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? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question is an oldie but a goody:
If you were Santa and you could gift everyone in the world with just one book, film, comic, TV series, album, or what-have-you from 2013, with the implicit understanding that they’d definitely read/watch/listen to it, what would you give them? In other words, what personal favorite of yours would you like to foist on to everyone else?
My self-serving “gift” would be Nathan For You, the most exciting new comedy show I’ve seen since I first came across Peep Show. The idea of the show is that Nathan Fielder acts as a reality-show troubleshooter along the lines of restaurant fix-it man Gordon Ramsay—except that all of Fielder’s ideas are terrible. That base concept that plays out amusingly enough in segments where, say, Nathan recommends that a frozen yogurt place introduce a poop-flavored variety. But what pushes Nathan For You into the realm of the profound is Fielder’s refusal to let any premise stand pat. When he advises a gas station to price its gas at $1.75 a gallon “after rebate,” he doesn’t merely make the rebate difficult to redeem. No, he leads a group of stubborn bargain-seekers on a veritable vision quest, inviting them to follow him into the California wilderness with the eternal promise that the rebate redemption site will be revealed after one more hill, or after they solve one more asinine riddle. Time and again, Fielder gets regular folks to play along with his grand experiments by using the intimidating power of television in tandem with his own awkward, unassuming disposition—and he’s not afraid to expose his own flawed humanity, either. As a result, most episodes become astonishing explorations of human nature that rub up against societal standards we take for granted. I’d love for the world to see Fielder using comedy to examine deep truths, but then again, if everybody knew about Fielder’s approach, he wouldn’t be able to fool his marks anymore. So maybe it’s best that I can’t play Santa in this case.
I’m going to go with the preachy route and force everyone to watch 12 Years A Slave, because I am a cranky history teacher at heart. It’s too important not to see, and no, you might not want to see it because it’s sad, but suck it up, it’s good for you.
I feel like gifts of this nature ought to bring unbridled joy to their recipients, and no piece of pop culture from this year inspired that sort of emotion in me like Bob’s Burgers’ “O.T.: The Outside Toilet.” 2013 yielded an embarrassment of televised treasures, and yet one of its funniest, most emotionally rich half-hours is about a young boy’s bond with a talking toilet. A talking toilet voiced by Jon Hamm, but still—it’s not the most auspicious premise. But “boy meets toilet” quickly gives way to a not-so-stealthy E.T. homage that also has a surprising amount of space for the knock-knock jokes of a computerized bathroom fixture. It’s funny, warm, and invigorating in ways that are unique to Bob’s Burgers, a show that’s possessed of a world-beating enthusiasm that never curdles into cloying. And, I mean, when you tear the wrapping paper off any gift, aren’t you kind of hoping there’s a talking toilet under there anyway?
My gift of 2013 is Ryan Andrews’ graphic novel anthology Nothing Is Forgotten. Over a year ago I funded the artist’s Kickstarter project after becoming completely smitten with his drawing style—dark, intricate linework accompanied by welcome white space, almost always void of color. Paired with the simple, yet poignant stories of life, death, and the fantasies we create to process the two, it’s no surprise Andrews raised close to $40,000—even though his pledge goal was a mere $6,500—creating a demand delay into 2013. Though it’s difficult to pick a favorite of the four offerings in Nothing Is Forgotten, the title story is most impressive in its ability to tell the hauntingly beautiful tale of a grieving son after the death of his father without a single word. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like another run of the sold-out book will happen. However, “Sarah And The Seed,” “Our Bloodstained Roof,” and “Nothing Is Forgotten” are available in full online. If you want to read the final story, “The Tunnel,” you’ll have to borrow it from me.
Listen, I know not everyone will understand the brilliance of Ask Me About My New God! by Maria Bamford. Our own Josh Modell, a trusted judge of all things stand-up comedy, found it more odd than funny. But a new album from Bamford is an event, especially one that finds her rebounding from a brief hospitalization for mental issues. Bammer has battled those demons all her adult life, but she channels that fight into her comedy to great effect. Ask Me About My New God! reflects that struggle, but doesn’t dwell on it excessively; Bamford uses her dexterous voice to imagine a variety of scenarios, from her sister attempting to life-coach her to pretending to be the Latino man collection agencies keep calling for on her phone. It’s a bold, vulnerable album and yet more proof of Bamford’s greatness.
Tom Hanks made his first triumphant appearance on the Nerdist podcast last year, and it brought all sorts of factoids about America’s biggest acting treasure to light. Who knew, for instance, that Hanks was obsessed with Storage Wars and could do spot-on impressions of both Darrell and Dave? It was a charming episode the show, and one that I find myself thinking about almost regularly. Fortunately, Hanks made a second appearance on the Nerdist show this year. While this year’s appearance isn’t quite as epic as his first, it’s definitely one of the most enjoyable podcasts I’ve heard in a while. Hanks does impressions of bad interviewers, talks about Johnny Carson, and comes across as the all-around good dude that we all expected him to be. It’s a joy, really.
I’m going to recommend a single episode of television: “Uprising,” the ninth episode of Switched At Birth’s second season, and the first episode of a major scripted television show to be broadcast almost entirely in American Sign Language. I knew very little about the show when I heard about the episode last spring, and cherry-picked a few episodes to familiarize myself with the plot. So as someone who watched “Uprising” with no sense of the larger series arc of Switched At Birth, I was riveted by the storytelling in a way I haven’t been since the first time I watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “Hush.” Switched At Birth is not one of the best shows of the year, but “Uprising” is a uniquely impressive accomplishment, and perhaps a gateway for viewers to experience a show that portrays a part of America not often depicted on television.
Everyone should have their stocking stuffed this year with Taryn Hipp’s Heavy Hangs The Head. Hipp has spent the better part of the last couple decades making Sub Rosa and Lady Teeth, two poignant, sharply written zines that embody the best of what personal zines are capable of: true stories about love, responsibility, adulthood, and the chronic lack thereof that sucker punch your heart then hug it tight. Heavy Hangs The Head is Hipp’s first book-length work, and it traces her cross-country path through failed romances, substance abuse, and emotional chaos illuminated by understated flashes of triumph and feminist insight. It’s an anxious book by an anxious writer, and it’s all the more alive because of it.
Like Erik, I want to bring you joy. And Nick Miller is joy. I resisted watching New Girl for a long time, for several good reasons and a slew of bad ones, but once I gave in and discovered the wonder that was Nick Miller, I was hooked. New Girl might be an imperfect show, but it’s created a character for the ages, and the Nick-and-Jess arc at the end of season two is truly one of the better things that aired on television in 2013. So go, discover Nick Miller! Discover his lack of ambition! Discover his hatred of modern cell phone plans! And prepare to relate, because somewhere deep in our souls we’re all a little bit Nick Miller, and Nick Miller is us. (You can fast forward through all the Schmidt parts, I won’t tell.)
I’m going to take a tip from Erik and go the TV route, but I’ll be a bit more expansive with mine and say that I’ll like to give everyone a DVD set of season two of ABC’s The Neighbors. Since only 11 episodes of the season will have aired by Christmas, I’d also like to throw in the season finale of the show’s freshman year, just to help set the stage. (At the end of last season, Larry Bird’s father—played by George Takei—cut off the aliens’ financial support, putting them in the position of having to join the workforce.) Being married with a kid and not exactly flush with cash, I may relate more to The Middle, but I’ve gotten some of the biggest laughs of 2013 from The Neighbors this season. Some came from the aforementioned aliens-in-the-job-force storylines; some from alien Reggie Jackson and Amber Weaver becoming an item; and, most recently, from the idea of casting Meredith Baxter and Reginald VelJohnson as Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s parents. Throw in another guest appearance from Stacy Keach as Marty Weaver’s dad and a Shark Tank crossover that was funny despite being a cheap promotional stunt, and you’ve got a show that deserves a better fate than being paired with Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, so this seems like the perfect way to expand its viewership.
I am going to give everyone the third season of Last Man Standing, because I won’t take Will’s casual slander of the program lying down. Okay, not really. Last Man Standing has some interesting things going on (I’m not even kidding), but I’m trying to picture some Aborigines watching Tim Allen’s warmed-over shtick, and it’s not working. Am I taking this question too seriously? I’m taking this question too seriously. But, I’ll tell you what. If I could make everybody in the United States watch one movie from the last year, it would be Short Term 12, which has some very indie-film story problems, but mostly sees those disappear in the face of Brie Larson’s performance, which is miraculous. Plus, I’m willing to forgive a handful of tiny script conveniences if it means that we get to see a movie this soulful, with so much love for all of its characters. It’s my favorite movie of the year so far, as much because of its flaws as in spite of them.
I always struggle with this question and put it off, because I keep thinking I’m missing some grand piece of art that will solve everything—as if persuading everyone in the world to see Fruitvale Station would end poverty and prejudice, or Wadjda would convince a nation of doubters that subtitled films from far-away cultures (and stories that pass the Bechdel test easily and unquestionably) were terrific. But you know what? People resist messages in art, and I might as well just give them something because it’s fun—and because it’s daring and exciting. Noelle Stephenson’s webcomic Nimona launched in 2012, and I ran across it when it won Slate’s best webcomic of the year award. But 2013 was when it really matured into something breathless and thrilling: Like Jeff Smith’s Bone, it starts light and silly and gradually eases readers into a grim, sophisticated fantasy. (Though it’s Bone as filtered through Kate Beaton’s aesthetic and sense of humor.) The art gets more sophisticated quickly as the story progresses as well—it’s possible to watch Stephenson developing as an artist almost page by page, without losing her personal flavor. And hey, it’s all free online, so I can sort of give it away to anyone with a computer. Also free: Stephenson’s Tumblr, which is a lot of light and silly fun. She’s currently doing a bunch of quickie Hunger Games gag strips that have gotten her a lot of attention around the web, though not as much as she deserves.
I’m terrible at consuming pop culture in a timely fashion—unless it’s video games and a small handful of TV shows, I’m behind in most everything, and I can think of plenty of people I already know who would have no interest in a copy of, say, Grand Theft Auto V. But this is still a surprisingly easy pick for me: If I could, I’d get everyone Ryan North’s terrific Choose Your Own Adventure-style novel, To Be Or Not To Be. A riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the title is a subtle giveaway), the story lets the reader decide the fates of the Prince Of Denmark, the fair Ophelia, the ghost king, and most anyone who falls into their circle of influence. It’s a fun, friendly, and gratifyingly massive read (the book’s heft allows for plenty of room for illustrations by Kate Beaton, Christopher Hastings, Jeph Jacques, and more), and the fact that it’s the end result of a record-breaking success of a Kickstarter campaign makes it all the sweeter. The world is slightly better for having something like this in it. Also, Ophelia invents thermometers, which is freakin’ awesome.
I’ll spring for the fourth and concluding volume of Fantagraphics’ collection of Roy Crane’s Captain Easy color Sunday pages. These things are just glorious, gorgeous reminders that there was once a thrilling tradition of adventure newspaper strips in this country—a tradition that turned up its toes long before anyone started to fantasize that newspapers might be part of a dying tradition. And at the very least, Santa ought to bring a free set to everyone who bought the NBM collections from the late ’80s and early ’90s that mutilated the Sunday pages to fit the established format of the book series, just because we resigned ourselves to the idea that nobody would ever do the job right.