9 Pop Culture Projects to Entertain and Edify
Take a deep dive into these films, books and TV series
Is it weird that I'm in my 50s and I still kind of miss homework?
I'm not talking about solving for two variables or trying to remember how much carbon is in sugar. I’m talking about the feeling of satisfaction gained from completing an assignment.
About a year ago, I assigned myself a project that just wrapped up: re-reading all 78 of Agatha Christie's mysteries in chronological order and writing about them at chrisandchristie.tumblr.com. And I am so glad I did because it was really fun; it didn't involve the quadratic equation and the effort made me feel like I accomplished something. Plus, it helped me gain insight into things I’ve been thinking about lately, like aging.
I’m not 100 percent sure what my next project will be, but I’ve got lots of ideas, ranging from ones that can be pulled off on a rainy afternoon to those that will take considerably longer. Below are nine assignments you might try — films, books and TV series. What you might take away by doing them, along with your sense of accomplishment, could be: a better understanding of a subject that interests you or a period in history, insight into the human character and the mind-bending, mind-strengthening you get by an immersion in arts. You just may find unexpected connections that extend outside whatever it is you’re watching or reading.
If these goals seem lofty, at the very least you’ll have a good conversation-starter for your next dinner party. See if any suit your taste:
Alfred Hitchcock, from start(ish) to finish — As a full-time film critic, I have seen all of Hitchcock's movies, most many years ago. Having discovered that the Christie mysteries can be appreciated as a history of what it was like to live in England from 1920-75, I'm curious to know if there are any through lines in the movies of Hitchcock, who is almost an exact contemporary of Christie. I'd recommend skipping the early silents, and instead diving in when Hitchcock hits his stride around The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, through Rebecca and Rear Window and Psycho and finally to Family Plot in 1976. That would encompass 38 feature films, nearly all of them gems.
(MORE: 50 Books to (Re-)Read at 50)
A Series of Unfortunate Events — The 13 (of course) books by the pseudonymous Lemony Snicket (real name: Daniel Handler) are both a less ambitious and more rewarding project than you might think. Beginning with The Bad Beginning and ending with The End, each of the clever adventures of a trouble-prone trio of children can be read in a day or so. Although they were initially pitched at young readers, the wordplay and macabre humor are best appreciated by adults. And I'm not just saying this because the youngest orphan — a baby named Sunny Baudelaire who only speaks when it's to reveal vital, one-word clues — is clearly modeled on an infant from Agatha Christie's N or M?
The Before trilogy — Many movie fans succumbed to last year's Boyhood, the more-than-a-decade-in-the-making chronicle of a Texas family, but, for some reason, its director Richard Linklater's other experiment in time and film isn't as popular. Released in 1995, 2004 and 2013, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight are droll, observant looks at the vicissitudes of a relationship that begins by accident. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet for a day in Sunrise and, two movies later, you feel like you know everything there is to know about these complex, relatable characters.
Jane Austen-apalooza — Short of Harper Lee, few great writers are easier to wrap your hands around than Austen, who only completed six novels, all now classics. The 200 years since Austen wrote have taken none of the shine off her wit. You can challenge yourself to see what has and hasn’t changed over the decades in terms of looking for love. If you're hungry for more after you finish the six, you could add some extra credit: Jo Baker's recent Longbourne, which is about the events in Pride and Prejudice as viewed from the perspective of the rarely-mentioned servants, or Stephanie Barron's series of mysteries, beginning with Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, in which Austen pauses between tea parties and balls to solve mysteries.
Red Riding — Released as a trilogy of movies in the United States, this English crime drama will be time very well spent. It was inspired by a series of vicious murders committed in the 1970s and '80s by a person who became known as the Yorkshire Ripper. The somber, riveting films take place in 1974, 1980 and 1983 and feature a festival of fine British actors, including Andrew Garfield (before he became Spider-Man), Rebecca Hall (before she did Iron Man wrong) and Sean Bean. Each can be appreciated on its own, but, together, they are a monumental portrait of a community in crisis.
The Staircase — Sure, the recent docuseries, The Jinx, was good television, but it wasn't as suspenseful or shocking as this cult docuseries, whose following grows exponentially any time a new true-crime show appears and its critics write that it's no Staircase. The shifty subject is Michael Peterson, a novelist who was accused of killing his wife in 2001. Each of its eight taut episodes features at least one revelation that will make you rethink everything you've seen, which feels like both a commentary on our justice system and on the way documentaries are made. (For another compelling true-crime docuseries, check out Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.)
Louis Bayard's Literary Mystery Trilogy — They're three separate books, but they're connected by the literary/historical elements in each of them. Mr. Timothy finds Charles Dickens' Tiny Tim all grown up and solving mysteries in a vividly-recreated Victorian England. The Pale Blue Eye focuses on Edgar Allan Poe before he got all gloomy; he's solving a murder while a plebe at West Point. And The Black Tower is about crook-turned-detective Francois Vidocq, a real-life forerunner of Sherlock Holmes and other heroes of detective fiction.
Moone Boy — The funniest show you've probably never seen. The first season of the Irish sitcom, created by and co-starring genial Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids), aired on PBS but its brevity — just six episodes — blunted its impact. Which is too bad because this un-nostalgic comedy about a boisterous family in the early '90s is consistently laugh-so-hard-you're-crying funny. O'Dowd plays the imaginary friend of the show's protagonist, a nerdy 12-year-old named Martin (gifted young comic actor David Rawle) who is much too smart to get into as much trouble as he does. Season two is available in the U.S. on streaming services and you should keep your eye out for the third and best season when it becomes available (it already aired overseas).
Togetherness — With so many premium-cable and online comedies getting a lot of attention in the last couple years (Girls, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Transparent), this one got a little lost. But you ought to find it. Melanie Lynskey and Mark Duplass play a married couple trying to regain their spark while also playing reluctant hosts to two single people (played by Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis) who may be falling in love, even though they don't want to. It takes a few episodes to find its rhythm (there are only eight half-hours, so you can knock it out in a weekend) but the fifth outing, about an attempt to organize a game of kickball, is one of the most acute portraits of adult relationships in ages.
Chris Hewitt is a movie and theater critic who has written for MSNBC.com, Today.com and The History Channel magazine and whose reviews have run in newspapers across the country.