It’s that time of year again. The time when all the uppity and pretentious critics all hunch over their desks and type out their picks for the best films/shows/books/albums/games/celebrity pratfalls of the last 12 months. As a somewhat uppity and pretentious critic myself (albeit one who doesn’t hunch, for posture purposes), I’m all too eager to join the fray. I’ll be posting my “Best Films of 2018” piece next week, with a “Best TV Shows of 2018” article following shortly after.
But for this week, I’d like to do something I’ve never done before. (Well, almost never.) I spend a lot of time writing about pop culture, celebrating the TV and movies that bring me joy even when everything else brings me pain and despair. But I rarely spend any time celebrating other folks who write about pop-culture, even though a Google search tells me there’s quite a few of them.
So today, I’m going to discuss ten books (yes, actual cover-bound, paper-stuffed, ink-saturated books) about TV and movies, all published in the past year. These books cover a variety of subjects, but all of them fall under the banner of exploring popular culture – its history, its mechanisms, and its influence. If you enjoy watching good TV shows and movies (and, if you frequent this website, I’d be surprised if you didn’t), you may find something on this list worth reading over the holiday.
And if you feel I’ve missed a book or two – I probably have! I can’t read everything, anymore than I can watch everything. But notify me about it, and I‘ll try putting it on my personal reading list for 2019.
(Note: The books are ordered by the last name of the writer. In cases where the book had two writers, I went by the name listed first on the cover. With that out of the way, let’s get to it…)
All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire (Jonathan Abrams)
Despite the show’s devoted (and ever-growing) fanbase, it’s remarkably difficult to find extensive behind-the-scenes information about The Wire. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that David Simon, wanting to keep the show’s realistic feel intact, didn’t fill the DVDs with lots of insider info, or even a blooper reel where Idris Elba forgets his line and ad-libs Robert’s Rules of Order.
But at last, that behind-the-scenes info is finally available, in a comprehensive book that takes a detailed look about the production of one of HBO’s most acclaimed series. Structured as an oral history, featuring detailed interviews with the show’s cast and crew, All the Pieces Matter carries you through the show’s turbulent history, from its Homicide and The Corner origins to the struggle to stay on the air for five little-watched seasons. It’s a complex dissertation of a complex series, and worth reading even for casual fans. (I assume The Wire has a few of those.)
So Say We All: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Battlestar Galactica (Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman)
I began this year praising Gross’ and Altman’s Slayers & Vampires (originally published in fall 2017), a compelling book covering the complete histories of Buffy and Angel. And now we end the year extolling the virtues of So Say We All, the duo’s book covering the history of Battlestar Galactica. All this has happened before, and… you get the idea.
Covering both the nostalgically remembered original series and the widely acclaimed remake (and even devoting page space to the rightfully forgotten Galactica 1980), So Say We All is a remarkable compendium of detailed interviews and information, devoting over 700 pages to the beloved franchise as it walks us through the full development of both the old and new series. The book is a remarkable achievement, and despite prevailing information, I hope this series of “Complete Histories” from Gross and Altman has not yet reached its close.
Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to The X-Files (Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff
Back when they wrote for The AV Club, Handlen and VanDerWerff undertook a project to review every episode of beloved cult series The X-Files. Now they’ve collected those reviews – polished, updated, and more detailed – into a single volume, updated through the most recent, eleventh season (which aired on Fox earlier this year).
Featuring individual dissections of all 218 episodes (plus the two feature films), Monsters of the Week is a comprehensive guide for both longtime fans and series newcomers. The world of The X-Files may never fully make sense, but reading this compendium of information is about as close as I’ve ever gotten to understanding it. (Please don’t tell me that “It’s all so simple!” in the comments. Trust me, I’ve heard that one.)
Robin (Dave Itzkoff)
Perhaps one of the most emotionally resonant books of the year, Robin takes us behind the scenes – and into the mind – of one of the most talented performers of the past half-century. Robin Williams was a versatile and incredibly talented actor, and the interviews compiled by Itzkoff (who began working on the book shortly after Williams’ tragic death) demonstrate the many ways he helped and influenced others, even as they never knew him as well as they could hope.
We may never know the full story of Robin Williams, or how it came to such a shocking end. But this book is a beautiful and affecting tribute to the man, the career, and the legacy.
I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture (AD Jameson)
Despite the title (and the cover photo, a tuxedoed moviegoer in a Darth Vader helmet), Star Wars is not quite the primary focus of this book. Instead, Jameson argues that the release of Star Wars in 1977 sparked a rise in the culture of geekdom, which continued to grow during the 1980s and springboarded into mainstream conversation with the rise of the internet in the late ‘90s.
Jameson discusses the history of the term “geek” – how a once-derogatory label has grown into a badge of honor – and explores why the world of superheroes, sci-fi, and fantasy has taken such a hold on modern culture. A celebration of cult-turned-blockbuster cinema, and just a fun and easy read all around.
Homey Don’t Play That! The Story of In Living Color and the Black Comedy Revolution (David Peisner)
In Living Color may not be remembered as well as some other TV comedies of its era – heck, it’s not even the most popular comedy to debut on Fox in the spring of 1990. (I’ll get to that other show in a minute.) Still, the popular sketch show – which launched the careers of at least a half-dozen future stars – has an intriguing history on its own, and one that would prove more influential down the road than many of its contemporaries.
Peisner’s new book explores this history, beginning with the show’s inception as a sort of African-American SNL, and continuing through its lasting influence on black comedians everywhere. Homey may not play that, but you should definitely read it.
Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television (Joy Press)
There are more women working behind the TV cameras than ever before, but the changes and developments didn’t happen overnight. In her new book, Press charts the journey that celebrated producers like Tina Fey, Shonda Rhimes, Mindy Kaling, and Roseanne Barr (yeah, this book’s already dated) undertook to get where they are today.
The bulk of this book was written well before “#MeToo” topped anyone’s Twitter trends. Yet the book is even more effective in retrospect, realizing what we now know about the seedy underside of Hollywood. And reading through some of these interviews, we can hope for maybe – just maybe – a more respectful and less seedy future.
Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons (Mike Reiss)
Reiss has been a part of The Simpsons since its very first season, and even presided as co-showrunner (with Al Jean) for two of the show’s best years. His new book isn’t so much a history of the show (though there’s some exploration of it origins) as it is a collection of witty musings and anecdotes about his lengthy time working on it.
The book is perhaps the breeziest read on this list – Reiss imbues all his stories with the same acerbic humor he brought to the show, and his commentary is often hilarious. He also sets aside some time to discuss his other works, including The Critic, Queer Duck, and a string of animated film polishes, and includes several mini-chapters to answer burning fan questions. (“Where is Springfield?”) It may not be the deepest memoir, but it’s a ton of fun.
A Mouse Divided: How Ub Iwerks Became Forgotten… and Walt Disney Became Uncle Walt (Jeff Ryan)
As a fan of all things Disney, I was of course immediately drawn to a book about the history of Mickey Mouse. But even beyond my predisposition, A Mouse Divided is a witty and insightful exploration of the story behind not only Mickey, but the two men who invented him.
Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks were the original Simon and Garfunkel, and it’s past time the latter man – without whom Disney Studious would never become the worldwide empire it is today – got his due. A Mouse Divided gives him that due in a taut story about friendship and betrayal… and just might get the Steamboat Willie whistle stuck in your head.
Just the Funny Parts: …And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club (Nell Scovell)
Through she’s perhaps best known as the creator of the Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the sitcom one, not the Satanist one), Scovell’s 30-year writing career has spanned plenty of other shows, including The Simpsons, Newhart, Charmed, and many more. Her new memoir takes us from her humble beginnings, through the multiple writing staffs she’s worked on (often as the only women in the room), up to her role in uncovering the David Letterman sex scandals.
Scovell’s dry, deadpan humor shines through in the book, which underscores how cutthroat the average Hollywood writers’ room is. It’s among the most up-close-and-personal looks into the industry I’ve ever read, and should taper anyone’s expectations that the 300-page screenplay they’ve banged out on their mom’s old computer will ever hit a producer’s desk. A great memoir to culminate a great career.
Happy reading. I’ll be back to reveal my top movies and TV shows of the year next week.