Last year, back when I was a cultured patron of the arts, I put out a list of 14 things from 2014 I loved. I’ve been a bit busier this year. Between having a child and sidestepping a stem cell transplant, my wife and I have subsisted on a pop culture diet of Netflix material that can be digested in 10 minute increments (in between baby cries). Several of the gems I did find were from before 2015. So instead of recommending The Wire to fellow late adopters, I’ll limit this year’s selections to one 2015 release from each of the following categories: television, film, music, books and podcasts.
Podcast: Charles Manson’s Hollywood
2015 saw a resurgence of interest in the kooky serial killer—from Manson Family Vacation (no, not a Chevy Chase film) to NBC’s Aquarius. But the best work came from Karina Longworth, who produces You Must Remember This, a podcast dedicated to 20th century Hollywood. Even knowing the ending, Longworth’s 12-part series on Charles Manson’s Hollywood was the most riveting story I heard all year, filled with historical anecdotes, such as how Manson came to write a Beach Boys song. But Longworth goes beyond miscellany and trivia to portray Manson as a young man seeking fame in Hollywood only to see his dream wither. Whereas other wannabe stars from his generation shuffled back home to Des Moines and Oshkosh and joined the middle class, Manson manifested his eventual fame through a method more sinister than any pop song1.
Television: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
It would be easy to write off Crazy Ex-Girlfriend without ever watching it. For starters, it’s on the CW. Then the name: It must be sexist, right? And there’s the fact that it’s star is best known for doing musical parodies on YouTube. But the show, about a woman who rejects a partnership at a Manhattan law firm to move to the Inland Empire and reconnect with a summer camp fling only marginally aware of her existence, is a lot smarter than this surface-level analysis might suggest. For starters, it’s a musical with song titles like Settle for Me and lyrics like “baby, you can kiss all your childhood trauma goodbye.” And while the episodes still play like a wholesome sitcom in which the story wraps up in a nice little bow and everyone’s a little wiser, Rebecca herself never seems to learn the larger lesson. Instead, she twists each moral of the episode to justify searching for happiness via an external object of affection. Which is crazy. And totally relatable.
Film: Inside Out
When I first saw the trailer for Inside Out, I thought, “That doesn’t look very funny,” and I wondered whether Pixar had finally delivered a dud. Well, it was funny, and it wasn’t a dud. It makes a compelling case for the value of sadness and explores the consequences of pushing aside gloom in favor of artificial cheer. While that may not sound uplifting, the movie delivers joy and sorrow one right after the other, kind of like life.
Book: Modern Romance
I could have included everything Aziz Ansari made this year. Part sociology, part humor book, Modern Romance draws on research conducted by Ansari and others, including text messages from audience members during his stand-up tour. Anyone who has watched the excellent Netflix series Master of None will recognize the themes Ansari is playing with here, the main one being: With so many options, how do people decide who to spend the rest of their life with?
Music: 2:38 into “Should Have Known Better“
Sufjan Steven’s Carrie and Lowell is a jolting, lonely thunderclap of an album. I started listening to it while I was in the hospital and pondered the connection between the death of Sufjan Steven’s mother (the Carrie in the title) and my own mortality. The second track on the album, Should Have Known Better, begins with a somber melody with lyrics such as:
I should have wrote a letter
And grieve what I happen to grieve
My black shroud
I never trust my feelings
I waited for the remedy
But then, 2 minutes and 38 seconds in, the song shifts, becoming more upbeat. It sounds hopeful, like things are going to change. But the lyrics keep their tone:
I should have known better
Nothing can be changed
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
I should have wrote a letter
Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling
I find song lyrics particularly difficult to interpret, but what I take away from it—and from 2015 as a whole—is this: Sometimes the lyrics to our lives are sad—there’s no getting around it—but however the words go, we can still choose to sing them to a happy tune.