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
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.
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.It's not because I'm Nancy Rommelmann's friend that I cracked open, let alone now recommend, her book
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.
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.Frank Turner's excellent album
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.
Photo Credit: Pixabay