The pop culture that influenced our columnists this year

The Opinions staff asked our columnists to share one book, TV show, movie, album, video game or other piece of culture, broadly defined, that had a big impact on them this year. Here’s what they recommended, and why.

Games & Sports
Shows & Films
Music & Art

Games & Sports

“Beat Saber”

By Beat Games

I’m not sure mere words can do justice to this popular virtual-reality game for the Oculus Quest. You use two glowing sabers to smash bricks as they fly toward you to the beat of your chosen song. The cascading rhythm of the projectiles makes you feel as if you’ve climbed into the song and are exploring its architecture. It’s captivating. Downloadable modifications allow you to choose from a huge library of tunes you know and love, and at the higher levels, it’s a pretty decent workout.

“Super Smash Bros. Ultimate”

By Nintendo

Contributing columnist

I needed something to sink a whole bunch of hours into at the height of the pandemic. “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” accomplished that for me, and it seems I climbed aboard at the perfect time: The fighting game was in the process of adding a legendary spate of characters, including Sephiroth from the “Final Fantasy” franchise and Sora from “Kingdom Hearts.” I got to watch gamers react to Smash creator Masahiro Sakurai do the impossible with each new fighter: He got a “Tekken” character into “Smash”? He sure did. As multiple media companies rush to make their own platform fighting games (just wait for Arya Stark to take on Bugs Bunny), it makes me feel even luckier to have been playing “Smash” at the height of its influence.

Sumo wrestling

On first glance, Japan’s national sport seems unappealing — enormous, nearly naked men run into each other on a clay mound while a referee yells at them. In fact, the sport requires intensive training, technique, even grace. Each wrestler’s style is different, and the pace is fast. There’s a honbasho — major tournament — every other month. Each runs for 15 days, and you can watch exciting half-hour recaps of all the major bouts (in English) on NHK World daily. These helped get me and my wife through the lockdown.

Shows & Films

“The Morning Show”

On Apple TV Plus

Contributing columnist

Nuance is often in short supply when it comes to discussing hot-button moral issues. The second season of “The Morning Show” on Apple TV Plus continued its theme of examining the #MeToo movement and cancel culture by eschewing the smug certainty too often in evidence on those topics. From confession to denial to defiance to suicide, the show’s characters responded in different ways to various acts, accusations and insinuations. Under the microscope were issues of flirtation vs. harassment, consent vs. assault, an innocent slip of the tongue vs. a cancel-worthy slur, and the professional risk of maintaining a friendship with a banished colleague. “The Morning Show” poses such questions without always providing definitive answers — and that alone makes it refreshing.


By Michael Sarnoski

Contributing columnist

My favorite movie so far this year is “Pig,” in large part because it features my favorite performance in a movie so far this year. Nicolas Cage’s quiet, soulful turn as a chef living in the woods near Portland, Ore., who has fled the hustle and bustle of modernity was not at all what I expected from a film that had been advertised a bit like “Taken” meets “Babe.” But Cage puts together a beautiful portrait of an artist who understands the importance of excellence and the ways it can both shape, and deform, a community.


On Hulu

Danny Strong is a fine actor (“Billions,” “Gilmore Girls”) and collaborator (“Empire”). But in my opinion, his greatest talent is his ability to bring complicated events to crystal clarity on the screen (“Recount”). America’s opioid epidemic, which killed more than 100,000 people in the 12-month period ending in April, is a fiendishly complex story, involving greed, corruption, good intentions, bad intentions, desperation, gullibility and — at the bottom — the many pains of being human. Strong unfolds the story brilliantly in this serial drama streaming on Hulu; the marvelous Michael Keaton has top billing, but Strong’s script is the biggest star.

Travels With My Father”

Starring Jack Whitehall

Contributing columnist

This Netflix travel series stars British stand-up Jack Whitehall; his retired talent agent father, Michael; Michael’s wife, Hilary Whitehall — and their life-size doll, Winston. Jack is a millennial brat. Michael constantly (and coarsely) tells people to get lost. Hilary seems alternately wise and ditsy. Winston is creepy. But it’s hilarious, especially when Winston pops up in costume, and it makes you value the bond between parent and child.

“Summer of Soul”

By Questlove

I have had several cultural high points this year, but the one that tops them all was falling headfirst into this Questlove-directed documentary. The film chronicles the six weeks during the summer of 1969 when more than 300,000 people flocked to the Harlem Cultural Festival to see a lineup for the ages: Mavis Staples, Nina Simone, B.B. King, the 5th Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder and so many more. It happened the same summer as Woodstock and, also like the event upstate, was captured in its entirety by an ambitious filmmaker. Woodstock became a generation-defining event, but producers were less interested in Hal Tulchin’s footage of the Harlem festival. It sat in a basement for 50 years.

I watched the documentary at home as part of the virtual Sundance Film Festival, and my whole family sang and danced down memory lane. It reminded us of the power of live music, the beauty of communal celebration and the ease with which cultural gatekeepers could silence something so beautiful. “Summer of Soul” captured the music and the mayhem of ’69 in a film that speaks powerfully to the tumult of today.

“Downton Abbey” reruns

On Peacock and PBS Passport

Re-watching a favorite show is standard couch-potato behavior, but I’ve found revisiting “Downton Abbey” to be surprisingly enriching precisely because of the strange moment we find ourselves in. The show’s depiction of a major global crisis (World War I) unraveling old societal hierarchies helps one appreciate how the coronavirus pandemic might have a similar impact. I’ve been particularly struck by the characters’ struggle to comprehend the evolving moment they’re living through, given that they are trapped in their own time. It ought to encourage some humility about our own ability to grasp the long-term significance of the upheavals we’re witnessing now.


On Netflix

Contributing columnist

Yes, this is an animated children’s series about an intrepid team of underwater adventurers. My 4-year-old son loves it — and my husband and I do, too. It’s heartening to be transported to a world in which everyone is united in doing the right thing for one another. Captain Barnacles the polar bear is as grounded as they come, and I learn a lot from the team’s medical officer, Peso Penguin. The best part? Empathy, courage and ingenuity always save the day.



My guilty pleasure this year has been HBO’s family dynasty drama. It’s “guilty” because the show is hyper-dramatic — outlandish plot, stereotypical characters, over-the-top sets. And yet — and yet! — it is so, so good! The writing, direction and acting are all brilliant, and the result is utterly compelling television.

Music & Art

“Red (Taylor’s Version)”

By Taylor Swift

I don’t identify as a Swiftie, but Taylor Swift’s rerecording of her 2012 album “Red” may be my favorite cultural product of this year. With a total of four albums released since 2020 (“Folklore,” “Evermore,” “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” and this one), Swift had the most productive pandemic of basically anyone. This album is a sonic time machine to that moment in life when you really felt everything — but with the welcome clarity that comes with a little distance.

The production is excellent, and, of course, the record contains the 10-minute version of fan favorite song “All Too Well,” which, testament to Swift’s skill as a storyteller, remains compelling even at a frankly ridiculous length. In the rerecording, you feel Swift retaking control both of her own past heartache and of her own artistic product in the face of an industry that would rather have her under its thumb.

The Hung Liu retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery

Museums closed for much of 2020 because of the pandemic, so it felt wonderful to return to my favorite places in 2021. I was particularly inspired by a temporary exhibit highlighting the work of Chinese American artist Hung Liu. It’s the first time the National Portrait Gallery has honored an Asian woman with a solo exhibition.

Liu was a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, separated from her father as a child and sent to reeducation camps. She escaped in 1984 to the United States, where she produced vivid paintings that don’t just capture her own experience but give face to poor and downtrodden women who are too often forgotten.

The retrospective opened in late August amid the fall of Afghanistan. Her art implicitly makes the case for welcoming as many refugees as possible, especially women and girls. Sadly, Liu died of pancreatic cancer just weeks before the opening, at age 73.


“Klara and the Sun”

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Contributing columnist

Normally, I wouldn’t rush to read a dystopian tale from a robot’s perspective, but this is Kazuo Ishiguro we’re talking about, and the Nobel-winning novelist does not disappoint. Ishiguro conjures a near-future where parents considering genetic engineering for their children have to make excruciating choices between survival and social standing and where artificial intelligence becomes the only safe alternative to actual friendship. What he’s really after is a deeper question about humanness in an automated society: What is it that makes us unique and gives us purpose? It’s a beautifully told story that consumed me while I was reading and haunted me for many weeks after.

“The Republic for Which It Stands”

By Richard White

Data analyst and political columnist

I’ve had Richard White’s history of the Gilded Age on my list for a long time, but I finally got around to reading it over the summer. Honestly, it’s an eerie read. The book covers politics and culture from 1865 to 1896, and so much of it parallels what we’re going through today. If you’re looking for an escape from our political hellscape, I don’t recommend this book. But if you could find comfort in knowing the United States has survived similar crises, I’d grab a copy.

“The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth”

By Kristin Henning

Contributing columnist

Kristin Henning’s exhaustively researched, deeply compassionate book about our country’s refusal to let kids be kids hits hard in a year many of us saw our children go back to thriving at police-free public high schools. Watching the spark reemerge in my son drove home what a gift “normal” teenage life is for a kid. Reading Henning’s book drove home what a moral failure it is that so many youths in our country don’t have this same opportunity — partly for reasons of economics, but more so because of race.

When White kids make bad choices, Henning documents, they get nurtured and learn and grow as a result. Black children are much more likely to get suspended, arrested and locked up. Then getting stuck in the “system,” she writes, compromises their sense of self and their options in life long before they become adults.

Henning’s book shows with heartbreaking clarity that we’re making it too hard for children. We can all do more to change that.

“The Deeper the Roots”

By Michael Tubbs

Think of California, and Stockton doesn’t come to mind. As a reporter, I would mostly go to the Central Valley city to cover crime stories. That changed when Michael Tubbs became mayor. The son of a single mom and an incarcerated father, Tubbs had gone to Stanford University, interned in the Obama White House and returned to help his hometown. He tells his story in this impressive new memoir. I last saw Tubbs in January 2020, before the pandemic, at a celebration for a new project meant to introduce Stockton public school kids to organic food. Tubbs lost reelection last November. I haven’t returned.

“Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California”

By Matthew Specktor

In Los Angeles, the sun shines, the winds blow and the city’s cinematic past can feel simultaneously very far away and close at hand. This semi-dreamy yet very prosaic reality gives Matthew Specktor’s memoir of his middle-age confrontation with both personal and career failure its center. Specktor tells his story, but he also explores the lives of a number of Hollywood figures who experienced success and then fade-outs. Yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald is here (Specktor, at one time, rented an apartment across the street from where he died), but so, too, are Carole Eastman, Tuesday Weld, Eleanor Perry, Warren Zevon, Hal Ashby, Michael Cimino and yet others. The book is revealing, haunting, thought-provoking and compulsively, compulsively readable.

The most touching piece of culture I came across this year is a little book first published in 2009 by the great illustrator R.O. Blechmen. “Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator” compiles written exchanges between Blechmen and an imaginary young artist. It’s a wonderful read for anyone contemplating a creative career. The also-great Ann Telnaes pointed me to Blechmen’s work, and I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.

“Homeland Elegies”

By Ayad Akhtar

There’s a lot to recommend this exploration of immigrant identity by accomplished Pakistani American playwright Ayad Akhtar for, from its prose to its pace to its political potency. Yet what really struck me was this: Many works of art have approached the subject of Donald Trump obliquely. (He destroyed comedy, after all, so why not assume he’ll destroy fiction, too?) This opus confronts the matter as explicitly as necessary to really reckon with the moment.

“The Lincoln Highway”

By Amor Towles

Perhaps my yearning to escape another stressful year afflicted by covid-19 and political insanity intensified the joy I felt slipping into a world entirely divorced from current events. Whatever the reason, Amor Towles’s novel utterly absorbed me. The story about an interrupted cross-country trip in the 1950s follows a young man transformed by a single, horrible mistake and his little brother and two friends; they’re on the lam from a juvenile detention facility. In more than one sense, it’s not immediately clear “where this is going,” but the storytelling keeps you hooked until you discover it is about everything important: family loyalty, forgiveness, greed, loss. The book confirms my covid era motto: Read more, scroll less!

“Hollow Kingdom” and “Feral Creatures”

By Kira Jane Buxton

Even if you’ve had enough post-apocalyptic novels, movies and TV shows to last you through the next four or five Armageddons, this pair of comic novels from Kira Jane Buxton are a treat. They follow the travails and triumphs of a domesticated crow after a virus somehow related to our cellphones killed nearly all humans. The remaining animals struggle with one another and some frightening mutants for control of the world. The novels explore loss, love, friendship, courage — and whether the world might be better off without us people — in ways that are delightful and deeply moving.

“Grant’s Tomb: The Epic Death of Ulysses S. Grant and the Making of an American Pantheon”

By Louis L. Picone

Contributing columnist

My favorite book this year, as it speaks to the political times we inhabit: Louis L. Picone’s recounting not so much of who’s buried in Grant’s tomb but why the great man rests in an oversized mausoleum in a remote corner of Upper Manhattan (that my father and his Civil War-obsessed son once hiked to in a wintry scene straight out of “Doctor Zhivago”) rather than a more appropriate soldiers cemetery. It’s the tale of a messy construction project (not unlike the Obama library underway in Chicago), a fickle electorate that soon lost interest in a national icon, plus this reminder: We have no idea if or where there’ll be a Trump presidential library, much less a Pharaonic burial site.

About this story

Game and sport photos courtesy of: Beat Games, Nintendo, Jiji Press/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.

Show and film photos courtesy of: ABC, Apple TV Plus, CBS, Focus Features, HBO, Hulu, Neon, Netflix, Searchlight Picture, Silvergate Media/Brown Bag Films.

Music and art photos courtesy of: Red (Taylor’s Version) on and Collection of San Jose Museum of Art.

Book photos courtesy of:, Flatiron Books: An Oprah Book, Grand Central Publishing, Knopf, Little, Brown and Company, Oxford University Press, Pantheon, Simon & Schuster, Tin House Books, and Viking.

Design and Development by Yan Wu. Art and photo editing by Danielle Kunitz. Project coordination by Zainab Mudallal. Design editing by Chris Rukan.