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We asked our staff to pick their favorite contributions to popular culture that we encountered in 2016. From books, to movies, to a YouTube concert video, we enjoyed a lot of beauty and truth in a year unlikely to be remembered for either. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen famously sang in “Anthem.” Embodying this year, Cohen triumphantly released the gorgeous album You Want it Darker shortly before his voice was suddenly silenced by his passing in November. A less-quoted lyric of Anthem is Cohen’s instruction “Ring the bells that still can ring.” Here is what chimed for us this year. More… “Best of 2016”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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Netflix’s newest series, Stranger Things, premiered July 15, and it has swiftly become one the most talked about shows of the summer. Each major media outlet has published their own think pieces, quizzes like “Which Stranger Things Character Are You?” have circulated, and Winona Ryder (who stars in the series) has made her comeback as a magazine cover girl.

There aren’t spoilers in this essay. Or shouldn’t be, unless you consider the lack of information an incredible spoiler (and I hate these type of concessions, because plot is secondary to the creation of character, formation of relationship between audience and narrative, and the feelings depicted and attached to the narrative). The only spoiler I’m going to provide happens by episode three, when teenager Barb goes missing, pulled by a monster into a pool and through to the “other side.” Despite being a minor character, I became infatuated with Barb.

More… “We Got to Talk about Barb”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.
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The history of modern art is strewn with the wreckage of obscenity charges. At the beginning of the 20th century, a work of literature with sexual content might initially be deemed obscene but eventually embraced for its esthetic and social importance. James Joyce’s Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover are notable examples. They opposed Victorian standards of propriety, but after passage through the courts and critical opinion, emerged as high art.

In the realm of cinematic representation, obscenity was initially an industry-wide concern. The Motion Picture Production Code was developed in the 1930s under the assumption that movies, as mass entertainment, needed to be monitored to protect public morality. Strict enforcement began to wane in the 1960s, and the Code was replaced by a more indulgent film rating system. Nonetheless, certain films struggled to maintain their integrity in the face of a dreaded X rating. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Tango in Paris refused to amend its subject-matter to avoid such a rating, which reduced its box office profits. In time, however, it emerged as a film classic.

Television, too, began by monitoring its sexual content until the advent of cable TV did away with most forms of censorship. On premium channels at least, sex and art are now permitted to consort.
More… “Pay to Play”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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Come closer...
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People — women in particular — have been making themselves up for centuries, often despite fear of public derision and threats to personal health. Makeup has been used as art and artifice, for subjugation and empowerment. Read about how it has changed through the years and how it looks today, as seen in the mirror of The Good Wife. (Open Letters Monthly, The Smart Set)

Blood may be thicker than water, but alcohol is stronger than both. Read about the truth and cliché of vodka in Russia and the hangover left by Prohibition in the United States. (Gastronomica, The Smart Set)

What do you do when you know you’re losing your mind? Read about a journalist who knows Alzheimer’s inside and out and a young, forgetful woman trying to ward it off. (Nautilus, The Smart Set) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
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At the Museum of London earlier this year was an exhibit titled “The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die.” As a long-time Sherlock Holmes enthusiast as well as a practicing philosopher, I know this to be true. Since his first appearance in 1887, the great detective has been memorialized by over a hundred actors in dozens of plays, films, radio, and television adaptations, as well as in countless works of fiction. In the last few years alone, Holmes’s immortality has been demonstrated in original television series like Sherlock and Elementary and in highly imaginative movies like the blockbuster action series Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr., and the poignant elegiac Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen.

What lies behind our enduring fascination with this character and this surge of current interest in particular?

Holmes offers Watson a number of rules for what directs his work as a detective. I have extracted these rules from his stories and novels as follows:
More… “The Many Minds of Sherlock Holmes”

Fred J. Abbate is a professor in the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University. He has written several books and numerous articles on philosophy, as well as a mystery novel.
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Cock-a-doodle-news!
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From Mad Men and White Collar to Dirty Jobs and Grey’s Anatomy, TV may tell us a lot about how we view our work — and, moreover, how we should. For some, it’s just a job, but for others, it’s a life calling. Maybe we can learn more about our professions by staying on the couch than we can by joining the workforce. (Aeon)

Ad blockers are gaining popularity, maybe because they can save mobile users more than just the headaches caused by strobe-like video ads. A new report by the New York Times shows that, depending on the ratio of advertising to content, blockers can shave seconds off loading times and cents off data bills for each page. (The New York Times)

There’s a constant battle to explain why the rising price of a college education seems to raise demand, defying the usual models. There’s a term for this — a Veblen good — and it’s got mostly to do with the price of prestige. (The Baffler)

Is it time for “he” and “she” to go the way of “Miss” and “Mrs.”? Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin argues that gender, like marital status, should not be brought up in journalistic stories unless pertinent. Here’s a historical and political case for the singular “they.” (In These Times)

Looking for something to read this weekend? Sink into some science. (Seed Magazine) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
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It is commonly agreed that, since the debut of The Sopranos in 1999, television has gotten really good. There is now a lot of well-written, absorbing, idiosyncratic stuff to watch, and I have, helped by my insomnia, watched a lot of it.

I am a particular fan of sustained narrative series like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, The Wire, and House of Cards, and am looking forward to Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. It’s nice to know that shows whose run is well underway or even long over are still available for us insomniacs on-demand or on Netflix.

But of all the long-form narrative series out there, I am most taken by the CBS series, The Good Wife (about to begin its seventh season on October 4th), though it is, by all counts, seemingly the most conventional. As a network show, it lacks the taboo-breaking characteristics of cable; if you squint, it could be a standardized legal drama. But The Good Wife is fascinating because of its female characters — not so much in their predicaments as in their appearance.
More… “Painting an Inch Thick”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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This ad may be more honest than you think.
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A former hedge fund manager’s recent decision to increase the price of a pill from $18 to $750 has sparked interest in prescription drug pricing and sales. This drug isn’t optional: It’s the standard treatment for taxoplasmosis, an illness that mainly affects those with compromised immune systems due to HIV or cancer. But when it comes to non-lifesaving pharmaceuticals, companies rely on advertising to get the word out. In article from our archives, Greg Beato discusses how the restrictions on drug advertising may be helping out the advertisers in the long run.

Critics of prescription drug ads contend that one reason they’re so effective is because they’re so misleading. But while it’s true that few prescription drug ads, if any, go out of their way to call attention to the shortcomings of their products, there’s an alternate explanation for their success: Prescription drug ads are amongst the most honest content that appears on TV. •

Read It: Drug Deals by Greg Beato

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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As David Brent put it in the original version of The Office, life is a series of peaks and troughs, but I think most of us, really, expect the Christmas season to grade out on the higher side of things, a spirit bumper even if the year that has just passed has not been a banner one. We tend to think that way if and until something occurs that we couldn’t foresee, that puts a sort of permanent crack in us that we’re forever trying to solder over, especially at the holidays.

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s… More…

Sacrificed on the altar of intense realism

Not again, I thought, as I finished watching the second season of House of Cards and saw my favorite character, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), chief of staff and general fixer for the ruthless politico Frank Underwood, eliminated for good — if death is for good, which I realize that on television it may not be (i.e., Dallas). Still, for all that Frank Underwood is a masterful manipulator, raising the dead isn’t among his skills — and the series isn’t into meta-storytelling — so I assume that Stamper won’t rise from the dead. And so I am upset; I had looked forward to seeing him combine poker-faced efficiency with angst-ridden depth.

I’ve had this happen to me before in the past few years — characters of some complexity that I’d become attached to annihilated without warning. There was the death of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and, then, Richard Harrow (Jack Huston)… More…