A Game About The Ghosts Who Live Under Our Feet

Plus: The High Note, HBO Max, and What’s Making Us Happy

by Linda Holmes
Welcome! It was the week when everybody tried to figure out whether they had HBO MAX or not. It was the week when Larry Kramer was remembered. And it was the week when there was a new Carly Rae Jepsen record. Let’s get to it. 

Opening Argument: A Game About The Ghosts Who Live Under Our Feet

One of the best things I’ve done during this period of isolation is play more games, and maybe the most interesting game I’ve played is Kentucky Route Zero. It was released in chapters over a period of years, but now you can play the whole thing. The premise is that you begin as a truck driver tasked with making a delivery to a Kentucky address you can’t find. When you stop at a gas station to ask for directions, you learn that to find the address, you’ll have to explore a mysterious underground highway. 

I don’t want to say too much about what follows, except that the game (which is point-and-click in format, meaning there are various items and people you can select, and various actions you can then take in relation to them) is one of the better and more poignant explorations of the themes of memory and deep wounds that I’ve seen recently. 

It tells a story that eventually deals with industries from mining to media and with fears from job loss to illness to loneliness. It’s about addiction and isolation and the power of art. And more than anything, it’s about the ghosts of the things that have been done to communities where there is suffering. The way it pursues the idea that everyone is constantly driving above a highway that encircles our shared history is enough to take your breath away. 

It’s also just a brilliantly made game that uses media in unexpected and haunting ways — music in particular. The characters stop at times and listen to songs old and new, and in those moments, the game is meditative and trippy. But at other times, including a little interstitial chapter in which musician Will Oldham plays a recorded telephone voice that leads you through a byzantine menu of options, it’s quite funny. 

It’s hard to find cultural pieces that feel precisely correct for the moment you’re in, especially when that moment keeps changing and is often devastating. But Kentucky Route Zero, which is empathetic and humane but also feels deeply, righteously angry on behalf of the people whose wounds it’s trying to explore, seems to have a place in this moment. We are indeed constantly standing over visible and invisible pieces of history, moving between and among them even when we’re simply trying to get from one place to another. 

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We Recommend:

You might remember a conversation we had with Kumail Nanjiani about the Hannah Gadsby Netflix special Nanette. Gadsby’s new special, also on Netflix, is called Douglas, and it made me laugh a lot. It’s not about trauma, as she explains up front — but it’s about a whole lot. 

The death of Larry Kramer is, among other things, a fine moment to revisit the 2012 documentary How To Survive A Plague, which is available on Amazon Prime or for rent on most of your major platforms. It’s a deeply moving and thrilling story about the activism it took to move medical research on HIV and AIDS forward, and it resonates in a whole bunch of ways today.

You’ve gotta believe me when I tell you that this video of Janet Varney, Jonathan Coulton and Paul F. Tompkins singing "Ride Along, Sparks Nevada" with songwriter Eban Schletter will make your day better.

If you’re looking for something to stream this weekend, consider Ramy on Hulu. Not only is it a good show, but we’re covering it soon as its second season launches, so you have a chance to catch up! 

What We Did This Week:

Dakota Johnson stars as Maggie Sherwood, Ice Cube as Jack Robertson and Tracee Ellis Ross as Grace Davis in The High Note.
Glen WIlson/Focus Features
On our Wednesday show, we revisited the terrific graduation comedy Booksmart, because man, Booksmart is a lot of fun. 

On our Friday show, Stephen and I hunkered down for a chat about the new musical dramedy The High Note, with Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross. And we got very giggly, because … who knows. We’re all doing our best. 

Glen and I took a moment to run down the originals that are available from HBO MAX (if you have it, and you know you have it). I like the Anna Kendrick one! 

Stephen introduced you to a Tiny Desk Home Concert from Clem Snide and Scott Avett, a combination that echoes deeply in Stephen’s heart and in mine. He’s also part of New Music Friday, as ever.

Want some outside projects? Glen did a video for WIRED where he reviewed all the various Batmobiles! And I did a long episode of the Poscast, an ostensibly sports-related podcast with the great sportswriter Joe Posnanski and TV creator Mike Schur, in which we talked very little about sports and very much about cereal. 

What’s Making Us Happy:

Every week on the show, we talk about some other things out in the world that have been giving us joy lately. Here they are:
From our Booksmart episode!

From this week:

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