In Part Two of my year-end wrap-up, I’m looking at the scenes from this year’s television and film debuts that had a particular influence on my writing. Note that like my music list, these aren’t all my favorites of the year — Get Out, Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde and Stranger Things Season 2 are noticeably missing — but these are some of the scenes that really got to the writer in me. It also only includes releases from this year, not discoveries: Otherwise Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Arrival would have probably dominated.
“Feeling Good” from Legion (FX)
Nina Simone’s opening vocals during this part because could only mean one thing: smouldering mischief. Bassnectar’s remix of her classic song has always been a favorite, but watching Noah Hawley’s use of it in his X-Men adaptation — and Aubrey Plaza’s decadent interpretation of it as mind parasite Lenny — showed that a smart writer/showrunner can inject a borderline burlesque number into anything.
Note that the entire season of Legion could be added to this list because of its smart, adventurous take on the superhero origin story. Not only did it carry with it complex female characters, but it also blended the absurd with the expected into a series that left the viewer feeling both confused and intelligent.
“Unfair,” A Handmaid’s Tale Episode 1.6 (Hulu)
Hulu’s series stretches Atwood’s novel to fill a series — and a second, coming in April 2018 — and in doing so indicts even more of today’s culture that reflects its dystopia. When Aunt Lydia asks certain handmaids to return to the van because their injuries and disabilities (most of which are the result of her punishments) aren’t attractive enough to present to the visiting Mexican delegation, it’s a reminder of how even in our fiction we tend to “clean up” our casts unless a particular disability plays a role in the story.
Of course, not every author does this. John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down looks at a teenage girl with an anxiety disorder but focuses on her story, not her mental health; Mad Max: Fury Road features a protagonist with a prosthetic that’s rarely a topic of discussion. But in less than two minutes of television, writers are asked whether they’re as guilty of ableism as Aunt Lydia.
“Paterfamilias,” The Crown Episode 2.9 (Netflix) **SPOILER**
I just saw this last night, but it’s going to stick with me for a while. In Season 2’s ninth episode, we learn a terribly sad backstory about Philip that explains some of his awful parenting skills: The death of his sister. Instead of letting it be a static, quiet moment, however, the show thrusts audiences into young Philip’s thought process as he imagines what it was like for his favorite sister, who was afraid to fly, to give birth mid-flight and then die in a plane crash. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score and a cadre of imagery as 16-year-old Philip explores the chaotic wreckage and hears his sister’s cries in his mind shows how showing, not telling, is critical to the storytelling process.
Wonder Woman (DC/Warner Brothers)
Yep, the whole damn thing. From the “No Man’s Land” sequence listed on multiple best-ofs this year and alleyway fight that shows Diana (Gal Gadot) saving Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from a bullet a la Superman, to the improvised conversation they have about female reproduction and sexual needs and 50-something Robin Wright’s appearance as an Amazon general, every moment of this movie made me excited for a future full of female protagonists who have depth, strength, humor, motivation and compassion — and aren’t described only as “bad-ass.”
Every imagination sequence in The Incredible Jessica James (Netflix)
This year we finally got a full-length feature starring former Daily Show contributor and personal hero Jessica Williams. When it ended, I stood up in my empty apartment and gave a round of applause because it’s feminist, honest, inspiring and makes me want to be a better writer and person in general. But the most standout parts of it are the titular playwright’s imagination sequences of her ex confessing his love for her and then dying in increasingly dramatic ways. As a writer, these fake conversations with real people are all too familiar.
The Disaster Artist (A21)
Despite its ridiculous real-life protagonist, Tommy Wiseau, The Disaster Artist never stoops to make fun of him, but rather portray him as the eccentric dreamer who went from joke to legend by making one of the worst films ever made. When Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) leaves the theater where the audience is cackling at his comically bad romantic drama, Franco’s performance and direction turns a ridiculous character into someone who is more than a multiple-belt-wearing, ambiguously accented, mysteriously wealthy eccentric. Suddenly The Disaster Artist audience is shamed for laughing at Tommy throughout the rest of the picture. It’s emotional manipulation at its best since Gone Girl, but instead of viewers feeling betrayed, they feel as if they’ve done the betraying.
Honorable mention: First trailer for A Wrinkle in Time
I watch this trailer once a week and the chills don’t stop. Madeline D’Engel was past 40 when she finally got this book published. Ava DuVernay translated it with a rich, diverse cast that shows the impenetrable flexibility of strong fiction. Is it March 2018 yet?