I’ve been a bit burned out due some of the intensity of the drafts I’ve been working on so, since OPPENHEIMER was just released, I thought I’d call your attention to my 2020 post regarding MANHATTAN, the little-known series from WGN America who very briefly broadcast a number of critical acclaimed prestige shows, including UNDERGROUND as well as MANHATTAN.
MANHATTAN tells the tale of the nucleus of the creation of the atom bomb and the environment and folks it took to construct it. Essentially: OPPENHEIMER before OPPENHEIMER.
MANHATTAN featured an embarrassment of creative riches, including an astounding cast and writers, such as Rachel Brosnahan (THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL), Harry Lloyd (DOCTOR WHO, GAME OF THRONES), Olivia Williams (RUSHMORE), as well as writer Lila Byock who has since gone on to work on amazing serialized works such as THE LEFTOVERS and WATCHMEN and CASTLE ROCK.
It’s a shame that the show never garnered the attention it deserved, but WGN America gave us two seasons, which is one more than I thought we’d ever get.
While my initial write-up is several years old, it’s still available on a number of the streaming services listed, and both seasons are available on DVD.
I haven’t covered the entirety of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels — in fact, I only wrote about the third — and I kind of expected to leave it at that, as while each novel is remarkable, the first three are rather remarkable in the same way: they’re all about the push-and-pull between two friends growing up together in Naples and their power dynamics and their multi-faceted journeys through life.
Consequently, I didn’t expect the final novel in the series — THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY — to stray much from the path, and I certainly didn’t expect to be penning this, but here we are.
THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY escalates matters far more than the prior novels. Time passes rapidly. Lenù and Lila age significantly. The undercurrent of the mafia bubbles up to the surface. Technology becomes foregrounded. Families are ripped asunder. Stagnation sets in for some, while others find solace in wildness.
This is a true epic of lives lived, and as always Ferrante deftly handles it bluntly, but also artfully. Ferrante’s prose is so succinct and exacting; she is so dialed into the inner voice of Lenù that you feel like you’re inhabiting her as the scales fall from her eyes.
While I feel that Ferrante could have drawn all of this out further, going more in-depth about Lenù and Lila as they navigate their older years, this seems like a fittingly spry end to their tale. It’s satisfying, poignant, melancholy, and often even angry. In other words, a perfect encapsulation of the Neapolitan novels.
Dovetailing with the prior post about Julia Wertz’s TENEMENTS, TOWERS & TRASH, here’s Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s vastly detailed exploration of late-19th century London through the eyes of detectives, prostitutes, and one serial killer.
I’m not going to lie: I have been to Whitechapel. I’ve attended one of the many Ripper tours. I’m really not into that sort of thing — true crime doesn’t hold much of an allure for me — but I’ve found off-beat tours are often the best ways to discover the delights of an unfamiliar land. (If you’re ever in New Orleans, definitely indulge yourself in one of their many tours, especially those that feature cemeteries!)
FROM HELL is an astounding achievement. As Alan Moore often does, he manages to intertwine the personal with the political, the social, and the spiritual. While FROM HELL is, at the heart of it, a tale of a disturbed person who murdered more than a few prostitutes and also about those tasked to attempt to bring him to justice, it’s mostly about London itself.
I first read FROM HELL while in London — I still have a copy of the map I picked up at the Imperial War Museum that I used as a bookmark — and I cannot recommend a better guidebook to the city apart from an A-to-Zed map. It made me understand and see and pay attention to the city so much more than I would have without it. It imbues so much with Campbell’s visual details and focus on landmarks, often without calling it out in the text itself.
One major example is their detailing of Cleopatra’s Needle, which plays a bit of a role in the book, and whose significance would have mostly been lost on me if I hadn’t read this graphic novel.
Like I said with TENEMENTS, TOWERS & TRASH, illustrated works are astounding guiding compasses when you’re on unknown soil or concrete. Rick Steves is great and all, but if you’re a misfit, if you bristle at being called a tourist, these are the roadmaps you’re looking for.
I’ll note that there is a FROM HELL COMPANION, which is a deep dive into, well, FROM HELL, from both Moore and Campbell. It’s informative, but it is mostly text and copies of scripts and I find the original work to be a better guide; the companion sketches more into it, but will not help you navigate the city.
I’m not one for sweeping, multi-pronged epics. I like my works short and intense.
Have I read and watched all of GAME OF THRONES? Yes, but that was at the behest of my wife and, then later, to not be left out of the cultural conversation.
That said, I soured on the series around A STORM OF SWORDS but kept reading and watching. I finally drew a line in the sand with HOUSE OF DRAGONS, stating: “I’ve spent too much time in this universe; it’s not good for me and I need to move on.”
(To be fair, I will read the remaining novels, if they’re ever published. Sunk-cost fallacy and all that.)
However, within 100 pages of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND — the first book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels — I felt my face glow, felt a connection to these characters, to this life and its drama that I hadn’t felt towards a narrative work in years (apart from LIFE IS STRANGE, naturally). I told my wife: “This is my GAME OF THRONES. This is amazing. This is my everything right now.”
I fucking love this series, and I’m so happy others do too.
As I’ve previously stated, I love nothing more than to go out to a bar, have a beer or cocktail or two, and read.
Normally no one recognizes what I’m reading because I read a lot of weird stuff.
Not the case with the Neapolitan Novels. Those who have read them and recognize what I’m reading? Their eyes light up and they’re so over-eager to discuss them, and I’m more than welcome to indulge them.
Let me rewind a bit:
The Neapolitan Novels — originally penned in Italian, but have been translated to multiple languages — are centered around two childhood girls who become women, colloquially named Lenù and Lila. They both grew up in a shitty part of the outskirts of Naples. They’re both exceedingly intelligent and intellectually and romantically compete against each other. One became a successful author while the other …not so much. The entire four-novel series is about them growing, changing, adapting, and their push-and-pull.
I have yet to read the final novel, hence this post, but I revel in every word. Elana Ferrante — whose name I’ll note is a pseudonym as she prefers to not be known — has a quick wit and succinct brevity that I adore. It’s one of the rare times where I wish I could read the work in the original language.
Some have made claims that it’s a dude writing these, and while frankly I don’t care — most of the protagonists I write are women — it feels very genuine and authentic and lived-in. All I’ll say is: respect the author’s intent, especially when they’re serving you something special like this.
I’ll note that these books are famously known for their absurd covers that have absolutely nothing to do with the material they’re wrapped around. Personally, I love them, however I can understand how others might not. Please, do not judge these books by their covers.
This was a great year for TV, overstuffed with brilliant finales and new offerings. Sadly, I haven’t had time to watch all that I’ve wanted — I’m still sitting on UNDONE S2, ANDOR, PACHINKO, FOR ALL MANKIND, STATION ELEVEN as well as personal favorites EVIL and much much more — but if I waited to watch everything I wanted in order to pen this, this post would never see the light of day.
BARRY (Season Three)
BARRY so consistently delicately threads drama and action and dark comedy while also being one of the most emotionally draining and enthralling shows on television. Visually it has its own amazing language, which paid off major dividends in 710N and the striking season finale.
BETTER CALL SAUL (Season Six, Part Two)
If there’s any justice in the world, BETTER CALL SAUL will be more influential than BREAKING BAD. Its plotting, action, and character work takes everything they learned from BREAKING BAD (and THE X-FILES, don’t forget Gilligan’s on-the-job training) and finely hones it into a brutal deconstruction of two unconventional misfits.
While so much ink was spilled about the finale, the end of Jimmy’s arc, I found the penultimate episode to be far more affective, as it laser-focuses on how the fallout of Kim’s entanglement with Jimmy has affected her in a way you simply don’t often see portrayed.
BETTER THINGS (Season Five)
“[BETTER THINGS] makes time to luxuriate in life and the little joys: the tranquility of cooking, a brief nap in the park, people-watching, while never turning a blind eye to the harder parts of living, especially when you have to tend to the ever-changing needs of your children and yourself.
No, the show is not a gut-buster; it’s not meant to be. However, it always makes me laugh, and then two minutes later my eyes are welling up.”
While I’ll be forever grateful that FX gave this show five seasons, it feels like a goddamn injustice that — apart from a handful of critics — it mostly came and went unnoticed. It’s such a vivid and singular depiction of home and family and aging that everyone should be exposed to.
DOOM PATROL (Season ?)
Yes, not one, but two DC TV shows on this list. (And, tellingly, no Marvel shows.) Unlike HARLEY QUINN, I was already in the bag for DOOM PATROL having read and loved Grant Morrison’s iconic run, albeit probably later in life than I should have.
However, I was skeptical that they could capture the wild wonder of their world. To some extent, they do not — while it has a far bigger budget than I would expect, it’s still difficult for the show to do justice to a sentient block mirroring Haight-Asbury — but they’re trying their damnedest.
And that’s okay, because the show leans in a different direction. Like HARLEY QUINN, this show doubles-down on the found misfit family facet, trauma-bonding, while adding savior complexes to the group. It also includes Cyborg who seems like a strange fit, but they work him in as well as possible.
Also like HARLEY QUINN, it is a voyage of trauma-exploration — it even features a similar ‘dissociative event/we have to enter their mind’ episode — however, where QUINN sees a light at the end of the tunnel, DOOM PATROL is far more dour, perhaps more than Morrison initially intended. These are castaways who have lived with too much for far too long and, consequently, feel rudderless.
I’ll note that this year’s season has barely kicked off, and I’m still working through the prior seasons, but as a show it really hit me in the gut and I couldn’t leave it off this list.
GIRLS5EVA (Season Two)
This season didn’t quite hit the highs of the first, but it still provided effortless laughs and brilliant performances.
HARLEY QUINN (Season Three)
Before I’d watched a single episode, I had written off HARLEY QUINN as a filthy lark — hyper-violent, intentionally offensive snark — but enough critics boosted it that I thought it’d be a fun comedic, mindless watch at a time when I desperately needed that midway through this year.
I was absolutely 100% wrong on all counts. (Well, not about it being filthy and hyper-violent because it most certainly is.) I also watched it at a time I most certainly shouldn’t have been watching it, during a period in my life when I was explicitly told to stay away from trauma-centeric works after a bout of enduring extremely difficult works and processing waaaay too much.
HARLEY QUINN is all about dealing with/confronting trauma and abusers and people-pleasing and recovery, but despite the fact that the show is so dirty that I of all people had to consult urbandictionary.com, it’s surprisingly healthy. Ultimately, it’s about Harley realizing herself, her potential, and growing as a person, as opposed to the standard misery porn most shows lean on.
This year’s season isn’t as concise as the prior two, nor is it as emotionally brutal, but it finally coupled-up Poison Ivy and Harley and portrayed the two as a very complicated, but fulfilling, relationship. The writers bend over backwards to underscore that their relationship doesn’t ‘solve’ Harley, that there’s still work to be done. The fact that they can do so while firing off lines like “I can’t listen to ya when you’re dressed like a 40s housewife who is fucking her husband’s boss.” is just an added bonus.
THE LAST MOVIE STARS
The story of two beautiful people with big beautiful problems, all extremely graciously handled by the ever-empathetic Ethan Hawke.
RESERVATION DOGS (Season Two)
I’m still working through the second season, however this show has such a taut command over its characters and tone and what they want to say that it has to be included. A heartfelt raw nerve of a show.
THE RIGHTEOUS GEMSTONES (Season Two)
On paper, every Green/Hill/McBride show should not be for me; immature, petulant male bravado is not my bag.
However, they are absolutely amazing at giving their mostly terrible characters nuance while still being hilariously quotable -and- instilling them with genuine humanity and pathos. Crazily enough, HBO has also given them a budget that allows them to create some shockingly JOHN WICK-worthy set-pieces.
THE REHEARSAL (Season One)
An absolute mindfuck of a reality show in all of the right and wrong ways. By the end I couldn’t help but feel like numerous crimes had been voluntarily committed.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (Season Four)
An absolute joy of a humane comedy. The writers are restless and endlessly inventive, and the cast as always game for it. –Go Flip Yourself– is an instant classic.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Season One)
“[A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN is] about rewiring cultural attitudes and figuring out what’s best for yourself when you’re actively able to make said decisions.”
I LOVE THAT FOR YOU
The Home Shopping Network is an easy target to lampoon, but I LOVE THAT FOR YOU never punches down, opting instead to tell a serious-but-often-comedic character story about what happens when you get the spotlight you want, and what you’ll do to keep the spotlight on you.
KIDS IN THE HALL
I grew up in Vermont and I’m old, so I was part of a select few of those in the United States who actually saw KIDS IN THE HALL via antenna way back in the day.
If you haven’t seen the original run: I implore you to do so.
That said, I was a bit worried about this return, that it might feel a bit tired, but they still hit all of the right notes. Also, it was all worth it solely for Doomsday DJ.
MYTHIC QUEST (Season Three)
Given the history of all of the creators and writers of this series — notably from IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA folks — I expected MYTHIC QUEST to be an even filthier SILICON VALLEY and, while I’m sure so many folks would have been happy with that, instead it’s a surprisingly tender — though still barbed — workplace drama that I’m shocked exists, partially because it actually showcases how gaming culture and audiences have significantly changed.
It’s no longer about tech dudebros — although yes, they’re there — but the show isn’t so pre-occupied with that. It’s genuinely supportive.
It recalls WKRP and 30 ROCK, because with most workplace sitcoms you already know how the sausage is made, but with those, you really didn’t.
Also, Polly uses the exact same faceless, pitch-black mechanical keyboard I’ve used for years, which is a really, really nice touch.
OUR FLAGS MEAN DEATH (Season One)
The queer CABIN BOY/CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS TV show no one knew they wanted or needed.
SEVERANCE (Season One)
Finally, an emotional, character-centric high-concept show that fills the LOST-shaped hole in everyone’s heart. Immaculately designed, perfectly cast; it was a treat of a wintertime show.
SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE (Season One)
For the theatre nerd in all of us; an affecting homecoming story that reminded me of the sadly overlooked ONE MISSISSIPPI. It’s also one of the last performances from classic character actor Mike Hagerty, and he gives it his all here.
STRANGE NEW WORLDS (Season One)
An absolutely delightful sci-fi throwback that captures the wonder and excitement of exploration.
THREE BUSY DEBRAS (Season Two)
Some of the finest surrealism on TV, at least until it was canceled. At least it went out with a bang.
(Prime) As a youth I loved baseball. I loved the rules, the rigidity, the anything-can-happen pacing, but most of all I loved the underdogs. I’m not going to say I moved to Chicago — within spitting distance of Wrigley Field much less — because of the Cubs, but it didn’t hurt.
When I first played Little League baseball I was always tucked away in right field until one friend’s father saw something in my arm, then moved me to shortstop, then tried me as pitcher.
Reader: I sucked. And after every loss, I’d weep. Hell, I’d cry whenever I struck out, which was often because I was so nervous at performing in this sport I loved. So, yeah, while I realize Penny Marshall’s A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN is singularly about ostracized and misfit women to literally fill the void of men, I nonetheless identify with it.
Abbi Jacobson’s & Will Graham’s A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN repositions the narrative as a queer coming-of-age tale instead of one of self-actualization. That may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but the film was boosterism and the show is not. The show is a journey of people finding themselves, and discovering a world beyond them apart from baseball. Yes, only one character in the show is a teenager — and seventeen at that — but it’s the 1940s and a good number of these characters lived a pretty sheltered, demonstrative and fake life until they found the impetus to put themselves out there.
While the Rockwell Peaches act more as a found family, it’s the activities that occur on the fringes that really makes the show interesting. Front-and-center is the team’s catcher Carson (Abbi Jacobson, BROAD CITY) who falls in love with teammate Greta (D’Arcy Carden, a.k.a THE GOOD PLACE’s Janet), but there’s also aspiring pitcher Max (Chanté Adams, BAD HAIR) and both are finding and navigating their queerness on-the-side.
I’ve seen a lot of shows and films that try to portray that vibe and often it feels too heightened, not heightened enough, or downright disingenuous. However, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN — thanks to the time and patience they take with the characters — unfurls slowly in ways that felt rather singularly to my youth. There’s an enlightened bewilderment portrayed by the show — the wonder that people can live these sort of misfit lives — that was absolutely eye-opening when I was a young teen goth. There’s one scene in a later episode when Carson follows someone to a club and, when she realizes that she’s in a queer underground club, you can see in her face just how life-changing it is for her.
Unlike other club depictions in media, this club is surprisingly quiet and chill (and also headed by Rosie O’Donnell) and it feels warm and safe (until it isn’t). While I’m not the club kid I used to be, I’ve lived in predominantly queer neighborhoods for most of my life, and when you know who you want to be surrounded by, you know, and that’s what this show is all about — both on the team and off of the field.
Given that Amazon sat on this show for so long gives me doubts it’ll receive a second season, and I’m not even sure it’s terribly sustainable unless they jump ahead in time — someone please pitch that! — but the first season is an exceptional love letter to Marshall’s film and also to all of the weirdos and misfits out there that reach out, that try to forge bonds and communities at great risk.
It’s about rewiring cultural attitudes and figuring out what’s best for yourself when you’re actively able to make said decisions.
This was not a great year for prestige films or flyboy-less blockbusters, but it was a fantastic year for small-scale genre films. Granted, I have missed out on a lot of films — I have yet to see ARMAGEDDON TIME or EO or WOMEN TALKING or a bunch of others as there’s never enough time — but below are my current favorites of 2022.
Brilliantly nuanced work about youth and child rearing. One of the most intriguing body horror films since Cronenberg’s THE FLY.
EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE
“[An] absolutely outrageous film; it’s mind-bogglingly high-concept, often amusingly puerile, always inventive, but also remarkably emotionally grounded.”
MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON
“This is a quiet film, both in tone and in scope, but it confidently speaks volumes. It’s a work about ennui and minor victories and emotional stumbles while also being about longing for an accepting crowd. It’s a melancholy, complicated film told simply, one that’s destined for cult status, simply because it defies tonal categorization or, perhaps, because it’s so cute, so initially innocuous, while ultimately being a measured existential tale, one so immaculately put together in a way that will almost certainly have you smiling through tears.”
High-concept filmmaking with the heart of Cahiers du Cinéma; an audacious look at Hollywood’s role in representing history and people.
The film that made me ask myself: “Why the fuck do I put myself through this?” A brazen and tautly constructed spiral of trauma.
WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR
“A meditation on finding one’s identity and transformation [and] how people reach out through technology when there’s no other way. It’s a heartfelt, singular work.”
Cronenberg returns to body horror in a big way, letting Kristen Stewart do whatever she wants, indulging Viggo Mortensen in breath work, all while showcasing Tarkovsky-esque backdrops.
If life is fair — and we all know it is not — this film will become a cult-classic, at least as long as long as it’s available to stream. It starts off as a private high-school STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and then becomes something completely different, all backed by an astounding 90s soundtrack. Shades of a modern JAWBREAKER from the creators of SWEET/VICIOUS.
MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS
Extraordinarily winsome character drama that puts the delights and desires of the best features of attire forward.
A surprising “paean to 50s Technicolor melodramas” from one of the most humanist genre filmmakers working right now.
(Cinemas/Prime) I was one of the few folks who watched HBO’s GIRLS simply because it was from the director of TINY FURNITURE. I know that Lena Dunham is a rather polarizing individual in media, but I love her voice, while realizing that it is extremely selective, it is also very distinct.
CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY is no different, despite the fact that it’s based on a children’s book that Dunham didn’t pen. It’s the story of a medieval youth, Catherine, often called Birdy (the brilliant Bella Ramsey, who stole every scene she was in on GAME OF THRONES as Lyanna Mormont), trying to navigate life while her alcoholic father (Hot Priest Andrew Scott) tries to sell her off to a suitor.
While that sounds rather tragic, it ultimately isn’t. It’s a carefully calibrated tale of life and emotion and struggles, and features Dunham’s quick wit and humor (as well as all of the trappings that come with her work).
Few novels can evoke the feeling of a Kurt Vonnegut work, of leaning on the crafting of an internal sci-fi novel, one that speaks just as much as the text it’s buried in, but Caroline Woods’s THE LUNAR HOUSEWIFE manages it.
Louise Leithouser inhabits 1953 New York City as a romance writer who pens articles for her boyfriend Joe’s upstart culture magazine DOWNTOWN under the name of ‘Alfred King’. She met Joe while waitressing an industry party, and passed herself off as someone with a higher station in life than in reality and, while she’s still insecure about her lower-class background, she’s slowly adjusting to being part of the upper-crust party, instead of being party to hand out hors d’oeuvres.
As Louise spends more time with Joe and Harry, the other half of DOWNTOWN magazine, her suspicions are raised as she overhears murmurs of fear and paranoia from the two of them. By the time she’s assigned an interview with Papa himself — Ernest Hemingway — she’s fraught with anxiety, which he stokes with off-the-cuff remarks about government surveillance and the like.
To process her suspicions, Louise writes her life into the star-crossed romance novel she’s always wanted to pen: THE LUNAR HOUSEWIFE, which focuses on a fuckup of a single American woman who defected to the Soviets in hopes of feeling useful again, who is then shot into space to be a ‘housewife’ to a single man while the two of them inhabit a pod on the moon.
Woods’s interweaving of second-halves, literary aspirations and influences, along with the singular thorough-line of cold war insecurities, sets the stage for Kilgore Trout-ish digressions, which are a fine second-side to the same coin; Woods leans on romantic fiction tropes instead of Trout’s action and wartime scenarios to spread her, and Louise’s, deeper messages.
While THE LUNAR HOUSEWIFE isn’t as intricately wound as one might like from a thriller, it trades the intrigue for ruminating on a more realistic portrayal of the end-result of confronting others with your paranoid instincts. This is a singular tale of a woman with artistic and autonomous aspirations, of a woman who, in her own words, learns that “the government lies to you. Men lie to you.” and is constantly endeavoring to keep herself open, while protecting herself.
Sarah Waters often traffics in thrilling historical lesbian romances, which is obvious by the names of her earlier novels, such as TIPPING THE VELVET (1998) and FINGERSMITH (2002).
THE NIGHT WATCH (2006) is a bit of a detour, as it’s far more Dickensian — in spirit, not time as it takes place in various times before, during, and after World War Two in London — and far more of an ensemble, which features not only a lesbian couple, but also a straight couple, and one jailed man whose sexuality is slightly more complex. (There are additional supporting characters, but those are the major players.)
If that description sounds maddeningly vague, it’s by intent. THE NIGHT WATCH is incredibly restrained with doling out character particulars, and jumps around in years to intentionally provoke intrigue and drama, but also serves to contrast how these characters have coped with wartime and recovery.
In that sense, it feels remarkably relevant in this age of COVID-19, as you read how the characters shelter-in-place, experience how they put themselves at risk by venturing out into the world, tales of first responders, and the like. More than anything, it’s about living with an invisible threat while also living a hidden life, and yes, it’s just as loaded as it sounds.
While all of the characters are richly drawn, I can’t help but wish that Waters had dialed back the scope a bit, as I found myself drawn to the queer relationships lived by Helen, Kay, and Julia, as opposed to the straight and male romances lived through Viv, Reggie, and Duncan, all of which felt like their relationships were hitting the same notes, but with less-satisfying results.
Regardless, Waters is an expert at balancing literary storytelling while also penning extraordinary steamy content, and it’s worth reading THE NIGHT WATCH solely for the more tantalizing passages and the relationship dynamics that she details.