As we approach the end of 2018, we are asking—as we do every year—one particular question of our staff and readers. Please let us know your responses in the comments to:
What’s your 2018 pop culture gift to the world?
I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a show as much as Big Mouth, Nick Kroll’s majestically filthy Netflix cartoon about a group of teenagers attempting to survive the horrors of puberty. And they are horrible, here taking the form of a whole suite of Hormone Monsters, an army of anthropomorphic masturbation aides, and the season-two addition of a malevolent Shame Wizard. Like I said: It’s filthy, getting away with sight gags and provocations a live-action show couldn’t dream of. But it’s also profoundly human, sweet, and sex-positive, showing the ways these various emotional terrors bring out the worst and the best in horny people of all ages. The first season was great, but the second, released in October, is even better; you can blast through both in one of the most horrific and heart-warming weeks you’ll have all winter.
There’s a purity and intimacy to theater that I find to be one of the more affecting elements of any art form, so naturally one of my biggest joys is watching bloopers of said intimacy. Most of the time, they’re simple mistakes or pratfalls of the bemused-chuckle variety, but every once in a while I stumble upon one that gets me, that genuinely registers as the kind of “holy shit, that sort of mortifying public mistake would make me wish the earth would swallow me whole, had it been my error; I sincerely hope that person can laugh at themselves and shake it off.” And the one I found this year made me laugh so hard while at work, my colleague Clayton was wondering if there was something wrong. So I would present to all this eight-second clip of what appears to be a high-school musical theater production in which the singer not only can’t land the note, but her voice erupts into a horrifying possession-by-the-devil sound, like she’s channeling a black metal singer. Better yet, thanks to the mistake, the line she stumbles on sounds like “It’s a gift from me to HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLL,” which makes it so, so much funnier. We all do dumb things constantly, but we should be so lucky as to have our unintended screwups result in this much happiness. If I could find her, I would give her an award for creating something so wonderful from what would otherwise doubtless be another so-so stage production.
For the past two years, people I know have been dividing shows and movies and books into two categories: those that do or do not soothe anxiety. I get it. I’ve been doing it, too. A former coworker lent me a Michael Haneke box set a year ago, and save for watching The Piano Teacher, I haven’t exactly been itching to get into it. And yet I don’t want to value, above all else, a work of art’s ability to relieve anxiety. People, especially in this country, should feel anxious. It’s hard to feel anxious watching Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, based on the cookbook by chef and host Samin Nosrat. Watching it, I wonder, how is this person so uncomplicatedly joyful? Perhaps it’s part circumstance. Even Larry David might have a few moments of pure, unfettered pleasure if he watched some nonna making fresh pesto on the Italian countryside (before calling out the old lady for not taking more care in washing her hands prior to cooking). But Nosrat is such a genuine, curious person, and loves food so much, that her energy is infectious. The show becomes more than a salve, encouraging viewers to take care in what they cook and eat, one of the greatest things you can do for yourself and others. It’s comforting to think about.
BoJack Horseman’s “Free Churro” is the obvious choice for a season-five recommendation, as it’s the best episode of the season and one of the most ambitious of the series to date. And yet, as perfectly poignant as Will Arnett’s delivery of it is, presenting a 25-minute eulogy as a gift to you all might be a little too on the nose for me (and the holidays are hard enough as it is). “Planned Obsolescence,” on the other hand, offers some of BoJack’s best slapstick and a family reunion that, while not as heartrending as the one in “Free Churro,” is both moving and unnerving. Elijah Aron’s script is bedroom farce of the highest order, sending Todd (Aaron Paul), Yolanda, and the Buenaventura family (voiced by Natalie Morales, John Leguizamo, and Eva Longoria) flying through doors and sliding through antique lube so expensive it’s kept in a safe—and whose destruction prompts the line: “My grandmother’s sexily spinning in her grave!” But the passionate flurry of euphemisms and Brat Pack-inspired porn titles can’t obscure a profound revelations about Todd’s asexual-but-not-aromantic status, Mr. Peanutbutter’s (Paul F. Tompkins) new relationship, and BoJack’s growing feelings for his co-star, Gina (Stephanie Beatriz, the season MVP). Having said that, my favorite moment might actually be Todd describing the anatomical accuracy of a marzipan anus modeled after Mr. Buenaventura’s. The only thing that could have made it better would have been if the John Hughes porn parodist were named “John Screws.”
Another year, another installment of me dumping a podcast into the world’s collectively waiting stocking. This year, though, it’s one you’ve almost certainly tried before, but might have fallen off of: Serial, which came back in 2018 with a third season that was not only significantly grippier than its interesting-but-esoteric second outing in 2015, but which felt, at times, like an attempt to correct the course of the true-crime podcast juggernaut that the show itself helped launch way back in the day. Centering not on a single crime, but a single place—the Cleveland Justice Center, where judges are mercurial and cruel, and plea bargains are the language of the land—Sarah Koenig and company dive into the thousands of crimes that happen every year that aren’t singular mysteries that captivate a nation’s attention, speculations, and hearts. But despite the shift from true-crime to true crimes, the show is no less compelling or heartbreaking, as in the second episode of the season, which introduces us to the monstrous, condescending, unconsciously racist judge Daniel Gaul. Listening to the breakdown of Gaul’s evils, it slowly dawns on you that Serial didn’t become a mega-hit because the case of Adnan Syed was some uniquely fascinating occurrence; it’s because Koenig and her team are just better at this storytelling than almost anybody else out there, including any number of competitors who they’ve now left in their wake.