It’s that time of year again, when I atone for my failure to make top 10 lists by simply offering a collection of 50 of the many wonderful things I read, watched, or heard in 2016. (Here’s last year’s list, for reference.)
Standard caveats: I don’t watch everything! I am behind on many things. That’s just the way the world is. So if something you loved isn’t here, it is not a rebuke.
And: these are cultural — mostly pop-cultural — things. These are not the best things in the world. Like yours, my actual list of wonderful things from the year, if I wrote it in a journal instead of for work, would be a list of people and moments spent with them, of days when it was unexpectedly sunny and of the times when things suddenly felt better. But whatever journey you’re on at any given moment, you can always use more good things. So here we go.
1. The willfully — gleefully — stupid jokes of Angie Tribeca, the TBS comedy starring Rashida Jones that reminded me of Airplane! in a wonderful way that very few things do. Vive le prosthetic tongue!
2. The moment in Captain America: Civil War when a bunch of characters sit around and discuss, with seriousness, a moral dilemma. For a surprisingly long time! Searching conversations in which multiple basically good characters have very different things to say and are allowed to say them and mean them are not all that common in summer blockbusters, and this one was welcome.
3. Leslie Odom, Jr. telling the story of how he watched Shonda Rhimes yell at Art Garfunkel. It’s what late-night talk shows are for, and it made me instantly envious of everyone who got to see it in person.
4. All of John Mulaney’s comedy special, available on Netflix, called The Comeback Kid — and from a strictly shallow perspective, John Mulaney’s tremendous blue suit. Sue me, I’m a lady who likes a great … suit.
5. Mike Birbiglia’s sensitive, funny, sad, honest film Don’t Think Twice, which has more affection for and understanding of a certain kind of comedy person than perhaps any piece of fiction that’s ever been written about them. It’s got a killer cast including Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, and Birbiglia himself, and it got some of the best reviews of the year — deservedly so. (And an R rating, by the way, which is dumb as rocks and completely unnecessary. You’d be much, much better with your teenager seeing this film than some PG-13 slaughterfest with abundant death but invisible blood. Boo, ratings.)
6. The finale of the most recent season of the beloved series The Great British Bake-Off. As I’ve written at length, it’s a thoughtful and uplifting franchise — really! — and the most recent finale (which we Americans did indeed get in 2016) was as richly satisfying as a good slice of cake.
7. The most recent season of HBO’s Veep. I don’t want to spoil it, but while the show has always been sharp and hilarious, its unexpected and byzantine plotting (in both the plotting-a-show sense and the plotting-a-coup sense) got utterly bazoo but somehow remained believable within the world the writers and performers have built.
8. Anna Kendrick and Stephen Colbert singing “They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful.” This is also what late-night talk shows are for.
9. Christian Siriano, fashion provocateur — in the best way. Siriano has grown from a bit of a pain in the behind when he won Project Runway to a very interesting designer and a fascinating guy to listen to. He got a lot of attention for dressing Leslie Jones for the Ghostbusters premiere, but he wound up dressing eight women for the Emmy Awards, and they represented quite a mix of sizes, races and ages. They all looked very different, and they all looked right. Siriano believes in his own vision and always has, but he also seems to believe that the purpose of women’s fashion is to serve women, not that the purpose of women is to serve women’s fashion. Good on you, CS.
10. Speaking of Ghostbusters, Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann was one of the weirdest, greatest characters of this year and most other years, and her work on Saturday Night Live as Hillary Clinton was surprising and touching. SNL is often plagued by its institutional standing and a certain cultural (not political) conservatism, and the fact that some of what McKinnon did as Clinton was so weird as comedy — even if you didn’t think it always worked — is one of the most encouraging signs that the show remains alive.
11. Titus Burgess on WNYC’s Death, Sex & Money. The discussion he had with host Anna Sale is one of the most candid, peaceful, wise conversations I can remember from any corner of public radio, and I recommend it to everyone, always.
12. “Grandma’s Teenage Diaries,” an entry by David Rees in the New York Times Magazine‘s “Letter Of Recommendation” feature. Rees discovered some of his grandmother’s early writings, and the way he describes them is warm and lovely, but more than anything, it sheds light on the way so many of us think of our older relatives as having always been calm and settled, when in fact, they often led wild, adventurous, exciting lives all their own that we simply never saw.
13. Kristin Chirico’s BuzzFeed piece about visiting the bridal salon where Say Yes To The Dress is filmed. It doesn’t go the way she expects, and I won’t spoil it more than that. Chirico is one of my favorite writers for all sorts of reasons, and her willingness to be surprised by her own experiences is one of the big ones.
14. The Indigo Girls story in Dave Holmes’ memoir Party Of One. I enjoyed this book so much that the second time I read it, I lost all track of time and got my first bad sunburn in years. True story! Runner-up: Dave’s tweetstorm about phone scammers.
15. The anniversary celebration of All Songs Considered where I saw Glen Hansard break a guitar string with the force of his Glen-ness, which he does kind of a lot.
16. The frustrating and enlightening “Object Anyway” episode of the podcast More Perfect. Officially about jury selection, it winds up being about the complex ways people think about race and crime. It’s great radio, and very educational, and constantly compelling. Bonus: I also love the episode “The Imperfect Plaintiffs.”
17. “I got this.” The U.S. women’s gymnastics team cleaned up at the Rio Olympics, but perhaps nothing thrilled me more than Laurie Hernandez, just before her beam routine, being caught on camera saying to herself, “I got this.”
18. Take My Wife, Carmen Esposito and Rhea Butcher’s comedy series on the still-small Seeso network. It would have been a terrific show about a complex couple even if it weren’t the regrettably rare depiction of lesbians who, as one episode points out, don’t die immediately when they have sex.
19. W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades Of America, the bracing and funny travelogue series about race and culture that seems even more needed now, as it prepares for a second season on CNN, than it did when it first aired.
20. The coming-of-age musical Sing Street, which seems to be about a kid who starts a band, but which also turns out to be about the bonds of friendship, the perils of romance and especially the crucial role of siblinghood for anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t quite know how to bloom in quite the place where they were first planted.
21. The year Sterling K. Brown had on both FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson and NBC’s This Is Us. Both are shows with large casts, and no one in either group was more critical or better than he was. It’s really rare for the same actor to do such good work on both a prestige cable miniseries and a traditional broadcast drama, and Brown more than pulled it off. Absolutely my dramatic acting MVP of 2016.
22. Samantha Bee’s acceptance of the award for Outstanding Achievement In News And Information from the Television Critics Association for her TBS show Full Frontal. She spoke about the show and how grateful she was, then added, “Now I’ll take your questions on how I achieve work-life balance.” Like much of what she did through the year, the line was direct, funny, and cutting. So maybe don’t always ask women about work-life balance, because it appears that they do notice.
23. Michelle Obama’s Carpool Karaoke segment with James Corden, which took a bit that was (and is) rapidly reaching overexposure and immediately made it surprising and joyful, particularly when you include the cameo appearance in the back seat.
24. Sunny Pawar in the drama Lion. Dev Patel is terrific as the adult Saroo, but before he can play a man who looks for his biological family, Pawar has to hold up a good part of the film as a very little boy who loses contact with his. In a pretty good year for kid acting, Pawar was one of my favorite discoveries.
25. “Unbreakable.” Not everything worked in the revival of Gilmore Girls, but the performance by Sutton Foster of an original song by Jeanine Tesori and show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was an unexpected surprise that broke the format but did its job with great force. I was surprised to learn it was written for this, because it’s the kind of song you instantly feel like you’ve heard before, not in the sense of cliche but in the sense of warm familiarity.
26. The ending — perhaps too neat, but come on, that’s kind of the format — of the long-running Downton Abbey. It didn’t precisely scratch my every itch (I don’t personally believe Downton ever quite recovered from the loss of Dan Stevens), but did give me some of the things I wanted most, and did deliver a solid dose of Matthew Goode, perhaps the most Downton man who took quite that long to be on Downton.
27. Weiner, hoo boy. There is much, especially in retrospect, that is cringe-inducing about this documentary, which chronicles Anthony Weiner’s failed 2013 run for Mayor of New York City two years after he resigned from Congress following a sexting scandal. If you see this movie with, say, five friends, I can almost guarantee you that you will have a series of conversations about it in which the running theme is, “I just do not get it.” There is one sequence that involves Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, just … pacing, that may be the most interesting thing I saw in a documentary all year.
28. Minnie Driver’s funny, singular performance as the mother to three kids including a special needs son on ABC’s Speechless, a show that has avoided about eight different potential pitfalls to become one of the best broadcast comedies on TV. Driver has needed and deserved a role just like this for years, at least as far back as her hilarious guest spots on Will & Grace, and it was a delight to see her find it. (Bonus: the rest of the cast is just as strong; it’s a really solid group and the show is a fine addition to ABC’s strong family comedy lineup.)
29. “Hello?” I’m convinced that no one who really knows and likes PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, the hosts of Gimlet’s Reply All podcast, would think it was a good idea for them to take phone calls from anyone and everyone for 48 hours straight. And it was not a good idea. It was a terrible idea, and their bizarre apparent fantasy of going without sleep (??) for days (???) while talking to strangers (????) on tape (?????!) quickly fell apart, as it should have. But what ultimately came of it was a nearly two-hour episode that contains, particularly as it progresses, moments of real grace and surprise.
30. Nothing I saw this year was more unexpectedly weird than watching the real Grandmaster Flash try to explain his art to a bunch of television critics during a preview of Netflix’s The Get Down (in which Grandmaster Flash is a character) at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. We were overmatched by what amounted to Grandmaster Flash’s TED talk, and I’m not afraid to say so. Meanwhile, The Get Down was a little bit all over the place, but the central performance from Justice Smith was a real pleasure. The show has half of its first season yet to come, and for Smith, at least, I’ll watch it.
31. Ryan Gosling leaning on a lamppost in La La Land. It pushed a button that’s been deeply programmed inside me since I saw Singin’ In The Rain, and I found it utterly delightful. The movie isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was my entire pot thereof.
32. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. One of the real travesties of this year was that this music mockumentary from the Lonely Island somehow slipped past people. Already, it’s got a reputation as a film much better than its box-office flopsitude would suggest, and I firmly believe that as years pass, those of us who truly appreciated it will be vindicated. Please see it just for the terrible/wonderful songs and the celebrity cameos.
33. The second season of Catastrophe, starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan — with Carrie Fisher. It started with a time jump that was clever and wise and instantly moved the story to a more interesting phase of their relationship to explore than you would have seen had the second season picked up right where the first left off. That kind of experimentation is always welcome in episodic comedy, where it’s so easy to box yourself into a corner with such matters as … new babies.
34. Little’s bath. While there are a lot of things about Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight to celebrate, I’ll just choose an early sequence in which Little (Alex R. Hibbert) carefully heats a pot of water on the stove. It’s a beautiful little peek at his routine — at his independence, resilience and loneliness, all of which will recur through what we see of his life, all at once.
35. The youngest tier of performers in Stranger Things — Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, and Gaten Matarazzo. They were asked, in essence, to embody archetypes from a period they never lived through: the Steven Spielberg/Stephen King ‘80s, when kids roamed on bikes and discovered oddities with their best friends. Nevertheless, they all came through like champs, and while the show had trouble delivering on all of its promises (as supernatural stories often do), the friendships sustained it throughout.
36. Sailor dances. I am overlapping as little as possible with Glen Weldon’s Pop Culture Advent Calendar (which offers 25 more good things from this year), but I, too, would be remiss if I didn’t mention Channing Tatum’s “No Dames” number from Hail, Caesar! For musical aficionados, the callbacks to sailor movies, tap numbers and even Rodgers and Hammerstein (the song is a near-lift in places from “There Is Nothing Like A Dame”) are a special treat, and Tatum can dance on my screen any time, for as long as he likes. I’m still not sure that guy has been used to the absolute height of his powers. I fear what could happen (to me) when he is.
37. Issa and Molly. There are lots of shows about friends, but not that many good shows about friends. Issa Rae’s Insecure on HBO was many wonderful things at once (I could easily have chosen the early sequence in which Issa talks to herself in the mirror, which has been rightly praised by many before me), but I treasured nothing about it more than I did the portrayal of Issa and her best friend, Molly. Their bond is their primary emotional entanglement in many ways, and therefore it’s the relationship that often has the highest stakes.
38. Michael Shannon in Loving, the story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), whose Supreme Court case established that it was unconstitutional for states to ban interracial marriage. The leads in the film are absolutely divine, and Nick Kroll does good and unexpected work as their attorney. But I was also a sucker for a brief appearance by Shannon as Grey Villet, the Life photographer who took the most well-known portraits of the Lovings while their case was pending. (Take a look at the real photos, if you never have.)
39. As if it’s not enough that Mamoudou Athie played Grandmaster Flash in The Get Down, he was also a very dreamy romantic lead in a little movie called Jean Of The Joneses, from writer-director Stella Meghie, which follows a young woman (Taylour Paige) with a sprawling matriarchal Brooklyn family. It premiered on TV One in October, and while I don’t think you can stream it right now, it’ll show up, and it will be well worth seeking out.
40. HBO’s documentary Suited, about a Brooklyn custom suiting shop that caters to transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming customers. It’s about identity and fashion and compassion, and it was one of this year’s best.
41. Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made In America. As good as the FX drama series of the Simpson trial was, I think Edelman’s documentary was even better — more stirring, more focused on the social aspects of the case, more searching. It makes the point over and over that what’s most beneficial isn’t to know more about the court case itself, but to understand the many ways in which the case, both as a series of events and as a cultural phenomenon, was created by the country where it happened.
42. Josh Gondelman’s comedy album Physical Whisper includes a track called “Kiss Me Neck,” and in it, you’ll find one of the reasons Josh (who’s a pal and a writer for Last Week Tonight With John Oliver) is the kind of comedian he is: it’s long and involved, and then … the punch line doesn’t come from him. It’s somebody else’s laugh, and telling the story comes from a place of generosity. That would make it unusual in a lot of people’s repertoire, but it fits right in on this record.
43. I am low-key obsessed with the musical The Last Five Years, and I had no worse FOMO this year than what I experienced when I missed Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry performing it at Town Hall in New York. Fortunately, there’s video evidence. This kind of one-off theater experience, which is sort of a relative of the production of Company a couple of years ago with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert, is something I could stand to see a lot more of, hopefully when I’m not traveling.
44. The Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode “9 Days,” in which both Jake (Andy Samberg) and Holt (Andre Braugher) got the mumps — and were quarantined together, and named their goiters — was goofy and perfect. Brooklyn is a show I’m crazy about, but never more than when they lock up Jake and Holt and just make them bump into each other in a variety of ways.
45. Emma Thompson being really just about perfect. Much of Bridget Jones’s Baby was just a nostalgia tour for Bridget-likers — and there’s nothing wrong with that, really. But Emma Thompson shows up in a few scenes as Bridget’s OB/GYN, and she is so funny that it makes the entire film a great bargain, just for that. (“My husband said it was like watching his favorite pub burn down.” A line delivery so good I bark-laughed in my living room.)
46. This fall’s fresh Emmy winners: Rami Malek for Mr. Robot, Tatiana Maslany for Orphan Black, and Louie Anderson in Baskets, Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown for The People v. O.J. Simpson, among others, gave hope to those who would like to see the Emmys get a little more … well, creative in recognizing talent. Sometimes it feels like it’s all the same faces every year, and this year, it wasn’t. The rare awards show where the winners themselves were fairly frequently exciting to see.
47. All the moments in which, even while grieving, we shared thoughts about artists who died this year. While no one can feel happy, really, about losses like Prince and David Bowie and George Michael and Carrie Fisher, there is a way in which sadness frees up vulnerable thoughts, and I’m not sure we’ve ever had a better year for memorial essays and other reminders to appreciate the artists you love as loudly and unreservedly as you can. To wit: I could easily have made one of the items on this list my firm belief that nobody wrote better more consistently this year in more different ways than Rembert Browne; here’s his remembrance of Phife Dawg, and here he is on George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90.”
48. Inside the NPR family, one of my favorite podcast episodes of the year was Code Switch’s “Audie And The Not-So-Magic School Bus.” Just listen. (Bonus in this category: My Pop Culture Happy Hour co-conspirator and dear friend Glen Weldon’s great, great book The Caped Crusade: Batman And The Rise Of Nerd Culture. Pro tip — consider the audiobook.)
49. This was my year of Hamilton, as it was for many people. Not only did that mean I had the chance to see the show, but it meant I got to watch the #shotsoutthegrammy phenomenon on Snapchat, and I got to watch a digital puppeteer for PBS’s Splash & Bubbles make a fish lip sync “My Shot,” and it meant I got to hear Code Switch’s Gene Demby talk to George Washington himself, Chris Jackson. (By the way: I don’t love everything on the Hamilton mixtape, but I do love Dessa singing “Congratulations.”) Big year.
50. I don’t think it would be fair not to acknowledge that all the wonderful things there are often coexist with tremendous sadness and disappointment and fear. In that spirit, I want to close the list with Gregory Porter’s Tiny Desk Concert, which he played at NPR just after we learned that NPR photographer David Gilkey and journalist and interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna had died in Afghanistan. There had been so much crying that day that half the eyes in the building were still swollen. Porter came to us by chance, but it was just as if he’d been sent for this purpose. The concert was sorely needed and incredibly healing. And yes, it was wonderful.