Best Of The Best-Ofs

Every year, TV networks air specials in the last week of the year that are designed to remember the best of the year that was. This year, Phil Nugent has watched a number and is ready to point out the best of the best-ofs.

Reviewing an album by a folkish English band that had gotten too close to its traditionalist roots for his tastes, Robert Christgau once wrote, "Don't they realize that every verse of 'Cruel Sister' used to end 'Fa la la la la la la la la la' because in the olde days people had nothing else to do at night?" That was in 1970,  a time that, from a contemporary perspective, can feel pretty olden days itself now, especially if you're vexed by the question of what to do tonight. Relatively recent developments, ranging from the creation of the Internet to the arrival of new generations of talented people who grew up thinking of TV, comics, and video games as legitimate creative forms waiting to be taken to the next level, have led to a steady flow of pop culture product that at least seems interesting until you get past the first handshake with it. I suppose the sensible thing would be to just be grateful to have so many choices in a world that's done for boredom what Salk did for polio, but sometimes, keeping track of everything that you really ought to check out can just feel exhausting, or even oppressive. One solution might be to make peace with being a late arriver and just wait until December, cull all the year-end lists from the most reliable outlets, and use them to figure out what you should be doing between now and next December, when the whole mad dance can begin anew. Like a lot of people, I've spent the last week or so just looking at all the "best of the year" lists here at The A. V. Club. It's been a sobering experience to be reminded of all the things that I remember hearing about for the first time, months ago, only to forget about as soon as I'd added the titles to my Amazon wish list. 

Of all the TV shows that have done their own year-in-review shows this past week or so, the one neatest to an A. V. Clubber's heart may be  The Nerdist, BBC America's televised version of the podcast hosted by Chris Hardwick, with backup from a peanut gallery consisting of the comedians Jonah Ray and Matt Mira. The audio version made this site's list of the best podcasts of 2011, because (it says here) Hardwick "brings not only knowledge of a variety of subjects but also passion for those subjects", which makes for an "enthusiasm [that] offers a welcome change of tone" from the usual run of "cynicism and snarkiness" that one so often encounters in discussions of the subjects that set the geekosphere a-roiling.

The 2011-review show had an especially nice air of sweet, wisecracking cameraderie, with a guest panel that included Nathan Fillion, who's already ready to pitch in and help old ladies and good-hearted, low-budget programs make it across a busy street, and Hardwick's longtime pal and uber-geek Wil Wheaton. Wheaton got off a good one about the news that R.E.M. had broken up being kind of like hearing that someone like Jack LaLanne had died, and he also gave the show its most touching moment when he looked genuinely overcome with emotion after Hardwick presented him with his Christmas gift, a memento from their time together as roommates--a holiday-decorated oven mitt named Neal the Christmas Walrus. ("He's still alive!?" said Wheaton.) It was just weird enough for the feeling that came through to be really affecting. 

Hardwick also conducted brief taped interviews with David Tennant, which was fun, and with Simon Pegg, which was... well, it turned out to not really be an interview, which was a shame, since I would have liked to have heard Pegg talk about what it was like to go from being a scroungy, marginal cult figure to someone who was in two monster-budget major-release movies that I happened to see on the same day a couple of weeks ago. Instead, he and Hardwick started to pretend to have an interview and then dove into a bit that was basically an excuse for them to try on funny costumes. It was deadly, and a prime example of the dangers in turning a podcast into a TV show, since the people involved may succumb to the notion that they'd better justify being on-camera by doing something "visual." (Ricky Gervais has solved this problem by turning himself and Karl Pilkington into cartoon characters, which isn't really much more of a stretch than putting Tom Cruise and the Mission: Impossible franchise into the hands of the director of The Incredibles turned out to be.) 

The only fireworks anybody really needs or wants from this show are of the verbal kind, whether or not you can see the people doing the talking.  That's why the Roman sparkler on this episode turned out to be the appearance by Kumail Nanjiani, who came on to talk about games. His hilarious riffing about the embarrassingly bad liars and trigger-happy cops in L.A. Noire ("I just shot a man in the back for stealing a Kit Kit. I'm pretty sure I'm the worst cop in the precinct. I think I might be a sociopath.") lit up the panel and inspired everyone else to step up their game. Noting that Batman supposedly never kills anyone, Nanjiani pointed to some of the mayhem he deals out in Arkham City and mused, "Maybe Batman just doesn't know what 'dead' means. He's like, 'They're sleeping. I can't wait for my parents to wake back up.'" Matt Mira, bless him, topped him: "When you're fighting people in that game, the bad guys will taunt you, and one of them says, 'I'm gonna make sure your mother doesn't recognize you," and I always feel like Batman should have a breakdown." Apparently, Nanjiani regularly shares his two cents on games on The Indoor Kids, a podcast that I have not been listening to, but I now intend to correct that.

Slate's TV critic Troy Patterson, who did so much to endear himself to the online community earlier this year when he explained that he went into Game of Thrones knowing that it was "quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap" (whichm just to be clear, is "not a comment on its quality but a definition of its type"), began his year-end wrap-up piece with the admission that he hadn't seen much of Breaking Bad's fourth season and the explanation that "The key to being a TV critic without losing one's mind is to not watch too much television." I'm not sure that I'm the right person to argue against his point, based simply on the fact that I watched the two-hour premiere of Bachelor Pad and didn't take to the roof with a rifle. (That said, I have spent enough time in the trenches of hackery to know that nobody who is paid to write about TV, and damn few people who are paid to write for a general audience about movies and popular music, has ever endangered his relationship with editor by taking the position that he's covering worthless juvenile crap and there's no need to work too hard at it.) I do know that, as someone who spends a lot of time worrying that I do watch too much TV, part of the pleasure of E's The Soup is having your previous concept of "too much TV" vaporized. 

The Nerdist is set in a world where people sometimes express bewilderment that the Kardashians are getting away with it, but it's a rather sweet bewilderment, motivated less by contempt for the Kardashians than by a pained empathy for the people following their adventures, who don't understand that they'd be so much better off putting down Us Weekly and picking up the latest Lev Grossman. The Soup is set in a world where, whatever reports you may have heard of movies and books and music and, yes, TV that's actually worth someone's time, there is nothing but Kardashians and they're ilk, and there's nothing to be done but issue snarky remarks through a pained smile while they're standing on your foot. I had fun watching their best-of-the-year show, but as the clips of Dr. Drew and animal hoarders and Mama Kardashian (with special guest turd O. J. Simpson) and a dance instructor who Joel McHale referred to as "Queen Nutjob of Batshitstan" and the Good Morning, America weatherman who McHale has dubbed, "Sam 'I Have The Stupid-Assest Name And I Dare You To Have A Stupider-Ass Name Than Me, Sam Stupid-Ass Would Be Less Stupid-Ass Than My Stupid-Ass Name' Champion" all promenaded across the screen, I remembered why I don't watch this show on a regular basis; at some point, enjoyment gives way to thoughts of what it must be like monitoring all the channels of the airwaves in hopes of finding a moment where Suzanne Somers breaks new ground in looking stupid, and it chills the marrow. But fans of Community need to watch it at least once, so they can look at Mchale's horrified-amused face and come to a fresh appreciation of what Jeff Winger would be like without the humanizing effect of all that supposedly unwanted friendship.

It was Fuse, a channel that has largely failed to expand upon the promise and originality of Pants Off Dance Off, that really hammered home the idea that snark may have outlived its usefulness. Fuse has been airing and re-airing both its Top 40 of 2011 and its "Video on Trial" crew's Best of the Worst 2011; the "best" were selected with the help of votes from viewers, a democratic gesture that takes on a face-saving aspect, given that there was some overlap between the two lists. On the Best of the Worst show, videos by performers who people love to make fun of, some with more good reason than others, were intercut with wisecracks made from a panel of comedians who seemed to have been deliberately chosen so that, as a group, they would resemble the gang from the late, lamented Best Week Ever if they'd been run through a faulty Xerox machine after being left out overnight in the rain. 

Most of the other music-video compilation shows were there to remind us just how badly snark is still needed in some parts of the media landscape that remain overrun with low-hanging fruit. I couldn't focus on the videos on GAC's country-music roundup because of the hosts, Lady Antebellum. Either some joker had lied to them about where the cameras were, or these sweet-seeming, bland souls had decided that it would add to their authenticity quotient if they stared defiantly away from the viewer, as if something fascinating were going on in a far corner of the studio. It would be a hell of a thing if they really were the three stupidest people in show business, on top of being the most boring.

Over at 120 Minutes on MTV2, Matt Pinfield showcased his favorite interview moments since the show was brought back from the dead this year, which is fine, and declared that the number one 120 Minutes-style musical entity of the year is Foster the People, which I'm going to need a few minutes to process. In keeping with the twenty-years-after vibe that has afflicted music coverage this year, Mark Foster was prodded to explain how he'd been moved to start playing guitar after first learning about Nirvana when he was twelve. Then they played the  band's video, which sounded like Jesus Jones and, with its focus on purty girls acting as the band's cheerleaders and the stars' bare feet, reminded me of the Black Crowes. If nothing else, it reminded you that parts of 1991 were as hard to get through as any other year. The nicest video roll call was on the Latin-themed channel Tr3s, which had some nice Christmas-wrapping visuals and a host who, when called upon to provide an adjective for Chris Brown, found a pleasant-sounding way to say "scandal-ridden."

The VH1 influence was also strongly felt, surprisingly enough, on CNN, on a show billed as Anderson Cooper 360 Special: All the Best, All the Worst 2011, which was, of course, hosted by someone named Tom Foreman. Anderson Cooper was present, though he was just one of the many celebrities and unfamiliar faces passing as celebrities whose visages came shooting from the corner of the screen before disappearing to make room for the next face. Tired as this format was, it worked a lot better in the later part of the show, which was devoted to pop culture, and which gave you the chance to find out what Carson Kressley thinks of celebrity weddings, than in the first part, which was devoted to world and domestic events, and which gave you the chance to hear what Cloris Leachman thinks of high unemployment numbers. (She thinks they suck.) At least they entrusted the editing department with the mission of creating a new show. Keith Olbermann, whose year-end compilations of weird news items had become a regular seasonal highlight by the end of his time at MSNBC, spend the week airing reruns of what's supposed to be a goddamn news show, giving audiences the chance to snuggle in front of the fire and thrill to the chance to relive that time, a month or so ago, when Jackson Browne dropped in to rap about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Does Olbermann rent out a storage unit to house his ego, or does he sleep in the unit himself and leave his ego free run of his Manhattan apartment?

Snark seemed happiest and most at home on TLC's Top 10 Weddings of 2011, hosted by Randy Fenoli of Say Yes to the Dress. I was surprised at how many country music stars (Shania Twain, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert) had headline-worthy weddings in 2001. The attitudes towards moneyed, white-trash love that these unions inspired in the guest commentators seemed to sum up something about the people who give a rat's ass about celebrity weddings, and the people whose job it is to cater to them; they seemed simultaneously touched by the idea of down-home romance and pleased with themselves for deigning to give these crackers a moment of their attention. But even I knew that none of these hillbillies would dislodge William and Kate from the top spot. You don't watch shows like these for the big surprises but for the comfort of hearing the year described to you as you sort of knew it was supposed to look. On New Year's Eve, nobody working on one of these shows is about to break his leg trying to book Armond White.

My favorite year-end TV event of the year, as it's been in most recent years, was the short film celebrating movie-world figures who died this past year, on Turner Classic Movies. The music doesn't work as well for me as it has in previous year's films, but somebody at TCM really knows how to put these things together. Good night, Liz Taylor, I promise I'll try to do better next year.

Stray observations:

  • Some of The Nerdist's choices for best band names of the year: The Dead Kenny G's; Ringo Death Starr; and Cerebral Ballsy
  • The Nerdist's list of nominees for Nerdist of the Year included Peter Dinklage, Neil Gaiman, Felicia Day, and Andy Serkis, but the trophy went to Weird Al Yankovic. I'm not going to make a big deal out of this; I'm sure the fact that he was willing to show up was a major factor. Still, this is the year that I found out that Weird Al isn't just a novelty artist who still has more of a career than you might expect but a beloved figure to a generation. Again, I'm not complaining; I suppose it's kind of sweet. I'm just not also going to pretend that I understand it. What's he got that (say) Dickie Goodman or Larry Groce didn't have?
  • When Wil Wheaton made a joke about ABC's early-80s SNL knockoff Fridays, the audience responded with confusion, and Hardwick grinned, "Awww, '70s babies!" Welcome to my world...
  • The Fuse Worst show did present me with one amazing find that I hadn't seen before: a video  of a Kesha song in which she has a ray-gun battle with James Van Der Beek in the middle of a party full of unicorns. (There is some collateral damage. Struck down, the unicorns bleed rainbows.) I have a hunch that, on some level, it's supposed to be funny, and it's amazing how little that helps.
  • Sheryl Lee Ralph was a surprisingly prominent presence on the TLC Weddings show. I'd seen Ralph in acting roles without ever guessing what a weird, self-forged diva she is when she's supposedly just being herself. She enunciates like the Station Inspector in Hugo.
  • Hey, TLC, please don't refer to Hugh Hefner as a "notorious playboy." Even if you could argue that he is, it's just too lazy, given that the man, you know, is the founder of an empire built around a magazine called Playboy. You wouldn't  refer to Larry Flynt as a notorious hustler, even though, again, you could make a good case for it being technically accurate.
  • Discussing the pretend marriage of the year, between the kids in the Twilight movie series, Joe Zee declared that Robert Pattinson had pulled off something entirely new: a vampire who has style and romantic appeal. Yeah, it's amazing how they were able to make that leap and accomplish a clean break from the traditional image, established over the years by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee and Frank Langella and David Boreanaz and James Marsters, of the vampire as a lonely schlub who spends all his time holing up in his shitbox apartment, wearing torn jeans and wifebeaters and  eating Cheez Doodles.
  • CNN really has it in for reality TV, dissing it in the voiceover narration and allowing sportswriter  LZ Granderson to intone, "I would like to see the death of reality television. I would like to see us stop looking into the train wrecks of other people's lives and get back to being benevolent and helping each other." Hey, dude, I'm not out there talking about how the NHL needs to be shut down! Stop trying to take the bread out of my mouth!