Hey all! Throughout the year I like to make lists of all the media I've consumed, and when I have time I generally like to reflect on it and write up some thoughts and rank them. I'm not sure if I'll get around to writing about movies and video games, but that is at least my goal. For now, I just have stuff on what I've read, what I got to see live on the Broadway stage, and what I watched on my TV from my couch. I make no claims to be an expert on anything and tried to be respectful when expressing my dislike for things I know others like. But honestly, if you think my opinions are shit feel free to leave a comment... or just not read.
All the Shit I Read
So I don’t really read. I enjoy reading in theory, but in reality, like exercising, I find it hard to make time for it. Also, just like exercise, I spend all day telling my patients that it’s super important, even if I don't always do it. Anyways, here’s what I read this year:
4) Midnight Library by Matthew Haig (2020)
I did not like this book.
3) Ask Iwata by Satoru Iwata (2021)
This was a fun one. It's more an anthology of articles and interviews, but they’re all strung together to form something of a cohesive chronologic narrative. It’s fun to see that at the end of the day, Iwata really liked video games. And more than that, he loves programming and making games. He was not a random corporate stooge. Obviously the book’s not the most objective assessment of him or Nintendo as a whole, but for fans of Nintendo this is a very worthwhile read.
2) Speak, Okinawa: A Memoir by Elizabeth Miki Brina
This was an emotional one. For context, I am white and American; my wife is the daughter of an Okinawan woman born and raised in Okinawa and a white man from New Orleans. So this memoir of an American woman struggling with her identity as the daughter of an Okinawan woman and a white New Yorker man hit all the right chords with my wife. For me, since I often struggle to always understand my mother-in-law as well as my wife’s struggles with her own racial and cultural identities, I ended up reading the book too. It was great. You definitely don’t need to know someone like the author to enjoy it. It’s all at once a story of a woman reconciling her conflicting feelings with her difficult-to-understand mother, an examination of her father’s PTSD, a chronicle of her mother’s immigrant experience, and a brief history of Okinawa. Highly recommend.
Yes, the one by Shakespeare. I read it on a whim. It’s really good. I was straight up horrified by the tragic events of act V, and felt guilty for enjoying all of Iago’s machinations and schemes leading up to it. I’m sure tomes have been written on the complicated racial overtones central to the plot. Yes, the language can be hard to read, and I’m not too proud to have read this with a more modern paraphrase open on my laptop alongside the original text… cuz it’s worth it to read it for the plot alone. The poetry is just the cherry on top.
Really late one night I started reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. Didn’t get very far but loved what I read, especially all its allusions to the Classical epics of ancient Greece and Rome… but then the description of Hell feels like some gothic horror perfection.
Maybe not the most relatable list… but I live in New York within walking distance of all the Broadway theaters… so most of these I saw on a whim the day of the performacne, buying a ticket through a rush ticket app for a heavily discounted price. So why wouldn’t I go?!
6) The Book of Mormon - I know it’s the smash sensation of the musical-world - the one that got even Grandma to like something from the South Park guys… but something about it seemed off. The actor playing the goofy lead character, Elder Cunningham (originally played by Josh Gad), seemed too much like a guy trying to do an impression of Josh Gad than trying to do his own thing. Plus, though there were many laugh out loud parts and incredible (and I mean, INCREDIBLE) set design / choreography (shout out to “Turn It Off” and “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”)... the story and particularly the humor just wasn’t all there for me. “General Buttfucking Naked” is a name, for example, that works within the cartoon world of South Park but is just odd in real life.
5) Hadestown - Another one I was hoping to like more than I did. I’m a Classics nerd and studied Classics in college; so that combined with my great enjoyment of the video game Hades had me pumped for yet another tale of Hades/Persephone and Orpheus/Eurydice. The positives? I cried within the first 5 minutes and the last 5 minutes. The staging, especially for show-stopper “Wait For Me” was the best I’ve ever seen. Then there's the hauntingly prescient “Why Do We Build the Wall”, a song about an authoritarian demagogue trying to convince his subjects to build a wall to protect their wealth and security against a vague “enemy” written over half a decade before Trump announced his bid for presidency. But for whatever reason, I never really clicked with it… and I think it largely had to do with the character of Orpheus. His voice really irritated me and I vibed much better with his voice on the original 2010 concept album when the sung by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. But also his character in the stage version was made to be like this awkward savant who didn’t really show any real emotion (or at least show traditional signs of love, etc). So between not enjoying hearing him sing and not buying that he in particular would go to Hell and back for love, the whole play fell just short of greatness for me. Still recommend listening to the 2010 concept album by Anais Mitchell which formed the basis for the eventual musical.
4) American Buffalo - For about $10 more than it costs me to see a movie in a theater in NYC, I got to see Lawrence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell on a stage maybe 20 yards from my face (Darren Criss was there too). This is some classic American playwriting: the characters talk lightning-fast and in code half the time, and the whole play takes place over the course of 12 hours or so and within just one location (a small junk shop). It’s a play (like many plays) about losers trying to win big, and the desperation men in particular have to get to that win. I enjoyed it, and it made me think, even it isn’t an all-time great. Of note, I wasn’t crazy about Darren Criss’ character and I couldn’t tell if it was because the character himself was poorly written or because Criss isn’t a great performer. But I’d see this again for the masterfully clever wordplay in every tête-à-tête between Fishburne and Rockwell
3) The Minutes - If you get a chance to see this performed somewhere, go. The first hour or so of this one-act, no-intermission show is one of the funniest things I have seen. Never since Parks & Rec has the mundanities of a town hall board meeting been so interesting and exciting. The writing is top notch, and the performances at my viewing at least were put on by actors with impeccable comedic timing. Throughout that first hour there’s a big mystery that pervades the show: what happened at the last meeting and why won’t anyone talk about it? The reveal comes at the hour mark and I won’t spoil it, but your enjoyment of the last half hour of the play greatly hinges on that reveal. Me? I liked it and found myself strongly moved by it.
2) 1776 - Apparently, reading reviews across the media landscape, my wife and I are the only two people who seemingly liked this particular production. It’s a revival of the 1960s classic, a theatrical adaptation of the creation and adoption of the U.S.’s Declaration of Independence back in 1776. But whereas most productions cast men in the roles of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and the rest of the colonial revolutionaries, this 2021 production casted no cis-gendered white men, opting for a gender diverse cast of women, trans individuals, non-binary individuals, and gender non-conforming individuals, as well as a racially diverse cast, with seemingly most of the cast not being white or of European descent. The result? A play with a perennially clever book (though not exactly the most engaging score) that was made more relevant not just because of what the cast looked like, but also because of how the directors chose to acknowledge that the actors looked decidedly not like the people their characters were based on. No where is this more poignant than in the show-stopping “Molasses to Rum,” a song sung by South Carolina representative John Rutledge to point out the hypocrisy of the Northern colonies’ objections to slavery when they continue to profit from it via the triangular trade. The question of slavery here becomes not just a theoretical one (a debate among Congressman), but is given embodiment through the song's choreography which has the Black members of the cast re-enact a slave auction, forcing audience members to reconcile the oftentimes hallowed and infallible legacies of these very, very flawed "Founding Fathers." There are moments in the play that leave theatergoers deeply proud of our country, and many more moments that leave them deeply ashamed. Overall, a wonderful production.
1) The Phantom of the Opera - The phantom lives inside my mind. Phantom is one of those things (like Undertale) that it’s hard for me to remember what it was like to not know about it. It was such an awesome experience to behold and it has just been stuck in consciousness now 9 months after I saw it. It’s as if I’ve always known it, and seeing it unlocked the memory. Part of the reason it has stuck with me is that I saw it on a Wednesday night in the middle of a busy work week so I was only half awake for large swaths of it. As a result it felt like I was watching a dream (or nightmare) unfold before my eyes. The plot doesn’t make any sense but it doesn't matter; I won’t waste time trying to describe it here. The music is wonderful, the ambiance enchanting, the spectacle the most spectacular. If you haven’t seen this, see it.
TV Shows (Best Seasons)
Spoilers for what's below. I don’t Watch a Lot of TV, but here goes nothing. All the full seasons of TV that I watched in the last year are listed below. Other shows I partially watched seasons of are: Atlanta (Season 3); How I Met Your Father (Season 1); Pachinko (Season 1); Schitt’s Creek (Season 4); Ted Lasso (Season 1); Only Murders in the Building (Season 2); Pretty little liars: Original Sin (Season 1); Sopranos (Season 6A); Love Victor (Season 3)
10) This Is Us (Season 6)
Why did I watch this whole fucking show? That’s not fair, I know why. This show has one of the best pilots of any TV show I’ve ever seen, and every 5 or 6 episodes after sitting through mediocrity with an occasionally really good scene, they put out an outstanding episode. But this last season of this show? Meh. There was exactly one good episode (S6E4: “Don’t Let Me Keep You”) which like most of the good stuff on this show was good because it focused on its best and most interesting character: the Pearson family patriarch Jack. The other 17 episodes were a shade of ok with one episode being as bad as the Buffy’s “Beer Bad” (looking at you, S6E2: “One Giant Leap” and its more-akward-than-an-episode-of-Curb dinner party). Do yourself a favor, don’t watch the show’s pilot. As good as it is, you won’t find yourself interested enough to be disappointed by the show’s end.
9) Squid Game (Season 1)
I did not enjoy this show. I said it. The gore and violence are extremely off-putting for me. It’s not fun to me to watch people who are (as far as we can tell) good and moral people in normal circumstances be so desperate for cash that they’re willing to risk their lives to get it and then get slaughtered for an audience’s spectacle. Plus the acting isn’t all that good (ESPECIALLY the characters who spoke English… oh my god). The final twist didn’t make all that much sense to me, and sorta undid one of the show’s strongest moments from earlier in the season. I get why it’s popular, and I’m not immune to the show’s charm, aesthetic, world-building, and mystery… I just don’t find myself particularly excited for season 2.
8) The Bear (Season 1)
This was the critical darling of the summer… which I also did not enjoy. I was primed to be one of this show’s bigger fans given that I’m from and long lived in Chicago, but from the outset I was kinda confused by this show. It’s characters are realistic, but they inhabit an unrealistic, hyperbolic world where a main character can fire a gun in broad daylight and face no repercussions. Every episode for the first six episodes feel exactly the same with some fire going on at the restaurant while gourmet-chef-turned-sandwich-shop-owner Carmy largely ignores this in order to focus (but not really fix) the restaurant’s larger financial troubles (and by extension his grief over his late brother’s (and former sandwich shop owner’s) suicide). The characters don’t seem to grow and many (read: most) are unlikable and hard to watch. The show’s conflicts never really resolve, or when they do, it is via deus ex machina or just happens suddenly without any fanfare at all or explanation. This would have been my least favorite show of the year… if not for it’s seventh episode… which is a damn near perfect half-hour of television. You don’t even need to watch the full show, just watch S1E7: “The Review.”
7) Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (Season 9)
Not much to say about this one… John Oliver’s pretty consistent and I feel like either you regularly watch his show… or you don’t. Felt like there was a particular emphasis this year on either talking about healthcare or law enforcement… but it’s also the case that those two things are particularly broken in America. This season was special in that back in May I got to attend the taping of the episode on utility companies - he’s very funny in person and also makes a good number of flubs which he always follows with a jolly expletive. Favorite stories: impact of Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order”, museums and artifact theft, and Qatar World Cup. Also loved the Nenana Ice Melting Competition.
6) Stranger Things (Season 4)
This was a good season of Stranger Things though a bit inconsistent. It certainly reaches higher highs than it ever has before (the Metallica scene, anyone?!) but many of these episodes are long and indulgent. I found Eddie Munson to be an odd character and difficult to build sympathy for (I think they’re going for the loner, loser, anti-establishment cool vibes of that guy from the breakfast club… but he’s just too nerdy to pull it off and his speech yelling at the principal in the first episode really put me off). Still it’s hard not to enjoy this spectacle. I enjoyed the mystery of Vecna and loved watching the plan to ensnare him unfold. I enjoyed the re-pairing of Steve and Nancy, and I liked the exploration of Eleven’s past with Papa. I could take or leave the Russia plot - sometimes it worked… sometimes it did not. But I did not enjoy the basketball team villain subplot - his murderous obsession with our heroes seemed a little unbelievable - so much so that you’d have expected him to be under the influence of Pennywise the Clown. Overall though, a pretty incredible piece of production that undoubtedly had a major impact on TV this year, leaving us with a heartbreaking cliffhanger and excitement for what’s next.
5) Abbott Elementary (Season 1)
This was the surprise show for me this year. Quinta Brunson’s debut sitcom feels like a spiritual successor to Parks & Rec in that its a workplace comedy about nice people working within the constraints of a governmental bureaucracy to do good in the world (in this case to teach elementary school students in a woefully underfunded Philadelphia public school.) The comparison to Parks & Rec is a high, high compliment. When so many days I come home tired, and the only thing I’m really watching is The Sopranos it’s nice to know that there are shows out there which not only make you feel good about the world and help you believe people can be good… but also that shows still exist that can make you laugh out loud. Special shout out to Janelle James as the school’s principal. Every scene she was in, I was at least smiling, if not cackling.
4) The Sopranos (Season 4)
This was a re-watch for me, as I had gone ahead and watched seasons 4 and 5 without my wife 2 years back and we decided to pick it back up where she left off so we could finish it together. Of the 5 seasons I’ve seen of this show, this is the weakest of show thus far. But a weak season of The Sopranos is still better than most TV. I think the issue is that I find the show is strongest when it’s pitting Tony’s mob life with his personal life (or when diving deep into his psyche with Melfi). Nowhere is this more the case than in season 1 where his mother and uncle question the legitimacy of his mob power. But in season 4, these two aspects of his life are kept quite separate. His marriage to Carmela is a shambles and on the mob side of things, things are largely business as usual without any real significant conflict or major antagonist (I hardly consider Ralphie a serious antagonist, and he pales in comparison to Tony B as a true foil). Again, not that the above things are huge issues - there are still always fascinating character moments and dialogue, but these episodes are just not the show’s finest hours.
3) Better Call Saul (Season 5)
I love this show. Eager to watch the final season, my wife and I binged right on through season 5. Wow. Lalo… is the greatest villain of all time. One of my all-time favorite characters in any medium, ever. Besides Lalo, while Mike isn't given a while lot to do this season, it is so fun to see Jimmy enjoy his work (and be good at it). This show, as always, does montages better than any one, and the various montages of Jimmy working with Mr. Ackerman to help him keep the land his house is on is just inspired. But for Jimmy as a character, this is such a crucial season. He has always loved rolling in the dirt but he seems like he relishes it even more this season. Every bowling ball in Howard’s car, every thorn he can needle into Mesa Verde’s side seems like full-throated "fuck you" to his late brother Chuck. Jimmy will never forget Chuck's accusation that he’s not a real lawyer, that him with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun. But rather than work to prove that’s not true, Jimmy (as Saul) relishes the opportunity to prove him right and succeed anyway. But where on another show, Jimmy might just be destined to be a low-life scamming lawyer, here the stakes get raised quickly. I love the way the silly, fun work Jimmy thrives on (the David vs Goliath stuff) gets confused with the PTSD-inducing cartel work he ends up doing by the end. Jimmy dreams of playing in the big leagues (as he shouts to Howard “I travel in worlds you can’t even imagine!”) and with the cartel work he thinks he’s found his one-way ticket to importance that’s been otherwise denied him. Though he’s not exactly excited about cartel work… he doesn’t try that hard to avoid it. But no one can ever be ready to have a gun to your head in the middle of the desert. While I found the actual “Bagman” episode (S5E8) less impactful that I think it was intended to be… the subsequent two episodes are nothing short of magical with Lalo’s interrogation of Kim/Jimmy in S5E9 and the attack on Lalo’s compund (S5E10) being two of the best scenes across the BB/BCS universe. I love this show.
2) The Sopranos (Season 5)
Another rewatch, but I would happily rewatch this season many more times, especially the back half. The story and character of Tony B (Steve Buscemi) is one of my favorite things this show has done. He’s such a perfect foil for Tony Soprano and you feel both bad for and disgusted by him. On second watch, I realized how much time is devoted to the very complex character of Carmela Soprano, and how difficult it is for her to extricate herself from Tony (and the revelation that she doesn’t really want to). But when I think of this season, I think mostly about Adrianna La Cerva (Drea DiMatteo). She gave an incredible performance and was the star of my two favorite episodes of this season (S5E5 and S5E12). Having now caught up to where I had originally watched a few years back, I can’t wait to see what season 6 has in store!
1) Better Call Saul (Season 6)
I know I said this above, but I love this show. I watch probably 10 minutes of Youtube clips from this show (or Breaking Bad) every day. The plot to sabotage Howard, culminating in the exciting and devastating mid-season finale (“Plan and Execution” S6E7) is one of the best things this show has done… until the next two episodes that deal with its fallout and the culmination of the seasons-long rivalry between Gus and Lalo. Knowing who would ultimately survive into Breaking Bad did nothing to take away from the suspense of these few episodes. While I knew we would likely explore more Jimmy’s life post-Breaking Bad, it was still a surprise for the story of Jimmy McGill as we’ve known it to pretty much end with S6E9 and just have the last 4 episodes set essentially just in the post-Breaking Bad black-and-white world of Gene Takavic. While I don’t think everything was perfect about these last 4 episodes, I will say the finale was the most fitting end to this character, this show, and the whole BB/BCS universe. I love this show.
BEST TV (Episodes)
10) “Saul Gone” S6E13 Better Call Saul
9) “Irregular Around the Margins” S5E5 The Sopranos
8) “Bad Choice Road” S5E9 Better Call Saul
7) “Whoever Did This” S4E9 The Sopranos
6) “Chapter Four: Dear Billy” S4E4 Stranger Things
5) “Mr. & Mrs. John Sancrimoni Request…” S6A E5 The Sopranos
4) “The Review” S1E7 The Bear
3) “Plan & Execution” S6E7 Better Call Saul
2) “Long-Term Parking” S5E12 The Sopranos
1) “Three Slaps” S3E1 Atlanta
And that's that. Who knows if I get around to writing about movies and video games later this month. Hope you've enjoyed a view into what sorta stuff I like and do not like.