Monthly Archives

February 2017

A Post – O.J. World

February 12, 2017

Dear Reader,

It’s unsettling to watch a period piece about the 1990s. Period pieces about the 1890s made up a decent majority of what I watched throughout high school, but my mid-twenties seem suddenly marked by more than just 9os boy band nostalgia. This whole year has been rife with 90s references that I am just a few years too young to understand. The history of Hilary, for instance, is something I have had to educate myself on. For me, Hilary is a Senator, then a candidate, then a Secretary of State. This is where she begins for me. When her campaign ads and her opponents talk about her time as First Lady and this scandal or that achievement, the references mostly don’t reach me. But there’s this scene in The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story where Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark walks into a courtroom ready to do battle against a wife-beating accused murderer. All anyone cares about is her haircut. In that moment, I think I understood more about Hilary Clinton than I ever have.The series is a study in all the Murphy/Falchuk team can do right. It examines the O.J. crime, trial, and acquittal in as much granular detail as a contemporary audience can tolerate. There are many characters but each are established and given proper motivation and focus; we see Robert Kardashian, for instance, take the daily journey from presumption of innocence to queasy certainty of guilt. In a fascinating reversal of this journey we see O.J. himself seem to walk that journey in reverse.I came to The People V. O.J. Simpson knowing very little about the story. A good deal of the intended audience must be those who watched the original trial and I was just a bit too young. The kind of national obsession it commanded is something I have experienced in various smaller and more tawdry ways: Casey Anthony, Anthony Wiener, the Kardashians. But watching this fictionalization of the O.J. phenomenon has shed light for me on all that has come after. I live in a world where I am frequently asked to care about Kim Kardashian without really understanding where that demand came from. But theres something about seeing those mini Kardashians giddily caught up in their father’s O.J.-adjacent fame. It brings it all into some sort of warped focus. And though I wish I could help bringing politics into everything, there is much about this that presages the election of the first reality TV president.A lot of The People V. O.J. Simpson is predicated on the idea that a good story is the most powerful way to reach someone. Both the prosecution and the defense understand this, though it’s the defense that makes it their whole mantra. In many ways the show functions as a new appeal to another jury, almost an act of wish fulfillment that if only all that raw footage could be placed in its proper context- could be made into a story, we might take more than four hours to deliberate. Much has been made of the casting, and a quick google shows how incredibly on point it really is. Sarah Paulson portrayed Marcia Clark in an incredibly humanizing way that drew everything from feminist rage to tears of incredible pity. The best fiction aspires to portray its characters as complex enough that we can believe they are fully human. Although there are villains here, there are somehow… no villains here. There are a collection of humans who are alternately buoyed by the better angels of their nature and drowned by the fatal weaknesses in their characters.



Can Pods Save America?

February 9, 2017

Dear Reader,

President Trump’s first post-election press conference drove me into the Grey Lady’s arms. I bought a Times subscription nearly the moment the words “fake news” leapt from his lips. I have come to know intimately the frisson of fear and curiosity each time a New York Times alert promises another update. A close friend of mine told me recently that he reads his Times Morning Briefing as soon as he wakes up, eager to know what could have happened in the last seven hours. I’ve become equally addicted to the quick-drip of information. It doesn’t feel like it’s possible to keep up, inspiring me to download a speed reading app and attempt to understand Twitter. I don’t think my friend and I are the only ones eager to keep ourselves abreast of everything in the world of politics; it is one vaguely healthy(?) response to current circumstances.

One reason I think I’m not alone in my coping strategy is the debut of several new podcasts all aimed at providing information and analysis on politics/current events. Here are the ones I have been finding most useful. Warning: Do not listen to all of these unless you are an insatiable politics nerd. Pick approximately two if you are a normal person.

Pod Save America: From those charming guys from Keepin’ It 1600, former speechwriters and aides to President Obama, comes a new hilarious and insightful podcast. Jon Lovett, Jon Favreau, and Tommy Vietor sit down and discuss the political aburdities of the week, pull in some fascinating and often very funny guests (Obama is a hoot), and bring some clarity to some complex issues. This podcast is for you if you’re looking to listen in on three informed guys chatting about the news of the week. For bonus Crooked Media, check out Pod Save the World, the foreign policy arm of this fabulous threesome.

The Week Unwrapped: This is from our “special relationship” partners across the water. Host Olly Mann brings together some smart and funny people (there seem to be so many in podcasting) and chats about the news of the week with one specific focus: news that has flown under the radar. The hosts each bring up a news story that they think will impact us all long term, but hasn’t been covered sufficiently. Some previous stories have included the debate in Britain over who should care for the elderly, if squatting is ever morally justified, and if life might have been better before the iPhone. This podcast is for you if you want to dip out of the main(lame?)stream media.

The Daily: This is a new podcast from Michael Barbaro of the New York Times. Five days a week for 20 minutes, The Daily gives a rundown of what stories are featured in the NYT. As someone who reads it as much as I can, but often has trouble reaching into some of its corners due to time constraints, listening to insightful snippets helps me get ready for the day.

Can He Do That? This is a new weekly podcast from the Washington Post that examines a specific controversial move from the Trump administration per episode and tries to answer the question “can Trump do that?” Each episode features a reporter from the Washington Post, sharing their particular depth of knowledge and experience. This podcast is great if you are looking for a bit of a civics primer. They do a great job of explaining the rudiments of government and examining what powers each branch actually possesses to accomplish their diverse campaign promises.

That’s probably enough to be getting on with. But I’ve got more, friends, so catch up soon on all of these so I can recommend some more loveliness to fill up your ears.

Saved by Rainbow Rowell

February 6, 2017

Dear Friend,

I don’t usually read sweet, simple love stories. I thrived on them in high school, but I more often find myself reading agonizing accounts of a life spent in slavery in a dystopian world or gigantic Russian tragedies or clever meditations on the futility of connection- all of which I love. Yet something has changed. After a few solid hours of Trumpspeak and a few too many political retweets, I have begun feeling so jaded. Somewhere around the time I caught myself throwing my pillows across the room while reading my New York Times alerts, I knew that I needed to be reading something wholly different.

I started reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell for a bookclub. I will admit to being generally skeptical whenever I crack open a YA novel. Whether fair or not, they have to work harder to convince me I should be reading them than most books do. I acknowledge my prejudice. I couldn’t put this book down. Reading it made me remember what it was like to be in college- young, naive, scared shitless of almost everything. The book is about a college freshman and her first year. She’s an epic fanfic writer, chronicling the romantic intertwining of two characters from a Harry Potter-esque series. She writes, falls in love, deals with her difficult family, grows up. It’s textbook coming of age with slash fiction thrown in for good measure.

I was enjoying the easy cadences of Rowell’s writing, happy to be lulled into this sort of easy escapist fiction when I began to understand why I was enjoying it so much. Because here’s the kicker: Rowell is a really good writer. Fangirl is written with such sympathy for its characters. Meet cutes don’t feel contrived and connections between characters feel genuine. And that’s what Rowell’s fiction is across the board: genuine. She is a warm, witty, sympathetic writer and that has been borne out in each of her books. I’ve now read three of them and each one felt like drinking a mug of tea while snuggled up with your honey on a cold winter’s night. The political winds were howling outside but it became just so much background noise.

Her stories made me remember what it felt like to want to hold hands with that cute guy in my Fiction class. It made me want to want the mushy stuff again. It made me decide to stop pretending like I hate Valentine’s Day. Now isn’t that something?

The Leftovers and The Leftovers

February 5, 2017

Dear Reader,

No one needs to tell you that television is good these days. Rather, I find myself needing someone to tell me what is or isn’t worth my time. We are fortunate to see this phenomenon repeated in contemporary literature, although I often find myself having to choose which form I have time for in a given day. Here, I want to talk about an intersection between the two.

Because there is so much out there in terms of thoughtful entertainment these days, you do need to know what you are getting in to with a show like The Leftovers. This is a show that requires a high level of engagement and thought. You cannot clean the house or write a paper or joke with a friend while this show is on. You also shouldn’t binge watch it, as it takes an emotional  and intellectual toll with each episode. But now that you’re forewarned that you will need to devote a good hour of brains to watching it, let me tell you why you should.

The premise is simple: on October 14, all of a sudden, 2% of the world’s population vanished without a trace. There is no explanation for this, although every level of society, government, and religion have sought one. The show does not try to find one itself, nor does it focus on the people trying to. Nor should you, for that matter. This show is not about answering that, or many other, questions. As Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker asserts, the show is really about grief and loss. And, more concretely, the show is about what it means to be left behind in a world that has become unrecognizable.

One of my favorite characters is Matt Jamison, a minister in the small town of Mapleton. To be a Christian minister in a post-Rapture-esque world is to be trying to provide comfort to a world that has been denied Biblical heaven. You either respond to that with despair, or by aggressively asserting that what has happened is not in fact The Rapture. He chooses the latter, spending much of the first season with the twin goals of bringing members of a despair-focused cult into a different fold and telling everyone that those taken on October 14 were not more worthy of heaven than those left behind. Both goals are motivated by the same desire: to assert that humanity, with all its ugliness, is worth holding on to. But to do this he has to dig into the often sordid humanity of each Rapture victim, or Departure in the show’s lexicon. He prints fliers about these people asserting their deeply flawed backgrounds, constantly confronting the question of whether it is better to reveal that someone’s lost loved one was a pedophile or a con man or unfaithful, or to allow people to believe that they were left behind because they were less worthy. One of the best episodes of the whole show, “No Room at the Inn” is about testing his faith in that humanity and about the extraordinary depth of potential responses we have to the ugliness around us. If you are looking to get a glimpse of the potential of the show, just watch that one.

At Boston Book Festival this past year I eavesdropped on a panel discussion on the process of bringing a book to the screen, whether small or large. The panel featured, among others, Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel. The main difference between his novel and the show, he asserted, was the level of dark humor allowed in each. The book is darker, and perhaps more funny, but the show has something that I feel the book struggled to incorporate: real hope about humanity. The novel is an enclosed space, functioning in this instance sort of like a long-form short story. There is an interiority that the novel can provide that a visual medium often has trouble conveying, and the finely drawn portraits in The Leftovers privilege the humanity Perrotta struggles to assert hope for. The show, however, has an advantage in that it can dedicate a whole hour to a character like Matt Jamison, a character merely sketched in the novel. Many people consider season two of the show to be one of the best seasons of television out there. I agree with that assertion wholeheartedly, although I do really love the first season as well. Season three is coming out in a few months so it is just the right time to get caught up on this weird, experimental, deeply ambitious show. Let me know how you find it.