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Finding intrinsic value in cultural polar opposites

It’s that point on the calendar when — by ritual or obligation — we tend to look at what has transpired the past 12 months and attempt to sort our experiences into categories.

What went right? What went wrong? What memories are we going to keep with us?

The entertainment media are filled with such lists, usually of 10, that try to be a definitive take on the year now ending ... but which truly reflect only the views of a particular critic, or an aggregate of a staff.

The vast majority of us don’t experience the arts as a profession. Our lives simply don’t have that much free time.

For instance, there were 750 or so television shows you could choose from in 2019. How could any average viewer sample even 75 of them to determine which were the best?

Frankly, I doubt the sincerity of these critics’ lists. Critics aren’t really these definitive, omnipotent voices; they’re just like the rest of us — swayed by their genre biases, dismissive of certain categories of shows or movies or musical styles.

Plus, deadlines have a way of spurring decisioins.

Speaking of definitive, omnipotent voices ... a year ago around this time, I wrote that it was a movie that featured a talking stuffed bear and a terrifically villainous performance by Hugh Grant (“Paddington 2”) that was the best thing I had seen in 2018 from among those things I had chosen to see.

I’m less certain, and more swayed by being in the moment, than I was last December. To be honest, not much struck my fancy in 2019. Maybe it was the inversion layer of divisiveness and uncertainty that we’ve all been trapped under for what seems like forever. Or maybe it’s just that so much of serious popular culture is now refracted through the prism of our political landscape that we go in search of escape.

A TV singing competition in which semi-famous people wear cosplay outfits while performing elaborate set pieces before a panel of clueless judges? ... Sign me up.

A throwback to the traditional murder mystery movies of yore, where all the suspects probably are guilty, set in a mansion with secret passageways and the chief investigator looks and sounds like he beamed in from an alternative universe? ... I’ll watch it again when it hits the small screen.

In the end, however, there are a notable pair of arts-related moments that struck close to the bone this past year. They couldn’t be much different from one another, and yet they each have something to say about navigating our way through the rising waters of uncertainty upon which we try to stay afloat.

“The Word Exchange” is a 2014 novel by Alena Graedon that caught my eye as I was browsing the selected paperbacks table at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland.

That it was published that far in the past paints Graedon as something of a seer — for this dystopian thriller predicts the fall of everyday communication, the rise of disinformation, and the inability of the general public to keep clear of the brutal consequences.

“The Word Exchange” imagines a rabbit hole where our ability to communicate has been stripped bare, where dictionaries are deemed a threat to society, and where words themselves are being replaced by gobbledygook that anyone can create (and be rewarded for doing so).

This hostile takeover of language morphs into a virus both technological and physical as we scramble with our protagonist Anana as she encounters nefarious plots, secret societies and tries to fend off falling victim to this plague (dubbed the “Word Flu”) as she searches for her father, the editor of the last remaining dictionary.

It is not an easy read. Graedon’s language increasingly mimics the world around it, and Anana finds the walls of her own existence closing in around her. If the current dominance of Twitter, “Fake News” and the dearth of critical thinking leaves you more than a tad paranoid, read “The Word Exchange” warily.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, is “Home Town” — a renovation show on HGTV that might just be the tonic needed to ward off evil spirits.

Set in in the impossibly friendly outpost of Laurel, Mississippi (and returning Jan. 20 for its fourth season of new episodes), “Home Town” follows the exploits of the impossibly friendly Erin and Ben Napier as they take the community’s older houses and transform them into homes that their neighbors can call their own.

Unlike many of the similar shows on HGTV and other networks, this isn’t about million-dollar makeovers, “flippers” trying to make a buck, or the hosts trying to create a media empire.

Housing prices in Laurel will make Jackson County residents green with envy, particularly for the sizes and styles of properties available. Those buying the houses are not cookie-cutter, either; they are folks of various ages, races, and relationship statuses who have lived in the town forever, or are moving back.

But what really separates “Home Town” from the pack are the Napiers. They are laid-back, low-key Southerners who come off as the genuine article. Whether it’s the furniture Ben builds from reclaimed wood, or Erin’s knack for creating inexpensive decorative pieces through recycling and handicrafts, there’s an ethical grounding missing from other shows in this vein. And the homes they restore feel and look more reflective of their owners than a brand in the making.

“Home Town” pulls off the magic trick of making you glad that visiting Laurel, Mississippi — filled with cornbread, walkable streets and front porch swings — can give us a moment’s respite.

Mail Tribune copy desk chief Robert Galvin is in charge of stopping the “Word Flu” at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com

Robert Galvin