How To Spend Pop Culture’s Summer Vacation

If August's pop cultural offerings seem a little lackluster, it might be because everyone's taking one last chance to have a summer vacation. But what are you supposed to watch without new movies and television shows to entertain you?

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It’s probably not escaped your notice that — after the last few months where almost every week brought the opening of the latest blockbuster, the return of a favorite television series or the unspeakable ear worm that was the summer anthem pleading for you to call the singer, maybe — August has been a somewhat quiet month when it comes to new pop culture. I mean, sure, we had the Olympics, but they were a special, once in a replicant’s lifetime event that pretty much stood outside of time as we knew it (and everyone just complained about them anyway). We’ve got a month where the biggest movies are That Guy From The Avengers punching a wolf in the face and, this weekend, That Guy From The Dark Knight Rises riding a bike around New York City. It’s not just your imagination; we really have just seen these guys do more exciting stunts in more ambitious movies just a couple of months ago. Clearly, pop culture needs a break.

In many ways, that’s what August is on the entertainment calendar. It’s a down month between the summer blockbuster season and the new fall TV season, a month where the Biz we call Show tries to schedule some downtime and take things easier than usual, catch its breath and maybe think about what’s just happened — and how it can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

That’s all very well for pop culture — everyone needs a vacation, after all — but what about us? Human beings cannot live on Bunheads re-runs and Breaking Bad alone, and there’s only so much time we actually need to prepare the kids to go back to school or take care of those gardening plans that we’ve been putting off all summer. If the thought of three weeks of pretending to care about Miley Cyrus’ haircut is enough to drive you to distraction, never fear; here are some suggestions for what to do while you’re waiting for the traditional debut of The Voice that signals that fall has finally arrived.

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How you spend pop culture’s late-summer vacation all depends on what you generally go looking for from pop culture: Are you seeking novelty, or something more familiar and dependable? Do you want something old or something new? Either way, it’s likely that you’ll end up with something borrowed — or, at the very least, streamed — but I’m going to leave any decision about whether you go for something blue up to you. This is a family blog, after all.

Option #1: Expand Your Horizons
Look at you. You’re the kind of person who knows what they want, and just how to get it — which, sadly, might be exactly the problem. As almost every self-help guru would happily tell you, there’s a lot of value in taking the road less traveled and the next few weeks could be an ideal time to make that happen for your entertainment choices. Consider this option a lesson in the benefits of saying “Yes” to things instinctively, of leaping without looking, all in the relative safe cocoon of popular culture. How bad could it really get to sit through something you’re not really enjoying that much, after all? But consider the bonus points to be gained* if you went outside your comfort zone and tried something new, or at least unusual, to you: When was the last time that you took in some live theater instead of a movie, for example, or read a comic book instead of a prose novel? Without the lure of your favorite shows or the latest movie to take your attention, the only thing that you’re really risking is your time, and the worst thing that can happen is that you realize that there was a reason you weren’t paying attention to this kind of thing in the first place. For all you know, however, you might have discovered a new favorite pastime.

(* There are no actual bonus points to be awarded in this exercise. Sorry.)

Suggestions: This is a tough one to make specific recommendations for because it’s so tied to your own individual interests and cultural blindspots. The most obvious things to mention would be searching to find what’s going on in your location in terms of live performances or art galleries, but going beyond that may be offering too much guidance. I will say this, however; if you’re going to go for a comic to read, I’d highly recommend Jerusalem: Chronicles From The Holy City by Guy Delisle, which is an easily accessible, highly entertaining nonfiction book that may just change some minds about what comics are like. NPR’s Oliver Sava has some other graphic novel suggestions here.

Option #2: Come Back To What You Know
Alternatively, you might be someone for whom routine is everything, and the idea of discovering something new is far more disconcerting than any kind of vacation from the norm should rightfully be. If that’s the case, then why not take the time to revisit some old favorites? Between DVDs, BluRays and the variety of options offered online, it’s never been easier to do so, after all, and there are few things that can rival the particular joy of watching shows or movies that once meant so much and discovering that they still hold up. (Be warned: There is the flip side, when you watch a favorite from the past and quietly realize that it is, in fact, disastrously bad; I call this The Goonies Syndrome.) Re-watching can offer more than just nostalgia, of course; you can discover nuances that you missed the first time around, appreciate groundwork being laid in advance for a shocking last-minute reveal — Spoiler: Don’t expect this from Lost now that you know what the Island actually is — or simply appreciate the different experience of watching shows in chunks of multiple episodes, instead of having to wait weeks between installments and letting all that momentum slip away. (Speaking from experience, this is the best way to watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — aka, Battlestar Galactica, only without the word “frak” or the disappointing denouement.)

Suggestions: No joke, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine deserves a second look, if you’re in any way interested in smart genre storytelling; it’s available through Netflix Streaming, as are all of the Treks. Also available through Netflix: Cheers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and, yes, Lost. For more recent favorites, Hulu is well worth looking into.

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Option #3: Catch Up on What You’ve Missed
Sorry, dear reader: You’ve been missing out. That isn’t a slam on your impeccable taste, but just the reality that comes today’s abundance of quality storytelling. The fact is, there is just so much good stuff out these these days — by “good stuff,” I’m referring as much to the popular critically acclaimed material as the obscure rarities that have slipped under most everyone’s radar — that it’s practically impossible to keep up-to-date with everything that’s worth watching. On television alone, you’re probably watching all of the must-see cable dramas like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland and Game of Thrones, but have you been watching current network dramas like Parenthood and The Good Wife as well? And, even if you live in the most cosmopolitan areas of the country, chances are that you’ve managed to miss a handful of movies that had amazing reviews but suffered through releases so limited that they went almost entirely unseen by the world at large (How many theaters actually played Chicken with Plums, for example? Or A Separation?). The problem of being surrounded by so many quality stories is that there is too much for any one person to experience as it’s happening — presuming that you want to sleep and do something other than watch television or movies all the time, of course.

Consider this the middle ground between the two previous options: Discovering something new to you that has already been vetted and approved by the collective mind of pop culture. What is there to lose in taking advantage of the August lull to catch up on something that you’ve always meant to watch, but never managed to find the time?

Well, there is this downside, I guess:

Suggestions: If you’re looking to find some well-reviewed recent movies to hunt down, Rotten Tomatoes is a good place to start. (There’s even a top DVD rentals section.) For television, it would be self-serving to point you in the direction of James Poniewozik’s columns for this very site, wouldn’t it? And yet, that appears to be what I’m doing. In terms of tracking the shows and movies down, again I suggest Netflix, Hulu or your local video store. In terms of specific suggestions, I have but two. For movies, I maintain that Charade is an entirely underrated work of cinematic genius and worth watching for Walter Matthau and James Coburn alone, and when it comes to television, the only way to go wrong with Friday Night Lights is to watch the second season.

Option #4: Obsess About the World That’s Coming
If the entertainment Internet has one credo, it may be “forewarned is forearmed.” Whether it’s news reports on who is starring in what with whom, spoilers revealing the plots of stories that are months away from being seen in their intended states or simply people giving away the shock twist in the previous night’s television before you’ve had a chance to catch up on DVR, it is depressingly easy to find out everything you need to know about your entertainment before you’ve actually experienced it for yourself. Perhaps it’s time to embrace that.

With new episodes of much-loved shows and a number of highly anticipated movies in the offing over the next few months, the temptation to find out more and more about the latest Doctor Who or Downton Abbey can be overpowering, in much the same way as the temptation to Wikipedia the episode titles and synopses of the opening episodes of your favorite series and draw your own conclusions from them (“Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11“? What does that even mean?). Casting spoilers, fan speculation and even trailers, teasers and leaked footage on YouTube, it’s all out there, waiting for you, whether you’re trying to find out about a movie, a television show or even just the identity of the next 50 Shades of Grey blockbuster book that everyone will be talking about. The Internet often seems like a scavenger hunt as much as the series of tubes that we’re told that it is, so why not turn that into your entertainment for a few weeks while waiting for the real thing to arrive?

Suggestions: Spoiler TV and The Movie Spoiler will happily ruin upcoming storylines from television and film for you, respectively. Sites like Deadline Hollywood and TV Line will keep you up to date with the comings and goings behind the scenes of upcoming productions, including casting news and all kinds of gossip that you’ll feel guilty for reading, so maybe it’d be safer to just stick to watching some new trailers via Apple or Yahoo, instead.

Option #5: Take Some Time for Yourself
Of course, all of these options rely upon the core idea that you’ll want to keep up your pop culture habit over the next few weeks, just to keep your mental muscles exercised and ready for the marathon that is the new fall TV season. That doesn’t have to be the case; I promise that we won’t judge too harshly if you decide to also take a vacation from pop culture at the same time as it takes a vacation from you. (Hey, if it’s okay for James Poniewozik, it’s okay for you.) There are, after all, only so many days of sunshine left before the winter coats and rainy frowns come out, so it makes some sense to take advantage of them while you can. And, by “while you can,” I really mean “before the fall debut of Bones.” Because, really, don’t you want to know how Temperance Brennan is going to prove her innocence now that she’s gone on the lam with her baby? That kind of thing is so much more valuable than having a real life, let’s be honest.

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