Over a year since my last blog post – yikes! As a sort of catch-up, it seems appropriate to look back on what captured my attention in 2011.

Looming like Mount Fuji over all other entertainments this past year was the HBO-produced TV show Game of Thrones and the book series that inspired it, George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”. I had not read the books prior to watching the show, so I went into it knowing almost nothing about what to expect apart from a gritty fantasy starring Sean Bean. In retrospect, I think it’s good I didn’t have any emotion invested in the production, because the early episodes were a bit clumsy in their attempts to cover required plot points from the books while keeping the pacing and visual elements interesting. The sex and violence were also a bit off-putting, because they often seemed to be there for simple titillation and shock value (yeah… to be expected in an HBO show). As the show continued on, though, it seemed to find its stride, and by the end of the run, I was thoroughly gripped. The penultimate episode, “Baelor”, was one of the best episodes of any show I watched last year.

Apart from the actual content of the show, one of the things I enjoyed about it was the social element of sharing it with my family members who did not have HBO subscriptions. The “on demand” feature of my cable service meant that my brother, sister and nephew could visit and see the episodes soon after they were broadcast rather than waiting the year+ until the DVDs came out, and we could all discuss the events as they were fresh in our minds. My nephew was also a good resource for insider knowledge of the characters, since he had read all of the books. (Getting him to avoid revealing spoilers was always a challenge, though!) This up-to-the-minute, water-cooler conversation part of seeing first-run television is the main reason I haven’t ditched my cable subscription in this age of Netflix and Hulu.

Once the show was finished, I became curious about the books. I bought the first one, A Game of Thrones, not expecting much in terms of quality, but interested in getting up to speed on this cultural phenomenon & seeing how the makers of the show had remained faithful to the books or deviated from them. I was relieved that Martin turned out to be a decent wordsmith; with books this long, that’s really important. My suspicions about the sex and violence were borne out; HBO had invented the prostitute character of Ros as well as most of the “sexposition” scenes. Some of their editorial decisions were surprisingly effective, though. There is a scene in “Baelor” that had me jumping out of my seat in surprise when I first watched it. In the book, the events play out in a much more gradual way that lacks the jolt of immediacy provided by the show.

After the first book, I found I was interested in what happened next. Also, my sister was reading the books for the first time, and I thought it would be fun to compare notes as we went along. The next six months saw me slowly, but steadily, plowing through the increasingly lengthy and discursive books of the series. The release of the fifth volume, “A Dance with Dragons”, in June provided some interest for my nephew as well. When he, my sister, and I went to Greece in August, we were all reading different volumes in the series, which provided some good conversation fodder as well as in-joke humor. (Our common exclamation became “Hodor!” said with different inflections and at different volumes to suit the circumstances.)

I reached the end of A Dance with Dragons in late December. It felt like the end of an era, as I had spent more time on these books than any other fantasy series I’ve read. Was it time well spent? Hm… If not for the social element, I'm afraid I'd have to say no. Martin’s approach to sexual and racial issues often disturbs me; his world building -- though chock-full of detail -- often lacks real imagination and deeper structural consistency; and IMO, the last two books are a significant step down in quality from the previous volumes. I also have strong doubts that Martin is going to be able to rein in his various plot lines, which by the end of A Dance with Dragons all seem to be trotting (not galloping) in different directions, none particularly interesting. But at least I’m familiar with this cultural landmark now, and the discussions and other tangential enjoyments were very fun. I look forward to seeing what HBO does with further installments of the TV series.

My determination to finish these books unfortunately meant that I didn’t read a single other book in 2011! I did, however, watch some quality television, the two standouts being Breaking Bad (via Netflix), and the British show Misfits (via Hulu Plus).

Breaking Bad is an odd beast. In chronicling the double life of a family man with health troubles who secretly commits crimes to make money, it resembles The Sopranos. On the other hand, its often absurdist tone and striking visual style make it feel more like the works of the Coen brothers (e.g. Raising Arizona, Fargo, etc.). On the third hand, it also takes its time to develop its characters in a sincere, interesting, and at times very disturbing, way. The main character Walter White is a twisted soul who only seems to get more twisted as the show progresses; his “business partner” Jesse starts off as an annoying idiot, but develops into a surprisingly sympathetic and tragic figure over time; and Walter’s clownish brother-in-law Hank presents one of the most complex and interesting examples of panic disorder I’ve seen in a TV show. Various other well-drawn characters are affected by Walter’s underworld activities in mostly negative ways as the seasons progress, and the tension and dread continue to increase. This sort of journey into darkness isn’t normally my cup of tea, so despite the uniformly great acting and writing and cinematography, I have found myself taking some long breaks between episodes. But I keep coming back. I’m about halfway through season 4 now, and look forward to seeing how the standoff with Gus Fring (played by the wonderful Giancarlo Esposito) plays out.

Misfits is also an interesting mixture of elements. It tells the story of a group of 20-somethings in London sentenced to community service for minor criminal offenses, who on their first day are caught in a freakish storm that grants them superpowers of various kinds. So far… ho hum. Hasn’t this been done to death with the X-Men, Heroes, Alphas, etc? If the show actually focused on the powers, I might say yes, but it doesn’t really. Instead it depicts the main characters as fairly hapless delinquents who keep getting in trouble despite their best efforts, and who have no imagination whatsoever when it comes to using their powers for personal gain, let alone for fighting crime or helping strangers with their problems. Instead, they spend a lot of time having sex, talking smack, and meeting up with other people who were granted powers by the storm and usually seem to be using them for evil. The results are often darkly hilarious in a way that reminds me of the early works of Danny Boyle (particularly Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later). The rest of the time they are entertainingly soap-opera-ish and melodramatic as the various characters scope each other out and try on different relationship configurations. Definitely recommended.

The world of movies was pretty underwhelming for me in 2011. The only films I saw in theaters were The Fighter, True Grit, Thor, and Cowboys & Aliens. Of those, only True Grit is what I would call a good movie, though I was amused by Thor’s enthusiasm and surreal imagery. I did catch up on a few other films on DVD, the most notable being John Woo’s 2-part epic Red Cliff, which was probably too long, but whose scenery and fiery battles were quite stunning in high definition; X-Men: First Class, which did a fine job of telling a prequel story about Xavier and Magneto despite some unfortunate missteps (the black guy gets a crappy power and dies first? really?); and at long last, Moon, whose plot was full of holes, but whose sense of lonely existential angst was an unusual artistic achievement. Sam Rockwell also did an outstanding job of playing against himself.

Counterbalancing the lackluster year in movies was a banner year in new music. For whatever reason, I found my interest in exploring new bands much increased over previous years, and that interest was very easy to satisfy once Spotify became available to U.S. residents. However, I discovered my favorite album of the year through a more traditional means: a promotional sale of “5 albums for $25” at an independent label named Sargent House which was advertised on Facebook. Since they were so cheap, I decided to take a gamble on some unknown albums and scored big with the eponymous Fang Island, a blast of raw joyful energy, filled with dramatic surges of drums and guitar, elegiac vocals, and whimsical keyboard stylings that resemble church organs one minute and video game bleeps the next. The band describe their sound as “everyone high-fiving everyone”, which really does convey the experience of listening to this album. Great stuff.

Some of my other favorites from last year include This is the Second Album of a Band Named Adebisi Shank (also distributed in the U.S. by Sargent House), another super-high-energy album with lots of percussive power and complex rhythms in the style of math rock. I also liked Passive Me Aggressive You by the New Zealand band The Naked & Famous, who have a very poppy & lush sound that harkens back to some of my favorite bands from the 1980s. TV on the Radio had a new album, Nine Types of Light, that I didn’t completely love, but had some really great songs, including the swoony “Will Do” and the laid-back and lovely “You”. I also really enjoyed the movie-length video accompaniment to the album, which includes some great visuals in contrasting styles as well as a faux-documentary sequence filmed at a diner which, sadly, acts as a memorial to bassist Gerard Smith, who died of cancer shortly after the album was released.

Towards the end of the year, I saw some great live performances, two of which took place at the Flynn Center’s small, multi-use FlynnSpace, one of my favorite venues for quirky music from out of town. The first was a pianist named Marco Benevento, who played a musical accompaniment to the film House of Usher as it was projected on a screen next to him. The effect was pretty surreal, not only because the film is an over-the-top B-movie starring Vincent Price, but also because Benevento used a whole array of effects boxes to transform the sound of his upright piano, which had the front panel removed so he could reach in and pluck or hammer the strings directly. It really appealed to my geeky sensibilities.

In December I saw Missy Mazzoli and her all-female “alt-chamber music” ensemble Victoire. The pieces they performed were an interesting mix. Many featured low-key synthesizer progressions that reminded me of Radiohead’s latter-day electronica, and there were also a lot of audio samples played in loops with clarinet, violin and double bass alternately layering on top and taking the spotlight. Probably my favorite piece, though, was a solo violin number entitled “Dissolve, O My Heart”. This work has a complicated back story, but what I loved about it was its simple virtuosity as well as the humbleness of the composer, who stepped off stage along with the other band members to appreciate violinist Olivia De Prato’s solitary performance.

The last show was the cellist Zoe Keating at Higher Ground. I don’t know how I had missed Keating previously, as she is a darling of the geek crowd who regularly performs at tech conferences. She fits right in with the other musical performers I’ve mentioned, in that she makes extensive use of electronic gadgetry during her live act to record audio samples that she then layers on top of one another to build a complex soundscape with just one instrument. The results can be quite mesmerizing, and I really enjoyed her show. I was also impressed by the opening act, a local one-person band named Nuda Veritas, who also made use of audio loops (both instrumental and vocal) to create some pretty amazing and emotional pieces. All in all, it was a standout night of entertainment.

And that’s pretty much it for 2011. The new year is already looking good as far as television goes. The second series of Sherlock was stellar (if my blogging inspiration continues, a new post about it may be coming), and we have more Mad Men and Game of Thrones on the way. I’ve also jumped on the Downton Abbey train, and am really enjoying the ride. I’m looking forward to seeing what else comes along in the next 11 months.