You Were Meant For Me

What-if kind of stories are extremely popular right now, which I'm all for. If it's done dextrously, I enjoy a good parallel universe story as much as the next guy, so Laura Barnett's 2016 book The Versions of Us pretty easily elbowed its way to the top of my library list. Absolutely every review, every blurb, and every webpage I've seen regarding this book goes out of its way to use the phrase "One Day meets Sliding Doors", and I enjoyed both of those, so why not? A few pages into The Versions of Us, it is 1958, and fellow college students Jim Taylor and Eva Edelstein meet when she has a near miss with her bicycle. They hit it off right away, and so begins a grand romance that spans decades. Or falls apart. Or they don't meet at all.

The narrative splits into three versions, told concurrently. The events of Jim and Eva's lives vary wildly between versions, and naturally, it impacts the other people in their circles, from parents to lovers to friends to children. At the heart of each of the versions, though, there is a bond between them, sometimes strained, or perhaps even invisible, but never broken. They both have personal and professional aspirations, and in different versions, they have alternate levels of success at each of these. In one, Jim may become a popular artist, but be all thumbs at romantic relationships. Eva may find love that nevertheless presents enormous challenges. In one version, one of them may have a studious, polite daughter, while in another, a rebellious, sullen teenager who withdraws from her family.

I really enjoyed how plausible each of the three versions were. None of them were purely "good" or "bad". They just represent three different paths Jim and Eva may have found themselves walking down. The major complaint I've seen about the book is with the interweaving versions making it difficult to keep up with which one you're in, but I didn't mind that too much. Yes, it was sometimes tough to remember which narrative I was dealing with at the outset of each chapter, but it became clear soon enough. If I have one issue with the characters, it's how quickly they fling themselves into major life changes. These things happen, of course, but the regularity of relationships coming together, breaking apart, and leading to pregnancy were a little... Well, "rushed" doesn't seem like the right word, but let's just say that a lot of women find themselves immediately knocked up.

That didn't detract too much from my enjoyment, though. It was a very good book, and as Jim and Eva's lives unspooled, I found myself getting emotional, and even a little teary, as if I were watching an installment of The Up Series. We all often wonder what our lives would be like if we'd taken that job, or we'd never given up piano lessons, or had gone out with Paul when we had the chance. What The Versions of Us does so well is show us that no matter which way we go, we're still us, and that can be a heartening notion.

The Versions of Us: B+


Ever since The Great British Baking Show started airing on American television, it has consistently been one of my favorite shows. It's the perfect blend of competition and cooking show, and nothing has ever come close to matching it.

That doesn't mean people won't try, though, and TV executives weren't about to let all of us fervent American fans of the show slip through their fingers. They attempted to capture the same lightning by producing The Great American Baking Show, which premiered last year. Rather than a generalized baking experience, it aired around the holidays, which naturally drove all the challenge inspirations as well. That was probably a wise decision, even if I soon tired of Christmas-themed bakes. Mary Berry agreed to tie the show to its foreign counterpart by acting as judge, along with Johnny Iuzzini, who has already acted as a reality show judge, with limited success. In place of Mel and Sue, the show is hosted by Nia Vardolos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and her husband, Ian Gomez (Cougar Town).

Here's the thing about capturing the spirit of a runaway hit show: It's really, really, really difficult to do. And the first season of The Great American Baking Show was so unsuccessful, it struggled to even rise to the level of pale imitation. On the most basic level, it just didn't have any of the chemistry that makes the original program so enchanting. The judges didn't gel, the hosts were visibly trying and failing to capture the giddy enthusiasm of Mel and Sue, and the contestants... Well, that was the worst part. I'm sure they're all lovely people, and I know this is a show for amateurs, but as with inaugural seasons of a lot of competitive reality shows, they suuuuuuuuuuucked. All of their bakes looked terrible. It got to the point where I was literally embarrassed for us as a country.

I chalked the show up as a failed experiment and moved on with my life. Until about a month ago, when I noticed Hulu recommending the second season to me. Against my better judgement, my curiosity was piqued. Were any lessons learned? Could the show improve, or was it just destined to languish in the shadow of its older cousin? Well, I have some good news!

Season 2 was much, much better. Nia and Ian are still a bit over-hammy, but they've settled down to an acceptable level. The judges (Johnny specifically) are still a bit awkward, but their explanations are better articulated now, and they seem to be in better moods. That may be because the contestants are worlds better this time around. It's night and day. Sure, there was some obvious chaff, but the wheat was soon separated out, and I found myself really invested in their success. Finally, some American bakers our nation can be proud of.

The second season was again holiday-themed, which limited what it could do, but I was so giddy over the show's rise in quality that I hardly minded. Does The Great American Baking Show stack up to the Great British Baking Show? Hell, no. Not in any way whatsoever. But it certainly takes home the engraved cake plate award for Most Improved.

The Great American Baking Show - Season 1: C
The Great American Baking Show - Season 2: B

For Never Was a Story of More Woe

Ah, doomed romances. Where would literature be without them? Love is decidedly tricky, and so naturally, stories about the trials and travails of romantic relationships comprise a gigantic percentage of fiction. I just finished two books revolving around the love lives of their characters, and while you'd think I'd relate more to the one about adults, it's the one that focused on high school students that really shone.

The first book was Summerlong, a 2015 book by Dean Bakopoulos. Over the course of one sweltering summer, a handful of people in an Iowa neighborhood re-evaluate their lives, and as one marriage crumbles, both the husband and wife find themselves drawn to other people, who are also involved with each other. It sounds very Melrose Place-ian, but these characters are a lot more emotionally mature, and at least attempt to do right by themselves and others, while still searching for a way to be happy.

Still, the book falls prey to Annoying Protagonist Syndrome a bit. Why should I care what Claire wants to do with her life if she's going to be such a relentless chore? If all ABC wants to do is reconnect with the spirit of her dead girlfriend, what is she hoping to accomplish by messing around with everyone who gives her the side-eye? Overall, it wasn't a bad book at all, just not one that has anything particularly interesting going for it. The characters aren't terrible people, they're just not very people-like. They seem to do things purely to drive the plot forward, rather than acting like people actually would. This book would be a good airplane read, but not one that will ever hold a place of honor on your bookshelf.

The other book was Rainbow Rowell's celebrated 2013 book, Eleanor & Park. I'd call it YA, but I'm not sure what age range it's aimed at, since the characters say "fuck" an awful lot. This book's characters are a lot more understandable, even when they're making questionable decisions. Park is a half-Asian kid who gets along in school by keeping his head down, but all that changes when he falls for new student Eleanor, who has wild red hair and wears threadbare, patchwork clothes to school. Far from being hipsters, these are kids who don't fit in for very valid reasons, and they approach each other with caution, fearing rejection for all sorts of reasons.

They begin to bond over music and comic books, but the circumstances of their home lives are a constant threat to their happiness. I really liked how the story unfolded in a very realistic way. Not everything works out the way they want, but neither are they doomed from the start. Eleanor and Park strike me as people that could actually exist, instead of acting like, well, characters in a book, and that's apparently harder to pull off than it sounds.

Summerlong: B-
Eleanor & Park: A-

Pants on Fire

Making modern romantic comedy is tricky. The formula that worked so well in the '80s and '90s is now officially stale, and audiences are looking for different ways to engage with stories about the arc of a relationship. I'm a guy that always enjoys a well-executed gimmick, so when Scrotal Recall (ugh, that title) came along and played with the convention by leaping around chronologically and viewing its characters through the lens of the past girlfriends/hookups that Dylan may have given chlamydia to, I was delighted.

The delight continues, not only because Netflix has released another season, and not only because the producers have taken the original story idea and have begun building on it in really interesting ways, but because they changed the damned title. The show is now called Lovesick, which is exponentially better. In its sophomore season, Lovesick eases up on the past girlfriend model a bit, and begins to concentrate more on Dylan, Evie, and Luke in the present. Things have gotten complicated. Evie is about to get married, but lingering feelings for Dylan have her doubting her every move, while he attempts to ignore his reciprocal feelings to focus on his burgeoning relationship with Abigail, who's just terrific. (I really like Abigail, you guys.) Clearly, this is all going to blow up at some point, and the writers are doing a good job so far of keeping things tense without stretching them out to an annoying degree.

Meanwhile, Luke has been questioning his sluttish ways since the Phoebe episode, and a flashback to his relationship with Jo gives us context for why he is the way he is, and how he's changing over time. Even Angus gets some time in the spotlight, as he cheerfully follows his id wherever it leads him. The second season also brings back some familiar faces from the past, for both good and ill. It's always nice to see Jane ruining everything.

The Dylan/Evie roller coaster isn't my favorite aspect of the show, and since the second season focuses on it quite a bit, this second season doesn't quite stack up to the first one in my mind. That said, this is possibly the most ignored, underrated show on the air right now, and I desperately hope that they make a third season.

Lovesick - Season 2: A-

Living the Dream, Living the Nightmare

The beginning of a new year is often a flurry of frenzied activity. Time to make those appointments you never got around to last year. Time to assign yourself some tasks for the year ahead. Time to catch up on all those things you swore you'd get to. That applies to the entertainment world as well; a new year is often accompanied by a burst of well-meaning attempts to whittle down the Netflix queue or see some likely Oscar contenders.

2017 is no exception. The year has hardly begun, and I've already knocked out a couple of movies. They couldn't be more different from one another. One is 2016's La La Land, a rainbow of bright colors and music that follows a young couple trying to make it in the highly-competitive Los Angeles entertainment industry. The other was 2014's It Follows, a dull-colored horror, set in the crumbling suburbs of Detroit. And despite their differences in production design and tone, they both were rousing successes.

La La Land seemed at first to be tailor-made to my tastes. It's set in the present, but its aesthetic is very Old Hollywood. Struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) keeps running into disaffected jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and as their fledgling relationship grows, they are faced with some difficult decisions about just how much they're willing to sacrifice for their dreams of success. If that sounds like a weighty story, it has one hell of a leavening agent, in that it's also a musical, complete with large-scale song and dance numbers. This movie has been landing on a lot of best-of lists, but if I had to single someone out to recognize, it would be the production designer. This is one of the most beautiful movies I've seen in a long time, and actually does the trick of making Los Angeles seem like a magical land of dreams.

Stone and Gosling are both excellent in their roles, and I enjoyed the music as well. But for a movie that practically shows up on my doorstep with an engraved invitation, something was missing. Or rather, something was added; a pair of gigantic Deus Ex Successicas. The movie goes to a great deal of trouble to depict the hardships and obstacles Mia and Sebastian must overcome in order to further their careers, but just winds up waving a magic wand over them. However, the film does do something very interesting with the ending that I'm still chewing over in my mind, and made me appreciate it a lot more. Though it didn't quite meet the expectations I had built up for it, La La Land is still a pretty great movie, and definitely worth your time. Once Oscar season is behind us, I'll likely watch it again to see what I can pick up on a second viewing.

I will not be gracing It Follows with a second viewing, but that's nothing against the movie. I am emphatically not a fan of the horror genre, so filmmakers have to do something pretty interesting story-wise to pull me in, while simultaneously not driving me away with large amounts of gore. It's a fine line to walk, and it's no wonder that it's really difficult to find movies that fit the bill. When It Follows got some pretty rapturous reviews, and continually stayed on my radar, I had some friends do a gore check for me. It turns out that I only had to turn my ahead away for a couple of brief moments. The rest of the movie is psychological horror, rather than a slasher.

The movie centers on Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty young college student who lives a pretty standard life in the Michigan suburbs. After a couple of dates with a guy, she has a sexual fling with him that winds up having severe consequences. He temporarily kidnaps her, but not to hurt her. He just wants to explain that he's passed on a demon of sorts. This entity will follow and kill its victims, but will move on to the next person if the intended target has sex with someone. If it kills someone, it will revert back to the last person in the chain. It can appear in any human form, and always approaches in a silent, steady walk. So yeah, it's basically an STD in the form of a supernatural killer. Sounds so weird, right?

It's actually a really deep and thoughtful movie. Jay has to deal not only with the assault and betrayal of someone she thought she really liked, but now has to contend with an unkillable, invisible-to-others stalker. Should she constantly go on the run? Can she trust anything she sees? Can she morally justify passing it on in order to secure some sort of safety? What does all this mean in regards to the the movie's position on hookup culture? Watching Jay try to work through these issues while evading her pursuer was really fascinating. If more horror movies were like It Follows, the genre would have a new devotee.

La La Land: B+
It Follows: B+

Boob Tube

It's a new year, and so it's time to update that weird and wonderful list of television shows that I've watched over the years. The rules remain the same: To the best of my recollection, here are all the shows I've seen at least five episodes of, and derived some enjoyment out of (even if said enjoyment was hate-watching, or if watching was just a flimsy excuse to gather with friends and suck down a bottle of wine). There are still no game shows (except one), nor talk shows, nor non-competitive reality (your House Hunters and such) listed. Just good ol' fashioned scripted shows, documentaries, and competitive reality shows. Enjoy!

3-2-1 Contact
30 Rock
A to Z
Absolutely Fabulous
Adventure Time
Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius, The
Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, The
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
All in the Family
Alvin and the Chipmunks
Amazing Race, The
America's Next Top Model
American Crime Story (The People v. OJ Simpson)
American Horror Story (Coven)
Angie Tribeca
Apprentice, The
Around the World in 80 Plates
Arrested Development
Battlestar Galactica (2004)
Beakman's World
Being Human (US)
Beverly Hills, 90210
Big Bang Theory, The
Big Love
Bill Nye, the Science Guy
Black Books
Black Mirror
Bleak House
Bob's Burgers
BoJack Horseman
Book Club, The
Brain Games
Breaking Bad
Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Burning Love
Call the Midwife
Celebrity Deathmatch
Charles in Charge
Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers
Clarissa Explains It All
Clone High
Comeback, The
Cosby Show, The
Cosmos (2014)
Cougar Town
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Creature Comforts (US)
Critic, The
Dead Like Me
Dead Zone, The
Dennis the Menace
Designing Women
Desperate Housewives
Dexter's Laboratory
Diff'rent Strokes
Dirty Jobs
Dirty Sexy Money
Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23
Doogie Howser, M.D.
Downton Abbey
Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist
Drawn Together
Drew Carey Show, The
Drunk History
Electric Company, The
Facts of Life, The
Family Guy
Family Ties
Flintstones, The
Food Wars
Fraggle Rock
Freaks and Geeks
Fresh Off the Boat
Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The
Full House
Gimme A Break
Girls on Top
Good Place, The
Good Wife, The
Golden Girls, The
Grace and Frankie
Gravity Falls
Great American Baking Show, The
Great British Baking Show, The
Great Food Truck Race, The
Grey's Anatomy
Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, The
Grinder, The
Growing Pains
Happy Endings
Harper's Island
Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law
Head of the Class
Hell's Kitchen
Herman's Head
Home Movies
Hot in Cleveland
House of Cards (US)
How I Met Your Mother
How the States Got Their Shapes
Hunter X Hunter
I, Claudius
IT Crowd, The
Inside Amy Schumer
Inspector Gadget
Iron Chef
Iron Chef America
Jane the Virgin
Jeeves and Wooster
Jeffersons, The
Jessica Jones
Jetsons, The
Joe Millionaire
Keeping Up Appearances
Kids in the Hall, The
Kim Possible
King of Queens, The
Kitchen Confidential
LA Law
Lady Dynamite
Lambchop's Play Along
Last Man on Earth, The
Law and Order
League, The
Letter People, The
Living Single
Mad Men
Magic School Bus, The
Making a Murderer
Mama's Family
Man Seeking Woman
Manhunt: The Search for America's Most Gorgeous Male Model
Marry Me
Master of None
Melrose Place
Mind of a Chef, The
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
Miss Guided
Mission Hill
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
Models, Inc.
Monkees, The
Most Extreme Elimination Challenge
Mother Love
Mr. Wizard
Muppet Babies
Murder, She Wrote
Murphy Brown
My Boys
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Nanny, The
New Adventures of Old Christine, The
New Girl
Next Iron Chef, The
Night Court
Oblongs, The
Office, The (US)
Once Upon a Time
Orange is the New Black
Parks and Recreation
Party Down
Pee-Wee's Playhouse
Peep Show
Penn & Teller: Bullshit!
Planet Earth
Powerpuff Girls, The
Private Life of a Masterpiece, The
Project Runway
Project Runway Canada
Punky Brewster
Pushing Daisies
Quantum Leap
Queer As Folk (US)
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Quest, The
Raising Hope
Reading Rainbow
Regular Show
Rick and Steve
Robot Chicken
Rosemary & Thyme
Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In
RuPaul's Drag Race
Saturday Night Live
Saved by the Bell
Schoolhouse Rock
Science Court
Scrotal Recall
Sealab 2021
Sesame Street
Sex and the City
Shear Genius
Silicon Valley
Silver Spoons
Simpsons, The
Sister Wendy
Six Feet Under
Smurfs, The
Sopranos, The
South Park
Space Ghost, Coast to Coast
Square One TV
Stephen Fry in America
Steven Universe
Stranger Things
Strangers With Candy
Tales of the City
Tales from the Crypt
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
That 70s Show
That's So Raven
Three's Company
Tiny Toon Adventures
Today's Special
Tom and Jerry
Top Chef
Trading Spaces
Trophy Wife
True Detective
Twilight Zone, The
Twin Peaks
Two Fat Ladies
Ugly Betty
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Up Series, The
Venture Brothers, The
Veronica Mars
Voltron (2016)
Welcome to Sweden
West Wing, The
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? (cartoon)
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (game show)
White Collar
Who's The Boss?
Will and Grace
Wire, The
Women's Murder Club
Wonder Years, The
Xena: Warrior Princess
You Can't Do That On Television

The State of the Art: Movies 2016

It seems that books aren't the only area of life that I just couldn't whip up the time or energy to devote myself to in 2016. As life gets more hectic and television continues its streak of being awesome, I just don't watch as many movies as I used to. Here's where I'd usually make some grand resolution for the upcoming year about how I'm going to watch a ton of movies that encompass all sorts of interesting genres, but I just can't make the promise this year. Hopefully, I'll see a bunch of movies. Hopefully, they'll be good.

The decline was steep. Last year, I saw 41 movies. This year? I saw 30. If there's one metric where I improved, it's in seeing new releases. 16 of the 30 were released in 2016, so I've gone up a full 10% in keeping abreast of the current cinema climate. I don't know what that says about my movie-going habits (if anything), but apparently, even though I didn't watch a lot, when I did see something, I was happily persuaded into going to the theater.

As always, a note about grading: Grades tend to be awarded not only on how much I liked something, but on how well it accomplished the goal it set for itself. So, if a movie aspires to nothing more than being a goofy comedy and makes me laugh my ass off, it'll rank higher than a character drama that had an annoying protagonist, no matter how prestigious the cast list is.

#1: Pee-Wee's Big Holiday

What I Said: Pee-Wee sets off on a road trip, and encounters all kinds of odd sorts, from a farmer with nine love-starved daughters to a trio of leonine bank robbers who can't help but be charmed by him to an aviatrix who's better at small talk than at staying aloft. I couldn't stop giggling throughout this whole movie. Paul Reubens' sense of childlike humor is still a delight, and every actor in this movie is totally game to share in the silliness.

#2: Moana

What I Said: Disney animation has been on a hot streak lately, and Moana is no exception. There's a lot to love about this movie. The animation is top-notch, which is all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it can be to achieve appealing water effects. The story is extremely respectful to the culture it's depicting. Moana is not only the protagonist, but the full-on heroine of the story, and though she depends on her friends, she is no helpless girl needing rescuing every five minutes. And then there's the music, which I've been full-on, openly singing out loud for a week now.

#3: Captain America: Civil War

What I Said: Really, the best thing that can be said about it is that it takes an incredibly complex moral situation and makes a good case for both sides. I found myself siding more with Iron Man, while the friend I saw the movie with opted for Captain America's side, but both points of view are completely understandable. And what's more important, both points of view are flawed as well.

#4: Kubo and the Two Strings

What I Said: It's a terrific story, at times hauntingly sad, but always visually stunning. If there's one complaint to be made, it's that most of the Asian characters are voiced by white actors, which seems unnecessary at best, but in all but one case, it doesn't distract from the performances, which are excellent.

#5: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

What I Said: For the most part, it fits really well into the Star Wars timeline. Jyn doesn't trust the Alliance any more than she trusts the Empire, and those shades of ever-darkening moral gray in the supposed "good guys" was a bit distracting while I was watching it, but makes more sense the more I think about it. The battle scenes are well-designed and well-edited; though there are several different factions fighting it out, I was never confused about what was going on.

Wow. It sure isn't difficult to see what kind of mood I've been in this year; I desperately needed some light distraction. 2016 put too much on my mind for me to be able to watch weighty dramas the way I usually can. Hopefully, 2017 will be such a fantastic year that I can go back to enjoying a depressing movie from time to time! Hooray! For now, let's look at the full ranking of 2016 movies I was able to catch this year:

2016 Movies

Pee-Wee's Big Holiday (A)
Moana (A-)
Captain America: Civil War (A-)
Kubo and the Two Strings (A-)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (B+)
Arrival (B+)
Bad Moms (B+)
Hail, Caesar! (B)
Finding Dory (B)
Zootopia (B)
Allied (B)
Ghostbusters (B)
X-Men: Apocalypse (B)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (B-)
Sausage Party (C+)
Jason Bourne (C-)

So, either the gloom of the year is affecting my grading scale, or my quality filter is a bit off. Last year, 55.5% of the movies scored a B+ or higher. This year, it's 43.8%. That's quite a dip, although I do note that there are more in the A-range this year. Let's just chalk the anomaly up to 2016 Sucks In General. But how did the 2016 movies fit into the entire list? Only one way to find out!

Pee-wee's Big Holiday (A)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) (A-)
Moana (A-)
Captain America: Civil War (A-)
World of Tomorrow (2015) (A-)
Kubo and the Two Strings (A-)

Spotlight (2015) (B+)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (B+)
Arrival (B+)
Force Majeure (2014) (B+)
Anomalisa (2015) (B+)
Bad Moms (B+)

Hail, Caesar! (B)
The Peanuts Movie (2015) (B)
Finding Dory (B)
Zootopia (B)
Allied (B)
Ghostbusters (B)
X-Men: Apocalypse (B)
Do I Sound Gay? (2014) (B)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (B-)
The Last Five Years (2014) (B-)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) (B-)
The Overnight (2015) (B-)
The Heat (2013) (B-)
Mud (2012) (B-)

Whiplash (2014) (C+)
Sausage Party (C+)
The D Train (2015) (C)
Jason Bourne (C-)

The State of the Art: Television 2016

I think it's official now. Television has overtaken movies. Back in the day, movie stars wouldn't be caught dead appearing on TV, which they considered "the enemy". Then, when it was clear television was here to stay, film actors started to deign to appear on the small screen, but there was never any worry that cinema's little brother would ever catch up in terms of quality or prestige. And yet, here we are. Though there are plenty of good movies out there, TV is just exponentially better right now. I don't know how long this trend will last, but for now, it seems clear that if you want top-notch entertainment, you don't even have to get off your couch.

All that said, I have limited time and access to the wealth of variety TV is offering right now, so as always, my top five will look nothing like the critics'. There are certain channels I don't get, and there just aren't enough hours in the day to watch everything I'd like to be. These are the kinds of problems you want to have, though. There was still plenty to delight me over the course of 2016. So why don't we get to the best of the best?

#1: Black Mirror - Season 3

One way I can tell if a show belongs at the top of my list is that I can't stop talking about it with other people. As gloomy and pessimistic as Black Mirror tends to be, I couldn't stop myself from enthusing about Season 3 to anyone who would listen. While all six of the episodes are good, four of them are straight-up excellent, and one of them has the distinction of having absolutely no competition for my single favorite episode of television this year. When people usually talk about horror, what they're referring to are slashers. A group of dumb, horny teens goes to a remote cabin and gets butchered by an axe-wielding maniac. When I talk about horror, I mean watching what we're capable of when the baser aspects of human nature have access to advanced technology. Black Mirror paints a terrifying portrait of where society could be headed if restrictions on our impulses were lifted by convenient techno-gadgets, and what makes it so thrillingly scary is how realistic it is. Even amongst the dire warnings and chilling scenarios, Season 3 found some time for levity, for hope, and dare I say it, for a single happy ending.

#2: American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson

Another way to determine the great shows of the year is by noticing something that shouldn't work at all, yet manages to overcome all obstacles and actually be terrific. There was so much stacked against a miniseries dramatization of OJ Simpson's arrest and trial. There's an inherent danger in it just coming off as tabloid trash, like a pretentious Lifetime original movie. It was helmed by Ryan Murphy, who may be great at starting projects, but has a poor track record when it comes to sticking the landing. People could've had little interest in revisiting the topic; though it fascinated the world at the time, was this story really worth ten episodes? But when I actually sat down to watch this, I shut my fat mouth in a hurry, because it was enthralling. All of those Emmy wins were well-deserved.

#3: The Great British Baking Show - Season 3

What else makes a television show worthy of making the top five? Much like baking, you need consistent quality. Once the novelty of something wears off, it is still entertaining? The Great British Baking Show answers that with a jolly wink and probably an awful food pun or five. Everything I originally loved about this show is still on-point. Terrific bakers, terrific challenges, terrific hosting, terrific judging, terrific food photography... You name it. Unfortunately, nothing this wonderful ever lasts long enough, and once Season 3 had aired, all sorts of news about the impending massive cast upheavals started rolling out. So before too long, we'll likely have to say good-bye to this gem of a show that filled me with happiness and warmth, provided an opportunity to have guests over to enthuse over the people and the bakes with me, and even got me into the kitchen to try some experimental recipes.

#4: Lady Dynamite - Season 1

Consistency is great, but there are also shows that come out of nowhere, and are completely unlike anything else on the air. It took me a few episodes to fully embrace Maria Bamford's absurdist, semi-autobiographical show about clawing her way back to a life in entertainment after a mental breakdown. Haha! What a laugh riot! Thing is, it was! Before a few modern shows came along (see below), most comedy/sitcom characters always had such easily-solvable problems. Whether it was a misunderstanding at work or accidentally giving your date food she's allergic to, there was nothing that couldn't be dealt with in a half hour. These days, though, comedy is stretching its muscles to talk about issues that aren't so tidy. It must be incredibly difficult to walk that fine line between being funny and having something real to say about bipolar disorder, and this show pulled it off perfectly.

#5: BoJack Horseman - Season 3

Though Bamford's story is factual, fictional depression can also amazingly be adapted into comedy, if you're smart enough to do it well. And BoJack Horseman does it very, very well. Like The Great British Baking Show, this is not the show's first appearance on the end-of-year favorites list. Unlike GBBS, though, which maintained its superiority by sticking with a formula that works, BoJack Horseman expanded its universe even further than last season. There are scenes that made me laugh out loud, and scenes that made me cry. There's an underwater episode that's almost entirely wordless, which was a close second to Black Mirror's "San Junipero" in Favorite Episode of the Year. The other four shows on my favorites list almost sell themselves, but this one is weird enough that it tends to drive some people away. Don't be frightened. Jump in!

Honorable Mentions

They may not have made the top five, and some of them aren't terribly current, but I can't ignore the other shows I saw this year that got at least an A- on the grading scale. These are all definitely worth your time, so settle into your couch and treat yourself to some quality entertainment.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - Season 1: A really fantastic show with really fantastic music, but even I can't justify having three shows about mental illness on my top five. That, and the CW makes this show impossible to conveniently stream, so I tend to catch up a long time after it airs. Still, I often can't keep myself from singing those (often-inappropriate) ditties to myself out loud.

Man Seeking Woman - Season 1: Ineligible, since it aired in 2015. This is another one that doesn't stream until well after it airs, so it'll constantly be playing catch-up. The magical realism technique for cracking wise about the maddening complications of the dating world works incredibly well in this show, and its absurdities are zany without ever becoming obnoxious.

Making a Murderer - Season 1: Ineligible, since it aired in 2015 (and probably wouldn't have quite cracked the top of the list, anyway). It's tough for documentary television to grab my attention, since I usually use television as an escape from the grim realities of life, not to delve even deeper into them. But the story of Steven Avery's trial and conviction are so compelling that I couldn't tear myself away. As agitprop decrying the corruption of the judicial system, it may have been a little one-sided, but I can't argue with the production value one bit. I'm not a true crime fanatic, but am firmly on board for more episodes of this.

Superstore - Season 1: Hey, did you know NBC is capable of making good sitcoms again? I know, I was shocked, too! After a few place-setting episodes, this one snapped into a really terrific ensemble comedy. It's very jokey, but still finds sly ways to comment on the culture of big box stores, whether it's their anti-union policies or the token nods to minority employees. The interstitial shots of customers being all customer-y, and the fact that it's set in my hometown doesn't hurt, either. It may not be the most groundbreaking show on television, but it makes me laugh, and that's all I want out of it.

The State of the Art: Books 2016

They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but then that must mean the opposite is true, too. Once a year turns shitty in one area, it's bound to affect other areas as well. I don't know if I can truly connect them, but here are two facts for you: 1) 2016 has been one of my worst years ever. 2) Since I've been list-making, I've read the least amount of books in 2016, and the great majority of ones I did read do not begin to stack up in quality to the ones in previous years.

You'd think I'd be more focused on the problems in my own life and in greater society in general, but right now, all I can do is mourn over this weak, pathetic little list of books. It honestly makes me cringe a bit in embarrassment. I guess the only thing to be done is to buckle down, and hope against hope that I'll have a better reading year in 2017.

That said, there were a few gems in the pile of rocks. As usual, once I start looking back at the year, a theme emerges that I didn't notice while I was in the midst of it. 2013: Year of the Short Story. 2014: Year of the Parallel Universe. 2015: Year of the Family Drama. All three of those themes show up this year, too, but in looking at my list, it appears that 2016 is officially the Year of the Protagonist in Peril.

A time-traveling woman must survive a slave plantation. A band of traveling artists must survive a post-pandemic world of dangers. A young boy must survive a crumbling house built on a pile of shifting garbage. A rural gay teen must survive a high school full of homophobes. And then there were the actual women who...didn't survive Puritan Massachusetts. Everywhere I look on this list, mortal danger looms. There's probably a lesson in that, somewhere. Enough bad news, though. Let's get to the top five that did their best to save 2016.

#1: Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

What I Said: It's only February, but I can already tell that this is likely to land on my top five at the end of the year...[Dana] must survive, but she doesn't want to be completely servile. She wants the union between Rufus and a slave girl to eventually happen, but is unhappy with his attitude towards the slaves under his family's watch. It's a really fantastic book, and a much-needed reminder that the horrors of slavery can't just be summed up in a dry recitation of facts in a high school history textbook.

#2: Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli

What I Said: This is easily the best of the books I've read lately. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different gender. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different sexual orientation. It's incredibly difficult to write a believable teenaged character (especially one who isn't an annoying ass). And yet, somehow Becky Albertalli has pulled off the trifecta.

#3: Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

What I Said: Station Eleven got a lot of attention when it was published, and I was immediately intrigued by its plot. At first glance, it's another of the many books to tackle an outbreak that wipes out most of the world's population. But this book sets itself apart in many ways, not least of which because it doesn't really focus on the collapse of society at all, but in the times just before and just after. Its characters are complex and relatable, and I found myself truly invested in how they would navigate a world that's totally alien to the one they were born into.

#4: The Clasp - Sloane Crosley

What I Said: This book combines the fun of an adventure story with Crosley's perfectly acerbic brand of humor, and was a really enjoyable read.

#5: Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell

What I Said: As someone who enjoyed Mad Men, how could I resist a book set in the publishing world of 1950s New York? It wasn't the most remarkable book I've ever read, but it's a solid, entertaining read. It also really captures the mood of the era, which is a tough feat to accomplish.

Hey, my top five is all female authors! Nice! Assuming that I'm able to pick up the reading pace in 2017, I'd like to continue my ongoing resolution to read more books by women and minority authors. In the meantime, let's look at the full year's ranking, with books published in 2016 underlined:

Kindred - Octavia E. Butler (1979) (A)
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli (2015) (A)
Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel (2014) (A-)

The Clasp - Sloane Crosley (2015) (B+)
Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell (B)
Why Not Me? - Mindy Kaling (2015) (B)
The Witches - Salem, 1692 - Stacy Schiff (2015) (B)
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have Kids - Edited by Meghan Daum (2015) (B)
The Hand That Feeds You - A.J. Rich (2015) (B)

Sorceror to the Crown - Zen Cho (2015) (B-)
The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks - Toni Tipton-Martin (2015) (B-)
The Unfortunates - Sophie McManus (2015) (B-)
Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here - Anna Breslaw (B-)
The Doll Maker - Richard Montanari (2014) (B-)

Cub - Jeff Mann (2014) (C+)
The Miniature Wife and Other Stories - Manuel Gonzales (2013) (C+)
Heap House (Iremonger #1) - Edward Carey (2013) (C)
The Eighth Day - Dianne K. Salerni (2014) (C)
Swamplandia! - Karen Russell (2011) (C-)

And finally, a few books that get no grade at all. These have the dubious distinction of joining the handful of books that I couldn't even get through. Sometimes, it's my fault; I'm just not in the right mood to work with what a perfectly-decent book is trying to convey. Not always, though.

Notorious RBG - Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik: I adore Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but I need to go find an actual biography of her. This is a cute little coffee table book from 2015, but doesn't really explore anything beyond her highlight reel.

Louisa Meets Bear - Lisa Gornick: A 2015 book of short stories, each of which featured a different protagonist, though they're all linked in some way. I just couldn't connect with any of the characters, and gave up halfway through.

Earthly Possessions - Anne Tyler: A 1977 novel that was so boring that I literally fell asleep every time I tried to read it.

Thank goodness we can now tie a bow on this reading year and put it on the shelf. Hopefully, 2017 will give me enough of a break to relax and enjoy some terrific books. There's plenty of talent out there; I just need to catch my breath and find it.

Rebel Yell

It's about time to compile the rankings of this year's movies, but it's also a busy time of year for movie-going itself. Despite being swamped with the demands of the holiday season, I somehow managed to go out and snag two more movies for the 2016 list, both of which are about rebellion for a greater cause. The first was the newest animated film from Disney, Moana. Pro-tip: If you're battling the winter chill, go see this movie right away; its depictions of warm, sunny beaches will have you feeling like it's July. At first blush, Moana would seem to be the newest in a long line of Princess Movies. A young girl (Auli'i Cravalho) who will someday be chieftain of her Polynesian island feels the pull of seafaring adventure, but her parents aren't having it. When the island starts to lose its natural resources to an impending curse, Moana sets out anyway (with an animal sidekick in tow, natch) to persuade the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore the islands' natural order.

Disney animation has been on a hot streak lately, and Moana is no exception. There's a lot to love about this movie. The animation is top-notch, which is all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it can be to achieve appealing water effects. The story is extremely respectful to the culture it's depicting. Moana is not only the protagonist, but the full-on heroine of the story, and though she depends on her friends, she is no helpless girl needing rescuing every five minutes. And then there's the music, which I've been full-on, openly singing out loud for a week now. There are a couple of clunky lines, and as with the trolls in Frozen, there's an unnecessary side character with a forgettable mid-movie song, but other than that, Moana is a terrific entry in the franchise.

The short ahead of it, Inner Workings, is fun and clever as well. It's not as sweeping and grand as Paperman was, but a cute running joke about the struggle between what our brains and hearts want for us.

Up next was the first stand-alone Star Wars movie, Rogue One. I went ahead and splurged on an IMAX 3D screening for this one, which turned out to be a good decision. Like the other Star Wars movies, there are expansive scenes, not only in the usual space battles, but on the surfaces of various planets, all of which had wildly varying design. Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance transitions from trying to achieve their goals through political maneuvering to straight up military incursions. This movie takes place right before the events of 1977's Star Wars. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a young woman whose father is a reluctant Imperial scientist in charge of designing the Death Star. He has second thoughts, but rather than openly resisting, which would only lead to his death and slightly stall their plans, he subtly sabotages their efforts by building a flaw into the blueprints (so there's that old plot hole explained away). When Jyn learns of these plans, she and a band of Alliance members who are tired of sitting on their hands team up to steal the plans from the Empire so they can learn how this flaw can be exploited.

For the most part, it fits really well into the Star Wars timeline. Jyn doesn't trust the Alliance any more than she trusts the Empire, and those shades of ever-darkening moral gray in the supposed "good guys" was a bit distracting while I was watching it, but makes more sense the more I think about it. The battle scenes are well-designed and well-edited; though there are several different factions fighting it out, I was never confused about what was going on. That said, there are definite flaws. The late-stage edits are pretty evident. In particular, Forest Whitaker was clearly supposed to have a different arc than what's shown. The use of CGI Peter Cushing was an unwise choice. Overall, though, if all Rogue One set out to do was be a ripping adventure, it very much succeeds.

Moana: A-
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: B+
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