I realize that 2020 is finally over, but because time is a construct, and because I suspect future historians teaching Space Force draft dodger undergrads in the ruins of the U.S. higher education system will probably end up saying that this month is part of “The Long 2020” or something, I’m sending you all my year-end wrap-up anyway.
But first, I want to talk a little more about ghosts. If you know me, you know I am both a) very scared of ghosts and b) interested almost exclusively in non-horror film and media content that includes ghosts. If you, Netflix, were interested in micro-targeting me as a singular demographic, you’d make basically realist TV series where there are sometimes ghosts and the characters are either unaware or kind of blasé about them. Like, if Friday Night Lights had a ghost in it. Shaky cam, grainy feel, tight close-up, lilting whispered familiarities between husband and wife, translucent specter of a nineteenth century cobbler, full of regret and longing. Texas, forever?!? (That’s what my Better Things essay from earlier this year is about, if you’d like to read my thoughts at length.)
Anyway, this has been a really good year for my favorite genre. In particular, the two other series at the top of my annual list alongside Better Things each spent an episode working in the ho-hum ghost space I love so much.
The trick about What We Do in the Shadows is that its beats are more similar to a workplace mockumentary like The Office or—in its grandest moments—the kind of first-person auteurish dramedy series we associate with FX (Louie, Better Things, Atlanta, more recently Dave) than traditional horror genre touchstones. Based on Taika Waititi’s giddily ingenious 2014 film of the same name, What We Do in the Shadows is less a realist series that happens to have vampires in it than it is a series about vampires that doesn’t particularly care that its protagonists are vampires. It’s the central joke of the show that vampires, once you get to know them, turn out to be disgusting morons. Rather than gain wisdom and awesome power and erotic magnetism through their centuries of life, vampires become detached from mortal standards of wisdom and power and erotic appeal. And while they believe the myths about themselves, the cameras—observing the grubby, stinky reality of their undead lives—don’t. It means that these vampires are stupid, but it also means that there’s something occasionally poignant, even moving, about their attempts to understand a world they maybe never really understood in the first place. Neither good monsters nor good people, it ends up that what they are is, well, ordinary. And ordinary folks are great subjects for realist media.
The big showstopper episode of this season is “On the Run,” in which one of the vampires flees the mansion on Staten Island to start his life over again as the owner of a bar—and benevolent patron of a high school girls’ volleyball team—in Pennsylvania. It has been justly praised. The episode I loved most, though, was the episode in which our four main vampires discover that ghosts exist. It begins with all four vampires incredulous about the possibility that their house is haunted. (It’s a running gag about their self-awareness that the vampires tend to assume they’re the only supernatural characters in their own drama.) They not only realize that their house is haunted, but that it’s haunted by their own ghosts. Vampires who die with unfinished business, it seems, still have ghosts. After the initial jump scare, everybody quickly adjusts to the new reality, and hijinks ensue. One ghost has an indecent proposal for his vampire self, one vampire can’t communicate with his ghost because he’s forgotten how to speak in their native language, and one vampire becomes besties with her ghost. Encountering their own spirits, we see these vampires—frozen in time, viewed without romance—as figures for how little any of us know about ourselves.
Oddly enough, a ghost enters my other favorite series of 2020—I May Destroy You—with similar self-reflective energy. The ominous, Grudge-like figure that appears a split-second before the title card of the series’ ninth episode, “Social Media is a Great Way to Connect,” is a much less narratively integrated feature of the show than the ghosts in either Better Things or What We Do in the Shadows. But it acknowledges and marks the reality of the unseen in an analogous way. By the time the figure appears, Arabella is lost deep in the slow process of psychic recovery after the trauma that sets the series in motion. The figure is maybe a ghost, maybe a devil, maybe a physical embodiment of the social media celebrity that’s the focus of this episode—but it’s Arabella regardless.
That she can’t or doesn’t see the figure is meaningful, but that we see it, or miss it, is meaningful, too. If we miss it, lost in the mess of her room, we naturalize the shot within the familiar editing grammar of the show—holding an image just a beat too long, letting the personified clutter tell the story. If we do catch it, though, it’s a pretty solid jump scare, with the bedeviled figure hovering unnaturally over Arabella’s bed, a threat, a portent. Rebecca Wanzo wrote a great piece for LARB this year about I May Destroy You’s brilliant subversion and internal dissection of the comedy genre, but that’s not the only genre work the series does. Alternately, Michaela Coel invokes and explodes the Mediterranean travel romance, the psychological thriller, the rape-revenge film, the detective film, and, here, the horror film. The pacing and pulse changes accordingly, so even if we don’t see the ghost, we feel its presence formally. I May Destroy You knows our genre expectations, knows what we might see and what we might miss, and its impeccable sense of rhythm and timing create a kind of hallucinatory hyperreal aesthetic that immerses the viewer in an impossible, out-of-body point-of-view. Did I mention that this show is incredible?
I guess what I’m saying is that the three series that I loved most this past year—I May Destroy You, What We Do in the Shadows, Better Things—were all series that built themselves around the parts of their worlds that we as viewers might not reliably be able to see with our eyes. Whether that’s the slapstick existentialism of the Staten Island vampires, the long feminist present of the Fox Sisters of Los Angeles, or the patriarchal spirits of sexism, racism, colonialism, and violence possessing Arabella’s London. In vastly different ways, these shows orient themselves toward the invisible. What’s been lost there, and what’s there to be found? What a year to stay at home and watch TV!
Ok, so here, then, are all my lists:
Dear, Dear Television
I May Destroy You (HBO, BBC)
Better Things (FX)
What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
My Brilliant Friend (HBO)
High Fidelity (Hulu)
TV Performances (from shows not in my top five)
Marielle Heller // The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) // I don’t think anything that works about this show would work if Heller didn’t do what she does for a handful of episodes in the middle. So sad and fizzy—without this performance, the show would be a pretentious cartoon, collapsing under its period fixtures and drunken stoicism. Heller is the life of this series, and I desperately hope we see lots more TV and film content in 2021 that makes the wise decision to put Marielle Heller in close-up and see what she makes happen.
Jessi Klein // Big Mouth (Netflix) // This show is Nick Kroll’s voice acting masterpiece, and there’s so much fun work from Maya Rudolph and Emmy-level stuff from Maria Bamford playing an entire swarm of mosquitoes. But Klein—one of the only voice actors not really doing a bit—is so human and cracked and funny. It’s an easy performance to overlook, but it’s holding the whole thing together.
Rahul Kohli & T’Nia Miller // The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix) // Far be it from me to begrudge anybody who wants to disrespect Henry James, but, this season, like its first, is promising in parts and then just drives off a cliff in its final hour. I’d love to hear the story of whatever intergenerational literary witchery cursed Shirley Jackson and Henry James to be adapted in this way. Anyway, this season’s considerably less scary than the first, but it does come up with the innovation of introducing characters that we viewers might care about. Kohli and Miller play the ghostly will-they-won’t-they couple at the center, and every reverie, dopey pun, and meaningful glance is just a treasure. I hope these two are in lots more after this.
Davionte “GaTa” Ganter // Dave (FX) // Listen, I don’t know what to tell you. The Lil Dicky show is pretty good. I don’t want to like it, I don’t understand why it exists, but, well, here we are. It’s good. And a big reason for that is GaTa, Lil Dicky’s hype man, playing himself. GaTa gets a solo episode midseason about getting diagnosed as bipolar, and it’s a real stunner, but his comic timing and pathos right out of the gate are a big reason I kept watching past the pilot, and a big reason the show is as improbably good as it is.
Matthew Rhys // Perry Mason (HBO) // patron saint of the newsletter!
What’s Your Pleasure // Jessie Ware
Purple Moonlight Pages // R.A.P. Ferreira
Fetch the Bolt Cutters // Fiona Apple
It Is What It Is // Thundercat
Women in Music, Part. III // HAIM // I wrote about this here.
Movies (basically all the new movies I saw this year, plus a couple I rewatched and loved to make it to five total — I don’t have time to watch new movies for adults, come on!)
Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen) // I wrote about this here.
High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh) // This is a movie about professional basketball, workplace competence, labor negotiations, artistry, and, kind of, meaningful academic scholarship? And it includes a guy walking down the street to the full-length of a song and an entire scene in which the primary action is a person sitting on a couch reading a book. I could watch this movie twenty-four hours a day it is so exactly what I want every movie to be.
Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondō) // Having HBO Max and a small child conspired to get me to watch all the Studio Ghibli films this year, and this one, while of course not the best of them all, is my sentimental favorite, just because it remains so weird to me that a significant narrative element of the film is a school girl writing parody lyrics to “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, hey look!) // The very idea that whoever produced this movie let Marielle Heller make it this weird and this sad is staggering to me. I love it.
The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson) // So, obviously I’ve seen this before. But we started watching it again for Christmas vibes while wrapping presents deep into the night on Christmas eve, and, man, this movie. Couple stray observations this time around: a) Éomer’s whole attitude when he’s telling Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas that he and his horse-lord pals probably accidentally killed the two hobbits in their raid on the orc camp is very very funny. A real oopsie! b) The necklace Aragorn wears from Arwen looks like they got it at a Claire’s in Wellington, New Zealand. c) Cate Blanchett is in this thing for like, 20 minutes, and she basically burns a hole through the movie. Casting young Blanchett in a movie must have been like throwing a ghost pepper in a pot of chicken noodle soup. Watch out.
Books (just, books I read this year, not new ones necessarily)
Texas: The Great Theft // Carmen Boullosa // I read this, and then taught it to a seminar full of students on Zoom, and I think we’re all still figuring out what happened to us.
The Undocumented Americans // Karla Maria Villavicencio // Every chapter in this book ends with this devastating, lyrical piece of storytelling. The pace of this book is such that you could tear through it in one sitting, but it’s hard to do anything after these end-of-chapter knockouts.
The Equivalents // Maggie Doherty // What can I say: I love a group biography!
Edith Wharton // Hermione Lee // And I love a solo biography! Lee’s narrative voice is so authoritative and so blasé, it’s just a delight.
Unexplained Presence // Tisa Bryant // This was recommended to me earlier for a class I teach on Literature and Celebrity, and it’s a stunning piece of writing.
Children’s Books (again, new to me)
The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown // Mac Barnett & Sarah Jacoby // This is a picture book for kids that’s about writing picture books for kids and dying, and it’s also one of the best, most moving biographies I think I’ve ever read. I kind of can’t believe it exists.
Anne of Green Gables: A Graphic Novel // Mariah Marsden & Brenna Thummler // I can’t really speak to this graphic novel as an adaptation of Montgomery’s novel, but it’s a gorgeous piece of comic art.
Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli // Kyo Maclear & Julie Morstad // We are Kyo Maclear devotees in this house, and, this year, in advance of me getting to interview her for this piece, we read a lot of her stuff. This book is part of a kind of loose cycle of picture books about the lives of women artists—including Gyo Fujikawa, Julia Child, and Virginia Woolf—that’s way less commodified and didactic than that sounds. They’re all kind of lyrical essays about art and childhood (the great Julie Morstad illustrated all but the Woolf one), and Maeve never gets tired of any of them.
This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World // Matt LaMothe // This book is just what the subtitle says, and there’s a Richard Scarry-esque level of detail in the illustrations that’s mesmerizing.
Measuring Up // Lily LaMotte & Ann Xu // We zipped through this lovely graphic novel about a Taiwanese immigrant kid competing in MasterChef Junior style culinary challenge. Lots of interests overlapping here, and a significant plot point that hinges on secretly adding chicken liver to tomato sauce.
Children’s Media (*again again, new to me; **we haven’t finished the second season of Hilda yet, but I think we all know how I’m going to feel about it)
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix) // I wrote about this here.
ParaNorman // Halloween movie night and surprisingly effective pro-toothbrushing propaganda.
We Bare Bears: Origin Stories (Cartoon Network) // Melancholy shorts about baby bears.
Phineas & Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe (Disney+) // If you didn’t know, now you know.
The Worst Witch (Netflix) // I don’t know, it’s grown on me. Every once in a while, we watch a live-action kids show that’s just so charmingly ramshackle, and this is certainly that.
Alright. That’s enough for now.
Stay safe, talk to you soon,