With this year’s Peabody winners and finalists having now been announced, I wanted to highlight a few that I loved. I’ll follow up with a later post about things that didn’t win but that I discovered in the selection process and that I still want to give some love to. By category:
Winners – American Vandal, Better Call Saul, The Handmaid’s Tale, Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, Insecure, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, SNL’s political satire
Finalists – Alias Grace, Bala Loca, The Good Place, Halt and Catch Fire, Jazz Night in America, Legion, One Day at a Time, Star Trek: Discovery
American Vandal (Netflix) is ostensibly a parody of The Jinx, Serial, Making a Murderer, and their ilk, where the serious crime committed is the spray-painting of 27 dicks on teacher’s cars in a high school parking lot. I laughed a lot during its pilot, but immediately found myself worrying that its parodic point would soon be made, leaving little more than stoner comedy (which, to be fair, it aces). Instead, though, it just got better, as the parody shows itself smart enough to know that those true crime shows have depths, and it plums and questions some of those depths over the course of the series just as well as it mocks the more obvious and superficial elements of form. It also shows itself remarkably well-versed in how high school works, and uses parody’s “love you – hate you” duality well to deal with the lifeworld of teens. By the end, it had really snuck up on me, lodging some pretty soulful and resonant critiques, of high school life and of true crime. Yes, it’s the best show about 27 dicks you’ll ever see. But if it sounds odd that Peabody would acknowledge such a show, look further, since it totally holds up, being deep, smart, and very funny.
I was also especially delighted to see Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King (Netflix) win, since it’s such a bold reworking of what stand-up could even be. Minhaj doesn’t “just” offer a lot of comic bits. Indeed, one could almost say that he offers no “bits,” as instead the special follows a single narrative, and almost everything works as part of that narrative or as an important tributary to it. It’s about him growing up, from immigrant kid to Daily Show contributor. Minhaj is wildly charismatic and likable, and he uses that quite brilliantly to seed empathy, also employing close-ups and direct-to-camera address, background images, and a really impressive sense of pace (not just comic timing, but dramatic timing too). It’s something of a master class on how to use comedy and personal narrative to build identification and understanding, and is compelling from start to finish.
My other big personal favorite in this category was Legion (FX). I’m constantly needing to tell people about this show, which is sad since it’s so very good. By Noah Hawley, of Fargo (the television series) fame, it showcases his ability to be funny, deep, artistic, whimsical, and really smart all at the same time, never taking himself too seriously yet being serious enough to punch a lot of scenes, characters, and themes. Dan Stevens plays the titular character from the Marvel comic, but it’s a very different type of comic book story, since David Haller has amazing powers of the mind, but is a diagnosed and suffering schizophrenic who doesn’t know (and, we learn, justifiably so) whether he can trust his mind. It’s then regularly filmed within that mind, allowing horrific scenes but also wildly playful ones. It’s thought-provoking and fun, beautiful to look at and disturbing, and I appreciate that it never gets too complex or pretentious, always remembering that it has an audience watching.
I feature these three because I especially loved them, and because they’re three of the least talked-about (versus, say, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is amazing, but everyone already knows that, meaning that any year-old review from me would hardly matter). I also want to give a shout-out, though, to Bala Loca (Netflix), which is a Chilean show about a journalist going after government corruption. It’s tightly scripted, very well acted, and has plenty of atmosphere, drawing enough from a telenovela, melodramatic style to give it engaging characters and dynamics, and enough from political drama to add a depth and importance to what’s going on.
Winners – Chasing Coral, Deej, Indivisible, The Islands and the Whales, Last Men in Aleppo, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, Newtown, Oklahoma City, Time: The Khalief Brower Story
Finalists – Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, The Bad Kids, City of Ghosts, The Defiant Ones, Heroin(e), I Have a Message for You, Motherland, Planet Earth II, Strong Island, Tower
Some amazing work here, and once again too many to glow about all of them, so with apologies to the others that I loved yet am not featuring …
Newtown is an especially moving revisiting of the families, kids, teachers, doctors, and nurses who suffered the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. There are just so many parts of this doc that destroyed me, such as when a father notes with pain that every day he’s alive is a day further away from the part of his life that he got to share with his son. I couldn’t watch this without crying almost continuously, I can’t talk about it without doing so, and I can’t type about it without doing so … and yet I want to praise Kim Snyder, its director, for not making it pornography of grief. She shares very few truly gruesome details, instead focusing on the emotions and the people. If we’re going to live in a society that callously refuses to do anything about massacres like this, the least we can do is see their true aftermath, and I hope that everyone who watches it is moved as much as I was to want to do something to avoid others. (Briefly, I’ll add that Tower is also a really well-done doc about an infamous shooting, using animation to restage the event).
In a similar category of showing us the fucked-up world we live in, Oklahoma City is amazingly well done. In seeking to tell the story of the Oklahoma City bombing, it “gets” that it needs to tell the story of Ruby Ridge and of Waco that fed into and motivated Timothy McVeigh … and by doing that, it ends up telling a story of the rise of heavily-armed white supremacist anti-government crazies around the US. It twins especially “well” with one of our winners in the News category, Vice’s Charlottesville: Race and Terror, offering a strong rebuke to any white person who wants to think that the white power movement is a simpler, tamer beast than the spewing, flailing beast these two texts show it truly to be.
I Have a Message for You is a beautiful little film, and since it’s a New York Times Op-Doc, you can watch it easily simply by clicking here. I’ll wait. It’s a touching tale about a Jewish woman who jumped off the train to a concentration camp, and a message she receives later on.
Planet Earth II is a massive favorite of mine. I loved the original, yet wildlife photography has advanced in cool ways since then, and this sweeping, grand series shows off its Go Pros and such through great sequences of monkey parkour, foxes chasing baby goats on 85 degree angled mountains, snakes chasing iguanas, flamingos going for a prance, and so much more. The kind of thing that high definition and ultra high definition TVs were made for, and a love letter to the planet.
It’s hard to choose favorites in this field, though, as so many other of our winners and finalists are superb. The Bad Kids takes a fairly worn genre of the “last chance high school doc” and gives it new life in so many ways; The Defiant Ones is a great multi-part story of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine; Motherland uses fly-on-the-wall style to examine one of the world’s busiest maternity hospitals in The Philippines, telling all sorts of stories in the process and covering multiple issues along the way; Deej gives voice to a nonverbal young man with autism who tells his story through doc and animated poetry; and all the others are great in their own ways.
Radio & Podcast
Winners – 74 Seconds, Lost Mothers: Maternal Mortality in the U.S., The Pope’s Long Con, S-Town, Uncivil
Finalists – Ear Hustle, Seeing White, The View from Room 205
This category contains two of my absolute favorites from this year of media, S-Town and Ear Hustle. I found S-Town deeply moving, especially since I came to it (a year ago) without knowing anything other than that it was good, and was floored by the (to-me) unexpected occurrence at the end of the first episode. I know the show has its detractors, many of whom see one of its many supposed sins to have been a smugness about the South, but I never saw this as about North and South, finding it an amazing story about one person in one community. I credit the show therefore with not trying to generalize; indeed, to do so would require leaving behind so many of the tiny details that make this one of the best character studies in the history of media.
Ear Hustle, meanwhile, is at the surface level a way for prisoners (in San Quentin) to discuss various aspects of their lives. At that level, it’s important, no less, because it humanizes them in so many ways. But it humanizes them so very well because at a deeper level it finds great ways to be about so many other things, like regret, friendship, hugging your mom, aging, and more. I’m in awe of the job these guys, alongside Nigel Poor (not a “guy,” despite the deceptive name) do, while also being funny, light, and playful. Through Peabody viewing and listening, I’ve seen glimpses inside a lot of prisons, enough to see that the American prison system seems designed to dehumanize – or is based on the presumption of dehumanization already having taken place – that it’s so unexpected to encounter one of the best podcasts about being human (see also Heavyweight, which I’ll discuss in a future post) made in prison.
I also want to give a loud standing ovation to Chenjerai Kumanyika, who is featured in Seeing White, and more prominent in Uncivil. The idea behind the former is simple – to discuss race in America by looking at whiteness, while Uncivil is no less compelling in seeking to tell other histories of the Civil War, mostly tales of African Americans’ places in that war. Kumanyika’s presence transforms both since he’s an exemplary public intellectual. Often scholars trade off depth and complexity to be more accessible, or else steadfastly decide that the public needs to meet them on their/our jargonny, bloviating terms, but Kumanyika is both utterly engaging and accessible and able to add significant complexity (indeed, his job on Seeing White is effectively to come in and “level up” the discussion already going on). Both shows are superb beyond his involvement, too – I would recommend them as equally and quickly to non-academics who want to engage with smart ideas and interesting histories, as to academics who might want to teach with them.
All the other radio/podcast pieces are similarly strong: 74 Seconds covered the Philando Castile case in real time, doing noble work to add humanity and context, refusing to let him become just the latest black victim of police violence doomed to be forgotten next week when the next shooting happens; Lost Mothers did laudable public service in talking about the regularly untalked-about risks of preeclampsia; The Pope’s Long Con finds a Kentucky huckster and calls him to task; and The View from Room 205 gets inside a school, with almost anthropological detail, to argue that class mobility can’t be gifted by schools alone.
Children’s / Youth
Winner – A Series of Unfortunate Events
Finalist – Andi Mack
Andi Mack justifiably garnered a lot of attention when its second season began with young Cyrus telling friend Buffy that he’s gay, one of the youngest coming-outs in television history. But Andi Mack regularly mines all sorts of issues of importance, not least of all because its basic set-up sees 12 year-old Andi find out that her sister is actually her mom, her parents her grandparents. And at the center of the show is one of the more infectiously charming kids on kids television, Peyton Elizabeth Lee, and a rare focus on a (bi-racial) Asian American family for Disney Channel.
A Series of Unfortunate Events relishes Lemony Snicket’s world of darkness, with Neil Patrick Harris nailing it as Count Olaf, and the kids similarly hitting it (especially Sunny). I’ve been struck in the last year or so by how there’s a bit of a crash that happens in children’s programming after the preschool years: lots of kids shows are full of important pro-social messaging for the 0-5 age set, and there’s then a second wave of pro-social messaging directed at teens, but in-between there’s a relative lull of excellence. What I’ve been most excited to fill that space with is shows with great stories and characters, to whet my daughter’s appetite for stories well told, and though this is a bit out of her age range (so she’s not watching yet), it’s a great story aimed at slightly older kids in that range … and at their parents, with Netflix offering a nice alternative to endless family sitcoms for those wanting family television.
n.b: I didn’t create a combined photo for this one since news items rarely have widely-accessible posters or cover art.
Winners – 60 Minutes and The Washington Post: “The Whistleblower”, Big Buses, Bigger Problems: Taxpayers Taken for a Ride, Charlottesville: Race and Terror (Vice), CNN’s coverage of the fall of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Inside Putin’s Russia (PBS), BBC’s coverage of the plight of the Rohingya refugees
Finalists – 60 Minutes, “USA Gymnastics”, Cracking the Code and Medical Waste, BBC’s coverage of the human toll in Yemen, Leyla Santiago’s Hurricane Maria Coverage on CNN, ABC 20/20’s “My Reality: A Hidden America”, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, “The Strongman – Ramzan Kadyrov”
Charlottesville: Race and Terror is probably known to many people reading this. It certainly did the rounds via social media when it first played, as Elle Reeve – reporting for Vice – tagged along with the white supremacist marchers at Charlottesville. As Trump spewed forth that these were “good people”, Reeve in effect says, “well, let’s meet them.” A simple move yet so important, since it lets us see that these aren’t “just” white guys who feel a bit slighted by affirmative action, who want to be able to say “Merry Christmas” without being challenged, or so forth – they’re seething with violent hate, boiling racism and anti-semitism. Too many white Americans plain don’t get how much racism still exists in the US, and how serious it is; this serves as a primer.
I was also really impressed by some of CNN’s coverage of ISIS. Through Peabody, I’ve watched a lot of news and documentaries about ISIS and Syria in the last few years, and heard a lot of radio news and documentaries about the topic too. But CNN’s reporting in 2017 transitioned impressively from telling war stories to looking into the aftermath of war. Arwa Damon in particular shines, and her fluency in Arabic, and hence ability to ask questions and interact with subjects herself palpably improves the coverage. Very humanizing, and I appreciated their adherence to on one hand being clear about how dire the situation is, while on the other hand still showing recognizable people with senses of humor, daily routines, and so forth, not reducing their subjects to abject misery.
One of the true revelations of Peabody judging for me over the last four years has been Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. The show consistently produces superb work that uses sports to open up all sorts of issues of politics and culture. I’ll talk about one of their equally amazing pieces in a future post, but “The Strongman – Ramzan Kadyrov” is a frightening profile of Chechnya’s leader and his obsession with MMA and performative violent, combative masculinity. Reporter David Scott once again proves himself great at interviewing foreign despots (how many journalists can boast of that skill?!). As a cultural studies scholar, I will also admit to having a particular soft spot for Real Sports since it proves so well in almost every piece how popular culture is always also political.
There’s some excellent local reporting acknowledged here too: it’s probably harder to access for anyone reading this, though, hence me focusing on the more nationally-broadcast stuff. Big Buses, Bigger Problems, though, was fun to see return and advance — last year it was a finalist for revealing mismanagement and rife problems in Dallas County Schools buses, but they kept going up the foodchain finding more and more corruption and slaying it at every level. And the BBC once again proved themselves the easy forerunner of much international coverage, but you hopefully don’t need me to tell you they’re good.
Winner — The Cut: Exploring FGM
Finalists — Predator in My Phone, Sex. Right. Now. with Cleo Stiller
The Cut bucks a dominant trend in pieces about female genital mutilation, for whereas one usually hears the concerned Westerner asking why “they” would do this, here Eritrean-Swedish Fatma Naib sets out on a personal journey to find out why it still exists.
Predator in My Phone was a Malaysian anti-pedophile initiative that led to new legislation in the country, while Sex. Right. Now. with Cleo Stiller is highly recommended for anyone wanting their teens to know about a whole host of issues they need to know about but you’re squeamish addressing.
Individual/Career and Institutional
Winners — Carol Burnett, 60 Minutes, The Fred Rogers Company
Since this post is intended largely to give shout-outs to material you may not know about, Burnett and 60 Minutes hardly need further commentary. As for the Fred Rogers Company, many know it for its namesake, but it also worked with others to produce the amazing trio of programs that are Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Peg + Cat, and The Odd Squad. I’ve spent a lot of time watching all three with my daughter, and love the former’s gentle charm (the most clearly beholden, not just in characters but in tone and outlook, to Rogers), and the zany comedy of Peg + Cat (the opera singing pig!) and The Odd Squad (all hail Ms. O!), and the stylization of the latter two (I adore the drawn-on-graph-paper look of Peg + Cat). Alongside Doc McStuffins (awarded for 2014) and Tumble Leaf (a finalist last year), these really are the best shows for the 2 to 5 year-old set, and Fred Rogers Company so richly deserves this award for being behind all three and for keeping alive Rogers’ legacy.