Five Is a Good Round Number

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m doing a bit of what we all do at the end of a year: look back, evaluate what we did, thought, and experienced, pick out some of the high points, make best-of-the-year lists. I’ve already posted a Best Books of the Year list, as I always do, but I’m also thinking about other media. I’m thinking about things — the products of other people’s brilliance and creativity — that were important to me during this uniquely challenging year.

I’m going to share five non-books that had an impact on me in 2020 here (really only four, but I snuck in a bonus, and also, two of them will be books eventually). It’s not so much that I think you will necessarily all rush out and find these things — in one cases, you might not even be able to — although I do recommend all of them highly (with certain caveats). Mostly, it’s helpful for me to think through these things, and maybe it’ll lead you to reflect on some of your own favourites — on music and movies and comedy and podcasts and websites and whatever — that have helped get you through 2020.

For a lot of people, the ideal 2020 entertainment has been light, fun, and escapist, and I’ve certainly enjoyed my share of those things too. But the things that have had the biggest impact on me and lingered longest have been — I think the word for all of them is bittersweet. There’s humour and some joy in all of them, but there’s a lot of darkness too, and this year I’ve appreciated artists in a lot of different genres who weren’t afraid to dive into the darkness.

1. Television: Bojack Horseman 

This is the one that I’m sneaking in as a bit of a cheat, because I cannot remember if I binge-watched all six seasons of this series at the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020. It was pre-COVID, I know that much; it belongs to the Before Times, and it might even have been too bleak to watch in the Lockdown Times. But I had watched it, anyway, in the few months before 2020 turned dark and weird, and it was good to have this dark, weird thing already in my consciousness. My adult children, especially my son, had been telling me for a few years that I should watch it, to which I always said, “I don’t like cartoons for adults,” which has been reliably true ever since The Simpsons hit the airwaves in the 80s.

But eventually I watched one episode of Bojack, because I trust my kids’ taste and I love Will Arnett’s voice, and that was it. I was hooked. Weeks later I was teaching my English students about classical tragedy and the concept of “catharsis,” and how when watching a tragedy you’re supposed to be consumed with emotions of pity and fear for the character and then feel drained of those emotions when it’s over. I paused in my explanation and said, “Actually, I’ve seen all of Shakespeare’s tragedies on stage and on film, but the only time in recent years I can remember actually having that experience with any drama I watched was the last season of Bojack Horseman.” Eight or ten students looked at my blankly while one said, “Yes!” with a look on her face like she’d been punched in the chest. Catharsis.

The humour in this series is so funny — exactly my kind of humour, often based around puns and wordplay (honestly, watch the first 30 seconds of this compilation below, and if it’s funny to you, you’re going to laugh at this show — if it’s not, don’t bother).

Because the humour is so silly, and the darkness is so dark, that they contrast brilliantly with each other. The series takes a main character who’s hard to empathize with — a self-absorbed, self-pitying, alcoholic ex-sitcom star who somehow gets away with a lot because he’s a wealthy, straight, white-coded male (I say white-coded because, I mean, he’s actually a brown horse, but it’s pretty clear that whatever Bojack is in the world of the show equates to a middle-aged white man in our world). And the show makes you empathize with this character while somehow, at the same time, refusing to ever give Bojack the passes that the world gives him. He does terrible things and we feel sorry for him even as we recognize the hurtful impact of his actions on others — and the show always lets us feel those impacts, always recognizes that the people Bojack hurts are just as valuable as he is, their feelings as worthy of consideration.

The other thing that makes this show amazing is how well it writes the women characters. For a show centred around a male figure, there are a lot of women characters — Diane, Princess Caroline, Sarah Lynn, Beatrice, Hollyhock, Charlotte, Penny, Gina — and every one of them is distinct, a fully rounded individual who is affected by Bojack’s presence in her life but not defined by it. It’s kind of amazing that an animated show with a mix of human and anthropomorphic animal characters has some of the best representation of women in contemporary TV, but there you go.

Bojack Horseman went to a lot of dark places in six seasons — never darker than in its penultimate episode, and it was brave enough to let readers decide whether the final episode offered any kind of redemption or not. Like any form of entertainment it’s not for everyone, but for me, it was the perfect way to start a year that turned out to have plenty of bittersweetness.

2. Podcast: The Anthropocene Reviewed

A lot of the things on this list aren’t going to be a surprise. For example, if you know me, you know that I’ve long been a fan of John Green, both his novels and the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel he shares with his brother Hank. But perhaps my favourite John Green product is this podcast he’s been running for the last few years. The conceit is: John takes an object, an idea, a whatever, and “reviews” it, rating it on a five-star scale. The review idea is basically a vehicle for these short, spoken essays about life — sometimes funny, sometimes sad (warning: do not listen to the one on “Googling strangers” if you’re in a place where a tear in your eye would be a bad idea); never saccharine; always insightful. Green weaves in concepts as diverse as the history of the Piggly Wiggle grocery chain in the US, his personal experiences as a young hospital chaplain many years ago, and everything in between. The podcasts were released once a month, and always had an of-the-moment feel, even though months of research and writing went into them.

In late May of this year, the new Anthropocene Reviewed dropped onto my podcast app on a warm, sunny day. I put on my headphones and took the dog for a walk while I listened. It was one of the first truly warm days after what had been, in every sense, a long hard winter here in St. John’s. We’d recently had restrictions eased so that we could gather with small groups of family outside our household; we’d been able to have my dad and our son Chris over to the house again, and Newfoundland’s first COVID outbreak was tapering off, so things felt hopeful but still precarious.

On that day’s podcast, John Green reviewed the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a song I’d never given a minute’s thought to except to think of it as an overblown bombastic song from some old musical. As I walked with Gal down Monchy Street, Little Street and over Hoyles Avenue to the park, listening to the story of this song and what it meant to different people, what it meant in the context of what we were currently all living through, I started to cry. Just straight-up bawl, tears pouring down my face. People sitting out on their front steps enjoying the sun probably thought, “What is wrong with that woman? Is she OK? Is the dog OK??” But it was, again, catharsis in the purest sense, all the fear and sadness and tension of the past months pouring out of me. In the park, I took off my sandals and walked barefoot in the grass. Then I went home and listened to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and watched this video …


…and then this video, which was mentioned in the podcast, as well as this one, which I don’t think was mentioned in the podcast but was massively popular about the same time …

And then I cried some more.

In September I downloaded the new episode of the podcast to learn it was, unexpectedly, the last — at least for awhile — as John Green announced he was pausing the podcast to work on crafting the essays into a book which will be out in spring 2021. So there’s that to look forward to, but for me, the podcast was the perfect way to experience these essays, straight into my ears, straight to my heart. You can listen to them here, if you want. Of all my recommendations in this post, this podcast is probably the least “niche,” the most widely accessible to a lot of different kinds of people, and I keep wanting to urge more people to listen to it.

3. Music: Songs for Pierre Chuvin

People who are casually aware of indie band the Mountain Goats may have heard that they released a new album this year. It was called Getting Into Knives, it’s quite good; it’s gotten some lovely reviews. But if you’re very very not casually into the Mountain Goats, if you are in fact obsessively into the Mountain Goats like I am, then you know that back in spring 2020, in the midst of lockdown, singer/songwriter John Darnielle, the beating heart of the band, began releasing a few songs, one at a time, recorded the way he used to do it 20+ years ago — solo, with a guitar and a cassette tape deck. When there were 10 of them, Darnielle released them online and on limited-edition cassette under the title Songs for Pierre Chuvin.

Pierre Chuvin is a French historian whose book Darnielle was reading when he started writing these songs: A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, which Google Books summarizes as “a history of the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire as told from the perspective of the defeated.” The fact that he’s reading a serious history book about the decline and persecution of Greco-Roman pagan mystery cults in late antiquity, and decides to write a song a day inspired by that history, probably tells you everything you need to know about John Darnielle both as a person and a songwriter. 

For a lot of Darnielle’s fans, living through our own lockdowns, there was something about the quiet intimacy of these songs that tapped into exactly what we were feeling at the moment. Darnielle repurposes the triumphant refrain of his most mainstream-popular song, 2006’s “This Year”I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me — which a lot of us were already singing in 2020, into a quiet grasping at hope in “Exegetic Chains” on this album:

Say your prayers to whoever you call out to in the night
Make it through this year if it kills you outright.

With lyrics like those, and 

The burden of exile gets easy to bear
Sometimes forget there’s cities down there

(“The Wooded Hills Along the Black Sea”)

it’s easy to listen to these lyrics inspired by the 5th century CE and feel that this is a “lockdown album” particularly appropriate to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. And some of the winter/spring pandemic lockdown experience clearly did creep into Darnielle’s writing. However, to me the album feels relevant to 2020 in another way. John Darnielle’s liberal, unorthodox, but deeply held Christian beliefs are evident in social media posts like this:

Why then, you might ask, did he write a whole album of songs in which Christians are the bad guys, where our sympathies are entirely with the “pagan crew” (as the song “Aulon Raid” puts it)?

Actually, I think tweets like the one above provide a key not just to Darnielle’s faith, but to why the pagans are the heroes of Songs for Pierre Chuvin. This is an album about underdogs defying a power structure that wants to crush them, and although Jesus’s teachings were all about standing up for the underdog, too often — in the 5th century and the 21st — institutional Christianity has not only not been on the side of the oppressed, it has actively been the oppressor.

Some of the best moments in Songs for Pierre Chuvin come when the pagans turn the words of Jesus back in the faces of their Christian overlords, just as John Darnielle is fond of doing on Twitter. You see it most clearly in the song Last Gasp at Calama:

With the measure that you used so shall it be measured to you…
So you say, and it’s true ….

Let he who’s without sin throw the first one like you said 
Let anyone else throw the second, as long as it connects with your head.

From the quiet assurance of “the Panasonic hum” (“Exegetic Chains” again) to the triumphant shout that “We will deal with you, me and my pagan crew!” (“Aulon Raid”), Songs for Pierre Chuvin is an album for people living through dark times, people holding onto their faith even when those in power seem to pervert the very idea of faith, people saying their prayers to whoever they call out to in the night, and just hoping to make it through this year. For me it, was the perfect album, the album that defined 2020 more than any other music. Music, like all other art forms, is highly subjective, and you might not like Songs for Pierre Chuvin, or the Mountain Goats at all. But you might. Give it a listen.

4. Serialized Story: Tales from Lindford

Again, no surprise here if you follow my book reviews and know of my love for English writer Catherine Fox’s Lindchester Chronicles trilogy — I’ve been raving about these novels, set against the background of an English cathedral town with its clergy and laity, for the last few years. When the trilogy concluded with Realms of Glory, Fox went on to other writing projects and said she had no plans to return to the world of Lindchester and the vivid cast of characters she had created there.

But early in 2020 — maybe about the time we all began to realize this would not be an ordinary year — Fox announced on Twitter her intention to return to the town of Lindford, where several characters from the original trilogy lived, and post weekly stories on her blog of how the residents of Lindford were coping with 2020. The original three books were all published this way before coming out in book form; I didn’t get into the series until the first two were out, but I experience Realms of Glory in the serial-story online format so reminiscent of the way 19th century readers enjoyed their novels (Fox consciously models her Lindchester stories as a very modern take on Trollope’s Barchester novels, so the 19th-century serialized novel is a very appropriate form here). Fox blogged that book throughout 2016, so that readers got to experience the Brexit referendum, the US election, and every big-name celebrity death of that year along with the characters.

For obviously reasons, 2020 was a timely year to pick up this project again, as characters we came to know and love in the trilogy (as well as some new ones) go through lockdowns, rage against government incompetence, worry yet again about Brexit and the US election, plan outdoor socially-distanced visits with friends, and (since many of them are clergy and most of the rest are churchgoers) reflect on what “church” means in a time when the church doors are closed. A middle-aged priest and his aging mother shelter in place together as the mother’s dementia means that her son has to explain over and over why they can’t go places or have people in. A gay couple decide to start a family in an unconventional way. A homeless man finds an unexpected refuge. An eleven-year-old girl decides to keep a journal while tracking the phases of the moon throughout the year. Tiny slices of life in 2020 COVID Britain, both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

I’m not sure I would recommend this series of stories — either as they currently exist online, with (as of this writing) two episodes to go before the story is complete, or when it comes out in book form later in the spring — to someone who hasn’t read the original trilogy. Tales from Lindford probably can stand alone, but it’s hard for me, as someone so immersed in the first trilogy, to step back enough to see if people who don’t already know and love these characters could jump in to their 2020 stories. When a character moves in with her estranged husband and their children to help nurse him through a painfully long, slow recovery from COVID, it’s certainly poignant, but it’s a lot more poignant if you’re followed the whole story of this couple’s marriage and separation through three previous books, and know what it cost for them to get to this point.

Serialized stories are not at all the same experience as sitting down and reading a full novel cover to cover, but they have a charm all their own, especially when they are set in real time and the author is crafting each episode to take into account events that have just happened in the real world a couple of weeks ago. New episodes would get posted every Sunday, and most Sunday evenings I would go to bed and read the new chapter before falling asleep, often turning off the iPad with tears in my eyes. If there was ever a year to travel through a serial story week by week with beloved, vivid, deeply realized characters like the folks of Lindford and Lindchester are for me — 2020 was the year to do that, and I am just so grateful that Catherine Fox decided to take on this project.

5. Comedy: Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999

One of the last major media experiences I had in 2020 was sitting down with the three people in the world who most closely share my sense of humour – my husband, son, and daughter (and also daughter’s boyfriend, who has a good sense of humour as well, but it was not marinated in the same household for 20 years like ours was) to watch a limited-release streamed performance by one of our mutual favourite comedians, James Acaster.

I’m not sure whether I’ve ever seen a stand-up performance, with the exception of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, that played as audaciously with the boundaries of what you expect in a comedy routine as Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999 does. If you’re not familiar with James Acaster, he’s a young British comedian whose comedy is probably best known from four Netflix specials that appear on the streaming service under the title “Repertoire,” with a tagline describing them as “Absurd. Offbeat. Witty.” His humour, typically, has been all those things, usually involving long, detailed, improbable stories mixing his real life with fantasy so audaciously and weirdly that you’re never sure what to believe, but you know it’s hilarious. His comedy has also, thus far, been pretty reliably “clean” comedy, devoid of much swearing or any explicit sexual content.

Cold Lasagna begins with Acaster striding out on stage and delivering a profanity-laden intro, announcing that he’s tired of his “clean” comedy image and wants to drive away any fans who followed him because of that, particularly old people and Christians (or “chrizzos” as he puts it). You’d think at this point this particular old chrizzo might have tuned out, but while Acaster definitely is going in a new direction with his stand-up, that profane opening monologue is not everything it appears to be. (Some helpful context here involves knowing that Acaster grew up in a devoutly Christian household and that while he lost his faith as a young adult, he is still very close to his family, including his parents who are, presumably, a couple of old chrizzos like us).

The shock value of the opening monologue is not an indication that the show to follow is going to be full of swearing and explicit content — there is some swearing, but there’s actually far less of that kind of content than in most stand-up. Rather, the opening monologue serves a warning that the audience should expect to be uncomfortable at times: not because of the swear words, but because Acaster is entirely ready to take us to uncomfortable places.

Some of the discomfort is directed outward, like his views on Brexit, and on “edgy” comedians who are offensive in the name of “not being politically correct” (he’s fine with naming names, as you see in the clip below):

But, like many comedians, Acaster is the butt of his own best jokes. And he’s more willing than most comedians are to pursue the self-deprecating humour into the darkest corners of his own life. The revelation that an ex-girlfriend left him for the famous person most likely to make him racked with insecurity is played for every laugh it deserves — and it deserves a lot. But the recounting of his infamous appearance on the celebrity edition of Great British Bakeoff spirals into a long, hilarious, and deeply disturbing story that includes a call to a crisis line. Acaster has been open in other places, most notably in his book Perfect Sound Whatever and the media tour that accompanied it, about his mental health struggles, but Cold Lasagna is the first time he’s incorporated talk about suicidal ideation into a stand-up comedy routine.

Is it still comedy when you’re talking about your mental breakdown? Well, everyone in our living room was laughing hard enough to almost fall out of our chairs at various points in the show. But there were also moments when we were all quiet, almost holding our breath. It’s not always an easy or comfortable show, and I can see how it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. If you like your comedy difficult, and dark, with a heaping side of raw honesty (and yes, some swearing), then I can’t even tell you to watch it and see if you also found it strangely moving and thought-provoking, because the livestream was a limited performance and, at least for now, there’s no (legal) way to watch it again.

Perhaps this show will have a wider release someday, and when that happens, some people will laugh, some people will be offended, some people will hate it. And some people, like me, may feel that it’s just the right bittersweet flavour to end a complicated, difficult, thought-provoking year. God bless everyone who makes difficult, bittersweet entertainment that makes us think as much as it entertains us — and God bless young James Acaster, says this old chrizzo.


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