I didn’t think we’d make it, but 2016 is almost in the rearview mirror. This has been a weird year in a lot of ways, including the world of pop culture. While there were definitely things that I really loved this year, I feel like overall this was an off year for the entertainment industry in general and the film industry in particular. I didn’t go to the movies nearly as much this year as I have in the past, partially because the offerings were not that great. Of course, I’m just embarking on the end of the year movie binge when a lot of the best films are released, but overall there were a lot of clunkers. Television shined more brightly again this year, a trend that I hope continues. I went to fewer concerts in 2016, partially because of a reallocation of financial resources, but also because at this point I’ve seen almost everyone that I really want to see. I had an uptick in going to the theater in 2016 and I traveled more, perhaps a prolonged effect of having spent the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 cooped up at home with a broken ankle and its recovery.
So without further ado, here are my favorite pop culture items from 2016. As always, they come with the caveat that these aren’t necessarily the best selections for the year; even I can’t see/listen to/read everything, so my selections are limited to those things that I’ve actually experienced and enjoyed.
I wasn’t even going to do an end of the year roundup this year since I felt like this was an off year, but I felt compelled to do so simply to tell people how freaking great FX’s new series Atlanta was. This show, my friends, is the real deal and deserves all the accolades that critics have heaped upon it. The series is the brainchild of Donald Glover and while I certainly knew that he was talented thanks to his role on Community and his musical career as Childish Gambino, I had no idea that he was capable of a show like this. Atlanta is a breath of fresh air and perfectly balances being both thoughtful and absurd. The show follows Earn (Glover) as he attempts to help his cousin Alfred aka “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry) cash in on his minor success in the Atlanta rap world. This cast is so ridiculously talented that while Glover is probably the well-known cast member, the show is confident enough to focus entire episodes on the supporting characters, including Earn’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and Alfred’s wonderfully weird pal Darius (Keith Stanfield). This is one of the few series that deals with the realities of living paycheck to paycheck and I appreciate the diverse viewpoint; some of the ideas on Atlanta have been addressed on other shows, but Glover and company provide a new perspective. I was in on this show from the pilot, but what completely sold me was an early episode where in this universe Justin Bieber is a young black man. This is presented without overt comment or explanation and while it is silly, it is silly it is also thought provoking. I love, love, love this show and can’t wait until its second season.
O.J.: Made In America
The biggest debate over this five part ESPN mini-series is whether this should be considered a television event or a movie. Otherwise it is generally accepted that this look at the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial and the context for its controversial verdict is riveting and exceptional. I wrote about it at length when it debuted, but if you haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, I strong recommend it. Really good stuff.
American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson
Further proof that 2016 was an odd year is the fact that O.J. Simpson has something of a moment this year. Not only was his trial examined in depth in the mini-series O.J.: Made In America, but it was also the subject of Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series American Crime Story. The acting in American Crime Story is off the charts fantastic; there is a reason that they cleaned up at the Emmy Awards this year. Even though I lived through the O.J. Simpson trial, American Crime Story was must-see TV for me this year and is a wonderful companion to O.J.: Made in America. Sterling K. Brown and Sarah Paulson become Chris Darden and Marcia Clark, respectively.
I will admit that I am not quite as enamored with this show as a lot of people that I know, but it makes the list because it was fun to have a watercooler show that let the viewer at home hypothesize on what was going to happen next. I hadn’t realized that I missed the fan theory aspect of shows like Lost until Westworld returned and while I definitely think that the show has some flaws (like focusing too much on the mysteries over character or plot development), it was nice to know that this was a show that was going to spark discussions. You can read more about my thoughts on the Westworld pilot here.
The Night Of
HBO’s long gestating crime drama finally debuted in 2016 and it was instantly captivating. You couldn’t look away from the talented performances of John Turturro and Riz Ahmed and while there were some narrative missteps – especially related to the character of Chandra – I was excited to tune in every Sunday night at see how the story would unfold. I’m not sure that The Night Of totally broke through the cultural zeitgeist as I predicted, but it certainly made for some interesting viewing.
Horace and Pete
Louis CK is always full of interesting surprises and his out-of-nowhere debut of Horace and Pete was no exception. Closer to a stage show than a TV series, Louis CK brought together a dream cast to tell the heartbreaking and hilarious story of Horace, Pete, and their family bar. This is so well done from beginning to end and it worth watching just for Laurie Metcalf’s mesmerizing performance in episode 3. She is a gift to us all. I wrote about the series previously here. The series is now available on Hulu, so you have no excuse for not watching.
Like the rest of the world, I was completely charmed by this wonderful Netflix series. It doesn’t hurt that it channels plenty of nostalgia for the movies of my childhood, but Stranger Things works even if you don’t have the same 80s point of reference. The casting director deserves some sort of medal for assembling such a stellar cast of young actors; it’s hard enough to get one good kid in a movie, let alone a whole bunch of them. I’m both excited and a little trepidatious for the second season; the first season was great but it was also an unknown quality. I’ll be interested to see how the series fares under the pressure of expectations. Read my thought about the series here.
Honorable mention to returning shows Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which all had great seasons.
The Nice Guys
This was an unexpected treat; you don’t necessarily think that Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are going to be a great comedic team, but here we are. Not enough people saw this movie so sadly I don’t think it will get a sequel, but it was an enjoyable ride. Check out my full review here.
Captain America: Civil War
I’m always a sucker for a Marvel movie and the Captain America films are among the best that Marvel has done. Civil War did a nice job of both giving loyal viewers payoff from watching all the previous films as well as a relatively seamless introduction of a bunch of new characters; I am now way more excited about the forthcoming Black Panther and Spider-Man reboot than I was previously. Read my full review here.
This is the movie that won me back over to liking Ryan Reynolds again. It’s nice to have a fun superhero movie again; I knew basically nothing about Deadpool prior to the movie, but this was a delightful and dirty trip. Finally a rated-R superhero film. It’s about time. This is probably the most fun that I had at the theater in 2016. My full review can be found here.
The Hateful Eight
Yeah, technically this movie was released in 2015, but I reviewed in 2016 so I’m counting it. It’s always a good year when Quentin Tarantino has a new movie. Violent and challenging, The Hateful Eight is a welcome addition to the Tarantino canon. My full review can be found here.
La La Land
Look for a full review next week
Lemonade – Beyoncé
This is easily my album of the year, not just because it is full of phenomenal songs and has a compelling visual component, but because no other album dominated the culture quite like Lemonade. In the weeks after its release, everyone was talking about Lemonade; I walked down the streets of NYC and every outdoor café I passed, people were analyzing the songs and debating who “Becky with the good hair” might actually be. In my mind, Beyoncé can do no wrong, but Lemonade may be her most triumphant work yet. Socially aware, raw, and damn catchy – Lemonade has it all.
Adele – Madison Square Garden
I turned 40 this year, which sucked on many levels, not the least because while I spent the last three years celebrating other people’s 40th birthdays, no one planned much of anything for mine. But if one thing can soften the blow of not getting a party, it’s seeing Adele live and in concert. Seeing Adele wasn’t even on my bucket list because I didn’t even know if the opportunity to see her would ever arise. I dared not to dream that big. But thanks to my friend Kristin, it happened. And it totally lived up to expectations. It was a magical evening. She doesn’t plan to tour again any time soon, but if the chance to see Adele presents itself, you must take it. Read my post about the concert here.
Garth Brooks – DCU Center
I’ve wanted to see Garth Brooks forever; despite being a casual country music fan at best, I’ve always like Garth Brooks’ songs and have long heard that he’s great in concert. I missed in him 2015, but managed to make it happen in 2016. He was great and the show was a lot of fun. No one can quite crank out the hits like Garth. Read my post about the concert here.
Odds and Ends
In the Dark podcast
My true crime obsession showed no signs of letting up in 2016 and one of my better finds to scratch that particular itch was the podcast In the Dark. What I particularly liked about the case that was examined in the podcast was that it wasn’t unsolved; instead of focusing on trying who committed a crime or in exonerating a person who was wrongfully imprisoned, In the Dark could instead focus on the process and why it took so long for the case to finally be closed. What they uncover is disturbing and probably all too common – failure to follow basic police procedure and tunnel vision. Well researched and thoughtful, I looked forward to each weekly installment. Read my post about the podcast here.
I was lucky enough to see Hamilton for a second time this year and it was just as good the second time around. Read my review here.
Museum of Ice Cream
I don’t know what people were more of jealous of me for this year – seeing Hamilton again, seeing Adele, or visiting the museum of ice cream. It was a fun day that didn’t totally live up to the hype, but swimming in a pool of sprinkles is easily a highlight of the year. Read about the trip here.
The 2016 election seemed to last forever and showed just how divided our country has become. But one of the best things to come out of the election was the proliferation of memes celebrating the friendship of Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama. Regardless of your political affiliation, these memes were funny. “Uncle Joe” has always been a source of comedic relief, but never have we needed that so badly as we did this year.
Now it’s your turn – what were your favorite pop culture things in 2016? Share with the class in the comments section. Happy New Year!