I On the Arts' Best Pop Culture Moments of 2015

With the advent of the New Year, it’s officially time to look back on 2015 and judge what was good and awesome versus what was bad or disappointing. Since I did not see every movie, watch every show, listen to every song, or read every book that came out during this year, my list of the five worst and five best pop culture moments will be incredibly idiosyncratic and in no way complete. Enjoy!

5. Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

I had little to no introduction to Carrie Brownstein when I picked up her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. There’s one Sleater-Kinney song in my iTunes library (and it was a free iTunes download), I’ve seen one episode of Portlandia, and while I watched—and enjoyed—the first season of Transparent, she wasn’t really in it enough to make much of an impression on me. Yet I’d heard such great things about her memoir about her childhood and life as a member of Sleater-Kinney, I had to check it out. And while it will surely be a more meaningful read for someone who has actually seen Portlandia or is a fan of Sleater-Kinney, which just ended a long hiatus this year, Brownstein’s clear, eloquent voice made reading about her a joy.

From her turbulent childhood and tense relationships with her parents, to learning to understand herself through listening to Riot Grrl music and eventually forming several bands of her own, to the eventual faltering and ensuing breakdown of the band, Brownstein shows herself to be thoughtful and introspective—and delightedly decided and outspoken in her feminist views. We learn to understand both aspects of the music world at large and Brownstein’s own performing experiences, which can be simply summed up in her own words: “I wanted people to listen, to witness, or simply to notice me. I held people hostage with this need for attention. It was both an imposition and a plea.”

So while there have been many great celebrity books of essays and memoirs published in 2015—for example, Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me; Rainn Wilson’s The Bassoon King; Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy, to name a few—far and away, the best example of a public figure opening up themselves on the page has to go to Brownstein in her excellent Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.

4. Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Now, this entry is the part where you begin to question my judgment about media in general. With films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Spotlight, and Carol all being released in 2015, how could I have picked the summer trifle (and television show remake) The Man From U.N.C.L.E as one of my favorite pop culture moments? Well, for starters, I haven’t seen those other movies (gasp!). But there is quite a lot to be said for a movie that’s just pure unabashed fun from top to bottom, with style, wit, and pizazz to spare. And frankly, at the end of summer 2015, that was pretty much what I needed to see—and I saw the movie two days in a row.

Henry Cavill slips into an old-Hollywood American accent to play CIA Agent Napoleon Solo in this Cold War-set adventure, where he must team up with feared KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, imbuing his character with a hidden heart of gold), and clever, mysterious German auto mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, who is going to be in probably eighty movies in 2016) to stop Italian Nazi sympathizers from getting a nuclear weapon. Guy Ritchie, who directed the middling Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, clearly has fun with the nimble action sequences, the period-appropriate suits, dresses, and cars, as well as with his actors, whose characters go from reluctantly working together to something approaching friendship and trust.

Working in this film’s favor is its use of one of my unabashed favorite tropes in all of fiction: where two enemies, forced to work together, have to go undercover as a couple in love—and slowly their mutual enmity actually turns into love. Since I loathe terms like “spunky,” “sassy,” and “feisty” being thrown around to describe female characters, let’s just say that Gaby’s fresh, commanding, contradictory nature makes it easy to understand how the awkward, surprisingly gentle Illya falls for her. Additionally, since I haven’t seen Man of Steel or The Tudors or any other prior Henry Cavill projects, I found myself enjoying his easy charm and amusing rapport with all of his costars, especially Hammer. Also excellent is Elizabeth Debicki (also known as Jordan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby), who plays a wealthy evil mastermind with more charisma and sleek know-how than most actors working today could fathom.

While the end of the movie clearly lays the groundwork for a sequel, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sadly didn’t do that well at the box office, making only $100 million back on a $75 million budget. So while I may likely never see these incarnations of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (and Gaby Teller, who was not in the original show) again, I can relieve this snappy, light adventure film by getting the DVD (which, with any luck, includes some great extras).

3. Netflix’s Reviving of Gilmore Girls

Since I’m a senior in college and not only have to contend with a normal college courseload, but also the beginnings of the post-grad job search, naturally I decided to spend not only time, and but also significant emotional investment on a seven-season show (To be fair, I did begin watching the show on assignment for one of my Film and Media Studies classes.) Since I was apparently the only woman my age who had not grown up watching the exploits, happiness, and heartbreak of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore when they originally aired on the WB (and later the CW), I had a lot of catching up to do. Now, after having nearly completed the first six seasons, I can honestly say that I love, love, love Gilmore Girls—not only for the effervescent Lauren Graham, whose single mother Lorelai is the best character on the show, but also for Lorelai’s relatable if often frustrating daughter Rory, whose high school and college years are full of as much turmoil as they are success, along with Luke, Lane, Emily, Richard, and all of the colorful citizens of Stars Hollow, Connecticut.

So when the announcement hit the interwebs that Netflix was going to be bringing back Gilmore Girls for a limited season, helmed by original showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino, whose screwball-speed, witty dialogue and pacing made the show such a joy, how could I be anything but happy? To be fair, since I haven’t made it to the dreaded seventh season of the original show, the season lacking Sherman-Palladino’s involvement, I don’t yet share the same sentiment of frustration as many longtime fans who not only have had to wait almost ten years for news like this, but who also had to deal with the sharp drop in quality the show suffered at the end.

Still, though, my excitement does come with a bit of pause. While Netflix’s television programming has a decent track record, I wasn’t all that inspired by Arrested Development: Season 4, don’t care about the upcoming fifth season, and have no interest in projects like Fuller House or Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, since I never watched the originals these Netflix sequels are based on. But to have the chance to spend time with the Stars Hollow gang—to see if Rory has finally grown up, to see if Luke and Lorelai finally get married, to see if Kirk will ever find a steady job that isn’t utterly bizarre? Well, I’ll follow where they lead.

Oh, and, for the record: #TeamSingleRory.

2. Lifetime Network’s UnREAL

Clearly there is a theme on this “best of” list of me coming to things rather late in the game—Gilmore Girls, Carrie Brownstein—and so I’ll put another one in that category: I’ve never seen an episode of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Indeed, my reality TV consumption is reserved for shows like Chopped or Wipeout, with dating shows not really being something I was ever interested in. But luckily, I was assigned to watch the pilot of the darkly fascinating UnREAL, which aired this past summer on Lifetime, and I was hooked immediately on the sadistic, masochistic world of reality dating competitions—at least how it is represented on the scripted UnREAL.

Created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the latter of whom served as a producer for The Bachelor, UnREAL takes an inside look at the machinations of a Bachelor-esque dating show called Everlasting. It keenly unravels the ribbons tied around the fantasy of finding love on television—and reveals the depth contestants and producers alike will go to getting ahead and making good television. Producers and contestants alike fight, slander, and sabotage one another, often with—no spoilers, of course—dramatic and horrifying consequences, all in the name of success.

While the fact that the show airs on Lifetime might initially give you pause due to the nature of the programming Lifetime is known for, I cannot recommend UnREAL enough. It’s a potent mixture of engaging drama and black comedy as well as a damning study of human nature and the artificiality of not only reality television, but also of the idea of love itself, and I am delighted that it is returning for season 2 next year.

1.     Hamilton (’s Soundtrack, since I haven’t seen the show (yet))

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a / Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence / Impoverished, in squalor / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

The top honor of this list goes to the revolutionary new Broadway musical, penned by and starring official genius Lin-Manuel Miranda (who was actually awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant this year). I’d been fortunate enough to see Miranda’s acclaimed first musical In the Heights, drawn from his own life growing up in New York City, during its first Broadway run. I’d enjoyed its mix of well-drawn Washington Heights denizens as well as its eclectic soundtrack, which drew influences from hip-hop to salsa and everything in between. Yet I was not immediately sold on Hamilton. Sure, the idea of a musical about that guy on the ten dollar bill—you know, the one you have to tell small children was not actually ever the President—sounded pretty cool (because I’m a giant nerd), and I loved 1776 (because, once again, I’m a giant nerd), but listening to the samples of the soundtrack on iTunes didn’t exactly warm me to what this new musical was offering.

Boy, how wrong was I.

Upon actually downloading the soundtrack and giving it the requisite two hours and twenty-three minutes it takes to listen to the whole musical, I was hooked—and I’ve been playing it on repeat for at least a month. Miranda has done it again—and done it better, as if that were feasible. The soundtrack, which keenly combines pop, hip-hop and rap with traditional Broadway fare, is incredibly smart, tightly written, extremely entertaining, and downright heartbreaking. It carries the listener through the course of the musical and actually gives the complete story, since pretty much all of the show is actually on the soundtrack. When we learned about the Founding Fathers in elementary school, we certainly didn’t learn it like this.

One of the most notable things about Hamilton is its intentionally multiracial cast, who not only makes these old dead white guys come to vivid life, but also, in the words of Miranda himself, “this is a story about America then, told by America now.” Thus the casting brings many talented performers of color to the forefront and gives them a chance to shine within the largely white Broadway establishment. Among the standouts are Miranda himself, who makes our hero, Hamilton, a man you love, but also want to punch in the face; Daveed Diggs, who plays both the loyal Marquis de Lafayette as well as the snappy, contrarian-minded Thomas Jefferson; and, lastly, Leslie Odom Jr., whose exquisite portrait of Aaron Burr makes him not as much of a villain as merely a man whose original polite reticence develops, along with his jealousy of Hamilton, into an insatiable desire to be at the top—and he’s entirely relatable along the way (and, frankly, ought to win the Best Actor in a Musical Tony for his efforts).

Since Hamilton is one of the hardest tickets to get on Broadway, I completely and unequivocally recommend shelling out the cash for the soundtrack (and don’t let the samples on iTunes change your mind—hearing snippets of these wonderful songs doesn’t do them justice). Spoiler alert, for those of you who may have forgotten the fifth grade: Hamilton dies. Spoiler alert #2: you’ll probably be sobbing (along with the rest of the audience) when he does.