March Media Diet: Pandemic edition

April 1, 2020

Here, I’ve listed each book, movie, TV show season, and podcast I finished in March 2020. I’ve only included those works which I’d never completed previously, or which I’d finished so long ago it felt unfamiliar. (See previous Media Diet posts here.)

This is not my complete media diet. I also watched plenty of TV that isn’t worth recapping, notably a bunch of Simpsons and Billy on the Street episodes. I also subscribe to several podcasts which I enjoy, but don’t listen to every episode, and the only one I want to listen to, by default, is The Right Time with Bomani Jones.

I don’t have much loyalty to specific websites, but I do try every day to read Kottke, Dear Prudence on Slate (free entries only), and I check ESPN. I subscribe to several newsletters, but actively look forward to the ones from Will Leitch, Anne Helen Petersen, and the Action Cookbook by Scott Hines.

I was in the midst of quitting Facebook, but then a pandemic hit and I found myself relying on it for contact with people outside my immediate household and also for trying out strategies to convince people they ought to follow health experts’ recommendations for staving off Covid-19. I still maintain that someday I’ll find a way to kick my Twitter habit. Instagram sucks, too, but less than the other ones, probably because I’ve resisted following celebrities.

Let’s get to it.


It turns out that “working from home” while “caring for a five-year-old” who “still has academics to engage with” and also “not driving everyone else in the household crazy” means starting any new television show seasons that my Co-Pilot would also want to see is mostly on hold. (There’s one notable exception, which you can probably guess, my cool cats and kittens…) I’m catching Brooklyn 99 episodes when they come out, but there’s no way the Co-Pilot and I were able to keep up with Better Call Saul, for example. Anyway, I’ve also decided to shift comedy specials and one-off television productions here (mostly 30 for 30 documentaries and such).

Deion’s Double Play

Deion Sanders isn’t as romantic as Bo Jackson because he was clearly much better at football than baseball, and because his careers weren’t cut short by injury. That said, Deion was a legit baseball player and wasn’t rostered as a stunt. This documentary focuses on the time he tried to play in an NFL game and World Series game on the same day, and ends up pretty dull. The best parts feature footage of his college days, which would have made for a much more interesting documentary. Imagine an hour of Deion at Florida State, playing football and baseball, and running track.

Bert Kreischer: The Machine

“Kind of Fratty Put-Upon Everyman Who Is Annoyed by Women” comedy isn’t really my thing — Kreischer is more Larry the Cable Guy than Marc Maron — but this special has its moments, notably the title bit, where he talks about getting involved with the Russian Mafia. (I’m pretty sure I’d heard this story years before the special was recorded, and a Google search suggests he’s been refining it for a while.)

Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias: One Show Fits All

Sadly lacking the energy and momentum of previous specials, this one felt like a cover band performance, right down to the call-and-response recitation of bits from previous specials tacked on the end.

Tiger King

The best analogy for the Tiger King experience is that it’s like the WWE Attitude Era crunched down into a little more than six hours of craziness. Moreover, the craziness kind of sneaks up on you and keeps ratcheting up through the first five hours. I.E.: Just when you think you’ve peaked, DX tries to invade WCW, then Mankind makes a sock puppet a key part of his character, then Austin drives a beer truck to the ring, and along the way you realize that you were so focused on the most outlandish plot points that you barely noticed the Undertaker tried to embalm Austin alive. That is, as you’re all focused on the different ways Joe Exotic is obsessed with Carole Baskin, you missed that a guy nonchalantly filled a gas tank in a shed full of gas tanks while smoking a cigarette, and that Joe hired his gubernatorial campaign manager based on how much he liked talking to him at the gun counter at Walmart.

To be clear, I think these people are mostly sincere and they’re not working angles like pro wrestlers, but Tiger King treats their feuds like pro wrestling, as all spectacle with precious little substantive reflection or investigation. The entire third episode, in which Carole Baskin’s enemies are allowed to air their suspicions she had her husband killed, is deeply weird, even for this show, if only because the most likely answer to what happened to Don Lewis is he went off by himself, suffered a fatal accident, and no one has come across the body.

But as spectacle, it’s top notch. As presented, virtually every person who appears on camera thinks they’re smarter than they are, which is basically the Jerry Springer formula. Don’t expect anything other than to gawk.

The one thing that everyone definitely should take away from this is that there are a lot of rinky-dink “zoos” out there that mistreat their animals, even if everyone involved is well-meaning, and that mistreatment can stem from keeping those animals despite knowing you can’t give them adequate food and shelter. Furthermore, for what it’s worth, PETA, which is about as hardline an organization as you’ll find on such matters, says it’s worked with Big Cat Rescue and notes BCR is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Joe Exotic’s zoo isn’t around anymore, but one might note that Doc Antle’s operation is not on the Association of Zoo and Aquariums accredited institutions list.


The Conversation

(Roger Ebert wrote two reviews, one in 1974 and one in 2001. I think I’m going to link to the Ebert movie reviews whenever possible from here on out because he was both insightful and lyrical in his reviews, a rare combination, even if he did make numerous factual errors, like in his 2001 review linked here, when he refers to Harry Caul’s landlord as a man, even though Caul refers to the landlord as “Ms. Evangelista” on the phone.)

This is a great reminder of how a movie can build high stakes and thrill without big special effects, explicit geopolitical high stakes, and so on.

In some senses, it’s a relic of its time because so much of the surveillance in the film involves surreptitiously captured audio, never mind that it’s an adult drama with little in the way of whiz-bang action, romance, or big emotional moments. Today’s popular surveillance worries tend to focus on the things we “agree” to share without full understanding of what it is we’re sharing. However, the core conflict of the movie still stands: If you spy on someone’s private life, how confident are you, really, that you’ll properly understand what you uncover, and that what you do with that information will be morally defensible?

The Parent Trap (1998)

Ebert review

Lindsay Lohan was a GREAT child actor, right up there with Haley Joel Osment. I feel like I should start with that, because this movie is less Nancy Myers-ish than the movies she would direct later, but it still has her signature element of “rich white people making terrible decisions and getting deeply frustrated despite paying virtually no price for their poor choices”, in a way that, somehow, is more pronounced than in the 1961 version. So, yes, the plot is as ludicrous as it was in the 60s, but the production value is high, Lohan is an effervescent star on the rise, and Dennis Quaid is at peak Dad Hot. What more do you need?


Ebert review from 1990, and from 2002

Somehow, I’d never seen this movie before, though I was well-acquainted with most of its broader contributions to the culture. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t think much of it — the things that should have been exhilaratingly fresh simply weren’t because I’d already seen them 10,000 times before, or I’d seen references to them. Aside from the famous tracking shot at the Copa, I didn’t even get much sense of style, which may be a compliment, or not, but I’m feeling like it’s not because I remember feeling completely engrossed with, for example, The Departed in a way that I didn’t with this one.


I’m not a superhero movie guy. I love Spider-verse (like everyone does), Black Panther is pretty good, and the Batman movies Nolan directed are solid, but I haven’t seen the majority of MCU movies, and while I enjoyed Wonder Woman, I waited until I was on a long flight to watch it. At this point, Star Wars is the one franchise I actively aim to see in theaters.

All that’s to say that Deadpool is funny, but, as someone who isn’t invested in the genre as a pillar of my identity, I’m guessing there are layers that resonate with other people to which I don’t have access, but at the same time, there’s plenty of “guy getting a wedgie” and fourth-wall breaking to satisfy even the non-superhero movie fans.

East of Eden

I haven’t read the Steinbeck novel, and I understand the film covers only a small sliver of the events of the book, but nonetheless I suspect there must be a whole lot of nuance and detail that simply didn’t translate into the screenplay, because while this isn’t exactly a disaster, it’s remarkably unsubtle. Cal and Aron, sons of Adam… one is The Good Son and one is The Bad Son. I mean, come on.

As for the performers, Julie Harris is good enough even though she has the bearing of a stage actor on screen, with the vocal affect to match. James Dean is operating on a different level from everyone else — though your mileage may vary on how “good” that is. The floppy flailing and wounded-bird looks worked for me and suggested an actor fully committing to what today we’d call the drama. Just from this performance, it makes sense that Dean would be so influential after dying so young, since he has an energy and presence none of the other actors can match.

Cool Runnings

Ebert review

When I saw this in theaters, my family went to a showing so packed we ended up in the second row and watched the movie while craning our necks upward. Viewing as an adult didn’t add much more to the experience, except that at some point, it seems, the filmmakers realized they couldn’t pretend racism didn’t exist, but that they also very much didn’t want to have anyone say the words “racist” or “racism,” instead including the line, “We’re different. People are always afraid of what’s different.”

Mary Poppins Returns

I’m 100% serious that Emily Blunt deserved every award for this movie. Olivia Colman winning the Oscar for The Favourite is understandable and practically perfect in every way, but Blunt makes magic, tweaking the Julie Andrews interpretation (Best Actress, 1965) so that Mary seems like a hardass to the children, but then winks at them rather than shifting gears quite so suddenly. Mary knows, and the children know, that the hardass routine is exactly that, a routine, but there’s still truth and value in the discipline. Oh, and she can sing and dance, too.

The Game Plan

A mostly formulaic Egomaniacal Man Discovers Caring for Others Matters movie is elevated by Dwayne Johnson showing early on that he had the magnetism to be the biggest movie star in the world.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

If you haven’t seen it, you might not realize this isn’t a Fred Rogers biopic, that it’s a movie about a fictional journalist finding it in his heart to commit to love because he interviewed Mr. Rogers and the television personality wouldn’t stop trying to help him, and that it features some truly odd formal choices, like a dream sequence in which Mr. Rogers ambushes the journalist on his show. I’m a big Matthew Rhys fan (The Americans!), and he does fine work here as the journalist, but Tom Hanks makes the most of a well-written part for Rogers. There are seemingly a thousand subtleties to the part that build up to a masterful final 30 seconds before the credits. The movie is PG — could you make a PG-13 or R-rated Mr. Rogers movie? — but it’s a LOT darker than that.

Hairspray (2007)

Ebert review

It’s really hard to make a movie that exudes this much energy without wearing down the viewer or showing flop sweat, but somehow this movie, which feels like it has three or four 10-minute all-cast up-tempo song-and-dance numbers (I think only one is actually that long), makes it happen with a bright smile. I only cringed a once at the “we should fight racism” earnestness and once at the… shall we say… problematic treatment of Tracy’s mother. In the end, though, this is a tremendously watchable movie musical that doesn’t feel like it was translated from the stage.

Among the adults, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Allison Janney, and Queen Latifah are perfectly fine, and James Marsden remains one of those guys who could have been Ryan Gosling in a parallel universe. Among the kids, Amanda Bynes is obviously the weak link, but it’s interesting that Zac Efron and Brittany Snow (who landed in the Pitch Perfect franchise) have gone on to cinematic success while the two actors who outshine everyone else, Nikki Blonsky as Tracy and Elijah Kelley as Seaweed, have been on television and had scattered film appearances since. Also, the girl who played Inez, Taylor Parks, went on to have a hugely successful music career, with songwriting credits including “Thank U Next” by Ariana Grande and “High Hopes” by Panic! At the Disco, among many other songs.

Freaky Friday

Ebert review
As noted earlier, Lindsay Lohan was an amazing child actor. It’s kind of amazing to realize that The Parent Trap was her first feature, followed by Freaky Friday, released five years later, and she starred in both and held her own with every adult in both. Mean Girls would be released only a year after Freaky Friday (with Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen coming out that same year). I haven’t seen Confessions, but she was great in the other three movies, all of which are solid (Parent Trap) to good (Freaky Friday) to classic (Mean Girls).

It’s unfortunate she ended up becoming a tabloid punching bag, because she had (has?) exceptional talent, and Freaky Friday shows it off. Jamie Lee Curtis gets to have a lot of fun pretending to be a teenager, but Lohan is the one with the harder role, believably carrying herself and talking like a 45-year-old woman body-switched into a teenager — and she pulls it off!

Muppets Most Wanted

I’d heard it was bad, but didn’t realize how bad until they did a Kermit dance number using computer trickery instead of practical effects, a huge Muppet no-no. And then they did it again.

Spies in Disguise

Let it be noted this isn’t as good as the better Pixar or Disney movies, but it’s certainly better than any of the dreck Illumination puts out (eg: Minions). Will Smith as a suave super spy who gets transformed into a pigeon may sound like a recipe for dullness, but the filmmakers took it in a surprising and refreshing direction, even though, in the end, they didn’t fully commit to the gambit. (Spoiler alert!) Essentially, this is an anti-violence tale that seeks to undermine our notions of “what good guys do”. Smith’s character openly states that he needs firepower to fight bad guys, and the bad guy plainly says that Smith, and the government he represents, nearly killed him while destroying his people! That’s not something you expect to see in a children’s movie. However, while the good guys learn that they can use less-violent methods to defeat their adversaries, they don’t question their government’s policies. Now that would be a brave movie.

James and the Giant Peach

Ebert review

Fairly or not, this movie will always pale in comparison to The Nightmare Before Christmas. In this viewing, I figured the live action sequences aimed for a dreamlike quality, but instead jerked me into noticing they were on soundstages. The best part of the movie is that James’s aunts, played by Joanna Lumley(!) and Miriam Margolyes suggest true danger and malice. They’re not just rotten people, but dangerous in the way that Dahl wrote many nasty adults.


Ebert review

Above, I praised Lindsay Lohan’s work as a child actor, and Shia LaBoeuf deserved that kind of attention for Holes. I haven’t read the book, and I’ve read Louis Sachar’s goofier children’s literature, so I wasn’t prepared for how dark this PG Disney movie would get. For those of you unfamiliar with it, a teenaged boy named Stanley (LaBoeuf) is convicted of a theft he didn’t commit and sent to an isolated work camp in the middle of a massive dried-up lake bed where the young prisoners are tasked with each digging a five-by-five-foot hole each day.

Where Stanley’s home life is depicted in a sort of Roald Dahl vein — Stanley’s father (Henry Winkler) is trying to invent a solution for shoe foot odor and has hung stinky shoes throughout their cramped apartment — life at the camp is presented more like Cool Hand Luke than anything else.

The adults there, played by Jon Voight, Tim Blake Nelson, and Sigourney Weaver, are malicious people, and their portrayals are diluted with only the slightest bit of slapstick, which at first reads as Disney-fying the boys’ fear, but by the end reads as instability and the adults’ attempts to keep their whole project on the rails. There are also a bunch of flashbacks in which a bandit (Patricia Arquette) has her own arc alongside a kindly handyman (Dulé Hill), that eventually ties in to Stanley’s story.
And all this works because Sachar’s screenplay and LaBoeuf’s work under Andrew Davis’s direction make Stanley a real teenager, one who has convictions, who loves his family, who sees the camp’s injustices and indignities, and yet also yearns to fit in and gets into scraps and adjusts his image accordingly.

Again, Disney got a director best known for big budget thrillers, a group of highly-respected character actors (at least seven Academy Award nominations and one win among them, by my count, plus a host of Emmy nominations), and a child star of a Disney Channel sitcom together to make a drama set in a corrupt prison that flashes back to a Wild West lynching, and it’s great.


It had been perhaps 25 years since I’d watched Penny Marshall’s movie about a boy named Josh who wishes to grow up and the next morning finds himself in an adult’s body, played by Tom Hanks. The bulk of it plumbs comedy from Josh acting exactly like a good-hearted but snotty and naive 12-year-old while all the nearby adults regard him as either a two-faced fraud or a sweet free spirit. Thankfully, none of them hear about the New Jersey boy with the same name who went missing, no one in a position of authority determines Josh’s obvious immaturity is unprofessional or a detriment to the corporate operations of the toy company where he lands a job, and law enforcement does a terrible job investigating Josh’s disappearance, especially given that Josh’s mother saw the adult Josh in the house and mistook him for an intruder.

Furthermore, I’m not sure the movie sticks the landing in its final third, when Josh develops a romantic relationship with a colleague (Elizabeth Perkins) and experiences angst over deciding whether he even wants to try to reverse his curse. I don’t know what the right path to Josh’s final decision and resolution for his girlfriend should have been, but her final scenes ring a bit hollow, as it feels like she accepts the truth a bit too readily.

Really, though, most of the fun in this movie comes from Tom Hanks being brilliant at what he does. He’s got Young Teenage Boy down pat, from the way he sits in a chair, to the way he runs across a street, to how he looks embarrassed when a woman asks him a direct question, and more.

Notting Hill

Ebert review

Some people like Richard Curtis movies (he wrote, but didn’t direct, this one), and other people don’t, often for the same reasons. Like Nora Ephron, his characters use the word “love” loosely and freely, telling their friends that they’re in love with such and such a person, telling the objects of their affections that they wish to be loved, et cetera, such that their banter takes on a deeply exotic quality despite being in American or British English. Also, Ephron’s better romantic comedies (When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle) all star Meg Ryan, just as Curtis’s best-known romantic comedies (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, this one) all star Hugh Grant, so your mileage may vary based on how you feel about those particular stars — even though, of course, those movies’ success and the stars’ success are intertwined.

Notting Hill has a workable premise and a perfectly-cast co-star in Julia Roberts, but Grant probably wasn’t the right actor for this movie. I’m not going to pretend to know if they could’ve slotted in another romantic lead, even a great choice, and the movie would have been made, but the choices Grant makes and the way he’s styled here make him so dashing that of course lots of women would be attracted to him, even the world’s biggest movie star, Julia Ro— I mean, Anna Scott. Grant’s character is written as if he can’t quite believe all this is happening to him, which is fine, but he’s also written as if finding a partner is some kind of Sisyphean ordeal. Why? He’s nice! He wears pressed trousers and shirts with the collar open to the middle of his chest! And he looks like a carefully-groomed Hugh Grant!

No. What this movie needed was someone who could play not-obviously-handsome. Someone who could look dashing in a tux at a movie premiere (after he’d been attended to by professional stylists), but for the bulk of the movie would be a regular guy with a spark that Anna notices. He’d be a guy who wore jeans and sneakers to work, but dressed it up with a cardigan and cool t-shirts. He also wouldn’t shave every day. The most bankable British actor to fit that description in 1999 was probably Ewan McGregor (Would a Scottish accent work? Does he do English accents? He sort of did an Alec Guinness impression in Star Wars, right?).

Maybe I’m being too harsh, given that, again, Julia Roberts is perfect in this movie, and that goes a long way. Maybe I just have a distaste for movies in which Grant is the dithering good guy, because I think he’s never been better than he was in Paddington 2 as a handsome and devious asshole, and the next-best role I’ve seen him play was in About A Boy as a handsome and oblivious asshole.
Enough time has passed that the obvious thing to do is remake this with Emma Watson as the big movie star falling for some guy who runs a boutique sandwich shop in Long Island City, probably played by Donald Glover or Steven Yeun. If you want to gender-switch it, have Henry Golding fall in love with Gina Rodriguez or (dare to dream) Saoirse Ronan.


I tried to listen to Ahead of Their Time, from FiveThirtyEight, but gave up when the first three episodes I heard had widely varying quality. I think there’s less than an hour of audio left, but I don’t have the will. Also, I’d normally listen to podcasts during my commute, but with no commute, there’s no opportunity for extended solo listening time.


True Grit • Charles Portis

A masterpiece. Don’t call Mattie Ross “feisty” or “spunky” or anything like that; she’s a badass, and adult Mattie knows it. I can understand why people would want to make a movie out of this story because, on the face of it, it seems cinematic, with all sorts of snappy dialogue and action set pieces. (I’ve seen the Coen brothers’ film adaptation, but not the one with John Wayne.) However, as I imagined how I might try to adapt it, I realized the things I took away from the novel were about memory, storytelling, and determining how someone is trustworthy. The act of telling the story is essential to the novel’s power, and that’s something that’s hard to express in film if you don’t have competing narratives, a la Rashomon or The Social Network.

Little Fires Everywhere • Celeste Ng

(Minor spoiler-y discussion, I guess?) I’ll let Celeste Ng, herself, state the driving force of this wonderful novel. For a recent profile, in reference to both her book and the recently-released Hulu TV series, she said, “Many of us are predisposed to give the benefit of the doubt to well-intentioned white ladies. And they’re used to getting that benefit of the doubt.” I’m of a political stripe that I found the Richardson parents deeply unlikable people nearly from the start, but I suspect there are a whole lot of (mostly white) readers who wouldn’t spot the subtle disdain for the Richardsons in their characterizations, and who, by the tempestuous ending, might find themselves wondering how Ng performed the magic trick of turning Mrs. Richardson into such an ugly villain.

Everything I Never Told You • Celeste Ng

Though not nearly as fully-realized as Little Fires Everywhere, this is still a compelling period piece about a family with a Chinese father and white mother living in Ohio in the late 1970s. I don’t want to assign linear progression to Ng’s published work, but reading this after Little Fires Everywhere made me feel like I could see burgeoning talent and a special command of language, even as certain plot turns and psychological developments missed their marks by millimeters. You don’t have to be an Ng completist to enjoy this, but I wouldn’t necessarily press it into anyone’s hands and urge them to read it the way I would Little Fires Everywhere for some folks.

Commonwealth • Ann Patchett

If I told you about a novel that follows a blended family of six — two children from one family, four from another, plus their parents, including the divorced ones who then remarried — over the course of more than 50 years, how long would you think this book is? Commonwealth is at its best when focused on one of the girls, Franny, and her relationships with her full sister, one of her step-brothers, her famous novelist boyfriend, and her father. There are chapters that focus on other siblings, more or less, and other parents, but those all feel half-baked in comparison to Franny, and so, after about 340 pages, when the novel ended, I was disappointed that either those segments about the other family members hadn’t been more fully fleshed out, or that the novel hadn’t simply focused on Franny and explicitly treated everyone else as supporting characters. I could have stuck with these families for another 200-300 pages, enough space so that each of them could breathe and bloom. I could have stuck with Franny for 400 pages, just by herself. Instead, I got what felt like 200 pages of Franny and 140 pages of everyone else seemingly designed to help me understand Franny’s universe. Barring that, though I appreciate the ambition to tell a story about the sprawling experience of a single American family, a lot of it, from the Swiss meditation retreat to the step-sister with the Guinean immigrant husband scraping by in a New York walkup, was a stretch and easily could have been cut, with the best beats preserved in a more focused story about Franny.

(Photo: "Big cat" by Becker1999, taken at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)