Wesley Morris, Critic-At-Large:
This was the year that I finally accepted my terrible problems with perfectionism. This is not a new problem, but its one that takes on added danger in a time when we all perform public versions of ourselves — airbrushed, sanded-down simulacra of our real selves that are engineered for maximum fit into a specific niche, brand or persona. But that confromity is anathema to the creative spark. As I continue to fight that battle, I find myself looking to other writers for inspiration — people who express themselves not just with clarity and point-of-view, but with intelligence, sensitivity, and honesty. The thing I’ve come to value is fearlessness––not the macho kind that courts danger and risk, but self-assurance, the ability to own every part of yourself, and to express it with kindness, humor, and generosity. And in 2016, the writer who embodied this most for me was Wesley Morris.
I was a late-comer to Grantland — I only started listening to their pop-culture podcasts at the start of 2015, just a few months before they were shuttered. “Hollywood Prospectus” was my favorite — and its successor on The Ringer, “The Watch” is still a mainstay in my rotation. But if those guys do an episode about something I’m not into, I’ll skip it. The other Grantland podcast I followed was “Do You Like Prince Movies?” This was my introduction to Wesley. This was one I never skipped, no matter the topic. Because Wesley and co-host Alex Pappademas made everything sound interesting, considered, and fun. As Grantland was dying in late-2015, Wesley moved to the New York Times as a critic-at-large. In mid-2016, he and Jenna Wortham started a new podcast, Still Processing — and like Prince Movies, I listen to every episode, no matter what topic they are talking about.
Go back and read through some of the pieces Wesley wrote for the Times in 2016, on topics as far ranging as George Michael, Regina King, Girls, Gene Wilder, the meaning of “Bro,” Atlanta, and lots and lots of Beyoncé. But if you’re just going to read two, check out “Last Taboo” and “We the People Aren’t Sure Who ‘We’ Even Are.”
New episodes of Still Processing are among the highlights of my week, because Wesley as a presence is so joyfully alive and emotionally present. We hear him laugh, cry, get upset, and slyly poke fun. And Jenna — a fabulous writer as well — is a great running partner for him.
We used to talk about television as inviting characters into your home like they were friends or family. I wonder if that dynamic hasn’t been replaced by podcasts — the form creating a sense of intimacy that makes possible a deep emotional connection with those voices. I’m thankful that I can invite Wesley and his essential voice into my home every week.
Live television broadcasting of fiction has mostly been dead for decades, with the notable outlier of Saturday Night Live, ensconced in its late night ghetto were it can’t hurt anyone. For some reason, there’s been a recent surge in live musicals on tv. These have all been wildly different productions experimenting with different forms. “The Sound Of Music” was safe and boring, “Peter Pan” was a train wreck, and “The Wiz” fell flat. (I didn’t see “Hairspray,” but from the social buzz it didn’t sound like I was missing anything.) And then there was “Grease: Live.”
I confess, I tuned in under duress. I’ve never liked the musical “Grease.” It’s a weird artifact to have found a place in the canon, a song-and-dance emblem of Poe’s Law, where any sly critique of 50s style from its original jaded 70s perspective has long since been sanded off in favor of treacly nostalgia. If I’m in the market for that kind of dynamic, I’ll take the quaint, outre transgressions of “Rocky Horror” any day.
But as much as I don’t like Grease as a show, “Grease Live” was revelatory — an almost total reinvention of the possibilities of live performance on television. It’s not that the show did anything that couldn’t have been done before; it simply chose to do things few others have done. Break the fourth wall? Sure. Show the actors racing back and forth between numbers? Why not? Put the audience on stage and hide the cameras among them? Absolutely.
Here’s the killer moment, the part that made my brain explode: going from a long scene on a bedroom set to seamlessly transitioning into a USO concert for “Freddie My Love.”
It’s so smooth, you hardly notice all the set moves, costume changes, and camera work that go into making this work, but watch the sequence a few times and try to image all the moving parts that are happening outside the frame. Not only is the achievement technical, but it’s great directing (by Thomas Kail, who also directed a little show called “Hamilton”); to say, “this is how we’re going to make it work, and it’s going to be expensive and difficult and with a high risk of failure, but we’re going to do it anyway because when we nail it, it’s going to look awesome.” For comparison, remember how we all lost our collective minds at the six-minute-long tracking shot in Season 1 of True Detective? This moment belongs in that class.
“Grease: Live” raised the bar for how television can do musicals and live performance, and I dearly hope somebody takes the example and goes further. It’ll be years before we see a full version of Hamilton adapted for television — maybe in the meantime we can get 1776? Or let Rachel Bloom do Yentl?
My Student Loans Were Paid Off (At Last)
Have I mentioned lately that I’m an idiot?
I managed to get through most of college without needing to take loans. But then I went to film school which — even though it was in Greensboro, North Carolina — was still expensive. And then I entered what we laughingly called “the work force” in New York, barely subsisting. Rent and food and Metrocards being the top priorities, I deferred my loans. Then deferred them again. When I ran out of deferments, I moved on to forbearances, which rolled the interest back into the principle for extra damage. By the time I was able to get a consolidation loan and started chipping away at the balance, my debt had ballooned to many, many times the original amount I’d borrowed. These days, when people ask me if they should go to film school, I usually tell them run screaming in the other direction.
It took me two decades, but this year I finally paid the loans off.
I wish I could tell you I was able to do it because I scrimped and saved and put every extra dollar I could toward those obligations, like a good little Calvinist. But that wouldn’t be utter bullshit. The only way I paid it off was through money I inherited when each of my grandmothers passed away. If not for that, I’d be paying that loan off until I was eligible for social security. Not that I believe social security will exist by the time I’d get there.
Student loans are predatory. Our financial education is terrible, ensuring a new year crop for the meat grinder. And it’s only because of privilege that I escaped twenty years later.
I find myself thinking a lot about this passage I read in the book “Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character” by Roger G. Kennedy:
Our use of the term “integrity” reminds us that for [the founders] a person of character manifested a harmonious wholeness out of which correct behavior ensued. Character did not necessarily require goodness of heart, nor was a person of character expected to be generous. Generosity expressed something beyond character, a quality the eighteenth century admired and called “liberality.” After 1800 or so, as too much amiability or generosity came to provoke apprehension, “liberality” fell from fashion. Saving (a bourgeois virtue) replaced benign expenditure (a characteristic of feudal chieftains), and reinvestment replaced potlatch….Aaron Burr had no place in a society in which character was defined among the middle class as abstinence from expenditure they could afford, and among the workers as a willingness not to ask for more than they might then spend. The sphincter replaced the open palm as the preferred portion of a good citizen’s anatomy.
In this late-capitalist hellscape, we certainly overvalue our sphincters — so much so that it seems unthinkable that there could be another way to live.
Javi and the Storm
Generally it goes like this: a TV show airs episode and does something problematic. A portion of fanbase explodes in rage. Hot takes are taken. Think pieces are thought. Some people swear to quit watching the show. Other people deride the whole controversy as silly — after all, “it’s only a TV show.” Other voices shout back that TV is culture, and culture is society, and a society that repeatedly shows one segment of the population as expendable teaches those real people to see themselves that way, to conclude that they are disposabe, dispensable, have no place. Everybody gets angry. Divisions deepen. Sides get entrenched. The show’s creators stop talking online, or hide behind a wall of network publicity and damage control — which only serves to reinforce the point to the aggrieved that nobody is listening to them and nobody cares. And then something happens on another show, and the cycle starts all over again.
This dynamic is the new normal in our connected media landscape, where creators and audiences have access to each other in new and confusing ways. I’ve made a good chunk of my career working in this sphere, crafting stories that use this dynamic as an intrinsic part of the structure. So I know that very quickly it can get dangerous. The social sphere weaponizes invective. Sometimes it seems that the argument is all that there is.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach is a wonderful writer of television, comic books and other fun things. I am privileged to know him a little, and have seen first hand that he is generous, funny and cares passionately about advancing the cause of writers in Hollywood. In 2016, Javi wrote an episode of the tv show “The 100” that sparked one of these cycles. Here’s an overview of what went down. Though the firestorm it sparked was a big one, it mostly followed the usual, circular, never-ending dynamic outlined above.
Until Javi did something different.
Faced with a torrent of messages, Javi did not hide. He engaged with as many people as possible, he reposted messages from hundreds of fans, many of whom were furious, heartbroken and full of rage. There were death threats. There were personal attacks. There were howls of despair, stories and threats of suicide, pleading for somebody to please please listen, and above all a demand to do better.
This went on for weeks. And he hung in there, listening to as many people as possible, engaging with as many people as possible. And he said one of the most important things you can say in this situation: “I hear you, and you’re not wrong.”
Does it make up for the hurt and pain? Of course not. Does it make it all better? Nothing can. But in a world where these kinds of debates are no longer confined to media properties but have changed the course of world history, we need as many examples of possible of how to have a vehement, emotional, public disagreement while still maintaining hope for understanding, accord and respect. We need a way out of this endless cycle of character assassination, hyperbolic invective and ad-hominem disqualification that passes for our sphere of public debate.
And though I don’t think he would have signed up for the job, when faced with it, Javi showed us a new way to respond. A difficult, taxing, grueling way — but that’s the world we live in now. And it’s a bright example I hope we can all remember as we move forward into 2017, the most uncertain, unsettling, dangerous year I can remember in my entire life.
And that’s it, my best of 2016. Let’s all hope we’re still here next year to do it again.