Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Last week, a reader asked about the best non-2010 music we discovered in 2010. In keeping with the theme, what other non-2010 discoveries were you most excited about this year? What older films, books, games, TV shows, artists, etc. did you experience for the first time, or come around to loving for the first time, in 2010?
Probably my best discovery in 2010 was Joe Hill, a quietly successful horror author following in the tradition of his dad, Stephen King, but writing in a tighter, more direct way, with less foreshadowing and teasing, and more up-front candor. I came to him because of his 2010 book Horns (Zack’s review convinced me to give it a try), and the success of that book led me to his earlier work, which I found even more impressive: His 2005 anthology 20th Century Ghosts is full of authentically chilling stories, and his Heart-Shaped Box is one of the creepiest ghost stories I’ve ever read. I’ve also been deeply taken with his (started in 2008, still ongoing) nightmarish comics series Locke & Key, which disdains horror comics’ usual gore in favor of the kind of highly precise dialogue and calm, mechanical plotting that I find much scarier. Hill aside, the best non-2010 books I read this year were David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study—all dense but playful, joyously ambitious, wildly creative, and hugely entertaining books, and all projects picked for our monthly AVC book club, Wrapped Up In Books. So thanks to Wrapped Up, and I look forward to what it brings me (and you guys) next year.
I love Bruce Campbell, but I’ve never been enough of a fanatic to sit down and systematically plow through everything he’s ever done. But after my girlfriend went to a horror convention in L.A. this year to get a poster signed and her picture taken with him (it’s been years since I’ve seen him in person, doing a Q&A after a screening of Army Of Darkness in Brooklyn), we decided to catch up on The Chin’s back catalog a little. The highlights so far: Mindwarp, the Fangoria-produced post-apocalyptic horror flick from 1992 that really does a great job of highlighting Campbell’s ability to be simultaneously campy, heroic, and rabidly scary, and The Adventures Of Briscoe County, Jr., his pulpy, fantastical ‘93-’94 Western series that’s way more fun than it has any right to be (in addition to serving as a training ground for Lost writer Carlton Cuse). And yes, our reignited Campbell-mania goes so far as to include some unguarded anticipation of the upcoming Burn Notice prequel that will revolve around his hard-drinking, womanizing, show-stealing character, Sam Axe.
I just got into It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia this year. There are a million shows that everyone tells me I must check out that I can’t, due to the space-time continuum, but I was curious to try IASIP after hearing Rob McElhenny and Glenn Howerton interviewed on The Sound Of Young America. I enjoyed the show’s first season and got more and more obsessed the more I watched. There’s a rhythm to the series: Not only does each episode typically devolve into a crescendo of yelling and chaos, the characters became more and more articulated as the series progressed. When I first started watching the show, it was a little hard to tell the male characters apart, but now each member of the gang is idiotic and wonderful in his or her own way: Charlie in particular has found a special place in my heart for how semi-feral he is, how quickly he can switch from good-natured to screechy and hysterical. I especially love how the show’s characters have their own reality and history that are usually just alluded to for the audience to enjoy imagining. (Nightcrawlers, anyone?) I just finished catching up on the latest season via On-Demand, and I’m sad that I finally touched the bottom after the headlong dive into the pool of the series, but it brought me a lot of laughs in 2010.
In 2010, I read three incredibly satisfying books set in the 19th-century American West that I might not have read if not for the movies: Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Charles Portis’ True Grit, and Daniel Woodrell’s Woe To Live On. (The lattermost is the source material for Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil, and written by the author of Winter’s Bone.) Each is written with a vivid sense of the period, and in a distinctive, unmistakable vernacular voice. (From the opening of Woe, a novel about Missouri Civil War bushwhackers: “We had been aided through the night by busthead whiskey and our breaths blasphemed the scent of early morning spring.”) I came to each more or less by accident, but now I feel like I should keep going. Coincidences sometimes turn into kicks that way.
Mine isn’t very old, I’m afraid, but I caught up with the excellent Sons Of Anarchy this year, after resisting recommendations since it first started airing in 2008. Why would I want to a watch a soapy drama about an outlaw biker gang in California? Because even though it can be a bit cheesy, the story of Jax Teller and SAMCRO’s (that’s Sons Of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) adventures running guns and living up to their code of ethics has made for some excellent TV. It’s one of those shows, like The Shield or Deadwood (though admittedly not nearly as great as either), that doesn’t ignore its side characters: Pretty much everybody has something to do on Sons. (Or as ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER has us all calling it, Sons, Bitch.) And the acting is great, from Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal to Ryan Hurst as the perpetually conflicted Opie. And look, it’s Dayton Callie from Deadwood and Jay Karnes from The Shield!
When Friday Night Lights debuted in 2006, I had little interest in watching it. I’d seen the film, my wife had read the book, and as I liked to tell people who beseeched me to watch because “It’s so awesome”: “Dude, I lived it.” Well, that wasn’t true. While I did grow up in Texas, it was in the state’s largest city, and my high school had a shitty football team. (I was too “punk rock” to care anyway.) My wife, however, did kind of live it. She had family in Odessa, home of Permian High School, the high school Buzz Bissinger wrote about in the book Friday Night Lights. She went to Mojo games as a kid, and her cousins were students when Bissinger was around. Perhaps it was inevitable that we gave in, but when we finally watched season one, we were quickly hooked. Now we have a bounty of four additional seasons to help get us through the next few months, when we’re homesick for Texas’ mild winters.
I spend most time not so much “discovering” stuff as catching up with the infinite list of things to look into. Discoveries mean serendipity, which these days basically means Netflix Instant and used bookstores. I credit the former with 1975’s Vigilante Force, the second film by George Armitage. Armitage went on to Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank, and the mixture of smart comedy and brutally dumb violence (with no dividing buffer between the two) is characteristic. The movie’s other pleasures include the sight of Kris Kristofferson and Jan Michael Vincent as brothers (!), with Bernadette Peters as the former’s characteristically ’70s female prize (!!). It’s a blast, and smarter than it needs to be, even as it thoroughly delivers on its Z-grade-level audience-baiting title. As for the bookstores, I thank them (or, more specifically, the homeless guys on W. 4th St. in New York with the book tables) for L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, probably one of the most devastatingly incisive (to the point of being hard to read) portraits of repressed sexuality and stabs at proper adult snobbishness only a prepubescent boy can offer up.
I have devoted much of the past years to discovering shit outside of my comfort zone, most notably in my Nashville Or Bust column. Without that glorious bi-weekly burden, I probably never would have discovered the manic, smartass nuttiness of Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson’s poetic gravity, the Southern-fried provocation of Kinky Friedman, Townes Van Zandt, Loretta Lynn, and many others I will refrain from mentioning here. That was a wonderful experience. On the television front, I finally got around to catching up with Community, a show everyone I know loves, and for good reason: It’s both a brilliant deconstruction of sitcoms and a wonderfully human comedy filled with brilliantly fleshed-out characters it’s a pleasure spending time with. Like the late, lamented Party Down, it’s the ultimate hang-out show. Hopefully it won’t meet Party Down’s premature death.
You know what’s a pretty good show? Dexter. I’d been meaning to catch up with it for years, owing mainly to our household’s collective crush on Michael C. Hall—he was great in Gamer, wasn’t he?—but it took a combination of Netflix streaming and a stubborn toddler to put me over the top. About the time Netflix came out with its iPhone app, my daughter started refusing to nap unaccompanied on the weekends, which meant I’d be stuck in a comfy chair with a bundle of joy on my shoulder for up to two hours. (You might not think that a series with a serial-killer protagonist is appropriate viewing for such circumstances, but judge not unless you’ve been in the same fix.) The serial-killer stuff I could almost live without, especially since I think our society’s bottomless appetite for homicidal masterminds is a sign of deep moral rot, but I love the way the characters are drawn. Hall, I knew and loved already, but three seasons in, I’m still fascinated by Jennifer Carpenter as Dexter’s foul-mouthed stepsister Debra, whose nervy energy is unlike any character I’ve ever seen. Even though a spoiler-bemoaning commenter gave away the ending of season four—oh, the irony!—I’m still looking forward to watching it once the DVDs show up in the mail. It’ll look a little funny on a big screen, but I imagine I’ll get used to it.
Believe it or not, I do things other than watch television, and in 2010, I spent lots of time at the theater, in the kitchen, or in bed with a book. For the first, I was surprised by just how modern and alive the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific felt. It’s an old, old show, with a message that seems deliberately pitched to the era it was written in, but the production itself had such sheer, unconstrained joy that even the fact I saw a touring company didn’t matter. When cooking, I was impressed by Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, which might be the best cookbook out there right now, what with how it actually lives up to the title and everything. I’m sorry I didn’t discover it until now. And when reading, I was blown away by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and reduced to a page-turning fiend for Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, perhaps the best fantasy novel for people like me who don’t normally enjoy heavy fantasy novels. But far and away the best new book I read in 2010 comes from 1949 and has long been out of print. Samson Raphaelson was the screenwriter for, among others, The Shop Around The Corner, and in the spring of 1948, he met with a bunch of students at the University of Illinois to teach a class that was ostensibly about being a playwright, but ended up being about much more, like why we construct fictions, and the worth of personal experience in made-up stories. The book The Human Nature Of Playwriting collects nearly everything said in the classroom, and it becomes so much more than a writers’ guide. Raphaelson and the students almost become characters, the experiences that make up their plays become very real, and the bonds they form are unshakable. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to pursue any sort of career as any kind of writer.