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'Monkey See' Highlights Small Bright Spots In Pop Culture This Year


Once a day until December 25, the Monkey See blog is highlighting a small good thing that happened in pop culture this year. And we do mean small - a moment from a movie or TV show, a passage from a book or poem, a panel from a comic. It's called the pop culture advent calendar. NPR contributor Glen Weldon is the brains behind this project, and he joins me now to talk about it. Welcome to the studio, Glen.


CORNISH: All right, so we obviously associate the advent calendar with Christmas. I don't know if you grew up religious, but why this format?

WELDON: Well, I grew up with not one but two advent calendars in the house, both on the fridge, the one that was one verse of the Nativity story every day, and the other one that my brother and I called the fun one, which - let's slap a big old asterisk on that word fun because it was just...

CORNISH: OK (laughter).

WELDON: It was a picture of a different toy. It was a picture of a ball or a picture of a rocking horse. And...

CORNISH: ...Right, you open these little windows...

WELDON: Exactly.

CORNISH: ...And behind it was an image.

WELDON: So with this project, if I can give people the same amount of joy a 10-year-old feels when he opens up that door and he sees a picture of a rocking horse, then I think my work will be done here.

CORNISH: So you're already a few days into this. Give us some examples of some good pop culture moments that you've chosen to highlight.

WELDON: Yeah. I mean, as you said, I was going for small, specific and good. So not necessarily uplift, not necessarily sentimental because that's not really how I roll. But let's take - for example, the very first one was the opening image from the sixth episode of the television show "Atlanta." That opening shot, which is the back of a woman's head who is sitting in a very fancy restaurant, doesn't look like anything else in the series. It just signifies to us that we're about to jump into somebody else's head for the first time.

CORNISH: Another moment came from a movie that flew under the radar for a lot of people. It's called "The Lobster." The actor Colin Farrell is in it, also Rachel Weisz. I think the plot of the film is a world where people must fall in love by a certain time, and if they fail to make that deadline they are turned into the animal of their choice (laughter).

WELDON: Classic Hollywood plot, really.

CORNISH: Did I get that right?

WELDON: You did.

CORNISH: Rom-com for the ages?

WELDON: It's this incredibly dryly absurd and absurdly dry comedy that I just love. And in this scene, Colin Farrell is talking to the hotel manager, Olivia Colman, and he's explaining his choice of, well, where the title comes from.


OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Hotel Manager) Now, have you thought of what animal you'd like to be if you end up alone?

COLIN FARRELL: (As David) Yes, a lobster.

COLMAN: (As Hotel Manager) Why a lobster?

FARRELL: (As David) Because lobsters live for over 100 years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much. I waterski and swim quite well since I was a teenager.

COLMAN: (As Hotel Manager) I must congratulate you. The first thing most people think of is a dog.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

WELDON: You can't argue with his logic.

CORNISH: That's a moment.

WELDON: Right.

CORNISH: There are also moments that aren't kind of set in the art, but outside of it. Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Tony acceptance speech makes the cut of your advent calendar as well. We've all heard a ton about "Hamilton" this year. Obviously, it's, like, one of the big art stories of the year. But why this moment?

WELDON: Because it happened as a response to a tragedy. The Tonys took place the day after the shooting in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub. And the Tonys are a place that felt like it could speak to that. And so when he went up on stage to accept the Tony for Best Score, he rapped his acceptance speech. And there's a very crucial moment that is a response of defiance that I really liked.


LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: When senseless acts of tragedy remind us that nothing here is promised, not one day, this show is proof that history remembers. We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger. We rise and fall and light from dying embers remembrances that hope and love lasts longer. And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love - cannot be killed or swept aside.



CORNISH: I remember that moment.

WELDON: And that's what I wanted to do with this. So 2016 was a very punishing year for a variety of reasons. We lost a lot of good people. The election certainly was divisive. I wanted to remind people that there are these moments scattered throughout the year where something good came out of popular culture. There's a challenge in that because I'm finding lots of stuff from the last three months, but I want to go all the way back, all the way back to the beginning of the year to find these things. Which is one reason a lot of the research I'm doing is going back over things like the NPR Book Concierge, which just launched today, which has over 300 recommendations of books.

CORNISH: Which is crazy.

WELDON: It is.

CORNISH: Three hundred-plus books (laughter).

WELDON: Yeah. Recommendations from NPR staff people and from freelance critics. And it's just fantastic. And it's really helping me do a lot of this research because I want to not just do movies and television. I want to find poems. I want to find specific passages from books, as you mentioned, panels from comics. I want it to be as diverse as possible.

CORNISH: Well, Glen Weldon, good luck with your mission (laughter).

WELDON: Thanks. Thanks.

CORNISH: Glen Weldon. He is an NPR contributor and panelist on the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.