In continuation of our “best of the decade” coverage, this week we’re asking:
What is the most underrated pop culture of the 2010s?
technically premiered in the last decade, but it wasn’t until the ’10s that it fully broke out of its “Family Guy rip-off” cocoon and emerged as a beautiful butterfly that Seth MacFarlane had wisely left in the hands of better, funnier writers. I completely understand people giving up on the show, especially after its crummy early seasons, but in the last decade it became a brilliantly over-the-top deconstruction of sitcom tropes. More importantly, it developed a smarter, sillier sense of humor, like in this all-time-great clip where Stan explains his high school nickname.
I was devastated when Parenthetical Girls split in 2017, if only because I never got to see what was next for the amorphous experimental pop outfit of songwriter Zac Pennington. Across four LPs and a flurry of singles, covers, and unbearably sad Christmas songs, Pennington routinely reinvented the band’s sound while refining his brainy, provocative lyricism. Still, 2013’s Privilege is as satisfying a swan song as you could want, its 21 tracks embodying everything that made the act vital and genuinely dangerous. Pennington boldly confronts sexuality, pride, shame, and violence with a sensual malevolence as the album’s synthesized backbone mingles with sumptuous acoustics, all of which unfold with a bombast and open-throated theatricality that’s exceedingly rare in modern music. That it didn’t get a warmer reception has always been odd to me, and I’m hoping such won’t be the case with his new project, rather cheekily called Popular Music.
This is small of me, given that it did land in the top 50 of our TV of the decade list. But I’m sick of the widespread assumption that Archer somehow fell off a cliff after its third season finale—as if it hasn’t spent the last seven years continuing to arm the best voice cast on TV with top-tier one-liners by the week. I’m well aware of the show’s flaws and bouts of lethargy, but this is still a series where H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, and Jessica Walter scream glorious nonsense at each other. How could that fail to satisfy?
True, a number of our “best of the decade” items charted insufficiently high for my tastes, but instead I’ll single out something that tragically doesn’t turn up on any of them: Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece of a miniseries, Mosaic. It came and went back in January of 2018 without so much as a peep, save for a little bit of press about the multimedia app aspect of the project. The app is forgettable—because it can’t hold a candle to the expert six-part assemblage Soderbergh makes of this twisty, philosophical puzzle, which manages to be both an addictive murder mystery and a brilliant, multi-layered meditation on the nature of storytelling itself.
Now that it’s about to kick off its sixth (and final) season, Schitt’s Creek appears to show up a bit more often on the pop-culture radar. But it took awhile. Fans of SCTV, Christopher Guest movies, Cabin Boy, and making fun of the Kardashians eventually found a lot to love in the CBC series, written by Eugene Levy with his son, Daniel. Schitt’s Creek (don’t let the name turn you off) chronicles the riches-to-rags story of the Roses, a wealthy family that loses everything except for the run-down town they bought as a joke. The comedy is constant as the Roses try to move their high-living lifestyle into a seedy motel, with Catherine O’Hara standing out as the ex-soap-opera-star matriarch who can turn the most minuscule small-town kerfuffle into a hilarious drama of the highest order.
The first Dishonored came out in 2012 feeling like an attempt by Arkane Studios to capitalize on anticipation for the then-forthcoming BioShock Infinite, and that game’s special brand of two-fisted historical metaphysics. It took place in a grungy, Dickens-punk analog to the British Empire whose thematic and aesthetic reliance on whale blubber and rat plagues would come across as parody of Victorian-era miserablism if not for being so cleverly constructed. And while it never matched Infinite’s capacity to start conversation, it was a solid, well-designed adventure that encouraged a range of play styles. However, 2016’s sequel, Dishonored 2, was superior in every way. Choosing either the vindicated assassin Corvo or his daughter, the Empress, you travel to Karnaca; an imperial holding wracked with dust storms and massive blood-sucking insects brought on by invasive mining operations. The weapons and magical powers are varied and satisfying and the game even finds some space in the margins of all the bloodletting to raise some interesting questions about meritocracy, noblesse oblige, environmentalism, and colonialism. But most importantly, it does so through some of the cleverest level designs I’ve ever played—a series of shifting, labyrinthine environments that move between clockwork forms, or even time. The game was critically well-received but did poorly enough that Arkane has indefinitely shelved the title, which is a damn shame, because it remains one of the most ambitious adventure games I’ve played.
It breaks my heart that we couldn’t find room on our best of the decade list for Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson’s often overlooked ode to the city that shaped them, Detroiters. Built on the chemistry (and real-life friendship) of its creators/leads, Detroiters balanced absurdist humor, profoundly silly sight gags, and a spot-on representation of Detroit’s local commercial culture with a healthy dose of earnestness and heart—Tim and Sam’s genuine affection for their city and for one another make for a delightful watch. It’s unfortunate that it lasted only two seasons.
The thing that I will always attribute to this decade is my growing appreciation for the creative spaces that exist online rather than on a television or movie screen. Web series really made a significant impact on how I tailor my expectations when it comes to the art I consume, and I’ve learned that settling for anything that is just not an enjoyable use of my time is never really necessary. There were a few shows that I ended up loving - Wong Fu Productions’ Single By 30 and The Mark Gordon Company’s Youth & Consequences were strong favorites - but nothing stole my heart quicker than Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey’s Chicago-set Brown Girls, a comedy about two friends, Leila and Patricia, navigating queer identity and city living. Is it corny to say, “I laughed, I cried, I felt things?” Possibly. It’s also true.
As this is one of my last opportunities (of this decade) to stump for it, I’ll just remind everyone that Show Me A Hero is one of the most powerful series of the last 10 years. Director Paul Haggis corrals a political circus in David Simon’s look at the unkillable beast that is bureaucracy and the widening chasm between a citizenry and its leadership, which is as much a critique of Yonkers in the late ‘80s as it is a reflection of Obama-era politics. Hope can be a catalyst for change, but even the best of intentions are so often lost on the way to backroom deals. Along with its quietly devastating messaging, Show Me A Hero features one of the best performances from Oscar Isaac, who is now off fighting “Estar Guars,” and with a great supporting turn from Winona Ryder, should really be considered the beginning of the Winonaissance.