ALL THE THINGS: My New Favorites of 2018

The year is just about over — which means my birthday is coming very soon, in case you forgot — so like the rest of the greats, I’m sharing my Best Of list for 2018.

Not all of this stuff is new, but it’s all stuff I discovered in this calendar year and think you should discover in the next one.

Music

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Lights performing “Giants,” 2018 Juno Awards. CBC

  • One of my perennial favorites, Barenaked Ladies, didn’t do a new album this year (their latest, Fake Nudes, was released November 2017), but they were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this spring. That’s not what this list item is about, though. I went to Vancouver (a city that would make the list if I was including places) to see their induction at the Juno Awards, where I discovered Canadian artist Lights. She doesn’t have a new album this year either, but four studio albums and acoustic versions of several will keep new fans busy for a while.
  • The Milk Carton Kids, another musical favorite of mine for several years, toured with a band for the first time in support of their album, All The Things I Did and All The Things I Didn’t Do. Also their first album with a band, it’s a refreshing yet familiar sound for these all-around talented guys.
  • All right, so Barenaked Ladies may not have a new record this year, but Steven Page, inducted into the Canandian Music Hall of Fame alongside his former bandmates, did. Discipline: Heal Thyself, Part II, is a followup to 2016’s Heal Thyself Park I: Instinct, and an excellent listen for any fan, new or old. Page has been on tour across North America and the UK with no sign of slowing down in the new year.

Television

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    Esther Povitsky and Benji Alflalo in “Alone Together.” Freeform

  • If you’re in your late twenties, single, and still trying to figure out what you’re doing, Freeform’s Alone Together was a surprise TV find. Unfortunately, this series, produced by The Lonely Island, was canceled, but not before two seasons and twenty episodes made it to my living room.
  • You can’t go wrong with Amy Poehler. For real. She has elevated some great new artists to at least one season of TV success as she takes steps to becoming the next Lorne Michaels, and I’m very excited to see what she brings us in 2019. Actually seeing her face on TV, though, is made better only by that face being next to Nick Offerman’s, and the relentless positivity of Making It was a welcome addition to the summer schedule.
  • New this year? No. New to me? Also no. Deserving of a mention on this and every list? No doubt no doubt no doubt. For fans (and cast and crew) of Brooklyn Nine Nine, 2018 included one very long 24 hours between Fox canceling the series and NBC reviving it for a sixth season.

Movies

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Gilda Radner on “Saturday Night Live,” 1976. Broadway Video

  • A more pretentious man may have called this section “Film,” but that same person wouldn’t have put Solo: A Star Wars Story on his list. Solo is just a fun movie, the way Star Wars was a long time ago… in 1977. It certainly had some setbacks during production, but it’s hard not to watch this movie with the same grin that Han has the first time he flies the Millennium Falcon.
  • If you want to temper your grin with some crying, Love, Gilda (making it’s TV debut on CNN January 1) is the film for you. This look at the life of one of Saturday Night Live‘s first breakout star, Gilda Radner, draws you in with her humor and then… well, you’ll see. Narrated in her own words, thanks to archive recordings and diary pages read by some famous faces inspired by her work, this is an intimate look at one of TV’s brightest, fastest-burning stars.
  • Somewhere in that happy medium is Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, an uplifting documentary on Fred Rogers, the man behind “Mister” and featuring the people who knew him best.
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‘Tis The (Mid) Season: Television’s Greatest Christmas Episodes

Mid-December. There’s snow (or maybe potato flakes) on the ground, you’re scrambling to buy your last-minute Christmas gifts, and, worst of all, all of your shows have gone on midseason break, not to return until January… if you’re lucky.

Sure, there are network TV specials, but John Legend will only get you so far. That marathon of Harry Potter  movies isn’t really Christmas, and you’re not actually going to watch The Christmas Prince on Netflix, right?

The obvious answer is “go watch some classic Christmas episodes.” I’m not claiming that these are the “best” episodes, but they are some of my favorite shows and I have unquestionably good taste.

 

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WHITE NOISE: Steven Page’s “Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II”

page_2.jpgIf you have ears and lived through the 90s, you are not a stranger to the music of Steven Page. Page, of course, is a co-founder of Barenaked Ladies in 1988 (inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this spring) and is perhaps best recognized for the words “It’s been…” on 1998’s “One Week.” Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II is a followup to 2016’s Heal Thyself Pt. I: Instinct, and is Page’s third album since the leaving the band in 2009 (2005’s The Vanity Project and A Singer Must Die, released in 2010 with The Art of Time Ensemble, make up Page’s other full-length albums).

Discipline was released digitally and on CD in September; quality control issues delayed shipment of LP copies until the end of October. While billed as a second part to Instinct, the albums have very little in common in tone; Discipline‘s opening track, “Nothing Special,” incorporates a theme of Instinct‘s “There’s A Melody.” While styled differently, Discipline‘s “Whistling Through The Dark” shares some melody with Instinct’s “Surprise Surprise” (that album’s lead single).

If listening to the LP, side A (tracks 1-5) fit very well into the Steven Page songbook fans known since 2010’s Page One. Much of Discipline sounds like a throwback to the 1970s with lyrics that are distinctly modern – or perhaps distinctly Steven Page. For any longtime fan of Page or Barenaked Ladies, Discipline feels fresh yet familiar.

Side A ends on “Gravity,” a Spanish-inspired rebuke of modern science-deniers, and is a hint at what is to come. A driving guitar and refrain that evokes The Ramones begins Side B and “White Noise” before delving into a classic Page-style musical and lyrical narrative inspired by the 2017 Charlottesville, NC riot. These responses to Trump-era politics marks Page’s first political compositions since his co-write with Ed Robertson and Kevin Hearn on the subtle”Second Best” from Barenaked Ladies’ 2003 Everything To Everyone (the band’s other Bush-era political track, Barenaked Ladies Are Men‘s “Fun & Games” in 2007, being composed solely by Robertson).

“White Noise,” however, is a brief detour from an otherwise personal album. The slower, sadder “Done” feels like a sequel to 1996’s “Break Your Heart” (from Barenaked Ladies’ Born On A Pirate Ship, and still a part of Page’s live performance) if the couple had continued on in a dysfunctional relationship for two decades. Page has openly discussed his long struggle with mental illness––depression and bipolar disorder have shaped his music since writing “Brian Wilson” at age 19 before ever being diagnosed––and two Heal Thyself albums suggest an artist who is trying to do exactly that. While Instinct opens with a monotone “There’s A Melody” and revisits that theme with much more complexity just before the album’s end, Discipline appears to acknowledge the struggle, closing with back-to-back “Whistling Through The Dark” and “Looking For The Light,” the final words (for now) of an artist that is aware of his past and looking forward to his future.

Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II is available on all digital platforms and on CD and LP at stevenpage.com. Steven Page is on tour in the western United States this fall and in Canada beginning in February 2019.

Being A Man, Part 3: The Neighborhood

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Mister Rogers, neighbor. (The Fred Rogers Company)

This is Part 3 of Being A ManVisit the men of the past two weeks in Pawnee and Brooklyn.

Which beloved children’s TV star was a NAVY Seal sniper in Vietnam with dozens of confirmed kills, has tattoos covering his back and both arms, may or may not have sexually abused a child, and definitely ended his career with a final “fuck you” to the kids he had entertained for nearly four decades?

Many people who have spent more than a day on the internet in the past fifteen years will answer Fred Rogers, creator and star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the children’s program that aired on PBS (and its predecessor) from 1968 to 2001. Fortunately for the world, they are all wrong. (That middle finger thing was real, but out of context and obviously a different year.)

Mister Rogers—it still seems wrong to his first name—dedicated his entire career to television and to the children who visited him every day. On Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood  and the shows that preceded it, he spoke to kids with respect while maintaining his authority as an adult. He spoke to his young audience as he would anyone else, whether it was Joan Rivers on The Tonight Show, David LettermanRosie O’Donnell, or Arsenio Hall.

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King Friday and his creator. (The Fred Rogers Company)

A staple of Mister Rogers’ message was encouraging kids to express their feelings in honest, healthy ways. As he said in his address to the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969, “feelings are mentionable and manageable.” (Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island responded to his reaction to the statement that he was “supposed to be a pretty tough guy.”)

“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.” (The World According to Mister Rogers)

Mister Rogers was not afraid of traditional gender roles, and as a grown man, was often seen participating in activities traditionally performed by women, or giving the women (or female puppet) characters on his show roles typically filled by men. (Fred Rogers, the man, was sometimes hesitant to address the evolving landscape of gender and sexuality in the time the show aired)

I think it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger; much more dramatic that showing scenes of gunfire. (Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, May 1, 1969)

Anger was a recurring theme in Mister Rogers’ message, and in his songs. “What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?”, the title being a question asked by a young fan, and “I’m Angry” both try to address the reason a child feels angry and how to deal with that anger.

Rogers ended his final episode on August 31, 2001, by addressing the adults who grew up with the show. He reminded them, one last time, that he liked them just the way they were.

Know that there’s something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.

(“What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?“)

Being A Man, Part 2: Brooklyn, New York

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Sgt. Terry Jeffords, NYPD. (Universal Television)

As another television police procedural show explains at the beginning of every episode, the police are tasked with investigating crimes to serve the people. The people of New York City— and Brooklyn, especially—are served by one Sergeant Terry Jeffords of the 99th precinct, created by the same minds that brought us Parks and Recreation.

Whether you know him as The Ebony Falcon or the much simpler “Scary Terry,” Jeffords is an easily-recognized figure in the precinct. At six feet, four inches tall and 240 pounds of muscle and suspenders, he could cast a shadow over any of his colleagues, if he weren’t holding one of them over his own head. A chest bump with this former Syracuse University linebacker will end with someone on the floor. When Terry slams an office door, he causes structural damage.

When the audience meets Terry Jeffords in the series’ pilot episode, he is on desk duty after firing a combined eighteen rounds into two unarmed suspects while investigating a case.

Fortunately, the suspects were a mannequin and a piñata. After the brith of his twin daughters, Cagney and Lacey, Jeffords struggled with a fear of them growing up without a father. In contrast with the stereotypical “large black man” on TV, Jeffords frequently, and often in third-person, shares his softer side. Terry Jeffords is a devoted father, gifted artist, and an unfaltering pillar of support to his friends. He is intimidated by his somehow-bigger brother-in-law, who refers to him as “Tiny Terry.” He overcame obesity and struggled with a food addiction. After being detained by a fellow officer for being black in his own middle-class neighborhood, he struggles to balance the immediate consequences and the world he wants his baby girls to grow up in.

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Terry Jeffords, artist. (Universal Television)

Many of Jeffords’ traits are lifted from the real life of Terry Crews, the NFL player-turned-actor for whom the role was created. As an actor, Crews has moved from action movies to drama to comedy, managing to design furniture, build computers, and illustrate magazine covers in between.

In fall 2017, as women worldwide came together to speak about their experiences as victims of harassment and sexual assault, Crews became an outspoken male voice within the #MeToo movement. Crews detailed his experience being groped several years earlier by a well-known Hollywood agent and his reaction to it. In November 2017, Crews filed a report with the real-life Los Angeles Police Department.

He was met with a mixed response. While many applauded his willingness to come forward, many did not. Russell Simmons, music producer and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, encouraged Crews to “give [his abuser] a pass.” Twitter trolls decided that the victim of male-on-male sexual assault had to be gay (an attack also levied against actor Anthony Rapp, who recently accused Kevin Spacey of an assault in the 1980s). Others questioned Crews’ masculinity because he did not respond with violence.

“My wife told me, three years earlier, she said ‘Terry, never handle any situation like this with violence. You are a target. You can be baited and pulled if you react physically.’ . . . If I would have just retaliated, in defense, I would be in jail right now. And that’s one thing I knew, being a large, African-American man, I would be seen as a thug. But I’m not a thug. I’m an artist.” (Good Morning America)

There is a debate whether the #MeToo movement should limited to women, but Crews’ voice is needed in the fight against sexual abuse. 1 in 6 men experience sexual abuse in their lifetime, but 87% do not report the incident. In the weeks and months since Crews filed his report, more men have come forward with similar incidents in their own lives.

Terry, whether Crews or Jeffords, subverts the stereotype of what a man is. He has spoken openly about the challenges he has faced (writing “Manhood: How to Be a Better Man or Just Live with One” in the process), and remains committed to the fight against sexual abuse.

Next week we visit a land of make believe to see one of America’s favorite men.

Being A Man, Part 1: Pawnee, Indiana

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Ron Swanson, man. (Universal Television)

The Pawnee Rangers—a small Indiana city’s answer to the Boy Scouts—are led by one Ronald Ulysses Swanson. Their handbook is simple enough to remember, but harder to follow. It reads, in its entirety:

1. Be a man.

It seems easy, but the challenge lies in defining “man.”

For many, Swanson is the definition. He’s an “all the bacon and eggs you have”-eating Libertarian who hunts, chops wood, sleeps with seemingly any pretty, dark-haired woman he desires, and can grow a full beard overnight. He’ll punch another man in the nose and then tell him to put his tears back in his eyes, where they belong.

But is that the whole picture? Swanson will also shed a tear at the sight of a miniature, marshmallow-based figure of himself. He has been seen sporting a princess tiara and a full face of makeup. A man who could be his twin is jazz saxophone legend Duke Silver. Ron Swanson was even named Pawnee’s Woman of the Year.

While many of Swanson’s distinguishing features are lifted from the life of the actor who portrayed him for seven seasons in Parks and Recreation, Nick Offerman rejects that definition of manliness.

“I think it’s old-fashioned—an old-fashioned sense of sort of a pugilistic, cigar-smoking, man that—to my way of thinking, that sensibility, on the surface, has a misogynist overtone. . . . I would be much more interested in breaking down those stereotypes because I love to bake, I love to sew—I’m a terrific seamster—and, you know, I have members of my family that are female that are much tougher than I am and they’re better at fishing and splitting firewood and can beat the crap out of me.” (The AV Club, 2017)

Offerman’s résumé as a television and film actor will forever be dominated by Swanson. Many of his other roles—both before and after Parks and Rec—are very manly. He plays plumbers, electricians, construction workers, a LEGO pirate, many different police officers, and, in one episode of The King of Queens, “The Man.” He doesn’t fear being type cast; a steady job means time spent in his wood shop or with his wife.

Offerman, unlike Swanson, has been married just once. He and Megan Mullally, who would later play Swanson’s (second) ex-wife, married in 2003 at their own pre-Emmy party. Mullally was a nominee for the fourth consecutive year for her role as Karen on Will & Grace; Offerman was three episodes into a recurring role on ABC’s George Lopez and his first of two appearances on Gilmore Girls.

“Our particular dichotomy is really great because Megan is 10, 11 years older, and she has hit all these high water marks that I’ve watched as she handles these things and gracefully surmounts all these hurdles. Now, unbelievably, I’ve come to some of the same places. There’s a real open student-teacher relationship where Megan is years ahead of me as far as the work she’s done and was on top of the game long before I was. It’s like having a master teacher at home.” (Back Stage, 2011)

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Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally. Photo by Peggy Sirota for GQ.

What are Nick Offerman’s rules for being a man? With three books, a Netflix special, and a popular Twitter account, he has become one of the internet’s favorite sources of wisdom, yet many seem to strive to emulate Ron Swanson, for good and for bad, instead.

Rule number one: Take a bite of steak.
Rule number two: Wash it down with some whiskey. Preferably single-malt Scotch.
Rule number three: Find a socialist and punch him or her in the face.
Rule number four: Hand craft a small wooden boat. Out of cedar, preferably. Obviously.
Rule number five: Make love to a partner of your choice—preferably someone who is accepting of your advances—and upon climax, withdraw your firearm and unload some rounds, laced with double entendre, into the night sky.

That’s what people think I’m going to say, but what I would really say is just stand up for your principles and be loyal to your friends and family. (Conan, 2014)

Offerman outlines 21 of his role models in “Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers.” Among the likes of George Washington, Frederick Douglass, or the very Swanson-like Theodore Roosevelt are Yoko Ono, Carol Burnett, and Conan O’Brien. He rejects the “John Wayne” definition of manliness, which suppresses emotion and encourages violence.

“If you live your life openly with your emotions, that’s a more manly stance than burying them.” (Men’s Health, 2017)

While Swanson takes a more personal approach to equality—in that he will treat everyone with respect, but would prefer not dealing with anyone at all—Offerman’s transition from small-town Illinois to small-city Illinois to Chicago, and eventually, Los Angeles, brought with it a recognition that all people are not treated equally.

“In the theater we learn pretty quickly that we represent everybody. That’s when it started to occur to me, when I left my small town in Illinois of white people and I got to the metropolis of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and I immediately saw people being discriminated against, and new friends in the theater department who were going through the trauma of coming out to, say, their families.” (TIME, 2015)

With Mullally, Offerman was a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage. Offerman Woodshop, where Offerman and a group of skilled craftsmen—and women—build everything from mustache combs to canoes, also hosts Would Works, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides woodworking jobs to the homeless or people living in poverty in exchange for credit that can be used for rent, eyeglasses, or any one of the individual’s needs.

So eat your steak; drink your whiskey. Stand up for people who need it. Laugh at yourself. Cry, because you’re happy or because you’re sad. Be the things you admire about Ron Swanson or Nick Offerman… or Carol Burnett or Eleanor Roosevelt.

Be a man.

Next week we take a Brooklyn-bound D train to examine Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Sergeant Terry Jeffords and the man who brings him to life, Terry Crews.

The Force Will Be With You, Always: Love and Loss through STAR WARS

On December 24, 2016, news broke that Carrie Fisher had suffered cardiac arrest on a plane. She was in the hospital. She was stable. She had been through plenty of figurative heartbreak, literal heartbreak was the natural progression. As a fan, an admirer, I knew she would be fine.

About a year earlier, December 28, 2015, I got a text at work that my grandmother had been taken to the hospital. She had been out, buying a birthday gift for me, when she unknowingly suffered cardiac arrest in a restaurant. As a fan, an admirer, I knew she would be fine.

I was wrong on both.

On December 27, while I waited in the lobby at WXXI to discuss the cast of Rogue One and representation of women and minorities in pop culture, I read the news. I had the misfortune of sharing that with the other guests on the show, and with the host. Instead of hearing it on the radio and reacting, privately, I had to react live on air.

It wasn’t fun. I mentioned her approach to meeting the fans she loved, keeping her words during our exchange for myself, her role, not just as Princess Leia, but as a tireless advocate for mental health. What I didn’t mention, because, really, no one wanted to hear it, was that Carrie’s death was another jab in an already-open wound.

I had taken the last few days of 2015 off. I was going to do something. Instead, we planned a funeral, canceled credit cards, and she fed us for the last time from the leftovers of her last family – including friends of several decades – party. The following Monday I went back to work. I cried at my desk, with no prompt. If anyone noticed, they said nothing. I’m still not sure if that made it better or worse.

A year later, I, again, had the last days of the year off. I was doing something, and agreed to talk about Star Wars. Sharing the news with other fans was a burden, but was met with reactions mirroring my own.  Of the five people in the room, I was the only one who had met Carrie Fisher (in August 2013; after signing across her character’s chest she declared “Right on the boobs; that’s what they’re good for”), but anyone who had read her books or seen her in interviews (which were more frequent in the wake of The Force Awakens and her last memoir, The Princess Diarist) was familiar with a sometimes shockingly-candid Carrie.

A common criticism of funerals is that a priest or some other stranger tells a few dozen of the departed’s closest friends and family vague, surface-level facts about someone they likely never met. Reverse roles, though, and something special happens, as it did at Star Wars Celebration in April 2017. Four months after Carrie’s death, she was celebrated by her fellow cast members, her daughter, and even John Williams conducting the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. Later, her on-screen brother and friend of four decades Mark Hamill led an intimate look at her life with thousands of her biggest fans.

It may seem strange, but I often find myself wondering what Sue Gregory and Carrie Fisher would think about what I’m doing at that moment. By random chance, they have become linked in my memory. It’s good company to keep.