This year's pleasant surprises

Ah, that glorious time of year when best-of lists abound! I even made one. What could possibly be better than talking about the best? Nice surprises, that's what. It's super exciting when I get to run out to the bookstore, say, and pick up a much-anticipated new novel. But it's even more exciting -- and amazing, and kind of touching -- when someone else does that for me. The pleasant, unexpected thing is kind of the best.

This year was chock full of pleasant surprises when it comes to pop culture -- the kind of stuff that makes me go, "Awww, yeah, I loved that!" when I think of it. Here are some of the things that might not have necessarily made a best-of-2015-T.V. or Top Movies of This Year list, had I made one, but nevertheless brought me great joy.

maxresdefaultiZombie: To be able to change one's mind is a wonderful thing. When I first saw promos for the CW's new show iZombie,  I thought it looked like a dumb show trying to smoosh two popular television standbys (zombies and procedurals) to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Boy, was I wrong. From the creators of Veronica MarsiZombie features the same snappy dialogue as its predecessor, along with the same bubblegum exterior barely concealing darker concerns. Both the characters and the actors portraying them are infinitely appealing (particularly Rose McIver as the titular zombie Liv Moore [I know] and Rahul Kohli as her medical examiner buddy, Ravi Chakrabarti). Every week, this is the first television show I want to catch up with. (Also, it's got a pretty killer credit sequence.)

Gilmore Guys podcast: Some things take a little warming-up-to. For me, Gilmore Guys was one of those things; I didn't get into the first couple of episodes, possibly because the hosts of the podcast, Kevin Porter and Demi Adejuyigbe, hadn't quite found their groove yet. But a second try got me hooked, and now I binge-listen to the two guys recapping episodes of Gilmore Girls with the help of a different guest each episode. As a bonus, I'm pretty sure Kevin and Demi single-handedly brought about the upcoming new season of Gilmore Girls, no matter how adamantly they insist otherwise.

Krampus_posterQuality horror: The BabadookIt Follows, The Visit, and Krampus. Holy Krampus, has this been a fantastic year for horror movie fans! The Babadook and It Follows delivered with legit scares paired with thoughtful explorations of grief and sexual trauma, respectively. Then M. Night Shyamalan pulled his own head out of his ass, kept to the writer-director's chair (instead of sneaking into the actor's trailer) and delivered laughs and frights with The Visit. And, just in time for Christmas, we got the wicked ghoul-fest, Krampus, a delightfully nasty, Gremlins-esque holiday horror. Clearly, Santa decided that I was at least halfway decent this year.

150209_r26115-1200Hamilton: Hey, you guys! Have you heard about this cool new musical, Hamilton? Probably not, right? Ugh, I am so not cutting edge. Earlier this year I polled my Facebook friends for new running music, and one of them suggested the Hamilton cast album. "Please," I scoffed. "I can't run to Broadway tunes. What will happen when I get to the inevitable sad ballad." Well, apologies are due to Anna Whiteside because six months later, I'm eating my words. Actually, I'm garbling my words as I try to keep up with the rap and hip-hop rhythms of Lin-Manuel Miranda's ear-wormy musical -- which is, as it turns out, actually great to run to. What I really love about this show -- in addition to the music itself -- is the way it takes this big, abstract concept (creating a nation) and humanizes it through the characters, their relationships, and their own ambitions.

Rufus Wainwright in Anchorage: Living in Alaska has its drawbacks, most of them tolerable. But one of the big bummers is that not a lot of musical acts decide to take their tours this far north. This year, though, I got two see two pretty fantastic shows. First, Garfunkel and Oates played at the University of Alaska. No offense to those funny ladies, but the second show I got to see could never be topped:  Rufus Wainwright came to Anchorage! The venue was kind of intimate, the seats were actually fantastic, and he played most of my favorite songs when he wasn't complaining about the "tassels" on his mountain-man-type shirt.

blackishBlackish: I don't know why I just generally don't watch half-hour comedies. After Parks and Recreation ended, I wasn't sure I'd be including any non-animated comedies on my DVR roster (Bob's Burgers would have made this "pleasant surprises" list, except that I was pleasantly surprised by it about two years ago.) But nothing consistently makes me laugh as hard as Blackish, which has a crazily stacked, hilarious cast -- including four child actors I actually don't hate.

The "Pandering" article:  You know when someone writes something, and you read it, and you go, "Damn, this woman is expressing everything I feel at this very moment in time"? Claire Vaye Watkins's "On Pandering" is that, except I only felt that way about 50 percent of the article; the other 50 percent made me go, "Oh, I need to be more aware of this kind of thing and pay attention to it and think about it all the time."

A Dark Room:  I'm only not a gamer because I didn't get into gaming early on and now I feel like an old dog that just does not have time to learn new tricks that require you to press a combination of A+Up+Right+Right+C. Which is why A Dark Room is perfect for me: It's a completely text-based game that has you gathering fire wood and building traps and wondering what those the strange creatures are that keep stealing your bait. The less you know going into A Dark Room, the better, because the game unfolds like a story as you continue to steadily work and make discoveries.

The cats and cucumbers viral video: I don't understand why it's funny. And yet IT IS.

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RuVealed: This was year I discovered America's actual greatest top model show, RuPaul's Drag Race, which is excellent on its own. But I've gotten a lot of joy out of watching RuVealed on Logo, which is just a re-airing of old seasons, with the addition of RuPaul providing commentary, Pop Up Video-style. I love how Ru loves a cheesy joke.

The Shining Girls and Fates and Furies: Both these books made my Top Whatever list this year, but these are the two that really surprised me. I figured both would be good, but I wasn't prepared for how much I would love them.

Limetown-logo-SQ-LargeLimetown: Billed as "Serial, but fiction," Limetown is a story told episode by episode, in the guise of an NPR-type longform investigation. Its host, Lea Haddock, tries to find answers to the mysteries surrounding a small town whose entire population vanished. While later episodes didn't hold up quite as well as the early ones, I still looked forward to each new installment and really loved hearing the story unfold.

TheBillfold's "How Gilmore Girls Do Money" posts: I'm not normally a fan-fic reader, but I've been loving Nicole Dieker's "How Gilmore Girls Do Money" posts, which imagine each character years after the show's end and how their financial situations impact, or are impacted by, their lives now.

Jessica-Jones-posterMarvel's Jessica Jones: Now that I've finished the new Netflix series, it's hard to remember a time when this show wasn't a sure-fire hit for me. But my history with superheroes is this:  I like them at the movies, not so much on my T.V. I tried Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and couldn't get into it; I really liked Marvel's Agent Carter (particularly Hayley Atwell's performance), but it got lost on my DVR and I never bothered to return to it after the first two episodes. But Jessica feels like an altogether different creature, and I love it. Can't wait for season 2 -- and in the meantime, it actually convinced me to give Daredevil a try.

Pocket: No I will never stop trying to make Pocket happen. I just won't. Because it's amazing. It's the simplest thing on earth, and yet it has changed how (and when) I read things on the internet. Just download it. Do it.

Pontypool: The very definition of a pleasant surprise, since I knew nothing about this movie before watching it, as I chronicled here.

The "It's Going to Be Okay" post from The Oatmeal: Imagine you're having a bad day. Then imagine you read this. Yeah. Everything's going to be okay.

friday_night_lightsFriday Night Lights: I KNOW. It took me a really long time to finally watch FNL. I think I actually started watching the show with my friend, Sara, earlier than 2015, but we finished up this year. And even though I'd heard from every T.V. critic in the world how great this show was and how it wasn't really about football, I was still surprised at how much I came to love Dillon, Texas, Coach and Mrs. Coach, the Dillon Panthers and the East Dillon Lions, Matt and Street and Tyra and Vince and Tim Riggins. And Lance! The motto might be "clear eyes," but mine were pretty misty by the time the last end credits rolled. (This piece on Vulture, which describes how the kids on the show were cast, was also a nice surprise.)

"What the Flula?!": Game of Thrones is a pretty incredible show. But this might actually be more incredible.

MST3K anticipation: We won't get the new episodes until next year, but the massive success of the Kickstarter campaign means we get fourteen to look forward to -- with Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the Mads.

Adventures at the movieplexEverest and The Martian. Seeing The Martian may have been one of the funnest times I had at the movies this year; seeing Everest might have been one of the most sweat-inducing.

1087-M-What-We-Do-in-the-ShadowsWhat We Do in the ShadowsMockumentaries are a little played out, so maybe I can be forgiven for not expecting too much out of this goofy remedy to another played-out trope: vampires. Shadows has quickly become the kind of movie my friends and I can put on the T.V. as "background noise," then quickly succumb to, spending the rest of the evening asking each other if we would "like some basghetti."

Black_Mirror_The_National_Anthem_TV-511261979-largeMore Black Mirror is coming!: Black Mirror might be the best show that virtually no one else I know seems to know about. But you've got time to catch up on this British answer to The Twilight Zone -- the original run is just six episodes, all of which are available on Netflix. And then, after you've become completely dazzled and shocked by the series, you can thank Netflix for reviving the show for another 12 episodes, which should hit the internet sometime in 2016. (There may actually be nothing in this world that can top the very first episode of Black Mirror -- another viewing experience you should try to have without knowing anything about it beforehand, by the way -- but I'm anxious for the new episodes to give it their best try.)