Good news, everyone: we made it through another year! Welcome to 2018: The Year What Was In Pop Culture Experiences! I've been celebrating Decembrion since 2013, so to properly contextualize yourself for the proceedings you might want to go back to parts one and two from that year, parts one and two from 2014, or the somewhat condensed versions from 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Now, without further ado, the Top Ten!
1. Best late bandwagoning (third annual!) Outlander. Fairly or unfairly, I feel like it is often at my urging that my wife and I take the plunge into some new pop culture (usually television) obsession. I'm constantly immersed in industry insider news and hear about things being developed long before they are released to the public, and then if something really catches my interest I suggest adding it to our rotation of appointment tv and (mostly) DVR backlog. But this one was pretty much all my wife! I was aware that there was this phenomenon called Outlander, mostly because several of my Facebook friends would often get overheated about upcoming season premieres and finales and whatnot, but despite the connection to speculative fiction due to the time travel element, and the testament to quality inherent in starting as popular novels and then being adapted into equally popular prestige tv, it just didn't occur to me to give it a try. But my wife asked if we should, and since I'm the first to acknowledge the imbalance I cited above, I was happy to indulge her.
And I am glad we did, as I am now pretty much hooked, albeit still a couple of seasons behind. I think Season 4 is unfolding on Starz as I write this, whereas my wife and I are still creeping up on the end of Season 2. I do understand the devotion the show inspires, because it blends a central (oft-times steamy!) romance with historical adventure fiction (plus a decent dash of can-history-be-changed philosophizing) and manages to juggle tones all the way from squirm-inducing horror to laugh-out-loud comedy. I particularly appreciate the slight inversion of the leads: Jamie is absolutely dreamy, if a bit simple and predictable, while Claire contains multitudes. She probably spends more time scowling, brooding, and looking pensive than she does smiling, which seems like an obvious thing for a protagonist but all too often gets lost when everyone insists female characters have to be likable above all.
2. Best movie actually made for grown-ups I saw in the theater Crazy Rich Asians. I made a stray remark on Facebook a couple years ago about how every time I sit down to watch a movie, whether it's at home or especially in the theater, it tends to be something for kids, either explicitly (an animated feature marketed to children) or implicitly (an SFX-heavy escapist PG-13 movie about super heroes or space sagas or whatnot). If I'm home, and I'm watching a movie, that usually means it's Saturday Movie Night for my progeny and the featured fare falls squarely in the former category. If it's the theater, I'm either taking my kids to a big release cartoon OR my whole family is out at a Star Wars screening OR I'm with my buddies watching the latest MCU installment, so that splits across both categories. My wife and I sometimes go on movie dates, but often as not that's finally getting to see Wonder Woman or Lego Batman or something. When she and I are at home and have the den and entertainment center to ourselves, we're far more likely to be bingeing on the current Golden Age of Scripted TV (see above) than sitting through a film. So consuming cinema pitched to demographics above teenagers has become rare.
But (and here's where I sneak in some general life updating that isn't directly pop culture related) this year marked a tremendous mileston for my wife and I as co-parents: the bino started full-time, all-day kindergarten. Sure he'd been going to pre-school semi-regularly for a while, but when late August rolled around and the first day of school arrived, for the very first time we dropped off the little guy at the intermediate school and then took the little girl and her little brother to the bus stop. It kind of sucks to admit it, but let's be honest: this was more of a financial watershed than anything else. The kids are always growing up, in big and small ways, every day, but there was a clear line in the sand where we were finally able to stop paying a daycare center to deal with one or more of them while my wife and I were at work, and simply let our tax-funded public education system take care of it. Which is pretty nice! And to celebrate, my wife and I both played hooky that Monday to go out on a day-drinking movie date for grown-ups. This of course led us to our old reliable neighborhood (35 minutes away) Alamo Drafthouse, one of our solid happy places. The only flick that was playing mid-day that seemed remotely watchable was Crazy Rich Asians, and even though rom-coms aren't generally my thing I was still committed to the day-drinking movie date idea enough to buy two tickets. And wouldn't you know it, it was pretty great! You do probably know it, since just about everyone went and saw it this summer, I'm not unearthing some hidden gem here or anything.
3. Only movie actually made for grown-ups I saw in the theater, honestly Crazy Rich Asians. Other than that it was two MCU films, a Star Wars film, The Incredibles 2, and one more I will get to later but which was absolutely a cartoon for children. I'm not kidding, you could set an ancient stone circle by how often I go to the movies for something aimed at my actual demographic.
4. Most underwhelming double-feature The Grinch/Who Framed Roger Rabbit? So yeah, the new Grinch movie from Illumination was the only other movie I went to see in the theater this year (so far, who knows what Christmas break may bring). I had zero interest in this, it may very well go without saying, but the thing is, my kids loooooooove the Grinch. We own the book, and the Chuck Jones cartoon on DVD, and they would watch the DVD year round except that I pack it up with the rest of the Christmas decorations every January and only let it out after Thanksgiving. My kids are also getting old enough that sometimes they watch tv with my wife and me (football, mostly) so they were exposed to the full force of the advertising campaign for the Grinch movie, and they begged to go see it. There happened to be a Saturday where we had no plans, my wife was working, and it was rainy, so I caved and took them to the multiplex to see it.
And it was ... fine. It didn't retroactively ruin anyone's childhood, it didn't completely miss the point of the original, it had a couple of genuinely entertaining moments and a lot of padding to stretch the ideal 22-minute runtime out to four times that length. It just felt entirely unnecessary. (It also really doubled down on the idea that there was definitely a Who-Jesus and that Christmas was a religious and not a secular holiday for the Whos, with a bunch of carolers terrorizing the Grinch with a jazzy rendition of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, but that's really a whole separate kettle of fishes and loaves.)
So that was Saturday around midday, but as mentioned above Saturday night is usually movie night and since I had already given in to the kids once I proposed that they let me pick the evening entertainment. This year the kids all developed an appreciation for Looney Tunes and their sensibilities, so I suggested we watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I assured the kids that Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were in it, along with Mickey and Donald and lots of other characters they no. The kids reluctantly agreed.
In the end, I felt like I owed the kids an apology. I had never seen Roger Rabbit before, but I knew it by reputation (including its inclusion in the 1001 Movies list, which I no longer consider myself actively working through but still enjoy occasionally ticking the boxes for). As it turns out, the movie is not that great! The interaction between the live-action and animated elements is impressive, especially for the 1980's, but way too often it feels like Zemeckis is just kind of coasting on that whole aren't-these-special-effects-innovations-blowing-your-mind thing. (Which is, I believe, kind of Zemeckis's whole thing these days.) In general, though, the movie isn't quite wacky and zany enough to hold kids' attentions, and it's not deep or developed enough to hold an adult's attention, either. Plus, hokey smokes, Roger Rabbit may very well be one of the worst, most annoying characters of all time. Rough day in movie-watching, that one. But speaking of rough ...
5. Most disappointing nostalgia trip DC Elseworlds. This year, DC Comics finally decided (or I finally noticed) to put out some hefty trade paperback collections of some of their Elseworlds stories. These are tales where the tropes commonly associated with a marquee character get filtered through a different setting or genre, and mixed up with the tropes inherent to those. Basically an exercise in 'wouldn't it be cool': imagine if baby Superman's rocket from Krypton had landed in medieval Europe instead of 20th century America, or how the Justice League would have functioned if Superman had never come to Earth at all, and the team lacked its moral compass and embodiment of altruistic virtue. I love superheroes and I love the depths of worldbuilding and continuity that comics pull off, and I love stories that flip and remix familiar ideas, and I especially love superhero stories that do so because there's so much material to work with. So I put the Elseworlds collections on my wishlist and got the first two Batman volumes for my birthday.
I finished the first (larger) volume and am still working through the second and ... man are they a mixed bag. I had some fond memories of Elseworlds from the heights of my comics collecting in the 90's, when as often as not I'd be frustrated by the inconsistent scheduling of those Elseworlds books and equally often I'd pass them up when I did see them because I was young and poor and spending too much on comics as it was. I looked forward to finally catching up on ones I had missed earlier, but it saddens me to report that in many of these cases it seems as though the writers came up with their respective wouldn't-it-be-cool ideas and then considered the job mostly finished. Each one seems to rely on reader affection for the characters as concept-driven properties and never really fleshes out what makes these particular iterations tick, and at the same time each one seems to suffer from needing to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, as the Elseworlds are all supposed to be more or less self-contained, whereas the usual comics writing assignment involves coming into the middle of an ongoing, decades-old, never-ending story. Ah, well.
6. Best playtime development - Dreamblade hand-me-downs. Getting away from grousing for a bit, I will say that I had a moment of pure elation this year when the kids (mostly the boys) discovered my old Dreamblad figurines. I haven't played in years, but it was nice to see the pieces get some love, as the kids used them like bizarro army men to stage elaborate battle scenes. Good times.
This would have been edged out by something else, if it had happened already, but it hasn't. It should go down between Christmas and New Year's. "It" is the triumphant introduction of my kids to playing Dungeons & Dragons. The little guy discovered the sourcebooks and is now crazy about the idea of playing, so on Christmas morning he will be opening all kinds of starter sets and dice towers and books of blank character sheets and all that good stuff. And some time in the long stretch of days where they are not at school and I am not at work, we will roll up some characters and I'll run them through some simple adventures. Supposedly the little girl and the bino are in as well, so we'll see how long it holds their attention. If they bail, I may have to start inviting some of my buddies to show a ten-year-old budding enthusiast the ropes of hack and slash. I am stoked to see how it all plays out.
7. Most gratifying podcast The Good Place: The Podcast. I'm still super into The Good Place on NBC, including the most recent and most divisive season. I also discovered the official companion podcast, which I devoured. Everything about it is so great, from Mike Schur's insights into creativity to the behind-the-scenes details revealed by the writers and actors to the in-world fake ads to the inimitable Marc Evan Jackson (he plays Shawn) as host. Highly recommended.
8. Closest thing to a sea change A farewell to networks. It occurred to me this year that while I am, as just mentioned, still super into The Good Place on NBC, my overall use for the big four networks has seriously declined. If it weren't for sports and Jeopardy (sports for brain-nerds!) I wouldn't have watched ABC or CBS at all this year. I watched Last Man on Earth and LA to Vegas on Fox, but both of those got cancelled (boooo), so again it's pretty much only the NFL and MLB keeping me aware of what number that station is in the program guide. NBC is hanging by a thread, and meanwhile I'm mostly looking forward to stuff on Amazon or Netflix: Stranger Things, Good Omens, Catastrophe, Kimmy Schmidt. Plus of course the go-tos on HBO: Game of Thrones, John Oliver, 2 Dope Queens. This is probably the biggest 'yeah, no duh, you adn everybody else' entry on my list, but hey, it's my list and I thought it was noteworthy, so there you go.
9. Most humbling self-discovery Digging up my old mix-tapes. This was the year that the little guy decided that he values music primarily for its utility as daydream-assisting background noise. Which, fair enough. He and I spent a good amount of time in the car together, because (a) every weekday morning I drop him off at intermediate school on my way to work (note: it's not really on the way, we just both have to leave the house at about the same time. I take him across town to school, then I start my own epic commute) and (b) two weeknights a week I drive him to his martial arts class. These are ten minute drives, usually, and for a while I would turn on the radio when I started the car but that involved a high chance of getting mostly commercials for the duration of the ride, which I am not crazy about and the little guy REALLY hates. So eventually I started loading up the CD changer in the car, which was better, but even at ten minutes a go those 5 CDs would start repeating pretty fast. At one point I realized the car also has a tape deck, and I still have some mix tapes from my teenage years, so I decided to bring those into the lineup.
I have long prided myself as an appreciator of the rock album as a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and as a fairly decent mix tape constructor. Given the breadth of material to choose from in compiling any given mix, it becomes all the more obviously a kind of narrative, establishing and developing certain themes, peaks and valleys and meta-rhythms. Variety is important, but consistency is also important, and smooth segues as well as seemingly incongruous but eventually obvious juxtapositions all have parts to play. So I believe, and so I've always believed, because I have always been a precocious consumer, even as a kid, right?
Eh, maybe not. I started with a mix tape I had made in high school (circa, let's say, 1991) and, oof, it was hard to listen to. The most generous interpretation I could give to that collection of tunes would be that it corresponds to the time when I was still with my longtime high school girlfriend but the cracks in our relationship were beginning to show. This is historically accurate as far as the context goes, and possibly even informs the division between Side A, which was music I liked, and Side B, which was music we (ostensibly) liked. It's hard to say, though, what's the more embarrassing artifact: the inclusion of several "I hope you realize how devoted to you I am before it's too late" numbers, or the preponderance of "this is really popular on top 40 radio and MTV right now so I guess I like it" stuff, including way too many instances of the same band showing up again and again when I thought once-per-mix was a rule I had lived by since the invention of tape-to-tape dubbing. (Was I really that into Genesis's Invisible Touch album when I was in high school? Wow.)
The mix tape I made for no one other than myself the summer after I graduated college (1996) has aged a little better. Certainly it adheres more closely to my ideals of non-repeating bands and organic development of the playlist. The most embarrassing thing about that particular compilation was the discovery, after years of my wife and I laughing whenever a commercial tries to appeal to Gen X'ers' pre-millennium nostalgia by reaching specifically for Send Me On My Way by Rusted Root, the pinnacle of glossy-marketable jam band world music one-hit wonderitude, that sure enough, I had included that very song, presumably unironically, to capture how I was feeling in the transition from college to real(ish) life.
10. Resolution for 2019 More outings to the Crossroads Tabletop Tavern. A very cool establishment opened up in my town this year, and I went once with my wife and kids and some friends of ours and we had a blast. Good menu, great beer selection, and So! Many! Games!
I definitely need to get back there more in the coming year. Possibly to run D&D for my kiddos! Possibly to gather together some of my friends I don't see often enough! Possibly just to support local business! I think that's the kind of resolution that's both worth making and highly achievable.