These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things – 2016 Edition

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I didn’t think we’d make it, but 2016 is almost in the rearview mirror. This has been a weird year in a lot of ways, including the world of pop culture. While there were definitely things that I really loved this year, I feel like overall this was an off year for the entertainment industry in general and the film industry in particular. I didn’t go to the movies nearly as much this year as I have in the past, partially because the offerings were not that great. Of course, I’m just embarking on the end of the year movie binge when a lot of the best films are released, but overall there were a lot of clunkers. Television shined more brightly again this year, a trend that I hope continues. I went to fewer concerts in 2016, partially because of a reallocation of financial resources, but also because at this point I’ve seen almost everyone that I really want to see. I had an uptick in going to the theater in 2016 and I traveled more, perhaps a prolonged effect of having spent the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 cooped up at home with a broken ankle and its recovery.

So without further ado, here are my favorite pop culture items from 2016. As always, they come with the caveat that these aren’t necessarily the best selections for the year; even I can’t see/listen to/read everything, so my selections are limited to those things that I’ve actually experienced and enjoyed.

Television

Atlanta

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I wasn’t even going to do an end of the year roundup this year since I felt like this was an off year, but I felt compelled to do so simply to tell people how freaking great FX’s new series Atlanta was. This show, my friends, is the real deal and deserves all the accolades that critics have heaped upon it. The series is the brainchild of Donald Glover and while I certainly knew that he was talented thanks to his role on Community and his musical career as Childish Gambino, I had no idea that he was capable of a show like this. Atlanta is a breath of fresh air and perfectly balances being both thoughtful and absurd. The show follows Earn (Glover) as he attempts to help his cousin Alfred aka “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry) cash in on his minor success in the Atlanta rap world. This cast is so ridiculously talented that while Glover is probably the well-known cast member, the show is confident enough to focus entire episodes on the supporting characters, including Earn’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and Alfred’s wonderfully weird pal Darius (Keith Stanfield). This is one of the few series that deals with the realities of living paycheck to paycheck and I appreciate the diverse viewpoint; some of the ideas on Atlanta have been addressed on other shows, but Glover and company provide a new perspective. I was in on this show from the pilot, but what completely sold me was an early episode where in this universe Justin Bieber is a young black man. This is presented without overt comment or explanation and while it is silly, it is silly it is also thought provoking. I love, love, love this show and can’t wait until its second season.

 

O.J.: Made In America

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The biggest debate over this five part ESPN mini-series is whether this should be considered a television event or a movie. Otherwise it is generally accepted that this look at the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial and the context for its controversial verdict is riveting and exceptional. I wrote about it at length when it debuted, but if you haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, I strong recommend it. Really good stuff.

 

American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson

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Further proof that 2016 was an odd year is the fact that O.J. Simpson has something of a moment this year. Not only was his trial examined in depth in the mini-series O.J.: Made In America, but it was also the subject of Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series American Crime Story. The acting in American Crime Story is off the charts fantastic; there is a reason that they cleaned up at the Emmy Awards this year. Even though I lived through the O.J. Simpson trial, American Crime Story was must-see TV for me this year and is a wonderful companion to O.J.: Made in America. Sterling K. Brown and Sarah Paulson become Chris Darden and Marcia Clark, respectively.

 

Westworld

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 I will admit that I am not quite as enamored with this show as a lot of people that I know, but it makes the list because it was fun to have a watercooler show that let the viewer at home hypothesize on what was going to happen next. I hadn’t realized that I missed the fan theory aspect of shows like Lost until Westworld returned and while I definitely think that the show has some flaws (like focusing too much on the mysteries over character or plot development), it was nice to know that this was a show that was going to spark discussions. You can read more about my thoughts on the Westworld pilot here.

 

The Night Of

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HBO’s long gestating crime drama finally debuted in 2016 and it was instantly captivating. You couldn’t look away from the talented performances of John Turturro and Riz Ahmed and while there were some narrative missteps – especially related to the character of Chandra – I was excited to tune in every Sunday night at see how the story would unfold. I’m not sure that The Night Of totally broke through the cultural zeitgeist as I predicted, but it certainly made for some interesting viewing.

 

Horace and Pete

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Louis CK is always full of interesting surprises and his out-of-nowhere debut of Horace and Pete was no exception. Closer to a stage show than a TV series, Louis CK brought together a dream cast to tell the heartbreaking and hilarious story of Horace, Pete, and their family bar. This is so well done from beginning to end and it worth watching just for Laurie Metcalf’s mesmerizing performance in episode 3. She is a gift to us all. I wrote about the series previously here. The series is now available on Hulu, so you have no excuse for not watching.

 

Stranger Things

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Like the rest of the world, I was completely charmed by this wonderful Netflix series. It doesn’t hurt that it channels plenty of nostalgia for the movies of my childhood, but Stranger Things works even if you don’t have the same 80s point of reference. The casting director deserves some sort of medal for assembling such a stellar cast of young actors; it’s hard enough to get one good kid in a movie, let alone a whole bunch of them. I’m both excited and a little trepidatious for the second season; the first season was great but it was also an unknown quality. I’ll be interested to see how the series fares under the pressure of expectations. Read my thought about the series here.

Honorable mention to returning shows Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which all had great seasons.

Movies

The Nice Guys

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This was an unexpected treat; you don’t necessarily think that Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are going to be a great comedic team, but here we are. Not enough people saw this movie so sadly I don’t think it will get a sequel, but it was an enjoyable ride. Check out my full review here.

 

Captain America: Civil War

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I’m always a sucker for a Marvel movie and the Captain America films are among the best that Marvel has done. Civil War did a nice job of both giving loyal viewers payoff from watching all the previous films as well as a relatively seamless introduction of a bunch of new characters; I am now way more excited about the forthcoming Black Panther and Spider-Man reboot than I was previously. Read my full review here.

 

Deadpool

This is the movie that won me back over to liking Ryan Reynolds again. It’s nice to have a fun superhero movie again; I knew basically nothing about Deadpool prior to the movie, but this was a delightful and dirty trip. Finally a rated-R superhero film. It’s about time. This is probably the most fun that I had at the theater in 2016. My full review can be found here.

 

The Hateful Eight

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Yeah, technically this movie was released in 2015, but I reviewed in 2016 so I’m counting it. It’s always a good year when Quentin Tarantino has a new movie. Violent and challenging, The Hateful Eight is a welcome addition to the Tarantino canon. My full review can be found here.

 

La La Land

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Look for a full review next week

 

Music

Lemonade – Beyoncé

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This is easily my album of the year, not just because it is full of phenomenal songs and has a compelling visual component, but because no other album dominated the culture quite like Lemonade. In the weeks after its release, everyone was talking about Lemonade; I walked down the streets of NYC and every outdoor café I passed, people were analyzing the songs and debating who “Becky with the good hair” might actually be. In my mind, Beyoncé can do no wrong, but Lemonade may be her most triumphant work yet. Socially aware, raw, and damn catchy – Lemonade has it all.

This pretty much sums up 2016

This pretty much sums up 2016

 

Adele – Madison Square Garden

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I turned 40 this year, which sucked on many levels, not the least because while I spent the last three years celebrating other people’s 40th birthdays, no one planned much of anything for mine. But if one thing can soften the blow of not getting a party, it’s seeing Adele live and in concert. Seeing Adele wasn’t even on my bucket list because I didn’t even know if the opportunity to see her would ever arise. I dared not to dream that big. But thanks to my friend Kristin, it happened. And it totally lived up to expectations. It was a magical evening. She doesn’t plan to tour again any time soon, but if the chance to see Adele presents itself, you must take it. Read my post about the concert here.

 

Garth Brooks – DCU Center

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I’ve wanted to see Garth Brooks forever; despite being a casual country music fan at best, I’ve always like Garth Brooks’ songs and have long heard that he’s great in concert. I missed in him 2015, but managed to make it happen in 2016. He was great and the show was a lot of fun. No one can quite crank out the hits like Garth. Read my post about the concert here.

Odds and Ends

In the Dark podcast

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My true crime obsession showed no signs of letting up in 2016 and one of my better finds to scratch that particular itch was the podcast In the Dark. What I particularly liked about the case that was examined in the podcast was that it wasn’t unsolved; instead of focusing on trying who committed a crime or in exonerating a person who was wrongfully imprisoned, In the Dark could instead focus on the process and why it took so long for the case to finally be closed. What they uncover is disturbing and probably all too common – failure to follow basic police procedure and tunnel vision. Well researched and thoughtful, I looked forward to each weekly installment. Read my post about the podcast here.

 

Hamilton

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I was lucky enough to see Hamilton for a second time this year and it was just as good the second time around. Read my review here.

 

Museum of Ice Cream

I don’t know what people were more of jealous of me for this year – seeing Hamilton again, seeing Adele, or visiting the museum of ice cream. It was a fun day that didn’t totally live up to the hype, but swimming in a pool of sprinkles is easily a highlight of the year. Read about the trip here.

 

Biden Memes

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The 2016 election seemed to last forever and showed just how divided our country has become. But one of the best things to come out of the election was the proliferation of memes celebrating the friendship of Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama. Regardless of your political affiliation, these memes were funny. “Uncle Joe” has always been a source of comedic relief, but never have we needed that so badly as we did this year.

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Now it’s your turn – what were your favorite pop culture things in 2016? Share with the class in the comments section. Happy New Year!

Some Thoughts on O.J.: Made In America

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O.J. Simpson is having something of a resurgence in 2016, which is kind of odd for a guy that is currently incarcerated. Earlier this year FX aired The People vs. O.J. Simpson, a dramatization of the infamous 1995 trial where Simpson was accused of the murders of his estranged wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. Considering Ryan Murphy was involved with the series, I was convinced that it would go off the rails pretty quickly, but The People vs. O.J. Simpson wound up being pretty compelling television. The performances were great – special recognition for Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark), Sterling K. Brown (Christopher Darden) and Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran) – and they somehow managed to make me very invested in a story that I already knew a lot about. Despite my knowledge of the ultimate outcome, there was still tension and fascination as the story unfolded. In some ways, it was like a horror movie – if you yelled loudly enough at the screen for the prosecutors to not put Mark Furhman on the stand or not have O.J. try on the gloves, maybe they’d listen and things would turn out differently. Even David Schwimmer playing a Kardashian and whatever was happening with John Travolta’s eyebrows kind of worked. If you didn’t watch The People vs. O.J. Simpson, I’d recommend it.

But as good as the FX series was, the ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America is even better. It serves as a nice compliment, not competitor to, The People vs. O.J. Simpson; it goes much deeper and covers more ground. Even having lived through the O.J. trial and watching the limited series, I’m still learning new things about the case. The documentary is something of an investment – the sum of its five episodes clocks in at over 10 hours – but it is totally worth it. In fact, I look forward to each new installment, rather than viewing the series as homework of a chore. There was a lot of very positive buzz about the docuseries before it debuted and I have to say, cynical as I am, it totally lived up to the hype.

Because of the length of O.J.: Made in America, they are able to do a much deeper dive and cover many more topics than the FX show. The People vs. O.J. Simpson was focused on the trial and trial alone, but O.J.: Made in America can take the time to delve into O.J.’s childhood and his college and professional football career. Even though Simpson played for my team (the Buffalo Bills), my primary familiarity with him was exclusively from his acting work and then the double murder investigation. I knew that he was a football player, but I didn’t know how good he was really was; O.J.: Made in America filled in those blanks for me and also put his success in context. Perhaps even more than The People vs. O.J. Simpson, the ESPN documentary illustrates the complex issues or race, police brutality, celebrity and domestic abuse that were all critical components of the Simpson trial. For many of the jurors, the murder case was less about the guilt of O.J. Simpson and more a referendum on the racist practices of the LAPD. The documentary is able to go down many side streets in its narrative that aren’t about the Simpson case per se, but are critical factors to understanding the atmosphere surrounding the case. While I knew quite a bit about Rodney King and the riots that followed, I was unaware of the killings of Eula Love or Latasha Harlins and the outrage that sparked; if the King verdict was the tipping point, both of these incidents were important precursors to the anger that would manifest itself. The documentary spends the time to explain why people were ready to rally around O.J. – it wasn’t just his celebrity stature, but it was also about a deep suspicion of the LAPD and what they were capable of.

Perhaps most interesting to me has been the examination of O.J.’s belief that he transcended race and his relationship with the African American community prior to his arrest. There are a lot of interesting psychological factors at play here and gave some much needed context for O.J.’s famous utterance “I’m not black; I’m O.J.” Interviews with childhood friends also give some insight into his family as well as his friendship with AC Cowlings, who was utterly devoted to OJ despite OJ stealing away (and then marrying) AC’s girlfriend. These things aren’t necessarily critical to a discussion of the “trial of the century” but they help focus all the weirdness of the trail and look at the big picture of the societal and personal issues at play. The deep dive of the documentary also keeps it interesting; even if you think you know a lot about O.J. Simpson and the trial, there will still be surprising nuggets of information that are discovered. For me, so far the most interesting segments have been those that focus on the lead up to the murders and subsequent trial, perhaps because that is what I am most familiar with. The series isn’t always an easy watch – the crime scene photos from the murders are brutal and it can be hard to listen to Nicole’s frequent 911 calls. I’ve never really doubted that O.J. was responsible for these crimes, but the documentary sheds some light on why others would have been less likely to come to that conclusion.

I’ve been a fan of the 30 for 30 documentaries that ESPN has put out for a long time, but O.J.: Made in America is their crown jewel. It’s easily the best thing that they’ve done, which is impressive given people’s presumed familiarity with the case as well as its release after The People vs. O.J. Simpson. O.J.: Made in America could have felt like a retread of a story that we already know, but instead it wisely gets into the weeds and almost looks at the case through a sociological lens. It is amazing how many of the issues that were central to the Simpson trial are issues that are still major concerns today; on that level, the documentary taps into the current political climate. Ten hours is a lot to invest in any one product, but in this case I think that the ends justify the means. O.J.: Made in America is stellar.

Episodes are currently airing on ESPN; all five parts of the documentary are currently available for streaming.