If I Had An Orchard’s Best Film, TV, and Music of 2018

Last year I combined my favorite movies, TV shows, and music from the year into one post. Why? Well, for one, it’s easier than trying to assemble three separate posts with a top 10 list for films, shows, and albums. Second, it allows me to prioritize which pieces of culture meant the most to me that year. So I’m doing it again for 2018.

These are not necessarily ranked by what was the greatest achievement this year. It’s more about what stuck with me the most, what left the biggest mark. Some years the movies or TV might be more impactful than the music, or vice versa. 2018 was a down year for popular music, as the big artists either sat out or delivered mediocre work, although there was still plenty of gems to discover; you just had to look a little harder. However, this was a fantastic year for cinema (there’s five movies in my top ten here), as I was left agape at that medium’s power in a world that is increasingly streaming-friendly. Enough summary though — let’s get to my 20 favorite things from pop culture this year. My full top 10 lists are at the bottom.

  1. God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty

I was not a fan of Father John Misty’s bloated, pretentious Pure Comedy from 2017, so it was a delight to be back on the Father John bandwagon this year with God’s Favorite Customer, which features more sonic variety and raw emotion. In many ways, this album can be seen as a course-correction to Pure Comedy. There are gorgeous melodies all over this album that aren’t just Josh Tillman sitting at a piano — although there are some of those too (“The Palace” and “The Songwriter” are terrific). “Disappointing Diamonds…” and “Mr. Tillman” bring back that breezy Father John sound that we fell in love with, while his clever wordplay remains intact (“Must have been in the poem zone” is the most amusing line of the year). Best of all, God’s Favorite Customer is less concerned with diagnosing the world’s problems (which could come off a tad condescending), and more of a witty probe of Tillman’s own psyche.

  1. Hope Downs – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

These Australian indie rockers know how to make pleasing rock that refuses to drag. Hope Downs, their endlessly listenable debut LP, clocks in at just 35 minutes. “Mainland”, “Bellarine”, and “The Hammer” are probably the catchiest, but there’s not a single track worth skipping here. Rolling Blackouts made the best music this year for when the sky is blue and your windows are rolled down.

  1. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Back in grade school, someone convinced our entire class that Mr. Rogers was a retired Navy SEAL with dozens of confirmed kills. Apparently he wore those long sleeve cardigans because he was hiding the many, many tattoos that covered his arms. Well, none of that turned out to be true, but it’s telling that everyone believed it. Back then, and especially today, Fred Rogers seemed too good to be true; he just had to be hiding something behind that soft smile. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? posits that the gentle, friendly, generous man we all watched on TV was exactly that in his personal life. It’s clear he cared deeply about children and about displaying kindness to all, which can seem weird in a cynical, ironic culture. Near the end of this life-affirming documentary, I found myself incredibly moved by the portrait of Mr. Rogers that it had drawn. This humble, unassuming, and sincere man seemed like the most radical person I’d ever laid eyes on.

  1. Killing Eve

When you let actors really sink their teeth into a meaty part, you get a show like Killing Eve. Actress and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge made a show that spread like wildfire through word-of-mouth this year. Not only was this BBC America product imbued with globe-hopping panache, but Waller-Bridge wrote brilliant roles for her two leads. Newcomer Jodie Comer plays the assassin Villanelle, while Sandra Oh is the titular Eve, an MI5 officer both fascinated and repulsed by Comer’s psychopath. Both actresses have an absolute ball playing with this dynamic and the show is incredibly easy to love. It was probably the most fun I had watching TV this year.

  1. A Quiet Place

In 10 years, after the release of the awful sequel A Quiet Place 5: Still Quiet, I predict we will look back with immense fondness for the original A Quiet Place. This movie has such a phenomenal premise and was so successful this year, that I can’t imagine how Hollywood won’t wring the life out of it with an increasingly inert horror franchise. John Krasinski’s creature feature is incredibly fun and frightening, but it’s also grounded in his (and his wife Emily Blunt’s) personal parental anxieties that mothers and fathers around the world can relate to. With hardly any dialogue and very little score, all the actors, and Blunt in particular, are able to emote fear, panic, love, and more with just their body language and facial expressions. This is such an original achievement that it will no doubt try to be copied endlessly for years to come.

  1. Black Panther: The Album – Kendrick Lamar

Even in a year without a traditional release from Kendrick Lamar, we get treated to his terrific soundtrack for one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time. Black Panther: The Album is a best-case scenario for when one artist controls a compilation album (think Kanye’s mediocre Cruel Summer). Kendrick isn’t on every track, but he’s the unifying creative force here. This is by no means his best ever work, due to the fact that a Marvel blockbuster needs a certain amount of accessibility. Still, the production throughout is marvelous, from the R&B songs (“All The Stars”, “The Ways”) to the harder rap tracks (“X”, “Paramedic!”, “King’s Dead”).

It’s not surprising Kendrick was able to bring in some of the hottest names in hip-hop and R&B, but it is incredible that all this talent on one record doesn’t turn into a mess. Familiar faces like SZA, 2 Chainz, Khalid, and The Weeknd are here, but so are lesser known acts like SOB x RBE and Yugen Blakrok. All along it’s Kendrick’s vision that keeps things humming. We’re left with a gorgeous and thrilling soundtrack to an epic, culture-shaping movie. That doesn’t happen everyday.

  1. Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects was the rare show that made you feel like you were dwelling in the same oppressively humid environment as its characters. Set in rural Missouri, this miniseries possessed such an evocative atmosphere that you were likely to feel beads of sweat form on your forehead and a need to pour yourself a stiff glass of whiskey like everyone on screen.

HBO really brought in the talent for this one. Adapted from author Gillian Flynn’s novel, she and Marti Noxon create a screenplay that works effectively as a murder mystery and a psychological probe of its damaged characters. Director Jean-Marc Vallee returns to HBO after last year’s successful adaptation of another novel, Big Little Lies, to deliver possibly his best work yet. His mastery of the tone and emotion of material that could turn into ridiculous camp in the wrong hands made for a fever dream you could get lost in.

Amy Adams is typically stellar in the lead role and Eliza Scanlen, who plays her mysterious sister, is a name to remember. That last scene is one of the most unforgettable endings in recent memory.

  1. DAYTONA – Pusha T

Pusha T often gets knocked for only rapping about one thing. Just like an author that exclusively writes crime novels, King Push has stayed in the same lane for his entire career. He raps about drugs and making money from drugs. And he does it better than anyone.

While Pusha hasn’t typically been the subject of mainstream conversation during his impressive career, he proved himself to be as savvy and imposing as ever during his high-profile beef with Drake this year. And, oh yeah, he released a fantastic record in 2018 as well, with all seven tracks produced by Kanye West. It’s not surprising that Pusha rapping over Kanye beats is pure bliss. At just 21 minutes long, DAYTONA is a concise and lethal album. Over Kanye’s delicious sample-heavy loops, Push remains true to who he’s been his entire career: Hip-hop’s preeminent crime novelist.

  1. Wild Wild Country

Netflix’s documentary series on a truly unbelievable chain of events in 1980s Oregon had me riveted over its six hours. Brothers Maclain and Chapman Way direct Wild Wild Country with attention to detail and just the right amount of style. Against a killer soundtrack and fascinating archival footage, they take you through the story of how a controversial Indian guru built a cult community in the Oregon desert before eventually taking over a nearby town. As things turn increasingly dark and bizarre, the Way brothers show us how religion, government, celebrity, power, and freedom crash together in America. You’ll be scratching your head wondering why you’ve never heard this story before.

  1. Widows

If you’d always wanted a prestige Oscar-minted filmmaker to go for broke on a heist movie, 2018 gave you your wish. Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) co-wrote and directed his version of a crime genre picture with Widows. With an utterly stacked cast (literally too many good actors to mention here — look it up), Widows is both somber and invigorating. It’s a big Hollywood movie made by a director with more on his mind than just entertainment. Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox’s marketing team dropped the ball, because the movie had limited impact at the box office when it should have been a must-see. Still, Widows seems like the kind of film built to stand the test of time.

  1. If Beale Street Could Talk

How do you follow up a modern masterpiece and Best Picture winner? There’s no right answer, but writer-director Barry Jenkins may have done it better than anyone. Adapting a James Baldwin novel that functions equally well as a love story and social critique, Jenkins continues to refine his storytelling and visual skills even after a historic success like Moonlight. From the lush score to the eye-pleasing colors, this is a drop-dead gorgeous film. It also helps that If Beale Street Could Talk is filled with actors that bring plenty of life. Stephan James and Kiki Layne are utterly convincing as the central couple (you really feel they are meant for each other), while Regina King delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as a strong-willed and emotionally wrecked mother. Melancholy has hardly looked so beautiful as it does in this film.

  1. Lush – Snail Mail

Snail Mail’s Lindsay Jordan is only 19, which is both obvious and shocking when you listen to Lush. Obvious, because she sings of heartbreak and unrequited love from a young person’s perspective. Shocking, because of the maturity and honesty on display in her lyrics, as well as her abundant talent for crafting a killer indie rock song. Whether it’s an upbeat singalong like “Full Control” or “Pristine” or a more relaxed track like “Let’s Find An Out”, Jordan is more than capable of making the superb Lush sound anthemic and introspective at the same time.

  1. First Man

It’s perhaps the quietest, least triumphant movie ever made about a Great American Moment, but First Man still soars. Once again, director Damien Chazelle has created something both old-fashioned and innovative. Venturing out to space after the magical jazz-musical successes of Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle forces us to realize the unimaginable cost of going to the moon by placing us inside the cockpit and the domestic lives of the astronauts that worked so hard to achieve our national dreams. Ryan Gosling is withdrawn and stern as Neil Armstrong, transforming a history book figure into flesh and blood, and Claire Foy is the emotional center of the film as his wife Janet. It’s a technical marvel (especially the climactic IMAX scene on the moon), as well as a momentous and resonant story.

  1. Homecoming

The creators of Amazon’s Homecoming pulled off a magic trick here. They took ten podcast episodes and made one of the most visually inventive shows that TV has ever seen. Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) directed all ten episodes with imagination and originality. Of course, he took his cues from 1970s paranoid thrillers to create the world of this mysterious conspiracy show, using the framing, camera techniques, and scores of those classics.

We can’t forget about Homecoming’s performances. Julia Roberts, an up-and-coming actress in her first role on TV, is splendid here, as she tamps down that natural Roberts charisma for a performance far more complex. Stephan James, Bobby Cannavale, and Shea Whigham are perfectly cast, giving highly memorable performances opposite a star like Roberts. This is a show that lodged itself in my psyche and refused to leave.

  1. Yolk in the Fur – Wild Pink

After an enjoyable self-titled debut last year, Wild Pink leveled up in a hurry in 2018. Essentially, their sound became widescreen and epic. They take their cues from Springsteen and Petty, as well as present-day heartland rock group The War on Drugs. Still, Wild Pink retains an idiosyncratic streak due to lead singer John Ross’ understated vocals and lyrical specificity (Tumblr, Uber, and a ouija board are referenced at different points). There’s something a little off-kilter about this band that sets them apart. “Lake Erie” and “There Is a Ledger” are the standouts, but the whole album feels like it’s optimistically reaching for peace and serenity in pessimistic times. Wild Pink is a band coming into their element in real time.

  1. Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves

The most pleasant surprise of my year was pressing play on Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour for the first time — and then subsequently returning to it time and again as the months passed. I was only peripherally aware of Musgraves as one of many mainstream female country artists, so I was blindsided when she released what would become my favorite album of the year. On this soon-to-be classic, she plays with genre in enjoyable ways, as Golden Hour’s brilliant production melds laid-back country-pop with disco (“High Horse”) and psychedelic folk (“Oh, What A World”).

As an often cynical person, certain lyrics that seemed a little corny and cliched at first became powerful with repeated listens. She’s not ironic or detached here, just infectiously sincere and open-hearted, welcoming life’s joys with wonder and awe. Musgraves was getting married around the time she was making the record, and you can hear that both in her warm and intimate lyrics and her lovely and crystalline voice.

Golden Hour is an album that I revisited throughout the changing seasons. In warmer weather, it made me want to venture outside and enjoy the sun on my face. During the winter, it has gone down like a soothing mug of hot tea. That’s a sign of music that will live on.

  1. A Star Is Born

When A Star Is Born’s intoxicating trailer dropped earlier this year on a hyperbolic, meme-crazed internet, many wondered if this would be the best movie of all-time or the worst. What was so exciting in that moment is that we really had no idea if Bradley Cooper’s massive gamble to remake a melodramatic Hollywood story was going to be an equally massive success or a career-damaging failure. While A Star Is Born is clearly not the best or worst movie ever, we can now comfortably say the end product was much closer to the former.

Against all probability, this movie just works. It beckons you to come along for the ride and entertains and moves you to no end. Yes, it teeters precariously on the edge of ridiculousness and melodrama. Yes, believability is strained at times. Ultimately, none of that matters when there are moments as exhilarating and indelible as Ally’s (Lady Gaga) first time on stage with Jackson (Cooper). Cooper’s directorial vision and performance are now career-defining and Gaga’s turn as that rising star will be referred to for decades (and might even bag her an Oscar). This type of art, both mainstream crowd-pleasing and technically impressive, doesn’t come around all that often. It seems we’ve decided to cherish it while it’s here.

  1. Atlanta (S2)

One of the great joys of 2018 was sitting down for a new episode of Atlanta. As the first scene opened up, there was just no predicting what you were about to watch. Each installment contained ideas that could be parsed for days. Money, class, race, celebrity — it was all on the table and more. But the emotion Donald Glover and co. brings to the show is special as well. In a single episode, Atlanta can range from surreal to melancholy to hilarious to devastating to terrifying to exhilarating.

The most memorable episode was the brilliant, upsetting “Teddy Perkins,” but “Helen” and “Woods” also provided a spotlight for bravura drama and character development. Director Hiro Murai continued to give the show its unique visual sense and the cast of Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield, and Zazie Beetz were marvelous again (plus, we are treated to some truly amusing cameos from Katt Williams, Michael Vick (!), and “Drake”). Remarkably, Atlanta Robbin’ Season somehow topped what came before in delightfully unexpected ways.

  1. Roma

In describing his very personal masterpiece, filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron described the camera in Roma as a ghost from the future observing events of the past. Throughout the film we follow a domestic worker named Cleo as she goes about her quotidian daily tasks caring for an upper middle class Mexican family. In stark black-and-white the camera patiently tracks with her as we see the increasingly dramatic events of her life, allowing us to feel as if we are silent witnesses from almost 50 years in the future.

You try to go into a wildly hyped film like Roma with fair expectations, but that’s impossible. In the opening minutes my disappointment grew as I found myself restlessly waiting for the movie to become a modern classic. That is no way to watch a film. As the story continued to slowly unfold at its own pace, I let Roma immerse me in its setting, tone, and rhythm. As it washed over me, the accumulation of its moments became extremely powerful by the end. Cuaron is painting his childhood memory on screen in an almost unprecedented way here, leading to a remarkable clarity of image and emotion. Roma examines the personal and the societal in wondrous ways, making the film feel both intimate and epic, like only the timeless classics of cinema history can.

  1. First Reformed

Weighty, propulsive, and masterful, no film this year imprinted itself on me like First Reformed. Paul Schrader’s anguished and cerebral drama of a deeply troubled pastor is structured like a thriller, but contains a spellbinding amount of psychological complexity. Ethan Hawke is at his restrained best as Rev. Ernst Toller here, and he’s probably never been better. His character unravels physically, emotionally, and spiritually before our eyes, as he deals with the effects of sin, loss, and climate change. It’s a mostly bleak vision of our broken world, but rarely have spiritual issues — faith and doubt, hope and despair — been rendered on screen with this much depth and feeling. And the ending is one that could be examined for ages.

Full Lists

Top 10 Films

  1. First Reformed
  2. Roma
  3. A Star Is Born
  4. First Man
  5. If Beale Street Could Talk
  6. Widows
  7. A Quiet Place
  8. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
  9. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
  10. Isle of Dogs

Top 10 TV Shows

  1. Atlanta (S2)
  2. Homecoming
  3. Wild Wild Country
  4. Sharp Objects
  5. Killing Eve
  6. Barry
  7. GLOW (S2)
  8. The Americans (S6)
  9. Narcos: Mexico
  10. The Good Place (S3)

Top 10 Albums

  1. Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves
  2. Yolk in the Fur – Wild Pink
  3. Lush – Snail Mail
  4. DAYTONA – Pusha T
  5. Black Panther: The Album – Kendrick Lamar
  6. Hope Downs – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
  7. God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty
  8. 7 – Beach House
  9. EVERYTHING IS LOVE – The Carters
  10. Mt. Joy – Mt. Joy

Steve Carell’s Brilliance on The Office Is Encapsulated in “Dinner Party”

If you listen to the creators and cast members of The Office talk about their time on the show, you will hear a repetitive theme: Steve Carell is a comedic genius. In the Rolling Stone oral history of one of the show’s best episodes “Dinner Party,” you see pretty clearly that they are in awe of Carell.

The director of the episode Paul Feig, who also created Freaks and Geeks and directed Bridesmaids, had this to say: “[The cast] were just laughing so hard and going, like, “God, this guy is such a fucking genius.” John Krasinski, who famously played camera-mugging wisecracker Jim Halpert, said: “Sometimes Steve would get frustrated when we couldn’t keep it together because he didn’t think he was as funny as we thought he was and also he’s more professional than all of us.”

The U.S. version of The Office simply doesn’t work if Carell isn’t as brilliant as he is as Michael Scott. Upon rewatch of “Dinner Party,” the excruciatingly hilarious episode where Michael and Jan have Jim, Pam, Andy, and Angela over for a never-ending dinner party in hell, you see what makes Carell as Michael one of the all-time great TV performances.

When The Office premiered in 2005, Carell’s career was just lifting off. Previously only really known from his stint on The Daily Show, he played Brick in Will Ferrell’s instant comedy classic Anchorman in 2004. The next year, he truly entered the cultural consciousness when The Office aired in March and he starred in The 40-Year-Old Virgin in August. By the time “Dinner Party” aired during The Office’s fourth season in 2008, Carell had proven himself one of TV’s most talented comedy actors, winning a Golden Globe and getting nominated for multiple Emmys.

Carell cut his improv teeth in the early 90s performing with Chicago’s famous comedy troupe The Second City (Stephen Colbert was his understudy at the time). It’s always tricky sussing out the improv from the written parts of a scripted comedy show, but The Office was famous for its willingness to let its actors play. In “Dinner Party,” Carell and Melora Hardin (Jan) are having the time of their lives going at each other’s throats. Michael and Jan’s relationship turns into a plane crash as the episode goes on — horrifying, but impossible to look away from the nosedive. The tension and awkwardness in watching these two interact is almost unbearable. While Jan closes her eyes and sways to her former assistant’s song (which was clearly written about losing his virginity to Jan, a fact everyone besides Michael quickly realizes), Michael uncomfortably fidgets in his seat. Carell is letting us know that Michael is maybe not as oblivious as he often seems.

One of the key scenes that required Carell to improv was when Michael and Jan are discussing having children in front of the entire party, which leads to perhaps the episode’s most memorable moment: “Snip, snap! Snip, snap! Snip, snap!” What makes “Dinner Party” a classic in The Office canon is that there is a weight and darkness behind the laughs. Feig recalls how Carell came up with the “snip, snap” line to cut through the heaviness of the scene:

“We shot that exchange, like, four or five times, and it was really good but it was superheavy. I remember we were all like, “This is a little . . . this isn’t as fun as we wanted it to be.” So I went over to Steve and said, “It’s awesome, we just need to make it a little more fun.” And so that was the take that’s in when he said, “Snip-snap, snip-snap, snip-snap.” That all came out of Steve being such an amazing actor and going, like, “OK, I know how to take it and make it Michael craziness.”

Beyond the improv, that scene also displays Carell’s ability to slay the room with a line reading. When Michael says, “You have no IDEA the physical toll that three vasectomies can have on a person!” the way he emphasizes “vasectomies” just kills me. This also goes for earlier in the episode when he takes a sip of wine, smacks his lips a little, and then notes that it has an “oaky afterbirth.”

Carell’s comedic timing is perfect in this episode, especially when showing off his tiny plasma TV to Jim and Pam, the scene that makes me laugh the hardest every time.

You get a glimpse into how awful Michael’s life is with Jan that the best thing about their home life is his crap 12” TV that he has to stand in the middle of the room to see. When he “folds” it into the wall, it moves about an inch. Then Carell tops off the cringe-inducing hilarity by putting out his hands and exclaiming “I love this TV!” You might wonder how the cast made it through scenes like this, and the answer, at least for this one, is that they didn’t. Krasinski reported in the oral history that if they started cracking up while filming they could usually come back. This one was different: “On that one, he couldn’t come back. There was something in the room there that was like an untamed animal, and we were just getting demolished by laughter.”

Of course, in an ensemble comedy you don’t do it alone, so props has to be given to Melora Hardin as Jan, who is more than a worthy sparring partner here for Carell. Whether she’s throwing shade at Pam or literally throwing a Dundie at Michael’s cherished plasma TV, Hardin deserves much of the credit for why this episode works so well.

Both Carell and Hardin are so adept at the improvisational elements of The Office and able to fully inhabit their characters. When they are screaming at each other near the end, you feel just like their dinner guests: It seems so real that you just want to get out of there.

The If I Had An Orchard 20: My Favorite Film, TV, and Music of 2017

As shows and movies pile up on my Netflix queue and I have less time to get to the theaters these days, I decided against doing a year-end Top 10 Movies or Top 10 TV Shows of 2017. It wouldn’t make a ton of sense if half the shows or movies I saw this year make the final list. Thus, I’m mashing it all together and doing my top 20 favorite pieces of culture in 2017.

This list will feature the movies, shows, and music that was most impactful and memorable to me this past year. Yes, weighing Get Out against, say, Lorde’s Melodrama is a strange endeavor, but that’s what makes this fun. Let’s get on with it.

  1. Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2

Before 2015, Chris Stapleton spent most of this century writing songs for other people, including country stars like Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Tim McGraw, and more. That’s a nice way to make a living, unless you’re blessed with a booming, goosebump-inducing voice. A couple years ago, Stapleton released Traveller, his debut album that went double platinum and earned him Grammy love. He became known as the throwback outlaw type that was actually accepted by the country music industry, probably because he wrote a lot of their songs.

Stapleton returned this year with From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2, two separate half-hour records filled with terrific country tunes that sound nothing like the quasi-rapping, overly sentimental stuff you hear on mainstream country radio. Hard-charging barn burners like “Second One to Know” and “Midnight Train to Memphis” will stop you in your tracks, while slower ballads like “Either Way” show off Stapleton’s powerhouse pipes, always brimming with utter conviction.

The content on From A Room (heavy-drinking man reflects on love, family, and how to live) isn’t all that original, but the music’s strength comes from its simplicity and honesty. Lines like “People call me the Picasso of paintin’ the town” and “We go to work, go to church, fake the perfect life” feel ten times more authentic coming from Stapleton than they would almost any other country artist.

  1. GLOW

Of all the new shows I saw this year, Netflix’s GLOW is the one that is built to run for several seasons. With a never-better Alison Brie at the center, GLOW (that’s Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, if you were wondering) features a hysterical ensemble cast of weirdos, outcasts, and losers. It’s the lovable ragtag group that you love to cheer for. In only ten half-hour episodes, this show was able to give us at least a handful of fully realized characters to be invested in. Marc Maron, in particular, is tremendous as the coked-up sad-sack director that you can’t help but feel for. Not everything GLOW tried worked out, but it was the funniest show I watched this year. It’s been renewed for season 2 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s around for awhile.

  1. The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani’s hilarious and heartfelt real-life story, co-written with his wife Emily Gordon, has to be the year’s biggest non-Get Out surprise. Who could have expected this little cross-cultural rom-com to make over $42 million at the box office? There are several genuine laugh-out-loud moments amidst a story that draws you in with its smart writing and lived-in performances. Speaking of, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are a delight to watch here. Although it may run a bit too long, I wasn’t mad that I spent two hours with Romano, Hunter, Zoe Kazan, and Kumail, who I wasn’t familiar with before The Big Sick. I’m ready for more of him now.

  1. Ozark

The best pulpy summer TV show I didn’t know I wanted, Ozark was not the most original thing I saw this year, but it could have been the most entertaining. For a show that closely followed the male anti-hero format, Ozark differentiated itself with its setting and pace.

Set on the Lake of the Ozarks in southern Missouri, the show depicts a rural environment that we don’t usually see on TV (although apparently True Detective’s third season will also take place in the Ozarks): a tourist town in the summer that is all but abandoned the rest of the year. Our protagonist Marty Byrde, a money-laundering financial advisor from Chicago, has to navigate this terrain, which isn’t so easy when the locals already have a drug operation set up. The smartest thing Ozark does is skip all of the background on how Marty got involved with the cartel (Breaking Bad already did that) and plunge us head-first into the action. This show moves fast, which means it has some credibility-stretching moments, as well as some painful dialogue. There’s hardly any likable characters here at all; still, Ozark remains inherently watchable. This might not make any sense, but to paraphrase The Ringer’s The Watch podcast, Ozark is probably not a good show, but it also just might be great.

  1. Win It All

I’ve always enjoyed the work of indie writer-director Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Digging for Fire) and actor Jake Johnson (Nick from New Girl), so Win It All was right up my alley. Swanberg makes small, low-budget fare that usually makes for pleasant, although not life-changing viewing. You have to respect his proficiency (he typically releases one movie a year and has a show on Netflix called Easy) and his ability to pull real emotion from small “low stakes” settings.

Win It All is premised on a couple of simple, yet enduring genres: The poker movie and the “bag of money” movie. It follows Eddie (Jake Johnson) as he is given a duffel bag of cash to store away for an incarcerated friend. The problem is Eddie is a compulsive gambler. Thanks to Johnson’s likable performance, I really felt for Eddie, despite his poor decision-making. You’re living and dying with him throughout his arc as he loses obscene amounts of money to gambling, tries to get his life in order, and then has to go back to the poker table in order to win it all back. Like all Swanberg films, it’s funny but not hysterically so, dramatic but not self-serious.

  1. SZA – Ctrl

Deeply personal and endlessly listenable, SZA’s Ctrl continually grew on me during the year. Over lovely minimalist R&B, the singer gets achingly vulnerable, candidly and daringly airing out her neediness and imperfections throughout the album with lyrics like “I hope you never find out who I really am” and “Do you even know I’m alive?” On tracks like “Drew Barrymore” and “The Weekend,” you realize you might be listening to a really special new artist. She gets a little help from Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, but all in all, Ctrl is SZA’s show. And she’s not afraid to be its flawed and human star.

  1. Fargo (Season 3)

First, a disclaimer: The second season of FX’s Fargo was maybe my favorite season of television ever. I’m such a sucker for Fargo’s style (the movie and show): a quirky crime saga peppered with dark humor. So when the third season debuted earlier this year, I tried to temper my expectations a bit after the first two seasons knocked me off my feet. In the season 3 premiere, a character named Nikki Swango (that’s a TV Hall of Fame name right there) uses an A/C window unit as a murder weapon. Needless to say, I was hooked on Fargo again.

Sure, this season didn’t have the ambition or execution of past seasons. Its characters were not quite as memorable, despite a fantastic cast headlined by Ewan McGregor (playing twins), Carrie Coon, and David Thewlis, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Swango stealing the show. Even if this is the weakest of Fargo’s three seasons, it was, as always, eccentric and entertaining and super compelling. In interviews, series showrunner Noah Hawley sounded uncertain about making another season. That’s unfortunate, because three years in, this show has become appointment viewing for me.

  1. Get Out

When I finally got around to seeing Get Out, the hype for Jordan Peele’s black horror/comedy had risen to unimaginable heights. With a budget under $5 million, it had made over $175 million at the box office and been praised to the rafters by every critic in America. With expectations this sky-high, I could only be (at least slightly) disappointed. One of my biggest regrets from this year in culture is not going to see it on opening night. The neutral expectations and full theater would’ve made my Get Out experience unforgettable. Even with my tepid enthusiasm after watching it on my couch, this is the type of film we need way more of — the kind of thriller that works as both unsettling entertainment and incisive social criticism.

  1. Narcos (Season 3)

After the first two seasons of Narcos followed Pablo Escobar’s rise and fall, there was doubt that the next season could remain as compelling without Don Pablo. As season three progressed it quickly became clear that this was not just the Escobar Show. Narcos had cooked up more quality product for us. This endlessly entertaining show is not afraid to be pulp history. It educates you with sensational doses of violence and politics.

The action this time follows the Cali cartel, which picks up where Escobar left off in drug-corrupted Colombia. Wagner Moura (Escobar) and Boyd Holbrook (DEA agent Steve Murphy) are gone, but Pedro Pascal is still doing fantastic work as agent Javier Pena, while the third season’s new characters give us interesting arcs to follow. However, what makes this show special is that it’s shot on location in beautiful Colombia’s impossibly green countryside or its narrow, claustrophobic streets. In a tragic development, a location scout was murdered in Mexico while finding spots to shoot season four. It’s suspected that the killing was cartel-related, which complicates our experience as viewers. While we enjoyably consume this kind of entertainment, the drug war rages on outside our living rooms.

  1. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

We waited a long time for the Fleet Foxes to return — six years, to be exact. Robin Pecknold and his band took a hiatus to take college courses and figure some stuff out. Crack-Up, their third LP, is less immediate than the first two albums. Its lyrics are more opaque and obscure; there’s no rousing anthems a la “Helplessness Blues” here. But it breaks new ground for them in fascinating ways.

Everything about Crack-Up is purposeful and inspired, from the album title taken from a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story to that gorgeous album cover of a Japanese coast. There are moments on here that are just as sublime and arresting and beautiful as that cover image: The mid-song tempo change of “On Another Ocean,” most of “- Naiads, Cassadies,” and the chorus of “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me.” Crack-Up is an essential album about your life cracking apart in frightening and revelatory ways. Let’s hope they don’t disappear for another six years.

  1. Stranger Things 2

How do you build off a surprise hit? Stranger Things co-creators the Duffer brothers found a way in their second season. They went bigger and bolder, sure, but they also brought back what made us fall in love with the first season. Before the carnage that would come at the end, we got to spend time with the gang at the arcade, watch them trick or treat in Ghostbusters costumes, and be totally delighted by the interplay between Steve and Dustin.

Stranger Things 2 had its weaknesses, of course: Notably, the “Lost Sister” episode and whatever they were doing with Billy’s character. Overall, this season worked for me, though. Bob “the Brain” and Mad Max were inspired additions to the cast. The last two episodes were dark, thrilling, and, most importantly, satisfying, particularly the last scene at the school dance. For such a nostalgic and charming show, there was deep trauma running through this season that made for riveting drama.

  1. Lorde – Melodrama

Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde, just turned 21. This fact astounds me. Earlier this year, she released Melodrama, the follow-up to her debut smash Pure Heroine. It’s hard to believe she just reached legal drinking age when her writing is so impeccable. Lyrics like “Summer slipped us underneath her tongue” and “It’s just another graceless night” are evocative and cliche-free. Where did she get her youthful wisdom and sense of perspective?

Lorde allows more color to seep into her music on Melodrama. It’s brighter and more upbeat (“We were wild and fluorescent / Come home to my heart”). It’s all killer and no filler. My standouts (“The Louvre,” “Supercut,” and “Sober II,” for what it’s worth) may be different than your favorites. This record sweeps us up into Lorde’s infectious nightlife and then, inevitably, exposes us to the cold morning light the next day. What Lorde does on Melodrama reminds us that pop savants like her are all too rare.

  1. Big Little Lies

In hindsight, how could this not have been entertaining? You get a bunch of movie stars together, film them in luxurious California beachfront homes, have them sip wine and trade gossip, throw in a murder mystery for good measure, and watch the ratings for your TV program soar. But HBO’s Big Little Lies was more than that. It was elevated by committed star performances and Jean-Marc Vallee’s (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) confident direction into one of the most entertaining and delightful watches of the year.

You can tell every actor involved is not just here to pick up a paycheck. Reese Witherspoon coolly owns the first half of the seven-episode run before the show shifts focus to Nicole Kidman’s emotionally raw performance. Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, and Adam Scott all provide compelling supporting turns to build out the scandalous Monterey, California community of Big Little Lies. At times, the rich-mom melodrama almost strays into self-parody, but overall, Vallee, who directed all seven episodes, keeps our attention on the complex relationships and the murder we know is coming. Also, shouts to the nine-year-old daughter with a young adult’s music taste for soundtracking the show.

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Matt Zoller Seitz over at RogerEbert.com put it well: “How many Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, Imperial walkers, lightsabers, escape pods, and discussions of the nature of The Force have we seen by now? Oodles. But Johnson manages to find a way to present the technology, mythology and imagery in a way that makes it feel new.”

Before the release of The Last Jedi, the pressure on writer-director Rian Johnson was heavier than Jabba the Hutt, and, polarizing fan reaction aside, he came through in the clutch. His Star Wars movie is narratively bold and visually magnificent. 

Johnson reveres this franchise, but he’s not afraid to break things and surprise people. Of course, he’s assisted by wildly charismatic young actors, such as Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega, and graceful veterans, like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher (RIP). Despite its two and a half hour runtime, this movie is riveting and complex throughout. I already can’t wait to see it again.

  1. Mindhunter

It’s hard to watch Mindhunter and not recall Zodiac and Se7en, David Fincher’s other serial killer studies. His Netflix show has the look of Zodiac, but the feel of those scenes in Se7en when the detectives (played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) are conversing with Kevin Spacey’s serene psychopath John Doe. Mindhunter’s intensity comes not from fast-paced action or grisly violence, but from simply sitting across from a mass murderer in a jail cell.

Holden and Tench, the FBI agents here, have wonderful chemistry that makes this show an easier watch than it should be, and Mindhunter visibly benefits from Fincher directing four of the ten episodes (that second episode travel montage is a masterclass). For a show with such a measured pace throughout, the end of the season fully arrests you with its tension-filled, Led Zeppelin-soundtracked climax. No show this year had me hanging on every line of dialogue like this one.

  1. Blade Runner 2049

Here we have the rare sequel that actually improves on the original. Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi visionary Blade Runner is easier to admire than truly love, and this year’s Blade Runner 2049 revived its world with layered storytelling and majestic visuals. This is, without hyperbole, one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins have created a visual feast on screen that is bold, inventive, and sumptuous. Literally every other shot is jaw-dropping. Besides Dunkirk, this was the best theater experience I had this year.

The story doesn’t 100% work, but plot isn’t even one of the top 5 most interesting things about Blade Runner 2049. The performances are fascinating. Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as a new type of “blade runner,” Harrison Ford impressively updates his classic sci-fi protagonist Rick Deckard, Robin Wright is so good she should probably be given a supporting role in every movie, and, as always, I’m not quite sure what Jared Leto is doing. This movie could have gone very wrong, but Villeneuve wouldn’t let it. Instead, we got a rich text that delves into what makes us human and what gives us a soul. It’s heady, heavy stuff on a gorgeous canvas.

  1. Lady Bird

Lady Bird is the rare movie that you would recommend to anyone. Sharply written with specificity and warmth, first-time writer-director Greta Gerwig discovers the perfect balance of levity and gravity in her coming-of-age dramedy. This is a “last days of adolescence” movie that doesn’t treat high school as a melodrama. Saoirse Ronan is the titular Lady Bird, and she carries the film as a character that is easy to love despite her youthful errors. We follow her throughout her senior year of high school in Sacramento (or, as she calls it, the “Midwest of California”) as she falls in love, fights with her mom (a note-perfect Laurie Metcalf), and longs to attend college on the East Coast (“where writers live in the woods”).

The humor is less uproarious belly laughs and more clever little moments that will surely seem even funnier on a repeat viewing. Lady Bird is so generous with all its characters, even the ones that could be made into caricatures in a lesser movie. And despite the light touch, Gerwig’s script deals thoughtfully with class, socioeconomic status, and parenting. Recalling Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and some of her boyfriend Noah Baumbach’s best work, Gerwig’s Lady Bird ultimately sets itself apart as a love letter to home, where we all begin to form who we will become.

  1. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

I don’t know how they do it, but The War On Drugs are so clearly inspired by past artists but still manage to create something that feels fresh and exhilarating. Their 2014 release, Lost in the Dream, was far and away my favorite album of that year. So when A Deeper Understanding dropped this year, I tried to keep my expectations mild. You can’t expect a band to top themselves every time, right?

A Deeper Understanding is a bigger budget version of their previous work. Tracks like “Holding On” (my song of the year) and “Nothing To Find” are catchier and hit harder. Everything sounds just slightly more expensive. However, leveling up doesn’t mean they have lost what makes them great. They still riff off the likes of Springsteen, Petty, and Dire Straits without sounding like a cover band. They still have that shaggy, laid-back vibe on “Thinking Of A Place” and “Knocked Down.” I’m frequently discovering new avenues and backroads to explore on each listen of this dense, exceptional album.

  1. Dunkirk

In a genre as well-trod as the war movie, Christopher Nolan found his own way into this rarely depicted World War II story, unfurling three timelines as an innovative technique to portray the battle of Dunkirk. But that’s not what you remember most about seeing Dunkirk. What remains with you is the white-knuckle suspense, the experience Nolan creates that drops you in the middle of the chaotic, deadly fray. There’s no generals strategizing in front of a map. No soldier repeatedly taking out a folded-up photo of their wife/family from their pocket. Just stark shots of a French beach and British soldiers desperately trying to survive. This is a different type of war movie, a thrilling and lean survival story that felt fresh amid a summer movie slate of overly familiar sequels and franchises. From Nolan’s widescreen splendor to Hans Zimmer’s cracking score, Dunkirk is as pure a survival story as you’re likely to see.

  1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

How lucky are we to be alive while Kendrick Lamar Duckworth makes music? With good kid, m.A.A.d. city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and now DAMN., I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we just witnessed one of the best three-album runs in hip-hop history. Almost everything about these three records is exhilarating, thoughtful, and virtuosic. I thought there was no way Kendrick could improve upon the jazz-inflected insight of To Pimp a Butterfly, but after DAMN., I had to, yet again, reconsider what was his best work.

There’s something for everyone on DAMN.: Ferocious, mile-a-minute bars (DNA), pop-star collab (LOYALTY), tender and catchy love song (LOVE), introspective rumination (FEAR). It may simultaneously be his most accessible work and also his most challenging. Although it runs through all of his music, what I found most perceptive about DAMN. was the careful contemplation of sin and redemption, both personal and societal. Kendrick has a way of examining religion and his own faith like no other artist right now. The rest of us are just thanking God that we get to watch him at work.

And my full lists:

Top 5 TV Shows

  1. Mindhunter
  2. Big Little Lies
  3. Stranger Things 2
  4. Narcos
  5. Fargo

Top 10 Movies

  1. Dunkirk
  2. Lady Bird
  3. Blade Runner 2049
  4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  5. Get Out
  6. Win It All
  7. The Big Sick
  8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  9. Logan
  10. Baby Driver

Top 10 Albums

  1. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
  2. A Deeper Understanding – The War On Drugs
  3. Melodrama – Lorde
  4. Crack-Up – Fleet Foxes
  5. Ctrl – SZA
  6. From A Room: Vol. 1 & 2 – Chris Stapleton
  7. Painted Ruins – Grizzly Bear
  8. Capture – Thunder Dreamer
  9. Sleep Well Beast – The National
  10. Something to Tell You – HAIM

Robots, Paper Boi, and the Afterlife: My Top TV Shows of 2016


In case you haven’t heard, TV is better than ever. Well, it’s certainly more than ever. As the era known as Peak TV progresses, it’s just about impossible to see everything. You can find a way to see most (if not all) of the year’s best films, but the year’s best TV? Good luck.

Even though we are well into 2017, I thought I’d glance back at the best television I did manage to catch in 2016. If you’re looking for an all-encompassing theme, it’s probably that TV is catching up to movies from a visual standpoint. As more filmmakers cross over to the small screen, TV has become more cinematic in look and feel (hello, Stranger Things). For awhile now, it’s been transforming into less of a writer’s medium and more of a director’s medium. It’s pretty thrilling to see so many TV shows arrive with their own original visual style, but the divide between TV and movies has never been so paper-thin.

These blurred lines were best represented by one of the best things I saw this year, period: O.J.: Made in America. It will probably win the Oscar for Best Documentary, but I watched it on ESPN so I’m counting it as a TV miniseries and not a 7.5-hour documentary. In the end, I don’t really care what it’s categorized as, just that it’s recognized as the monumental achievement that it is.

Aired in five parts through ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, O.J.: Made in America is insanely ambitious. In its retelling of OJ Simpson’s life, career, relationships, and (alleged) crimes, we are taken on a fascinating journey. Director Ezra Edelman masterfully reveals the massive, complex undercurrents of the OJ trial: be it race, class, celebrity, a ravenous media, or a flawed criminal justice system. O.J.: Made in America challenges all and comforts none. And despite its long runtime, it never feels like a slog. Even more than FX’s dramatized The People vs. O.J. Simpson (which was entertaining in its own right), Edelman’s documentary keeps you hooked and engaged from start to finish.

Whether you’re a sports fan or not is essentially irrelevant here. This is something every American should see, and I certainly don’t say that often.


On the other end of that spectrum was season 3 of Black Mirror, a ruthlessly dystopian show that’s definitely not for everybody. However, I find it totally enthralling, even though it remains kind of a hit-or-miss enterprise.

Like the first two seasons, the third has its peaks and valleys, which is probably to be expected from any series that is a collection of standalone episodes. “Nosedive” and “Hated in the Nation” successfully interrogate our social media-obsessed society, while “Men Against Fire” misses its mark in attempting to entertain and comment on war’s eroding effect on humanity.

Despite its move to Netflix, Black Mirror remains a smart, incisive, and ominous series. Even amid all the darkness, there is a ray of light in the middle of the third season. “San Junipero” is the most upbeat and enjoyably sentimental the show has allowed itself to get, although there is still a melancholy interpretation underneath if you’re willing to read it that way. The brilliance in Black Mirror is that it’s not about how technology ruins our lives, but how our broken human nature always finds a way to muck everything up.


While Black Mirror didn’t always stick its landing, HBO’s miniseries The Night Of was probably the most consistently excellent show on TV this year (excluding O.J.). The talent in front and behind the camera was too impressive for this not to work. Novelist and The Wire writer Richard Price and screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball) got together to create this riveting crime drama about a college student who sees a one-night stand turn into a murder investigation.

Riz Ahmed plays the student, Naz, and the always wonderful John Turturro is his defense lawyer. Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar’s comin’) plays a hardened inmate who takes Naz under his wing. All three actors are pitch-perfect in their roles, just as the writing and directing is equally top-drawer.

There was something so fresh about The Night Of that made me yearn for more of its kind. We don’t need every show on TV to run for a few (or more) seasons. Here was a highly compelling and nuanced drama that was too long for a movie, but perfect for an eight-episode arc. Just give HBO all the money to keep making shows like this.


Another new HBO show actually looked like someone gave it all the money. Westworld was a hugely ambitious swing at a sci-fi/Western genre mash-up. Jonathan Nolan (Christopher’s brother) and Lisa Joy co-created this remake of the 1973 movie about an adult theme park filled with artificial intelligence “hosts” where guests can come and live out their most debauched fantasies.

Season one of Westworld looks like a million bucks. From the action sequences to the sweeping desert landscape to the futuristic A.I. maintenance center, the budget had to be sky-high for a TV show to pull this off. Plus, the acting they brought in is full of respected veterans of film and TV, like Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, and Jeffrey Wright.

Westworld was not without its flaws, of course. The plot twists were so telegraphed that close readers of the show were able to figure out pretty much all of them. If I could go back in time, I’d watch the whole season without reading anything about it, although I may have been able to guess some of them anyway. For me, it was also more intellectually stimulating than something to invest in emotionally. The central issue for Westworld will continue to be how you make the audience actually care about robots. Overall, it was a thrilling ride that left me deeply curious for what next season will bring.


Conversely, NBC comedy The Good Place‘s first season left me in anticipation for season two, but it did so through a genuinely shocking finale that no one saw coming. This high-concept network show is set in the afterlife, which makes it a variation on Westworld‘s problem: How do you make the audience care about dead people?

The Good Place creator Mike Schur has proven his comedy chops time and again as a writer for The Office and creator/showrunner of Parks and Recreation. Now he has given himself the challenge of making a show set in heaven a) funny, b) smart, and c) emotionally rewarding. For the most part, The Good Place hits all of those notes. Eleanor (a delightfully self-centered Kristen Bell) has mistakenly been sent to “the good place” (don’t worry, not a spoiler) by angel architect Michael (the GOAT TV star Ted Danson). From there, various hijinks ensue throughout a solidly clever and entertaining first season. The show truly separates itself from other network comedies because of its interest in moral and ethical philosophy. The Good Place takes Eleanor’s quest to become a better person seriously.

And yet, I’m not sure this show would’ve made my year-end list if not for its season finale. Its mind-bending twist reframes how you see these characters you’ve spent the entire season investing in. I can’t wait to find out where they go with this show…


… is something I can easily say about FX’s Atlanta, which became a mini-sensation last year. Impossible to fully define or categorize, Donald Glover’s creation is stunning, unique, and worth every bit of praise heaped at its feet. The show follows Earn (Glover) and his cousin, upcoming rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), as they navigate the Atlanta rap scene, but Atlanta is sooo much more than this loose plot summary.

The sense of place and character is so strong on Atlanta that you want to live in this surreal world for much longer than the first season’s ten episodes. The Atlanta of the show is a strange funhouse where the quotidian and fantastical collide. The best part about it is that even as you’re trying to figure out what just happened on the previous episode, the next one is taking you in an entirely new direction. Even the “ordinary” plot-heavy episodes feel off-kilter in a refreshing way.

It helps that the characters are memorable and the acting is on point. In addition to Earn and Paper Boi, Van, Darius, and even one-episode guest stars leave you wanting to spend more time with these people (an obnoxious Instagram superstar named Zan is hilarious in “The Streisand Effect”). Atlanta‘s deadpan charms won’t return until 2018, but the first season probably merits multiple viewings anyway.

Those were the six shows that impressed me the most in 2016, but others were deserving of recognition as well: Stranger Things, for its nostalgic fun and creepy thrills. The second season of Narcos, for being a well-made and endlessly entertaining depiction of the Colombian drug wars. Veep‘s season 5, for being perhaps the most consistently funny thing on TV, especially in the thick of our strange political times. And The Americans, for being one of the best shows currently airing, although I’m still a season behind because, like I said earlier, there’s too much good TV right now.

A Bittersweet Salute to Grantland


I remember the exact moment I began to care about writing. It was 2009 and the Lakers had just won the NBA championship. Right after the game, I read a fascinating ESPN.com article on Kobe Bryant from a writer named Bill Simmons. With its entertaining tone and fan perspective, it was wholly unique to any sportswriting I had seen before. I was just about to start college, didn’t consider myself a writer, and didn’t have much interest in the subject at all.

The next two years I followed Simmons religiously. Sure, he was an obnoxious Boston fan most of the time, but he was a fun, relatable, and engaging obnoxious Boston fan. When it was announced that ESPN was opening up a Simmons-run site with 70% sports/30% pop culture content, I would say I was cautiously thrilled, if you can be such a thing. It sounded right up my alley, but an entire website of Simmons imitators made me a bit worried. Don’t get me wrong: I love Simmons’ writing, but a whole site of 4,000-word retro diaries and shaky sports-pop culture analogies supplemented by heavy doses of unabashed homerism? That didn’t sound so super.

Now, four-plus years later, my favorite site has shut down. 



If I had to tally up all of the work/class hours I have spent reading Grantland, I’d be a little embarrassed. From its birth in the summer of 2011 to its death this past Friday, I was hooked. No, it wasn’t a perfect website; it took them some time to find their footing, but, I was all the way in since its first post, where editor-in-chief Bill Simmons wrote that one of Grantland’s goals was “to find writers we liked and let them do their thing.”

Boy, did they. This was a site where you could read a deep-dive into how LaMarcus Aldridge will fit in with the Spurs right next to a “Definitive Ranking” of all the jackets in Star WarsThe smartest thing Simmons ever did was hire a bunch of people who don’t write like he does. Whatever you think of him as a personality or as a writer, the guy knows how to find talent. 

Unsurprisingly, the collective nature of the enterprise was one of the things that will stand out the most in Grantland’s legacy. When several insanely skilled writers all jumped on one blog post — like in their NBA Shootarounds, the Lightning Round takes after a new album or movie trailer release, or the After-Party group posts the morning following the Emmys, Oscars, etc. — it was unlike anything you could find on the Internet. That was some of Grantland’s best stuff… except for a Brian Phillips piece on Federer, FIFA, Messi, sumo wrestling, shark attacks, sunken WWII battleships, and well, just about anything.

For me, Phillips was the Danny Ocean of the group, the guy whose effortless brilliance seemed to consistently outshine everyone else. His longform work, where he gifted readers with poetic, transcendent,  astonishing, and deeply weird pieces on Japan (The Sea of Crises) and the Iditarod, are perhaps my two favorite things to ever go up on Grantland.

That’s not to say the others couldn’t bring it. Andy Greenwald is the most clever and infectious TV writer I’ve read. Alex Pappademas came with fresh, intelligent perspectives on Hollywood, and film in general. Zach Lowe gave us exhaustive and insightful NBA coverage. Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays did the same on the NFL. Molly Lambert wrote in a number of different areas, but I’ll remember her witty and incisive celebrity profiles, as well as her extraordinarily perceptive Mad Men recaps, the most. Steven Hyden arrived more recently than the others, but the former Pitchfork contributor wrote knowledgeably and entertainingly on all things music, past and present. Rembert Browne brought that uncanny ability to merge the endearingly silly with the seriously journalistic, often in the same article. And Chris Ryan could seamlessly transition between the NBA, Premier League soccer, and film/TV analysis with aplomb.

Those are just my personal favorites. There’s countless other writers/editors whose work I thoroughly enjoyed. If you read Grantland daily, you were left astounded by the vast array of style. The other best thing Simmons did besides hiring writers that were unlike him? He allowed them to “do their thing” by straying across subject lines. On the same day, you could find a writer penning an essay on the latest Netflix show and appearing on a group NBA post. I don’t know of any other publication where this happens. Grantland had a deep understanding that people who write well in one area can probably write well in another.

There was this unpretentious combination of high and lowbrow that they pulled of so well. For example, they somehow put together a Paul Thomas Anderson Week and a Rom-Com Week. The engaging reader-voted brackets to decide the Best Tom Cruise or the greatest character from The Wire were acknowledged as the meaningless, yet highly amusing, content that they were. Then there was Oscarmetrics, the hilariously absurd Mad Men Power Rankings, and the NBA Playoffs and March Madness coverage that made those events even more fun to follow.

Of course, Grantland’s podcast network can’t go unmentioned. Any subject you wanted covered had a podcast that irreverently discussed the latest news. The rapport between hosts was obvious, probably because many of them were already familiar before they became Grantland coworkers. After a few listens to the Hollywood Prospectus or Girls in Hoodies, you felt like you were in on the jokes and a part of the circle.



Time seems to fly by when you look back at a specific moment, like that first Simmons article I read six years ago. Then you realize just how much has happened in that elapsed time. I went from a holding an utter indifference to developing a serious love of writing. Now this blog exists. Now I write about soccer for a living. Now I know writing about sports and pop culture will be something I’ll likely do for the rest of my life. I’d say pretty confidently Grantland was the primary driving force behind this evolution. For the last couple years, my dream job was to write for that site.

What led to Grantland’s death was a mix of corporate politics, a post-Simmons lack of leadership, and its refusal to bend to the substance-free clickbait online culture to drive traffic. In the many eulogies across the web, you got the sense that Grantland’s influence had a wider reach than anybody thought. Its loss will be felt, but the talent is still out there to create something similar in the future — although its brilliance will be tough to match. We got four-plus years of thought-provoking, entertaining as hell, and routinely exceptional words on sports and culture.

I call this a bittersweet salute because I’m embittered and dejected seeing Grantland die. Still, I’m sentimental and grateful I ever saw it live.

40 Years Since “Born to Run”, Springsteen is Still Everywhere


Earlier this year, we passed the 40th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. Even those who don’t have much Heartland rock on their Spotify have to admit it’s one of the great rock records ever. For my money, it’s one of the greatest albums of all-time, full stop. But I’m not here to talk about Born to Run, as much as I want to.

I’m here because it seems like Springsteen is having a moment in 2015. From younger musical acts borrowing his sound to TV shows lacing their soundtrack with his music, The Boss has been everywhere recently. Now, Springsteen is an American cultural touchstone, so his influence is going to shape music for a very long time. It’s possible he is always in the spotlight to this degree and I’m only realizing it now because I’ve been listening to so much of his catalog lately. That’s entirely possible.

However, I can’t shake that everywhere I look, Springsteen’s shadow is cast. Back in March of 2014, The War on Drugs released Lost in a Dream, their meditative, alluring masterpiece. More than a few publications immediately detected obvious strands of Springsteen in the album’s DNA. That steady drum beat, those cathartic highs, the sudden urge to jump on a highway and drive through the middle of Nebraska with it on repeat. All of it’s there. Fortunately, The War on Drugs have enough ideas of their own to avoid direct mimicry, but they clearly owe a debt to The Boss.


Lost in a Dream set the stage for a 2015 chock-full of Springsteen references. When it was announced that Ryan Adams would be covering Taylor Swift’s immensely popular 1989, I couldn’t wait to see how he would handle straight pop smashes like “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space”. When his covers album dropped, it all made total sense when he went the Springsteen route, the original being an 80s-inflected album and all. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Adams said he thought to himself, “Let me record 1989 like it was Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska“. This is exactly why so many were excited to hear his take on the pop star’s work.

If you’ve never heard Nebraska, it’s unlike any other vintage Springsteen album, in that Born to Run makes you want to jump on the nearest table and sing your lungs out, while Nebraska makes you want to curl up on the sofa for a sad nap. It’s mainly an acoustic journey through various down-on-their-luck characters. The E Street Band’s usual contributions — those bouncy piano chords, those muscular drums, that blaring saxophone — are all stripped away. Adams treated “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” similarly, taking out the pop sheen and cutting the tempo in half. I don’t think he necessarily improved on either track, but he gave them his own Springsteenian spin.

For “Shake It Off”, he seemed to borrow a sound from “I’m On Fire”, the fourth single off Springsteen’s 1984 Born in the U.S.A., one of the highest selling records ever. The smoldering track moves at an even pace, but you’re convinced he’s about to break into a frenzied crescendo, a chorus with which you can shout along. It never comes, making the song even more memorable. In the same way, Adams slows down Swift’s glossy, defiant tune until it’s just burning embers on a fire about to go out. Utilizing this style, it doesn’t even sound that ridiculous when Adams sings “players gonna play / haters gonna hate”.

Around the same time Adams released 1989, Destroyer, a Canadian indie group, put out Poison Season, their tenth album. An unlikely candidate to use Springsteen as inspiration, the second track on the album, “Dream Lover”, sounds like (minus the lyrics) it could’ve been pulled directly from any ’70 or ’80s Springsteen and the E Street Band record. It has that hard-charging anthemic quality to it, with that heavy sax and loud drums. However, lead singer’s Dan Bejar’s voice is such the opposite of Bruce’s Man’s Man tenor that it’s a little disorienting. Other tracks on the record, like the excellent “Times Square”, have a vague whiff of The Boss as well. Hell, there’s even a song titled “The River“. Another instance of an artist using Springsteen’s influence to create their own original work.

This has even spread to TV this year. When Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” since 1999, waved his goodbye in the fantastic final episode, guess who was there to play him off. Now, Stewart grew up in New Jersey, Springsteen’s home state, so it was no shock that Stewart brought him in to blast “Born to Run” for his farewell. Still, seeing Springsteen up there for one of the more significant TV moments in recent memory made perfect sense for a year in which I had encountered him everywhere.


Finally, I’ll end with a miniseries that used him so overtly, and with such frequency, that it almost tipped over into obsessive fandom. “The Wire” creator David Simon’s HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero” basically kept Bruce on in the background throughout all six hours. This being a show set in late-80s Yonkers, New York, it’s not difficult to envision our main character, mayor Nick Wasicsko, as a Springsteen superfan. “Gave It a Name“‘s ruminative guitar opens the first episode, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” plays over Wasicsko fixing up his house, and Simon even throws in “Secret Garden” during a tender moment, despite its prominent use in that little-seen 1996 picture, Jerry Maguire.

“Show Me a Hero” is a gritty and true-to-life series, sometimes depressing, other times cathartic. Kind of like Springsteen’s music, which makes him the perfect soundtrack for such a show.

There’s plenty of unfortunate aspects about living in the Music Streaming Age (especially for current artists), but one of the positives is that we can go back through older artists’ discographies at will. If I get really into Fleetwood Mac, I don’t have to go digging around for an old copy of Rumours. I can just cue it up on Spotify. This means we can get familiar with music from the past in a way we were never previously capable of, which helps us understand today’s music on a deeper level.

Like I said, I’m not sure if Springsteen is having a moment in 2015 or if I’m just recognizing more the effect his wake is having on current artists’ boats. Either way, forty years on from the moment he burst into the mainstream, a 66-year-old from Jersey continues to find strands of his work in all kinds of culture.

Rian Johnson’s Crucial Influence on Breaking Bad


When one of your favorite film directors works on one of your favorite TV shows, that’s pretty incredible luck. If a TV director graduates to film, they tend not to look back. If a director starts in film, they tend not to usually stray much into TV. Fortunately, Rian Johnson isn’t either of those directors.

After writing and directing Brick (2005), his hard-boiled teenage noir, and The Brothers Bloom (2008), his probably-too-clever-for-its-own-good-but-still-awesome-anyway con-men dramedy, Johnson stepped in to direct a season 3 episode of Breaking Bad, a well-rated AMC drama that had yet to burst through the cultural stratosphere, as it would a couple years later.

Like I said, the chances of a feature film director doing TV work is unusual, but Breaking Bad and Johnson turned out to be a natural fit. Full disclosure: Johnson’s previous efforts — the two I mentioned and Looper, which I’ll get to — are three of my personal favorites in the last decade. He’s the kind of movie geek writer-director that has a truly ridiculous amount of intriguing ideas rattling around in his brain, so each of his three films have their own quirks, fun moments, and Big Ideas. My only complaint is that he’s only made three movies in ten years.

Thus, it should be no surprise that I would rank two of Johnson’s three episodes in Breaking Bad’s top 5 ever. TV is essentially a writer’s medium, but some shows, particularly Golden Age shows, leave room for a director to imprint their indelible signature. With its easily identifiable visual style, Breaking Bad is surely a director’s showcase.

I decided to analyze Johnson’s three episodes, taking a close look at the visual language of each, not necessarily the dialogue, since he didn’t write it. Let’s start with quite possibly the greatest bottle episode in TV history.

Note: Spoilers abound


Season 3, episode 10
May 23, 2010

What in the world is a bottle episode? When a show’s budget is getting a little tight, you might see its makers craft an episode that takes place in one location and only features a few characters, at most. It’s basically a minimalist exercise brought on by budgetary necessities. Breaking Bad had kind of done this before with “4 Days Out” in season 2, but “Fly”, the late season 3 showstopper, was a different animal.


Opening with a super-closeup of a fly had to be a strange sight for fans expecting us to jump right into action like Breaking Bad does so often. It was the first sign that this would be a polarizing episode among viewers. Post-opening credits, we only see a blinking red light filling the screen. It turns out it’s from the smoke detector Walt is staring at while he can’t sleep. We can see early that Walt is in a distressed state.

The clever thing about “Fly” is that it doesn’t mind giving us a helping of comedy with its emotional distress. In fact, the first half is basically slapstick entertainment as Walt tries in vain to kill a lone fly buzzing throughout his underground meth lab: Look, there’s Walt comically swatting at the fly with his clipboard! And there he is throwing his shoe at it! Of course it got stuck in the light fixture. How hilarious!


However, what begins as slapstick comedy suddenly shifts into an emotionally devastating, philosophical slow-burn. After a concerned Jesse gives Walt sleeping pills to knock him out so he will quit worrying about the stupid fly, they continue attempting to swat it while a fatigued Walt gets ruminative on his sorry state. He rambles about how he wish he would’ve died at a time when his family appreciated him more. Then he complains about Skyler’s lack of understanding by basically saying that there “must exist some combination of words” to make her see why I need to produce and sell methamphetamine. That’s a classic Walt line right there — always thinking he can explain away his horrible actions. He finishes by noting that science teaches us that life is random, but his own experiences (like him meeting Jesse’s girlfriend’s father on the night he causes a plane crash) tell him otherwise. It only becomes more clear throughout the series that Breaking Bad’s own philosophy suggests life is not random, that things like morality and fate are very much real.

“Fly” climaxes with an incapacitated Walt barely holding a ladder steady while Jesse questionably stands atop it trying to finally get the fly. For a hot second, we are led to believe Walt is going to confess his role in Jane’s death. He doesn’t, but the tension between guilt-ridden Walt and unknowing Jesse is unbearable.


This is a hugely stylistic hour, even for Breaking Bad. Almost the entire episode takes place in the lab between Walt and Jesse. Of course, Johnson provides us with several astounding shots and camera movements, such as the fly landing on Walt’s glasses or the camera attached to Jesse’s brush as he cleans the meth-making containers. However, it’s the haunting, evocative last sequence where a fly buzzes around Walt’s bedroom as he tries to sleep that leaves the lasting impression. It teems with foreshadowing and dread. After “Fly”, Johnson was officially 1-for-1.


Season 5, episode 4
August 12th, 2012

When “Fifty-One” aired, Johnson’s biggest film to date, Looper, was about a month away from hitting theaters. This means that just as Johnson’s career was about to go mainstream, Breaking Bad was simultaneously taking off into the stratosphere due to everyone raving about it like it was actual meth.

Not nearly as stylistic as “Fly”, this ep advances the Lydia plot and takes stock of the Walt/Skyler relationship after the former moved back into the White household without total consent from Skyler. However, there are still a couple of gorgeously compelling shots to note. First is the closeup of Walt’s bald head bleeding as he shaves it — a strangely jarring visual.


Then there is the subtle elegance of the shot of Skyler underwater in the White’s pool. She waded in as Walt was blabbing about his recovery, like she couldn’t stand to hear another minute of his bluster. As she floats, her blue skirt illuminates her from behind, creating an eye-popping, instantly memorable image.


While “Fifty-One” surely isn’t as riveting as most episodes, the emotional violence between this messed up married couple is devastating. Walt challenges Skyler on what her alternative plan is to keeping their children safe from the dangers of the meth business. She tells him that she will just have to wait for the cancer to come back, delivering a haymaker to a stunned Walt. Johnson ends this quiet episode with a closeup of Walt’s watch ticking away his life, foreshadowing his certain downfall.



Season 5, episode 14
September 15th, 2013

Over a year and ten episodes later, we come to Breaking Bad’s finest hour. In the third-to-last ep, creator Vince Gilligan and his cast crank up the drama to 11 for the final stretch. “Ozymandias”, directed by Rian Johnson, is remarkably cinematic (wonder where that came from…) while launching the story forward in heartrending fashion.

The beginning transports us back in time to Walt and Jesse’s first RV cook out in the New Mexico desert. We see Walt before he lost his hair and Jesse before his soul had been crushed. Walt treks out to call (and lie to) Skyler. It’s a joy to see these characters again before everything goes to hell. Apparently, these were the last scenes the actors shot before wrapping. It was like the show was giving us one last breather.

Of course, it doesn’t last long, because this scene fades out into the bloody aftermath of Uncle Jack’s shootout with Hank. Johnson presents a few wide-angle beautiful landscape shots to show just how marred everything is by horrific violence and nihilistic greed.

After Walt and Nazi Jack briefly negotiate over Hank’s life, Jack raises his pistol and executes Walt’s brother-in-law. When the shot rings out, Walt drops to his knees in a perfect low angle, with the sun flaring into the picture behind him. Next, he topples to his side and Johnson brings the camera in on just his face. Of all the artfully composed shots in Breaking Bad, this one is most meaningful and evocative. Here it helps to understand a little of the episode’s background.


Ozymandias is a sonnet by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here’s Bryan Cranston reciting it in his darkest and most epic voice.

Ramesses II, also known as Ozymandias, was one of the Egyptian Empire’s most powerful pharaohs. His statue, broken and lying on its side in the middle of the desert, was brought back to Great Britain in 1818. In advance of the statue’s head arriving, Shelley penned a spectacular poem about the impermanence of even the greatest empires and the dangers inherent in overconfidence. It became maybe the most recognizable sonnet in history.

For this episode, Johnson suggests that Walt and Ramesses aren’t so different. Both of them toiled to build up empires, only to end up with their head in the dust. Walt has spent so much time telling himself and those around him that he can keep his family safe, but now, with his life unraveling, he lies in ruin. The parallel between Walt and the old pharaoh Johnson evokes in this one image is beyond wrenching.

However, the tailspin isn’t over. Next, Walt gives up Jesse to Uncle Jack and requests him killed. They decide not to, but before the neo-Nazis kidnap Jesse to force him to cook meth again (what a sentence), Walt informs him that he watched Jane die, and did nothing to help her. In “Fly”, if you recall, he edged up to the precipice of admitting this out of guilt, but also respect for Jesse. Here, he actually does it, but out of nasty, knife-twisting spite. Incredibly, the performances that Johnson gets from his actors never tips into melodrama, despite the insane emotional violence taking place.

Similarly, the scene back at the White house is a freight train of emotional force, but somehow Johnson and his actors walk the tightrope of melodrama like the pros they are. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in all of dramatic television. You know the one I’m talking about: a distraught yet determined Walt comes back to pack up and disappear when Skyler and Walt Jr. show up and, thinking he’s been taken into custody, question why he’s there. Walt does his usual distracting jibber-jabber, but lets it slip that Hank is dead. Still set on leaving, Walt demands his family pack up their things. The next shot we see still brings chills down my spine — and I’ve seen it three or four times. Phone or knife. Knife or phone.


When she picks up the knife, things get real frantic. She cuts his hand (in virtuoso slow-motion from Johnson) and a domestic knife-swinging scuffle ensues. I’m sure they used doubles for this, but the terrifyingly natural physicality of the fight left me thinking anything could happen. By the time Jr. defends his mother, Walt takes Holly, and Skyler desperately runs into the street as that horribly intense music pulsates, you’ve completely forgotten to breathe for about six straight minutes. It’s scorched earth televisual family drama of the highest caliber. This is thanks to Johnson’s control of the images and the performances he gets. You’d be hard-pressed to find a scene where Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, and Cranston are more on top of their game.

Later, there is the phone call between Walt and Skyler while the police listen in. Walt verbally brutalizes his wife, telling her these are the consequences for disobeying him. To me, this is Walt attempting to clear Skyler’s name in front of the police, but the darkness in his voice reminds us of Heisenberg, even if that persona has totally come apart at the seams by this point. The brilliance in this scene is the juxtaposition of the two calls, this one and the flashback at the episode’s beginning. It all started so harmlessly. He was just making a little money to provide for his wife and two children after the cancer takes him. Now his horrid actions have brought destruction on every facet of his life.


From the intimate small-scale of “Fly”, to the quiet damage of “Fifty-One”, to the grand dizzying highs of “Ozymandias”, Rian Johnson left his mark on one of the great TV shows of all-time. That would be a career highlight in and of itself, but, probably as I type, Johnson is currently working on Star Wars: Episode VIII. So, yeah. This guy is only 41, has three excellent films behind him, and a freaking Star Wars movie on the way. I don’t think he needed Breaking Bad on his resume, but thank goodness he wasn’t too cool for TV.

How Fargo Represents the Best of TV’s New Breed


Over the last decade-plus of television, you were introduced to the Anti-Hero. Not that movies, TV, and books didn’t have complicated, morally gray leading characters before, it’s just that beginning with The Sopranos in 1999, it became the template for intelligent, well-made prestige TV shows. This led to a kind of Golden Age inhabited by your Walter Whites and Don Drapers, but also your run-of-the-mill knockoffs like Ray Donovan and Low Winter Sun (I haven’t seen either of these shows, which is totally unfair of me, but they are both horribly reviewed and haven’t found a wide audience, so they work as examples). Naturally an Anti-Hero fatigue has set in. Something would have to replace it.

The first season of FX’s Fargo went by fast. With only 10 episodes, it wasn’t able to gain the footing necessary to become a buzzy, water-cooler kind of show. This is a shame, because Fargo could be TV’s future.

A Burgeoning Format

Fargo-Billy-Bob-ThorntonBeginning (from what I can recall) with House of Cards, prestige cable shows have been increasingly moving to a short-run, binge-friendly format. Netflix is obviously the key culprit. They lured Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright with a 13-episode season that shoots quickly (so they can get back to movies) and is dumped onto Netflix’s servers all at once, ready to be devoured. It was a success that put Netflix’s original content on the map.

Then there is the season-by-season method cable networks have been employing. Shows like True Detective, and now Fargo, create a full season, wrapped around one main plot and a few characters. At season’s end, the strategy is to move onto another storyline with a brand new cast, but keep the setting and tone. They can draw movie stars with the benefit of playing a role over 12 hours of runtime, not just two. It’s a way for them to challenge themselves by sinking their teeth into a character, without getting locked down to a network contract. One season, and they’re gone. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson did this in True Detective, and Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman do this in Fargo.

Billy Bob, in particular, is undeniably perfect for his character, Lorne Malvo. He possesses the range necessary to sweep from polite, oddball Minnesotan to cold, amoral nihilist that the role calls for. For a guy who doesn’t do much quality work anymore, Thornton clearly had fun biting into Malvo (his disturbing hairstyle alone is worth the watch). In fact, one of his best roles was in The Man Who Wasn’t There, a 2001 neo-noir written and directed by the Coen brothers, also responsible for the 1996 film Fargo, which, obviously, the show was inspired by.

Film Inspiration


Creator Noah Hawley retained the tone and atmosphere of the film, but wrote an entirely new plot and characters (even if they do smell like Coen characters). It’s actually amazing more original shows don’t do this. You take an existing universe from the movies and design it for television, keeping the frame, but filling in a new picture. The story centers around Malvo wreaking havoc on the small town of Bemidji, Minnesota with his violence and terror, beginning with his influence on timid Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). Police in the form of Deputy Molly Solverson (I mean, that name) and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) follow the bodies and try to piece together what is happening.

When I say more shows should do what Fargo did, I don’t think everyone should try. Hawley does a remarkable job of creating his own world of amusing circumstances and droll characters. The supporting actors on this project are a treat on their own. Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad‘s Saul Goodman) plays Police Chief Bill Oswalt, Adam Goldberg fits in effectively for a few eps, and even Key and Peele make an appearance late in the season. Part of the draw of Fargo (and Fargo, the movie) is the dry humor of northern small-town politeness in funny accents and behavior. The people of Fargo (the show, not the actual town) are courteous and deferential-to-a-fault. Yet, beneath the plaid coats and the “Oh, you betcha”s sits an undercurrent of deep-seated dissatisfaction that manifests itself in murderous ways for some of these characters. Kind of like how underneath the glamorous ’60s-era clothing and style of Mad Men sits a gnawing existential dread.

In the film, greed drives the characters. The Coens were probably making a bigger statement than this, but the basic plot shows each character’s (besides Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson) lust for money. Hawley’s show takes on a deeper, philosophical feel. This show ponders right and wrong, good and evil, and riddles. That last one is key, or else Fargo would be too self-serious for its own good. It holds onto just enough of the film’s comedic inclinations.

Anti-Villain Television


However, as a post-Golden Age TV show, Fargo needs to be more than just an elegantly made “miniseries” with a sophisticated tone. Shows like True Detective have already cornered the market on that – and HBO draws bigger talent. What Fargo does better than just about any new show is ignore the modern compulsive desire to create an anti-hero.

The show begins by introducing us to Freeman’s Nygaard, who at first glance appears to be the spineless Average Joe that undergoes a dark transformation that leads to questionable moral choices, causing the audience to try and justify our empathy for this charming monster. There’s just one problem: Nygaard isn’t likable at all. In fact, he’s quite loathsome and (don’t worry, no major spoilers) by the end of the series, he’s revealed to be just as spineless as we originally thought.

No, the star of Fargo are the good guys – well, more accurately, the decent guys. Decency reigns in this season of television, an outcome that sprouts naturally from the show’s setting. We are used to seeing dramatic heroes swoop in to save the day, but the men and women of Bemidji are just doing their jobs, then going home and watching some Deal or No Deal.

Not that the unspeakable acts of violence that occur (they hit hard, but are not as graphic as they could be, fortunately) in their town don’t have an effect. This is still a dark and heavy show in the end, which is part of what is so refreshing. Fargo seems to have all of the anti-hero show tropes, yet subverts it by bringing good and evil, unambiguously, into the discussion. It’s good to know there is more than one way to do an elegant and complex TV show.