The world gives us lots to be cynical about every day. But today’s Thanksgiving, so I want to take a brief pause from frustration, indifference and indignation to marvel at the treasures on our massive pop culture landscape. Here’s a look at some of the pop culture (and pop culture criticism) that I’m thankful for right now:
Serial and the Podcast Explosion
As a podcast host myself, I’m heartened to see the medium gaining some popular exposure, especially given that the exposure is coming from Serial, one of the year’s most fascinating and unexpected pop culture experiences. In addition to being the most popular podcast in the history of iTunes, Serial is also investigative journalism and experimental storytelling, a combination that raises complex ethical and narrative questions. (In an amusing meta twist, it’s also inspired other podcasts from Slate and The AV Club.) Each week, Serial transposes the experience of watching a weekly TV show onto a new medium, and host Sarah Koenig’s journey, while likely to end in uncertainty, has made for thrilling listening.
I’ve been listening to podcasts long before Serial, though. Pop culture critics have been using the medium to air out their complex ruminations on television, movies and other media for years. I’m thankful for the inspired back-and-forth between Alan Sepinwall and Daniel Fienberg on Firewall & Iceberg; Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan on Hollywood Prospectus; Wesley Morris and Alex Pappademas on Do You Like Prince Movies; Maureen Ryan and Ryan McGee on Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan; and Mike Ryan and Ryan McGee on Not Ready for Primetime. These voices have helped me develop my own critical faculties, and they’re always good for a laugh or a running gag.
Great Performances on Great, Good and Not-So-Good Shows
On Broad City, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (who performed at my school a few weeks ago) have constructed a shambling, zany, symbiotic friendship that brings exciting new dimension to television’s criminally short roster of complex relationships between women.
On Fargo, everyone is excellent. Enough said.
On Parenthood, Ray Romano and Max Burkholder breathe specific and engaging life into characters who struggle with expressing their emotions to others who aren’t on their specific wavelengths.
On Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Andre Braugher injects each deadpan line with a kind of verbal ballet that lends the inscrutable Captain Ray Holt credibility, dignity and even grandeur.
On How to Get Away with Murder, Viola Davis acts circles around her expressionless young co-stars, asserting a powerful presence as the morally troubled law professor Annalise Keating.
More Television in More Places
My busy schedule in the past few months has forced me to make tough choices about which shows to watch and leave behind. Nonetheless, I’m heartened by the infinitely expanding array of options whenever I have a few free moments. I’m particularly fond of shows that come out of nowhere and quickly gain a loud and passionate following – this year, Broad City, Fargo, You’re the Worst and Jane the Virgin (the last of which I look forward to starting at some point soon) are among those surprise delights.
Plus, Netflix and Amazon have opened up an entirely new space for creators and actors to thrive. Without those platforms, we might never have seen the stereotype-challenging and sympathetic portrayals of LGBT characters on Orange is the New Black and Transparent, and I would never have been able to claim that I want to eventually catch up on a show called BoJack Horseman, because that’s a thing.
Saturday Night Live Thrives
Last season, Saturday Night Live overcorrected for its departed superstars (Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis Fred Armisen) with six new cast members who added little to an already-crowded ensemble. The show also suffered from the departure of Seth Meyers, whose quietly astounding Weekend Update hosting and head writing anchored the show for much of the last decade.The whispers of “Is SNL on its way out?” revved their engines anew, but the pessimism was unfounded.
The show’s fortieth anniversary has been consistently entertaining and occasionally superb. With four of last year’s seven new hires already out, this season has allowed the show to refocus on the talents of its core cast, and this season’s new players (Pete Davidson, Michael Che and Leslie Jones) have made a bigger impression in seven episodes than last year’s newbies did over a full season.
The show isn’t without its problems – Che’s recent Facebook tirades have soured my impression of his performance, whether they should or not; Pete Davidson has skirted overexposure with his three Weekend Update guest spots. But I’m much more optimistic now than I was a year ago that Saturday Night Live has a bright future ahead.
Pop Superstars Smash Stereotypes
Taylor Swift and Beyonce are unquestionably the planet’s two biggest pop stars right now, and both have released excellent albums within the past year. Both are embracing the feminist directives listeners have been pinning on them for years. Both are cultivating unique styles and refusing to bow to current trends. Both are exciting performers on television and in concert. And both transcend their brilliant marketing campaigns with music that rewards repeat listening. I argued with Emma Williams about which one is the current Queen of Pop on The M&M Report a few weeks ago, but the truth is that these two are winning different games with equal success.
An Uncertain Awards Season Foreshadows Actual Suspense
As soon as 12 Years a Slave premiered at Toronto last year, the “We Have Our Next Best Picture Winner” headlines came flooding in. Those headlines haven’t happened yet in 2014. There are plenty of movies that could conceivably claim that title come March (The Theory of Everything; Whiplash; Selma; Birdman), but none has emerged as a clear favorite. And that’s good! The runup to the Oscars has become a protracted parody of itself at this point, so traditional suspense is welcome.
So Much More to Experience
I could write a book comprised only of movie titles I’ve yet to experience and television shows I’ve yet to binge-watch. (Or other books I haven’t read, for that matter.) Sometimes I get bogged down in worrying that I’m not a “good critic” because I’m missing out on the experiences that a good critic should be having. But today, I’m just happy to have so much pop culture at my fingertips – more than anyone ever has before. I’ll get to all of it in time. And if I don’t, I’ll just have more to look forward to.