Each and every year since we started Overthinking It in 2008, it’s been our tradition to gather before the holidays and come up with some smart, funny gift recommendations from our family of choice to yours. We get up to so much more pop cultural mischief each year than we can squeeze into a weekly podcast, so these annual catalogs are also travelogues, accounts of where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing in the last twelve months.
We’ve been at this long enough that even my jokes about how long we’ve been at this are years-old at this point. And you know the whole gift guide thing is a scam, right? It’s all affiliate marketing (here’s our Amazon link by the way, which you can use year round!), and the publications get a kickback when you start shopping with one of their links. But we were doing it before it was cool, before it was uncool the first time, before it was cool again, and before it was uncool the second time. We’re OGs, where the “G” stands for Grinch.
Please enjoy, and wherever this year’s close finds you, I hope it finds you subjecting the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve.
Overthinking It Membership
When we launched Overthinking It memberships a couple years ago we… well… we overthought it. Three levels, each with its own weird perks… We were trying for a sustainable system with something for everyone, honest! But in the end all we got was confusion.
So we decided to simplify the deal. Five bucks, and you get extra podcasts. That’s it.
Kick in that small monthly contribution (or save $10 when you pre-pay a whole year in advance), and get access to the digital library with extra podcasts, The Overview series of movie commentaries, and more downloadable audio. (Personal RSS feeds coming soon.)
Existing members at the (former) “Well, Actually…” and “Full Harvey” levels: We are going to transition you to the new rate ASAP.
Games & Toys
Perhaps the perfect board game for these troubled and turbulent times. On the surface, it’s very similar to other “mafia”-style games where players take on secret identities which get sussed out over several rounds of deliberation, deduction, and yes, lying. But it’s SO MUCH MORE compelling than any of those games. Secret Hitler pit “liberals” and “fascists” against each other using ingenious game mechanics that, no joke, perfectly illustrate the limitations of liberal democracy and why it often seems like the bad guys have something of an advantage by way of their bad-faith participation in the process. Get this game and use your newfound knowledge to stop the secret and not-so-secret Hitlers lying in our midsts. Just be careful not to play directly into the fascists’ hands. —Mark Lee
Monopoly for Millennials
To be clear, this is not an actual gift recommendation, unless you want to give this as a gag gift to a “millennial”—or, as I prefer to say, a young adult in their 20’s or 30’s. The game’s references to “adulting,” “collecting experiences,” and “vegan bistros” are weak sauce, but ultimately benign compared to the game’s cardinal sin, which is that it does not at all appear to address the cruel irony of playing a game originally about property ownership while also mocking a generation that is unable to own property thanks to crippling macroeconomics imposed upon it by older generations. TL;DR: hit the link to read the description for a good laugh/cry, but buy something else, and save the money you would have otherwise spent on this game on something more worthwhile, like avocado toast and/or a down payment on a mortgage. —Mark Lee
LEGO Saturn V Rocket
Last year I “recommended” this LEGO Millennium Falcon mostly as a joke, given that it costs a staggering $800 and takes up way more space than you probably want to devote to a LEGO Star Wars set in your home. This year, I recommend the Saturn V Rocket in complete earnestness. Compared to the Millennium Falcon, it’s much more reasonably priced, and it pays tribute to an inspiring scientific and humanitarian achievement rather than a corporatist manchild fantasy. Oh, and it’s impressively modular: the rocket stages and lunar module break apart exactly as they would have in real life, all with satisfying interlocking pieces. And speaking of manchild fantasies, I helped assemble this with my four-year-old nephew earlier this year, so I speak from experience. —Mark Lee
Jackery Power Bar TSA-Approved Laptop Charger
You’ve probably had the experience of your phone running out of batteries while out in the boonies, and maybe you have an external phone battery you bring with you on trips to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Well, it’s time to take it to the next level. With a full-on Power Bar, you can recharge your phone seven times in one trip, or your Nintendo Switch 3.8 times, or your iPad Mini 2.5 times. It’s got three different USB charge formats, plus a full-on regular outlet, which can be a game changer.
They’re primarily for travel and camping, but I mostly use my Jackery to power the electronics in my garage gym, so I can put my timer and speaker where I want them rather than where the plugs dictate. Plus, it came through huge this Halloween, where we used it to power a spooky lamp over our candy when the street lights went out.
This is a surprisingly practical item that feels full-on decadent when it really works. If you can think of places in your life where this could step in and come up huge, give it a shot. Especially if you absolutely cannot ride that Greyhound Bus without Netflix. —Peter Fenzel
I once thought that $300 for a pair of Sonos wireless speakers was an absurd luxury. Then I broke down and I actually bought a pair, and I can safely say that I was dead, dead wrong. Are they a luxury? Yes, but they are far from absurd. First, they sound amazing. Music comes through richer and louder than whatever tinny speakers you’re using now. Second, and most importantly, the convenience of pulling up music via Alexa or a smartphone app with minimal friction is a much stronger value proposition than you may realize. See, it actually gets you to listen to more of the amazing music that you have at your fingertips through your Spotify subscription. Play your all-time favorites, or discover something new. Either way, listen to more music. It’ll make your life better. Sonos will help you.
Pachinko (Min Jin Lee)
You probably recognize the title of this book from a number of “best of” lists from 2017, including the list of National Book Award finalists. If you were dissuaded from picking it up by either its length or its seemingly esoteric subject matter–Koreans living in Japan–then here’s my advice: get over those reservations. Run, do not walk, to your nearest independent book store, web browser, or Amazon-connected device, and buy this book for yourself or a loved one. It’s far and away the best book I read in 2018 and is among the best I’ve ever read in terms of emotional resonance and historical sweep. The fact that it’s about Koreans and written by a Korean-American author is an added bonus for people like me, but any reader from any background who’s ever struggled with family, identity, and legacy will find something to relate to in this book. Don’t believe me? Believe the Apple execs who are bankrolling a big-budget TV adaptation to help anchor their new streaming service. —Mark Lee
How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler (Ryan North)
Ryan North should already be your internet hero from Dinosaur Comics, Marvel’s recent Squirrel Girl series, his Choose Your Own Adventure reimagining of Hamlet titled To Be or Not To Be, and the ingeniously morbid anthology Machine of Death. His latest project combines his signature goofy humor with a high level of anthropological and engineering geekiness. It purports to be a guide for the stranded time traveler, helping you blend into and/or take control of any civilization, reinvent modern technology, and of course, brew your own beer. The science is all real and really interesting, and there are plenty of helpful illustrations to remind you how microscopes and telescopes work. I was going to give this to my 13-year-old, but there’s a high probability I’ll keep it for myself. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ —Matt Belinkie
Warped: An Engaging Guide to the Never-Aired 8th Season (Star Trek: The Next Generation) (Mike McMahan)
Back in October, CBS announced that a new Star Trek series was coming. Lower Decks will be an animated show exploring the lives of the Federation’s most menial crewmen. It’s the brainchild of Mike McMahan, who would have the benefit of the doubt if all he did was write some very funny episodes of Rick and Morty. But the real reason to be excited about Lower Decks is that McMahan also wrote this delightful guide to a supposedly lost eighth season of Star Trek: TNG. The plotlines combine the plausible (Data visits Starfleet Academy and is the victim of anti-android hate crimes) and the gloriously stupid (he wins over the student body by throwing the most awesome kegger the Academy has ever seen). It’s clearly a labor of love from a true fan, and that gives me a lot of hope that Lower Decks will be something special. —Matt Belinkie
Game of Thrones Fans
Jon Snow & Daenerys Targaryen Funko Pop Toy Figures & Pocket Pop Keychains
In the world of geek, toys are cool again. With dress codes relaxing throughout the business world, and aficionados less afraid than ever to rep what they love in public, Funko Pop figurines, with their iconic big-head style, are showing up more and more on the desks and shelves of fans of all ages. This package gets you both Jon and Dany, Game of Thrones’ favorite boat passengers, looking just that little big surly and ready to protect your loved one’s mousepad or your high school diploma from the forces of the Night King. — Peter Fenzel
Fire and Blood: 300 Years Before Game of Thrones: A Targaryen History (George R.R. Martin)
Got a Game of Thrones geek in your life? Somebody who reads the books cover to cover, and either loves the TV show or loves to hate it? While wedding planner extraordinaire George R.R. Martin is still under a ton of pressure to finish The Winds of Winter, the next novel in the series, it turned out this in-universe history book (the fourth such book so far on the world of Westeros) was coming just before winter. George R.R. Martin’s in-universe history books are not just a great way to explore this world that has so many obsessed fans, but are interesting exercises in bias and semiotics. See if you can figure out where the book is lying, and where it’s telling the truth.
And dragons. Lots of dragons. — Peter Fenzel
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn: 3-book Series (Tad Williams)
So, your Game of Thrones geek already got the world book, or is looking for something really shocking and next level, Memory Sorrow and Thorn is the best-kept secret in Game of Thrones fandom and theorizing. It is shocking more people who spend hours and hours talking about the Stark kids and their various blonde lovers and foils aren’t talking about these books, which are very, very obviously the direct inspiration for most of what happens in the series.
Published from 1988 thru 1993 (three years before Game of Thrones came out), The Dragonbone Chair, The Farewell Stone and To Green Angel Tower tell a tonally familiar but somewhat more conventional tale that anticipates many, many Game of Thrones characters, world-building and plot elements. Follow slim, brooding Simon Snowlock as he ventures into the wild lands of the far north in reluctant search of his destiny. Marvel at the Red Priests, who choose the troubled King Elias as their savior, when he draws a magical sword in an arcane ritual, and who wage a holy war to destroy the other world religions. Scratch your head at the Dawn Children, the Sithi, peaceful elfin tree-dwellers who lived in Osten Ard in the dawn of days, and had a pact of coexistence with ancient men, but were displaced by invaders with iron weapons. Say “Oh come on!” when a giant nonverbal man with a mysterious mental disability carries around a smart little sage on his back. And then remember these are not exactly the same books when you run into a whole mess of crab people.
George R.R. Martin said of Memory Sorrow and Thorn that it “Inspired me to write my own seven-book trilogy. It’s one of my favorite fantasy series.”
Believe me, it’s much more than that. Much more. And while it’s clear why Game of Thrones and its ilk are the ones with a hit TV show, these are fun reads with cool mystery and stylistic choices.
Also To Green Angel Tower is one of the thickest single novels ever printed (up there with Infinite Jest, Les Miserables, and Atlas Shrugged), so either get the e-book or be ready for guests in your home to think you must be the smartest person ever. That’s how it works, right? — Peter Fenzel
Kids (Toddlers? Teens?)
Delivery Bear (Laura Gehl, Paco Sordo)
Full disclosure: Laura Gehl was a friend of mine in college, so I’m predisposed to like her adorable children’s books. But my four-year-old doesn’t know her at all, and he’s still asking for Delivery Bear almost every night. It takes place is a Zootopia style world of anthropomorphic animals, in which Zogby has always dreamed of getting a job delivering cookies door to door. The problem is Zogby is a bear, and all the customers are terrified of him. There’s a heartwarming message about giving people a chance even if they seem different, and having faith in yourself even when the world doesn’t. But more importantly, the book offers the reader many opportunities to scream in terror, which is really funny the way I do it. —Matt Belinkie
How to be a T. Rex (Ryan North, Mike Lowery)
My second Ryan North recommendation of the Gift Guide! In case a couple decades of Dinosaur Comics wasn’t a tip off, Ryan really likes T Rexes. This book is narrated by an adorable kid named Sal who aspires to become history’s most terrifying predator… but finds out that being a T Rex isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (Humans don’t like it when you step on them, or their precious human feelings.) The solution: become the ultimate dino-human hybrid, combining boldness and empathy. With fun illustrations by children’s book vet Mike Lowery, it’s perfect for the empowered little girl on your shopping list.—Matt Belinkie
For the Overthinker Who Has Everything
This is the internet’s favorite costume. Perhaps you’ve seen a bride wearing one of these to surprise her husband on their wedding day. Maybe you’ve seen someone get surprisingly far into Stage 1 of American Ninja Warrior dressed in one. There’s the time a group of 100 T Rexes invaded a shopping plaza, the man who dressed as a T Rex to taunt a crocodile, and of course, a Harlem shake video. This costume, quite simply, brings joy to everyone who sees it, and I can only imagine what a delightful experience it must be to wear it. Not everyone has the body type and/or temperament to play Santa, but anyone can be a hero by suiting up as a T Rex and running around like a goofball. I’m getting one and putting it in the back of the closet. I have no idea when the perfect opportunity will present itself, but I will sleep easier at night knowing that I always have the option of fixing any problem by dressing up in this glorious, ridiculous costume. (Just FYI, I might be a little obsessed with T Rex-related gifts this year.) —Matthew Belinkie
A Nintendo Switch for Richard Rosenbaum
Look, he’s been asking us to ask you for it for months. He can’t afford it himself. Overthinking It’s resident native Canadian and published Ninja Turtles author wants you to buy him a Nintendo Switch. He knows he hasn’t gotten anything for you. I’m not going to tell you this is a good idea, and I’m not going even give you Richard’s home address.
But maybe, as a sort of compromise for a negotiation you never knew you entered, you can buy a Nintendo Switch for yourself, and then take it to a public place like a cafe, and invite Richard, so that he can challenge you in Super Smash Brothers Ultimate or trade off with you on your Octopath Traveler campaign.
Or just buy all this sweet stuff, keep it for yourself, and gloat to him. He’ll find it infuriating. But he’s Canadian, so he’ll be nice about it. —Peter Fenzel