And Merry Christmas.
Best of Marvel
Earlier this year, I got into a debate with one of my colleagues. According to him, superhero stories are designed to appeal to the everyman: we watch or read about superheroes and feel like we, too, could fulfill that role. All it would take would be a spider bite, some gadgets, or true worthiness:
That may be true for him, and possibly for most fans of superhero/comic-book narratives. But it’s never been true for me. I don’t think I can be Thor, or Black Widow, or Tony Stark. I know, in fact, that I cannot. I am, at best, ordinary.
But I could be Peggy Carter, office gal who fights evil. I could be Jessica Jones. (Maybe not the superstrength. But I’d make a great surly PI.) I could be Matt Murdock. I could also be their
That element of wish fulfillment and self-insertion into a narrative is admittedly juvenile, but I do think that personal attachment to some of these stories can be crucial in terms of creating audience engagement and passion. Agent Carter is not the most well-made show I’ve ever seen. But it is wonderful: Because of Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter. Because of the period setting, the clothes, and the social challenges of the era. Because it makes me care, and even think about how I might, like Peggy Carter, fight the good fight.
So does Jessica Jones. As Sunbunny said: “What’s so wonderful about Jessica Jones is that it stands on the strength of its performances…and that its characters’ superpowers are really almost beside the point.” Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg had a fine line to walk: Jessica Jones could have easily become an awkward rape allegory. But rather than some essentialized vision of womanhood, Jessica Jones told a female-focused story about people working together to defeat a monster.
That street-level focus is only part of the allure of Daredevil, which is my pick for Best Show of 2015. From the balletic fight scenes to the engagement with questions of faith and moral action, Daredevil basically blew my mind. And—like Agent Carter and Jessica Jones—the focus on a group of people coming together for the greater good really emphasized the importance of not just the official superheroes, but their plucky, if sometimes unlucky, friends.
Best of Moxie
In my review of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I argued that the Netflix series is about “unbreakable people realizing that they aren’t broken.” In that sense, Kimmy Schmidt is as much a superhero narrative as any of the ones I mentioned above. But it’s also much more than that: it is a screwball comedy that subverts comedic tropes, filled with witty banter and wild hijinks that make it an excellent replacement for—even transcendence of—its ancestor 30 Rock.
Best of Marathons
I am absolutely not saying that How I Met Your Mother is an excellent show. I’m not saying it’s a bad show, either. But I am saying this: all nine seasons of HIMYM are darn fun, in no small part because of the zaniness of pick-up artist Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and the offbeat verbal rhythms of Lily (Alyson Hannigan). Easy to digest, hard to put down; it’s a zillion episodes of potato-chip comedy. I recommend watching it out of order, too, since the last season is both controversial and a good distillation of the show’s complexity. I watched it like that and think my way is the best way: 8, 9, 6, 7, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3.
Best of Mystery
Every seven years, I go on an Agatha Christie binge. (And then a few years later, I say “Never again!” and donate all the books, only to have to rebuy them later. Stupid, stupid…) There’s something absurdly comforting about characters who can be summarized in one pithy sentence, mysteries that gradually unspool into chaos, and the orderly gray cells of Hercule Poirot to tie it all together and make sure at least one couple gets married.
Every Christie fan probably has a list of their favorites, so here are my Top Five out of the forty-four that I’ve read in the past few months: And Then There Were None, which is the creepiest book I’ve ever read. Murder on the Orient Express and Murder in Mesopotamia, which are perfectly plotted. The Hollow, for its emotional complexity (grading on a Christie curve). And Dumb Witness, which features occasional sidekick Hastings acting like his usual Watson-y bumbling self.
Best of Maudlin
Unlike Christie’s novels, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is as far from comfort as a person can get. If the optimism implicit in Kimmy Schmidt and the Marvel TV shows drives you crazy, read this depressing book. If pat solutions and simple characters bore you, read this complicated “interior epic.” If you want to get completely lost in a fictional character’s psyche for a few days, and possibly burst spontaneously into tears on a regular basis, read this book.
It appears, at first, to be a story of four young men coming of age in Manhattan. But it quickly transforms into the story of just one man, Jude, who was sexually abused as a child and a young adult. He is the pivot around which the other characters circle, but he—like them—struggles to understand the depth of their love for him, since they struggle to articulate it. In interviews, Yanagihara discussed her fixation with portraying the inner lives of men, whom she sees as constrained by the lack of a broad “emotional palette” from which to paint portraits of their inner lives. The result is a novel that the Kirkus Review described, accurately, as “the most devastating but satisfying novel published so far this year.”
It does come, however, with two warnings. First: A Little Life pulls no punches. Sexual and physical abuse, self-harm, suicide—these things happen and Yanagihara doesn’t flinch in portraying them. Second warning: some reviewers found it overwrought. Indeed, its nominations for the National Book Award and Man Booker Prize were both controversial. On the other hand, it has also been called one of the first great gay novels.
Best of Masks
This year I discovered Korean sheet masks and I will love them forever. Korean sheet masks are a beauty and skin-care product: a face-shaped thin paper doused in some sort of serum. You open the packet, unfold it, and put it on for 20 minutes while you read an Agatha Christie or watch HIMYM. Depending on the mask, the results are: hydration, brightening (which seriously means something!), fewer wrinkles, you name it.
Forced inaction for 20 minutes might be part of their appeal, but I’m mostly a fan of the fact that none of the masks I’ve tried so far have irritated my mild rosacea (Latin for blotchy Irish skin). In fact, this mask seems to be making it much, much better. Bonus: even though I’ve turned 29 more than once, I’ve been carded a few times since I started using the masks. They really are that good.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)