This week’s question continues our year-end celebration of the good things about 2017:
If you were Santa and could gift everyone in the world with just one book, film, comic, TV series, album, or what-have-you from 2017, 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?
As its benevolent omni-Santa, I gift to the world a single five-second clip of 2017 TV: Ted Danson’s laugh from the first season finale of The Good Place. I’ve spent the last 11 months foisting this show on people, and it’s been largely motivated by my desire for them to feel the same mixture of exultant shock and joy I felt when Danson’s character, the angelic Michael, revealed the true design of the titular Good Place to its befuddled residents. The Good Place is great anyway—as you may or may not be sick of us gushing about by now—but Michael’s laugh is the rare perfect moment of TV, a combination of script, timing, and performance that left me staggering and rewinding it the first time I saw it, over and over again. It’s only right to share that joy with any members of the pop culture world who have still managed to miss it to date.
I won’t rest until everyone has accepted the greatness of The CW’s superhero shows, so I’d be happy to present everyone with “Crisis On Earth-X,” this year’s four-part crossover event that saw the heroes from Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash, and DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow teaming up to fight Nazis from an alternate universe. The previous crossovers—which began with comparatively straightforward Arrow and Flash episodes a few years ago—have all been pretty fun, but they never worked as brilliantly as “Crisis On Earth-X.” It was the first time the cast of every show really seemed to be working together in ways that felt true to their respective storylines and ongoing arcs, all while mixing things up with different characters that had never even interacted before—most notably in a blatantly fan-service-based hook-up that smartly evolved into some touching character development. “Crisis On Earth-X” has everything you could want in a superhero story, including huge stakes, tension-breaking humor, a tragic sacrifice, and even a wedding (or two).
We’ve spent plenty of time celebrating Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. I love that game, and I consistently delighted in discovering all the wonderful and touching surprises scattered throughout Hyrule. But there’s one wonderful and touching surprise that I adored more than I’ve adored anything else in a video game before, a side quest that elicited a true emotional reaction when it concluded, something that’s never happened to me playing a video game. “From The Ground Up” starts off unremarkably, as you purchase your own home in Hateno Village and one of the builders goes off to create his own town. In any other open-world game, building or buying a house is one of the most rote tasks you’ll do. But like so much of the open-world formula Nintendo tweaked and improved with Breath Of The Wild, this action led to a charming story masquerading as a series of chores. Tasked with alternatively gathering building supplies and finding just the right people to populate the new community of Tarrey Town, “From The Ground Up” sends Link on a series of quests that can only be accomplished by exploring the whole of Hyrule. There’s no way to speed it up, making it a lengthy endeavor that unfolds slowly, in-between other quests and travel. By the end, Link has helped build a thriving little town where, thanks to your involvement, two people fall in love and get married. That final cutscene of their marriage is one of the few long clips that earns its length. It’s absolutely lovely, and I was sad to see it end.
My gift to the world is my favorite comedy bit of 2017: Al Madrigal’s seafood revenge that closes his great Showtime special, Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy. It’s less of a bit than a long story about his getting back at the children’s dance studio that wouldn’t let him watch his daughter perform. The story is funny, but Madrigal’s delivery is what makes it as he goes from raging to scheming in a matter of seconds, then jumps into an aside about a seafood-related revenge story a fan told him. I’ve rewatched it several times since the special aired earlier this year, and it makes me laugh every time. Watch the whole special, but the story begins around the 41-minute mark.
I’d like to give the world this piece of media, in addition to the conditions in which I first encountered it: The “Every Country Has A Monster” host segment from the first episode of the rebooted Mystery Science Theater 3000, screening at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre on February 16, 2017. I realize it’s a specialized gift with cult appeal, but it’s as much about the feeling of being in that audience as it is about the content of the sketch. And the content is top-notch: The first of several earworms to roll out across the movie-riffing show’s 11th season, “Every Country Has A Monster” is a giddy marriage of clever writing and game performance, as Jonah Ray and his robot friends rattle off tongue-twisting rhymes about the many mythical creatures terrorizing specific regions of the globe (and Ray valiantly tries not to topple all the wooden “worldwide daikaiju” he’s placing on a desktop map). It was a positive bellwether for the episode and the remainder of the season, and as it played out in the theater, I could feel any lingering apprehensions and skepticism about the new MST3K being let go en masse. Here was a show that I figured was forever lost to the past, already finding fresh methods to amuse and surprise; to have that feeling while sitting among the people who’d made the show and Kickstarted the reboot into existence only deepened its impact. You might not be an Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, you might not even dig “Every Country Has A Monster,” but I can only hope that you all get to experience a moment of such pure joy with something you love as much as I love (and for as long as I’ve loved) this cow town puppet show.
My gift to the world would be the adorable puzzle game GNOG (pronounced, by all accounts, as “nog,” like “noggin”). It’s the kind of short, aesthetically pleasing, conflict-free video game we could always use more of, presenting players with a series of mechanical cartoon heads that unfold and spring to life as you fiddle with all their little nobs and levers. There’s no pressure to succeed or consequence for failure—just a whole lot of soothing sounds and delightful surprises brought on by poking and prodding at these cosmic craniums. It’s one of the year’s few games that truly understands the joys of play and touch, and it has distilled that sensation into an enchanting little package that anyone can enjoy. GNOG has been available on the PlayStation 4 and PC all year long, but it’s now playable on iOS, so even more people can use it as the grin-inducing, sedative it’s so good at being. Just be sure to turn your damn notifications off while you play.
I have already given Samantha Irby’s latest collection of essays, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, to friends and, fittingly enough, people I really only know through the internet who wanted a copy but couldn’t afford one upon its release. But I would give a copy to everyone in the world (and translated into the appropriate languages, because I bet Irby would love to see her poop jokes written in other alphabets) if I could. Irby amassed a following via her hilarious blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, and went on to win over Chicago at large as a performer in live-lit shows like Write Club. But her accessibility, both on and off the page, is deceptive. Not only are you never going to run into Irby, who’s somewhere in the vegan hinterlands now, but you’re never going to write like her. No other author is as capable of this free association of themes and shrewd humor, which often end up in heartbreaking and revelatory places. The combination of self-deprecation and self-awareness in We Are Never Meeting In Real Life is winning and hilarious. Alas, I might not get to play Santa, as FX has already ordered a series based on her previous essay collection, Meaty, which Irby is producing with Abbi Jacobson. But at least I know the world will be better for having more Irby in it.
I’ve long been a fan of Brian Eno’s apps, which transform your phone or tablet into a constantly shifting wave of colors and gentle ambient tones. His newest album and app, Reflection, came out on January 1, and it’s his richest and most varied yet, an endless shimmering sea of alien whirrs and chimes. I’ve returned to the app again and again over the year: drowning out harrowing small talk while riding the train, zeroing in on a book on the weekend, attempting not to have a panic attack while flying. Eno and his collaborator Peter Chilvers have updated the app a few times throughout the year, creating new color fields and assemblages of sound that reflect the changing of the seasons, and it’s just enough variation to be noticeable, assuming you listen to it regularly. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, a genial means to tune as much out of your head as you possibly can, if only for a little while. Think of it as a permanent companion in your pocket, the perfect thing to listen to when you don’t want to listen to anything at all.
We have spilled much digital ink this year—as have many other outlets—imploring people to enjoy George Saunders’ masterfully human debut novel, Lincoln In The Bardo. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you should read it, but that first you should actually listen to it. Yeah, yeah, don’t disrespect the written word, I know. But the structure of the book is so strange that it benefits from a little bit of help the first time through. Big chunks of the book are from historical source material—some real, some made up—and those are introduced by a dispassionate voice. (You’ve never heard the phrase “op cit” so many times before.) But the many, many characters in the book are gorgeously rendered in voice, most notably the two ghosts played by Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, two voices that couldn’t seem more opposite but who play together beautifully. (Another 150 or so voices round out the cast.) In advance of the book’s release, we were sent the audiobook first, and I couldn’t wait to start it, even though hearing it first seemed like a strange thing to do, for some reason. But it made reading the book even richer. I’d recommend ’em both, but only if you want to enrich your life.
In its third season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has thankfully ditched the latter to focus on the former part of that title, as Josh Chan has been moved to the background while Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) finally deals with her mental health issues. This CEG season has been the darkest yet, but also the most illuminating, as Rebecca re-enters therapy after taking an overdose of pills on a flight. In the hour-long weekly musical, Bloom and show co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna are making huge strides to destigmatize mental illness, so my 2017 pop-culture gift to the world is “A Diagnosis,” a cheerful, hopeful song about getting to the root of your problems: As scary as that might be, for Rebecca, it’s also freeing. Turns out that diagnosis is “borderline personality disorder,” and Rebecca’s inner trek to deal with that is one of the most fascinating and valuable journeys on TV right now.
We’ve already lauded the greatness of Plunge, the newest Fever Ray album. But even if you’re not a fan of Karin Dreijer’s singular Scandinavian nightmare pop droning, you should at least check out the video for her latest single, “To The Moon And Back.” To be certain, the song is great on its own: a bubbly, synthy Japanese cola commercial of a track. But the video is an immensely satisfying low-budget blend of Blade Runner-like fog machine and neon sci-fi, with some goofy tea party BDSM. Dreijer’s android character is woken up from a cryogenic nap and wanders through some abandoned structure dripping with plastic sheeting and rubber tubing. She comes across a group of aggressive costume-clad women who conscript her as their table. While it can read as the android being treated cruelly, Dreijer insists the whole thing was upbeat: “I wanted to have a role play that was fun.” More so than any themes of sexual awakening and inclusion, I just really love the low-fi energy of the video. It’s strange, a little off-putting, funny, and low rent.
Not to sound melodramatic, but 2017 often felt like staggering through a blighted hellscape where every brief glimpse of normalcy was immediately revealed to be a mocking reminder of a world now twisted beyond recognition. It’s perhaps no coincidence that several of the year’s best TV shows dealt with people similarly trying to to make sense of some form of the afterlife, and it’s from one of them that I give you this scene of The Leftovers’ Carrie Coon and Regina King jumping on a trampoline to Wu-Tang Clan. In typical Leftovers fashion, it was a moment of out-of-the-blue humor paired with one of heartbreak—here, Coon’s Nora explaining how, exhausted of living with grief, she’d finally picked out a random tattoo to cover up one of her lost children’s names, only for the “phoenix” she chose to turn out to be the Wu-Tang logo. What follows from there is 60 straight seconds of pure, swaggering exuberance, as Coon and King’s Erika jump around in the twilight to the Wu’s “Protect Ya Neck,” reclaiming a little bit of their sanity through a bit of fuck-it-all abandon. As we trudge into the purgatorial limbo of 2018, may we all find our Wu-Tang trampoline moments.
Similar to Sean’s response, my pop culture gift to the world is about finding some joy even as the world explodes around you. Most of you have probably already seen and enjoyed this, but let’s take a moment to once more remember the opening of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, and lil’ dancing baby Groot just having the best dang old time while a hellacious life-or-death struggle is unfolding all around him. That was what 2017 most needed, to my mind: Fleeting moments of enthusiasm and joy wholly unencumbered by the awfulness surrounding you. We’ll all return to the shitshow soon enough—hell, we live there, most of the time—so if you get the opportunity to forget all about it for a few minutes, and just dance? Let it fly.