, they’ll be on board.