The really cool stuff of the Aughts wasn’t found in the mainstream (Commentary)

Time Magazine called it the “decade from hell,” but Entertainment Weekly argued, in its latest issue, what about the entertainment? However, they failed to make their own case.

The Aughts really was a bad decade for mainstream entertainment. Although not, certainly, for entertainment overall. This was, after all, the decade when TV and music became more accessible, thanks to the Internet and DVRs, and by digging a little deeper, a determined person was able to keep from being bored.

Still, EW is compromising when they put out a Best of the Decade issue. They want to sell magazines (but not to the point where they are TV Guide), but they also want to write about what’s good (but not to the point where they are John’s Blog).

Reading about the Best of the Decade reminded me of how many popular things I was alienated from in the Aughts (quite a change from the ’90s, when I felt plugged in to mainstream music, I wanted to see just about every blockbuster, and the phrase “must-see TV” wasn’t a joke).

Out of EW’s top 10 entertainers, movies and TV shows of the decade, I agreed with three choices in each category. Indeed, I felt like I connected to about 30 percent of what was popular this decade.

I agreed with these choices:

J.K. Rowling — The “Harry Potter” books are good reading, and they hold up on repeat readings, or audiobook listenings, or movie-adaptation viewings.

J.J. Abrams — Not because of “Lost,” which I think is a great concept with mediocre execution, but because of “Fringe.” Plus, he had a hand in “Six Degrees” and “What About Brian,” and he made a “Star Trek” movie that was completely watchable.

For my third “agreement” in the entertainers category, I’ll give one-half point to Beyonce and one-half point to Jon Stewart. I don’t own any Beyonce albums and I’ve never gone out of my way to watch “The Daily Show,” but I do think “Crazy in Love” was a great pop tune and Stewart’s news-comedy blend pioneered a new way of getting news. It’s just that I leaned toward Dennis Miller before his show was canceled, and now I’m a “Chelsea Lately” guy (although, of course, that’s mostly entertainment news. No big loss, though: We’re all living the bad news in 2009, so it’s redundant to watch it on TV, too).

“The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” “Lost in Translation” and “Almost Famous” — All profound and funny movies. I have an urge to watch “Almost Famous” about once a year, and generally I’m a “once is enough” guy, even with good movies. “Translation” is a great example of a place (Tokyo) becoming a character, plus you’ve got Bill Murray (also great this decade in “Broken Flowers”). “40 Year-Old” marked Judd Apatow’s transition from brilliant TV guy (“Freaks and Geeks”) to brilliant movie guy, and it solidified Steve Carell as a great comic actor. Murray, Apatow and Carell all should’ve been entertainers of the decade over some of the people EW picked.

“Arrested Development,” “The Office” (U.K.) and “Gilmore Girls” — If memory serves, EW never gave a cover to any of these shows. They spent most of the Oughts supporting “24,” “Lost” and — until it morphed from bad-show-in-disguise to just-plain-bad — “Heroes.” But within the pages, EW always supported these quirky gems. “Arrested” and the original “Office” are excellent representatives of the non-laugh-track humor that defined this decade (one could also make a case for “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Futurama,” “Family Guy,” “Always Sunny” and the new “Office,” not to mention “The Simpsons,” which started back in the ’80s, amazingly). “Gilmore Girls” didn’t redefine TV (seven years of that rapid-fire dialogue was enough, I guess), but it sure was a lovable show.

I disagreed with these choices:

Johnny Depp — Nice guy, I’m sure. Probably a brilliant actor, too. But I just remember having a low-grade headache during “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” and “Finding Neverland” is a classic example of utterly dull Oscar bait.

Simon Cowell — He’s already a millionaire just for being an ass on TV; EW didn’t need to honor him as if he’s some sort of artist. People like “American Idol” because it’s a launching pad for new musicians, not because of the judges (at least that’s what I like to tell myself).

Peter Jackson and “The Lord of the Rings” — Speaking of headaches during long movies. In fairness, I did have a good time at “King Kong,” and his new movie, “The Lovely Bones,” looks good (I’ll assume it’s not his fault that the preview completely spoils the movie — that’s a ’00s trend I could certainly do without).

“The Dark Knight” — It doesn’t have the repeat-viewing value to make a list like this, thanks to that redundant-upon-arrival Two-Face plotline. “Batman Begins” is actually a much better film (as were “Garden State” — yeah, I know it’s been backlashed off of most top-10 lists by now, but I still love it — “Ghost World,” “Sideways,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “V for Vendetta,” “School of Rock” and “I Love You, Man”).

“Lost” — I’ve watched every episode (regardless of what’s happened since, the pilot episode is a masterpiece) and I’ve read a lot about why I should love “Lost,” but I don’t love “Lost.” I appreciate certain things about it, like the flashbacks and the flash-forwards, but at least two entire seasons (the Tailies season and the Oceanic Six season) were filler, and while I can appreciate the acting, I feel disconnected from pretty much all of the characters now.

If this is truly a “best of the decade” issue (and not the “most talked-about of the decade”), then “Lost” should give way to “Once and Again,” “Veronica Mars,” all of Joss Whedon’s catalogue (notably “Firefly”), “Futurama,” “Dead Like Me,” “Wonderfalls,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Fringe.”

What’s especially notable about the Aughts is how many “best of” items I had no opinion about one way or another (because the material didn’t grab me in the first place): Tina Fey (I know everyone loves “30 Rock,” but I just don’t see the appeal), Justin Timberlake, Oprah Winfrey, the women of “Sex and the City,” John Lasseter (representing the animated movie explosion, I imagine), Will Smith (a good actor, but look closer at his resume and ask if he did “best of the decade”-quality films), Meryl Streep, “Brokeback Mountain,” “Gladiator,” “WALL-E,” “Moulin Rouge!,” “The Sopranos” (what an utterly depressing concept for a show), “The Daily Show,” “American Idol” (I like some of the music produced by the winners, but I can’t imagine sitting through an episode), “The Shield,” Kanye West, Jay-Z, Radiohead, OutKast and the Dixie Chicks.

But my disillusionment from EW’s choices actually sums up the decade very well. The Aughts marked a time when the mainstream alienated a lot of us, but it was also a decade with a lot of options outside the mainstream (thank goodness).

Ten years from now it might be impossible to put out an issue like this. By then, the notion of a common zeitgeist to rally around will be a thing of the past. That’s kind of sad, and also kind of cool.

What are your picks for the best of the ’00s?

And, on a more profound note, what will the Aughts be remembered for (like the ’60s had the Beatles, the ’70s had all those colorful fashions and styles, the ’80s had “Star Wars” and metal and the ’90s had “Seinfeld” and irony). Off the top of my head, I guess the ’00s could be defined by reality TV, but that’s not something to take pride in, so I’m open to better suggestions.


Another Matt's GravatarOK, I am going to try keep this brief and save some thoughts for the individual best of the decade posts above this one, but I wanted to touch on the main point of this post, which I find extremely interesting.

I believe all media has become so diverse in its offerings that the types of decade-defining, cultural consensuses (consensi?), on artists like The Beatles, Elvis or the other things you mentioned in your final paragraph will ever exist again.

With the relatively recent proliferation of the Internet, premium cable television (with hundreds of channels) and the somewhat-ironic popularity of all things “indie,” so many media choices exist for people these days that it has become increasingly difficult to evaluate the best/most popular/most meaningful art of any year, much less an entire decade.

I think the passing of Michael Jackson this year demonstrated that (no matter how hard Justin Timeberlake tries to imitate him) there may never be an artist that is universally recognized as the excellent again.

The Beatles, Elvis and Michael Jackson defined their eras because of the general consensus among people of their specific generations that they were excellent. People didn’t purchase their albums solely because they loved the music, but because those albums became commodities like having a refrigerator, TV or microwave in their homes.

If you ask people to tell you their favorite anything now, some people may agree with each other but more will have their own favorite something that others have never seen or even heard of.

Because of that, mainstream media has become so terrible, often appealing to the lowest common denominator in order to avoid offending/challenging/turning away any potential viewers. I think the result is often either bland (think of the countless procedurals like cop or doctor shows on TV) or trashy (reality television) content that is morally objectionable to very few but also not that interesting.

I think those factors are part of the reason why looking for media that defined the Aughts will be such a challenge. However, looking back in several years may make it easier to determine what was the most important and/or influential art of the decade.

# Posted By Another Matt | 12/9/09 4:56 PM

John Hansen's GravatarYou are correct in that the spreading-out of entertainment options makes it rarer for something to be universally beloved. And yet, I still say that’s no excuse for Entertainment Weekly to not dig a little deeper than Johnny Depp and the women of “Sex and the City” (one area where the diversity of entertainment does preclude universal success is music, I will grant that; but movies and TV are still insular enough that it’s hard to get too obscure with the selections — even a “commercial failure” draws millions of viewers).

I just posted my top 10 entertainers of the decade, and I think almost all of them could be considered mainstream enough that they’d be safe for EW, without risking too many unsold issues. Also, as you mentioned outside this blog, the Onion AV Club has some intelligent yet very accessible end-of-decade lists.

And actually, as you allude to, what we now see as canonical favorites perhaps weren’t so universally beloved at the time. For example, kids’ parents just “didn’t understand” the Beatles. You’ll still run into people that don’t “get” “Star Wars” (odds are they’ve seen at least one movie, true, but that doesn’t mean it appeals to them). Even Michael Jackson has a detractor or two.

What I’m suggesting is that perhaps something from the ‘00s will go down as the defining entertainment (because something has to), even though it really wasn’t. For example, we may one day decide that everyone in America watched “American Idol” and hung on every vote, when in fact a good number of people understand that a reality show isn’t the best place to find the next great musician.

# Posted By John Hansen | 12/11/09 4:44 AM