This year was a fantastic one for entertainment and pop culture, and discussion about that entertainment reached a fever pitch with weekly recaps for Breaking Bad, X-Box launching a new device that requires an Internet connection, forcing gamers to interact with one another, and every single album leaking weeks early (… except one).
But what was missing this year was some good old fashioned earnestness. Well, not too old fashioned. The world has plenty of Doris Day musicals. But a nice, balanced amount of earnestness. Unfortunately, artists are all too quick to flip the dial to ironic detachment, afraid of putting themselves out there when every moment of unironic joy looks absurd and endlessly GIF-able. Behold, 2013’s pop culture judged on a metric of earnestness:
Community: What made Community popular was the audacity with which it attempted to take down titans of pop culture on the budget of a network sitcom. But, after seeing that lackluster Season 4, which all but tipped over into terribleness, what made the show special was its heart. At its best, the show used parodies to express what the characters were feeling. This past season, we saw the shrill attempt at parody, but with absolutely no soul. Occasional glimpses of light peeked out from a skilled writer or an actor, but even promising trailers for the newly Dan Harmonized Season 5 had a lot to overcome.
Man of Steel: Superman is a superhuman being created to live up to the ideal values of humanity. He’s kind, he’s courageous, and instantly self-sacrificing. That’s why to see him in a feature-length Ford commercial that featured 10 times the usual destruction of a superhero film and literally none of the heroism was sickening. Superman alternately seems blandly invested in saving random individuals and yet simultaneously caring not at all about the multitudes in the skyscrapers he ripped down.
Kanye: Kanye West’s 2013 album, Yeezus, was a collection of aggressive, experimental tracks that did some interesting things musically but was nowhere near the level of genius Kanye himself proclaimed again and again all summer, fall, and now winter long. But if Yeezy had even left it at bragging, he might have escaped a negative distinction. But instead, he meta-commented on all of his meta-comments about black men in the public eye by refusing to take a single joke at his expense. No matter how fair the jabs were, he insisted each and every time that they were an insult to his, again, supposed genius. In the end, his anger only justified the critics who believe him to be nothing more than an immature thug with delusions of grandeur.
Frances Ha: Frances is a mess. But one of the many reasons she’s floundering is because she’s too guileless to survive among her hispter Brooklyn friends and the larger surroundings. She doesn’t know when to start a play fight and when to be quietly thankful. She doesn’t know how to be cutthroat. And she’s summed up perfectly when accused by a see-through-the-B.S. friend that calling herself “poor” is insulting to the actual poor. Frances acknowledges he’s right, but then counters with, “If you were me, you’d say you were poor too.” She’s not always right, but she doesn’t obscure how she feels with posturing.
Mad Men: Mad Men‘s sixth season disappointed many in how it dealt with 1968 and how that very dark, depressing year, full of revelations and assassinations, impacted (or didn’t impact) its characters’ lives. But this year marked Don Draper’s revelation of his past. Finally, after covering it up time and time again, Don Draper finally revealed himself as Dick Whitman and his worst nightmare — he was outcast immediately. Mad Men has always been a very mannered and restrained show, but this season showed the humanity underneath the restrictions of the period. Peggy is a conservative social climber. Pete is angry and cruel, but also cannot stop himself from feeling empathy. Joan is quickly reaching the glass ceiling of not just business, but her own skills. And Don finally admitted who he is.
BEYONCE: Beyonce’s secret album dropped just in time for Christmas wish lists and best of 2013 lists. And it’s a great pop album, perhaps tinged too heavily by the sheen of newness, but still ambitious, impressive, and as confident in its message as Yeezus was confused. Beyonce is a proud woman and directly stated her feminism isn’t lessened because she’s also a wife and mother. Her straightforward declarations made up for the past year of hemming and hawing from basically every other female pop star afraid to brand herself a feminist.
The World’s End: The end of Edgar Wright’s fantastic genre pastiche, The World’s End should be on my unreserved “Love” list — after all, it’s one of my favorite films of the year. But while Wright and Simon Pegg created a satisfying conclusion to their Cornetto Trilogy, they also suffered from some of the emotional disconnect systemic of lesser efforts, often using pop culture references as a shorthand to express intellectual ideas that didn’t necessarily land as much as an emotional resolutions for the characters played so brilliantly by Pegg and Nick Frost.
Bangerz: Miley Cyrus had her coming out party this year, and she’s about as far from Hannah Montana as possible. But her album was featherweight, not quite a summer jam or a more substantial release. It sold well, but broke no records, and the months-long rolling out process spent most of the hype before there even was an album. And for all the twerking and grinding, there wasn’t much sexual agency represented in her performances and videos. Instead, Miley objectified herself, which is her choice to make, but does make it harder to endorse her particular brand of modern sexuality.
American Horror Story: Coven: The concept and the surface details of the third installment of Ryan Murphy’s anthology series were thrilling. And though the episodes of Coven will continue in the new year, juxtaposing footage of the Civil Rights activists being hit with fire hoses and attacked by dogs while a white male witch hunter stalks and kills all but one of the black characters on the show doesn’t inspire much confidence. Even if it’s being done with the best and most genuine of intentions (which is generous of me to assume), the high camp style of the show makes it impossible to use the real world as a backdrop in that way.
And the Most Earnest Item of Pop Culture in 2013: Bob’s Burgers
Simply, Bob’s is my pick for the best thing in pop culture this year because it manages to be completly earest and yet has no shortage of humor. It’s warm, it’s funny, it’s acerbic and frequently heartbreaking. But perhaps a lucky benefit because of its place on a major network, it’s also somewhat gentle to its characters, giving them 30 minutes’ worth of a break from their stressful lives working at their failing business or being middle school students. It’s also one of the most ingeniously weird shows on television, and yet grounds a rain of shrimp, a talking toilet, and a musical tribute to a murdered elephant in character motivations and real stakes. Watching it take off this year and become a hit was satisfying proof that audiences will watch things that aren’t cloaked in a protective layer of ironic detatchment.