It’s a New Year, and with it comes the opportunity for a fresh start—to take a hard and unflinching look at the areas in our lives that could stand to be improved, then to immediately give up on that and start thinking about how pop culture can better distract us from our problems. In what has become an annual tradition around here, we have 12 suggestions for ways in which movies, TV, music, and games can make a little progress over the next 12 months.
1. Give us more original action franchises.
The instant cults that formed around John Wick and Baby Driver proved that audiences don’t need preformed brand recognition to embrace a cinematic universe. As Hollywood seemingly forgot while it was busy spinning off every ’80s toy and board game (Battleship, anyone?), all it really takes to create a successful action franchise is a little bit of faith and a healthy sense of fun. (And a hurricane of bullets doesn’t hurt either.) The fact that John Wick got a sequel this year while one for Baby Driver is already in the works provides a glimmer of hope that those perpetually franchise-hungry studios are taking note that new ideas can still succeed in this arena. And hopefully, those executives understand that the point isn’t just to imitate those specific original concepts, but that original concepts can still become hits. Let’s have more of them. Oh, and more Crank movies while we’re at it. Please, and thank you. [Katie Rife]
2. Don’t give up on weird TV.
“High concept” means a high bar to clear—it’s hard to do well and easy to do poorly. Witness the gone-and-soon-forgotten casualties of the 2017 fall TV season: Imaginary Mary, Downward Dog, Me Myself & I, and Making History. That said, enough shows currently do it well to warrant taking the risk on more high-concept ideas instead of, say, another sitcom about a lovable schlub and his overbearing family. The A.V. Club’s pick for the best series of the year, The Good Place, makes high concept look easy thanks to its sharp writing and excellent casting. Elsewhere, the supremely strange Happy! finally offers Christopher Meloni a place to flex his comedy chops outside of Wet Hot American Summer, Ghosted has begun to find its way, and Lady Dynamite doubles up on the weirdness and gets even more meta in its second season. These series stick out from the endless stream of new shows looking for viewers and prove that a little weird can go a long way. Don’t shy away from making more of them. [Kyle Ryan]
3. Less bingeing and more old-fashioned scheduling.
Between Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, 2017 saw countless great shows drop entire seasons on us seemingly every week. Keeping up on it all—in addition to broadcast and cable shows, stand-up specials, one-off documentaries, the news, sports, our lives—gets to be overwhelming, particularly in our current “binge” climate, where everyone races to finish shows before the spoilers start. Going back to meting out episodes one at a time would give everyone a chance to catch up, and it would allow us to truly appreciate their peaks, valleys, and nuances. We’d love the opportunity to savor and discuss shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Stranger Things for longer than a weekend, rather than living in constant fear of being late to the party. [Marah Eakin]
4. It’s time we take movie comedies seriously.
When Get Out was submitted as a comedy to this year’s Golden Globes, it kicked off a firestorm over what many—writer-director Jordan Peele included—saw as the trivialization of the film’s very serious commentary on systemic racism. That was certainly a justified reaction; taking Get Out as just a joke is the exact sort of blithe, “post-racial” ignorance Get Out was criticizing (even if this specific controversy mostly stems from the inherent stupidity of awards shows). But there’s another unfortunate aspect to this story, which is the strangely accepted presumption that comedies, by their nature, can’t also be “important,” or that they’re not worthy of serious consideration. Despite having its funny moments, Get Out may not be a comedy, exactly. Yet among other things, it is a satire—and even if that means being lumped into the same genre as, say, Daddy’s Home 2, being called one shouldn’t automatically diminish a film’s power to convey meaningful messages. In recent years, some of the most thoughtful, complex, moving television around has been classified as comedy (however loosely defined), and we don’t regard those shows as lesser for having laughs. It’s time for us to treat movie comedies the same way. (And hey, horror movies, too, while we’re at it.) [Sean O’Neal]
5. Don’t let single-player games die, but do let them change.
Pundits have been proclaiming the death of single-player video games for years now, and while 2017 was packed to the gills with stellar releases for the solo player, it also intensified some discomfiting trends that got people screaming about the sky falling once again. Nevertheless, the year did highlight what could be a more practical, artistically rewarding way forward for big-ticket single-player games. Instead of tricking players into thinking they’re getting their money’s worth by giving them extra helpings of flavorless digital gruel—inflating budgets alongside playtime—some developers simply created smaller works that retained the whizbang production values of major-publisher games while embracing a scope and price tag closer to what we usually associate with independent projects. Ninja Theory’s brilliant, self-published Hellblade, which told a gut-wrenching personal story and sold well beyond the company’s expectations, is the most exciting example of what this reining-in can do for an experienced studio with an original idea. But we also saw this model applied to established series like Uncharted and Dishonored, both of which delivered great bite-size spin-offs starring—gasp—women of color. Rather than letting single-player games die (or mutate into a nigh-unrecognizable form), maybe it’s just time to reconsider how they’re made. [Matt Gerardi]
6. Let’s have more movies and shows that understand that women’s stories are for everyone.
Back when movies only came in black and white, “women’s pictures” would get tossed onto a B-roll so that the ladies could commiserate with Barbara Stanwyck dealing with an ungrateful daughter or married lover. Even long after that, the idea of “chick flicks” persisted. But 2017 showed the power and potential for popularity of “women’s pictures”: Big Little Lies. Wonder Woman. Handmaid’s Tale. Girls Trip. Lady Bird. Insecure. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Lady Dynamite. Alias Grace. GLOW. One Day At A Time. Feud: Bette And Joan. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And so on. Led by strong, multifaceted female characters and performers, all these projects raised women from token sidekicks and love interests to badass warriors capable of saving the world, capably steering stories about everything from nightmare dystopias to professional wrestling. What’s more, they proved that there are audiences—big, box-office-busting and Emmys-sweeping audiences—for their stories. It’s a cultural movement that reflects the incendiary political one that was sparked this year, and here’s hoping it continues into 2018—and beyond. [Gwen Ihnat]
7. The Academy should adopt BAFTA’s diversity standards.
As Hollywood grapples with socially conscious critiques like #OscarsSoWhite and the #MeToo movement, the committees that are being set up to correct industry bias against women and people of color would do well to look to BAFTA, which adopted new standards to combat its own diversity problems late last year. While declining to set exact quotas for non-straight white dudes working on or appearing in a film, these rules instead say that any production qualifying for the BAFTA’s homegrown awards for British films must demonstrate that it worked to achieve diversity in two of these four areas: “on-screen representation, themes and narratives; project leadership and creative practitioners; industry access and opportunities; and opportunities for diversity in audience development.” In other words, does your film have a white male director and a white cast? Then to qualify for a BAFTA, you have to offer on-set mentorship opportunities to film students of color, and you have to make an effort to reach out to diverse communities in your marketing. It’s a clear, yet flexible model with room to account for different circumstances and types of stories, and one that could provide a way forward for an industry in need of some guidance. [Katie Rife]
8. Make your show only as long as it requires.
One of the most common complaints with serialized television is the existence of “filler” scenes or stories dragged out to fill airtime. Worse still, sometimes whole episodes often seem designed primarily to delay significant plot developments, as though the show had to deliver more episodes than it had actual narrative. So let’s all give a round of applause to Netflix’s Mindhunter, and its sixth episode: Coming in at a tight 34 minutes, it told the story it wanted to tell, and then it ended. The whole thing was a lesson in narrative economy, especially for streaming series: If you don’t have to sell a certain amount of commercial time, then don’t hew to those standards. Similarly, shows like Alias Grace have followed more of a British model, restricting themselves to just the number of episodes needed to tell the story properly and no more. It’s a format that more streaming shows should follow; even Marvel wised up and delivered The Defenders in just eight parts. Take note, showrunners. [Alex McLevy]
9. More board games that reject capitalism and embrace cooperation.
Most board games are played in a loop of accrual. Accumulate stuff, turn that stuff into better stuff, and you win. You can accumulate money, or resources, or labor, but the core conceit is the same: You want to get the most for the least amount of effort. So many board games pit you against other players—sometimes hanging some troubling variations over the core accrual scaffolding, as when you’re colonizing land, or exploiting natural resources, or even trading “slaves.” But those fundamentals are no longer the de facto mode of action, thanks to a modern crop of games that are played cooperatively, like Robinson Crusoe. Or that tell a story of revolution instead of rote capitalism, like Bloc By Bloc. Or games built around both cooperation and clever mechanics that aren’t just resource accumulation, like the popular Pandemic or the new wildly fun The Thing board game. These are all breaths of fresh air, and hopefully they’re at the forefront of a new wave of board games designed with more than just action economy and accumulatory efficiency in mind. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]
10. Let’s have fewer albums that require supplemental reading, please.
Blame it on Lemonade, maybe: Beyonce’s ambitious 2016 concept album covered a lot of impressive sociopolitical ground, but the critics—and the headlines—mostly zeroed in on its central, tabloid-friendly story of infidelity. In Lemonade’s wake, it felt like every album this year had to have a similar “narrative” about the artist’s personal life in order to appreciate it, whether it was the breakup that fueled Lorde’s Melodrama, Taylor Swift’s eternal celebrity beefs on Reputation, or Jay Z’s “answer” to Lemonade, 4:44. Even a few indie rockers fell prey to this: New albums from LCD Soundsystem and Dirty Projectors ruminated about midlife crises and estranged former partners with an uncomfortable specificity that turned the listener into a quasi-therapist. Confessionals can still fuel some great art, of course. Kesha channeled her harrowing sexual harassment saga into the triumphant Rainbows, while Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum transformed the loss of his wife into one of the most moving works ever born out of grief. But generally speaking, the excitement about and over-emphasis on “narrative” has turned listening to an album into a gossipy game of “who are they talking about?” analysis and “decoding” that can rob music of its transportive power, and it threatens to instantly date it as a reactive commentary to a personal situation that, two decades from now, we’ll have no context for appreciating. We shouldn’t need to do our homework just to enjoy a song. Let the music speak for itself—and for everyone. [Sean O’Neal]
11. Keep evolving the idea of what a “murder mystery” can be.
Whodunits have dominated popular fiction ever since Edgar Allan Poe first set C. Auguste Dupin on the trail of a Parisian killer in 1841; murder mysteries developed a stranglehold on television shortly thereafter. Or at least, it feels that way, with a preponderance of professional and amateur sleuths investigating a seemingly endless string of homicides throughout the history of TV, with only the occasional Columbo, Murder One, or CSI coming along to temporarily shake things up or establish a new blueprint for an entire broadcast network’s dramatic slate. But innovation in the field of what Poe called “ratiocination” has come faster and more frequently in recent years, even if the pace of the shows themselves is slowing down: Case in point, Mindhunter, the hypnotic Netflix series with the David Fincher pedigree that depicts the lurching, fraught evolution of forensic psychology in ways that detonate and reconfigure the cut-and-dried rhythms of the typical police procedural. Or Search Party, the darkly comedic TBS curio that just wrapped its second season, one that deals—in occasional, gross-out-humor terms—with the emotional and mental fallout from its fatal first-season cliffhanger. And there’s no better (or more award-winning) argument for thinking outside the casket than Big Little Lies, HBO’s lavish Liane Moriarty adaptation that built an examination of an entire community (and entire society’s biases and blindspots) around a murder mystery in which the culprit and the victim are kept secret until the very end. Really, it’s not so much a question of if the networks and studios will learn any lessons from these artistic and/or commercial triumphs, but when: As Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Lt. Columbo, and Jessica Fletcher would all conclude, these types of crimes tend to breed copycats. [Erik Adams]
12. Fix your streaming platform’s interface.
Considering how much streaming services occupy our viewing habits, it’s surprising how unsatisfying their user interfaces tend to be. This year’s punching bag was Hulu, which started updating its formerly straightforward app across platforms this spring to howls of disapproval from users. As of this writing, the “Please change the layout of Hulu back” page on Hulu’s feedback forums has 158 pages of angry comments and 7,400 votes (and counting). With its redesign, Hulu did away with that most basic of features—a watchlist—in favor of My Stuff, which is further subcategorized and maddeningly counterintuitive. (Users who subscribe to Hulu’s beta live-TV service enjoy an extra layer of confusion.) It’s not just Hulu; Netflix has long been criticized for its interface, which unsurprisingly goes heavy on Netflix originals and can make navigation laborious. Worse, its My List has a habit of disappearing, while a list of recommendations based on something you watched weeks ago remains stubbornly prominent. Like its web interface, Amazon Video’s newly unveiled AppleTV app is an overwhelming barrage of rectangles, but at least navigating them is a straightforward process. As the big three streamers vie to top each other—not to mention challenges from HBO, Showtime, broadcast networks, and the upcoming Disney service—they shouldn’t presume content will trump everything. What good is it when users can’t find it? [Kyle Ryan]