Archive for November, 2017

November Culture Haul

Friday, November 10th, 2017

A few Highly Recommendeds for your holiday season enjoyment:

1) Vacationland, by John Hodgman. I’ve always had more of a wish to connect with Hodgman’s work than an ability to, much to my own consternation. But now that he’s written a memoir, we’re in business! I found this book so tonally winning—not just hilarious (though definitely that) but also warmly convivial. His persona is self-deprecating without being self-hating, and rather than confining himself to the priggish, sterile caricature he has such a talent for inhabiting (I mean that as a compliment) (and I’m thinking of his podcast), he allows room for tenderness and love. The result is far more nuanced, rounded, and emotionally connected than anything else I’ve seen him do, and I loved every minute of it.

2) American Vandal on Netflix. Over at Pop Culture Happy Hour, a podcast I can never recommend enough, Linda Holmes has a name for this genre of media: “a parody of the thing that is also the thing.” In this case, it’s a (fake, invented) true-crime documentary that masterfully reproduces every convention of the genre, from the shaded edges of black-and-white stills running in succession under the opening credits to the Cello Strums of Doom on the soundtrack.

The central joke (and there are so many adjacent ones) is that the crime in question is the vandalism of 27 cars in the teacher’s parking lot at a high school, each of which has been emblazoned with a giant, red, spray-painted penis. “WHO DID THE DICKS?” is a running phrase, taken very seriously. And yet the series is not a farce; the stakes are high for the kid who’s been accused. It’s possible, and immensely enjoyable, to watch this thing on both levels at once, tracking the minutely observed parody and the impeccably crafted mystery plot at the same time.

3) Transparent. Can the fourth season of a groundbreaking show be as surprising, carefully wrought, and humanely rendered as the first? If you’re Transparent, it can be—and maybe even more so. I can’t remember another show that so ably moved its characters and its themes forward in seasons beyond the second or third; even Mad Men would retread the same tracks, albeit beautifully.

In this season, the Pfeffermans travel to Israel, which is one of those I’d-never-have-thought-of-that-but-it’s-perfect plot moves, opening up almost infinite possibilities while making explicit what is a fundamental conflict for so many American Jews—i.e., “What is my relationship to the state of Israel?” Of course, the Pfeffermans are nothing if not narcissistic; their internal voices are loud enough to drown out almost anything coming at them from the outside. But it’s fascinating to watch what comes up for them, what they do and don’t see, and how they are with each other when they’re not in L.A. Not to mention the light! Oh, that gorgeous Mediterranean light!