Ranking the Best Shows of 2019: Part Two
As the dawn of the Second Streaming Wars between Disney+, Netflix, and the hundreds of other streaming services, networks, and cable channels approaches, television finds itself in a strange place, an increasingly influential – and overcrowded – medium of art, one facing the end of an era with the conclusion of cultural touchstones like Game of Thrones and Big Bang Theory.
It’s still been a wonderful time for television, though – a time for wildly creative auteurs, some memorable performances – and of course, the final season of HBO’s iconic tale of dragons & boobs. We’ve compiled a list of our favorites from the strange, weird half year it’s been – here is the second part of Goomba Stomp’s Best TV shows of 2019.
20: Primal (Adult Swim)
One of the biggest surprises of the year came from Adult Swim and Genndy Tartakovsky with Primal. Set in a fantastical version of prehistoric times, Primal sees its two speechless protagonists travelling together across a brutal and unforgiving wilderness after a series of tragedies bonds them together.
Though the tale of this unlikely duo and their journey is compelling enough, it’s the jaw-dropping animation that will keep you coming back for more. Tartakovsky is best known for sillier fare like Samurai Jack and Dexter’s Laboratory but his work here is some of the most stunning artistry you’ll see in the entire industry.
At a mere 22 minutes an episode, Primal is absolutely worth a look for anyone with even a passing interest in animated entertainment, and with the season being broken into two parts (with the second part coming in 2020) there’s plenty of time to get caught up before we see how this intense, bloody tale comes to a close. (Mike Worby)
19: Stranger Things (Netflix)
Stranger Things is so popular that we sometimes forget this once unknown property came out of nowhere in 2016 and surprised the world by becoming the most popular series on Netflix due to word-of-mouth. It was the first original streaming series that quickly became a water-cooler topic and three seasons later, Stranger Things shows no signs of slowing down.
Except for a few missteps, the third season of Stranger Things surpasses the creative heights of the second season if only because it raises the stakes. Not only does season two’s Big Bad, the Mind Flayer return to prey on the residents of Hawkins, Indiana but having Billy as the Mind Flayer’s surrogate villain makes the threat to Hawkins a little more tangible. As awful as Billy was in the second season, it pales in comparison to what the Mind Flayer forces him to do this time around. And thanks to great writing and a superb performance by Dacre Montgomery, we end up caring about Billy once Eleven delves into his memories and we learn why Billy is the way he is. In season two, Billy was the bully but in season three, it’s the bully who becomes the victim and he’s desperately in need of saving. Along with Russian spies, Cold War paranoia, and the arrival of a new shopping mall that puts everyone out of business, the third season of Stranger Things is packed with enough mystery, suspense, and nail-biting tension to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.
Anyone who enjoyed the first two seasons of Strangers Things should no doubt enjoy the third season. The character-based humor, funny quips, excellent cast, period-specific detail, pop culture references, science fiction horror, and moments of fan-satisfying gratification are all present and accounted for. Season Three has everything a fan could want— it’s exciting, funny, suspenseful and features arguably the two best episodes of the series so far. More importantly, the season explores the idea of friends drifting apart. In Season Three, the children have grown into young teens with new interests and shifting priorities and now they must find a way to put aside their differences and work together. Season Three ends with perhaps the most satisfying conclusion yet and features moments that could make even the most jaded viewer teary-eyed. (Ricky D)
18: When They See Us (Netflix)
Ava DuVernay pulls no punches in When They See Us, a dramatized account of how thirty years ago, five young boys came to be arrested, convicted and sentenced for raping and beating a white female jogger in Central Park, and leaving her left for dead. It is one of the most famous cases of young boys wrongfully accused of a crime they did not commit. The case made headlines around the world and the five teenagers, all of color, would ultimately become known as the Central Park Five. The story of the Central Park Five has been covered extensively by media since, including in the incredible 2012 documentary The Central Park Five, co-directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. But this scripted miniseries is different and it feels more personal due to DuVernay’s approach in closely examining the five individuals whose lives were turned upside down before they’d even had the chance to finish high school. And in many ways, When They See Us is the perfect companion piece to that famous documentary. Instead of reinvestigating this case, or delving into the circumstances that led up to it, When They See Us focuses more on the suffering the boys endured both when they were forced to do time and when they were released from prison.
The first episode shows how the police department, detectives and lawyers tricked these young boys into confessing to a crime they were not guilty of. The second episode captures the trial and the media hype surrounding the case while the penultimate episode (which brings in four older actors to play the characters as adults), tracks the experiences of Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Raymond, the four men who emerge from their juvenile sentences and are faced with various obstacles when restarting their lives as registered sex offenders. The final episode which is the most heartbreaking runs nearly 90 minutes long, and focuses on the particular suffering of 16-year-old Korey, the only one of the five sentenced as an adult and winds up spending his time behind bars in various adult prisons. When They See Us is not an easy show to watch but it is essential viewing if you care at all about how unjust the justice system is. It’s a powerful, dense, series that examines not just the effects of systemic racism but the effects of all sorts of disenfranchisement. It is profoundly rich, urgent, unflinching, and DuVernay’s strongest work to date. It might also just be the best series of 2019. (Ricky D)
17: Mr. Robot (USA)
When Mr. Robot hit the scene five years ago, it was one of the breakout critical sensations of that year. It was a series that was legit must-watch television thanks to its tremendous zeitgeist appeal and Rami Malek’s performance as the disaffected hacker protagonist Elliot Alderson. Mr. Robot put its network, USA, on the map and made Malek a bona fide star. It revived the career of former Hollywood bad boy Christian Slater and it made creator-writer-director Sam Esmail one of TV’s most talked-about new auteurs. There was a time when Mr. Robot was considered the best show on television, but all the plaudits Mr. Robot received for its first season died quickly with its meandering second, as fans grew tired of Esmail continually toying with viewer perceptions. The third season was an improvement, but despite some truly outstanding episodes (most notably “eps3.4_runtime-error.r00”), it still felt like it was trying too hard to outsmart the audience. By the time season three ended, the conversation had moved on and Mr. Robot felt stuck in the past.
Thankfully, Mr. Robot returned with a satisfying, thrilling final season that surprised its fanbase and kept them at the edge of their seats. The stakes in season four are higher than they’ve ever been—opening with a major character death and making it clear that Elliot’s mission to take down Whiterose and the Dark Army was going to come at a high cost. What’s more, is that Mr. Robot’s fourth and final season has taken its stylistic ambitions to new heights. Mr. Robot has always been fond of experimental filmmaking in the television landscape— in season three, Sam Esmail constructed a brilliant hour that was filmed and edited to seem as if it all done in one long, continuous single shot— but this season’s direction is truly special. For the most part, Esmail has maintained his undeniably unique aesthetic, taking full advantage of negative space, vertigo-inducing God’s-eye perspectives, Dutch angles, shadowy faces and of course, using a wide lens in tight spaces. The blocking of scenes involving each actor is the sharpest it’s ever been, and the art direction still feels somewhat revolutionary. There’s no denying Mr. Robot is one of TV’s most stylistically and creatively adventurous and season four brings even more to the table.
Writer and director Sam Esmail (the show’s creator and showrunner) has once again directed every single episode of the season and with each season, he becomes better and better at his craft. Episode four titled “Not Found” is one of the strangest (and best) Christmas episodes ever— as Darlene, Dom, Elliot, and Tyrell face their demons on Christmas Eve. The season’s fifth episode — “405 Method Not Allowed” is one of the most inventive entries to date and features just two lines of spoken dialogue as Elliot and Darlene undertake an ambitious heist. If that isn’t enough, halfway through Mr. Robot’s final season, Sam Esmail puts together a gripping bottle episode structured as a play in five acts, which focuses exclusively on Vera’s kidnapping and subsequent emotional manipulation of Elliot. “Proxy Authentication Required” is a riveting hour, relying heavily on extended conversations and superb performances by Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Elliot Villar and Gloria Reuben to reveal a pivotal moment in Elliot’s tragic past. With “Proxy Authentication Required,” Esmail comes across as a modern-day Hitchcock— the episode is exhilarating, horrifying, and thrilling, despite never leaving the New York apartment.
Much has been said about how the show critiques consumerism, the internet, capitalism, and the use of technology to oversee and control our daily lives—but Mr. Robot is and has always been foremost, a story about mental illness. At the center of this show is Rami Malek whose emotional range as an actor has helped carry the series through both the highs and lows. Season four is a testament to his incredible talent and that of Sam Esmail who’s given us one of the decade’s signature prestige dramas. (Ricky D)
16: Now Apocalypse (Starz)
Once considered the angriest, most unconventional, and relentlessly intriguing voices in independent cinema, Gregg Araki first made his name as a filmmaker in the 90s, emerging as part of the new queer cinema movement when his third feature, The Living End— a controversial road movie about two HIV-positive runaways who go on a violent cross-country spree. From there, Araki went on to make several more features including Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere (which would become known as the Teen-Age Apocalypse Trilogy) and his most famous film, Mysterious Skin: the coming of age drama about a small-town rent boy played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
If you’ve seen any of the Gregg Araki’s films, you should know what to expect from Now Apocalypse, his surreal, coming-of-age comedy series that … wait for it … explores identity, sexuality, and artistry while navigating the strange, dangerous and oftentimes bewildering city of Los Angeles while the main protagonist Ulysses, is having premonitions about the end of the world. Sound familiar?
Co-written by Araki with sex columnist Karley Sciortino, the new half-hour sci-fi comedy from Starz is bound to confuse viewers who have little-to-no previous exposure to Araki’s body of work – which is fine by me because despite its utterly ridiculous plot, Now Apocalypse features everything you’d want from a Gregg Araki series. Now Apocalypse is unapologetically queer, quirky, mysterious and fun. And while it is admittedly a huge mess, it is also never once boring and quite frankly, refreshingly different from everything else on TV. (Ricky D)
15: Dark Crystal (Netflix)
Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is an utter feast for the eyes, pulses, and minds and it will more than exceed the expectations of fans of Jim Henson’s original. This is one of the most ambitious and immersive TV events of the year – a series that builds on the wonderment of the 1982 film and delivers a smarter, creepier, more whimsical, and more narratively thrilling adventure. Age of Resistance is made with such intelligence, imagination, passion, and skill, that you can feel the filmmaker’s passion oozing out of every frame. Anyone else looking to make a fantasy TV series should take notes since this is a prime example of how to do it right.
Whether you’re watching for fulfilled nostalgia or simple curiosity, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance will more than keep you enthralled with its craftsmanship and pure artistry. It’s extraordinary work, grandly conceived, brilliantly executed and one of the best fantasy tales since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
What Louis Leterrier and company have accomplished here is amazing on every level. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a technical marvel and an achievement in the art form of puppetry. Every scene is teeming with life and every episode is blessed with a good script, fantastic performances, and stunning visuals. Age of Resistance is crammed with so much adventure, so many spectacular effects, so much derring-do, and so much visual wonder, it will keep some viewers coming back for more. More importantly, it’s clear the entire team went out of their way to stay true to Jim Henson’s vision and retain the spirit of the original film. Netflix deserves credit for taking a gamble on such an ambitious project and judging by how it ends, we will hopefully see a second season in the near future. (Ricky D)
14: The OA: Part II (Netflix)
There’s nothing on television like The OA, a show about trauma, companionship, love… and traveling through parallel universes by doing an interpretive dance. Nearly two and a half years after its strange, hauntingly beautiful debut, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s ridiculous, heartfelt series returned a completely different animal, trading in its poignant, quiet reflections of season one into a loud, vibrant kaleidoscope of utterly ridiculous stories.
There are deadly online mobile games, a telepathic (and horny) octopus, and mini-robots who dance the movements: these are but a few of the ridiculous twists and turns offered in The OA: Part II, which is somehow a more ostentatiously opaque, thoroughly challenging offering than its predecessor. Unlike anything else on television, The OA: Part II demands audiences to trust it, to believe in the utter bullshit it portrays as plot development on screen – a challenge it most certainly meets, with a welcome earnestness and disregard for formula, or at times, even basic coherency.
It is an utterly confounding, beautiful work of art: The OA: Part II is unforgiving and bold, one of the rare television series that is truly “like nothing else on television.” In 2019, that is a harder and harder thing to claim, but there is nothing like The OA‘s exploration of identity, destiny, and even reality. It is something you must truly see to believe – especially its ending, one of the most purely bat shit crazy plot twists I’ve seen in the Peak TV era. (Randy Dankievitch)
13: The Righteous Gemstones (HBO)
Though Danny McBride’s HBO work is often remembered for its audacious humor, it’s the fascination with modern Americana that truly makes Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals memorable series – which in a way, makes him an unnatural fit for a series as big and loaded as televangelism. And yet, The Righteous Gemstones hits the ground running, a comedy about the intersection of religion, business, and family, in one of 2019’s more interesting shows about inter-generational conflict – and more prudently, honesty and forgiveness.
Led by Edi Patterson’s mesmerizing performance as forgotten Gemstone sibling Judy (who surprisingly outshines John Goodman, an unhinged Walton Goggins, and Danny McBride), The Righteous Gemstones is the rare comedy that is as reflective as it is funny: even in the age of Peak TV’s hybridization of traditional genres, Gemstones is one of few series able to nimbly jump between identities.
Perhaps most importantly, it is as confident a comedy as there is on television, a conviction of theme and character that only grows stronger as the season builds its dramatic crescendo, resulting in one of the most satisfying season finales of the year. (Randy Dankievitch)
12: I Think You Should Leave (Netflix)
As Netflix continues to diversify its eclectic brand of offerings, the streaming service is catering to more markets than ever. One of its latest successes is the no-holds-barred sketch comedy I Think You Should Leave.
Created by and starring SNL alum Tim Robinson, I Think You Should Leave goes all-in on each of its increasingly outlandish scenarios, including a cringe-inducing job interview, a man trying to get revenge on a baby, an awkward Instagram lunch date, and bikers from outer space. Yes, I Think You Should Leave is as silly and out there as it sounds, but with guest stars like Will Forte, Michelle Ortiz, Steven Yeun, and a host of others to sell the insanity, the comedy rarely falters.
With the first season coming in at only 90 minutes, and a second season already on the way, there’s no excuse not to give this brilliant Netflix sketch series a chance. (Mike Worby)
11: Russian Doll (Netflix)
Russian Doll may very well be the very best TV series Netflix has produced to date. Co-created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, the series stars Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov, a New York woman celebrating her 36th birthday, who is doomed to repeat the same endless time loop before she dies at the end of the night each time — only to awaken the next day having to start all over. Every time she thinks she might make it past the reset point, she dies again and again. The stakes are eventually raised when Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a fellow wanderer who is also stuck in his own depressive loop. What starts out feeling like a zany homage to Groundhog Day unravels to becomes something darker, deeper and far more complex. With so much bubbling under the surface, one could say, it’s a show carefully constructed like, well, a Russian doll.
One of the most straightforward threads of Russian Doll considers addiction which makes sense considering Lyonne has spoken about how parts of the story were inspired by her own history with drugs. A more popular reading is that the curse placed on Nadia and Alan could stand in as a metaphor for mental illness as they struggle to find a way to end the loop, only starting to realize that they need to first seek the emotional closure in order to overcome their own personal struggles before moving on. Meanwhile, Russian Doll has also drawn comparisons to video games such as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in which Nadia, who just so happens to be a video game designer, must race against the clock in order to avoid death, and avoid starting all over again. Along with themes of trauma and existential questions about the construction of the universe and the importance of human connection, one’s interpretation of what the show is all about may vary from person to person. Somehow, though, Russian Doll manages to address all of these subjects and more, weaving countless themes and cultural references into a tight three-and-a-half-hour running time in which not a second is wasted. (Ricky D)
‘BoJack Horseman’ Season 6 Part 2: Full Dark with Just a Sliver of Hope
The last leg of Bojack Horseman’s final season embraces the darkness the show has come to be known for with just enough hope to squeak by.
**Mild Spoilers Ahead**
Bojack Horseman has never shied away from the darkness. Even in the more screwball satire centric first season, the darkness of addiction and mental illness was hovering just around the periphery. Though the dark seemed to be on a short hiatus last season, with BoJack finally turning over a new leaf, it returns with a vengeance in the second part of season 6.
Though the final arc of Netflix’s best animated show may be too dark by half for some, for those who have fallen in love with the adventures of this grim, goofy world over the years, it offers a satisfying if hard-won, conclusion.
As viewers will recall, the final episode of season 6, part 1 seemed to be teasing a comeuppance that would upset BoJack’s healthy, serene new life. Indeed, the reckoning that is threatened does arrive in season 6, part 2, and boy does it bring a storm of pain and misery with it.
Like waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop, BoJack Horseman‘s final arc gives its titular character just long enough to enjoy the last vestiges of his new, happy life before dropping the hammer on him and smashing his life to bits. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy for BoJack to escape from his demons, and just because he’s turned over a new leaf, that doesn’t erase all of the pain and anguish caused by years of selfish, irresponsible behavior.
Hell, one episode even sees the central cast trying to help BoJack catalog a full list of all of his indiscretions over the years on a blackboard. That blackboard eventually multiplies as the list continues to spill over, filled mostly with events we’ve actually seen in the run of the show. This sobering list of painful and often silly mistakes shows what a damaged person BoJack truly is, and illustrates that for all the wackiness of the show, the central character of BoJack Horseman has caused some very real pain for the people he has crossed paths with over the years.
Sadly, this is the double-edged sword of recovery from addiction. While the addict achieves something resembling personal contentment and a newfound value for life, the destructive path they have carved over the years threatens to undo all of their hard work by tempting them back into the darkness through guilt, sorrow and (often deserved) restitution.
Ultimately, this seems to be the lesson of BoJack Horseman‘s final round of storytelling: that there are no quick fixes or easy solutions for the heaviest and hardest of life’s problems. However, with good friends and some support, even the longest and toughest stretches of darkness can be survived… or at least faced up to.
Though the characteristically silly humor remains intact, it does take something of a hit in this final run of episodes. Amid all of the despair and heartache, there aren’t as many laughs to be had in season 6, part 2. Those that do come still offer some sardonic and cynical cheer, if you can call it cheer, but if there’s any valid criticism to be had for a show firing this hard on all cylinders, it would be that those cylinders can be pretty hard to take without the usual levity.
Most fans who have been with BoJack Horseman this long, though, will see this as sort of par for the course. BoJack Horseman has been this show since season 2, it’s just been leaning a little further into the abyss as the seasons have passed. Luckily though, there are slivers of light that shine through this final batch of episodes.
While the titular character is truly put through the wringer here, the rest of the cast is allowed to find surprisingly happy resolutions for their stories, even if there is some pain to be had along the way. Diane, in particular, struggles as she adjusts to being medicated for depression while trying to finally write her book. Though it doesn’t exactly turn out how she expects, she’s able to grow this season perhaps better than anyone by the end.
Todd too settles things once and for all with his personal demons, though he does so in an unsurprisingly Todd way. Leave it to the show’s silliest character to try and solve his problems with fake kidnapping schemes, Frito pies and character actress Margo Martindale.
Speaking of silly characters, Mr. Peanutbutter’s plan to fix things with Pickles by allowing her to cheat on him with charming idiot Joey Pogo does, of course, blow up in his face. This leads Mr. Peanutbutter as close as he’s ever been to the Sad Dog of his depression campaign from last season, but ultimately, he too is able to grow, recognize his co-dependance and start a road toward self-care and personal growth. A touching phone call between Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane, in which they pore over their relationship, is one of the season’s best moments for both characters.
Finally, Princess Caroline struggles the least this season, but perhaps this is well earned. Few characters have had the stress, heartache and disappointment in their lives that Princess Caroline has. Her relationship with long time loyal subordinate and confidante Judah is paid off wonderfully here, if a bit too quickly, leading her to perhaps the happiest ending of all.
Yes BoJack Horseman has always been a show about mental health, addiction and the darkness inside us all. However, it’s also always had rays of hope peaking through these abject, sinister shadows. This is, in the end, the legacy that the show leaves us with in its final episodes: a journey through darkness with just enough light to guide the way.
Though the final arc of Netflix’s best animated show may be too dark by half for some, for those who have fallen in love with the adventures of this grim, goofy world over the years, it offers a satisfying if hard-won, conclusion.
Kobe Bryant and Greatness
Remembering the Legend, Kobe Bryant
As an obsessive list-maker, much of my free time involves me interviewing myself in my head: “So, Sean, what are your top 10 albums of all time?” “Well, Sean, I’m glad you asked…” Thinking about the things – works of art, people, places – that have impacted me most powerfully and for the longest time is, all at once, an exercise in remembering, appreciating and evaluating. Other list-makers can undoubtedly relate; we are many, as I’ve often found in conversation and to my relief. These lists can be incredibly specific (“Top 10 Italian Neorealist Films” or “Top 10 Poets Born in July”) or much more general. They make up the majority of the files in the Documents folder of my laptop. I research, compile and write these without the intent of publishing them anywhere, though I occasionally send some to my family or partner if I feel like they’ll find them interesting or entertaining. This kind of list is, of course, known all too well in our age of the digital and is appropriately criticized for being what we call “clickbait”, a word so integrated into our culture that Microsoft Word recognizes it as a correct word in correct spelling as I write it (I can guarantee that I never added it to Word’s dictionary). These lists appear in waves at the end of every year (more so this past year, hailing the best-of-the-decade lists) and for anniversaries of things – works of art, people, places – that writers feel like remembering, appreciating and evaluating. I read way too many of these lists every year, and nearly all of them upset me because of how much I disagree with another person’s taste that they try to dress up in objective authority. The best lists are the most personal ones that make no claim to be “definitive” (a word that you’ll find in many titles; this is how you know it’s a bad list and that you shouldn’t bother reading it). When an author really pours their heart into a list, it’s obvious and can be as beautiful as any lyric essay by Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen if the author is a strong prose writer.
When I published my first pamphlet (or chapbook in the US) of poetry towards the end of 2018, I found myself struggling to do this list-making – a process that had become so enjoyable and natural to me that I must have been making lists in my dreams – when it came to the acknowledgments section at the end of the pamphlet. How could I possibly have enough room to pay tribute to the list of people who have helped me be a better writer (or even a better person who was simply trying to write)? It was impossible. So, I did the easy thing by name-dropping the people in my life who were physically there for me along the way – family, friends, teachers. A more accurate acknowledgments section would have included the writers who have moved me – who have given me solace in difficult times, who have pushed me to challenge myself by their examples, who are always there with me in spirit when I sit down with my notebook and pencil. I could have written a pamphlet-length thanks just to John Keats.
But when I think about my “Top 10 Influences as a Poet”, few poets actually make that list. That list is populated by people who have taught me something about living that has made my relationship to poetry stronger and more amicable than frustrating (most practicing writers have a turbulent relationship with their craft). A few months ago, #3 on that list died. Harold Bloom had been in ill health for a long time and lived to 89, so his passing was not at all shocking. I mourned for him. He was a notoriously difficult man in the world of literary criticism whom many people disliked for his supposed racism and sexism (both nonsense within the context of his criticism but understandable by the unfortunate and common issue of someone not meeting someone else on their own terms and, instead, choosing to do battle with them in the same way that Twitter uses yell over each other with no interest in thinking of the other person as a human being) and for his elitism (no argument there). Reading and listening to Bloom, though, made me fall madly in love with literature and take it on not as an interest but as a way of life, which inspired the subtitle for his The Anatomy of Influence. Bloom, by his own account, was a freak. You would need to listen to several of the podcasts that are out there in which friends of his are interviewed if you are to be persuaded that the myths about his capacity to read and remember works of literature – he could recite Milton’s Paradise Lost by memory, including someone picking a passage at random for him to continue from – were all true. Bloom could only understand life through the lens of literature and especially the writers he loved most: Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Samuel Johnson. To hear him talk about these writers or to see and get a sense of his feelings for them in his own written work was awesome in the true sense of that word. While I find it harder and harder to make more meaningful connections with people in my life who don’t read as I get older, I can always be taken into a sort of ecstasy by any kind of passion. I know nothing about cars. I have no desire to learn anything about cars. I purposefully live somewhere I don’t need to own a car. But if your deepest passion in life is cars and you sit me down at the pub to talk about cars with the same fervor that Bloom could talk about a Faulkner novel or a Dickinson poem, I will listen to and love you as much as I would listen to and love anyone else. There is nothing more attractive and intoxicating than passion, because it speaks to a quality in someone that refuses to be idle or passive in life. What greater crime to our nature than to live on a sort of mental autopilot? Bloom was a major representation of this to me. It’s because of him that I’ve been diligent in either cutting down or eliminating the distractions – mostly technological – that lull me into a mode of simply passing the time. His words and recommendations for reading have saved me from many a depressive episode, and I continuously try to honor his influence on me by reading often and widely, which is – by far – the best thing that any poet can do to become a better poet.
Yesterday, #2 on that list died. And if Bloom’s death was anything but shocking, only the exact opposite could be said of the death of Kobe Bryant. I exchanged some messages with Bloom while he was still alive, but I never spoke to Kobe Bryant in any literal way except for cheers of adoration through a television set in my formative years. The ongoing, unspoken conversation that he and I had from ages 8 (when I started playing basketball, when he came into the NBA) to 31 is something I find too challenging to accurately explain, much like that acknowledgments section. In those early years, my experience is one that probably millions of people worldwide share. Unless you were from a city or area that was fortunate enough to have a competitive NBA team, you were probably following the Los Angeles Lakers if you were a fan of basketball. Some individual players from the late 90s and early 2000s might have been as exciting (Allen Iverson and Vince Carter, especially), but no team commanded the media attention as much as the Lakers. We lived in Ventura County, immediately north of Los Angeles County, so the Lakers became the family team by default, but it’s hard to imagine that things would have been any different if we had lived somewhere else (except, maybe, for Boston, whose hatred of the Lakers is the stuff of legends). So electric and audacious was the Kobe-Shaq duo that the Lakers seasons might as well have been one of the early reality shows to come out of the neighboring Hollywood. They were appointment-viewing, as many of us TV critics used to call things like The Wire or Mad Men back when people actually watched TV live.
I’m sure those millions of people could tell you all about what it was like to grow up watching the Lakers. For me, it was one of two things that brought the family together in the evenings (the other was The X-Files when it was in-season). Dad got the fire going in the fireplace during halftime (some nights in southern California are cold, I promise), Mom made us all some cups of non-caffeinated tea (usually echinacea or chamomile; most of these were school nights) and my brother and I stretched out on the sofas or else tried to convince one of the cats to stay put so that we could pet them. To say that Kobe – and it was always Kobe first and ahead of Shaq, who was incredible but prone to bouts of lack of motivation – was part of the family would be literally incorrect but completely genuine in every other way. Lakers flags went up on the cars. Mom threatened to dye her hair purple if they three-peated (they did; she did). It’s said that Lakers fans bleed purple and gold. In retrospect and after following the path of figurative language, I’m inclined to believe it was true.
All the Kobe-specific Lakers memories – the 81-point game, which we watched at home live together; all the championship battles, with and without Shaq; all the fighting through illnesses and injuries to the detriment of his body but for the sake of his team and the game – are things that sportswriters are better equipped to cover. I spent all of last night reading those articles and reliving some of those memories in-between weeping and moments of disbelief, wondering if the date was April 1st and not January 26th. What only I can write about, though, is why he was #2 on my list of people who have influenced me most as a poet.
I could look at it purely aesthetically. David Foster Wallace, one of the greatest American writers of the last few decades and a former tennis prodigy, gave us a look at Roger Federer in a way that elevates the mechanical act of the body in movement into art. This is that capacity for passion: I don’t really care for tennis, but I could happily read and reread Wallace writing about tennis. We never really got the same treatment of Kobe’s artistry on paper. We did, however, get Spike Lee’s permanent documentary, Kobe Doin’ Work, which does the job just as admirably as Wallace. The impossibility of some of Kobe’s shots, his understanding of and connection to the flow of the game that was so frighteningly comprehensive and seamless (if a basketball game could function like a reading of Paradise Lost, I venture you could drop Kobe in at any point and he would pick up and play in a way that, like Bloom, you would just understand that it’s second nature to him in ways that most humans will never experience with anything in their lives). Some of this you can see and feel in Lee’s film. The rest you can catch in analysis and clips widely available, luckily, online. As a poet, I could just sit back and look at Kobe – one of the greatest artists working in his medium of all time – and be vaulted into purpose by inspiration from seeing what the best looks like. Writers learn best from reading the best that has been written (a long-time axiom of Bloom’s). I think that works between disciplines, too. Why might a composer not learn something about their relationship with music by seeing and understanding one of the greatest of chefs at work in the kitchen? A dish is a composition itself, after all; variable components need to be put together to create something transcendent. And watching Kobe play basketball is absolutely that transcendent experience. We marvel at what Steph Curry has done to the game of basketball by seemingly taking proximity to the basket out of the equation; seeing Curry put up three-pointers is, without a doubt, beautiful. But Kobe’s work happened everywhere on the court and for every second he was out there, finding any possible margin of error in the defense. Like great writing, it looks so natural and easy; it is not natural or easy.
My biggest takeaway from Kobe, though, is his approach to the game of basketball, which was also, of course, his approach to life. If you’re going to bother doing something, why give it anything other than your all? Like with Bloom, there were a lot of people who didn’t like Kobe. The opposition had their obvious reasons, but teammates of Kobe’s who showed any signs of laziness or passivity wouldn’t last very long in that state. If you were going to play alongside Kobe Bryant, you damn well better be in the gym first thing in the morning and doing everything you can to achieve the goal: greatness. Basketball players talk about championships as the promised lands, but greatness doesn’t stop in June after the winners have been decided. Not for Kobe, at least. We didn’t really understand just how seriously Kobe took that to heart until after he retired and we started seeing him smile and look happy, no longer burdened by the need to put the pursuit of greatness in basketball above all else. What mattered then was the pursuit of greatness as a father and husband. What better reasons to smile and look happy?
If you talk to other writers about their processes and struggles, you’ll encounter all sorts of challenges to greatness they face; Kobe probably would have called them “excuses”. Writer’s block is a common one. If you take the Kobe approach – the Mamba Mentality – writer’s block doesn’t exist. Imagine Kobe the poet (easy to do, because the man actually wrote poetry and won an Academy Award for the film adaptation of it). These writers – and I have been guilty of this in the past – who could tell you about times when they just couldn’t write or write well or make the time to write alongside everything else going on in their lives would have been those teammates of Kobe’s who would get an earful. Kobe the poet would have been someone who woke up, recited a few of the poems most important to him from memory and went straight to the notebook or document, toiling away for hours until something like the best of Yeats or Ashbery came out, day after day. I’d like to say something like “Kobe’s process with basketball is not easily translatable to a writer trying to write”, but I honestly don’t believe that anymore. I think if a poet genuinely has greatness in mind as their goal, then there are only excuses that get in the way of that. And, recently, I’ve become tired of making excuses for myself and my own writing (or lack of writing), and I’ve certainly become tired of listening to poet friends of mine make their own excuses. The Mamba Mentality has been something that I’ve tried to adapt to my own life. It has caused a lot of arguments, especially having to do with simply not having enough time to write (usually claimed by people who spend hours of their days scrolling through social media, sometimes without even knowing that they’ve done it). I think it has also probably caused diminished friendships. But reading and writing mean so much to me – more than anything else I’ve ever done in life – and I am at my happiest when I can see and hear Kobe as I sit down to do either activity. It can be painful trying to hold yourself to that standard, mentally more than physically. But that is the legacy Kobe Bryant has left to me – to not settle for anything less than greatness, which requires intensive study and practice, and to hold myself accountable for my shortcomings and not fall back on excuses. Kobe played through broken bones; I can write through colds. Kobe could have left the Lakers and got more championships by joining other great players, but he stayed in Los Angeles and played the game the right way; I can keep trying to find my voice by being authentic to myself and not changing my style so that it fits certain molds that might be more publishable or populist. Kobe ruptured his Achilles (an appropriate injury for one of the greatest warriors that ever stepped foot on the basketball court) and came back to the game because he wasn’t done yet; I was one or two more days away from a complete nervous breakdown and needing to be sectioned last year before my family came to my aid, and I am now more ready than I’ve ever been to get back to that obsessive love of literature. Kobe gave me all of that.
These are only the first things that come to mind when I think about Kobe Bryant’s impact on my life. I still have much mourning and contemplation to do, as do so many others. And there are some aspects of the news from yesterday that are just unfathomable. Kobe was a part of the public sphere and, because of that, we feel the right to express our thoughts and feelings towards him because of how deeply he touched so many of us. But to try to consider what it must be like for a mother-wife and a daughter-sister old enough to understand the severity of losing 13-year-old Gianna along with Kobe (and to have to think ahead to when the other two daughter-sisters will be processing these losses later in life) – this is beyond anything else. It is not my place, even as someone who has spent the last eight years trying to manage my own grief. To begin thinking about that is to willingly run into madness. The only solace for us is knowing that the family has so many people around them who knew Kobe and Gianna well as people, because the family is truly beloved. My heart goes out to anyone else who was positively affected by Kobe Bryant in their lifetime, and I encourage those people to tell their own stories – to remember, to appreciate, to evaluate – as privately or as publicly as they are able. It will be some time before things start feeling anything close to normal again for us. That is okay. That speaks to the greatness of Kobe Bryant.
Royal Rumble 2020: The Good, The Bad, and The Tolerable
Saying the Royal Rumble is the hottest of the big four pay-per-views in WWE is not a hot take. Sure, it the first stage of setting the card for WrestleMania. Fans love the actual Royal Rumble match because truly anything can happen in it.
Some of the biggest returns and debuts have happened in that match. Winning it has made wrestlers into superstars. Anyone could win the Royal Rumble and go on to headline WrestleMania. Usually, the person you expect to win does. Sometimes, it’s the person you least expect.
The 2020 edition of the Royal Rumble pay-per-view was the third one to feature two Royal Rumble matches; one for the women and one for the men. Both matches were solid with the right amount of surprises.
Royal Rumble Pre-Show
The two-hour Royal Rumble Pre-Show is filled with video packages and analysis that are somewhat tedious to watch. If it was half an hour, that would be okay. But two hours is a lot to sit through. Fortunately, they usually manage to sneak a couple of matches in.
The returning Sheamus took on Shorty G in an attempt to prove that the SmackDown locker room is weak and lazy. Picking on a guy half your size is always a great way to show people how tough you are. It was a surprisingly competitive and engaging match, with both men getting some good spots in.
Ultimately, Sheamus won but Shorty G still looked good.
The second match was Humberto Carrillo taking on Andrade for the United States Championship. Both men are incredible talents who play very well off each other in the ring. Andrade won but Carrillo is a future champion.
Falls Count Anywhere Match
The feud between King Corbin and Roman Reigns feels like it’s been going on for far too long. It jumped the shark when Corbin and friends broke out the dog food. Hopefully, their match at the Royal Rumble is the wrap-up and the Big Dog can move onto something else.
Reigns and Corbin took a trip around the arena, making use of the Astro’s home field. Naturally, Robert Roode and Dolph Ziggler showed up to interfere. The Usos had their cousin’s back, though.
It came down to Roman beating the King down and pinning him for the victory. The match definitely was solid but nothing special. The audience isn’t super into Corbin so the energy in the arena seemed a little low.
The biggest spot of the match came from one of the Usos, and not the actual competitors.
Women’s Royal Rumble Match
For the third year in a row, the Women’s Royal Rumble match did not disappoint.
NXT was well represented this year. Bianca Belair came in at number two and was a one-woman wrecking crew for a significant portion of the match. She ended up eliminating eight people, as did Shaya Baszler. Combined, they took out 16 of the 30 competitors.
Among the surprise entrants were “Mighty” Molly Holly, Kelly Kelly, Beth Phoenix, and Santina Marella. For those who were confused by that one, Santina Marella is the alter ego of former superstar Santino Marella. She eliminated herself, a funny moment that was lost on a lot of the audience.
That being said, it was a shame that one of the many great current competitors in the division didn’t get Santina’s spot.
It’s worth mentioning how good Molly Holly looked in the ring. She was underrated when she was an active member of the roster so it’s always nice to see her get some respect. There has to be a place for her in the modern era of wrestling.
One of the headlines was the return of Naomi, who has been away for some time. She looked like she didn’t have an ounce of ring rust on her. It remains to be seen if this was a one-night deal or if she’s back for good.
Ultimately, Charlotte Flair won and will go on to headline WrestleMania against one of the women’s champions, probably Becky. Charlotte is a great wrestler, but she was the safest bet for the WWE in the match. It would have been nice to see someone unexpected, but deserving get the shot.
Bayley vs Lacey Evans
The heat on this Royal Rumble bout has been building for weeks. Bayley’s heel turn has made her more relevant than ever. It’s also nice that she has been given a respectably long reign as the SmackDown Women’s Champion. On the other hand, Lacey Evans sudden face turn was a bit surprising, but she wears it well.
A year ago, Bayley would have been the face and Lacey would have been the heel in this match.
Overall, this was a solid women’s title match. Lacey looked good for the most part as did Bayley. The end came at a rather surprising moment with Bayley grabbing a handful of Lacey’s tights for the pinfall to retain the belt.
Daniel Bryan vs “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt
Daniel Bryan’s return to the Yes Movement, plus his new, clean look, has put him back in the title picture. Unfortunately, that title picture features the current Universal Champion, “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt.
After already losing to Wyatt and being repeatedly attacked by him, Bryan felt the smart move was to attach himself to “The Fiend” with a leather strap. Nope.
“The Fiend” made his traditional creepy entrance and proceeded to destroy Bryan. Eventually, Bryan came around and took it to “The Fiend.” The match was as brutal as expected with Wyatt coming out on top and Bryan left the Royal Rumble with some ugly wounds.
But the big story of the match is that it did not happen under only red lights, which was really nice. You could actually see what was happening. With any luck, this is how “The Fiend” will wrestle from now on. That red light thing made it difficult to enjoy his matches.
Becky Lynch vs Asuka
The rivalry between Becky Lynch and Asuka has taken a backseat to other storylines, but it has always been there. Lynch asked for the match so she could settle the score between them and finally move on.
This match was as good as you’d expect from two such accomplished and talented in-ring performers in the company. It was highly competitive with a lot of incredible spots for both competitors. When Lynch and Asuka get in a ring together, they make pure magic.
In the end, Lynch retained her championship, but it was a hard-fought victory. This was arguably the best singles match Asuka has wrestled in the past year. Even though she didn’t win, she looked like the Asuka of old, and on the verge of total domination again.
Men’s Royal Rumble Match
Fans were justifiably concerned when Paul Heyman announced that Brock Lesnar would enter at number one in the Royal Rumble this year. WWE has a bad habit of putting him over in spite of themselves. What does WrestleMania look like if the WWE Champion wins the Royal Rumble?
As luck would have it, no one has to know the answer thanks to Ricochet and Drew McIntyre.
Lesnar tore through the first 13 superstars who came out after him. Number 15 was Ricochet, who was dominated. McIntyre was the next competitor out. Ricochet hit Lesnar with the low blow, then McIntyre hit him with the Claymore Kick straight out of the ring.
Lesnar’s elimination was one of the biggest pops of the night. Drew stared holes through Lesnar until he left the arena. It was a clear indication of who he is going to challenge.
NXT was not as well represented in the Men’s match as it was the Women’s. Only Keith Lee and Matt Riddle made it into the Royal Rumble. Riddle was quickly eliminated, and apparently got into it backstage with Lesnar, but Lee continued his string of great showings.
Lesnar might have eliminated Lee but Lee stepped to him. Brock even looked a little impressed and that doesn’t happen often.
Men’s Royal Rumble Surprises
The Men’s match only had two surprise entrants, but they were great ones. MVP made his return after a long absence. He was quickly eliminated by Lesnar, but still looked great. The second surprise entrant caught everyone off guard when Edge’s music hit.
One of the best in the business was retired by injuries in 2011 and has not wrestled since. He looked amazing, entering at 21, eliminating three people, and making it to the final three. The pop he got when his music started rivaled the one The Hardy Boyz got at WrestleMania 33.
Unfortunately, an odd moment happened with AJ Styles. At one point, the ringside medical staff seemed to be attending to him near the ring apron. He was quickly eliminated by Edge and helped to the back. Hopefully, he is okay.
Excluding the return of MVP, the most valuable player of the evening was Beth Phoenix. She left the announcer’s desk behind to compete in the Royal Rumble again and went on one hell of a run. Beth entered at 21 and hung around until she was taken out by Baszler.
But at some point during the match, Phoenix got a bad laceration on the back of her head. Her hair was soaked in her own blood, yet she continued the match. The injury actually seemed to make her more aggressive. This was the best she has wrestled in years.
Apparently, the angrier Beth Phoenix gets, the stronger she gets.
Royal Rumble Snubs
There were a lot of current superstars who weren’t included from any roster. The only NXT UK star that appeared was Toni Storm, a surprise since Worlds Collide was the night before. Noticeable by her absence was Sasha Banks, whose presence has been minimal over the last few weeks.
Many people were also hoping for returns from the likes of Nia Jax and Ruby Riott. They also did not appear. People were also looking for CM Punk but that is still a long shot at best. It would have been cool if his music hit, though.
It’s also hard to imagine that John Morrison returned to WWE only to get sacrificed to Brock Lesnar in the Royal Rumble. His time in the ring was only a few seconds, a disappointment since he usually puts on a heck of a show.
Fans also might have been surprised to see that Braun Strowman didn’t face Shinsuke Nakamura for the Intercontinental Championship. That match was thought to be a lock but it didn’t even appear on the Pre-Show. Strowman cannot catch a break in his hunt for a singles title.
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