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Tough Questions: What’s the Best Thing You’ve Seen this Year?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the best thing you’ve seen this year?

Rules are simple: what have we, like, gotta see, man? No, really, what have we gotta see? It’s the middle of the year and nearly everything worthwhile is on hiatus. Wonder if anyone here is writing about that? Is that the first meta-plug in the intro paragraph? Why are you reading this, still? Go find out what you’re missing! What’s the best stuff from your first half of 2014?

Alex Russell

“So Did the Fat Lady” is the episode of Louie that’s nominated for an Emmy, but I’m sticking with the entire “Elevator” saga. I’m Louie‘s biggest fan, and I’m honestly a little surprised every time I realize it competes for Emmy awards as a “comedy.” I guess it is, but the “Elevator” arc from this season is everything the show is supposed to be. There were a ton of thinkpieces written about how it’s not funny anymore, but if you’re watching Louie to laugh then you’re missing the point. It’s all about watching a woman try to explain “hairdryer” to someone with no shared language between them. DAMN this season of Louie was good, y’all.

Jonathan May

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I’d have to say the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado. Clyfford Still was one of the leading American Abtract-Expressionist painters. The Museum houses 94% of the artist’s output, and he stipulated in his will that all of his work should be sealed off from the public (upon his death) until a museum devoted solely to it was built. The Museum opened just a few years ago, so I was lucky to be able to return to Denver to see it this year. Not only is the building itself absolutely gorgeous (concrete and steel), the paintings hang beautifully in chronological order, with many more in careful storage. I’d never been able to see his paintings in the flesh, so to walk through rooms and rooms of them was just heaven.

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Brent Hopkins

I would say the best thing I have seen this year would have to be Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe in Japan. I’ve always been intrigued by Japan as a long time video game and anime fan, and finally had a chance to go visit. (I wrote about the arcade culture there way back when.) You always hear about Tokyo, but the other cities are so vibrant and lively that they shouldn’t be taken for granted either. Kyoto in particular had me feeling like I had lived there forever or could live there forever. Just a breathtaking place with amazing people.

Gardner Mounce

The best thing I’ve seen so far this year is the trailer for Boyhood, the new Richard Linklater film. I’m a huge Linklater fan, having seen all of the Before… movies a dozen times. I was smiling ear-to-ear when I saw that trailer. It looks like it’s going to be like the Before…movies but three hours long and with all the cringiness of puberty. That’s my kind of entertainment.

Colton Royle

Can we just talk about how incredible The Lego Movie really was? I mean here is a movie about a kid’s toy that was somehow also about globalization, free movement of capital, and the possibility for a post-nation state while also adding in a little Marxist criticism for the low income workers?

In all seriousness, the movie is really funny. Each cliché is tweaked just out of reach for comedy. Consider the foreshadowing of Emmit’s fall into the human world (spoilers, but it’s been enough time) with items like the “Blade of Exact Zero” and the enlightened flashes that included a cat poster. Consider how Morgan Freeman’s character Vitruvius thinks that a prophecy is true because it rhymes. And the first five minutes of the film in Bricksburg is the most satirical animated wonder since Shrek. While it definitely shows as not a movie for children, it is philosophical and quirky in a way that had me doing jumping jacks.

Andrew Findlay

The best thing I have seen all year is The Sopranos. I have been on a quest to catch up on all of the universally acclaimed television shows from the last couple decades, and The Sopranos has impressed me the most by far. Mad Men is dripping with style, The Wire is sprawling, complex, and incisive, and Breaking Bad is absurdly exciting to watch, but none quite hit the slow and workmanlike layering of a fully realized network of people. The Sopranos is a show about generational psychosis, the American dream, and family (both the kind you see at Thanksgiving and the kind you order to hijack a semi of fine Italian suits for you). All the shows I listed are amazing, but they are all missing something intangible that The Sopranos has, and I expect it to remain for some time in my top five cultural experiences.

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Life Lessons from Episodes of Louie: “Elevator (Part 6)” and “Pamela (Part 1)”

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Alex Russell

Louis C.K.’s critically acclaimed show Louie’s fourth season runs as two episodes every Monday night. Rather than just answering the question of “are these episodes good,” (because the answer is always yes) we’ll talk about the big lessons imparted in each episode. This week: Louie rents a car in a hurricane and forgets himself.

Episode 9: “Elevator (Part 6)”

These are two very different episodes of television. It’s been difficult some times during this (especially during the previous five parts of “Elevator”) to draw a meaningful distinction between the two episodes. That is not difficult now.

They’re set up that way on purpose. “Elevator (Part 6)” is the conclusion of what’s now a film-length dramatic romance told in six parts. No one could have expected Amia to stay, of course, but the act of her leaving is still brutal. Louie, like so many of us, hoped that the joy he could draw from a relationship with a forced expiration date was worth the expiration itself. To get inside Louie’s head, I’ll just ask you: Was yours?

The episode also features a hurricane, but that’s all visuals. It’s shot in a way that nothing on TV right now really is; you’re constantly lost and worried for the characters. Louie is forced to drive into a New York storm that will remind you of another recent one, and honestly, I couldn’t help but remember friends I had in New York at the time and the reality of Sandy. As someone who has never lived near a coast, it just seems unimaginable.

As Louie the show is about showing the world of Louie the character’s New York, the in-show disaster does a great job. Louie is lost and often helpless, but he will drive into the storm to try. He knows the direction he wants to go — be it towards his family or towards love with Amia — but he has no idea about anything beyond that. We’ll sum it up as he does: Move towards your goals, even if you only have two birthday candles, a light bulb, a flashlight, and a banana.

Episode 10: “Pamela (Part 1)

The end of the “Elevator” saga brings the start of the “Pamela” one, and it’s not an easy episode to discuss. I’m dedicated to not “spoiling” Louie, but there is one central element to the episode’s ending that has to come up in a discussion of the episode. If you haven’t seen it and are going to, go do so.

Yeah, right? See what I mean?

Pamela is played by Pamela Adlon, the voice of Bobby Hill on King of the Hill and Louis CK’s wife on his earlier show Lucky Louie. She’s the closest to a real “love interest” that Louie has ever had — there are others, but they don’t even seem to be real people, which is a whole different discussion about the “reality” of Louie that I will have with you over a pot of coffee sometime — and she is also the closest character in tone to Louie himself. They’re brash at times and they’re sweet at times (in a fashion) and they’re there for each other when it matters.

Louie loves Pamela. Pamela loves Louie, but Louie says no because he’s with Amia. Amia goes back to Hungary, Louie tells Pamela he’s ready, Pamela says it’s too late. A tale as old as time, and I’m being serious.

How often have you only too late noticed that you had a connection with someone? Or maybe you did notice in time, but it was too late for them, or vice versa? These are the real ways we interact, and they’re especially real because we recognize everything that comes along with them…

…until we don’t. Louie tries to kiss Pamela very forcefully when he comes home to relieve her from babysitting his kids. Pamela’s not interested, but Louie says that she said earlier that she was. The show briefly deals with this earlier in the episode by having Louie and Pamela share a “why are you so mean to me” and “why do you like it?” exchange. It’s fortunate that we know these people, because it reduces some of the horror of Louie’s monstrous act and it explains some of Pamela’s reluctance as emotional armor. It doesn’t do either act of explaining enough, but that’s on purpose. This is supposed to be a gross scene, and it really, really is.

I’m very intrigued to see the second and third parts of “Pamela” to see how they address what is just a kiss, but is also something awful at the same time. The lesson from arguably the worst thing the show has made Louie do? It’s most important with Pamela herself, but it’s also an episode full of Louie making little choices (he sits next to a guy talking to no one on the train and later tells a man to not spit on the bus) that are noble but ultimately pointless. Louie’s scale for “good” is way off. Remember to actually be good when you can, not “good.”

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Life Lessons from Episodes of Louie: “Elevator (Part 4)” and “Elevator (Part 5)”

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Alex Russell

Louis C.K.’s critically acclaimed show Louie’s fourth season runs as two episodes every Monday night. Rather than just answering the question of “are these episodes good,” (because the answer is always yes) we’ll talk about the big lessons imparted in each episode. This week: Louie looks at his love life and does not like what he sees; Louie deals with Mentos.

Episode 7: “Elevator (Part 4)”

It’s very difficult to separate “Elevator” into episodes. Louie has always been compared to film in a stylistic sense — it’s much more like film than television — but only now is the structure of the show an actual damn movie. “Elevator” concludes next week, but we already know enough to work with it now.

Louie owns up to the fact that he isn’t really doing anything productive with his love life, and that’s a hard thing to admit. We’ve all had to admit to a drunk friend that we’re in a relationship that’s well past the expiration date, but Louie’s got the opposite problem: He can’t actually date Amia, because she’s going back to Hungary soon. He can’t start a relationship.

Louie is a “dark” show. When I’ve met people that aren’t into it, the most common complaint is that it isn’t funny. There’s nothing funny about Louie’s plight with Amia, or with his struggles to stay cordial with his ex-wife so that his kids will be happy, or his general life in the world of the show. The laughs are there, but that can’t be why you show up.

During a flashback, Louie deals with one night on a trip where he and his then-wife stay in a hotel room. It is the most realistic portrayal of a long relationship I’ve seen in months, and it’s that realism that makes the show feel cinematic. It’s not an episode of television that happens in a hotel room; it’s a look into people that have to leave that hotel room and go back to life later. I don’t want to spoil it, but the lesson is the same one any good Eagle Scout knows: Be prepared.

Episode 8: “Elevator (Part 5)

It’s hard to say how the fifth part is without the sixth, but the problem in it for Louie could exist outside of any continuity. Louie has to deal with what his relationship with Amia means if it doesn’t mean sex.

The best part about this whole story is that Louie loves Amia as an ideal. He loves someone who seems nice and fun and happy, but he just doesn’t really know that much about her. This kind of love story makes my eyes roll in most situations because there’s nothing worse than someone in love with the idea of love. You want someone to love specifics, not just “the essence of Sarah.” No one’s essence alone will get you to year two.

It works in Louie because it helps Louie understand that he’s not actually furthering himself. He’s just spending time with someone that feels like a partner, not a partner. This same story would be a happy one in a rom-com. It’s more than a little sad here because it reinforces the idea that everyone is a person first, and if you love them as an ideal then you’re just not actually in love with anyone who really exists. You’re not being honest with them or yourself.

Louie‘s love story will conclude next week and with that episode will be a larger lesson. Today’s, though, is a healthy part of a grown-up diet: Love someone for who they are, because all of that other shit will fade in two months.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.