Year in and year out, when December rolls around, pop culture critics and fanatics find themselves neck-deep in a year-end catch up. It’s the time of year where we engage with the music, movies, TV shows, and books that we’ve missed or put off throughout the year in an effort to make our best-of lists as comprehensive as possible. List-making and the end-of-year rush to absorb as much as possible can be a lot of fun. It gives us a chance to not only rediscover the pieces of pop culture that had us in various states of jubilation throughout the year, but also a chance to unearth something new, to find a show or album that truly speaks to us, leaving us cursing ourselves for not having gotten to it sooner. For instance, I just caught up with Amazon’s Transparent a few weeks ago, and it was one of my favorite experiences of 2014. I didn’t want the show to end; I didn’t want to stop laughing, cringing, and crying. But as much fun as the rush can be, it’s also a source of anxiety. There’s something toxic about that nagging mission of completism that accompanies year-end list-making; the feeling that we’re missing out on something culturally important, that we’re not as in-touch as we think we are. “You haven’t seen that?” our friends say as we hang our heads in shame.
That anxious feeling runs contrary to the very spirit of pop culture list-making. List-making is meant to be a celebration of what pop culture does for us; it shouldn’t be a mad dash to watch, hear, and read as much as we can before the year is up. Cramming in seasons of The Americans and Mad Men while listening to the most recent albums from Flying Lotus, Taylor Swift, and Aphex Twin–all while trying to parse out your own thoughts on the value these pieces of art have in your life–will only result in pop culture bloat. It’s like downing a whole bag of Oreos in a single sitting. You’ll feel full, and some moments during the process were probably wonderful. But by the end of it, you feel gross, those individual cookies, however delicious on their own, now just an unidentifiable portion of a feeding frenzy.
The end of the year is a time when we should be stepping back and asking questions: Why do we feel the need to catch up on a series we haven’t seen yet? Why do we voraciously document and catalog what we’ve consumed all year? And why do we attempt to boil a bevy of experiences down into list form? The end of the year affords us the opportunity to not only create various lists, but to ask ourselves what that “best of” tag really means. When crafting a list, there’s always a disconnect between what’s “the best” and “our favorite” piece of pop culture. Someone may have enjoyed their weekly viewings of The Mindy Project more than anything else in 2014, yet still feel obligated to acknowledge that Mad Men was, from a critical perspective, the “best” show of the year. This disconnect between “best” and “favorite” is nothing new, but in an age where we increasingly consume pop culture on our own terms, over however brief or extended a period of time, it’s important to remember that pop culture isn’t about how much we can consume, but rather how meaningful that consumption is.
We catalog, analyze, and critique in order to deepen our understanding of art, ourselves, and the world around us. It’s why we, as critics, A.V. Club staffers, or general audience members, spend so much time sharing our thoughts with others; we’re hoping to enhance the work of art, to give it a personal meaning. There’s no replacing that feeling, and it can’t be captured in a year-end list. A list could never capture the experience I had watching the Breaking Bad finale with my family last fall, where my mom made personalized Los Pollos Hermanos bags to hold our fried chicken, and baked a cake in the shape of a burnt teddy bear for dessert.
Works of art don’t have one inherent meaning, and it’s the moments we share with family, friends, and significant others that matter most. They allow us to move beyond our own perspective and to empathize or understand another point of view. If it weren’t for my significant other, I would never have known the pleasures of the Jason Katims drama. Not only did she introduce me to Friday Night Lights, but she begged me to watch Parenthood, a show that looked like a manipulative drama awash in white privilege that I had no interest in going near. But she persisted, and I’ve been rewarded with a show that’s deeply humanistic and moving. It makes me laugh and cry, and it’s all because I shared a moment with someone else and allowed their opinion to discredit my own preconceived notions. This relationship has also broadened my understanding of Enlightened, a show I loved, but appreciated more deeply because of what she brought to the viewing: the perspective of a woman in the business world. She also helped move me away from my rockist ways and embrace the pleasures of pop music. I see the truth now, and that truth is Queen Bey.
Sometimes, we get so focused on our lists and defining ourselves that we forget to take a moment and think about what all of these pieces of pop culture mean to us and to others. TV shows, films, video games, and books aren’t something to be categorized like manila envelopes at an insurance firm. They’re art; and art, at its best, is an experience, and it’s best shared with others.