Life has taken quite a turn in 2020. None of us would have put months of sheltering at home on our goals list, and none of us have previous experience with a worldwide pandemic. We’re all figuring this out as we go, working through upheaval and unknown in addition to grief and loss.
The weight of this cultural moment can be eased, ever so slightly, by turning our hearts and minds toward cultural works that give us new life, right when we need it. Call it escape if you must, but we need balms for the soul in times like these. And so, the Christ and Pop Culture staff writers are happy to share recommendations that will entertain and sustain you through the pandemic. These picks range from lighthearted to heartfelt, each one a lifeline to the goodness that remains even as you stay home to stay safe. Enjoy!
Tony Baker: Social Media Humorist, Standup Comedian, and Actor
Recommended by Timothy Thomas
Have you ever wondered what your pets or other animals are thinking or what they would say in auspicious and unfortunate situations if they shared our language to express those feelings? Like what a male goat might be thinking as it rams into something head first (Cram!)? Or what your cat might be thinking when it slaps you or something else for no apparent reason (Skibbity-pap!)? Tony Baker, a standup and social media comedian, offers humorous takes on what these animals might say by giving them a voice (his voice) on his social media platforms. The hilariously knee-slapping voiceover video clips of animals doing strange and almost human-like things broadens the imagination beyond our current tragedies even if just for a few seconds at a time. Though social media is usually demonized, Tony Baker’s voiceovers are a ray of light in the sometimes gloomy days stuck indoors during this social isolation period. Baker’s voiceover videos are a reminder that it is important to laugh in times of tragedy. Not to make light of our circumstances nor to diminish the seriousness of such matters, but rather to activate a fully human response to the natural and moral evils that seek to crush us. So if you’re looking for a reason to laugh or smile throughout these coronavirus days, follow Tony Baker on Instagram or Twitter.
The Show Must Go Online
Recommended by Geoffrey Reiter
Countless events, destinations, and live productions have had their plans derailed by the coronavirus. Some, however, have responded in creative ways. Case in point: Robert Myles’s The Show Must Go Online. Myles organized an international cast to do weekly dramatic Zoom readings of Shakespeare’s plays (in approximate chronological order), beginning with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. While the clunkiness of the format occasionally shows up, there are also some clever uses of improvised props, and it is on the whole a delightful production that highlights the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and the timeliness of his themes. In reality, it isn’t much more of a barebones production than the early Shakespeare’s original audiences would have seen. As Myles notes on his website, Shakespeare’s “work has always been a source of comfort for those in times of hardship and isolation.” He has also been a truth-teller for four centuries, and still his work never grows old. Watching it with my family in this new format, I am reminded of human nature in all its awful fallenness and comic beauty. When you’ve had your fill of homemade Facebook shorts or Tik Tok or Tiger King, switch over to The Show Must Go Online. You can be reminded once again of the power and sheer joy of these dramas.
Singin’ in the Rain
Recommended by Gina Dalfonzo
What do we need to soothe our souls in the midst of global calamity? The prescription differs for each one of us. Some need to wrestle with works of art that tackle the tough issues of life head on; others need to escape into a cozy fantasy world. Some of us need both, depending on what day it is and what mood we’re in.
One of the unexpected blessings of this particular calamitous period is that there’s been plenty of both on offer. Any number of artists and arts organizations have been giving generously of their talents and resources to help keep our spirits up–so many that there’s simply no time for it all. I’ve been amused (we have to take our amusement where we can get it these days) by my own frantic efforts to keep up with the concerts, recitals, plays, operas, and bonus podcast episodes popping up in my various feeds, before I end each day with a lovely live fireside reading of a chapter from Great Expectations.
Ultimately, though, perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda’s young son had the best idea of all when he went old-school and put on Singin’ in the Rain (which happens to be my own favorite film). Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s 1952 musical masterpiece, itself a story of artists collaborating to create something both timely and timeless, bubbles over with energy, humor, and high spirits. It is, simply put, 103 minutes of pure unadulterated joy. And right now, isn’t that what we need most of all?
The Gilmore Girls Reboot: Luke and Lorelai’s Wedding
Recommended by Amanda Wortham
Good things come to those who wait. If that saying is true, then the emotional payoff of love that is, at long last, finally requited must be good, indeed. Television producers realized this truth early on, and started giving the people what they wanted—season after season of almosts, not quites, and just-missed-it romances between two characters who are OBVIOUSLY perfect together. Collectively, audiences sit on the edges of their couches, feeling time tick backwards as they hold out hope that somehow, someday, the scales will fall off and the destined couple will realize they’ve fallen in love.
Amy Sherman-Palladino knew her audience well, which is why she ended the Gilmore Girls reboot with a double-whammy—The Revelation About Which We Do Not Speak, and, gloriously, Luke and Lorelai’s wedding. That gem is three minutes and fifty-one seconds of pure relief, a blush-swathed, lyrical series of full-circle moments.
In the incredibly short clip, a multitude of concerns evaporate. Stoic, self-centered Emily gently covers her exhausted staff members (and their families) with blankets before walking out onto the deck with a glass of wine. But first, she pauses in front of her late husband’s portrait, sadly, but not despairingly, remembering him. Kirk bottle-feeds his pig, which, admittedly, doesn’t address any of our anxieties about Kirk, but seeing his act of bizarre kindness is oddly comforting. Lorelai and Rory ride in the back of Luke’s truck to the gazebo. The entire setting for the wedding beckons them forward in a breezy, storybook way. They twirl through the pink silk, try on hats, and dance, always confident and calm. “Refracting Light” by Sam Phillips plays in the background, lulling us toward what we would have, in our more optimistic moments, sworn was inevitable. The entire ceremony seems almost rehearsed, and indeed, we’ve all rehearsed it in our heads a thousand times. Every surprise is expected, and every certainty is true. These are the moments we need to remember—that love happens, that good things are still within our grasp, that everything resolves, somehow, someday.
Recommended by CJ Quartlbaum
Food brings me joy. Some of the best shows on television are centered around the subject—food as art, culture, history, competition, I love it all. While we all may be stuck inside for the foreseeable future, it couldn’t have come at a better time, because Top Chef is back and it’s an All Star season! Every week we get to watch the best of the best throw down for the title of Top Chef. This show is the perfect mix of a mindless watch and a riveting drama.
The reason this is such a great quarantine watch is because it allows us to escape to another world. If you love food, then this is the opportunity to see great chefs do great work. And since many of us are trapped inside with overloaded pantries so why not gain some inspiration from the best?
What we also get to see is the beauty of God’s creation on display. When you see these chefs craft these masterful, artful dishes, they are reflecting the image of God, as he is the ultimate creator. Every Thursday night, escape into this culinary world, enjoy the competition, and gather some ideas to try while you have the time!
Every Poem Ever by Mary Oliver
Recommended by Aarik Danielson
Flip through the nearly 500 pages of Devotions—a selection of work by the late, great Mary Oliver—and you can almost hear the poet tittering with delight. Oliver never shied away from exploring the true character of the world, with all its cycles of violence and spasms of volatility. But Oliver believed the best about nature and people, choosing to conclude that their wildness was more blessing than curse. Devotions casts Oliver as your guide through the trees and thickets, past sounding streams and into life’s sweet and fascinating rhythms. She expresses a wonder that can only be described as childlike, even as it crystallized over the course of her 83 years on earth.
There is much to mourn in Oliver’s words—and in the world around us these days—but try not to smile as you read a short poem like “Three Things to Remember”: “As long as you’re dancing, you can break the rules. / Sometimes breaking the rules is just extending the rules. / Sometimes there are no rules.” Try to keep your heart in your chest, stationary and uninspired, when she writes, “Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us” (“Franz Marc’s Blue Horses”). Try not to play along, following Oliver out the door when she confesses, “Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing. / And gave it up. / And took my old body and went out into the morning, / and sang” (“I Worried”). Try not to say a prayer of thanksgiving when she concludes “Don’t Hesitate” with this line, on the plane of Biblical truth: “Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
Indeed the only thing Oliver will not permit you to do is remain unchanged, to stay in your seat, to believe deep down that joy is impossible or impractical. Her words will never diminish or deny your feelings. Not once. But to read her is to know that her voice can’t help but crescendo like a song; her face can’t help but break into a grin; her feet can’t help but tap the beat of life upon the floor. If we want to see the colors of happiness, let alone the shape of joy, we need only ask Oliver and she will show us the way there.
Cinderella (2015) and the Infinity Saga
Recommended by K. B. Hoyle
To me, a moment in a story isn’t truly happy unless it catches me in the back of the throat and fills my eyes with tears. Unless it is, in other words, so filled with some sort of longing that my only response is to let go of my natural inhibitions and weep. This is how I know the moment has propelled me into Joy. As C. S. Lewis put it, “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” We want wrongs to be made right, death to be undone, all contraries to be resolved. There can be no true happiness without consolation—nothing to cheer without reconciliation. In uncertain times like now, there are many stories, and many moments in stories, that demonstrate these good things for us in beautiful ways.
Romantic stories are often satisfying, but only some achieve the true resolution of contraries that draw the audience toward Joy. Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 retelling of Disney’s Cinderella is one such example. In a film that builds tension through loss and longing—allowing both Ella and Kit (Cinderella and the Prince, played by Lily James and Richard Madden) to have individual agency, drive, and purpose, Branagh overlaps the deeply spiritual overtones of the original fairy tale with a love story in which true Joy is only found when two people are made one. The most beautiful and Joy-filled scene in the movie is, I think, the ball when Ella shows up and surprises Kit, who has been longing to find her. Ella finally realizes Kit is the prince, and the two come together for a dance under the watchful eyes of the entire nobility.
Traditional ballroom dance, with its complementary roles for male and female dancers, acts as a metaphor for how they fulfill each other, but it is far more than that. Under Branagh’s direction, the scene—from art direction to choreography to music to costuming to cinematography—is simply stunning. When Kit defers to Ella with his request for her hand on the dance floor with the words, “If I may—that is, it would give me the greatest pleasure if you would do me the honor of letting me lead you…” we get to see in their exchange deference, respect, awe, and patience. Here, and throughout the scene, Branagh presents to his audience much that is often overlooked in traditional romance films, and I can think of few movie scenes that make me happier than this one in Cinderella. It is a call to Joy. (You can watch Cinderella now on Disney+.)
The eucatastrophe is another sort of call to Joy, and it shows up often in our more epic stories. J. R. R. Tolkien coined this word to give expression to the sudden joyous turn that takes place when all hope seems lost. In history, myths, and stories, he saw again and again impossible scenarios—the unwinnable battles, the darkest nights before the dawn, the death of heroes—that turn against all odds into moments of triumph. This he called the eucatastrophe, and Tolkien pointed out that all such stories are just Types pointing to Christ’s defeat of death as the eucatastrophe of all humankind. What could be less expected, but more welcome, than a return from death? That is why a eucatastrophe is a sudden joyous turn.
This is one of the reasons behind the appeal of superhero films in general, and Marvel films in particular. They deliver the eucatastrophes that all the great stories of history and myth have always done, and thus tug our hearts and minds toward Joy. In Avengers: Infinity War Thor arrives on the battlefield in Wakanda at the moment his friends and allies are being overwhelmed unto death. He shouts, “Bring me Thanos!”—a promise of a just victory for the heroes, retribution for Thanos’ wickedness, and an end to all the struggling and suffering in the film. It is the sort of moment that is so overwhelmingly satisfying, and so filled with hope, that my movie theater on opening weekend burst into cheers. But Thor’s Joyous arrival in Infinity War is just the eucatastrophe of the first half of a much longer story. Thor doesn’t kill Thanos, who snaps half the population of the universe out of existence.
When the remaining Avengers face Thanos again on the battlefield at the end of Avengers: Endgame and Captain America stands alone against Thanos’s forces, the story demands a greater eucatastrophe than the triumphant arrival of Thor at the end of Infinity War to defeat Thanos. It demands that death be undone, and that’s exactly what Endgame delivers with words familiar to all fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “On your left,” says Falcon in Cap’s earpiece, before a portal appears, ushering in the resurrection of first a king (Black Panther), and then the hosts of all those whom Thanos killed. In stories, the greatest eucatastrophes will always be those that undo death because they point us back to the source of our true Joy. They remind us that death is not our end; it does not get the final say. And when everything feels outside of our control, there is always hope. (Infinity War and Endgame both available now on Disney+.)
Recommended by M. V. Bergen
Centered on the experiences of four girls—all misfits, who attend a Catholic school in Derry during the Troubles in Northern Ireland—the show draws laughs from the characters’ conflicts, and from their lapses in judgment. In the relationships the four girls forge with each other, there lies the possibility of making it through the apocalypse, and of building a better world on the other side. For those of us currently inhabiting the apocalypse, the characters’ difficulties—whether to offer their guest tea, how much money is raised at the church jumble sale—are unbearably uncomplicated. Though it mocks them mercilessly, Derry Girls also likes its main characters, finds in them not only a source of humor but of hope
The very first episode introduces the main character, Erin. But we hear of her in her cousin Orla’s voice, as viewers gradually realize Orla has stolen Erin’s diary and is reading it aloud. As Orla comes to the part where Erin characterizes herself as a “child of the crossfire” capable of rising above conflict, Erin, outraged, shouts a promise to retaliate.
Even the Troubles, the show’s backdrop, offer a source of humor. In a later episode, Erin’s headstrong grandfather Joe seeks to get out of Derry to avoid a Orange walk, but instead drives them straight into one. Surrounded by parading, drunken Protestants, the family sits stranded in their cars, distracting themselves by reading Tarot cards to predict meeting a handsome stranger (the cards, the episode reveals, predicts no such thing). Locating humor in a dangerous situation, and in the human error which contributes to that danger, Derry Girls invites us to laugh, when possible, at our own troubles and the way we—say, by panic-buying all the toilet paper—contribute to them.
Yet the characters’ missteps do not, ultimately, end their friendship. When one of the girls makes a misstep, from Clare over-caffeinating before exams or Orla taking up competitive aerobics, her friends (eventually) come together to support her, often standing against others’ criticism and mockery. Contrasted with the Troubles, their friendship acts as a source of hope, an alternative to the continuous, mindless violence which characterizes the period. To those of us now living through our own Troubles, the show also gives us hope, that even during this difficult time, we may, through humility and friendship, thrive.
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