As the world descends into further chaos and embarrassment, exacerbated by the Cinnamon Challenge Gone Wrong In Chief and his clan of subpar Fredo Corleones, we find ourselves taking more solace than usual in pop culture. Hey, the planet is probably doomed and will be destroyed by a temper tantrum over retweets, so why not enjoy a movie or two before it happens? If you ignore the screaming agony 2017 has caused so far, there’s actually been some pretty damn good pieces of entertainment out there. We’re more than halfway through the year and the sumptuous array of film, TV, music, podcasting, literature, and much more on offer has helped to ease much of our pain, or at least delay the inevitable for a while. In the spirit of sharing, and encouraging some discussion, I’m offering up some of my favourite pieces of pop culture from 2017 so far, and I hope you will too.
I am naturally inclined to love American Gods - it’s adapted from a book I love and the show-runner made my all-time favourite TV show - but even with my lofty expectations, I found myself utterly blown away by this hallucinogenic ode to the immigrant experience and the follies of faith. Where the novel is a disjointed but thrilling take on the Americana road trip, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s show revels in a baroque sensibility that’s part neon frenzy at a Vegas strip club, part high camp opera. The plotting is a little uneven, much in the same way the frequently plotless book is, but their show’s as intensely cathartic as American Gods: From the infamous night with Bilquis to the disintegration of Laura Moon to Media’s appearance in David Bowie mode to the staggeringly moving and deeply sensual love-making between Salim and the Jinn. While raunch is ten a penny on prestige TV, only this show managed to portray it in such bizarre, thematic and passionate ways. It’s a perfect mix of creator and adapter, as Fuller in particular is given free rein to paint his canvas with pools of blood and giddy excess. The best part? After a mere 8-episode first season, the fun is just getting started.
I must admit that I hit superhero movie burnout pretty quickly, and skipped out on pretty much everything Marvel and DC were churning out sometime after Avengers: Age of Ultron. The formula was fine but it did little to hold my interest, particularly since it seemed to be impossible to escape in the current industry of expanded universes and endless sequels. I wasn’t even going to see Logan until one of my editors asked me to write about it, but I am so glad I did. The experience of watching James Mangold’s neo-Western take on the Old Man Logan mythos overwhelmed me in ways I’m still trying to express coherently. This bleak, intensely political, sharply violent and fascinatingly metatextual film stunned me. I’ve seldom been this emotionally invested in a comic book character, but found myself close to sobbing by the film’s end. For all its darkness, Logan remains committed to hope (and a few much welcome laughs), which offers Hugh Jackman the opportunity to give arguably a career-best performance, not to forget the rest of the brilliant ensemble. Logan is the meditation of ageing and ennui you didn’t know you needed, and damn if it didn’t consume me emotionally and mentally.
No, this isn’t Shakespeare. Lady Macbeth was one of the year’s great surprises. I would tell anyone remotely interested in the film to stop reading here and just go watch it, because it’s best experienced with no prior knowledge. Here is a real diamond in the rough: A period drama that avoids the staid clichés of the genre, dives into darkness that evokes Haneke as much as the Brontes, and offers what may be one of our era’s great examinations on the perils of white feminism. Florence Pugh, who will be one of the great actors of our time in the next decade, I guarantee it, gives a chilling performance that consistently surprises. In the role of Katherine, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage who finds emotional freedom through an affair with the stablehand, Pugh manages to tread tricky territory between sympathy and horror. The moment you think the story is going to go in one direction, it violently turns another way before returning to its cool stillness. What seems to be a tale of female liberation slowly reveals itself to be a power play of whiteness. This is historical drama for people sick of bonnets and posh people.
Patricia Lockwood made her name through her delightfully bizarre social media poetry, published work in the New Yorker, and the viral hit “The Rape Joke”. Her mixture of smutty metaphors, surreal tangents and emotional whiplash saw her given the moniker of Poet Laureate of Twitter. Her first dive into prose takes the form of a memoir, centred on a return to her family home. After a medical emergency drains Lockwood and her husband of their savings, the pair move back in with her parents, including her Catholic Priest father. Having found a convenient church loophole, Father Greg was able to become a priest while retaining his wife and children, and so Lockwood found herself growing up with a gun toting, guitar shredding, right-wing Priest for a father, one who liked to wear nothing but the worst pair of underwear possible around the house. The set-up sounds like a Portlandia gag, and occasionally Lockwood’s tangents veer into self-satisfied quirkiness, but Priestdaddy excels when she interrogates the constant contradictions of her dad: Pious but selfish, driven but weird, a family man who doesn’t hesitate to call his own daughter a Feminazi. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think about semen a lot.
Karina Longworth’s podcast series on the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century has consistently been one of the strongest and most fascinating shows in the medium since its inception. In a crowded field where everyone seems to have a podcast (shameless plug!), it takes a careful mix of mainstream potential and passionate specificity on your chosen topic to rise above the ruckus and become this popular. After taking on MGM Studios, Joan Crawford, the Hollywood Blacklist in the McCarthy era, and Charles Manson himself, Longworth dedicated a season to the morbid topic of dead blondes. Under this framework, she examined the history of the film industry itself and the particular brand of women it likes to make its stars and ultimately its victims. From Peg Entwhistle, who committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign, to Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy centerfold turned muse of Peter Bogdanovich who was murdered by her husband, the Dead Blondes season is Longworth at her best: detailed, passionate, always rooted in empathy, and just pissed off enough at the world that allows such tragedy to happen over and over again. The set-up may have piqued the attention of the true crime nerds in the podcasting genre, but Dead Blondes was far more interested in the lives at the centre of such pain.
I may never find the words to express how much I love this season of Twin Peaks, which seems fitting. This confusing, often frustrating but deeply rewarding experience has yielded some of the most intensely satisfying moments of television I’ve ever seen, and there’s such joy to be found in giving yourself over to a show that seemingly has no desire to do anything other than please itself. I love reveling in the inimitably Lynchian dizziness of it all, and can’t help but get giddy every week when I remember we live in a world where there are new episodes of this show. Not for much longer, of course, as we’re halfway through this 18-episode run, but I doubt it’ll leave my mind quite so speedily. Damn good show.
Song of the year, no question. Enjoy!