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2022 Media Diet: TV, Movies, Chess, Elden Ring, Podcasts and YouTube
Bad Chinese TV, great American TV, and a YouTube that's slipping?
2022 was just brutal for Chinese entertainment. I watched the first few episodes of every top 10 Douban modern drama, and none of them I can recommend. Hip-hop reality shows are really stale, and no other reality season this year caught my attention.
The Reset, 开端 (2021). An off-brand Black Mirror miniseries featuring two teenagers stuck in a time loop. Entertaining enough to accompany cardio but lost steam midway. 6.7.
The Story of Xing Fu, 幸福到万家 (2022). Its pilot episode surfaced some interesting dynamics around urban-rural norms and gender relations. It's a great example of why I like watching Chinese TV--the values these shows spotlight and promote are very foreign to westerners. Having a major plot point center on tractors destroying leafy greens was pretty novel, and I made it through 14 eps, the longest I could stick with any Chinese drama this year. That said, the plot is predictable, the acting subpar, and the main baddie’s old man toxic masculinity insufferable. 5.8.
Draw the Line, 底线 (2022). A procedural drama that Douban tells me is actually a pretty realistic portrayal of the Chinese legal system, with many of the storylines ripped from the headlines. Problem is, it’s lifeless. 6.1 with potential some upside through only 3 eps.
Wild Bloom, 风吹半夏 (2022). (Through 3 eps) A less good 大江大河. 5.3.
The Eloquent Ji Xiaolan 铁齿铜牙纪晓岚 (2002) (bonus review by A.) An OG “House of Cards” set in the Qing Dynasty, the show follows Emperor Qianlong and his two favorite court officials who hold two opposing political philosophies on a series of adventures and affairs in and out of the Forbidden City. The show’s namesake character, Ji Xiaolan, takes the side of the everyday citizens and is determined to undermine the influence and cult following at the court of He Shen, the most famous corrupt official in Chinese history. I had seen possibly every episode of this four-season series in primary school – on live TV! – along with much of the country, but in hindsight understood very little of the deeper dynamics and social commentary of the show. I love the humor, the acting, and the dialogue that would not pass the censorship bureau today.
Station Eleven (2022). The best piece of contemporary American culture I’ve consumed since Hamilton. It made me appreciate life and loved ones more, and had me bugging my family to read plays together over the holiday. 10.
Andor (2022). Extra heartbreaking to watch during China’s protests. 9.8.
Fleishman Is In Trouble (2022). Very strong so far though I thought the most recent Claire Danes episode was a little much. I expect I’d appreciate it even more if I was older. 9.4.
White Lotus Season 2 (2022). Too trashy for me to want to watch slower than 2.5x. 7.1.
Drive to Survive Season 4 (2022) This show has hit the “Jersey Shore Season 2” reality show curse where the self-awareness of the leads kills the magic captured in the first season. The best moments were with the first-year drivers Tsunuda and Mazepin who don’t yet have media training. 4.3.
Tokyo Vice (2022) 6.1.
Chinese movies were so bad this year that during the White Paper Movement people were literally protesting for better ones!
Sniper 狙击手 (2022). Depressing to see Zhang Yimou reduced to making schlock like this. If this is the limit to how far he can push things, makes me even sadder for the generation of Mainland filmmakers we’re losing. 4.3.
The Myth of Love 爱情神话 (2022) A rare exception to the rule that new Chinese movies have no soul! Lovely multigenerational Shanghai story largely in dialect. 8.6.
Manchurian Tiger 东北虎 (2022). Well acted, shot and scored portrayal of two brothers down on their luck in Dongbei. 8.5.
Waiting Alone 独自等待 (2004) I learned Chinese by watching practically every new release from 2016-2020 with a Douban rating over 6.5. It's a real shame this extremely low budget movie has more life in it than 95% of post-COVID mainland releases. 8.1.
Top Gun: Maverick (2022) It got an 8.0 on Douban! Said one commenter: “I’m speechless: I saw it at Cannes and an American Wolf Warrior movie was everyone’s favorite non-competition movie.” 8.6.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). 9.3.
The Last Duel (2021) The movie was forgettable but the idea of judicial duels isn’t. It led me to stumble upon this fascinating PhD thesis on trials by combat. 5.2
My Man Godfrey (1936) 7.7.
No Man of Her Own (1932) 8.6. I enjoyed a little Carole Lombard binge over the holidays. My favorite movies for exploring ‘cultural codes’ are pre-Code Hollywood productions. They give you a tactile window into a familiar yet still very strange world of America in the 20s and 30s. When American movies get ‘real’ again as the Code breaks down in 70s, the world it portrays is too similar to today’s and loses some of the intrigue that comes with peering further into the past.
Zorba the Greek (1964). Maybe Zorba came off as more likable fifty years ago, but he read as reprehensible to me. 4.7.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) 5.6.
Nope (2022). The themes probably resonate more with people who care more about Hollywood than I do, though that alien was a fun IMAX experience. 6.7.
Chess (Very Old)
In the 3rd grade, I abruptly quit chess after blundering a queen in a tournament to a middle schooler. I was tired and wanted to go home.
After the cheating scandal this past fall, YouTube put chess videos in my algorithm and the ease of the Chess.com app sucked me back in. Over the past three months, I've slowly climbed from 700 to 927 today.
The wonderful thing about chess at my level is that winning in a ten-minute rapid game has nothing to do with whether we’re playing a line I studied. It comes down almost entirely to how calm and attentive I am at the moment. It's far better than meditation for focus training. I’ve also learned just how much my thinking can deteriorate under time constraints. It’s helpful to remember that whatever pressure you are under, your opponent is facing similar dynamics, and whoever can stay calmer will probably win in the end. I don’t really have any interest in spending time doing puzzles, studying tactics or learning openings, but do love a chess game as a way to briefly pause and reset.
Given the dearth of good Chinese TV, YouTube chess content came to accompany my cardio for 2022. This game was my favorite of the year.
Elden Ring (2022)
Perhaps the perfect gaming experience for the pre-VR paradigm. Getting Covid and various flus for what felt like two straight months in the spring left me with two dozen hours to lie in bed and get lost in this world.
One day I went to the Met Museum after a few hours of playtime and thought, "Elden Ring's world is more beautiful and striking than half of these landscapes." There are few experiences in life quite as satisfying as beating an Elden Ring boss on the 7th try. A few times in other real-life contexts in the past year instead of running into a wall trying the same thing over and over again, my 'let's beat a boss creatively' Elden Ring brain turned on and I ended up finding a lateral solution to a problem.
Fromsoft’s triumph is also a testament to the magic that happens when you maintain a singular focus on honing your craft for decades on one thing (in this case, the ‘Soulslike’ genre). Yes, hardware could not handle something as ambitious as Elden Ring in the past, but the gameplay and design heights Elden Ring was able to achieve would not have happened had the developer not already made six games in the genre. 10.0.
Even if you’re not a big videogame person, I’d really encourage you to try to experience the game for yourself. If there’s no chance you will, consider watching this video.
Crusader Kings 3 (2020). After hanging out in Barcelona for a bit, once the Iberian DLC dropped I wanted to win them some virtual independence and gave the game a few hours. The best reward I got out of this game was the ability to appreciate the youtube content creators who specialize in CK3. For instance, this video of an evil pope creating 100 inbred knights to conquer the Holy Land was the hardest I laughed all year. 7.8.
Multiversus (2022). There's something magical about the combination of the flow state that a fighting game requires for fast reaction paired with the adrenaline you get from facing off 1v1. Multiversus brings back college smash vibes with creatively designed characters and a smooth feel. However, the type of 'work' you need to put in to improve at a fighting game is incredibly inane. I'd rather go outside and get shots up. 7.1.
Spotify has finally brought functional search to the podcast space, allowing me to surface shows about niche topics and find guests interviewed by specialized interviewers. It has been cool to watch guests ‘code switch’ from conversations with random generalist interviewers to peers in their industry. In general, I prefer shows where 20% of what the guests discuss goes over my head to shows that bring less detail and specificity to make sure the entire audience understands everything.
A few standout discoveries in this vein include Sculptor's Funeral, where a professional sculptor and art historian based in Florence talks through renaissance classics with a unique perspective only a practicing artist could bring to the discussion. I also liked Turkey Book Talk, a better version of the 'New Books Network' focused on everything Turkey, and The Hero With a Thousand Holds, a martial artist's exploration of different global wrestling traditions.
In the Chinese podcast world, with 不明白播客, NY Times columnist Li Yuan made the show I've been wishing existed for years: a Chinese-language interview-based podcast that grapples with contemporary politics. My go-to mainland Chinese podcasts felt really weird this year as they were unable to grapple with the biggest stories impacting China.
Best of YouTube
Wang Zhian, a former CCTV reporter now making videos freely in Tokyo, is a fantastic watch. For a fun entry point, consider starting your 2023 with his roast of Zhao Lijian. Google’s automated subtitles are really strong even if you can’t understand Chinese.
Andrew Callaghan’s Channel 5 News continues to be the channel on YouTube.
Yiannis Christoulas’ science-based approaches to posture correction and flexibility at helped me address some physical issues that have been bugging me for years. Jeff Nippard’s minimalist lifting plan gave me the right way to lift now that I only have patience for an hour a week.
Video game analysis continues to thrive on YouTube. My favorite this year was an exploration of interpersonal dynamics in survival games highlighted The Isle, a game where players role-play as different species of dinosaurs. User norms actually created an even more interesting social space than the developers themselves built into the game. SkillUp reviews were consistently excellent as well.
I feel like I’ve reached diminishing returns watching high-level YouTube analysis of sports I know well like basketball, but Hassan Minhaj riff on why he wants his kid to be like Giannis (“the immigrant uncle America needs”) was lovely.
Chinese landscape painting videos were also a pleasure this year. I’ve continued working my way through magisterial James Cahill overview of Chinese painting, and particularly enjoyed this lecture by Arnold Chang on how painters born in the late Qing and Republican periods adapted and persevered to the chaos the 20th century threw at them.
This video on an old spinning glass bowl instrument was charming.
However, overall this year I felt like YouTube dropped off a bit. The novelty of certain channels I’ve fallen for in the past has worn off without others stepping up in their wake.
What were your favorites of the year?
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