What a daunting task: twelve months, five moments or makings, at least one or two reasons as to why each truly spoke to me. But, here we go and here they are (in no particular order).
1. Lady Dynamite
It was one heck of a year for stand-up comedians, was it not? I’m talking about Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, and Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher: all comics who, in 2016, launched their own television series which they wrote and produced. Series that increased the onscreen representation of complex, intelligent and yet imperfect female characters, of queer women, and of people living with mental health experiences divergent from the seeming norm. Series that are worth celebrating in their own right, but – even though I thoroughly enjoyed One Mississippi (Tig Notaro) and Take My Wife (Esposito and Butcher) – Lady Dynamite stood out from the rest.
I’m not alone in my adoration – Lady Dynamite has gotten a lot of coverage and well-earned acclaim. (The Maria Bamford Show, her web series which preceded this Netflix number, is also notably brilliant.) Throughout her series, Bamford introduces some pretty significant topics, such as stigmas around mental health and treatment, presumptions about sexualities, and the privilege embedded in critically unacknowledged whiteness. There were definitely moments I found myself wincing, but only because her humorous stumbling serves as the mode for uncovering potentially insightful critique – work that she leaves up to the viewer to do on their own.
The show’s central focus is Bamford’s own personal experiences with bipolar II disorder, and her navigation of her familial environment in Minnesota, career in Los Angeles, and internal and external expectations all around. What I found most fascinating is her representation of her past(s) and the space she allows in the present to compassionately and audibly reflect as she moves toward a more livable future for herself. Amidst the hilarious mannerisms and awkwardly uncomfortable interactions that smatter each episode, Bamford illustrates some pretty pertinent lessons: how we could all use a little more kindness and how we need to intentionally treat ourselves (with all of our peculiarities and unfounded paranoias) a little more gently, and with ever greater care.
If you watch the series and nothing I’ve mentioned thus far speaks to you (What? How?!), consider the eerily sing-songy refrain at the close of every episode, “I don’t know what I’m doing, more than half of the time.” Who reading this hasn’t felt that this applied to them at some point over the many days of 2016 and managed to persevere? Precisely. For me, this was the year of Maria Bamford, and for that I’m grateful.
When I learned that Neko Case and k.d. lang were working together on a new project, it was like getting an unexpected letter in the mail from someone I love. And that’s exactly how I felt listening to this collection of songs for the first time, and the second time, and the seventh time. With Laura Veirs rounding out the trio, the result of their collaboration was a heartbreakingly expressive and at times downright ethereal album that I didn’t even know I needed to hear this year.
Whether it’s lang’s incredibly lush lower, Case’s strong and clear, or Veirs’ earnestly inviting voice taking the lead, these women harmonize so well that the songs smoothly transition from one into the next without missing a beat. Listening to the album from start to finish, it sounds almost as if they’re traveling through time. From somber seconds where there’s not much more than a whisper to moments of resolute fortitude, I find myself gazing off while imagining the passing seasons, and recalling hints of aging friendships.
More than anything else, as the culmination of a collaboration between three incredibly brilliant women with three truly beautiful voices, this album for me is artistic evidence of the importance of community. Its melodic wistfulness makes me reminisce about the strong females in my life – from New England to the Northwest – and the relationships that I was and am so fortunate to be a part of this year.
3. The Handmaiden
I started this year by finally getting my hands on Sarah Waters’ most recent novel, The Paying Guests, and happily ended it by seeing The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s film adaptation of her book Fingersmith. I read Fingersmith awhile ago (alright, a full decade now), and completely fell for Waters’ ability to weave minute historical details with incredibly salacious stories of love, lust, betrayals, and of course, ladies. The movie is similarly captivating, capturing the same painstakingly close attention to specifics.
Beyond the narrative skeleton of Waters’ story, Park’s onscreen recreation is hauntingly beautiful – there are lavishly decorated interiors and endless landscapes shrouded in fog and speckled with vibrantly green growth. Not only was I engrossed and entertained while I viewed it, but I’m also delighted by how much critical attention it’s gotten. Yes! Let us applaud and also discuss the representation of two female protagonists in one film, and the intimately meticulous scenes showing the development of their sexual relationship with one another! More of this in the new year!
4. O.J.: Made in America
Quite honestly, this documentary wasn’t even on my radar until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in The Atlantic about it, “What O. J. Simpson Means to Me.” Like everything else I’ve read that Coates has written, the article was powerful and perceptive – and it piqued my curiosity. That evening, I immediately checked out ESPN’s five-part series. And it was incredible.
During O.J. Simpson’s trial in the mid-90s, I was a wee suburban middle school student pretty much completely unaware of its gravity. This documentary sheds light not only on that period of time, but also the decades before and the decades that have followed, in order to depict a cultural, social and political context that influenced the trial and its public reception, and also produced O.J.’s enduring celebrity – first as athlete, then as actor, and eventually as offender. I found each of the five segments comprehensive on its own, but together they present a picture of how perceptions of race and gender, let alone celebrity and the all-powerful dollar, corroborate to disguise particular infractions, if not deem them permissible at specific moments. Not only is this documentary absolutely worth seeing if you haven’t already, but the critical commentary it offers on the re-making of national heroes and reinforcement of national values is especially salient in our current context.
5. The Heart
When it comes to podcasts, give me a narrative podcast any day of the week. When those stories include introspective accounts of personal relationships – and focus on how gender and sexuality become enmeshed with, complicated by, and influenced through intimate interactions with others – you can bet that I’m 100% on board.
The Heart is wonderful. A self-described “audio art project and podcast about intimacy and humanity,” it’s been around for a few years now, but I’ve just discovered these delightful, emotive vignettes in the past few months. And as I eagerly await each new episode, I’m combing its archives and devouring any existing material that’s available for download.
This year’s episodes were incredible – especially the four-part series entitled Silent Evidence, and this story told by and about Mariya. To listen to The Heart is to have a conversation at once tender and frank, unresolved and yet utterly fulfilling, while allowing the storyteller plenty of space to explore their words and the feelings underlying them as they move along.