Winter Ideas 2020

We’re pretty certain everyone is looking for new sources of entertainment as we all try and ride out the downhill slope of the pandemic. With vaccinations beginning, hospitals are still on overload, so we’re all still stuck at home in our off hours. We thought that rather than provide you with our favorite book and TV reviews, we could provide you with our favorite sources for fresh ideas. Even if you’re an avid fan of TV or books or music, we find, it is possible something flies under the radar. These sites are a great way to do a quick double check, see if you missed something that does seem just right for you—or someone who is part of your bubble—and fill in the gap.

What to Watch Newsletter
The New York Times

If you’re a subscriber you can get this newsletter delivered to your inbox. Full of notes like the 50 Best Things on [insert various streaming services here], the email newsletter for subscribers comes straight to your inbox each week, helping you prioritize your viewing. They tell you what’s new, and what’s leaving soon, and typically organize it by streaming channel. They’ll also tell you what to watch if you liked X, Y, and Z and have one hour vs two hours free. And if you never watch anything, this column is a great way to check in every so often and be sure you’re not missing out. (It will give you enough detail, without any spoilers, to pass muster in the early attendee Zoom call dialogue—once known as the watercooler conversation. If you’re not a subscriber, you’ll need to make a friend to reliably read the column.

NPR Book Concierge
NPR

The best 300 or so books of every year, all tagged with multiple, relevant tags. Want the best young adult science fiction that also has seriously great writing? You can sort by those three criteria. This is an awesome tool for gift shopping, no matter if you are looking for a book for an avid reader or an unenthusiastic one, of any age or taste. This is amazing on your phone or iPad, BTW. Susan actually gets on the NPR website and starts hitting refresh when she feels it’s time for this to be available. We’d swear it was a January publish date in the past, but 2020 is out now.

The Best Books of 2020
The Washington Post

These folks have incredible restraint. They only list 10 books. They do however do a number of genre lists with the best 10 SciFi, Nonfiction, Romance, etc. And for the non-readers, if you click around, WaPo also does the best albums, movies, TV shows, and several other things.

Vulture Best of 2020
Vulture

This team helps fill in the gaps. Everything from the 10 best comedy podcasts, board games, video games, songs, movies, and best comedy specials, so unless all you do is work and meditate, this site will help you find something entertaining that’s right up your alley.

55 Most Anticipated Books of 2021
Oprah Magazine

If you like to work ahead, you’ll find these lists on various book blogs and clickbait in Apple News, but Oprah is a reliable narrator—although she may well have snapped up the film/TV rights to some of these already.

Interactive Book Calendar
The New York Times

For the true book nerd, a calendar of literary events (subscribe in Google or iOS), from writers’ birthdays to the publishing release dates of new books, award announcements, and film and TV adaptations. Perfect if you want a readers’ version of People Magazine, without the magazine.

Best Apple TV Apps
Tom’s Guide

We all consume our media in a lot of different ways, but, ironically for people who make videos, most of us have cut the cable cord, and are relying on streaming services and super fast internet. One trick we all use is to wait until we have a couple of shows we want to watch on a given streaming site, like CBS All Access or Showtime, subscribe to the channel via the app on our Smart TV or Apple TV/Roku/Chromecast, and watch everything the next 30-60 days, then cancel. We do all seem to view some combination of HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ as the core set of channels we keep around month after month. (Disney+ seems to require you have a Marvel fan or younger children at home to make the cut for 12 months a year.)

Enjoy your well-deserved time off. We all look forward to seeing you on teleconference (and maybe in person) in 2021.

What to Read and Watch in a Pandemic

While we’ve continued to have work throughout the California Shelter in Place order (our animation business is booming), we’re all looking to be distracted in our free time. And we know it’s the same everywhere, because this time, we had requests to get a new post up on the site—a first for our Spare Time menu. Here are some our recommendations, with a little bit about why we think each one is a fit for the unique March-May 2020 period.

A Long Petal of the Sea
by Isabel Allende

The Guardian review

Isabel Allende’s novels consistently build up a window into the past where you can be transported each time you pick up the book to read a few more chapters. Some writers propel you through their stories, but with her you linger, you want to spend time with the characters and in their lives. This book dives into the Spanish Civil War and fleshes out all the characters so well, it’s hard to know whose story you’ll be following. The research is amazing, so you learn a lot about the 20th century from a different viewpoint, as the action runs from fleeing Franco’s takeover of Spain to Chile and Venezuela. This is a great read right now because it’s transporting and because it is an excellent reminder than humans have been through worse and gone on to thrive.

Blue Moon
by Lee Child

Publishers Weekly review

If you’ve never read a Jack Reacher novel, now’s the time to start. (You can start with the first, Killing Floor.) One reason to get to know Jack Reacher is that Amazon has a TV show in development, so you’ll be streaming it soon enough. (Do not consider the Tom Cruise-starring movies to be in any way representative of the novels.) We’re not going to give away the plot of this story (although the fact that the innocents he decides to help are into a crime syndicate loan shark to cover their adult daughter’s medical bills because her boss didn’t tell anyone he stopped paying the premiums when his tech company started to find funding drying up is perfect for our American era.) Here’s why you might want to read this right now: Jack’s a simple guy, living a simple life, on the move in the US. He owns a toothbrush and an ATM card, and little else. And he tackles each day as it comes, dealing with each problem as it appears, whether it’s Ukrainian or Albanian gangsters, where the second punch needs to land, or when it’s time for his next cup of coffee. It’s oddly soothing.

Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved)
by Kate Bowler

Gates Notes review

If you’re not a reader, then you can listen to Kate Bowler’s podcast or her TED Talk. If you are a reader, then this is a great little book. Bowler comes from a prosperity gospel upbringing, is a professor of divinity at Duke University, and yet her overarching message is that sometimes bad stuff—really bad stuff—just happens. And you can’t fix it, or give it a larger meaning. You just need to step into the unreasonable, undeserved events with as much love as you can muster for the moment and whatever that moment holds. She thinks you can find beauty and love in all of it. She might be someone you want to get to know right about now. She recently wrote about her thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic in the New York Times.

Babylon Berlin
Streaming on Netflix

Vulture review (Season 3)

I don’t know what we can say that the reviewer linked above didn’t say, but here‘s the basic idea. We had a ton of recommendations for this, just didn’t really feel like it, but the pandemic kicked in and suddenly three seasons of subtitled German noir detective in Weimar-era Germany sounded like a really good idea. (Maybe our recent binge of FX’s Fosse/Verdon (now on Hulu) had put Cabaret back in our heads.) The story is complicated, and you flinch every time you find out someone is Jewish, because you know how that’s going to turn out way down the road, but the main characters are compelling, from the darkly can-do Lotte who has the odds stacked against her, but for whom you never feel any pity, and the new-to-Berlin Gereon, who is hiding just about everything, maybe even largely from himself. It’s a fascinating dive into the end of the roaring ’20s, one we’ve seen a lot on American fiction and film, but this is noir, so it’s dark and seamy, and it’s never clear if the good guys are really good or the bad guys really bad. It’s a thoroughly diverting show, and I think the subtitles are a big plus right now, because you must get off your phone and stop reading the news before bedtime.

Nothing to See Here
by Kevin Wilson

NPR review

Kevin Wilson’s work defies genres. He tells contemporary fiction, with one completely unrealistic, almost insane, detail. In this case, two old frenemies get back together when one of them reaches out for help with her two new stepchildren. They have a very unfortunate disability—every once in a while they spontaneously combust, and it’s pretty tough on their senator dad trying to conceal this. You’d think that was the the story, but that’s really just a side note. The real story here is about their new governess and her journey into an unexpected, challenging parent role. So why read it now? Well, it’s sweet and funny, and, if you’re now homeschooling your children while live streaming your corporate life, we figured a little humor about how hard it is to be a parent might be appreciated right now.

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexander Dumas

The Guardian review

First, be sure to get an unabridged edition. There’s a really interesting subplot that gets cut out of the abridged version. This is one of the great serials back when there wasn’t any TV. It’s a long, winding plot, with tons of interesting subplots, and was designed to keep you hot to buy the next issue as soon as it came out (HBO didn’t invent this idea). The language is a little stuffy, but complete understandable. It’s a great story of injustice and a long-planned revenge, pulled off beautifully. There’s political corruption, found treasures, lost fortunes, secrets (lots of secrets), murder, and a long, perfect revenge, with scores settled through the next generation, when necessary. This is escapism as its best, perfect for fans of Netflix’s Money Heist or HBO’s Game of Thrones or Westworld. Why this and why now? Corruption never goes out of style, but honestly, it’s just a thrill ride in a totally different world.

Ravensburger Jigsaw Puzzles

The New York Times: How They Make Jigsaw Puzzles

Either you’re into jigsaw puzzles or you’re not, we get it. But they are oddly soothing, because they put you in Jack Reacher mode–you just deal with one color or texture at a time. First the edges, then then the sunflower seeds, then the yellow areas, the red areas, the dark brown soil, the sky and so on. It’s basic, it’s simple, you can solve this problem, and it’s quiet. perfect for doing alone, with a soundtrack, or to welcome a household member who wants to join you for a while. Except cats. Cats and jigsaw puzzles are a bad combo. If you have cats, don’t throw out the full vacuum bag, you may need to go through it later when you discover a piece is missing at the end. We tell you this from experience. If you’re not a regular puzzlerer, word to the wise, try and locate a Ravensburger puzzle. The cardboard is thick, the printing is top-notch, and every piece is a joy to handle. You’ll be handling them for a while, so it matters. Their site is no longer shipping, but Amazon has some, and your local toy store probably does. In San Diego many of the Geppetto’s Toys locations will text you photos, let you make your pick, pre-pay over the phone, and pick up curbside. (They must be essential because mental health is essential, and jigsaws can help. Or buying toys to bribe your kids for another day of meetings is essential. Anyway, we agree with the essential nature of their services. )

Netflix and Chill: Comedy

Sebastian Maniscalco: Aren’t you Embarrassed?

New York Times Review

Sebastian Maniscalco is a half-Italian, half-Sicilian American-born Chicago native, and, man, does all that show in this special. The honesty in his comedy and the pride he has for his upbringing comes through this quality set of jokes and stories. He looks like he belongs on set of MTV’s Jersey Shore with skin-tight clothes, spiked hair, and that amazing natural Italian tan, but the way he moves would suggest otherwise. He acts out his comedy with the best of them.  Nobody uses the stage and space around them better than he does.  From facial expressions to full-body gestures, the guy can move!  You also get a real “fly on the wall” feeling during this special. It felt authentic and intimate. Coming from an Italian immigrant family who also settled in Chicago, he was ultra-relatable at times. His comedy also brings in a ton of observational humor (if you’re on Instagram or Twitter he’s worth a follow for that single reason alone), and anyone who’s ever stepped into a Catholic church, or a Catholic family’s home, will get it. Overall, this is a great watch for anyone. I’d even challenge you to watch it with the sound off for a bit! Weird Movie Rating: A good cross between Saturday Night Fever and Saturday Night Live! (Reviewer: Nick Pignotti)

Sebastian Maniscalco: Stay Hungry

Chicago Tribune Review

Before you read any further, if you haven’t watched Sebastian’s Aren’t You Embarrassed? (reviewed above), go watch that first. For those who have watched…continue or proceed at your own risk. Stay Hungry is not Sebastian’s best stuff, but if you’re a fan of his already, you pretty much know what you’re getting yourself into, and you’ll enjoy it.  He brings his typical facial and body expressions to his routine, although they did seem a bit over-the-top this go-round.  This special did have some personally enjoyable moments for me as someone who also just welcomed a new baby into the world, as part of the the first few years of the balancing act called marriage. He does stray from his harsh stance on things in this special, showing a small crack in that strong Chicago/Italian/Catholic upbringing. He pokes fun at how his harsher upbringing compares to that of his wife’s ultra-positive and encouraging Jewish one. Overall, good for some laughs, better for those who already like him, but not his best work. He also has a couple of cheap jokes, that could be misconstrued, I expect more from him, but this special was never going to be as good as Aren’t You Embarrassed?.  Weird Movie Rating: This is a good mashup of Father of the Bride and Married with Children. (Reviewer: Nick Pignotti)

Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable

Vulture Review One of the best at observational humor, Ellen DeGeneres’ new standup special Relatable shows she still has her finger on that late-night standup pulse, even with her daytime success. Her life has changed since her truly relatable (non-star, millionaire) days, but she delivers the same types of jokes that made her a hit early on in her career, while giving them the added new flavor of her new life as one of the most successful women in show biz!  As unrelatable as her new life may seem, her jokes and quips still feel relatable, just in a different way. She ends the special by answering questions from the audience. It seemed to pull away from the standup, and geared more toward Ellen fandom. So if you’re an Ellen fan, you might like that bit too, everyone else can stop a little early. Overall, very funny.  I highly recommend. Weird Movie Rating:  Huge cross between Trading Places and Godfather Part 2. (Reviewer: Nick Pignotti) Dead to Me NPR Review We watched this in two nights—and were sorely tempted to stay up late and get it all done in one. Christina Applegate’s Jen has lost her husband to a hit and run accident and meets her new best friend, Linda Cardellini’s Judy at a grief group. It’s an odd couple comedy, with the full suite of highly unsympathetic problems that SoCal upper middle class white characters are prone to in fiction, but this show manages to hang on to all the humor while also diving into some very real issues. While Jen’s handling of her grief is truly funny (heavy-metal screaming in her car), the broken sobbing is completely serious. The great thing about comedy like this is that it can tell you some really scary big truths about life, while also making you laugh out loud. It takes a lot of talent to deliver on this balance and the writers and stars completely pull it off. If you loved Santa Clarita Diet, and are waiting for Season 2 of Big Little Lies, this is the show for you. (BTW if you never saw Cardellini in Bloodline and want a dark family story instead of comedy, Netflix has all three seasons for you.) (Reviewer: Susan Lyon)

Foreign Adventures at Home

If your summer vacation was relaxing, but didn’t let you see the world in a big way, we have some Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime suggestions to fill the gap.

The Time In Between

NY Times Watching
We had a lot of fun watching this soapy Spanish show. The star, Adriana Ugarte, does a great job with this historical drama. She moves from a childhood spent in a working class neighborhood where she trains as a seamstress, to a pre-WWII Morocco, back to Madrid (as a spy for the Allies) running a clothing salon for society wives, and then on to Portugal. The clothes are amazing, the people are gorgeous, the Nazis are plentiful and easy to hate, so you’ll forgive a few silly plot devices. Episode one, being a lot less glamorous, makes the series effectively blow up into color as it takes off with Sira as a young woman on the move.

Nobel

This Norwegian political thriller seems to fly under the radar, perhaps because it was just one season, so more of a mini-series than a TV show. We couldn’t find a standalone review to give as a backup link! All the more reason to watch it. It’s set in the current day with the protagonist a soldier, recently returned from Afghanistan, who is married to a fast-rising government political player as the machinations of selecting a Nobel Peace Prize winner are kicking into gear. The show seems to really understand foreign policy and not to shy away from the tricky trade-offs that have to be made in any kind of government.

Bron/Broen (The Bridge)

IndieWire
This mismatched detective TV show has been remade in several languages, but this is definitely the most gorgeous murder location ever. The characters are terrific, with well-fleshed out back stories, and it’s got a good twist with the female detective somewhere on the spectrum, while the male is married with several children. We liked it so much, we’ve knocked out two versions in full already. There’s a murder on the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, exactly on the midline, so it’s tough to know which police force should investigate. We’re not going to spoil how they decide, but invite you to watch the show. The British/French is the same story for Season One only, then it goes a different direction. We found it amusing how good the serial killers were each season, not just at killing in service to a larger social agenda, but in the British/French version how really good they were at making short little horror animations as clues. To be clear, we’re not seeking any felons out as a new client base, but there’s clearly a market.

Call My Agent!

The New Yorker
If you enjoyed Entourage, Barry, or 30 Rock, you’ll enjoy France’s Call My Agent! Set in a Parisian talent agency with all the background character drama, you get to see behind the scenes of the running of the agency with a much less yelling than in Entourage and problems that seem very much the stereotypical French dilemmas (as Entourage was so clearly an LA show). As you would expect the people are stylish, whether young and casual or wealthy society, and the sets are all gorgeous–movie star houses or locations. We suspect if you actually had a strong knowledge of French actors, there are a lot more inside meta jokes that largely passed over our head. Even so, it’s impossible to miss Isabelle Adjani and Juliette Binoche, clearly playing some funny variation on themselves. Each episode has a one-word, first name title so the named client is the focus of the self-contained episode, while the cast of regulars fail to work out their problems over all the seasons available so far. One of those shows that could be good not to binge and keep on the back burner for when you have less than an hour and need a laugh. As a side American recommendation, if you like this, you might check also out Party Down in which actors working a catering business host a different party each episode.

Hard Sun

The Guardian
While Hard Sun has some flaws, what SciFi work doesn’t? We didn’t want to leave the genre unrepresented and we were hooked, binge watching it all in two nights. Hard Sun shows its solid detective credentials, coming from the creator of Luthor, and it’s just hard to nail down an alternate world that makes everyone happy. While the inspiration is said to be a David Bowie song, detectives racing to solve a crime before the world ends has to owe a debt to Ben Winter’s excellent The Last Policeman trilogy, which has long been rumored to be in pre-production as an American TV show. Netflix doesn’t have any credible entries in apocalyptic TV, nor do they need to get it right with their lock on the Marvel TV properties, leaving the field open for Hulu and Showtime. Both networks do a good job, but just don’t make the volume of shows, so if you like this kind of stuff, Hard Sun is worth watching. And if you think times are dark now  as we live through the hottest year on record, hey, this might just cheer you up with the idea that things could be a lot worse.

Shetland

The Guardian
Another crime series, our one gripe is that it requires a significant suspension of disbelief—how many murders can you have on one tiny little Scottish island? (Shades of Agatha Christie and those little English villages.) The scenery is unbelievably beautiful, the accents seem to be pretty authentic–every once in a while we’d have to back up and put on the English subtitles, but if you binge watch, you get the hang of it. DI Jimmy Perez seems to be the best TV boss around–the right mix of caring, unselfish, and yet distracted by his own life just enough to be human.

Things we’re just going to assume you’ve already seen because they are so universally acclaimed:

  • Broadchurch
  • Money Heist (La Casa de Papel)
  • The Honorable Woman
  • Occupied
  • Catastrophe
  • Borgen