Looking for the perfect Festivus gift, or just for the right TV show to binge-watch over the holidays? As we approach the end of 2018, we've asked Reason's staff to select some of the best books, TV, games, music, and other media released this year. Our picks range from a stoner rock album to a memoir by the son of a quiz-show champion, from a true-crime book to an interactive western. Dig in. —Jesse Walker
Know a nerd who needs to relax? Consider giving them a couple of seasons of NBC's The Good Place.
The show's governing questions are how to be a good person and whether anyone should even bother to try. The meandering investigation of that question involves: A lot of puns. A supernatural being played by Ted Danson. A slow-burn romance and a love triangle. A lot of puns. A walking, talking Alexa. Many jokes about Florida. Casual mentions of Tim Scanlon. The trolley problem. A lot of puns.
I'm as surprised as you are to find myself recommending a sitcom from a broadcast network. But The Good Place's snappy yet thoughtful dialogue and pleasingly moderate level of wackiness overcame my cusper/millennial anti-legacy-media prejudices.
Unlike the long-arc prestige dramas that get all the buzz these days, The Good Place demands nothing of its viewer; it offers 22-minute increments of intellectually redeeming delight. It's a candy-coated multivitamin and it goes down smooth.
The third season is currently airing, so once they get caught up, your gift recipients will also get to enjoy the now-novel agony of watching a weekly television show in real time. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
It's not because I'm Nancy Rommelmann's friend that I cracked open, let alone now recommend, her book To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder. In these attention-fractured times, friendship alone does not ensure a #longread, particularly when the subject matter is as gruesome as a mom chucking her two tots into the Willamette River.
But I was a Rommelfan before a Rommelpal; it was only long-held trust in her journalism that led me into these uninviting waters. Boy, am I ever grateful.
To the Bridge is a 303-page crowbar into an open-and-shut case—the 2009 murder of four-year-old Eldon Smith and attempted murder of his seven-year-old sister Trinity by their mother, Amanda. Evil/crazy mom pleads guilty to unfathomably horrendous deed, what's left to discuss?
The reader stops asking such questions by about the second paragraph, through the allure of Rommelmann's deceptively simple storytelling. Soon, and somehow without obtrusion, the author swaps in a whole new set of queries. Did Amanda hear her daughter's cries in the river that night? How could her ex-husband Jason be so charming and note-perfect in public appearances yet such a grifting drug parasite in his day-to-day life? And who in God's name was that homeless-looking young father at the grotesque Fire Dept. christening of a rescue boat dubbed the Eldon Trinity?
To the Bridge is a story about all that, every act of reportorial brush-clearance adding new vistas of clarity and obfuscation. But—again, without explicitly telling you so—Rommelmann's investigation also manages to be both a tonic meditation on the limits of knowledge and a bracing defense of its pursuit.
Frank Turner's excellent album Be More Kind opens with an admission that he's been as confused about 2018 as you are. "I don't know what I'm doing, and no one has a clue," he sings on the wholesome, clap-along first track.
The rest of the album unfolds like a series of coping mechanisms. Turner turns to booze- and guitar-fueled rage on "1933," screaming about how we should be more suspicious of politicians offering easy answers to complex problems, because "that shit's for fascists and maybe teenagers." He also winks at the absurdity of anyone asking a musician for advice, then proceeds to outline his plan to fix America on "Make America Great Again" (yes, really).
His music is an oddly wonderful mix of punk and folk, but Turner's strength is a gift for clever songwriting. On this album, he replaces yarns about lost loves and English folklore for commentaries on heart-hardening contemporary politics and the awfulness of social media. But getting political is not entirely new ground for Turner. On earlier albums, he recorded an anthem celebrating a 14th century peasant's revolt against the English crown ("Sons of Liberty") and an atheist hymn that wouldn't be out of place on an episode of South Park ("There is no God, so clap your hands together" goes the chorus of the delightfully ironic "Glory, Hallelujah").
If you didn't know Turner was a self-described libertarian, you'd probably figure it out from this collection of songs. And while Be More Kind makes it clear that he doesn't have all the answers, he does have some ideas. "The central driving philosophical thought behind the record was just looking around at the rise of instability in our politics and the collapse in people's ability to meaningfully disagree with each other like adults," Turner told Reason.
Punk rock once sought to tear down the old order. But "in a world that has decided it's going to lose its mind," as Turner puts it on the title track, maybe kindness is now punk.
Matthew Sweet's Operation Chaos is largely set in Sweden during the Vietnam War, a time when the country became a mecca for soldiers fleeing the frontlines. As the book shows, tensions quickly emerged between the bulk of the deserters—who were trying to save their skin, didn't always have strong ideological commitments, and were often prone to drunken and sometimes criminal behavior—and the activists trying to put the deserters to political use. The group at the core of the book got drawn into hard-left politics, fell deep into paranoia (some of it justified, much of it not), and eventually came under the sway of the Marxist-turned-fascist cult leader Lyndon LaRouche.
The tale takes many detours, and we encounter everything from a CIA surveillance operation to an alt-right stoner holed up in an Oregon bungalow. It's a highly strange story that is by turns spooky, sad, and funny; it is also extremely engrossing, and for all its weirdness it often feels rather resonant as well.
Sweet is a journalist and historian who occasionally dabbles in creating spin-off material for Doctor Who. It's the ideal résumé for writing this book: It required a lot of shoe-leather reporting, it illuminates our recent history, and at times it feels so absurd that you wouldn't be remotely surprised if a Dalek suddenly burst through the wall.
No novel, movie, or TV show captivated me this year as completely as the third season of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle. Inspired by Philip K. Dick's 1962 science fiction novel of the same name, the show unfolds in a world where the Germans and Japanese won World War II and jointly occupy the former United States of America. As the two powers start to move against one another in a bid for total world domination, a small band of rebels persist in trying to overthrow both occupying powers, chiefly by circulating newsreels purloined from the "real" 20th century that show the Axis powers losing the war. (In Philip K. Dick territory, a multiverse is taken for granted.)
In this season, Heinrich Himmler has succeeded Adolph Hitler as fuehrer and is aggressively pursuing the ability to travel to our timeline and return with the atomic weapons developed by the Allies during World War II. He's also obsessed with creating "Jahr Null," or Year Zero, a complete reboot of human history with Nazism at its center. Meanwhile, the Japanese crack down on subversives, both real and imagined, and the rebels realize they have access to an infinite number of alternate universes and outcomes.
The show's ad campaign played with the anti-Trump theme of "resistance" but the show isn't about a particular president or contemporary politics. It's a deeply moving, paranoid, and claustrophobic depiction of people trapped by circumstance and history, heroically trying to create a different world than the one into which they were born.
Marijuana legalization continued to spread across the U.S in 2018. As if summoned by the increasingly green landscape, the legendary stoner metal outfit Sleep roused itself from a long hiatus and released The Sciences, its fourth studio release and one of the best metal albums of the year.
The band had officially split up in the late '90s amid disputes with its label over its magnum opus, the hour-long song "Dopesmoker." Since then, Sleep has played reunion shows, released singles, and teased new material. But a new album? It seemed like a pipe dream.
Even more surprising, Sleep came back heavier than ever. The "rifftuals," as the band calls them, thunder and lumber and rumble and pummell and everything else that good riffs do. On tracks like "Antarcticans Thawed" and "Sonic Titan," the band reaches new highs: Singer Al Cisneros' range has expanded beyond his usual half-chant delivery, Matt Pike's lead guitar soars, and drummer Jason Roeder holds everything down while sounding both relentless and loose.
Doom/stoner metal is a surprisingly popular genre right now, but I can confidently say The Sciences is the heaviest, best album of the year that also includes lyrics with elaborate weed puns involving the sci-fi novel Dune ("The Kiefsatz Hasherach now takes the Bong Jabbar").
As a general rule, such metal does not take itself too seriously, but the older, wizened Sleep plays with an audacity that makes their Sabbath worship and pothead shenanigans one of the most compelling listens of the year, no matter one's current state of mind.
Following rumors of cheating and elevator beatdowns, the latest development in Beyoncé and Jay-Z's marital affairs came in the form of Everything Is Love, an album they released under the name "The Carters." But while the focus here is on the couple's relationship, economics are constantly bubbling below the songs as well. The business-minded couple goes from reversing out of debt (in "Apeshit") to not letting ceilings hinder their success ("Nice"). Eager not just to obtain wealth but to investing it into communities, Jay-Z notes in "Boss" that where he comes from, someone can still be considered "broke" if "everybody is broke except for you." At the same time, Beyoncé brags about generational wealth and how she's already set up her "great-great-grandchildren" to appear as billionaires on future Forbes lists.
It's not the first time the couple has made music about wealth creation and investment. Just last year, Jay-Z's "The Story of O.J." became a financial anthem that younger generations can enjoy and internalize.
For decades, Michael Kupperman has been America's funniest cartoonist, twisting pop entertainment, historical, and cultural conventions into absurdly unexpected shapes. This year he issued his first extended serious work: All the Answers, a graphic memoir about his father, 1940s "quiz kid" Joel Kupperman.
Joel developed dementia shortly after his son decided to write about his father's days as a child prodigy on radio and TV. The pains of striving to understand this man who told his young son he loves him "some of the time" energize this tensely peculiar work.
All the kids won on Quiz Kids was the right to stay on the show, which Joel did for 10 years. Shortly after his 1942 debut, 6-year-old Joel Kupperman, a math prodigy with a 219 IQ, was hobnobbing with the monarchs of showbiz and getting 10,000 fan letters a week. He later decided he was essentially manufactured as a public sensation to combat anti-Semitism; the quiz kids toured selling war bonds, and Joel spoke at the U.N.'s first New York assembly. After leaving the show, he was a frequent target of bullying by kids who grew up shamed by his example.
The intense fame and infamy were so disorienting Joel told his son, "I didn't have any feelings about it at all." In our world where fame and infamy can sweep up anyone in an instant via social networking, this tale of how parents, in Joel's words about his stage mother, "created situations which she should've known were bad for me"—both through too much attention or, in Michael's case, too little—expands its unique circumstance to disturbing universality.
In Big Mouth, whose second season debuted on Netflix in 2018, comic Nick Kroll combines the kind and crunchy wisdom of Lynda Madaras with the ribald humor of Frank Zappa, then spins it into a beautifully rendered cartoon teen drama.
Big Mouth is a show about early adolescence, but it's not for early adolescents. It's for those of us who have moved from the period of life in which we thought our parents cared too much to the period in which we think young people don't care enough. Kroll, who voices several characters with the same all-in gusto that came to define The Kroll Show, gives us a perspective that falls right down the middle. The tweens of Big Mouth are hot and bothered, under-supervised, and acting at the behest of literal hormone monsters (voiced by Kroll, the always-awesome Maya Rudolph, and Broad City scene-stealer John Gemberling). But are they in any real danger? Big Mouth submits that they are not.
While the teenage brain is like a Jell-O that's set just enough for someone to drop in some canned fruit, Big Mouth argues that adults tend to seize on things with attention that's disproportionate to the impact. A hand job does not make one a sex fiend, and dabbling with pot does not destine a teenager for a life of addiction and crime. Kids will find their own way whether they're watched by hawks or simply taught how to work the microwave and left to their own devices. Kroll paints the agony and ecstasy of adolescence as intertwining legs of a great adventure, and reminds us not to spoil the fun with excess concern.
The granddaddy of collectible card games turned 25 years old in 2018, and Magic: The Gathering celebrated with a bunch of new offerings that tie back to its lengthy past.
Part of Magic's appeal is that it regularly renews itself with releases of new cards and innovations intended to keep gameplay fresh. It's a game famous for giving players the freedom to design their decks to suit their own personal tastes and style of play rather than forcing rigid symmetries on all sides. But 25 years of updates can feel pretty intimidating for the uninitiated, and game publisher Wizards of the Coast has put in a lot of work in 2018 attempting both to lure in new players and to draw lapsed followers (like myself) back into the fold.
For the oldtimers, the customizable strategy combat game watered its roots with Dominaria, returning players to the game's original high fantasy world, reintroducing some long-absent characters, and providing both some nostalgia and some fresh spin on old ideas. In the fall, Magic brought players back to the game's most popular locale in Guilds of Ravnica, a setting where Eastern European–inspired cityscapes collide with fantasy steampunk noir and then go sliding headfirst into Myers-Briggs-style personality philosophies.
For newcomers, this year Magic reintroduced "core" sets to help inexperienced players navigate its deep and complex waters. More importantly, the game appears to be overcoming its frequent struggles to adapt to digital environments. It's had a cludgy, awkward online version for years, but 2018 saw the launch of Magic: The Gathering Arena, a slicker, streamlined platform featuring these most recent expansions. Even long-term players are embracing it.
It's rare for a television drama to have its best season four years in, especially when the show has long abandoned its original premise. But this year, Showtime's The Affair did just that, delivering a season that is both transcendent and horrifying.
Initially, the series followed two couples whose lives and marriages come undone when frustrated author Noah Solloway (Dominic Monaghan) begins an ill-fated affair with a grieving mother, Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson). Each episode was structured as two halves—the first from Noah's perspective, the second from Allison's—that covered the same basic events but revealed discrepancies. Some were subtle (in Noah's head, Alison's wardrobe is always more revealing), others decidedly less so. The Affair subsequently included point-of-view episodes from other characters, most notably Noah and Alison's spurned spouses, Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson). The story also had less and less to do with "the affair."
Season four is especially compelling because it complicates the narrative of the #MeToo moment. There's plenty of abuse on this show—physical, sexual, emotional—but it confounds the believe-all-victims mantra at every turn. Belief is a dangerous thing on The Affair: We see that what Helen believes is true, for instance, doesn't square with Noah's recollection, and vice versa. Alison's memories' contradict not just other characters' but her own: In a first for the show, a must-watch season four episode depicts a tension-filled scene unfolding two very different ways. The catch: Both halves are told from the same character's perspective. How can we trust other people, if we can't even trust ourselves?
I doubt any entertainment purchase you could make this year will deliver as many hours of satisfaction as Red Dead Redemption 2. For the price of a couple of hardback books, you get dozens, possibly hundreds, of hours of sprawling, intricate, open-world Western solo gameplay—plus a secondary online mode that allows you to play with your friends.
The game took seven years and hundreds of millions to produce, and its systems are so vast and numerous that at times it ceases to feel like a game at all, instead resembling a kind of second life in an alternate world that operates with its own logic and rules.
Developed by Rockstar Games, the maker of the Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption 2 emphasizes choice and consequences. You can do what you want, but if what you want turns out to mean robbing and killing, there will be a price to pay. In some cases, it's literally a price—crimes put bounties on your head that can be paid off at the local post office. In other cases, the cost is social (different towns will treat you differently as your local reputation changes) or personal (your horse, who you "bond" with as part of a game mechanism, might die). It's a hundred-hour-long reminder that you are who you choose to be.
The first season of Homecoming, which premiered on Amazon in November, features a world not very much unlike our own. American soldiers are sent to wage war overseas. When they return, they're often not the same. An internal watchdog at the Department of Defense sifts through thousands of complaints as part of a likely-to-fail effort to eradicate corruption and abuses of power.
Homecoming, based on a podcast, presents its viewers with a multi-faceted mystery that it unravels over 10 episodes. What happened to caseworker Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts)? How did she go from an in-the-know therapist at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, which claims to help prepare veterans for a post-military life, to a clueless waitress several years later? Finally, what's the true purpose of the Homecoming facility? If we're certain of one thing from the first episode, it's that the higher-ups couldn't care less about the soldiers' well-being.
Roberts is clearly the show's star: She plays the part of conflicted therapist just as easily as she does the waitress searching for answers about her past life. But her superb performance aside, Homecoming is an excellent show because of its underlying concepts. War, the show tells viewers, can have devastating effects that go far beyond the physical. And far too often, the ones who pay the price are just pawns in much larger game.