Here are some top-5 lists from the year, based entirely on Scott’s humble and entirely malleable opinion. May this either reinforce the things you already thought were great, introduce you to something you hadn’t consumed, or start a fierce but fun argument.
I feel like my top TV show list is arguably the more of a “what-did-I-actually-watch” list, but I stand behind these 5 shows as things I’d talk about with you over a drink.
Let’s get this out of the way first: yes, the plot is more interesting than the characters. Yes, it’s hard to care deeply about the motivations of characters when we’re unsure whether those motivations are their own. Yes, the plot twists were all hinted at well enough that the Internet guessed all of them. OK, all that aside, Westworld has a really interesting concept that especially appeals to those of us in game design, and manages to deliver a story in a non-linear fashion that feels both compelling and a bit puzzle-y.
In some social ways, it felt very much like Lost. In a direct show-to-show comparison, that similarity starts to peel away. Still, the show rewarded close watching, collaborative theory-spinning, and had an air of sci-fi mystery about it. I’m not sure it’ll stand the test of time – will I rave about Westworld the same way I rave about Lost a decade after it airs? Unlikely – but I had a blast watching the first season.
4. The Good Place
The Good Place has all the pedigree of a great comedy, and yet I somehow went into it not expecting much. I’m happy to admit that I was wrong. The Good Place manages to roll along at a frenetic sitcom pace that mirrors Parks & Rec, handily propped up by the comic chops of the ensemble cast, yet somehow manages to deftly dive into heavier topics without being dragged down. There are real ethical questions here: how do determine what good and evil are? Do we deserve to be rewarded for our good deeds? Do our feelings for a dog really exist if an identical dog can be created when the first dog is punted into the sun? Within every joke is something deeper.
The show also doesn’t shy away from actually moving the plot forward in a large steps that feels refreshing to the sitcom formula, despite my very real belief that the cross-episode plot progression could have been lazier and essentially gotten away with it. Also, Kristen Bell. What a marshmallow.
3. Fresh Off the Boat
I have a love/hate relationship with buzzwords, regardless of what industry they crop up in, but one buzzword that I fully embraced in 2016 is representation. I honestly believe that, at least in the media we consume day after day, having people that look like me in more roles helps drive empathy and identification. Fresh Off the Boat is a show full of Asian-Americans telling Asian-American stories. It is smartly written and while it uses some Asian Parent/Child tropes for humor, it pays them off by having them be a real part of the characters.
Of the current slew of shows out there, it also continues to feel extremely personal. There are moments that feel like they’re ripped from my childhood or my internal monologue as a father.
Man, I watched this show so early in 2016 that I can’t remember much other than I really liked it. The characters feel sarcastic without coming off as either totally unlikable or scripted, and it deals with relationships, pregnancy, and parenthood in a way that feels both endearing and exhausting. Which it is. That’s what it actually feels like.
1. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
When I dream about the kinds of TV shows that I wish existed, I’m fairly certain that I’m imagining a slightly worse version of the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It somehow manages to be hilarious, musical, and emotional. It is perhaps the only television show for which I have purchased a soundtrack. It is certainly the only show that caused me to divert a family road trip from San Diego such that we could visit the southern California town in which it is set.
It tackles subjects like bisexuality, self-loathing, close friendship, and various social situations sideways. Through music and humor and a juxtaposition of bouncy beats and really biting lyrics, it manages to simultaneously say something meaningful and elicit a laugh. The show isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. I like it. I like it a lot.
I always feel like I have more podcasts than I have time to listen to, but that does help me give a bar to judge my podcasts against. The top 5 below are typically either podcasts that I discovered this year and decided to make room for in my rotation or that had a “season” that I felt was strong enough to warrant appointment listening.
5. You Must Remember This
This podcast bills itself as being about The Secret and/or Forgotten History of Hollywood’s First Century. You are either now supremely uninterested, have had your interest piqued, or are already listening. If you’re not in the first camp, I find it hard to dislike the podcast. Each season takes a larger topic/personality (e.g. the Hollywood Blacklist, Joan Crawford), with episodes expertly researched and paced to examine an important part of the story. As the season progresses, individual episodes come together like puzzle pieces to form a larger tapestry.
Host Karina Longworth has a great voice and delivery, making each episode feel like a friend who is a gifted storyteller is walking you through Hollywood history. It’s warm and surprising and the perfect podcast to listen to in front of a fire with a hot beverage of your choice. Not that that’s how I ever listen to podcasts, but I’m just saying you could. You could be better than me.
4. Dear Prudence
With the discontinuation of new content on The Toast, one of the written voices that I knew I’d miss was that of Mallory Ortberg, so having her give advice via this Slate Podcast was a nice consolation. She somehow finds a way to bounce effortlessly between seemingly mundane and extremely high stakes life moments, applying her very human approach to it all. I don’t tend to read or consume lots of advice columns, but the Dear Prudence podcast manages to weave advice into what ends up being an ongoing discussion about what it means to be human in a world with other humans.
I also don’t always agree with the advice given and some of the questions are hard to identify with, but Mallory’s discussion with her parade of guests about the question, the context, and possible solutions is always enlightening.
I was first drawn to Homecoming by the promise of having the voice of dreamboat actor Oscar Isaac providing his silky pipes. It’s more than that, though. Homecoming is a bit shorter than other podcasts (each episode clocks in at around 20-25 minutes) and is a scripted fictional story that’s doled out in a more TV-standard episodic format. It has a core of characters, a plot involving the military and the government, and a general sense of foreboding.
It feels polished and professional, and is clearly a big attempt at trying some kind of longform audio fiction storytelling using some famous actors to try and draw an audience. It feels a bit early in the grand arc of modern audio fiction, but it is certainly reaching for something that we can all see but is just a bit out of focus. The end of the first season clearly implies future plans for longer multi-season plotlines. How compelling can the podcast continue to be in the long run? I’m not sure, but I’m glad it exists and excited by what it’s trying to do.
Season 1 of Invisibilia contained some of the most surprising stories I had heard. They continually filled me with wonder and questions, and season 2 continued to deliver. Alix and Lulu added another co-host – powerhouse Hanna Rosin – and while the switching off of hosting duties threw me for a loop, the season delivered some really thought-provoking hours of audio. I still remember the blind/echolocation episode from season 1, but mainly as a really intriguing story about expectations.
This season had multiple episodes that made me look at the way I was living life and assumptions I had thought to be true and upend them, from how I thought about personality to empathy to problem-solving to clothing. In a world where some of the best public-radio-type podcasts do a great job at evoking an emotional response through a more established storytelling arc, Invisibilia is able to hit a bit harder because of its ability to surprise and delight.
1. In the Dark
What was the Serial of 2016? What was the podcast that I consumed so voraciously that others looked at me in concern? It was In the Dark. I started listening to In the Dark after it had already released a few episodes and I immediately plowed through all of them and waited not-so-patiently for more. It had echoes of Serial, of course, being a true crime podcast about an unsolved case from decades ago. Except…then, it wasn’t. Because a few weeks before their first episode released, the crime was solved. Someone confessed.
That’s what makes In the Dark so great. The podcast doesn’t need to sit in the space of doubt and mystery of a whodunit, which is both Serial’s greatest strength and weakness. Instead, In the Dark can explore the tendrils of the actual crime, looking at its victims, its perpetrator, and all associated law enforcement. It can zoom out and examine crime in the US. It can slice a cross-section out and examine child abduction over the years. It can put forth a thesis statement about law enforcement. That is perhaps the greatest trick by In the Dark – that halfway through, after drawing you in with compelling reporting about the crime, it can pivot and make a statement on the way we deal with crime as a country and as a people.
I feel like I managed to watch more movies in 2016, which made me realize that I really do enjoy film as a medium for storytelling. It makes me think back to the single film class I took in college or being in The Fool. It makes me want to watch even more in 2017. OK, here’s what I liked this year.
Certainly the most theatrical (as opposed to cinematic) of the movies on this list, Fences sits on the shoulders of its towering lead performances and the incredible writing of August Wilson. I read and saw a live performance of Fences in high school and it stuck with me.
It feels as urgent of a story today as it did three decades ago, and it manages to present a story at the intersection of marriage, parenting, racism, class, and disappointment that is explosive and heartbreaking. As a father myself, it’s hard not to invest in the emotional world of the character of Troy. He is a symbol of all the extreme hopes, dreams, and limitations of fatherhood. His family reflects his personality and decisions back at him in performances that are all achingly sincere. It is a story about the dangers of accepting the box the world has put you in and about the dangers of pretending that box may not exist. It is masterfully acted and even more masterfully written.
4. Manchester by the Sea
There are times when we make mistakes in our lives, and there are moments when we feel helpless facing the consequences of those mistakes. Manchester by the Sea takes that feeling – that sense of being lost in an ocean of our own making – and spins it out in a small Massachusetts town with such personality and humor and life that its tragic moments feel all the more impactful.
It metes out moments of such agony without flopping into melodrama, without ever bending to the classic arc of the story of a redeemed hero. No, the actors are never anything more than a single person making their way through life, and that makes their somewhat awkward communication about the big things in life that we don’t like to talk about – death, despair, love, longing – feel that much more relatable.
I saw Moana twice and while there’s lots that made me smile – the strength of the young female protagonist, the balance between fear and freedom in parenting, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice – there is a single moment in the film that had me tearing up both times. Moana enters a cave and finds some boats and beats on a drum.
The torches around her light up and she is filled with understanding. It is a clarifying moment of identity, where Moana suddenly understands herself, her people, her culture, her entire history. It is a moment that I long for dearly, but will never come, because it is peak movie magic. It is cinematic wish fulfillment told beautifully. It’s why we go see these damn things to begin with.
2. La La Land
Of all the movies in my top 5, I certainly have the most nits to pick with La La Land. And I’m not alone – there are plenty of articles online that do very smart dives into the race and gender roles and assumptions made by the script and casting. There’s something to be said about the marketing of nostalgia, especially in a year like 2016. That context is important, though I’ll be the first to admit that walking out of the theater after seeing La La Land filled me with feelings of extreme wonder and awe.
The movie is almost offensively charming, managing to somehow successfully both evoke the feel of classic Hollywood movie musicals while updating some of the tropes and aesthetics for a modern audience. There are multiple moments during the film when I felt my heart soar due to a sweeping camera and a musical swell. The original movie musical is rare these days, and La La Land’s intentional aim at classic Hollywood musicals is a promise that it may not be able to fully deliver – its modern love story script is a bit at odds with its visual language of the past – but it made me so happy.
If La La Land is the peacock of 2016 – brightly colored and preening its plumage – Moonlight is the unicorn. Watching this movie was like finding a creature that I had always assumed was simply mythical. The script, the acting, the editing – everything here is on point and delivered with such conviction that you can’t look away.
Moonlight manages to be both be the most vital movie to see in 2016 and a fantastically crafted piece of cinema. It finds a way in its lingering shots and quiet interludes to speak volumes. It intentionally subverts conventions by jamming the camera too close to faces or playing with the audio synchronization or keeping a still shot while the action moves on. All of this works in concert to pull the audience into the soul of the protagonist, Chiron, to present living and growing up as a gay man or a black man simply yet deeply. When Moonlight ended, I felt like I was letting out a breath that I had been holding onto for two hours.