18 Pieces of Culture I Loved in 2018
Let’s keep it short and sweet—here are the performances, movies, TV shows, books, podcasts, and music I lived for this year.
1. Cruel Intentions: The Musical. Sexy twenty-somethings playing sexy scheming teens—all set to the greatest pop hits of the 90s. This off-off-off-Broadway show attracted Broadway-level talent and attracted me into seeing it twice. (Yes, Ronald and Cecile, slay that Breakfast at Tiffany’s cover!) A cast recording is coming on March 8, 2019, and you better believe my calendar is marked.
2. Everyone’s Talking About Jamie. We have a show here on Broadway to scratch our gay-teens-shaking-up-The-Prom itch. It’s fun, but not as fun as this West End blockbuster about a gay teen who wants to come to prom…in drag. It’s Billy Elliot meets Kinky Boots (which is already kind of Full Monty meets La Cage Aux Folles…?). The dancing is breathtaking and the pathos is real. I’m still talking about Jamie even seven months after seeing it.
3. A Chorus Line. It is devastating that this Encores! production at City Center only ran for a long weekend in November, since this was one of the best-ever renditions of my second favorite musical. Sure, A Chorus Line is always performed with basically identical choreography and costuming, but the 2006 Broadway revival was an ersatz, uncanny-valley disappointment — the exact opposite of this production, blessed with the skill and spark of Tony Yazbeck, Robyn Hurder, and the rest of the cast. Fingers crossed this production finds more life in 2019.
4. La Traviata. Diana Damrau is the greatest living soprano, and in the Met’s new production of Verdi’s greatest opera she shows why. I usually come down from the Act-I-finale high of Sempre libera in Acts II and III, but seeing this production (twice) this December, I was more and more invested as Damrau unspooled the mania and trauma of thwarted love all the way through Addio, del passato, the great anthem of all forms of regret.
(Honorable mention: Me and My Girl — whose stars won the Best Actor and Best Actress in a Musical Tonys in 1986, when Les Miserable otherwise dominated — also got an Encores! run this year. It was solid overall; but Mark Evans’s performance of The Sun Has Got His Hat On was legitimately one of the greatest musical comedy numbers I’ve ever seen live. Pray that City Center posts it somewhere.)
5. Black Panther. I wept at Wonder Woman’s Diana-crossing-no-man’s-land scene in 2017—the perfect metaphor for Hillary Clinton personally absorbing America’s misogyny over three decades so others can march up behind her. Then I wept again this year at the exchange between Okoye and Nakia over fidelity due to a broken nation in Black Panther:
– I am loyal to that throne, no matter who sits upon it.
– I loved him. I love my country too.
– Then you serve your country.
– No, I save my country.
What better embodiment is there in popular art of the passion of the mostly-female (and largely women-of-color-led) Resistance?
6. Love, Simon. After just one viewing, Love, Simon secured its spot as one of my favorite movies of all time (and not just because I was so satisfied by the final reveal). Yes, it’s a saccharine, un-problematized teen fantasy — but it’s our saccharine, un-problematized teen fantasy.
After an adolescence spent watching Clueless, Ten Things I Hate About You, Can’t Hardly Wait, She’s All That, American Pie, Cruel Intentions, Mean Girls, and all the rest, Love, Simon was the revelation of kissing a boy for the first time: this is what it’s like when it’s for me.
7. Summer Movies. I spent all of August, September, and October in a nonstop campaign job—weekly trips to the movies were one of our only respites from the 24/7 grind. And this summer had good movies!:
- The Spy Who Dumped Me
- Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again
- Crazy Rich Asians
- A Simple Favor
(Honorable Mentions: Other teen movies! One with revelatory things to say about coming of age online, Eighth Grade; and another fine-it’s-straight-people-but-at-it’s-still-charming romantic comedy, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.)
8. Lovesick. In January, I breezed through three seasons of this British comedy (né Scrotal Recall) about a man who tracks down his exes to tell them about the chlamydia he might have given them. It’s the still-dating, looking-for-love analogue to the married-with-children narratives of Catastrophe. Both come in perfectly bite-sized seasons, and I can’t recommend Lovesick highly enough.
9. The Crown, Season 2. In the early 19th century, naturalist novelist Frank Norris dismissed realism as “the drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block…” Well, fuck you, Frank Norris—that is the drama I live for. And no one does broken-teacup-tragedy better than Claire Foy.
10. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 2. I don’t care what the haters say: I love this show—its Jewish thematics, its Yiddish inflections, its buoyancy. I rarely laugh out loud watching TV alone on my couch, but Mrs. Maisel gets me there (like when Rose nonchalantly chats with Moishe, who she despises: “So, Shirley tells me you’re gonna be buried in Israel… Any idea when?”).
My favorite moment was an entirely tossed-off exchange between Midge and Susie in episode 8. Midge, a child of Manhattan, can’t drive—and thus can’t take on any road-trip driving duties:
– I did plan to learn a few years ago.
– Oh, well, that's a relief. For a second there I thought maybe you didn't plan to learn a few years ago.
I love it. And Michael Zegen has a strange sexual charisma.
11. Mad Men. On the campaign, between movie trips, I needed a late-night lullaby that was deep but not too distracting to watch. Revisiting Mad Men from the beginning was perfect—it doesn’t seem a day outdated in spite of premiering in 2007, and it was a joy spending seven seasons watching Don and company learn that all they need to know is what E.M. Forster said a century ago: “only connect.”
(Honorable mention: The Howards End miniseries on Starz. And of course the latest seasons of Veep, American Vandal, Insecure, and Bojack Horseman. All great, but none quite hit the highs of previous seasons for me this time around.)
12. Locking Up Our Own, James Forman. I’ve read a lot of books on America’s unique moral scandals—mass incarceration and our deeply unequal applications of criminal justice. Forman’s book was crystalline in its articulation of the unintended consequences of anti-crime policies undertaken by righteous actors. Not only is Locking Up Our Own a cogent etiology of our current problem, but it’s also a powerful case study of how well-intentioned policies can have disastrous externalities decades down the line.
13. Kudos, Rachel Cusk. Folks who know me know that I hate most fiction written after World War I (when the tragedies of broken teacups went fully out of style), but Cusk’s Outline trilogy—which concluded this year with Kudos—is a major exception.
If the novel form exercises our empathy by moving us to inhabit other points of view, the Outline novels push us onto an epistemic tightrope. We partially inhabit narrator Faye’s listening consciousness, and we skeptically but sympathetically extend an ear to her interlocutors. These people should be judged by Faye, and us by extension—but Cusk silences this judgment in a kind of moral asceticism.
14. From the Corner of the Oval, Beck Dorey-Stein. This memoir of a twenty-something who finds herself working for President Obama after answering a Craigslist job post is confectionary—it’s a lot of sex and self-loathing and late nights on Air Force One. But it’s also a fascinating glimpse behind the briefing room curtain, and a nostalgic return to the saner American politics of the not-too-distant past.
15. Good and Mad, Rebecca Traister. Traister is the most important public intellectual of post-Hillary politics and the #MeToo era. This chronicle of women’s anger as a force in American social change is required reading.
(Honorable mention: if I had finished Jill Lepore’s These Truths—a remarkably taut one-volume US history—I’d probably have it here, but I’m only up to 1896 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
16. Seek Treatment. If these 18 pieces of culture fought to the death Hunger Games–style, Seek Treatment might win. I was very stressed by the midterm elections and my new job over the summer and fall, and Seek Treatment was a lifesaver.
This weekly podcast about “boys, sex, fucking, dating, and love” with comic genius hosts Cat Cohen and Pat Regan was my lifeline to a New York City sensibility, to memories of the time I had a dating life (!?), and to the pure and unadulterated joy of being obsoosed—whether with crushes, abstract concepts, or podcast co-hosts. If you don’t already listen and love, SEEK TREATMENT!
17. The Drag Race Recap Podcasts. We truly live in a queer golden age, served weekly with a smorgasbord of Drag Race recap podcasts. The Las Culturistas guys do their Patreon premium recordings; Drag Race icons Alaska and Willam give us the insiders’ view on Race Chaser; and now Joel Kim Booster and Nicole Byer have joined the fun with the first-and-only Drag Race recap podcast, What The Tuck.
18. Driving Music. Unlike Midge Maisel, I now know how to drive! After failing the road test in August, I passed with a ~*~perfect score~*~ in September and subsequently logged hundreds of hours behind the wheel. What New York kids miss out on outside the driver’s seat is car radio, and the fact that the same five songs seem to be played every ten minutes on every station. As a person with an obsessive personality, car radio was a gift.
High Hopes (Panic! At the Disco), Sweetener (Ariana Grande), and New Rules (Dua Lipa) were my mainstays—but for some reason random old songs got tons of plays on my stations, and so Stan (Eminem), Most Girls (Pink), and Wake Up Call (Maroon 5) will also forever be part of the soundtrack to my 2018.
(Honorable mentions: Kim Petras, JoJo’s re-released early albums, Cher’s ABBA covers, Troye Sivan, Charlie Puth, and Cardi B.)
Thanks for reading! What amazing things did I miss out on? Maybe I’ll try to catch up in 2019, cause there won’t be new stuff to see, read, and listen to, right…?