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Vox's pop culture musts: make room in your schedule for drag queens and Big Little Lies

Also: S-Town, The Idiot, and Fire at Sea.

VH1/Rupaul’s Drag Race

Between movies, books, music, comics, podcasts, and the ever-growing glut of TV, there’s a lot of pop culture out there.

It can be a lot to keep up with. So we here at Vox Culture — where our current obsessions include the wealthy Monterey housewives of HBO’s Big Little Lies, a new Southern Gothic podcast from the folks behind Serial, and an excellent new YA novel — have a few suggestions for how to make the best use of your pop culture-consuming time.

Here are some items you should really consider adding to your pop culture diet this week.

Big Little Lies episode six, “Burning Love”

We’ve been reveling in HBO’s star-studded Big Little Lies miniseries and its focus on the damaged, brittle lives of Monterey, California’s wealthiest women. At times the show is a bit pulpy, especially when it delves into the mommy wars taking place at Otter Bay elementary, or the murder at its center. But in its later installments the show has morphed into a serious, gripping drama that touches on a range of subjects, including domestic abuse and the challenges of parenthood.

There are only seven episodes, and the show is streaming on HBO Go; I highly recommend catching up before the finale, which airs this Sunday, April 2. In particular, I’ll be shocked if this past Sunday’s penultimate hour, “Burning Love,” doesn’t win Nicole Kidman an Emmy for her performance as Celeste, a woman who has to face some difficult truths about the man and the monster she married. — Alex Abad-Santos

Oscar-nominated documentary Fire at Sea

Over the past few years, hundreds of African and Middle Eastern migrants have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa every week. In Fire at Sea, which is now on Netflix, documentarian Gianfranco Rosi shows what life looks like for the island's residents and the rescue crews, cutting between scenes of daily life on the island (where it focuses on a young boy who is mostly interested in his slingshots and spaghetti) and the people who help receive and treat migrants.

Beautifully shot and highly lauded — the film was Italy's official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film Category at the Oscars — Fire at Sea is a deeply humane exploration of the human cost of the crisis, and how people live in the midst of it. — Alissa Wilkinson

Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

This debut novel from New Yorker writer Elif Batuman is tricky and playful. It’s also intimidatingly erudite, but you don’t need to be on a first-name basis with all of the great Russian novelists to get Batuman’s pitch-perfect evocation of what it was like to start college at the dawn of the email era. Her heroine Selin starts her freshman year at the exact moment that it becomes terrifyingly possible to stalk your crush across the wilds of the internet, to read and reread email threads for every possible shade of nuance and double meaning. The results are cringingly funny and charming. — Constance Grady

Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give

This New York Times bestseller is the buzziest YA novel of the spring, and it lives up to the hype. The most prominent of a wave of YA books reacting to the police shootings of unarmed black men, The Hate U Give centers on Starr, a 16-year-old black girl who sees her best friend shot by a cop in front of her. It’s a smart, sweet, warm-hearted book that handles its heavy subject matter with aplomb. — CG

Bear by Marian Engel, and its attendant commentary

When Bear came out in 1976, it won Canada’s Governor General’s Award, which is more or less the Canadian equivalent of the National Book Award. It’s assigned in Canadian high schools. It’s a part of the Canadian literary canon. It is also, to be clear, a book about a woman fucking a bear.

Check out a few excerpts on Tumblr, and then mosey over to New Republic editor Jeet Heer’s Twitter essay on Canadian literature’s preoccupation with humans having sex with nature. Hint: It has to do with the history of Canadian settlement and racial anxieties. — CG

RuPaul’s Drag Race, season nine

One of the most entertaining and straight-up smartest reality shows on TV returned on March 24 for another season full of witty queens. The premiere itself was a little underwhelming, but that’s mostly because guest judge Lady Gaga — somehow just now making her first appearance on Drag Race — took up so much oxygen. But we still got glimpses of how brilliantly fun this series can be, with drag queens like Nina BoNina Brown (who entered the workroom as a stunning mouse) and Shea Coulée (who strutted down the runway with a hot dog atop her majestic head) showing everyone how it’s done. — Caroline Framke


Produced by the team behind Serial and destined to be one of the most talked-about podcasts of the year, the much-anticipated S-Town was vaguely billed, before its debut, as a real-life small-town murder mystery. It’s not; instead, it’s an intimate, strange, often-upsetting close read of the life of one man and his curmudgeonly battle to improve the town he lives in — a fight which ultimately becomes a battle within himself. The full story is challenging, beautiful, and sure to be controversial; its seven episodes (which were released simultaneously on March 28) are worthy of a binge.

(A note of warning: Part of S-Town’s story deals with mental illness, and the podcast ultimately explores themes that may be difficult for some listeners.) — Aja Romano

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