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Our favorite pop culture of 2016

Our favorite pop culture of 2016


Beyoncé live, an innovative VR experience, two surprisingly sophisticated kids’ shows, and more

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Here in the final week of 2016, the inevitable nostalgia for six to 11 months ago has reached its height in the pop-culture universe. This week, we look back on some of the best entertainment experiences we had in 2016 — the things that made our jobs and our lives worth it.

Don’t miss our previous best-ofs:

The pre-2016 entertainment that got us through 2016

The weirdest pop-culture of 2016

The worst pop-culture of 2016

Drinking the lemonade: Seeing Beyoncé live!

We almost didn’t make it to the final performance of Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour in October. A three-hour traffic jam at the Holland Tunnel stood between us and the Jersey border, and we were close to calling it quits. At some point, amid the clatter of clanging horns and supersized trunk speakers, we agreed that we felt ridiculous working this hard for a popular cultural experience. But we kept on, because we understood that skipping out on good Beyoncé tickets was a form of blasphemy. We finally pulled into the parking lot along with the last of the frenzied New York City stragglers, and to our delight, slid into our seats under the stars in the open-air stadium for the second song, “Sorry.” For the next two hours, we basked in Beyoncé — the mesmerizing choreography, the dizzying costume changes, and her never-ending stamina to carry her audience through the sensational stage show. Because she’s Beyoncé, she made sure the finale had the added pizzazz of special guests like Serena Williams, Kendrick Lamar, and her husband, Jay Z. But beyond the guests and the accolades she extended to her crew, her message of female empowerment reigned supreme. That night, maybe because it was her last show, maybe because there was still an undercurrent of optimism in the early October air, she seemed particularly focused conveying a message of strength to the women in the audience. “There’s no such thing as a weak woman. You’re born strong,” she said, and we believed her.  A leader by example, she kept her act in the tightest of formations as she displayed emotional highs and lows from her Lemonade album and earlier work — beguiling, bewitching, bemused, benevolent Beyoncé. Back in the car headed for New York City, we finally caught our breath. —Tamara Warren

Mulholland Books

Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines

I read so few really great books this year, the kind that made the real world feel irrelevant while you’re reading, then much sharper and clearer after you’re done. The major exception was Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines, the kind of novel that’s hard to put down and hard to forget afterward. Set in an alternate timeline where slavery in America was never fully abolished, and still persists in a few American states, it isn’t as radical a reimagining of US slavery as Steven Barnes’ novel Lion’s Blood, or the mock-doc C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. But the relatively small-world changes in Underground Airlines help make it convincing, immersive, and relevant to states’ rights policies today. Winter is smart about subtly using slavery as a stand-in for any social issue that makes a lot of people people angry enough to be self-righteous, but not personally affected enough to fight for change. His vision of how American slavery would work in a modern setting is terrifyingly detailed and believable. And on top of all that, Underground Airlines tells a tremendously personal and suspenseful story, about a black investigator whose job is chasing down escaped slaves. His personal conflicts drive the story, which is part detective novel, part character story, and part intelligent science fiction about an alternate reality. It’s a terribly sad book, like Winters’ other fantastic trilogy, the Last Policeman novels. But it’s some of the best kind of science fiction — an illuminating window into how much people would or wouldn’t change with a minor alteration in history. —Tasha Robinson

Gravity Falls

Combine the Pacific Northwest mystery vibes of Twin Peaks, the sincere character dynamics of Parks And Rec, and the weird, offbeat humor of Rick and Morty, and you get Gravity Falls, an animated Disney kids’ show that‘s super fun for everyone. The premise is ripe for some action-packed storytelling: 12-year-old twins Dipper and Mabel Pines spend a summer uncovering the secrets of a sleepy Oregon town called Gravity Falls at a tourist trap run by their great uncle Stan (affectionately dubbed “Grunkle Stan”). It’s an odds-and-ends Ripley’s Believe it Or Not-like museum called the Mystery Shack.

The show features some amazing voice acting, including the always delightful Kristen Schaal as Mabel and guest voice cameos by Matt Chapman (voice of Strong Bad and Homestar Runner), Will Forte (credited as “Tyler the cute biker”) and Neil DeGrasse Tyson as Mabel’s pet pig. The two-season series ended earlier this year, a conscious decision by series creator Alex Hirsch, who explained on his Tumblr: “I always designed Gravity Falls to be a finite series about one epic summer — a series with a beginning, middle, and end. There are so many shows that go on endlessly until they lose their original spark, or mysteries that are cancelled before they ever get a chance to pay off.” Gravity Falls never loses that spark, and it wraps up with an ending that does its characters — and fans — justice. It’s a satisfying model, and more TV shows should take cues from Gravity Falls. —Dami Lee

Hello, My Name is Doris

Anyone will tell you it was a rough year for blockbusters, and looking back, my pleasant experiences at the mega-theater are few and far between. Popstar and 10 Cloverfield Lane are the only bright spots I can see on the first half of the calendar, and there were many long, boring months between those films and last month’s god-send, Arrival. The best thing that happened to me this year (subcategory: in a movie theater), was a nearly-empty early-evening showing of Hello, My Name is Doris in the indie theater in my college town. It stars the great Sally Field as an old-school data-entry worker at the corporate offices of an Urban Outfitters-inspired company, and drops in on her just after the death of her mother — a hoarder, whom Doris lived with on Staten Island for her entire life. Doris is head over heels for the new 20-something art director at her company, and her best friend’s teen granddaughter is more than happy to help her woo him, in spite of their age difference. It’s mostly a comedy, following what seems like Doris’ first romantic interest in a very long time. But the only familiar beats of the rom-com genre come in the quick shifts out of reality and into Doris’ fantasy. She’s got an active and pretty vulgar imagination!

The screenplay was co-written by Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer) and Laura Terruso, a newcomer who met Showalter by chance while studying film at NYU. It’s hard to describe what’s so special about Hello, My Name is Doris, but it’s easily the most empathetic film I’ve seen this year, or maybe ever. Doris grieves her mother, feels alienated from her brother, clings to female friendship, rejects change, embraces love, cops to loneliness, dredges up 50-year regrets, and goes through a rending character arc that would put most coming-of-age stories to shame. It’s a lightly written masterpiece which argues women in their 60s are still having huge, meaningful experiences that are just as important to display on the big screen as anything else —  a controversial argument to make in Hollywood these days, especially for a brand-new screenwriter who is also a woman. Also, Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff plays a parody of himself. —Kaitlyn Tiffany

A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Artist

This mixtape from 21-year-old Bronx rapper A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie (born Artist Dubose) came out on Valentine's Day this year, and it turned out to be the most romantic thing anyone could've done. Artist is a tape about relationships, but mostly the failed kind that make you wanna clench your jaw and ignore the pit in your stomach when you go out at night. For my money, the tape's best song is not the highly sticky party song "My Shit," it’s the much more fragile "Still Think About You," which is, like most songs here, about a girl who broke our boy's heart. It's got an inky, chewy synth line that puts A-Boogie’s pouty flow on full display. Lyrically, A Boogie manages to straddle a line rarely straddled this year in hip-hop, between steely and hopelessly sensitive: “I'ma send you this letter whenever I'm done with it / I know you gon' read it / I called you a bitch at the end, I don't know if I mean it.”

A Boogie dropped a slicker, club-friendly mixtape called TBA in October, but Artist, with its growing-pains vocals and nostalgic '90s beats, is still his best of the year. —Lizzie Plaugic

Syfy’s The Expanse

I haven’t made a secret of my love for this show. I was an early fan of the Expanse novels, and was excited when Syfy picked up the show for a season. The show exceeded all of my expectations, and got better with each episode. What impressed me most was that season 1 isn’t necessarily an adaptation of the first Expanse novel, Leviathan Wakes; it’s an adaptation of the series as a whole. The show’s creators brought characters forward, moved events around, and added new material that expanded and improved upon the original source material to create a compelling, entertaining, thoughtful drama. Above all, the characters are impeccably cast, the visuals are stunning, and it punches far above its weight when it comes to exploring weighty issues, such as the inequalities in wealth and race in ways that proved highly relevant in 2016. I’m excited to take in season 2, which looks to be even better. —Andrew Liptak

Tilt Brush

Is an artistic tool pop culture? I probably wouldn't put Photoshop on a list like this, or a Wacom tablet. But Tilt Brush, Google's standout virtual reality app for the HTC Vive, is both more and less than a painting program. Its virtual "brush" favors bold three-dimensional strokes of neon, fire, and electricity, encouraging a specific kind of Tilt Brush-y look no matter who the artist is. This makes it arguably less versatile for all but the most skilled users, but it means that almost everything a first-time artist produces is somehow beautiful, even if they're as aesthetically hopeless as I am. And then there's the unique experience of using Tilt Brush itself — feeling as if you've been dropped into a velvet canvas or a starry sky, where you can draw with starlight in midair and walk through your own art.

Tilt Brush blurs the line between producing art, consuming it, and even watching its production. I've rarely seen people so transfixed with unalloyed joy, which is something I've found fiction — my ordinary pop culture of choice — unable to offer lately. It's one of the best cases I've seen of digital landscapes truly feeling like a parallel universe, even if it's a universe you create yourself. —Adi Robertson

Steven Universe

I have crippling nostalgia for 1990s Nickelodeon. The way some people feel about the Backstreet Boys catalog or the original Star Wars trilogy, I feel about Ren & Stimpy, Hey Arnold!, and The Adventures of Pete & Pete. I am the guy who watches entire seasons of old kids’ shows to pass sick days. I am the jerk who says “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Or at least that used to be me, until my friends introduced Cartoon Network’s last half-decade of programming, specifically Adventure Time and Steven Universe. The former is‚ and I risk overstating it — the Russian literature of cartoons. Adventure Time is a colorful opus that contains hundreds of characters and settings unified by, I kid you not, subversive questions (particularly by children’s television standards) about identity, politics, and life’s moral gray zones. And yet Steven Universe is somehow even more fascinating, and in my opinion, daring than the show that preceded it.

The titular hero is a young boy (kind of) raised by three extraterrestrial women (but sort of four) and a biological father (who lives in a van away from Steven’s home). It’s about human relationships, the beauty and variety of them. Love, the show teaches episode after episode, is not just the relationship between a man and a woman that culminates with marriage. Love is an endless mix of connections between men and women, men and men, women and women. Love can involve more than two people, and love can span a moment or forever. Love is, at its best, the ultimate magical power, a buff that increases our strength, intelligence, and empathy. When shared in a true harmony, love is otherworldly. But unlike the magic of every other superhero story or children’s TV show, Steven Universe reminds us that this special power is attainable in the real world. And so Steven Universe is a user guide for building relationships, and a lesson that love will come, for viewers young and old, in many forms. What’s important is that we’re open to receive it. They didn’t make ‘em like this when I was a kid. —Chris Plante