Top Ten of 2012

2012 in Pop Culture: What I Loved, What I Loathed

Back when I wrote at my old blog, Awkward is What We Aim For, I used to put a lot of stock into my Top Ten Films list at the end of the year. While I’ll still be doing one here, I want to make sure to see all the big films before publishing my list, and I’m stuck in an area of the country that doesn’t get “Zero Dark Thirty” until January 11.

So in the meantime, I wanted to put together some random thoughts, kudos and gripes about the year not only in film, but in pop culture on the whole. This is that list. In the interest of saving your time for better things (like going to see “Les Misérables,” for example), I’ll keep this down to one Love and one Loathe for each major section of pop culture: Movies, TV and Pop Music.

MOVIES

Catwoman

Photo Credit: WB

What I Loved: Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman

“The Dark Knight Rises” won’t make my Top Ten Films list no matter what, but the only thing putting it even close to the top was the stellar performance by Anne Hathaway as the Cat, Selina Kyle. This was the performance everyone was worried about. The Reddit types thought she was an overactive shrew who would screw it up. The cinephile types knew Christopher Nolan had written about one good female role in the past ever. (Mal in “Inception,” in case you’re wondering.) Yet the role turned out to be written as a highwire act between scorn and seducing, and Hathaway nailed it. Honestly, I enjoyed and found “Rises” more entertaining than the preceding films in the trilogy, “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” (though those are better films), largely because of this performance. If actors could be nominated twice at the Oscars, I would put Hathaway in twice for Supporting Actress – she’s amazing in “Les Misérables,” no doubt, but she’s just so much fun as the Cat.

What I Loathed: Almost Everything in “Django Unchained”

I really don’t want to waste more breath on this half-baked slavery porn “film” by Quentin Tarantino, but suffice it to say that I hated “Django Unchained.” It’s by far my least favorite Tarantino film – surpassing the “Kill Bill” movies, previously my least favorite – and one of the most infuriating wastes of two and a half hours I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing.

While the movie has the occasional bright spot (both Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio haven’t challenged themselves this much in years), the movie manages to be both excessive and lazy all at once. Tarantino loses the plot about halfway through, forcing characters to make wildly unreasonable decisions and act impulsively (when in at least one case a character’s entire M.O. was about being the complete opposite of impulsive) and transforming the narrative from one that had something to say about slavery to a much simpler and much more uninteresting one that was all about violence, nothing more.

I’m a Tarantino fan, no doubt – I loved his last film, “Inglourious Basterds,” and that one was plenty violent. So when I complain about the violence in “Django,” it’s not from a prudish place; it’s from a place of being incredibly disappointed with a great director. In a post-Aurora and post-Newtown world, a movie with this much gun violence deserved a careful hand and time to develop. Everything about “Django” feels rushed and focused on shock value instead of imparting an important message.

TV

What I Loved: The Return of the Female-Driven Soap

Nashville

Photo Credit: ABC

When I look back on 2012 in TV, what I’ll remember most is the devilish grin and delicious wordplay of Victoria Grayson. “Revenge” brought back the nighttime soap in a big way, but more importantly, it put women at the forefront. While TNT’s reboot of “Dallas” also played a huge part in the revival of the soap, that is also a highly male-driven narrative. “Revenge” is all about one woman’s fight for vengeance (Emily Thorne, an alias for Amanda Clarke) against a family with a masterfully manipulative matriarch (Victoria, of course).

Seeing two women in such powerful positions isn’t exactly new for TV – Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Leigh Johnson started the trend on “The Closer” eight years ago, and several others have carried it on – but there’s something special about seeing women battling each other over something besides a man, a narrative seen far too often in film and TV these days.

“Revenge” has already spawned one successful imitator in “Nashville,” a fantastic soap about two female country singers from two different generations. What’s so fascinating about “Nashville” is that its winter finale created a situation where both women will have to work together – something the previews for new “Revenge” in 2013 also allude to. 2012 got the powerful women fighting – maybe next we’ll get to see them working together.

What I Loathed: The Manipulation of “The X Factor”

As part of a hate-watching experiment, I watched the live shows of “The X Factor” this year, and let me say this: if you’ve never seen a train wreck happening right before your eyes, you clearly weren’t watching “Factor.” Hoo boy, what a mess. Who thought hiring a Kardashian to be a live TV host was a good idea? Why is Simon Cowell judging on a show he is also the executive producer for? Should Britney Spears really be in such a high-stress environment?

So many questions, but my biggest one is this: Why is the producer manipulation so obvious on “Factor”? One week in particular saw a contestant who had been consistently in third place among voters, Vino Alan, suddenly stuck performing at the top of the show (a notorious “death slot” in singing competitions based on viewer voting after the show) with a song he didn’t particularly like. Of course, he was eliminated the next night.

What’s especially gross is that when the manipulation outright failed (Cowell’s favored act Emblem3 missing out on making the finals, for example), things just fell by the wayside. The best act in the competition, girl group Fifth Harmony, made it into the finals as an underdog act, but couldn’t possibly get out of third place after their mentor (Cowell) spent so much time promoting Emblem3. Meanwhile, the winner wound up being a 37-year old country singer who may have many things, including a decent voice and a loving family, but he certainly does not have the X Factor.

All in all, the season was a spectacular failure, but I do believe that with less manipulation, the show could get good. Below, watch the best performance of the crappy season: Fifth Harmony’s take on Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen.”

POP MUSIC

What I Loved: “Wrong Direction,” Tim Urban

I liked a lot of artists and songs in 2012, even if most of it was rehash from 2011: the irresistible Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” the pure pop perfection of One Direction, Gotye’s slinky and surprising “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Macklemore’s gorgeous tribute to marriage equality “Same Love,” Taylor Swift’s impressive foray into dubstep with “I Knew You Were Trouble” and the emergence of new bands like Imagine Dragons, Of Monsters and Men and The Lumineers.

But in all honesty, the song that won me over most was “American Idol” season nine also-ran Tim Urban’s charmingly scathing (is that even possible?) breakup anthem to One Direction member Harry Styles from Swift. From the first line, “He was the wrong direction with the beautiful face,” to the ridiculously catchy chorus, the song is a pretty flawless mock of an actual Swift song, as well as a great pop song in its own right. Give it a listen – you’ll be humming it the rest of the day.

What I Loathed: The Fads of 2012

Let's Have a Kiki

Photo Credit: Scissor Sisters

Was it just me, or were people more prone to fads this year than usual? While some were good (One Direction, “Call Me Maybe”), even more were terrible: “Gangnam Style,” Kitty Pryde and the miserable “Let’s Have a Kiki.” The less said about “Gangnam” the better, and I’m glad we seem to have realized how disastrous Pryde really was, but the one trend that stuck all too unfortunately was “Kiki.”

Let me be clear: I love the Scissor Sisters. I love Jake Shears. I would probably have Shears’ children, and I’m vehemently against children. (Not just me having children. Children in general.) But this song is a massive stereotype, and an incredibly irritating one too. I know, I know, the Scissor Sisters are all about stereotypes. But I generally prefer their “Only the Horses”-type work, not this tuneless mess. Not only is it bad, but it has also led to multiple people asking if I like to have kikis. Ugh.

Plus, it led to this. And that is the worst.

What else did you love this year? Share in the comments – or tweet me @kokeeffe22.

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Awkward.

Quick Read: Watch ‘Awkward.’ You’re Welcome.

Awkward.

Photo Credit: YouTube | Martijn van Veen

Hey, you know what’s one of the most heartfelt, charming, enjoyable shows on television? It’s “Awkward.” Not the feeling, the MTV teen dramedy about a girl wit a blog that has more going for it than most network shows.

It’s well-acted, well-written, funny and quirky (in a good way, not in a “New Girl” way). Currently on hiatus before its third season, all 24 episodes from the first two seasons are available online at MTV.com. Since each episode is only 22 minutes, it only takes about ten hours to watch it all.

So go do that. Now. It’s too great to summarize without spoilers, and blogging about a show about a girl with a blog is just too meta  for me. So go enjoy it for yourself!

And always remember: #TeamJake. (You’ll understand after you’ve watched it. Which you’re doing now.)

Smash

“Smash” Promises More, Will Inevitably Deliver Less

Smash

Photo Credit: YouTube | NBC

Fade in on a show with a hunger to be good, but a bad first season to forever weigh it down. It hopes the past will fade away, because as of this day, the Season 2 teaser is out, and “Smash” is moving on.

Oh, “Smash.” How many feelings I have about you. My affair with “Smash” began passionately, when I first heard the show’s ubiquitous might-as-well-be-theme song, “Let Me Be Your Star.”

Masterful. Without seeing one moment of the show, I was absolutely hooked. Then I saw the show’s first episode. I wrote about it in my “It’s K-OK!” column for the Loyolan (which you can read here), where I said:

“I can say with absolute certainty that “Smash” is pretty terrible. Yes, the music is fun, and it certainly has its moments, but make no mistake, it’s really rather bad on the whole. Here’s the issue, though: It’s still more ambitious and interesting than half of what’s on network television today. So should “Smash” be applauded as a risk or bashed for what it really is: a flop?”

As the season went on, there was just no way to respect its intention any more – the characters were half-baked and stuck in crappy plotlines, the original songs were inconsistent at best and the acting was all over the place.

“Smash” was supposed to be our adult “Glee,” a more mature show that didn’t fluctuate every time a new episode was released. Instead, we got an older-looking “Glee” that never recovered from all the problems of its youth.

So despite all the amazing casting notices (Jennifer Hudson! Jeremy Jordan!) and news of a new showrunner, I couldn’t make myself get excited about season two of “Smash.” Between its first season and far too many seasons of “Glee,” I’ve just been too burned by musical programs. (“Nashville” isn’t doing much to make things better, either – it’s consistent, but it’s also boring as hell.)

Still, I can’t help but be drawn in by the promise of Jennifer Hudson. And the trailer is really, really good. So we’ll see what happens. I’ll tune in for the first episode and see if they’ve fixed the problems. After all, “Parks & Recreation” fixed its issues after season one and went on to be one of the best sitcoms on television. And as I wrote in my column about the “Parks & Recreation” Problem (also available here), shows deserve a little growing room.

So “Smash,” I’m giving you a second chance. Let me be your fan.

Figure It Out

Throwback Thursday: Summer, Slime and Lori Beth

Figure It Out

Photo Credit: Nickelodeon

In the late ’90s, Nickelodeon hatched what is one of the most brilliant cross-promotional schemes in modern history: Figure It Out. The game show starred panelists guessing the special talent of one particular kid, but in a twist, all the panelists were Nickelodeon personalities. The whole thing was entertaining on its own, but was also a half-hour advertisement for all the network’s other properties. In many ways, it was one of the first innovators of product placement.

Less cynically and post-childhood, I’d have said that Figure It Out was awesome. Hosted by former sports commentator and Olympic gold medalist (?!) Summer Sanders, the premise was simple and fun. There were lots of opportunities for slime, and almost every episode featured either future DUI magnet Amanda Bynes or the absolutely brilliant Lori Beth Denberg on the panel.

Denberg, if you recall, was the face of the “Vital Information” sketch on All That, and in that role, she defined much of my early childhood. The deadpan delivery, quick one-liners, absurdist premise: all of it was hilarious to me. I was the kind of kid that didn’t laugh too much at gross-out humor (I was a bit of a priss back then), but that was the exact kind of comic style I could appreciate.

On Figure It Out, Denberg was no less hilarious, and she was always a highlight, even when her panel was weighed down by losers like Danny Tamberelli. (Tamberelli was also Denberg’s absolutely miscast replacement on “Vital Information” – whoever thought that was a masterstroke of genius deserves the firing they inevitably received.) She had repartee with the other panelists and with Sanders, and she managed to make every joke land.

The Figure It Out era marked the end of Nick’s ability to really innovate with its programming. Nowadays, everything’s simply a spinoff of everything else, mirroring the Disney Channel formula. However, they’ve brought Figure It Out back, and while it’s not as amusing without the old panelists, the format is exactly the same, right down to the noise they play when someone gets an answer right. In this age of ’90s nostalgia and remakes that’s still winding down, it’s nice to see a rehash that really pays tribute to the original series.

Now, if only we could get Denberg and Sanders back on there. Below, check out one of the best Lori Beth Denberg episodes of Figure It Out.