As we enter a New Year, it’s time for each of us to take unflinching stock of ourselves, then reflect upon the aspects that could stand to be improved so that we might all lead lives that are happier, healthier, and more productive. But frankly, that sounds too hard. So let’s think about how pop culture can better entertain us instead. Here are 17 suggestions.
The apocalypse has been a vehicle for great storytelling ever since John realized the Bible needed a third act, and over the millennia, we’ve had plenty fun imagining our civilization’s collapse into lawless, desperate chaos. But even with the myriad forms it can take, the end of the world has become a trope-filled and tired genre. While you can attribute this year’s dwindling ratings for The Walking Dead to a lot of things—a show’s natural seventh-season ebb; the drudgery of its repetitive world-building plots; Negan—it also doesn’t help that it’s been spinning its wheels in the muck of a hopeless, openly hostile environment. What once felt like darkly thrilling escapism is now just another day on Twitter.
That feeling has only been intensified by the many TV series in The Walking Dead’s wake starring shattered, mistrustful people navigating some sort of end-times scenario, be they dramas like Colony, Revolution, The Leftovers, The Strain, Designated Survivor, and The 100, or even comedies like The Last Man On Earth and You, Me And The Apocalypse—all of which have made the post-apocalyptic wasteland, as a setting, as well-trodden as Manhattan. Movie apocalypses have begun to feel just as perfunctory, a boilerplate obstacle to be overcome by some plucky teenager who finally learns to be their best self, or just waiting for a bunch of superheroes to throw CGI at it. When the threat of our mass extinction mostly elicits boredom, maybe it’s time to take a break. There are plenty of other, less broadly fantastical ways that things can go disastrously wrong for humanity. Let’s fantasize about those for a while. [Sean O’Neal]
Or maybe we don’t need to always daydream about our imminent self-destruction? As two of the year’s most popular works of science fiction showed us, you don’t always need doom and gloom to entertain. The third season of Black Mirror was as bleak and wickedly cutting as ever, but its most popular episode was also its most uplifting: “San Junipero” dared to introduce some hope into its story of love and technology, breaking with the cynicism not only of Charlie Brooker’s series, but with most of its futurist contemporaries. And while there are certainly elements of Arrival that are, let’s say, less than upbeat, the film’s primary message is one of compassion, communication, and—again—hope. After so many years spent watching aliens smash up our national monuments (something reprised, to global shrugs, in this summer’s Independence Day: Resurgence), it was refreshing to see a science-fiction film that regarded space as something to be explored, rather than defeated. Not to mention, as our everyday reality has only grown more pessimistic, how nice would it be to see a resurgence of stories set in a brighter, shinier future and places that aren’t ours? [Sean O’Neal]
We’ve spent an entire decade now mired in the self-involved squabbles of the rich and famous-for-being-famous, and come January, you can catch the premiere of its latest spin-off in the White House. It would be simplistic to lay the blame for Donald Trump’s ascendance solely on the way reality TV has conveyed a disproportionate sense of authority on wealth and celebrity, or how—thanks to a steady diet of E! and Bravo series—many people seem to think the goal of life is to always get your way, no matter the consequence. Still, it certainly didn’t hurt. And as we’re about to find out on a very real, not cleverly edited scale, loud, unapologetic narcissism may be fun to binge-watch while hungover, but it’s hell to actually live in. The next four years will be full of rich assholes slinging their catchphrases and blowing up melodramatically at every minor slight; we don’t need the Real Housewives anymore. [Sean O’Neal]
Our TV landscape is filled with creative, sharply observed series blurring the line between comedy and drama, populated by characters whose messy lives make for compelling entertainment—entertainment that is, occasionally, very funny, but just as often, very depressing. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz coined a term for these hybrids earlier this year: “comedies in theory,” a category that includes many of the best shows on television, and that has, in his estimation, become the defining (if vaguely defined) “genre of our time.” Which is fine! Other than maybe some industry quibbling over how to submit to awards shows, those old genre divisions are increasingly irrelevant anyway, and the complex stories that Atlanta, You’re The Worst, BoJack Horseman, Transparent, Fleabag, Lady Dynamite, Baskets, et al. have been able to tell because they don’t pause for punchlines every 90 seconds offers further testament to the narrative richness allowed when you ignore the trappings of “genre” completely. But at the same time, man, we could sure use more smart, ambitious comedies that are simply fun, with characters we can just enjoy spending time with, rather than worrying about.
Michael Schur has done his damnedest to keep things playful with Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt offers a decent replica of 30 Rock’s arch fizziness, and Fox’s New Girl is still the best hangout show on TV. But by and large, the most forward-thinking, least formulaic TV comedy out there right now seems to exist within a depressive funk, which makes it hard to hang out with after a few beers. Not every comedy has to be Louie to be sophisticated, and all those unhappy Brooklynites and L.A. suburbanites have by now had the knots of their tangled lives thoroughly picked. We’re eager for something new to laugh at besides pervading human misery. [Sean O’Neal]
The breakout surprise hit of the fall season was NBC’s This Is Us, a drama that—for all its ballyhooed “twists”—is a show about nuanced people navigating their complex emotional connections. It all sounds flatly ordinary, but amid a sea of superheroes, dark antiheroes, sexy lawyers, sexy devils, sexy vampires, sexy exorcists, sexy historical figures, and the various other gimmicky high concepts, it was an anomaly. Dramas about real people’s real problems don’t always command the highest ratings (just ask Parenthood), but they also connect deeply with viewers in a way that those other shows rarely do (just ask Parenthood). Perhaps now more than ever, we could use more characters whose everyday struggles inspire us to push through our own. And let’s not put the burden of that all on our comedies; as mentioned above, they feel bad enough as is. [Sean O’Neal]
A good documentary can’t compete with a piece of written journalism for quantity of information. What it has, instead, is force: the fabulist ability to weave together narratives and ideas juxtaposed with the cold, unyielding truth of a camera’s gaze. Several recent long-form documentaries—O.J.: Made In America, Making A Murderer, and The Jinx—captured the public imagination by creating a sense of mystery much broader than a mere whodunit. We watched O.J. for its sweeping indictment of racism in America, Making A Murderer for its portrait of a small-town witch hunt gone awry, and The Jinx for the repellant spectacle of its murderous subject. None of these would’ve worked on the massive scale they did if they hadn’t been real (or at least, as “real” as the documentary form can allow). As networks and streaming services continue to one-up each other in terms of scale and star power, perhaps a lesson can be gleaned from these successes. A good documentary director, given a long leash and a generous run time, can create serialized art as intoxicating as any prestige show. [Clayton Purdom]
The questions posed by Louie go beyond “Does a comedy have to be funny?” Perhaps even more groundbreaking is the idea of what constitutes an episode of TV. The formal experiments of Louie—installments composed of multiple vignettes, or stretched to mini-movie length—carried over to CK’s Horace And Pete, the first season of which refused to be pinned down to a genre or a standard running time. Back on FX, the heirs apparent to Louie took its inventive streak and ran with it, breaking from format to zero in on specific characters or become an entirely different TV show for one week. You’re The Worst followed last year’s Gretchen-centric episode “LCD Soundsystem” with an aria for Desmin Borges (“Twenty-Two”) and a “Pine Barrens”/Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead excursion for Paul and Vernon (“The Seventh Layer”). Atlanta, meanwhile, taught viewers to drop their expectations from the start, beginning with that scene in the pilot involving a philosophical stranger and a Nutella sandwich. It did the spotlight-episode thing, too, but its true stroke of genius was “B.A.N.,” which is less an episode of an ongoing sitcom, and more a transmission from a satirical sketch series set in the Atlanta universe. Other TV shows could stand to learn from that episode’s Arizona Iced Tea commercial parody: Just because you print something on the can, it doesn’t mean that’s what you’re going to get. [Erik Adams]
Police procedurals are the coal that keeps the network television furnace hot, and it makes sense that executives would turn to them whenever some intellectual property needing to be cut up into episodic structure comes along. Meanwhile, shows combining murder and folklore have proven commercially—even critically—successful, which makes cramming old, familiar tales into old, familiar cop show rhythms all the more enticing. Still, now that Sherlock Holmes, Grimms’ fairy tales, Ichabod Crane, the Devil himself, and Supernatural’s “hunters” (to name just a few) have all been turned into prime-time police stories—and with Oliver Twist and King Arthur on the way—it’s time to rethink the “reimagining” of classic characters for TV beyond just slapping a badge on them. You could at least make them doctors. [Katie Rife]
Once upon a time, Hollywood took a “wait and see” approach to movie franchises, green-lighting subsequent installments on a case-by-case basis; if audiences tired of a series and a sequel underperformed, everyone could just walk away. That’s not really the case anymore, of course. These days, every studio is chasing that shared-universe, multi-year investment plan, as comic-book powerhouses Marvel and DC line up years and years of future projects, with no end in sight. The trend reached peak absurdity in 2016 with the announcement that the Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is actually chapter one in a trilogy—scratch that: a pentalogy—a decision that was made weeks before Fantastic Beasts had even opened. Meanwhile, a potential Han Solo trilogy may likewise be in the works, despite the fact that Alden Ehrenreich is literally years away from making his first appearance as the young space smuggler.
Maybe this is a sound business strategy—it’s certainly paid off for Marvel—but all this counting of chickens before they hatch has to backfire eventually. Worse, it boxes filmmakers into long-term planning mode, decreasing the opportunity to respond to what worked in earlier installments and take the property in brave new directions. In our ideal future, Hollywood would go back to year-to-year franchise management, waiting on actual success before preemptively promising us a whole lot of something we’re not even sure we like yet. [A.A. Dowd]
Only a small number of the directors who are entrusted with helming any feature film are women, and of those, an even smaller number of them are working in “genre” movies (i.e., action, horror, and sci-fi). But that’s slowly changing. We saw hints of this encouraging trend at this year’s Fantastic Fest, where films by exciting young voices like The Bad Batch’s Ana Lily Amirpour and Raw’s Julia Ducournau were among the most buzzed-about. This year also saw the returns of underrated genre directors like Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) and Lucile Hadžihalilović (Evolution), both of whom have struggled to obtain funding for their films in the past. Speaking of Kusama, she’s participating in the upcoming horror anthology XX, a first-of-its kind effort featuring four shorts all made by women. With all this activity happening on the indie level, there should be plenty of names for Kathleen Kennedy to choose from when she finally makes good on her promise to hire a female director for Star Wars. [Katie Rife]
Look, we understand that Hollywood has movies to hype, and—in the interest of full disclosure—we certainly benefit from being a cog in that machine. But lately, Hollywood’s marketing campaigns have become tiresomely drawn out, with the worst offenders being the now-standard “teaser” previewing the premiere of… the preview. It seems no one can just put out a trailer anymore; as with the first full Rogue One trailer, now you need weeks of an entire, separate promotional effort directing people to a Good Morning America exclusive, all for 90 seconds of footage. An effective teaser can certainly prime the audience, but ads trumpeting the arrival of another, better ad have a tendency to create a feeling of oversaturation at best, outright resentment at worst. We already want to know what Spider-Man is going to wear to Homecoming; studios don’t need to schedule a date with us to pick out a boutonniere. [Danette Chavez]
Some of the most beloved albums of previous decades defined themselves by their genre-mingling density: 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, 1996’s Odelay, 2000’s Since I Left You. All three of those records felt wildly ahead of their time, pointing the way toward some polyglot future pop music that knew no boundaries. Today those visions seem less outré, thanks in large part to hip-hop’s convergence with pop and the former’s unwillingness to stay put, eating every genre and movement it comes across like a cultural Katamari. Thus, in 2016 we had Rihanna grooving over a nearly seven-minute Tame Impala cover, Frank Ocean drowning in warbling goth guitars, Chance The Rapper finding a spot for Future on a gospel track, and pretty much every second of Danny Brown’s freewheeling, depraved Atrocity Exhibition. Much of this can be attributed to the curatorial influence of Kanye West, whose own Life Of Pablo was the artist’s least cohesive—and arguably, most fun—record since Late Registration. Hip-hop finally ran out of old breaks to sample, and now its sense of freewheeling reinvention is everywhere. Hopefully more artists will embrace it. [Clayton Purdom]
Over the past few years, it’s become customary to reissue and repackage records whenever a milestone anniversary comes around. This year has seen its fair share of them, and it’s something that’s been so pervasive that, six years ago, Jessica Hopper wrote a nuanced piece about how the endless reissuing of Nirvana’s catalog is actually detrimental to the albums’ legacies. Even when these anniversary releases do offer new material, it’s generally outtakes or demos. And while those tracks often provide context for the final product, they rarely become part of an artist’s canon, typically just offering the chance to say, “Wow, this song got a lot better when they finished it.” Similarly, in an age of digital streaming, it’s definitely not hard to find and listen to records that are decades old, in the original form that people first fell in love with. These reissues are most often nothing more than a clever marketing ploy, or a way of pushing fans to pony up a second time. [David Anthony]
It’s easy to understand why the “surprise” album release has become the go-to distribution method for artists of a certain caliber. For one, it almost guarantees they’ll be dominating the news cycle for the next week or so, as places rush to review the record, then trot out its think-pieces. It also, for the most part, means an artist is removed from a press cycle, letting the work stand on its own merits without having to do an endless string of interviews. But therein lies the problem: By demanding writers to immediately form opinions about a work, it often means that the dialogue surrounding a record is half-formed, skewed by knee-jerk opinions instead of the analysis that only comes from living it for a while. The fact that so many of these records are positioned as streaming exclusives also hurts, turning an album into a de facto advertisement for Tidal or Apple rather than a work of art. And too often, it makes it all to easy to just forget about these records after the surprise has faded and the conversation shifts to the next mystery release from a marquee name. Surprise releases often turn albums into things that are consumed as fast as possible and then discarded, which is far from what their creators intended. [David Anthony]
Video games are a massive industry and cultural phenomenon that can seem downright absurd to people not steeped in the culture. E-sports are even harder to grok: stadiums full of people in throes of ecstasy and despair as a couple of action-figure-sized monsters shoot lasers at each other on an incomprehensibly dense screen. These games often take dozens of hours to even understand, let alone play competently. Once you break down those barriers, though, the possibilities of the medium become apparent: a fathomlessly deep competition, with the winner crowned not for physical prowess but intellectual gamesmanship. Look at it not as a corrective to traditional sports, but an addition: Imagine stadiums of people from all over the world freaking out over a chess tournament!
Newer e-sports, though, are striving toward removing that final barrier to entry: They’re getting easier to play. Blizzard’s Overwatch and Hearthstone, in particular, create an arc of playability that starts not after dozens of hours of loss but in their very first rounds, letting players try out new techniques and explore new facets of the game as they’re ready for it. Both are playable on a multitude of platforms, and feature characters with diverse ethnic backgrounds, body types, and orientations—a striking diversion from e-sports’ normal bikini babes and ax-wielding strongmen. Others, like the mobile MOBA Vainglory, attempt to streamline a byzantine game like Dota into something that can be played on a commute. Complexity is a cornerstone of e-sports’ success, but here’s hoping that the tent continues to make room for people who don’t have a few dozen hours to spend getting their ass kicked before it starts to make any sense. [Clayton Purdom]
It’s been a long time coming, but it felt like the open-world video game bubble reached its limit in 2015, before finally bursting in 2016. The last several years have been littered with sandbox after sandbox, and while plenty found ways to make that formless structure work, many more were crushed under the weight of their own toothless chores and bloated bodies. Worse, the constant deluge of these games with similar skeletons and tedious tasks has only made it harder for any given one to stand out and excite. If there’s anything developers should take away from 2016 and its best games, it’s that linearity and brevity aren’t dead. Concise, extraordinary big-budget releases like Uncharted 4, Doom, and Titanfall 2 showcase what can be achieved when expert creators embrace that vital sense of authorship and vision that’s lost when they have to populate a humongous, empty setting with loads of stuff to do. With promising tentpoles like The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and Mass Effect: Andromeda on the horizon, open-world games aren’t going away—nor should they. It’d just be nice if publishers started to realize not everything is better when you make it bigger. [Matt Gerardi]
In 2016, the always self-loathing internet took a hard look in the mirror and asked itself whether its fandom had finally crossed that line separating obsession and stalking—going from eagerly appreciating to essentially calling it up in the middle of the night, demanding that it put on that pretty dress it liked. Our own Jesse Hassenger noted this phenomenon in an article that sparked a widespread debate over the rise of “fan entitlement,” whose long history of online petitions, tweet-storms, and Reddit shit-fits has, more recently, calcified into an alarming uptick in organized bullying, sometimes even erupting in stealing someone’s personal information or lobbing death threats. In 2016, “fan entitlement” began to seem less like an annoyance for Hollywood types on Twitter, and more like a serious epidemic threatening the future of pop culture discussion—maybe even pop culture itself.
While there are obviously deeper issues at play behind online harassment, it’s all part of a spreading attitude problem—one amplified by social media—that led to Birth Movies Death’s Devin Faraci declaring “Fandom Is Broken,” a controversial article that soon spawned even more pile-ons, as well as rejoinders pointing out that there’s an important difference between fans offering criticism and the rantings of its loudest, angriest dickholes. That’s certainly true. But it doesn’t negate the fact that, increasingly, there are some fans who act as though their rights extend beyond critiques and constructive suggestions—or crucially, choosing whether or not to support a work of art. Instead, they believe it is their duty, as a “real” fan, to dictate what art others should or shouldn’t support. Some even believe it’s their job to tell the creators how to make it, then turn on them when they don’t agree.
This year, as we continue to negotiate these invisible internet boundaries between artist and consumer, fan and fellow fan, we would do well to consider that subtle distinction, and to not allow such disagreements to fester into petulance or outright nastiness. We should take a step back from all of this shit occasionally, and remember that, on its most basic level, pop culture is there to be enjoyed. Engage with it, analyze it, critique it, tell others that you love it or refuse to watch it—even, say, put together a long list of “resolutions” you’d like to see it adopt in order to meet the lofty standard you hold it to. But bottom line: If your enjoyment of something is so inextricably tied up with your sense of identity that you start to believe it owes you, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment, and your reaction when it inevitably diverges from your expectations is likely to be angry and irrational. In 2017, we’ve got enough of that shit in the pipeline already; let’s keep it out of the stuff that’s supposed to make us feel good. And let us remember the words of a wise man who once sang, “Repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show. I should really just relax.’”
Speaking of which, that MST3K reboot better not suck—or else! [Sean O’Neal]