Television

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.)

Pandering: Thoughts on fan service in Sherlock and Parks and Recreation

Sherlock Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for all of BBC's Sherlock, through series 3, and for early episodes of season 7 of Parks and Recreation.

Last year, while visiting my parents from out of town, I commandeered the television one evening to watch the premiere of Sherlock, season (or, as the British would have it, series) 3. Back home, my DVR was set to record the show, but I wasn’t taking any chances or even allowing the possibility that I might be spoiled on the episode before I returned to Alaska; I would watch the premiere live now, then watch it again back home—and again, and again, and, if my relationship with previous episodes of Sherlock was any indication, again.

Sherlock series 3 came with a lot of hype. Series 2 had ended two years prior, with the standard (but all too short) three-episode season ending in a cliffhanger. Some characters were dead, some only appeared to be dead, the lives of others had been presumably altered forever. Between January 2012 and January 2014, fans had plenty of time to speculate about what had happened, and what would happen, when (and if) we ever got a series 3.

In the meantime, fans lost their minds. They made fan art, fan fiction, Sherlock memes, slash fic that imagined Martin Freeman’s Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock as lovers. Fans created unofficial show tee shirts, pillows, bumper stickers—hell, I even had a Sherlock-themed iPhone case. Mr. Cinnamon Toastencrunch blew up, too, becoming the object of a million fangirl (and fanboy) crushes, earning the nickname “The Fanart-sherlock-on-bbc-one-33018448-500-355Internet’s Boyfriend,” and prompting gifs, tumblrs, a name generator (“Blubberbutt Frumblesnatch,” “Bandicoot Countryside”), and my favorite Extra Hot Great mini.

What I’m saying is:  Anticipation was high when Sherlock finally premiered, and I counted myself among those who’d been counting the days. But by the time episode one’s 90-minutes had rolled by, I felt distinctly let down.

“The Empty Hearse” opens with an explanation of how Sherlock survived his series 2-ending plummet off a building after the death of Moriarty—a pre-arranged scheme involving a bungee cord, a hypnotist, a Mission Impossible-style rubber mask, and a first-and-final smooch with Molly. This plan’s emotional manipulation of Watson (who was devastated at Sherlock’s death and whose life was irrevocably altered as a result) is tough to take—but we’ve seen before that Sherlock is more than capable of heartless emotional manipulation (or just ignoring other people’s emotions altogether).

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But then!  “Bollocks!” scoffs Lestrade in a voiceover. Because, you see, what we just witnessed wasn’t an explanation at all but a theory—one cooked up by good old Anderson, he whose mere presence at a crime scene makes the IQ of an entire city street drop. More theories follow, one of which is presented by a member of an actual Sherlock fan club, which is a thing that now exists in the world of Sherlock. “I don’t care how you faked it, Sherlock. I want to know why,” John Watson tells Sherlock about the faked death, and the line smacks of dismissal—the show’s writers themselves can’t think of a how, so they dazzle the audience with a few magic tricks then cluck disapprovingly when we want to know how they work.

tumblr_mnh8foruLx1rnm957o1_1280The fake-out explanations weren’t what had me feeling disgruntled, though, not on their own. The episode continues with Sherlock donning a French waiter disguise to surprise John with news of his undead-ness, at which point John attacks him.  There are insults for Watson’s silly moustache; yet another woman (John’s fiancée, Mary, this time) who “can’t help but enjoy the sociopathic little scamp,” as the AV Club recap of the episode puts it; obsession with Sherlock’s signature coat; and a wink-wink-nudge-nudge joke about putting Sherlock-related declarations on a tee shirt.

“[Show creator Steven] Moffat has a very direct and sometimes antagonistic relationship with his shows’ fans, whose attention he seems to equally crave and hold in contempt,” that same AV Club recap describes. Watching the series 3 premiere of Sherlock, I felt that connection almost tangibly. Moffat seemed to be holding his viewers by the hand, practically cackling as he gave us what he thought we wanted.  Like the high school wannabe, longing to fit in with the kids who are, like, totally into Swedish death metal, Moffat betrayed a sort of me-too-guys-I-get-it-too! desperation to be seen as in-the-know when it comes to fandom. At the same time, the neglect he gave many of the emotional beats of the episode (well described in that AV Club piece) made the fan-service parts of the show feel shallow, like half-hearted attempts to identify with why loyal viewers bothered to watch the show.  Moffat seemed to understand that his viewers liked Sherlock tee shirts and slash fic, but he didn’t seem to get why.

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Parks and RecreationCut to two years later, and I’m watching the first episodes of the final season of Parks and Recreation. This last season is set three years after the conclusion of season 6, in 2017—the year that also happens to be the season premiere episode’s title. Things have changed in Pawnee, Indiana, most notably the relationship between Leslie Knope and her one-time foil-slash-mentor Ron Swanson. But plenty of other things have either stayed the same—or settled ever more firmly into their goofy grooves.

Lots of final seasons indulge in call-backs to fan favorites.  Beloved guest stars return, familiar characters turn up for a last victory lap, old jokes are revived.  Now halfway through its final season, P&R is no different. The first episode alone had Megan Mullally back for one last appearance as Ron’s nemesis/ex-wife, Tammy, and an appearance by former talk show host Joan Callamezzo. Later episodes bring back Perd Hapley, the Jerry-Gary-Larry-Terry joke, Ron’s beloved claymore landmine, familiar locale JJ’s Diner, and a nameless janitor who, years after his first appearance in season 3, episode 16 (“Lil’ Sebastian”), is still dancing his way through City Hall to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.”

This all smacks of fan service, just as much as Sherlock’s shout-outs to tee shirt slogans do. After all, who else is going to appreciate these call-backs? Why would the writers include these references, if not to get a grin of recognition out of the audience? Yet when P&R shows Donna and Tom indulging in a Treat Yo’Self day (a call back to season 4, episode 4, “Pawnee Rangers”), I wasn’t put off; instead, I found myself laughing, delighted to find that the two friends still practiced their indulgent ritual and happy to see the writers pay homage to this detail.

treat yo self

So, what’s the difference? Why is obvious fan service okay in one circumstance and not in the other?

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World-building can be a delicate thing, especially as a show is just beginning. You have a core of main characters you want to introduce and a specific locale they’ll likely spend most of their time in, and you have to convey all that to your audience in a limited amount of time—say, half an hour once a week, or ninety minutes just three times a year. If you’re talented and lucky, you accomplish that, and then you can start building out from there.  You get beyond the walls of the Parks and Recreation Department offices and outside the door of 221B Baker Street.  You introduce Jean Ralphio and the Douche, Mrs. Hudson and Sally Donovan. You get a sense of the streets the characters roam, the restaurants they frequent. The crime scenes they investigate.

Tom Sell-oink

The writers of P&R have built Pawnee, Indiana, into a familiar place (even if it is populated with soda-swilling goofballs who collect celebrity pig dolls and demand that Twilight be included in the town time capsule). Seven seasons have given them room to explore the entire town, not to mention the city next door (boo, Eagleton!), and the citizens that populate both. Over those seven seasons, the writers have created a rich history that’s based on its characters’ decisions and desires, their crimes and circumstances, their feuds, relationships, setbacks, and triumphs.  And after all this time spent in Pawnee, as viewers, we understand the importance of every town icon—not just as a source of entertainment for us, but as something meaningful to the characters we’ve grown to love.

So when someone trots out a Lil’ Sebastian reference, we get why every single Pawneean sheds a tear—and we also completely understand Ben’s utter bewilderment. When Craig mentions his therapist, Dr. Richard Nygaard, we’re happy to hear the good doctor is still helping the people of Pawnee with their emotional problems. These shout-outs are rooted in the history of a town—okay, a fictional town. But the beauty of a fictional town is that you don’t have to move there to feel like you’re one of its citizens. Everyone of us who tunes in to P&R is a part of Pawnee.

Which is why, I think, the fan pandering of P&R succeeds where Sherlock’s fails. P&R looks to itself for its jokes and references, while Sherlock looks beyond the fictional London where its characters live and work to the outside world—the real world. P&R’s callbacks to The Pit, Snakejuice, and Galentine’s Day reward its viewers’ memories, while Sherlock’s depiction of Sherlock fan club members speculating wildly over Holmes’s faked death plays on fans’ knowledge of something outside the show.

P&R’s references invite you into the world of the show. Sherlock’s, meanwhile, leave the show’s world—the place fans presumably want to be—to reference things its fans created.  It’s the difference between knowing a joke because you’ve been in on it from the beginning and making a similar joke in hopes that you can seem like you’re in on it, too.

dancing

And it betrays a fundamental understanding of why fans like a particular show—and why they create art and GIFs and tee shirts based on the characters they love. We watch to be transported. Just as immersing ourselves in a great book can take us to a time or place we’d probably never encounter firsthand, watching a television show with a richly imagined world populated by complex characters transports us in the same way. And when the show ends—when the season or even the series is over—we long to be transported, still. We use our own imaginations to extend the story; we make art or write fanfic that pays homage to the place we long to be and the people we miss.

I won’t stop watching Sherlock. It managed to course-correct with series 3’s next two episodes, and I still have high hopes for series 4. Meanwhile, P&R is taking its final victory lap, and if this review is any indication (I haven’t seen the most recent episodes yet), it’s still hitting just the right notes when it comes to fan service.

In Praise of Paris

39I'm doing a pretty intensive rewatch of Gilmore Girls. So intensive, in fact, that in the middle of binge-watching marathons, Netflix frequently feels compelled to ask if I'm still watching. Listen, Netflix: I don't come over to your house, knock the pint of Ben and Jerry's out of your hand and tell you to vacuum your floors, so stop judging. Anyway, upon this rewatch and with the benefit of enough years after the initial airing of the show that I now identify more with Lorelei than Rory, I've come to realize something: Most of the characters on this show are terrible people.

To some extent, this isn't shocking. Stars Hollow and nearby locales are home to a good number of antagonists and quasi-villainous characters. Emily and Richard Gilmore, though often secretly awesome, are set up to be Lorelei's eternal foes, and they act accordingly. (What's with Emily telling Christopher he still has a chance with Lorelei even as she's engaged to Luke?! Or with Richard reneging on his deal with Lorelei to get Rory back in school when she drops out of Yale for a semester?! These jerks.) We can all agree that Mitchum Huntzberger is a douchenozzle, and Taylor Doose is a bore. And though no one who loves Celine Deline so unabashedly can be all bad, Michel is, admittedly, a snob and a terrible employee.

But even the characters we've come to know and presumably love, it turns out, are sort of awful. I know! Delightful Lorelei and Rory? This article from Vulture reveals why they're both actually kind of the worst. Luke, meanwhile, is grumpy and obstinate to the point of assholery. Kirk is too quirky to live. I can't deal with Dean -- he's fickle and whiny and dull and, oh my god, that haircut -- and Jess is a boorish punk.

There are exceptions. Lane is lovely and a better friend than a puke like Rory deserves. Minor characters like Gypsy and Miss Patty aren't just filler for crowd scenes; they're authentically funny and charming. And I will NOT hear an ill word about Sookie St. James and Jackson Belleville.

Even as I've started to see the denizens of Stars Hollow for who they really are, though, I've come to realize that there's one character who, though she comes to the series as an ostensible villain and continues to be presented as a source of frustration even as she becomes one of Rory's best friends, is actually the best person on the show. Ladies and gentlemen, I come to sing the praises of one Paris Geller.

Paris starts the series as Rory's apparent enemy. Already queen of the academic castle at Chilton Academy when Rory enrolls in the private school, Paris is smart, assertive, and ambitious. When Rory rolls in, expecting to be crowned the Smartest Lil' Pixie Ever Enrolled, she immediately butts heads with Paris. As an audience, we're supposed to side with Rory, Our Special Snowflake. But put yourself in Paris's position. You're just minding your own business, trying to pave your own way to an Ivy League school. Your only friends are a couple of ditzes, and the one guy you've got a crush on immediately stars drooling over Snowflake. You'd be pissed, too, right? You'd defend your home turf and position yourself as Snowflake's rival, right? And if you were a guy, people would say you were tough, a take-no-shit-from-no-one kinda guy. But Paris? She's supposed to be a bitch, just because she isn't willing to cede her ground to Rory Gilmore.

On another show, Rory and Paris might have been seasons-long enemies. But Paris displays one of the most attractive characteristics a human being can possess:  a willingness to see things from a new perspective and to change accordingly. When Rory offers a gesture of friendship, Paris not only accepts; she becomes, arguably, one of the best examples of a good friend on the show.

Even Rory has to admit that Paris provides her exactly the sort of foil she needs to excel academically. And while Rory gets super judgey when Paris starts dating a (much) older professor at Yale (where both girls are students), Paris generally stays supportive of Rory's relationships, immediately defending her when Logan turns up uninvited and belligerent at their apartment but growing supportive and understanding when Rory and Logan get back together. Yes, when you call Paris, she'll launch into a tirade about how education in America is turning a generation of students into a coddled bunch of morons; but when it counts, she'll use her pre-med knowledge and her terrifying demeanor to wrench information out of the attending surgeon when your boyfriend is on the brink of death after jumping off a cliff in Costa Rica and no one will tell you anything.

Paris is fantastic. We're supposed to think she's driven to the point of psychosis, but if a guy were as ambitious as she is, everyone would praise him for his determination and focus. When Paris's family goes broke, she panics for all of three minutes, then sucks it up and learns to waitress -- going so far as to work for Rory, her one-time enemy. (In fact, Paris might as well be an orphan, based on what we know about her family. No wonder she's so independent and self-sufficient.) We're supposed to believe that Paris is too mean, but hey, my response to feeling nervous or uncertain is to get angry, too.

Would I want to live with Paris? Possibly not. Between the craft corner and the Krav Maga, things can get intense in the Geller household. Would I want to work with her? I mean, I respect her reluctance to remember the name of anyone on the Yale Daily News staff and her ability to construct her own cube, but...no. But would I want to be friends with Paris? You betcha.

Of course, the ultimate proof that Paris Geller is good people is that she lands Doyle McMaster, a.k.a. television's Danny Strong, a.k.a. Jonathan from Buffy. Not that being able to snag a good dude should be the thing by which a lady's awesomeness should be measured. But the fact that Paris creates a strong, caring relationship with someone who both loves and challenges her, based on mutual respect and a love for strange martial arts, is yet another testament to her ability to do things on her own terms but also to grow and change and learn.

Watching Gilmore Girls again, I find myself loving a lot of the characters in spite of their flaws. When it comes to Paris, though, I find myself rooting for her over even the main ladies. Paris gets knocked down, but she pops right back up. Paris is smart, and she knows it, and she's mean sometimes -- but she knows that, too. And she's willing to evolve. Who wouldn't want that in a friend?

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.

Friend Shipper

Daryl and CarolI’ve been listening to Slate’s podcast recapping the latest season of The Walking Dead (available to Slate Plus members only, sorry guys), and an exchange that took place on the first episode between host Mike Vuolo and Chris Wade caught my attention:

Vuolo: I think that [Carol’s] relationship with Daryl is fantastic because it’s not quite a sexual relationship, it doesn’t feel romantic, it doesn’t feel even sister-brother; it just feels like a pure friendship.

Wade: “Companionate”? Is that a word?

Vuolo: Sure, why not?

Wade: They see something in each other that makes things about this world better. Yeah I think it is great; and it is one of the few moments of subtlety, which I always appreciate in The Walking Dead. Of not having to spell out, like, Oh, they are together. And they don’t seem to need to have any kind of definitions because both of them are realistic enough about what’s going on right now in their world to know that just caring for each other and, like, caring about each other’s well-being more, perhaps, than anyone else is enough to be important and help them live this terrible life they’re in.

(I think my attributions are correct, but both of those dudes’ voices sound similar.)

This is something I think about a lot: the state of friendship between male and female characters on television. As much as movies and television shows get dinged for not passing the Bechdel Test, they can be just as guilty of what I’ll call the Harry Burns Fallacy, after the assertion made by Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally—that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”

On T.V., the Harry Burns Fallacy rings true. It’s rare to see an unrelated single man and single woman have a relationship that’s anything other than romantic. Even if they start out as just friends, somewhere down the line they’re sure to end up in bed together, dating, and/or married. It’s telling that on a show called Friends, four out of six of the titular friends ended up in romantic relationships together.

I’m not anti-romance. Trust me, I’m as big a shipper as the next gal. I will tell you now: No one on the face of this planet wanted Parks and Recreation’s Ben and Leslie to get together more than I did. I was actually sorta into Spuffy, and I pulled hard for Cophine. I would see a Science Bros movie in a hot second. And I do not give shit one about Dean-or-Jess: I was a Logan girl all the way (go ahead and hate; I’m standing firm).

But I’m also a die-hard friend shipper. While the romance and companionship of dating and marriage are an essential part of life and have provided compelling storylines on a billion T.V. shows, there’s something to be said for friendship between a man and a woman. Like all great friendships, close lady-dude friendships are about what Chris Wade eloquently described as “see[ing] something in each other that makes things about this world better.” But when you’re friends with someone of the opposite sex, you get the added bonus of radically shifting your perspective: You learn things about the opposite sex you wouldn’t otherwise gain access to, but without the pressure or possibility of something sexual happening.

So many male-female television friendships culminate in romance, though—as if the only value in different-sex friendships is the possibility of “something more.” Sex and marriage, particularly on television, are portrayed as the ultimate connection between two people. As a person in the world, though, I know that there are connections that go just as deep between friends, whether they’re two gals, two dudes, or two people of the opposite sex. What’s deeper, I ask you, than caring about another person’s well-being more than anyone else’s, or helping another person live this life?

That’s why I hope Carol and Daryl remain friends. I won’t lie; I once shipped them. And there have been clues that something romantic may have passed between them. But as they’re portrayed at the moment, they represent a rare animal on television: the man-woman friendship that’s “just” a friendship. There’s mutual respect between them. They’ve both watched the other change and grow. They’ve developed an ease with each other that isn’t charged with sexual tension. In this season’s second episode, when Daryl hops in a car to chase down the men who abducted another friend, Carol jumps in, too, and the tone of this partnership is less I can’t bear to be separated from my lover and more I got your back, bro. “Just friends”? There’s no “just” about a relationship for which you’d risk your life, romantic or platonic. And the only “something more” I need is more friendships like this one on T.V.

Television's Baby Problem

“Can’t we have ONE representation on t.v. of women who want work and a relationship but don’t want to become baby-making machines? YEESH,” I grumbled to a friend over Google chat last May. I was up in arms over the Parks and Recreation season five finale, an episode that featured what my friend referred to as the “who-is-pregnant woman hunt.” Over the course of the finale, Andy discovers a positive pregnancy test and makes it his mission to question every female character on the show to find out who’s knocked up. Though the mother-to-be turns out to be Ron Swanson’s girlfriend Diane, the pregnancy hunt awakens the baby-making impulse in the show’s protagonist, Leslie Knope. For the first time to the audience’s knowledge, Leslie talks with her husband about the inevitable family they’ll eventually have.

“Leslie’s never even mentioned an interest in having children!” I bitched. “She seems so career-focused (not that you can’t want both a career and kids). But the whole start-a-family thing came out of nowhere! I know that relationship woes/marriage/babies are the traditional progression for most sitcoms, but I just kind of want to see ONE that doesn’t go that route.”

A year later, Leslie would end season six pregnant with triplets. I spent subsequent days ranting inarticulately about why this was a terrible decision on the part of the show’s writers, until the AV Club posted “The trouble with triplets: Leslie Knope’s babies and a problematic sitcom trend,” in which Libby Hill takes issue with Leslie’s career accomplishments being “retconned into being merely preparation for having children.”

In her essay, Hill also traces the evolution of the sitcom heroine and notes that, for characters like Leslie, who thrive in the workplace settings of their comedies, “the feminist struggle often gets murkier with these characters. Unlike their ’70s foremother, each of these characters ends up with (at least one) child by the end of their show’s run." We’re living in the “can women have it all” era but, as Hill posits, when it comes to television, “The question is, must women have it all.”

Last week, Homeland’s fourth season premiered with two episodes that brought viewers up to speed on events in the life of the show’s protagonist, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). After a couple of sometimes wobbly seasons, Homeland’s season three landed its ending: Though Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) had outlived his usefulness, his execution was gut-wrenching, and it finally freed Carrie from go-nowhere romantic storylines. This was a welcome change because what’s always been unique and, frankly, awesome about Carrie from day one is that she’s crazy-good at her job. Emphasis on the crazy—but the ability her bipolar disorder gives her to make connections no one else sees is exactly why she’s so good.

When the show was exploring the parallels between Carrie and Brody—who, after being held as a prisoner of war for eight years, was turned by al-Qaeda to perpetrate terrorist acts back in the U.S.—it was at its most interesting. But the show went a step further when Carrie and Brody became romantically entangled and, as a result, spun its wheels a bit. The writers seemed invested in this relationship, while as a viewer, I was drumming my fingers, waiting for each episode to get back to the good stuff.

Now in the wake of Brody’s death, Carrie still isn’t home-free: She’s got a Little Brody to contend with. By last Sunday’s second episode, the show seems to have decided how Carrie’s going to deal with motherhood; “Trylon and Perisphere” ended with Carrie taking a hardship posting with the CIA—a decision that any viewer understands is at least partly an excuse for Carrie to leave her infant daughter in the care of her (somewhat reluctant) sister.

I ought to be grateful. Presumably, with Carrie in Pakistan, the show will mostly dispense with the baby plot, save for a few U.S.-to-Pakistan Skype calls. So why am I not more excited about this depiction of a woman on television choosing career over family?

“A baby isn’t just a plot device,” Sonia Saraiya wrote last year in an AV Club recap of Homeland’s season three finale, “it’s a life-altering small person that will change everything.” Yet too often a baby is thrown into a plot as a device to demonstrate that when a female character puts career at the center of her life, she’s not only sacrificing family; she has to become the momentary villain as she chooses work over her offspring.

“Trylon and Perisphere” finds tiny Franny Brody thrust upon her mother by a sister who seems convinced that if Carrie just spends some time with her baby, she’ll discover her maternal instinct. Instead, each scene between Carrie and Franny seems designed to give Carrie (and viewers) a chance to close the Brody chapter—and to demonstrate what a bad mother Carrie would be. In one scene, she allows her mother to reminisce about Papa Brody, admitting that she tried to be happy when she learned she was pregnant, though “with his being gone can’t remember why I had you.” In another harrowing scene, Carrie comes this close to drowning her daughter during a routine bath. When Carrie departs for Pakistan with a tearful but sterile goodbye to baby, she’s not so much choosing career over family, the show seems to say, but admitting her ineptitude.

In August, Huffington Post ran a piece by Bri Seely (“What It Really Feels Like to Be a Child-Free Woman”), who—having no desire to raise children—recounted asking to be sterilized year after year, only to be told by doctors, “You’ll change your mind.” This is the overwhelming response to most women who say they want child-free lives. “You don’t know what you want,” we’re told again and again. “You’re too young to make that decision, you’ll think differently when you’re older.”

Television perpetuates this depreciation of a woman’s agency when it takes away a female character’s ability to even make this decision. As a career-oriented CIA agent who also lives with a disorder that has genetic component, it seems unlikely that Homeland’s Carrie would put “have a baby” at the top of her list of life goals. Yet she has unprotected sex—of course—and ends up pregnant—of course. And, this being television, there’s no question of abortion; on T.V., women rarely have the option of terminating a pregnancy, especially if they’re the protagonist of the show. (This is less true on cable, and if the character in question is an unmarried adolescent or young woman, she’s more often allowed to consider, or even have, an abortion.)

Likewise, at the end of Mad Men’s first season, the character who would come to represent the breaker of glass ceilings, the ur-career-woman, Peggy Olsen, naturally ends up pregnant. It’s a rite of passage, the show seems to say, that she must weather before she can earn the right to a career. Mad Men’s second season deals with the fallout of this pregnancy. Like Carrie, Peggy gives her baby up; Peggy also suffers the stigma of being a “loose” woman as her family accuses her of seducing the man who knocked her up and the priest at her church urges her to confess her sins. While a modern perspective on the show’s 1960s morals allows viewers to sympathize with Peggy’s predicament, in the world of the show Peggy nevertheless becomes something of a momentary villain for choosing career over family.

A baby doesn’t even have to enter the picture, though, for a woman’s agency to be taken away. How I Met Your Mother’s career-oriented Robin Scherbatsky is adamant about not wanting kids, a position that contributes to the end of her relationship with Ted and that remains consistent throughout the show—until season seven’s twelfth episode, in which Robin first believes she is pregnant, then discovers that not only is she not having a baby; she’s infertile. Once again, choice is quickly taken out of the picture. Robin’s reaction to the news that she can’t have a baby is to grieve, a natural reaction for a lot of women—including some who have never wanted children—but given the circumstances and the character’s history, it’s hard not to see this as another version of “you’ll change your mind some day.” Either you will change your mind, the message seems to be, or the decision not to will be taken away from you.

There’s room on television for all kinds of stories—for every story, including Robin’s, Peggy’s, and Carrie’s. And there’s room for a story like Donna’s: Jenny Slate’s character from the charming movie Obvious Child may or may not ultimately want children, but when she discovers she’s pregnant, she makes a decision that puts career (and independence) over family. She makes the decision, and she’s not punished for it or made to look villainous.

But that’s film. Television isn’t quite there yet. And on T.V., all too often, a baby is a plot device. It’s the culmination of an all-too-familiar trajectory. No matter how little a female character’s initial story arc might have to do with babies, in most shows, once the writers run out of ideas, she’s going to find herself faced with a pregnancy. Isn’t the simple inevitability of that progression one more way television seems to say that a woman just isn’t interesting enough outside of her childbearing abilities to sustain an audience’s interest? On T.V., it isn’t enough to work for the CIA, become the most powerful woman in an advertising agency, or have a fulfilling career in journalism. On T.V., women can have the whole pie—career, relationship, and baby—but they can’t opt for just one slice.