Best of Lists

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.)

New to me: Recent podcast discoveries

81b648aaf8ec9493b25d002485d1b35bI need a new podcast like the proverbial fish needs its proverbial bicycle. I just counted:  I listen regularly to 42 podcasts. This number doesn't include the podcasts that I only occasionally check in on, or the ones I download only to listen to the one episode I'm interested in because someone told me about it ("someone" most likely being the host of another podcast). But you can't deny an addiction. You can only admit you have a problem and try to control it. Hello, my name is Jamey, and I'm a podcast addict.

Thanks in part to a (work-mandated) trip to a podcast conference a couple weeks ago, I've recently discovered several new dealers who truck in my drug of choice. Some of these podcasts have been around a good while; I'm just late to the game. Others are still in their infancy. But here are a few of the new-ish podcasts that I've recently become obsessed with.

The Canon The premise is simple:  Hosts Amy Nicholson (of the LA Weekly) and Devin Faraci (of Birth.Movies.Death) debate which films should be entered in the "canon" of great movies. The conversation can get pretty heated, especially when Amy and Devin strongly disagree about a particular film, but both hosts bring a wealth of film knowledge, critical insight, and (in Amy's case, at least) a ream of research about every movie they discuss. The episode that got me hooked was the one that pondered whether It's a Wonderful Life should be entered into the canon; a recent favorite is the episode on The Sound of Music. (They also discuss more recent films. I'm just an old-movie nerd, I guess.)

Another Round with Heben & Tracy Some podcasts are powered by a gimmick or a theme; others are just two people talking. Ano0bnXv8ZAther Round, a podcast from BuzzFeed, falls into the latter category, but there are few duos I'd rather listen to than Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton. They have a casual rapport that nevertheless sounds polished, they're hilarious, and they talk about topics that are often ignored by media elsewhere (race, gender, casual discrimination). I am in love with Tracy's corny joke segment and "What Had Happened Was." Best episode so far:  Episode 19, in which NPR's Audie Cornish turns out to share my pre-interview anxieties and I learn that the best name ever for a goldfish is "Cornbread."

Faculty of Horror Another podcast hosted by two women! Bonus:  This is a horror movie podcast hosted by two women. Did someone sneak a peek at my Christmas wish list? Delightful Canadians Alex West and Andrea Subissati take an in-depth look horror movies each episode, sometimes tackling one film at a time or occasionally choosing a theme (monster brides; witches in film) to unite a discussion. What I love about this podcast is it isn't just two hosts talking about what they like or dislike about a film; the approach Andrea and Alex take to each movie favors analysis over critique, and as a result, their explorations have an academic flavor (as the podcast title suggests) that draws me in. But here "academic" isn't a synonym for dry. Conversation between the hosts is always lively, and their occasional forays into radio sketch improv make me giggle. My favorite episode so far has been the one on Rosemary's Baby.

I Was There, Too Often, it's the host who decides for me whether or not I'll stick with a podcast. While I Was 20141101_222943_4138_680374There, Too has an interesting enough premise to keep me listening, host Matt Gourley's offbeat presence and oddball segments are the big draw for me. Each episode, Matt interviews an actor who was a small part of a big film, giving you the inside dirt on, say, what it's like to shoot the same scene with Bill Murray in every kind of weather possible, or what the heck Arcturian poontang is. You also get "bonus" segments like "I Was There, Tune" which gives you insight into movie music, and "I Was There, Mew," an interview between Matt and his cat, Margeaux the Fat Guy. (You read that right.)

Lore Lore would be the perfect podcast to play as you sit around a fire in the dark of night, sharing scary stories. Writer and host Aaron Mahnke offers a new, true scary tale every episode and always manages to creep me out with his careful research, well crafted storytelling, and excellent narration. Episode 8, "The Castle," is truly creeptastic, while Episode 2, "The Bloody Pit," is a sad and horrifying look at a historical disaster.

You Must Remember This If you love old Hollywood, then I don't know how you aren't already listening to Karina imgres-1Longworth's You Must Remember This, a show that explores "the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood's first century," as Karina reminds listeners each episode. Whether speculating if Errol Flynn was a Nazi spy, relating the story behind Hollywood's night club for servicemen, or freaking you the fuck out with Charles Manson's on-again, off-again flirtation with Hollywood fame, Karina's research is methodical and her storytelling is incredibly absorbing. While earlier seasons comprised one-off episodes about different subjects, the most recent season was dedicated completely to the story of Charles Manson's Hollywood, and the result was an historical serialized story that, for me, rivaled Serial itself.

2014 Picks: Movies and Television

hannibal1_2553735bIt’s that time of year again: Time for critics to post their best-of lists, closing out another year by trying to rank five or ten or twenty of the greatest accomplishments in popular culture; time for readers of magazines and websites to glean titles they might have missed and leave hyperbolic comments about how they CAN’T BELIEVE that SUCH-AND-SUCH didn’t make this list, YOU MORON. I love it. Not so much for the comments but for the gleaning. I always discover some new movie, show, or book that I completely missed out on, which is a fun and exciting way to start another new year—by catching up on the fun stuff I managed to overlook.

Throughout the year, though, I do manage to consume an ungodly amount of stuff made to entertain the eyes and the brain, and this year I feel like I managed to devour a few things that might not have gotten a ton of mainstream attention. I’m not going to bother to try and rank the things I derived pleasure and entertainment from, but I thought I’d offer up my five picks for the movies and television shows that I liked best but didn’t hear a lot of people talking about. Here goes.

Movies:

The Babadook – And now I’ll immediately renege on what I just said about people not talking about these selections because lately The Babadook has been getting an ungodly amount of coverage on the sites I frequent, which is particularly unusual given that it’s a) a horror film, b) an independent film, and c) barely playing theatres (though it’s available to rent on iTunes). Maybe this movies is kicking off a great era of independent horror movie appreciation. Better yet, maybe it’s kicking off a great era of independent, female protagonist, horror movie appreciation. Whatever’s happening, I loved this meditation on the nature of grief and motherhood. Essie Davis is haunting and affecting as a flawed mother who struggles to cope with a troubled son and the storybook monster he claims is terrorizing their house. I can’t wait to see what director Jennifer Kent comes up with next.

The One I Love – An eerie love story straight from the Twilight Zone, The One I Love stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a married couple who goes to a retreat recommended by their therapist (Ted Danson) only to discover themselves. Literally themselves: There are two people who look and act exactly like them and claim to be them. The fantastical conceit allows both characters to encounter their ideal partners and to ask themselves what they want out of their marriage.

Obvious Child – This movie gets called a rom-com, and I guess it is, given that there’s a couple that meets cute and ends up dating. But the meet-cute culminates in a pregnancy and the refreshing thing is there’s no debate over what a woman should do with her body and there’s no “abortion/shmishmorshon” avoidance, a la Knocked Up. Instead, Jenny Slate as Donna Stern simply decides to have an abortion, and her friends and family support that decision. (Friend Prize of the year goes to Gaby Hoffman, who plays exactly the kind of friend you’d want around while you take a pee test—not just in this movie, but in Wild, too.)

Snowpiercer – The symbolism of a train that never stops running and in which the lower classes live in the end cars while the upper classes live near the engine is a little ham-handed, but, boy, was this movie fun. As the rebellion of the lower classes moves its way through the train, every battle grows more intense and more surprising, and the set pieces become more colorful and zanier. While I couldn’t get on board with director Bon Joon-ho’s mixture of horror and humor in The Host, Snowpiercer struck the balance perfectly.

Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow – Yes, the revised title is almost as dumb as the original title. Yes, this movie was virtually ignored during the summer box office. Yes, it stars Tom Cruise. But for all you Cruise-haters, please hearken to my words: You get to watch Tom Cruise die again, and again, and again, and again. What’s not to like about that? The action is fantastic and Emily Blunt is a total badass as she and Cruise try to save the world from aliens that have given Cruise the ability to start his life over at one specific point every time he dies.

Television:

The Americans – I’ve sung the praises of this FX show more than once, and season two was no disappointment. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are doing phenomenal work as the Jenningses, Russian spies posing as Americans in the 1980s. The Americans offers perhaps the most interesting exploration of marriage on T.V. right now, and season three promises to delve deeper into family dynamics as the KGB insists on trying to recruit their daughter. (This show also gets a shout-out for Least Annoying Child Characters, Paige and Henry Jennings.)

The Chair – My only must-see reality show this year, Starz’s The Chair featured two first-time directors working from the same script to make his or her own film. The close look at what it takes to mount a film production from rewrites to theatrical release would be interesting enough on its own. But The Chair also offered a unique level of transparency, giving viewers a glimpse not just of how a movie is made but of how a reality show is made, as participants bitch about the lack of funding and creator Chris Moore describes how the show is evolving even as it’s being filmed.

Orphan Black – While this show premiered in 2013, I binged both seasons this year and am happy to report that season two holds up to the bonkers premise, white-knuckle action, hilarity, and surprise of the first. Have you heard of Tatiana Maslany? No? That’s because the stupid awards-givers behind ceremonies like the Emmys apparently don’t watch sci fi, but one of these days Maslany is going to claim all the prizes because she is doing such phenomenal work playing multiple clones of her Orphan Black protagonist, Sarah, imbuing each with careful, microscopic detail, that I actually kind of wonder if this woman suffers from some sort of multiple personality disorder.

Black-ish – This half-hour comedy was a real surprise for me. I don’t watch a lot of sitcoms (and my heart will always be yours, Parks and Recreation!), but I gave Black-ish a shot and was delighted to find that it’s not only hilarious, but offers a thoughtful look at race and class in America. Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow Johnson is doing fantastic work as what is easily my favorite televised portrayal of a real mother and woman—not your typical harried-but-smart-but-exasperated-mom caricature, but an actual human.

Hannibal – PRETTIEST. SHOW. EVER. I’m not kidding. Granted, you have to find waves of blood and human corpses pretty, but I’m telling you, Hannibal would be on this list for set design alone, so gorgeous is this show. Happily, it’s also a ridiculously fun and smart and scary drama, with a stellar performance from Mads Mikkelson (my Official Crush of 2014 and winner of Year’s Best Cheekbones). Season two really ramped things up several notches by putting Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in the slammer for Hannibal’s crimes, then turning the tables by the end of the 13-episode run. This show can’t start its third season soon enough.

A Podcast Baker's Dozen

podcastTen years ago, some genius coined the word “podcast,” and to commemorate that moment, this week Slate has been going bananas, posting articles on intimacy and podcasting, depression and podcasting, and the rise of podcasting pastors. As part of all this coverage, rather than put together a list of the best podcasts out there, David Haglund and Rebecca Onion curated a list of the best podcast episodes. In a Slate Plus extra on this week’s Culture Gabfest, Haglund explained that the idea was to do something a little more surprising than one more list of great shows you’ve probably already listened to. The list of episodes is worth checking out; there were lots of shows included that I’d never even heard of, and some that I’ll definitely add to my ever-growing collection of podcasts. Podcasting is pretty widely recognized as one of our most intimate forms of entertainment. Intimacy isn’t just about proximity; it’s also personal. One man’s top podcast of all time is another’s nails-on-a-chalkboard. (I, for one, can’t deal with the sound of Mike Pesca’s voice, so The Gist will never make my podcast rotation, no matter how smart or insightful or funny it is.) The act of making any Top Whatever list is always going to incite reactions of “You didn’t include THIS?! You morons have no taste!” but my feelings about podcasts are probably stronger, even, than my feelings about movies and television—so it’s unsurprising that I found Haglund and Onion’s list lacking.

Here, then, are my picks for Best Podcast Episodes, Ever—with a caveat. Remember how I said taste in podcasts is personal? Well, this list is highly personal. First, I can’t listen to everything, so these episodes are selected from an admittedly small pool; I regularly check in with roughly thirty-five podcasts, which is an atom in a molecule in a drop in the podcasting bucket.

Second, there are things on here that tickle or move me that will probably leave others cold. There are episodes I find jaw-droppingly fascinating but will make other listeners yawn. But, for whatever reason, these are all episodes that I’ve actually saved and re-listened to, most of them more than once, because they speak to me. (Pun.)

Hopefully, though, the episodes I’ve picked will pique your interest enough to get you to check out one or two of these shows.

13. Doug Loves Movies – “Chris Evans, Leonard Maltin, and Adam Scott guest” Whether or not I like an episode of Doug Loves Movies hinges on who his guests are. Doug Benson gets a lot of comedy heavyweights to take the stage for a night of gametime, but the episode that features Adam Scott and Chris Evans holds a special place in my heart because it actually got me to like Chris Evans. Up till the day I listened to this episode, I didn’t give shit one about Mr. Blandy McOatmal Captain America, but on DLM he is utterly charming—and quite possibly drunk. It doesn’t hurt that Adam Scott is his usual Adam Scott self, or that the actual Leonard Maltin is present to play the Leonard Maltin game.

Hooked yet? If you listen to the episode and need more Doug, for my money, you cannot go wrong with any episode that includes Paul F. Tompkins as “Werner Herzog.”

12. The Truth – “Moon GraffitiThis is The Truth’s pilot episode and, as happens with a lot of pilot episodes, I didn’t know what to expect, going in. “Moon Graffiti” immediately sucks you in as a suspenseful and elegant piece of storytelling/radio drama, a fictionalized version of the first moon landing based on an actual speech written for Richard Nixon in the event that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became stranded on the moon. I first listened to this episode with my mouth hanging open. (This image will be a recurring theme of this list.) Happily, The Truth’s pilot is no fluke; nearly every episode is as strong as this first one.

Hooked yet? Try “They’re Made Out of Meat,” a dramatic reading of a short story by Terry Bisson (accompanied by an interview with the author), or “Falling,” a play about a freak train accident that leads to romance.

11. We Hate Movies – “DreamcatcherWe probably have Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to thank for the mind-boggling number of podcasts dedicated to making fun of movies. I listen to two: How Did This Get Made? (which is totally worth checking out even if it didn’t make the baker’s dozen), and We Hate Movies, hosted by a trio (occasionally a foursome) of guys who very clearly don’t hate movies at all but are reliably hilarious when hating on movies. “Dreamcatcher” finds them in top form and provides them with the opportunity to consider Stephen King’s ultimate contribution to the horror monster cannon: butt weasels. There’s also time for the guys’ Wilford Brimley impression (a recurring delight) and serious thought on the subject of whether one could ever successfully write a sad story about farting.

Hooked yet? I also have a fond place in my heart for the episodes about “The Good Son” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Often, the best parts of WHM involve the hosts improvising bizarre imagined scenarios about the actors or director involved in whatever movie they’re riffing on, and the best of these is probably Timid Tim Burton calling Johnny Depp in the “New Nightmare” episode.

10. Slate Spoiler Special – “SunshineI have a lot to say about Sunshine, probably one of Danny Boyle’s least-known films. A lot. So every time I queue up Slate’s Spoiler Special on this movie, in which Dana Stevens and John Swansburg discuss every turn in the film’s plot, I find myself talking out loud, as if Dana and John can hear my contribution to the conversation. Sometimes I listen to this episode of the Spoiler Special just because I’m in the mood to watch Sunshine but don’t have the time. Really, I’m ranking this at #10 because I want you to go watch Sunshine. But also because I giggle every time Dana or John refers to the film’s boogeyman as “Roasty-Toasty.”

Hooked yet? If you love talking about movies you’ve seen, really every episode of the Spoiler Special is worth listening to. But, for real, it’s a Spoiler Special, so keep that in mind.

9. This American Life – “The Radio Drama EpisodeYes, technically This American Life (and Fresh Air, which I’ll get to later) is produced for radio. But I primarily listen to it in podcast form. “The Radio Drama Episode” is one of TAL’s live shows and it’s also a foray from the show’s usual format; this time, instead of choosing a theme and telling stories on that theme, Ira Glass and his crew revisit some old stories and tell some new one. But rather than merely reporting on each story, they’ve gotten professional Broadway singers, writers, composers, and (not that it matters for an audio podcast) choreographers to stage musical interpretations of those stories. It’s a ton of fun, and I apologize in advance for the earworm you will contract (“What the heck I got to do-oo-oo to be with you”) after you listen to this episode.

Hooked yet? I mean, it’s This American Life. Just listen to any old episode. But, in honor of the holidays, you could start with “Lights, Camera, Christmas!”

8. Criminal – “Call Your MomCriminal is a fairly young podcast, and I only recently discovered it. “Call Your Mom” was, I think, the second episode I ever listened to, and it was another jaw-dropper. Host Phoebe Judge talks with mother-daughter coroners Kathleen Vernon and Linda Vernon. It’s an intimate look at a job few people know (or want to know) about, and both Vernon women are fascinating interviewees.

Hooked yet?Animal Instincts” made me late for work, I was so invested in hearing about a man convicted of murder when the real killer may have been…an owl.

7. Death, Sex, and Money – “Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons on SurvivalDo you know anything about Ellen Burstyn’s life? I didn’t before I listened to this episode of Death, Sex, and Money, which finds host Anna Sale talking each week with a guest about exactly those three things. Actress Ellen Burstyn is candid and unaffected as she tells Sale about having an abortion, being in an abusive marriage, and being taken for granted as a woman. Unexpectedly, the episode has a postscript when Burstyn invites Sale back to her apartment to re-answer a question she feels she didn’t initially give enough thought to. The conversation is intimate, honest, and charming. And now I know what a “should-less day” is.

Hooked yet?This Senator Saved My Love Life” is how I discovered the podcast and tells Sale’s own story of relationships and politics. The recent “College Sweethearts: Transformed” talks with a straight woman and a trans man in a queer relationship that started in college.

6. Fresh Air – “Fresh Air Remembers Author Maurice Sendak“Oh, god, there are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die! But I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.” Shit, man, I can’t even type those words without tearing up. This episode combines four interviews Terry Gross did with author Maurice Sendak over the years, culminating in their final interview in 2011, a year before he died. As Sendak says to Gross in this episode, she brings something out in him that he doesn’t give up to any other interviewer. The first time I listened to the final interview, I had to leave my desk at work and go to the bathroom to pull myself together. Sendak speaks about the end of his own life with such eloquence and bravery, his voice cracking as he tells Terry, “Almost certainly, I’ll go before you go, so I won’t have to miss you,” and Terry is audibly moved…holy fuck, I need to go cry for half an hour.

Hooked yet? As with TAL, if you’re not listening to Fresh Air, it’s probably because you don’t want to. But if you love it as much as I do and want another entry from the “Terry Makes Jamey Cry” cannon (and if you loved David Rakoff), download “David Rakoff: ‘There Is No Answer as to Why Me,’” grab some Kleenex, and have yourself a listen.

5. Serial – Episodes 1 (“The Alibi”), 2 (“The Breakup”), and 3 (“Leakin Park”) Oh, Serial’s a good podcast, huh? SHOCKING REVALATION, JAMEY. I know, I’m not telling anyone anything new here. But Serial makes the list mostly because of how I was introduced to it—not episode by episode but in a binge-listen that took place on a long drive for a work trip I was dreading. I chose Serial because I’d downloaded three episodes, which meant I could keep my eyes on the road and not have to search for something new to listen to when an episode ended. I thought I was just choosing something entertaining; I didn’t know that I was exposing myself to what would become the podcast obsession of the year. I was halfway through “Leakin Park” when I arrived at my destination, and the frustration and anticipation I felt when I couldn’t finish listening right that second would wash over me again and again for the next several weeks, every time I finished a new episode of Serial.

Hooked yet? If you’re not, then you never will be, is my guess. Serial just concluded its first season and will return with a second sometime in the near future.

4. Radiolab – “The Ring and IJust as my Doug Loves Movies pick made me care about Chris Evans, Radiolab’s “The Ring and I” made me care about opera, which may be an even more impressive feat. Host Jad Abumrad devotes the entire hour to an exploration of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, exploring the opera through history, food, pop culture, and—obviously—music. The episode is a departure from the show’s usual science(ish) focus but it uses Radiolab’s method of coming at a single subject from multiple angles to uncover why, exactly, so many people are obsessed with this opera.

Hooked yet?Musical Language” is a more traditional Radiolab episode still concerned with music, while “War of the Worlds” is the podcast’s first live show, complete with Robert Krulwich at his hammiest.

3. Pop Culture Happy Hour – “This Craziness with Vampires and ForeheadsMuch as I love Linda Holmes (and want her job) and Stephen Thompson, if Glen Weldon ever bails from PCHH, I may not be able to listen ever again. Come to PCHH for the pop culture discussions; stay for the Weldon Rant. This episode gives Glen an opportunity to hold forth on his initial disdain for Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the crew talks about things they were initially wrong about. But the real reason this episode is #3 is Charles Grodin Man. I’m not going to say anything else, other than listening to Glen describe CGM (and to Stephen’s reaction) while driving nearly made me run off the road, so hard was I laughing.

Hooked yet? In “Warrior Women and Movies That Call to Us” the PCHH team has a truly fascinating discussion about female warriors in pop culture, while “Profanity in Pop Culture and Outdated Tech” gives NPR producers a workout with the censor button.

2. Professor Blastoff – Episode 82, “Voice (w/ Lake Bell)Here’s another podcast that I listen to for the sole purpose of cheering myself up by making myself laugh uncontrollably. I have probably played the first twelve minutes of “Voice” a good thirty or forty times, and it still cracks me up. Tig Notaro, David Huntsberger, and Kyle Dunnigan usually begin each episode by catching each other up on what’s going on in their lives, riffing, and doing bits. But Kyle highjacks the episode immediately when he launches into his Del La Rue character, only to be driven to the point of exasperation when Tig and David won’t let him break character. The rest of the episode is worth listening to, too, as Lake Bell leads the Blastronauts through voice exercises. But between Kyle’s Del stories and Tig and David’s giggling, this is still my go-to episode when I need a good laugh.

Hooked yet? PB is, admittedly, a very weird podcast. After “Voice,” start with “Sensory Science (w/ Corey Beilstein)” for actual science, then listen to “Live in New York (w/ Ira Glass)” for a truly surreal interaction between the gang and the TAL host.

1. Extra Hot Great – “Your Tiger Cub” My love for Extra Hot Great is well-known and everlasting. Though the show has changed some since its move away from film to focus on television, I still tune in eagerly every week. But I will always hold dear the earliest episodes of EHG because they made me feel like I had friends to visit and talk with at a time in my life when I lived far away from all of my actual, non-imaginary friends. Like PB’s “Voice,” I have listened to “Your Tiger Cub” so many times I can actually quote from it. From Joe’s rundown of his Halloween movie marathon, to Adam Sternbergh’s submission of Police Squad to The Cannon, this is EHG at its goofiest and best.

Hooked yet? I’m honestly not sure if you can still access EHG Mark 1, but if you can, “Most Regrettably Dingle” is worth listening to because it exists in a time before we all realized just how great Bob’s Burgers was going to be. With EHG Mark 2, the gang no longer talks about movies, but “Canna-Vale of Tears” features Sarah D. Bunting delivering the exact rant I would have given had I been able to find the words through my rage after Bobby Cannavale stole Mandy Patinkin’s Emmy. (I’m still mad.)