Cultural obligations

Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at avcqa@theonion.com.

This week, AVC contributor Steve Heisler asks, “What did you feel obligated to watch/read because you didn’t want to miss out on some big cultural thing, even though you knew you’d hate it?”

Steve Heisler
I’m willing to give just about any pop-culture thing a decent shot before dismissing. But every once in a while, something comes along that I’m fairly confident isn’t going to be my thing. Then it makes a really big splash, and then I feel like I’m playing catch-up to some huge cultural phenomenon. Twilight is my go-to example. I get that people like the books and films (to put it lightly), yet I’m pretty confident I’ll think the movies are dumb and way too melodramatic. Plus I don’t like vampire stuff, Buffy excluded. They’re not for me, that’s fine. But when I looked over at the magazine section one day at Borders right around the time New Moon came out, and saw about 18 Twilight-themed covers, I felt like if I didn’t give them a viewing, I’ll be forever judging them based on buzz, which is the worst thing a critic can do. (Not that anyone’s clamoring for my opinion about Twilight.) It’s just hard to will myself to sit there, pop in the DVD, and give a shit. I was having a conversation with a buddy of mine just yesterday about Jersey Shore, because he wanted to know what I thought about it, and I could tell he had assumed I had already seen it. That’s another show that I just don’t think I’m going to like—it’s just a bunch more twentysomethings out of hotchickswithdouchebags.com who are famous for being famous, right? But people talk about it all the time; even well-worn fellow TV critics have given in to the siren’s song. Once something becomes a guilty pleasure, it permeates every walk of pop culture, because it becomes impossible to dismiss it outright without someone making the argument, “Oh, it isn’t good, but…” And as much as I don’t like the term “guilty pleasure” (c’mon, how guilty do you actually feel? Just say you like it outright), Jersey Shore is one for a lot of people. It’s everywhere, and I wanna know more about The Situation besides his abs, so I can add to the inevitable conversations.

Then there are things that I give a shot because they’re critically lauded, but don’t necessarily like after the first experience. And thus begins a push-pull where I feel forever obligated to continue to check them out because maybe I just didn’t get to the good part yet. I watched season one of Deadwood a year ago, and man, did I think it was boring. It’s such a thick, layered drama that I felt like I was slogging through molasses to discern the nuances of what was happening. I fell asleep more than a few times. Since then, I’ve had season two sitting on top of my shelf waiting for me, and I really want to watch it. That show is on so many critics’ “top 10 TV shows of all time” list, how was I so wrong? But the thought of 11 or so more hours of tentatively painful viewing just to see what all the fuss is about is a lot more powerful than the idea that things could get much better. And I’ll always want to choose a repeat listen of Phoenix or Frightened Rabbit over new stuff by Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, or Grizzly Bear, because as much as I wanted to like those bands’ other stuff, it just didn’t strike me. Still, I’ll probably listen to every album they put out, hoping I’ll finally see the light.

Tasha Robinson
Leaving aside actual work assignments—I mean, someone on staff had to go see I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell—I usually find it pretty easy to miss out on Big Cultural Things if they don’t already interest me for some reason. I managed to go a decade without seeing Titanic or Braveheart. I still haven’t seen Dances With Wolves. But yeah, I read the first Twilight book and I watched the first two movies. And I saw both Transformers movies, even knowing after the first one that the second one was going to be another loud, incoherent, boring drag. And I dutifully went to see the new Michael Haneke movie, The White Ribbon, out of a sense of obligation for year-end-movie-coverage completeness, even though Funny Games incensed me and nothing about a two-and-a-half-hour, black-and-white historical piece from the same director in any way interested me. I watched Drag Me To Hell out of a similar sense of critical obligation, even though I don’t much like horror movies, and I should know better than to take Scott’s advice on them, given his incomprehensible-to-me love of torture-porn. (Not that Drag Me To Hell was torture-porn exactly; I just found it needlessly mean-spirited and pointlessly nihilistic, especially given the ending.) Generally, at the end of the year, it’s easy to get me to watch anything by saying “There’s a vague chance this might be on someone else’s best-of list for the year, and you don’t want to be the one who missed out on it, right?” And yet I end up regretting my year-end viewing choices on at least one movie in 10.

Claire Zulkey
Life is too short to sit all the way through something you hate (especially if you’re not getting paid to watch it), plus then you have great conversations where people tell you what an idiot you were for not liking that thing. I abandoned The Sopranos early. (I just couldn’t get into it, and based on the amount of TV I watch, I don’t have it in me to force myself to watch something just because everyone else does. If anything, it was a relief to say “Well, at least I’m saving time not watching that.”) I turned off Pineapple Express less than halfway through, and I’ve watched exactly one episode of Jersey Shore. I won’t say which books I’ve stopped reading halfway through, though, because having been on the receiving end of that as a writer, I feel like it’s more of a slap in the face to read “Eh, I couldn’t get through it” than “I read the whole thing and hated it!” If there is any one thing I continue to watch even though it makes me so mad, it’s Weeds, I guess just because everyone on that show is so awful at this point, I am curious about how much more awful they will get. 

Leonard Pierce
I have always felt a certain obligation to read at least one bestselling novel a year, even if I know it’s going to suck the paint off my walls. Oddly, I don’t feel any equal compulsion to keep up with blockbuster movies or hit TV shows; maybe I figure it’s noteworthy enough if people are reading anything at all, so I should check out the big sellers even if they’re not to my taste. This explains why I’ve read a lot of books I really, really did not enjoy, including ones by Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, Anne Rice, and Clive Cussler, to name but a few tooth-gnashingly awful authors to whom I have subjected myself. I also read the first Left Behind novel, which was so horrible that I couldn’t even think about reading any further without having brain spasms, and the first two Harry Potter books, which, to their credit, I found to be not so much bad as merely not as good as the hype. I do this for non-fiction as well, which is why I’m dismayingly familiar with tripe like The Purpose-Driven Life, The Secret, The Artist’s Way, and books by various management-theory cretins and Jonah Goldberg. Given this near-lifelong habit, I know I’m going to eventually join my A.V. Club comrades, bite the sparkly bullet, and read a Twilight novel, but I’m putting it off as long as possible, kind of like a literary root canal. 

Jason Heller
With about as much joy as I empty the cat litter, I force myself to listen to every new U2 album when it comes out. At this point, any music critic can pretty much get away with ignoring U2 completely, even though the band wound up having way more influence on the last decade than many people realize. (A huge portion of the hits of the ’00s—from Arcade Fire’s to Kings Of Leon’s—sounded like warmed-over The Joshua Tree to me. And that’s not even taking Coldplay into account.) I guess it can be argued that U2 has earned the right to exist in its own bubble, irrelevant to the music world as a whole—but the thing is, it’s still the biggest band in the world, more or less, and as such, it ought to be some sort of barometer of something. Right? And yet I’m consistently bored shitless every time I sit down with a new U2 disc. I’ll admit, I worshipped the band in junior high, and The Unforgettable Fire is still one of my favorite albums of any era. By now, though, I know I’ll never recapture the rush of passion and wonder I felt back then. Sadly, the same is pretty true for U2. But their new music still apparently matters to somebody—a few million somebodies, even—and I feel obligated to at least try to penetrate that particular mystery of existence. That is, for about 50 minutes every four years.

Andy Battaglia
Avatar was certainly one of these for me, and I suspect a lot of others. I got more out of it than I expected going in, but I couldn’t help feeling hyper-aware of my presence at a movie I only just barely wanted to see, especially during the draggy parts. And then hyper-aware of how strange it was that the act of being there felt simultaneously like a lark and a foregone conclusion not even worth thinking about, or pretending could’ve possibly gone otherwise. Is that some sort of dodgy way station on the way to nirvana?

Todd VanDerWerff
I think all people who spend their lives watching too much TV and writing about it have one or two series they only stick with because of the amorphous “zeitgeist” or whatever the kids are calling it these days. For a long time, I watched Desperate Housewives because it was what people were watching. Then I realized I didn’t really enjoy it at all, and dropped it. Roughly the same thing has happened with everything from Grey’s Anatomy to My Name Is Earl to Damages—all shows I thought I should be watching even though I didn’t really like them. All shows I was able to ditch without even so much as a pained glance toward the DVD box sets in Best Buy. But weirdly, I can’t seem to get rid of Entourage. I’m not even sure you could call the continued following of the show a critical obligation, since it isn’t terribly popular with critics or audiences. And yet I continue to watch, even though I dislike pretty much everything about it. What show that I don’t actually like all that much am I watching at the moment because I feel I must? True Blood. But, then, I thought Six Feet Under was also highly overrated and only watched it because I felt I had to. So I guess my answer is “the assorted HBO dramas of Alan Ball.” Which is far from pithy, but there you go.

Nathan Rabin
I suppose I feel a strange obligation to watch the late-period films of Oliver Stone. I really, really didn’t want to see World Trade Center and W., but I did so anyway, thinking “Even at this point, Stone is still a major filmmaker, and if I don’t see those films in previews, I won’t see them at all.” That said, I never got around to seeing Alexander. A film has to be seriously dire-looking if not even the promise of a naked Rosario Dawson and elephants going fucking nuts just isn’t enough to pique my interest.

Steven Hyden
Does sitting through a recent episode of The Jay Leno Show count? I lost an hour of my life waiting for that comedic black hole to say something vaguely interesting about Conan, Letterman, or NBC, and instead ended up listening to “Big Chin” and Billy Crystal go on and on about how people in L.A. don’t know how to drive in the rain. I’m sure I won’t miss those lost 60 minutes when I’m on my deathbed.

Josh Modell
Maybe I’m just naïve, but I won’t watch a movie that I just absolutely know I’m going to hate. To borrow a phrase from Nathan Rabin, I usually have a sense of cautious optimism going into pretty much any movie—the ones that just look completely repulsive to me (let’s say When In Rome this week), I just won’t bother with. The closest example I can think of in film recently is Drag Me To Hell, but that was more a case of wanting to see it because most people around here really loved it—I enjoyed it, but I knew it wouldn’t hit me in the same way it did others who are more susceptible to the genre’s charms. In the world of music, I feel a bit more of what you might call critical obligation, but that’s actually more about curiosity than obligation. For example, I now know what Justin Bieber’s music sounds like, despite the fact that I am not a 14-year-old girl. I’m none the worse for having heard it, though it only involved four minutes with YouTube instead of 100 minutes in a dark theater.