Pop culture comes at you fast. It’s nearly impossible to keep up. After all, sleeping is important. So is eating, working and speaking to other humans. There’s never enough time to watch every iconic movie and trending series, to listen to every celebrated album.
The pandemic, however, has shattered our regular routines and forced us to spend most of our time indoors.
So, as a fun activity, Team Lily decided to play pop culture catch-up. Each of us was randomly assigned a colleague — Secret Santa-style — to whom we suggested a TV show, movie or album. The only parameter: The suggestion must have made a significant mark on the pop culture landscape. We encourage you to try this out with your own group of friends; it led to some fascinating conversations.
Below, you’ll find short essays about our reactions to each pick. Click on the series, movie or album title to read more. One of us, who gravitates toward drama-filled reality TV, found herself getting into a “good” show. Our editor managed to stay awake during an entire movie. (For her, this is a big deal.) All of us can now say, “I finally watched it.” (Or in one case, “I finally listened.”)
— Nneka McGuire, Lily multiplatform editor
Suggested by Nneka McGuire to Neema Roshania Patel
When I asked my husband if he would like to watch “Goodfellas” with me on a Saturday night, his reply was not surprising.
“Will you stay awake?” he asked.
Fair question. Only time would tell.
His follow-up: Why the sudden urgency to watch the 1990 mobster movie after he had suggested it, well, more than once?
It’s for journalism, I explained.
I’ve long accepted that my primary pop culture failing is being at least five years behind on watching the most highly acclaimed movies, so it’s only a slight exaggeration to say I was right on track watching “Goodfellas” 30 years after it was first released.
I vaguely knew that it starred Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta as Jimmy Conway, Tommy DeVito and Henry Hill, respectively. I didn’t realize it was based on the true story of Hill, a mobster who was arrested in 1980 and entered the FBI’s witness protection program after 25 years of working with the Lucchese crime family of New York City.
So what better time than a pandemic to check this Martin Scorcsese movie off my very long list of films I should probably watch? (I fell asleep 34 minutes into “The Irishman,” Scorcsese’s latest release.)
Here’s some context: I do have some experience with the mobster genre. I’ve watched “The Godfather'' two whole times and enjoyed it. But if I’m being honest, what compelled me to watch that legendary mob movie were the constant references to it in “You’ve Got Mail,” the 1998 romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, which I have seen a truly embarrassing number of times.
So, now that you know where I am coming from, here’s my verdict.
I wasn’t taken aback by the gore, guns or whacking, but I’ll pass on the incessant misogyny. I would have loved to see Henry’s wife, Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco), built out more. Instead, we witness a transformation from naive wife to an associate in major drug deals without nearly enough character development.
Overall, “Goodfellas” offers a clear-eyed look at the world of gangsters. It’s easy to see the appeal — the money, the respect, the access, the family. But just as obvious is the betrayal, the risk, the fear, the sheer danger. Throughout, “Goodfellas” had me rooting for the “bad guys,” and wondering just how that came to be.
The mark of a good movie, perhaps.
Was my venture life-changing? I’m not sure yet, but I’m pleased to share that I did, indeed, stay awake.
— Neema Roshania Patel, Lily editor
Suggested by Neema Roshania Patel to Lena Felton
Before the pandemic, my television-viewing habits went like this: I’d get home from a long day of work; slip out of a stylish yet decidedly uncomfortable outfit and into my comfiest leggings; and, as I cooked a simple meal for one, I’d turn on the trashiest Netflix show in my queue. In recent months, such examples have included “Love Is Blind” (to keep up with office banter, I told myself), “Singapore Social” (not really sure how I fell into this one) and, on very dire occasions, “The Bachelor” (enough said).
After a day reporting on politics or sexism, all I craved was shutting it all out and delighting in the simplest of pleasures: ridiculous reality show conceits, mindless drama. That’s why it’s generally difficult for me to get into “good” shows like “The Americans” — if I want to think, I open a book or call a friend. If I want to be alone and allow quite literally nothing to occupy my brain, I repeat the above TV-watching steps. (Of course, “The Office,” which I re-watch religiously, does not fall into this category. My love affair with that show is in a league all its own.)
Life looks different now. There’s no longer any need to change out of stylish yet uncomfortable clothes, though I’m still in the process of figuring out my perfect WFH outfit. I’m no longer cooking meals for one, because the guy I recently started dating has roommates; we’ve opted to stay at my place to limit exposure while we all self-quarantine. (Bonus: He usually cooks.) And The Lily’s reporting has changed a lot — politics and sexism are still a part of it, but now our days are filled with coronavirus-related stories, which is exhausting in a whole new way.
So watching “The Americans” for the first time looked different than the usual, too. It felt like an event. I turned it on after dinner. No distractions. If I was going to take the time to watch “good” television, I was going to actually pay attention.
I didn’t know much about the show, save for the fact that it involved Russian spies living in a Washington, D.C., suburb in the 1980s. Well, was I in for it. “The Americans” comes at you fast: Within the first 10 minutes, there’s a sex-for-tips trade, a minutes-long chase scene and a stabbing. Definitely not my usual, but as the two main characters — Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), two KGB spies who were set up in an arranged marriage to pose as a normal American couple — slowly start to reveal themselves, I got pulled into the messiness of it all. When, about halfway through the pilot, an FBI agent moves in across the street, I was sold.
As the world as I know it slips out of my grasp, it feels only right to plunge myself into a world entirely separate from my own, one in the grips of the Cold War, one tinged with nostalgia and dated references. I love seeing a D.C. that looks so different from my own, and imagining a political situation that predated me. And, of course, I love considering how absurd and stressful the life of a spy must be.
I’m now several episodes in. Each is jam-packed with legitimate drama, action and intrigue, yet I have not rushed through the episodes, devouring them like I would with trashy reality TV. Maybe a pandemic is what it took to break my habits, to create this new, more elevated, ritual. “The Americans” is good television. I’m happy to have the time to savor it.
— Lena Felton, Lily multiplatform editor
Suggested by Lena Felton to Rachel Orr
I rarely sit down to listen to an album in its entirety. (As a Spotify devotee, I usually listen to their artfully crafted playlists instead.) But last weekend, I listened to Lana Del Rey’s 2012 album, “Born to Die,” all the way through — it was the first time I’d heard a full album in recent memory. I knew the title track was a music video, so I started with that before delving into the album. I was surprised at how many songs I found myself singing under my breath. If you were to ask me how familiar I was with Lana before this, I would most likely mention the music video she did with Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande for Charlie’s Angels, “Don’t Call Me Angel.” I’m still not sure why I know so many songs off this album. Especially since it was released eight years ago.
For the record, I’m not a music writer. I wasn’t sure how to write a whole essay about an album, so as I was listening, I just wrote down my thoughts: Strong start. Really into the vibe. Wow. Her raspy voice is better than I remembered. Really into it. I wonder if she’s ever smoked cigarettes. Are you just born with a raspy voice? Does she play video games? I wonder if all these songs will feel sad. Is she going through a breakup? Seriously, her voice. How? I wish I could sing. The beginning of “Diet Mountain Dew” reminds me of Portugal. The Man. What does she have against regular Mountain Dew? Oof, “Dark Paradise.” Definitely think it’s a breakup. I wish I could sing. Can you learn to sing as an adult? Why am I listening to such a sad album right now? It’s really good but I feel so sad. I hope her other albums aren’t all so sad. I want to cry. This album is making me feel lonelier than I do already. But her voice. It’s so angelic.
I got through the album in one piece. I didn’t cry, but I did feel sad. I went through the entire spectrum of emotions, but that might be in part because of the current circumstances of self-quarantine. I will definitely listen to an entire album again. It felt like a very novel experience because I don’t do it often.
— Rachel Orr, Lily design director
Suggested by Rachel Orr to Caroline Kitchener
I am often the person who does not understand the meme.
It happens all the time: Someone drops a GIF or photo into a work chat, and laughing emoji ensue on Slack, or maybe a line of exclamation points. “So perfect,” says someone. “OMG love it,” says someone else. I am happy my colleagues are happy, but I simply do not recognize this character everyone seems to know. Are they from a TV show? A movie? A web series? Who can say.
Recently, one particular face started appearing in Team Lily messages more than any other. This man was usually rolling his eyes, wearing the kind of patterned sweater worn to make a statement. He has too much gel in his hair. His name — I’ve since learned — is David Rose (Dan Levy), from the Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek.”
Members of Team Lily have been slowly convincing me that I really need to watch this show. This weekend, I finally did: six episodes, straight through, with a glass of wine and a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese.
At first, I was skeptical. I have an embarrassingly simplistic rubric by which I judge all TV shows: Do I like the characters? Do the majority — or at least a few — seem like good people, with whom I’d like to spend the next free hour of my life? There are plenty of critically acclaimed shows I can’t stand: “Succession,” “Arrested Development,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the beginning of “Breaking Bad” until Jesse Pinkman utterly won me over. I watch TV primarily for comfort. Given the option, I often default to re-watching “Gilmore Girls” or “Parks and Rec.”
All this to say: After the first episode of “Schitt’s Creek,” I was struggling. The main characters, the Rose family, seemed so selfish and mean. The plot centers on a family that loses its billions and is forced to move to a tiny town (Schitt’s Creek) the dad once bought as a gag gift. I really did try to feel bad for these people, as they woke up in a grungy motel, drenched in mysterious brown water — but honestly, it seemed like they probably deserved it.
Things changed for me around the fourth or fifth episode. Suddenly, there were likable characters everywhere. Not the family members (yet), but the people who hail from Schitt’s Creek: Jocelyn (Jennifer Robertson), who teaches middle school and is married to the mayor, or Stevie (Emily Hampshire), who works behind the front desk at the motel. At least at the beginning, those kind, caring humans provide a much-needed foil to the Rose family.
As I keep watching, I’ll be interested to see how the Schitt’s Creek natives make their mark on the family Rose. It’s already starting to happen: In what was probably my favorite scene so far, in Episode 5 of the first season, our friend David invites a bunch of people over to the motel for a game night. When things don’t go his way, he retreats to the other room, pouting alone. Stevie comes to retrieve him, convincing him to abandon his book and his comfortable bed to help her team win a game of drunken charades.
A friendship begins.
I’m liking David more already.
— Caroline Kitchener, Lily staff writer
Suggested by Caroline Kitchener to Maya Sugarman
With the exception of TV series like “Black Mirror” and “Sharp Objects,” I rarely pick creepy content when scrolling through streaming apps. When I went to see “Get Out” and “Parasite,” I had to psych myself up before stepping into the dark theater — and bring along my favorite snacks.
When our staff writer, Caroline Kitchener, picked “Rosemary’s Baby” for me to watch, I was not looking forward to it, especially in this strange time of isolation and uncertainty. Therefore, I chose to watch it during the daytime with my curtains wide open. Sunlight would make this less frightening, right?
Let’s start with the things I didn’t like. I could not stand how women’s roles were portrayed in the film. Caroline did hint at this before I watched, so it wasn’t surprising. It became a fun game to count the stereotypical activities women and men did in the film. Women served food, washed dishes and knitted. Men smoked indoors and shared their opinions with Rosemary about her appearance without hesitation (which also led me to do a deep dive on Mia Farrow’s pixie haircut).
It also made me think more critically about why I don’t typically watch films like these. In addition to being uninterested in horror, I usually don’t have an interest in films made before I was born. (“Rosemary’s Baby” was released in 1968; I was born in 1989.) I sometimes find these films to be unrelatable. Every character in “Rosemary’s Baby” was white. Rosemary makes a joke to her husband about how their neighbors only have three dinner plates that match. I just don’t see myself and the people I care about in films like this.
But “Rosemary’s Baby” is a reminder of how revolutionary films like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us” are in the horror genre. It led me to explore the history of people of color in horror. Next on my watch list will be the documentary “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.”
Here’s what I did like about “Rosemary’s Baby.” The film is about the dismissal of women’s pain and what it’s like to experience gaslighting. It was exhilarating to watch Rosemary jump into the role of detective to figure out what was going on and plan her escape. I love the surrealist aspects of the film, particularly the dreamlike sequences. And I love a good conspiracy narrative.
My takeaway: “Rosemary’s Baby” is problematic, but it was nevertheless an enjoyable watch.
— Maya Sugarman, Lily video editor
Suggested by Maya Sugarman to Nneka McGuire
Nearly a decade ago, sitting in a spacious booth at a downtown Chicago restaurant, I found myself in a spirited conversation about bacon. Two people at the table adored bacon. I, as a vegetarian, didn’t have much to add. The fourth diner said, “I’d date bacon, but I wouldn’t marry it.”
That’s exactly how I feel about “Seinfeld.”
I wanted to love it. (I had seen snippets of episodes here and there in the past, and always told myself I’d give it a real go one day.) I should love it, given my ardent and abiding passion for the other iconic series about nothing created by comedian Larry David, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And yet, after watching two “Seinfeld” episodes — “The Junior Mint” and “The Cheever Letters” — I felt like I’d feel after a just-okay date: decent, but I probably would have rather taken a nap.
In “The Junior Mint,” Jerry Seinfeld (played, you guessed it, by Jerry Seinfeld) and Kramer (Michael Richards) watch a man undergo surgery. That man used to date Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), before she broke up with him for being too hefty. But he has since slimmed down, and Elaine is interested again. There’s a hiccup, though: During the operation, Kramer and Seinfeld accidentally drop a Junior Mint into the man’s surgical incision, without anyone else noticing. When his health declines post-op, the pair fear that the minty candy is to blame.
In “The Cheever Letters,” George (Jason Alexander) must inform his girlfriend’s father that Kramer accidentally burned down their family’s cabin. The only surviving item is a box of explicit love letters from John Cheever, addressed to an unexpected recipient. Meanwhile, Jerry offends Elaine’s assistant and takes pains to fix it, only to upset her further.
Did I find myself laughing at certain jokes? Definitely. Did I appreciate the preposterousness of the situations? Certainly. Did I cherish every iota of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s screen time? You bet I did. (Adore her in “Veep.”) But I never fully got there with “Seinfeld.” And I think I know why: Jerry Seinfeld is just not awful enough.
Hear me out.
For the most part, I like my sitcom characters best when they’re the worst. (Except for “Schitt’s Creek” — my heart bleeds for the lovable Rose family.) In “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the fictionalized Larry David (played, you guessed it, by Larry David) is a misanthrope who never passes up an opportunity to tell someone precisely what they did wrong. In “Veep,” Louis-Dreyfus is a cutthroat, self-absorbed politician who’s quick to blame others. They are highly idiosyncratic, terribly impatient and deeply cynical. Seinfeld makes mistakes and acts out of self-interest, but he still has a sliver of a moral compass. He feels guilty about that fallen Junior Mint. He wants to mend things with Elaine’s employee. His heart isn’t made of gold, but it’s not made of ash, either. If only he were more wretched, I might find him more watchable. It’s strange, I know, but my personal life is filled with lovely people, so I like my TV universe best when it’s populated by baddies.
A friend once described “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as too “cringey.” He couldn’t tune in; it made him uncomfortable. I can’t say for sure, but I’m willing to bet he could stomach “Seinfeld.” I’m just the opposite. In the realm of TV, decent characters I can date, but the jerks I want to marry.
— Nneka McGuire, Lily multiplatform editor