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Episodes: 2016 in review


Emily VanDerWerff

Jan 01 2017

9 min read



I have, since 1991 became 1992, felt a kind of keen sadness as December 31 rolls over into January 1. Some of this is realizing my favorite part of the year -- roughly October 1 through January 1 -- is over. Some of it is the leavetaking that accompanies the end of the holiday season. Some of it is just having to go back to school or work once the last holiday weekend is over.

But a lot of it is just the march forward of time. I don't remember how I spent every New Year's Eve since that point, but I do remember the rough feeling of all of them. I'm always slightly terrified to leave the old year behind and advance into an uncertain new one. This is why when I found out 2016 was getting an extra leap second, I thought, GOOD.

When I told my wife this, she expressed bafflement. "Even this year?" she said. Yes, even this year. I know, roughly, the shape of 2016. 2017 is an undiscovered country where we're all about to die. 2016, if I could prolong this sleepy evening forever, might be an okay place to live the rest of my life.

This is, of course, nuts. Marking human lives by rotations around the sun makes a lot of sense, yes, but the distinction separating 2016 from 2017 is completely arbitrary, ultimately. Yet the idea is powerful all the same: We live here now; we're about to live there.

2016 was a tough, trying year for many of us, a year when a whole bunch of us realized, all at once, that the planet we thought we existed on wasn't quite the place we'd imagined it to be. We still have a lot of work to do, if we want to build the world we want, and that work will have to be done without a whole fleet of beloved cultural icons alongside us. Whether you were most gutted to say goodbye to David Bowie, or to Prince, or to Muhammad Ali, or to Carrie Fisher, or to someone else, something about 2016 felt more extreme than usual, like time itself was standing astride our hopes and dreams, saying, "NOT TODAY, FUCKERS!"

Aside from all of that, however, 2016 was also a year when I, professionally, felt a bit in stasis. For much of the year, I felt as if what I was writing was either subpar or just not that important or impressive in the grand scheme of things. I say this not because I think in the age of Trump and Brexit and global right wing nationalism writing about culture is worthless, but because I just felt like I was on autopilot a lot of the time. When I did write something I was proud of, it was inevitably met with weird backlashes I didn't anticipate. Sometimes, those backlashes were ridiculous, but sometimes, they were justified -- I had either failed to account for how certain readers would take my words or I just hadn't realized they could be taken in the way they were. I could rattle on about my intentions all I wanted; it didn't change what I had written.

And yet 2016 was also a year when I felt like I got a greater handle on what I want to do with the next stage of my career. Building TV Club and then building Vox Culture have taken up around seven years of my life, but I can't spend the rest of my career jetting between websites and building culture sections for them. There has to be something else, and for the first time, I'm starting to sense what it is I want to do next. That's exciting, but, as mentioned, also a little terrifying.

So if you've gotten this far -- God bless you, sir or madam -- here are 10 pieces from 2016 that I'm proud of having written.

Hamilton isn't perfect, but it's perfect. I couldn't write for a month after I saw it.: I've never written a piece that had the response this one did. The majority of people who read it really, really loved it and still reach out to me to share how much it meant to them from time to time. Then quite a few people who read it really, really hated it and still reach out to me to share how bad it is from time to time. I'm not going to pretend this piece is perfect -- it could probably stand to be a little shorter, and in the process of editing it to be about half its original length, certain tangents ended up having less meat on their bones than they should have and, as such, should probably just go. (This is a thing I've found happens often in pieces that go through a lot of editing -- you and your editor are so used to what used to be there that you forget not everybody else will be.) And I get why some people read it as deeply irresponsible -- indeed, though I tried to guard against it, I knew there would be a bit of that. But I'm still as proud of it as anything I've ever written. I wanted to capture how it feels to be adopted, to not know your own history, and the ways in which this crops up in pop culture when you're least expecting it, and I think it's come as close as I ever have to explaining that to the vast majority of non-adopted people, even if it didn't work for everybody. I also wish I had published it around the Tonys, as originally planned, before Hamilton backlash had truly set in, but c'est la vie.

The Man in the High Castle season 2 is the worst TV show of the year: Believe it or not, most critics I know (including myself) don't really like writing pans. But here's one that I think goes beyond, "LOL, this was stupid," for a show I dearly wanted to love. (I had liked season one quite a bit, and it certainly seemed timely.) This was one of those reviews where the more I thought about it, the more I disliked it, and I think this review gets at why.

Progressive fundamentalism: how Hollywood and the media fortify the bubbles we all live in: Here's a piece I was certain would be ripped to shreds, but it ended up being well received. (Maybe nobody read it.) It's another where it went through a whole bunch of editing beforehand, but in this case, that only made the piece longer, instead of shorter. It's one of maybe three times that's happened to me in my career, and all three of those pieces are among my favorites. Go figure. (I wish I had kept the original headline, which led with the clickbaity "Make America Great Again.")

The 18 best shows on TV right now: This is cheating, since it launched in 2015, but I revise it every other week or so, so most of the writing on it is 2016 original. Week in and week out, this is in my top five most read pieces, and I'm glad people like it in the service-y way it's intended. I always have fun doing it.

"What happens January 21?" How California's Latino immigrants felt the week after the election: If I have a "mission" for the Trump administration, it's to try to report out and understand what it feels like to live in Trump's America on the ground floor. I love reporting and would like to do more of it, so here's a stab at doing just that. (It's another piece no one read!)

"San Junipero" is Black Mirror's most beautiful, most hopeful episode yet: If there's one thing I miss from my AV Club days, it's the freedom (from both publication and audience) to go way, way off book. This usually worked in TV recaps, because the same people were reading you week after week and would build relationships with you. I don't really have that at Vox, but I relished giving it a shot in this recap.

The age of streaming is killing classic film. Can Turner Classic Movies be its salvation?: Another reported piece that turned out in a way that nicely explained a bunch of different points of view. Plus, reporting this one was fun because I got to go inside TCM, which was a dream come true.

The Witch is a slice of pure horror movie perfection: I figured I should share a good review, too, since I feel like I'm generally better at writing adoring pieces than disappointed ones. So here's one from early in the year, for a movie that stuck with me throughout everything that came next.

Slate TV Club 2016: I was so excited and honored to be a part of Slate's 2016 TV Club, alongside Willa Paskin, Pilot Viruet, and June Thomas. This links out to my first installment -- on Last Man Standing, of all things -- but you should read everything everybody else wrote, too.

Relationship Chicken: Since you already subscribe to this newsletter, you've surely read this previous installment, but I thought I'd link to it again. I've appreciated having this space for my weirder and more obscure flights of fancy, and I'm grateful to have more than 750 of you reading it. And, as always, I'll repeat my promise that when I get to 1,000 subscribers, I will write an installment of Episodes about the Showtime series Episodes.

Thank you all for following in 2016, and I hope to see you again in 2017. See you next week.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more or less (usually less) if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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