Editor’s Note: If you’re anything like me, you’re interested in intoxication and, perhaps ironically, have precious little time for entertainment. So, why not get your fix for both at once? We asked some of our contributing editors what made their best-of lists this year in books, TV, movies, music, and Web content. Not all are explicitly related to substances, but hopefully you find enough media to keep you occupied through the New Year. Points returns from its holiday hiatus on January 3. Enjoy!
Emily Dufton: There’s “Brave New Weed,” a book which claims to be “an adventure into the uncharted world of cannabis,” i.e. the author “traveling around and smoking his brains out,” as reviewer Matt Taibbi puts it. This is one of a wave of new books about pot which emphasizes the fun of the new industry, even as it outlines its pitfalls. I find many of these books a little too celebratory with Jeff Sessions as the potential new attorney general, but it’s always interesting to watch the arsenal grow.
There’s also “Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany,” which looks very good. Written by the German novelist Norman Ohler in his first dip into history, it seems accomplished: well-written, incisive, and able to shed new light on an old topic. Well, old to ADHS historians anyway; we’ve long known about the Nazis interest in uppers.
Michael Durfee: For timely work by a powerful, honest new voice from Baltimore not-named Ta-Nehisi Coates, turn to D. Watkins. His first work, The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America is a much-needed meditation in a post-Freddie Gray Baltimore. His second work—more germane to our interests—is entitled the Cookup: A Crack Rock Memoir—a first-person drug trade ethnography explaining what happens when a young man tracked for higher education suffers the loss of his older brother who left behind the kind of accrued wealth one might find in East Baltimore, a “starter kit” to enter the drug game.
In preparing myself for our next administration, I’ve turned to an excellent work of poetry, Bastards of the Reagan Era, by Reginald Dwayne Betts. Check it out.
Sarah Siff: If you’re looking for hard evidence that modern U.S. drug control owes deep debts to Prohibition, you should take some time off over the holidays to unwind. But you should also not miss out on reading The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (W.W. Norton, paperback November 2016), Lisa McGirr’s concise account of how cultures of enforcement matured and how federal agencies consolidated power during the dry old days. Because if you, like me, are interested in how the drug wars led to mass incarceration, you might find Harvard historian McGirr’s new research useful and timely.
Bob Beach: 2016 has been a slow TV year for me due to my dissertation and teaching load. I’m usually at TV fanatic with several solid shows in my stable. This year, they are still recorded on my DVR. But I do have a few recommendations for our readers. I ask my students for recommendations during our obligatory “introduce yourself” activities on the first day of class. Surprisingly, a lot of those shows, Power, Narcos have explicit drug themes. I’ve got these on my list. But my own personal recommendations follow.
High Maintenance (HBO): After several years as a popular web series on Vimeo, the show about “The Guy” a marijuana delivery person in New York City, created by Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld was taken on by HBO this year. The show is very well written and isn’t your typical marijuana serial (“Getting Doug With High”). The show places the central subject (marijuana and “the guy”) in the background and the show highlights the life experiences of the guy’s customers. Some episodes are funny, some are deeply moving. That HBO has picked up the show bodes well for the genre.
Elementary (CBS): While I’m not up for network shows these days, Elementary remains one of my favorites. One of the many takes on Sherlock Holmes, Elementary is set in modern day New York as Sherlock Holmes (played by Jonny Lee Miller) and his sidekick Joan Watson (played by Lucy Liu) work with the NYPD solving crimes. Holmes’s drug use plays a prominent role in the series, Holmes is in recovery. He hooks up with Watson when she is hired by Holmes’s father to be his sober companion. The show is much more a police procedural than a typical Holmes mystery, but the drug angle is interesting. Holmes relapsed at the end of the 2014 season, and we’re still dealing with some of the fallout from that event during this season.
Maron (IFC): After four seasons, Marc Maron’s podcast-to-television show adaptation “Maron” was cancelled by IFC. Maron has been quoted as saying that he felt the show had run its course, but rumors had circulated that Maron had relapsed. Maron was a middling standup comedian in the late 80s and early 90s but his career was derailed by Maron’s struggles with addiction. He hosted several radio shows during the early 2000s and eventually broke through with his popular podcast “WTF with Marc Maron,” which was adapted to the IFC show where Maron (and other comics and celebrities) play fictionalized versions of themselves. The first two seasons were mostly comedy, but the third season ended with the fictional Maron relapsing. The fourth and final season, which ran this year, followed him as he attempted to rebuild his life after the relapse.
Rick & Morty (Adult Swim): Stop everything and watch this animated show. It isn’t a drug/alcohol show at all (more on that in a second) but follows a Marty and Doc Brown (of Back to the Future fame) pair and their adventures in the multi-verse. The show’s main character, Rick Sanchez is a too-smart-for-his-britches scientists whose inventions are both thought provoking, and cataclysmic (when put in the wrong hands). His grandson Morty is a hapless pre-teen whose life is constantly turned upside-down by Rick’s adventures. The show is moderately funny, but tackles some really high-level existential questions involving fate, mortality, and the nature of reality. What Points readers might find interesting about the show is that alcohol is ever present. Rick is a sloppy alcoholic who usually appears on screen with spittle/vomit on his chin and who frequently burb-talks through conversations (Ed. note: see above image). But the alcohol has no other appreciable effect on the show or on Rick, and with only a handful of exceptions, alcohol isn’t even mentioned. It’s an odd, and oddly satisfying decision on the part of the writers, and I think that as time goes on, we’ll see more shows (High Maintenance) where drugs are ever present, but rarely an important character.
Taboo (FX): If we are looking forward to anything on the horizon, Points readers might want to check out FX’s new Miniseries “Taboo,” slated to premiere on the cable network in January 2017. The show is a revenge play that stars Tom Hardy as James Delaney as he builds a shipping empire in the early nineteenth century. It is unclear how much the show will confront the emergent drug trade, but some of the early press suggests that Delaney’s main rival will be the British East India Company.
MD: Shows like Insecure and Atlanta are finally moving beyond old stereotypes and the mythical families of the Banks’ and Huxtables are nowhere to be found. In Atlanta, multi-talented Donald Glover plays a Princeton dropout looking to manage his cousin, Paperboy, a local dealer and underground rapper. If for no other reason, watch the episode where Glover and his girlfriend attend a local Juneteenth party in elite company.
If you haven’t streamed The Get Down, shame on you. Breathe in that scene, a time before Crack, at the advent of Hip-Hop.
SS: I don’t devote much time to television consumption, but this year I binge-watched the Amazon original series “Catastrophe,” a show about a lovable brute of an American ad executive and a witty, sexy Irish schoolteacher, an unlikely pair whose casual hook-up results in a transnational pregnancy. I know, it sounds terrible; but the adult theming and dark comedy are hard to resist, wrapped as they are in exceptional screenwriting. Confrontations and major life changes are brought on by Sharon’s nights of heavy drinking, and Rob’s struggle to maintain his sobriety boils over at the wrong time as a friend overdoses on heroin. The show is not about that, but drug and alcohol use and abuse are consistent motifs, lending realistic chaos to the plot lines.
MD: They still make movies and people can go to theatres? Our two-year old Jackson has managed to strip me of such luxuries, but I’m a ruthless consumer of anything streaming or on-demand. Most recently, at the behest of students, I watched 13th, a well-advertised Netflix original documentary on the rise of mass incarceration and the 13th amendment clause allowing involuntary servitude (what some folks call slavery) in the penal system. This is worth watching for anyone looking to understand our national sin a bit better, in part, because Ava DuVernay actually interview scholars in the field. Imagine that.
SS: The film “Dr. Strange” is notable to drug scholars for its psychedelic imagery and exploration of inner and parallel worlds. At first pegged by The Ancient One as a man “looking at the world through a keyhole,” Benedict Cumberbatch (or as I like to call him, Sherlock) plays a former surgeon who redeems his arrogant past in a series of trippy encounters. “What’s in that tea? Psilocybin? LSD?” Dr. Strange asks after his first astral projection. Reply: “It’s just tea. With a little honey.” Touring cosmic dimensions and leaping across collapsing fractal urban landscapes, he confronts evil and mortality. Who are you in this vast multiverse, Mr. Strange?
Kyle Bridge: Combine Prince with Lil Wayne and you have Young Thug, currently the most interesting character in rap music. In 2016, Thugger sated his with three albums – Slime Season 3, I’m Up, and JEFFERY – and scores of features. Thug’s peculiar sound is not for everyone, but anyone interested in pushing the boundaries of rap should peruse his recent catalog. Check out a sampling from each of his recent projects: “Drippin,” “King TROUP,” and “RiRi.” Honorable mention to “Harambe,” hands-down the most vocally innovative rap song of the year (brace yourself for Thugger’s out-of-nowhere Louis Armstrong impression sometime after the two-minute mark).
MD: In falling down the rabbit hole of Donald Glover, I’ve also enjoyed his new album, “Awaken, My Love!” Recorded under the name Childish Gambino, this is not standard hip-hop fair, but rather, a scathing sarcasm of the status quo.
Our current moment also has me turning to music with some historical weight. The OJ Simpson documentary got Nina Simone’s “Sinner man” in my ear. After teaching a course on the Black Freedom Movement and taking stock of our current moment, I find myself listening to the long live version of Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” performed after King’s assassination. A moving call to arms.
KB: I’m quite interested in Scalar, a FREE new user-friendly platform for hosting academic or otherwise long form work with integrated digital media. I was introduced to the neat concept through the work of my University of Florida history colleague Johanna Mellis, who published part of her dissertation through the program, but it appears amenable to a variety of subjects.
And lest we forget about Pointscast, the first, best, and only podcast of the Points blog, which should resume with new episodes in 2017. Stay tuned! #youvapebro?
SS: With the rise of social media and the decline of traditional journalism, it’s refreshing to find a new source of investigative reporting. The non-profit news site The Marshall Project, named for Thurgood Marshall, covers our broken criminal justice system with devastating clarity. Writers explore prisoners’ everyday realities, enforcement of the death penalty, racial disparities and dilemmas, and defendants’ and prisoners’ civil rights. The site is explicitly agenda-driven, aiming to “educate and enlarge the audience of people who care about the criminal justice system.” Illicit drugs, looming large in this realm of public affairs, are consistently discussed with the gravity and sanity they merit.