Top 10 things of 2021 (So Far)

Twice a year- once in June and once in December- I make a list of ten things I liked this year. While the lists sometimes include movies I haven’t otherwise reviewed, it’s mostly a chance to talk about the television, music, podcasts, and books I recommend anyone check out. 

TV

Cobra Kai, Season 3 (Netflix)

Cobra Kai is the kind of show I would have never expected I would like. I’ve only seen The Karate Kid once, I haven’t seen any of the sequels, and I don’t have any nostalgia for the ‘80s (I wasn’t there!). But Cobra Kai, which follows the karate shenanigans of the now-middle age characters of Karate Kid and their children, is a delight. It’s a ridiculously fun soap-opera drama, full of ridiculous and cheesy ‘80s references that somehow aren’t obnoxious. How is that? The show purposefully explores how these characters are stuck in the past. The references and obsession about their past are fun for the audience, but the show itself uses them to show how pitiful Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) can be, and how their refusal to move on from their past manifests in their children. 

An exploration of generational trauma sounds like a weighty topic for such a light show, yet the show pulls it off, balancing serious drama with amazing stunt work and comedy. The whole ensemble is excellent, with the young cast, led by Mary Mouser and Xolo Marideuna, being especially strong (and Courtney Henggeler is a scene-stealer). Season 3 spends too much time setting up the next season, and the show’s attempts to counteract criticisms of cultural appropriation by having Danny taking a trip to Japan ends up weighing down the season, but the series is so strong that even a weaker season is worth recommending.

Shadow and Bone (Netflix)

The common theme in this list is fun surprises. Just like I had no real background knowledge or expectations for Cobra Kai, I had never read Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone books before deciding to tune into the first season of the eight-episode Netflix show. The young adult fantasy series is about Alina (Jessie Mei Li), an orphan who realizes she is actually a Grisha, a magical being with elemental powers. She is whisked away from everything she’s ever known to be trained by the mysterious General Kirigan (Ben Barnes). Meanwhile, a trio of criminals set off to find Alina for their own purposes.

Besides the big budget, which allows for stunning fantasy sequences, the best thing about Shadow and Bone is the cast. There’s not a weak link here, but Ben Barnes as Captain Kirigan may be the best surprise. I’m tired of men in young adult franchises (which are usually female-oriented) who ridicule the property and their roles (looking at you, Robert Pattinson in Twilight). In contrast, Ben Barnes plays his role with total seriousness and sincerity, and it’s clear he and the rest of the cast are having a blast, which in turn makes it more enjoyable for the audience. Kit Young and Amita Suman are also standouts. If you’re looking for a binge-worthy fantasy epic with some confusing worldbuilding but big emotions, complex relationships, and thrills, Shadow and Bone will certainly scratch that itch. 

Mare of Easttown (HBO Max)

Like many great detective stories, HBO’s Mare of Easttown stars a grizzled and weary defender of good in a small town full of secrets and hidden darkness. And like the town she protects, Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) has some secrets and darkness of her own. As she investigates the murder of a young woman and the disappearance of two others girls, Mare constantly wrestles with pursuing the truth, even when it comes at the expense of her friends and family. Her attempts to love those same people are what make the show incredibly moving. There are uneven parts of the series– Evan Peters is a little underwhelming, Guy Pearce feels out of place at times, and sometimes the show takes detours that don’t pay off for a while. But attention to detail and a strong spiritual undercurrent, as well as an astounding finale, make it a rewarding must-watch.

WandaVision (Disney +)

The great Marvel-Disney+ show experiment officially kicked off in January of this year with the release of WandaVision, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprising their big-screen roles as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch and Vision. Even those of us who were familiar with the comic book inspiration the show was drawing from and knew the conceit of the show–Wanda creates an alternative reality that plays out her and Vision’s life in the style of different American sitcoms– were shocked by how weird the show is. It leans fully into the premise and does not coddle the audience until late in the game. Unfortunately, the show loses its nerve at the end and opts for a big Marvel CGI-battle instead of sticking to its guns, and the whole series suffers for it. But even though the ending is a bit of a dud, there is much to like here. Olsen is marvelous, effortlessly slipping into each decade of acting styles. Bettany, who has been underrated for a long time, gets a few moments to shine. Kathryn Hahn (who is now Emmy-nominated for her role here!) is the ace up the show’s sleeve. WandaVision isn’t able to totally reinvent the wheel, but it is a charming oddity in the ever-expanding world of Marvel and a promise of the potential of the Marvel-Disney+ experiment.

Books

The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey

I can’t stop thinking about The Echo Wife. It’s a small, tightly written story with a limited cast of characters, but enormous ideas regarding medical ethics, artificial life, femininity, marriage, and recovering from abuse. The book is about Evelyn, a scientist who discovers that her husband Nathan made a clone of her and then had an affair with this clone (named Martine). The clone is a more docile, gentle, nurturing and submissive version of Evelyn. When something happens to Nathan, Evelyn and Martine must work together. They must confront the differences, and similarities, between them as they untangle their connection to Nathan and their own senses of self. If you want an uneasy, twisty, character-driven science fiction story, in the vein of a movie like Ex Machina, I highly recommend checking out The Echo Wife.

Who is Maud Dixon?, by Alexandra Andrews

In Who is Maud Dixon?, the trope of the “genius eccentric loner asshole artist” is put on trial. Florence, an aspiring writer, takes a job being the assistant of a mysterious author who writes under the pseudonym Maud Dixon. This author is the classic egotistical, tempestuous writer. But it turns out, so is Florence. As these two women fight over the mantle of Maud Dixon, in a beautiful Moroccan setting, author Alexandra Andrews slyly examines the myth of the author and the real price of creativity and ambition. A fast-paced, easy read, this is a “beach read” in the best sense of the term.

Raft of Stars, by Andrew J. Graff

Following in the tradition of boyhood adventure novels like Huckleberry Finn or Hatchet, Raft of Stars follows two young boys- Fish and Bread- as they escape into the woods after they think Bread’s father has been murdered. At first, the book’s attempt to pay homage to its literary influences feels overdone, but slowly the novel hits own stride, especially as it shifts its focus onto the winsome adult ensemble who are chasing the boys– Tiffany, the self-reliant gas station clerk and secret romantic; the haunted Sheriff Cal; Fish’s tough-as-nails grandfather Teddy; and Fish’s gallant mother Miranda. Author Andrew Gaff plays with genre tropes to fashion a story that, while sweetly-old fashioned in some ways, also gives a more inclusive, thoughtful update to the classic adventure novel. It’s literary but also very cinematic, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was adapted to the big screen soon, so check it out before then!

Podcasts

The Improvement Association, from Serial 

From Serial, the hit true-crime podcast that helped launch the age of true-crime podcasts, comes this more modest, intimate story of election fraud and small-town politics. Hosted by Zoe Chance, the series follows the allegations of election fraud in Bladen County, North Carolina, where a Black political activist group is the subject of suspicion and disdain by white citizens, and trust is broken across races and political parties. The Improvement Association refuses to be sensational or to manipulate viewers with explosive twists and accusations. Chance carefully looks into every lead and logically breaks it down. She’s not the most exciting narrator or storyteller, but she is a trustworthy one that feels steady and reliable, and she clearly cares for the people she encounters, even at their most irritable or eccentric. These five episodes are perfect if you want a better understanding of the mess American politics is in, told in a measured, methodical yet personal way, on a small-scale.

In God We Lust, from Wondery

In God We Lust, meanwhile, is the exact opposite of The Improvement Society when it comes to reporting. While TIS strove to provide a factual, balanced, restrained narrative, In God We Lust is like sitting by the pool with your friend after having one too many margaritas as she recalls a scandalous story she heard second-hand. Hosts Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams are fabulous guides who add plenty of color commentary to the central story: the story of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife Becky Falwell’s affair with Giancarlo Granda, a young pool attendant they met on vacation. What unfolds is a murky, juicy story at the intersection of all sorts of hot-button issues: #MeToo and sexual harassment, Christian institutions, Donald Trump, Christian leaders and wealth, and purity culture. There’s a lot here to think about, especially if you’re a serious Christian who cares about these issues. But the hosts don’t do much to prompt thoughtful discussion or questions; they’re more prone to laugh at the scandal than lament it. So if you do listen, enjoy it at face-value, but dig deeper into what this story really can be mined for.

Movies

Inside, (Netflix)

Comedian and writer/director Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Inside has been called a lot of things. A genre-bending meta-examination of comedy (true). Auteur achievement (true). A catchy musical (true). Inside is a fascinating examination of the internet and internet culture, and there are many reviews out there that break down its layers that I would recommend checking out. But there is something I haven’t seen discussed yet, so I want to bring it up here, which is the theme of “humiliation” throughout the film. 

I’m going to define humiliation here on more spiritual terms: humiliation is not just feeling embarrassed or having your ego bruised, it is the feeling of the gap between how you are being treated, and what you deserve. Humiliation is a betrayal of dignity. If we believe all humans have inherent worth and dignity, then humiliation is when someone is treated with less-than that deserved dignity, either by having to treat themselves poorly or by being treated that way by others.

The special starts with Bo Burnham (or, his protagonist character) making fun of comedians who are white guys with a lot to say (like him). It starts as typical form of self-deprecation, the kind we as the audience usually appreciate, with our love of self-awareness. Then the special moves deeper into Bo’s conflicted feelings about the internet. He started his comedy career making internet videos, and now he’s having to examine himself and his complicity in the space he is now ambivalent about. There’s the humiliation of examining yourself and realizing, Oh no, I’m embarrassed with how I have made my living and how it’s contributed to something bad and shallow. This self-examination creates doubt and begs the question: Can I ever be truly authentic?

Then the special digs into Bo’s mental illness and how his panic attacks made him quit performing comedy, and there’s that gap again, the gap of my body and mind has betrayed me, this is not how it should be, I deserve better. There is humiliation in being impaired in this way, and even more humiliation in wanting to tell people the truth of your experiences, but not wanting to be pitied. Then at the end of the show, Bo sings a song about how next time, he should watch the audience, instead of the audience only watching him. Shortly after, Bo appears naked under a spotlight. Being on the internet and performing on stage means you are always vulnerable and naked to the audience. Humiliation abounds. 

There are little parts of the special that strive to show that on the internet we reduce ourselves to one-dimensional caricatures, because that’s how these platforms work. The song “White Woman’s Instagram,” is a funny takedown of stereotypical white woman Instagram accounts, but halfway through the song Bo sings of a post where this hypothetical woman writes about her deceased mom, a touching, humanizing moment. But there’s discomfort here as well: this woman can only have an authentic, genuine expression of humanity in a space otherwise full of pictures of pumpkins and lattes. How could an Instagram page ever convey the complexity and three-dimensionality of someone? It can’t! We’re made for so much more than this! But this is all we have, so we have to settle for this lesser form of self-expression. This is a division of self, and that’s humiliation.

The last scene has Bo walking out of his house, then immediately trying to go back inside the house, but it’s locked. While he struggles to get back inside, a laugh track plays. This is the humiliation of being exposed to people, the humiliation of a parasocial relationship where you both desperately need the audience, and you also despise them. Inside is the best film to come out of the pandemic so far, and I think everyone will take something very different away from it.

– Madeleine D.

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