by Josie Kafka
Best in TV
Breaking Bad. After a rough start with Breaking Bad many years ago, I was fully prepared to dislike it despite Billie’s recommendation. A season and a half in, I realized the show was not asking us to root for Walter White (although the so-called “bad fans” will disagree with me). I came to realize that Breaking Bad is an intimate portrait of what Hannah Arendt calls the “banality of evil” in a different context: In Breaking Bad, it’s not Walter White’s bureaucratic participation in state activities that make him evil. Instead, the state’s lack of support (healthcare) forces him to an evil practice which, in turn, opens him up to the lure of a nihilistic will to power that has damning and complex consequences for those around him. Tautly acted, written with a clockmaker’s precision, and beautifully shot, Breaking Bad is exactly what I’d discussed last year: the transformation of a popular genre into high art.
Hannibal. Although we don’t review Hannibal, I wish we did. Hannibal is a haunting meditation on the effect of evil, violence, and trauma on the psyche that goes far beyond the gruesome cannibalism for which Thomas Harris’s book series (and movies based on that series) is best known. Hannibal is beautiful to watch, with a ghostly gray palate mimicking the starkness of the moral effects of violence both physical and mental, and a slow pace that teases out those effects in a realistic yet poetic manner. If you have not watched this show for fear of it being too in-your-face shocking, please do check it out. Like Awake, which made my list last year, it is so much more than its description would indicate.
Person of Interest. Both Breaking Bad and Hannibal center on damaged men operating in a damaged world; although that is one of my favorite themes, I often wish that there were more stories about damaged women in a damaged world—and operating beyond the roles of wives and mothers to the damaged (male) protagonists meant to stand for the universal human. Person of Interest has many strengths, but one of its most surprising is the incorporation of women (Shaw, Root, Carter, Zoe) into precisely the roles typically taken by men: superstrong spy, evil genius, vendetta-ing cop, professional fixer. Of course, the inclusivity of this show is not its main draw, perhaps because it does so without fanfare. The issue of personal responsibility and liberty in a government and corporate surveillance state is one of the most fascinating big ideas this show grapples with; the problems and thrills of AI is another. And Michael Emerson? Yeah, still awesome.
Best in Books
The Goldfinch. After discovering Donna Tartt’s The Secret History over the summer, I was on tenterhooks for the release of her newest novel, The Goldfinch. A bildungsroman about a young boy who undergoes a terrorist attack, steals a painting, and wanders the world without realizing he is searching for something stable to hold on to, this Dickensian novel is all over the best-of lists for 2013, and with good reason: it is, just like The Secret History, a fully immersive experience in one character’s traumatized engagement with others and with himself. Although the book has some flaws (the narrator’s classism, especially compared to some of the passages in The Secret History, seems to reveal more about Tartt than about the true experience of being lower-class in modern America), they pale in comparison with the deft characterization, nuanced language, and sheer unputdownability of this story.
Life After Life. Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series may have made her famous, but this one-off exploration of the power of life and of death in the twentieth century is fascinating and addictive. It is no spoiler to say the main character lives and dies numerous times with various awful and wonderful consequences to each life she lives; the true power of the book comes from the sense that each individual life is governed by a series of small coincidences that can change everything or nothing.
Best in Movies
Much Ado About Nothing. I have a disinterested appreciation for Shakespeare as much as the next person, but I was surprised to discover just how much I loved Joss Whedon’s interpretation of this charming romantic comedy. The film, shot in luscious black and white at Joss’s own house, is sweet and affecting in a way that Branagh’s 1993 version never quite was. After watching the film, I read the play for the first time and have found it to be one of Shakespeare’s most relatable and human texts.
Looper. Although this movie came out in 2012, I didn’t watch it until January of this year. (I’m always behind on movies.) Is this the best movie of 2012/3? No. But it was, for me, one of the most fun: a thrilling engagement with the mechanics of time-travel rather than time-travel as an excuse for watching a fish flop around outside of his temporal waters. Watching Looper put me in the mood for more time travel films, and one of the most interesting that I discovered was Primer, a low-budget and often ugly film that loops in on itself so many times that loyal viewers have made charts. Since I am often underwhelmed by movies, which simply can’t cover as much ground as TV series, I was quite pleased to discover two fun brain-teasers in one year.