Splendid isolation: Review culture writer picks five stories worth staying in for

  • Monday, April 6, 2020 10:39am
  • Life

A wise man told me, when I was very young, “You will never have ample free time and expendable income simultaneously.”

Regarding my own life, he has been primarily correct (so far, anyway): When I’m flush I’m frantic, and when available I’m bust. Such is life, I suppose.

Except during a pandemic.

Now we find ourselves in the unique (though by no means enviable) position of having some mandatory down time and simultaneously there are fewer things than ever to splurge on (if you’re fortunate to have excess funds at all, that is).

What are we to do?

Fortunately, we live in an age when home entertainment is relatively cheap and better than ever. We can access virtually unlimited movies, shows and books without stepping foot outside. So, in an attempt to keep you from pulling a Jack Torrance on your loved ones — all work and no play and all that — I sympathetically submit the following five stories as my personal picks for engaging escapism.

1. ‘You Must Remember This’ (podcast)

A history/true crime/pop culture podcast dedicated to exploring the secret and forgotten stories of Hollywood’s first century, created, written, produced and narrated by Karina Longworth, “You Must Remember This” lives up the hype.

I was reticent to dive in at first, in light of the abundance of gushing praise I’d heard about the series, but after just one episode I was blown away and became an instant fan.

Currently, the ongoing topic is “Make Me Over,” which explores Hollywood’s intersection with the beauty industry — early weight loss surgeries, the development of waterproof mascara, etc.

Previous topics have included: “The Many Loves of Howard Hughes”; Humphrey Bogart (before and after meeting Lauren Bacall); Mia Farrow’s tumultuous life and career in the ’60s; the experiences of stars during wartime; “Charles Manson’s Hollywood”; “Dead Blondes”; and the strangely intertwined careers of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, among others.

Find it via your preferred podcast sources or visit www.you mustrememberthispodcast.com and settle in for a good time.

2. ‘Jurassic Park’ (film franchise)

It is unbelievable how well the original film holds up. Seriously, give it a watch and I’m confident you will agree. And though none of the subsequent installments in this blockbuster series quite reach those initial primo Spielbergian heights, on the whole the entire franchise is a solid good time for all ages (well, technically 13 and up, if you go by the ratings).

I was around 6 when the first one came out, the perfect age to be both awed and scared, and clearly remember a good year or two when myself and every other kid I knew wanted to be a paleontologist.

The story’s central thesis (just because we can doesn’t mean we should) is only more appropriate today. As is Sam Neill’s character’s healthy skepticism of technology, and its depiction of the danger of what may be wrought by the unchecked will of monied egotists (even when they’ve “spared no expense”).

With theme parks around the world becoming more advanced and interactive (and the sixth film, “Jurassic World: Dominion,” due out next year) now is the perfect time to revisit this modern classic and be glad that as bad as COVID-19 is at least it’s not a hungry dinosaur.

3. ‘Dune’ (book series)

Think of it as “Star Wars” for grownups. A blend of what you love about yesteryear’s galaxy far, far away and the merciless violence and political intrigue of “Game of Thrones.”

Despite being one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time, “Dune” has yet to capture the widespread love and acclaim of those other series, or even “Star Trek” for that matter. But all that may be set to change with the imminent release of the new film adaptation helmed by “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival” director Denis Villeneuve (due out in December). So why not go back and experience the start now before it’s cool?

In 1965 Frank Herbert published the first book. Set thousands of years the future, it tells the story of a feudal interstellar empire, known as the Imperium, run by several Great Houses that oversee various planets, including Arrakis (called Dune), a desert world that is the only source of a special life-extending, mind-enhancing drug called spice. Control of the planet and the lives, loves and conflicts of those involved comprise the bulk of the plot, though that is admittedly a highly simplified summary (I hear you grumbling, fellow “Dune” fans, but I’m working with limited space, you know?).

Herbert published six novels in the series before passing away, after which his son Brian Herbert and writing partner Kevin J. Anderson continued it, with the latest novel, “Navigators of Dune” having come out in 2016.

The first three installments alone — “Dune,” “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune” — are easily some of the greatest science fiction ever written and guaranteed to take you away from reality in the best possible way.

4. ‘The Terror’ (book/TV series)

If you think being forced to isolate yourself at home is bad, feast your eyes on the fate of the doomed sailors of Captain Sir John Franklin’s expedition of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to the Arctic in 1845 to locate the Northwest Passage as imagined by Dan Simmons.

Freezing temperates, lack of food, lead poisoning, scurvy and, if that were not enough, the threat of being devoured by a possibly supernatural creature are the hardships they endure in this amazing novel, penned by the modern master of historic horror, and its subsequent stellar TV adaptation (produced under the watchful eye of executive producer Ridley Scott).

Both the book and series are amply deserving of your attention, as are Simmons’ other weighty time-period novels (I especially enjoyed “Drood,” a fictionalized account of the last five years of Charles Dickens’ life; “The Abominable,” a 1920s-set story of mountain climbing and monsters; and “The Fifth Heart” which sees Sherlock Holmes and Henry James come to America to solve a mysterious death).

Bonus: The second season, “The Terror: Infamy,” deserves more love than it gets, especially for its novel setting — a Japanese American internment camp — and very well realized characters.

5. ‘Murder, She Wrote’ (TV series)

Laugh all you like, cynics, but Angela Lansbury is a treasure and this show is earnest, authentic entertainment of the best sort.

The series famously revolves around Lansbury as Jessica “J.B.” Fletcher, a widowed, retired English teacher who becomes a successful mystery writer and is constantly being pulled into actual murder investigations while trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life in Cabot Cove, a small and charmingly quirky coastal community in Maine.

It is, for me, the TV equivalent of a comfy sweater on a chilly day, a cool glass of beer at the height of summer — comforting and joyful. It is both surprisingly progressive and often head-shakingly of its time, though rarely in an unpleasant way. It is a kind show that depicts a long-gone world that prized logic, manners, and decency. The plots are often genuinely interesting, the central mysteries engaging, and the swathe of guest stars endlessly entertaining.

Lansbury was nominated for 10 Golden Globes (won four) and 12 Emmy Awards. She holds the record for the most Golden Globe nominations and wins for Best Actress in a television drama series and the most Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

The series itself received three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series and was nominated for a Golden Globe in the same category six times, winning twice.

I’ve been working my way through the entire series for a while now with growing appreciation — simplistic and un-ironic — and have got to say it stands firm as one of my all-time favorite TV shows.

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