FILE PHOTO: Fireworks over City Island in Harrisburg.
Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo
FILE PHOTO: Fireworks over City Island in Harrisburg.
Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo
It’s been a great year for media — in the broadest sense of that word. From great books to captivating films and TV shows, 2019 brought us many creative and powerful expressions of journalism, arts and entertainment.
Editor’s note: Some of the videos and audio embedded on this page include expletives and material that may be sensitive to some readers.
In no particular order, here are the “top” media of 2019 as selected by the staff of PA Post, WITF and StateImpact Pennsylvania:
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime) — A great story, and the dialogue is an absolute blast.
Close second: Killing Eve (A BBC America production available on many streaming services) — Fascinating twist on the spy genre.
I thought I didn’t have any TV recommendations, but then I remembered Russian Doll came out early this year. It’s on Netflix, I initially thought it would be bad because it looked like a weird remake of Groundhog Day, but I was wrong and it was outstanding. If you somehow missed it, now is your chance to rectify the mistake.
2019 was the year I discovered The Expanse on Amazon Prime. It starts as a sort of futuristic detective show, but winds up being so much more. Great characters. To me, a “realistic” view of the near-ish future. I just binged season 4 and was blown away by the death scene for a character named Commander Klaes Ashford (played by David Strathairn).
One drama that stuck with me was HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, for taking a potentially technical story about a flawed nuclear reactor design and turning it into a very human meditation on the destructive power of lies.
For comedy, Tim Robinson’s collection of skits on Netflix, called I Think You Should Leave, hit the spot this year. From T.C. Topps T.C. Tugger—the first shirt with a knob for pulling when it gets trapped—to a bizarre spoof on a scene from the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, I’m still making references to this brazenly dumb, hilarious show.
Schitt’s Creek. I was late to the game on this one but caught up on Netflix. It’s everything I want in a comedy: sarcasm, more sarcasm, and heartwarming relationships.
Fleabag (Amazon Prime)
If you have to watch anything over the holiday break, I highly recommend the new Netflix docu-series, Don’t F*** with Cats: Catching an Internet Killer. The documentary follows the story of two self-proclaimed “internet nerds,” who attempted to catch a Canadian man named Luka Magnotta, who was filming himself killing cats and, eventually, a human. The film gets into the problems of how the internet — abound with conspiracy theories — forces barriers on police investigations. But this wasn’t the first time Canada has had problems with dealing with internet conspiracies around subcultures that turned out to be true. At the same time Magnotta was caught, another serial killer was making his way through the gay community in Toronto in similar fashion by using the internet and dating sites to lure in his victims. I wrote about how the police handled the conspiracies in that investigation for Rolling Stone Magazine. Spoiler alert: they didn’t deal with them much at all.
Silicon Valley (HBO). The series finale aired Dec. 15.
Parasite. I’ve been following South Korean writer/director Bong Joon Ho’s work since the mid-2000s, and this is his most powerful work by far. It’s an emotional ride.
Parasite. I saw this with friends and I think people were split on the ending, but personally I loved it. I knew nothing about it going into the theater and would highly recommend that approach.
One Upon a Time in Hollywood (Warning: The trailer contains expletives — because….Tarantino)
Knives Out — Thoroughly enjoyable.
Avengers: Endgame — I know it’s a real outside the box choice to pick the highest-grossing movie of all time, but the heart wants what it wants.
Rocketman. While I always liked his music, I wasn’t that curious about Elton John himself. The movie changed that.
I hit up Midtown Cinema in Harrisburg a lot this year, and The Lighthouse is probably the most memorable film I saw. Willem Dafoe’s florid sailor-speak—inspired by old seafaring novels and poems—makes Daniel Day Lewis’s “I drink your milkshake” monologue in There Will be Blood feel kind of basic.
Hot Chip, Bath Full of Ecstasy. I’m going to show my hipster colors, right now. But if you don’t have your finger on the “buy now,” button for Hot Chip’s newest album, “Bath Full of Ecstasy,” you’re living your life wrong. For those who haven’t followed the indie music scene over the past decade, chances are you’ve missed the shift from the guitar-and-drum days of The White Stripes to the mixture of synthesizers and disco beats that “Bath Full…” delivers on. Check out “Spell,” and “Hungry Child,” to get an idea on what that music evolution sounds like. I can’t recommend this album enough for anybody who has an adventurous music spirit.
Big Thief put out TWO albums in 2019 and both — U.F.O.F. and Two Hands — are extremely good. I think the former is my top pick, but Obama apparently prefers a song from the latter, so you should obviously take that into account.
I’ve had Maggie Rogers’s Heard it in a Past Life pretty much on repeat this year.
Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You — It seems like mainstream American pop culture finally caught up with Lizzo because of this album that blends powerful vocals, a few quick jokes and a whole lot of energy. I listened to the whole thing, on repeat, while at work the day it came out. Emily Previti also picked this one.
A bunch of good albums this year, but I’ll just flag Brittany Howard’s solo effort Jaime, named for her sister who died as a teen. On one track that made it onto my running playlist, called “13th Century Metal,” Howard seems to abandon both melody and songcraft, opting instead to shout out what we perhaps need right now: A straight-up statement of values—a creed, really.
Josh Ritter’s Fever Breaks was my favorite album released this year.
If you’re not familiar with Tyler Childers, catch up! He’s the young face of alt-country, and he’s going to burn Nashville to the ground (if Jason Isbell and Todd Snider don’t beat him to it).
I’m kind of cheating on this plug because I’m reading the book currently, but based on the first half, I’d highly recommend Charged by Emily Bazelon. If you pay attention to debates (in Pennsylvania and elsewhere) over criminal justice reform, a lot of the issues in the book will be familiar. Bazelon primarily focuses on the power prosecutors have to shape criminal cases, but also gets into the disproportionate effects mandatory minimum sentences have on Black and Hispanic people and the limited power public defenders often have — compared to prosecutors — to keep their clients out of jail.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe was my favorite book published in 2019. But the best book I read this year was Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, which was published in 2018.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: Not a new book, but I was recently turned onto Larson, a historical nonfiction author who digs deep into some of the world’s most notorious events. Next year, Larson will release his book, “The Splendid and the Vile,” which looks at Winston Churchill’s life during The Blitz of 1940. Until that is released, sit down with Larson’s “Devil,” which made the author a force to be reckoned with in historical journalism. Larson follows Chicago’s rise as a booming city, snatching the Columbia World’s Fair from New York and attracting heavyweight American architects and park designers, such as Louis Sullivan and Frederick Law Olmstead. But the fair’s crowd was also the perfect lure for America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, who kidnapped and murdered dozens of women from his hotel marketed to fair-goers.
FICTION: John le Carre — Agent Running in the Field
NONFICTION: Alex Kershaw — The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in WWII; and Giles Milton — Soldier Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die: How the Allies Won on D-Day
The only book I read this year that actually came out in 2019 was a collection of short stories from Raphael Bob-Waksburg (Bojack Horseman creator) called Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory. It’s bizarre and amusing, which seems to be his thing.
My favorite book I read this year was When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. His very funny essay about swimming came to mind while I was in the pool one morning and I almost drowned laughing.
I’m recommending Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch. The book’s about three women running a homestead in Appalachia, which ends up being in the path of a pipeline construction project. Madeline ffitch balances social commentary and dark humor as she rotates narrative perspectives among the main characters – including, delightfully, the young son of two of the women.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay – This book, while an “easy” read due to the short essay-like chapters was one of the most challenging things I have ever read. Hunger was able to undo my 29 years of societal standards regarding body image, weight, obesity and a pre-conceived belief of what beauty standards mean in today’s world.
Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking– I grew up learning to cook and bake with my mom (who was born in 1943!) in a small town in Lancaster County. Pennsylvania Dutch food is king and while I have mastered the art of making Whoopie Pies and Red Beet Eggs, as I’ve gotten older my tastes and skills in the kitchen have drastically changed. This cookbook breaks down the science behind cooking and how salt, fat, acid and heat can dramatically change and improve a dish.
I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it, but I also can’t forget that I read The Uninhabitable Earth. David Wallace-Wells’s sobering look at climate change reminds us that our hybrid cars and reusable grocery bags aren’t enough, and that it may already be too late to avoid a civilization-ending future.
The Mueller Report — Yeah, it’s long and dense, but it’s important.
Also: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. This book gives you a good historical foundation to understand the current effects, and potential future effects, of climate change on the natural world.
The best nonfiction book I read this year was Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by historian Blight. I knew little to nothing about Douglass, so much of it was a surprise. A great man, flawed like they all are, but living in one of the most important periods of American history. Blight got a Pulitzer Prize for this book, perhaps in part because the divisions of that era are echo so much in the current unpleasantness.
In the fiction category, I was very taken with Milkman by Anna Burns, which tells the story of a young woman living in a nameless Northern Ireland town divided across Catholic and Protestant lines. It’s narrative is experimental, but gripping. It captures, I think, what it must have been like to come of age in the middle of a simmering ethnic conflict. And somehow there’s a happy ending. Burns won the Booker Prize for this book, deservedly so.
White Lies: This NPR serial emphasized the power of audio journalism. It’s a great story, with some real characters, and they brought truth to light.
Also recommended White Lies, saying: “Meticulous reporting, patient storytelling that pays off.”
I appreciated that the New York Times podcast The Daily profiled and interviewed Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders. (They also profiled Joe Biden, who declined to be interviewed).
More often, however, I use podcasts to go beyond daily news and politics, seeking context and knowledge. Mike Duncan’s Revolutions history series and Stephen West’s Philosophize This! have been mainstays in my rotation on that front.
This American Life, always. This episode from this year stands out.
I also started listening to Everything is Alive—the episode with the Russian nesting dolls was particularly lovely.
Season Two of In The Dark is excellent … and impactful. A Mississippi man is tried for the brutal murder of four people. Not once, but six times. It’s a Hollywood story in real life.
Binge Mode from The Ringer was good company for long car rides.
I love Radiolab in general, and this year I specifically loved their Dolly Parton series. I’m not even a huge Dolly fan, but the whole thing was engrossing and fun and beautifully produced.
This year for me, I’ve gotten more and more fascinated by stories related to how our data is being used. One great recent one, from New York Times Opinion, called One Nation, Tracked, uses graphics and data visualizations to great effect, showing how cell phone data can create “a diary” of a person’s life. It’s a reminder of the incredible, unprecedented power private companies hold, even as those companies face much less scrutiny than any government agency.
I did not intend to read ProPublica’s report on a 2017 naval warship crash all in one sitting, but I truly could not stop once I had started it. The piece came out pretty early in the year, but I’ve been regularly thinking about it since and was singing its praises at a bar just the other night. It’s a perfect example of the much-aspired-to narrative multimedia form.
The New York Times Magazine’s in-depth look at the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed more than 80 people. . : Favorite piece of journalism: maybe this?
I’m not picking anything Pa.-related because it’s too hard to choose. So I’m going with Three Sides of a Car Loan from NPR’s Planet Money.
Washington Post — Afghanistan Papers.
Favorite piece of journalism—This is another podcast, but I’ve been enjoying this series on how climate change is affecting our food from Mother Jones’s Bite podcast.
I had a small role in OK’ing this documentary project on a Seattle man’s final weeks of life. It’s about Washington’s “death with dignity” law, but that doesn’t do the piece justice. John Sharify and Joseph Huerta are two masters of up-close video journalism.