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Media Diet: January 2020

February 4, 2020 • 3:45 PM

This year I’m aiming to reflect on the media I consumed each month. Here, I’ve listed each book, movie, TV show season, and podcast I finished in January 2020. I’ve only included those works which I’d never completed previously, or which I’d finished so long ago it felt unfamiliar.

This is not my complete media diet. I also watched a lot of TV that isn’t worth recapping, notably a bunch of Simpsons episodes, plus NBA games. I also subscribe to several podcasts which I enjoy, but don’t listen to every episode: The Right Time with Bomani Jones, The Lowe Post, and WTF with Marc Maron.

I don’t have much loyalty to specific websites, but I do make sure every day to read Kottke, Dear Prudence on Slate (free entries only), and I check ESPN. I subscribe to several newsletters, but actively look forward to the ones from Will Leitch, Anne Helen Petersen, and the Action Cookbook by Scott Hines.

I’m in the midst of quitting Facebook as much as work allows, and someday I’ll find a way to kick my Twitter habit. Instagram sucks, too, but less than the other ones, probably because I’ve resisted following celebrities.

Let’s get to it.


TELEVISION

Rick and Morty (Season 3)

I found myself describing it to someone as “peak Simpsons Treehouse of Horror mixed with peak not-punching-down South Park.”

Killer inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez

I first listened to Dan Wetzel talking about this mini-series documentary on Bomani Jones’s podcast (he’s a prominent sportswriter who appears in the show and executive produced). He made a point of highlighting that they had obtained recordings of jailhouse phone calls between Hernandez and a variety of people, including his fiancee, mother, and others, and I agree with Wetzel that these recordings are the most compelling part of the documentary. There’s just something about Hernandez, in his own voice, begging his mother to understand that he felt neglected by her, or chopping it up with one of the Pouncey brothers, or talking to his toddler daughter, that can’t be reproduced in written form. You might also say the same about seeing security footage of Hernandez and associates leaving the scene of Odin Lloyd’s murder at about the time he was likely killed. However, it’s not all that good a series because, as Will Leitch explains, it mostly amounts to casting around for answers to the big “Why” without anything solid to pin those answers upon. And if that’s what your documentary is, why is it framed as an attempt to try to answer the big ”Why”?

The Good Place

Season 1 is one of the best forking sitcom seasons of all time, so I don’t hold it against the show that it failed to reach those heights the rest of its run. It was still an excellent show in its final three seasons — funny all the way through! — and the final one concludes with an actual statement about what kind of afterlife would be fair and just. Considering that so many shows can’t bring themselves to make any definitive statements about their characters, let alone themes, that’s a remarkable achievement by itself. But the finale episode goes a step further, makes that statement of theme, and brings our characters to The End, not just The End of the Show. It’s a Happily Ever After where there’s little to no possibility for fanfic about how the Happily Ever After plays out, which is brave and brilliant.

MOVIES

Good Burger

My God, this movie is bad. There’s exactly one good joke, and, perversely, it comes near the end, when Ed asks if Dexter wants to end their partnership because Ed is black. From a certain perspective, though, you’ve gotta hand it to the people who made and released a Nickelodeon stoner flick with Carmen Electra in a major supporting role. At least there’s that.

Page One: Inside The New York Times

If you are or were a journalist, this is a fascinating snapshot of the NYT at the dawn of the social media era, just before the paper fully embraced becoming a national brand as a survival tactic. If you’re not part of that media world, I suspect a lot of this will seem weirdly reverent of (mostly) white dudes in boring shirts grappling with how much power they actually wield. Also, here’s the obligatory showing of David Carr ripping the Vice guys.

Heavy Weights

This movie should be at least as beloved as The Mighty Ducks, even if the competition with the rival camp at the end is kind of slapped-together and doesn’t really make sense. Ben Stiller is a treasure as the villainous Tony Perkis. “Lunch has been cancelled today due to lack of hustle!”

Argo

It’s really hard to make a politically-fraught thriller like this that villainizes the situation everyone finds themselves in rather than a specific person or group of people, but somehow Ben Affleck, Chris Terrio, and the rest of the team did it. Not only that, they made a movie that has hardly a wasted moment and they had the guts to present a somewhat intricate plot that included entire scenes spoken in a foreign language without subtitles or generally holding the audience’s hand. (In retrospect, it’s also kind of amazing that this was Terrio’s first solo feature screenplay credit, and then he went on to write several humdrum big-budget superhero movies for the DCU, plus The Rise of Skywalker.)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

It’s not a “good” movie in the way that, say, Black Panther is a good movie — no one was aiming to make a cultural touchstone here. However, given that it’s adapting the first book in a beloved series, this is about as good as one could reasonably expect. Moreover, the four leads are played by child actors, which adds another level of difficulty to the project. The kids are fine (there’s no revelatory Haley Joel Osment performance here), and the adults around the kids are fine (Liam Neeson sounds like he put in a good two full days of voice work), with the notable exception of Tilda Swinton, who makes every one of her scenes perfect and vibrating with menace.

Fyre Fraud

If you’ve read a few reports on the Fyre Festival debacle, you don’t need this Hulu documentary. However, if you get the chance to watch it alongside someone who has no idea what happened, as I did, there’s a certain pleasure in watching your viewing partner take in the fiasco, step by step.

Ramen Heads

To make the obvious comparison, this Japanese documentary about an acclaimed ramen proprietor doesn’t impart the same wonder and pleasure that Jiro Dreams of Sushi does, even though it’s very obviously going for it. Instead, it kind of wallows in this guy’s banality, to the point that I was getting ready to give up, until it gets a jolt of life when two other superstar ramen chefs show up to help him come up with a new dish to serve at the restaurant’s 10th anniversary party.

Kevin Hart: Irresponsible

Is Kevin Hart too famous and too successful a movie star to be a funny standup anymore? He says a few funny things in this special, performed in the round at London’s O2 Arena. But they don’t hit the same way, and I think it’s because Hart’s most memorable bits (to me, at least) were always about how people don’t respect him, or about his own sense of inferiority. You know: Dwyane Wade telling him to buy a boat. That doesn’t work anymore because, well, he’s co-starring in movies with The Rock and can probably buy several boats. Maybe he’s not yet as wealthy as Dwyane Wade, but he’s got time in his 40s to catch up to the earnings Wade pulled in during his 20s and 30s.

Crazy Rich Asians

I didn’t like the book, but I kept hearing good things about the movie and am happy to report this adaptation excised just about everything hacky from the novel. Rachel isn’t an idiot. Nick’s mother is frustrated with his choices, but she’s not a monster. And so on. What’s left is a true culture-clash story set amid unimaginable wealth. That’s fun!

PODCASTS

Slow Burn (Season 2: Clinton impeachment)

There are two main pieces of value to projects like this. The first is to remind us of the boring stuff that usually gets left out of retellings that, nonetheless, felt momentous at the time. For example, how many people who weren’t political junkies 25 years ago remember Travelgate? That was a huge deal at the time! I feel like the popular history of the Clinton administration tends to skip over his first two years in office, before Republicans won the House in 1994, and that he kept having mini-scandal after mini-scandal even before Monica Lewinsky’s name was publicly reported, all of which affected how and why everyone reacted the way they did. Second, I’m not sure most people fully absorbed just how young Lewinsky was. She was 22 when she started the affair with Bill Clinton. 22! Imagine, at 22 years old, becoming one of the most famous people in the world because the man you thought was in love with you really wasn’t and had been lying to federal investigators about his hidden relationship with you. My God, that’s awful.

BOOKS

The Handmaid's Tale • Margaret Atwood

Yes, it’s great. Part of it is certainly because it conjures a world with dramatically different de jure rules from our own while maintaining many of the de facto rules, but it’s also righteous. Some may argue it’s “paranoid poppycock,” but even if you’re an exceptionally literal person who thinks it’s far-fetched that religious zealots would separate from the U.S. and create a quasi-theocracy in which a class of women are enslaved as birthing vessels, what about the point the novel makes about women’s freedom and equality are you arguing against? Do you think there’s nothing here with resonance to our actual lived experience? Is the story invalid because the hypothetical is “impossible”? Offred lived the bulk of her life in the U.S. we do know and recognize, and she spends a lot of the novel thinking about her life in that world. Any thoughts about that?

The Remains of the Day • Kazuo Ishiguro

I’m a bigger fan of Never Let Me Go, but Ishiguro is a remarkable stylist, and this earlier novel puts his skills on full display. There isn’t much subtlety in the contrast between the buttoned-up butler and the more openly-emotional housekeeper, nor in the portrayal of the butler’s former employer, a member of the House of Lords who continued operating as if the old rules of aristocracy still mattered well after the rest of the world had moved on. But there is a sense that time goes on, we all seek meaning and dignity in our work and relationships with each other, and it’s probably for the best that those old days when people were asked to suppress their humanity for the sake of powerful people’s comfort are gone and past.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI • David Grann

The text reads like a police procedural, in that it carefully lays out how a series of murders in early 1920s Oklahoma led law enforcement to believe someone was targeting members of the Osage tribe, then some of the richest people in the country thanks to their oil holdings, and then follows how federal agents tracked clues, made arrests, and won convictions. However, by adding another set of pages on how modern research suggests there may have been hundreds of unsolved Osage killings, Grann emphasizes the subtext that runs throughout his book: that the Osage were vulnerable, and it took J. Edgar Hoover himself to order an operation against the killings to get even that little bit done.

Mrs. Dalloway • Virginia Woolf

I had a hard time with this one. The narrative slips in and out of interior monologue and switches perspectives within the flow of text such that the reader has to pay close attention to find those precise moments, and I just wasn’t up for that kind of work for that length of novel. Much of it slipped into my brain and right back out, I think. (Side note: I hated The Hours when I first read it 19 years ago, then read it again more recently and came around to more of a respectful lack of strong feeling about it.)

(Photo: "Photograph of President William Jefferson Clinton with Socks the Cat Perched on Clinton's Shoulder: 12/20/1993" — White House Photograph Office)

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