The Ten Biggest Pop Culture Disappointments of 2011

With the end of the year approaching, it’s time to look back on the the things that 2011 brought us. I’ll be doing some “best of” posts later, but before we can unwrap our presents under the tree, we have to count the lumps of coal in our stockings.

I’ll remember 2011 for lots of great things: the stellar third season of Parks and Recreation; the hilariously vulgar Bridesmaids; the best album of Matthew Good’s solo career, Lights of Endangered Species; the phrase “Trent Reznor, Academy Award winner” becoming unironic. But unfortunately, I’m also going to remember it for the ways in which it disappointed me. We’ll take a look at the ten biggest pop culture disappointments of 2011 after the jump.


10. The Academy Awards telecast
The 2010 Oscars telecast, hosted by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, was a limp, lackluster affair. The jokes weren’t funny, and the whole thing was awkwardly paced. It was easily the worst Oscars telecast I’ve ever seen. So, how to avoid that happening again? Easy. Hire two hip, young Hollywood actors for hosting duties: Anne Hathaway and James Franco.

Needless to say, that backfired, resulting in a telecast that was in some ways worse than 2010’s. Hathaway seemed to be channelling her inner “woo girl,” while Franco could have passed for a somnambulist. I can only imagine that this conversation took place backstage before the show:

Franco: Shit. I’m nervous.
Hathaway: Don’t worry about it. You smoke this joint, I take this E tablet, and everything will be fine.

Nothing the two of them did worked, from their forced banter to their awkward cross-dressing gag. (Yeah, that’s right. The Oscar producers thought that cross-dressing would be funny.) In fact, the show was so poorly received that the Academy is going back to having Billy Crystal as host for 2012, inflicting his nasal voice and lame humour upon the world once again.

9. Terra Nova
Terra Nova was originally slated to debut in the spring of this year, but it was shelved until the fall. Fox probably should have kept it on the shelf. In fact, they probably should have thrown that shelf off a cliff. Terra Nova is a stinker, plain and simple.

I was only able to make it through three episodes of the show before giving up. How is it possible to make a show about time travel, rebuilding civilization, rebel factions, mysterious symbols, and MOTHERFUCKING DINOSAURS so boring? On top of that, the show suffers from every imaginable problem: shoddy plotting; cheesy dialogue; unsympathetic characters; subpar special effects; mediocre acting – you name it, Terra Nova probably does it wrong.

There’s almost certainly a great story to be told about a dystopian society that goes back in time to erase the mistakes of their future. Imagine how interesting Terra Nova could have been if it had addressed the tough questions about building civilization from the ground up: How will we feed ourselves? What kind of government should we have? How will we coexist with dinosaurs? How will we avoid the mistakes that brought our future civilization to collapse? It’s too bad that Terra Nova doesn’t seem interested in answering those kinds of questions, probably because the show is intended to have mass appeal. However, profundity and family entertainment aren’t mutually exclusive. Just take a look at WALL-E, arguably one of the best films of the past decade. That movie managed to weave a cute love story seamlessly into a tale of environmental collapse. Plus, it featured robots!

Unfortunately, the characters on Terra Nova are little more than robots, programmed to act out the most insipid storylines about teenage love and amnesia-inducing viruses – hardly the stuff of building society from scratch. Aside from some gorgeous Australian scenery, there’s really nothing to like about the series. Terra Nova isn’t just a show that failed to live up to the hype; it’s a show that spat in the hype’s face, as if it was specifically designed to be as terrible as possible. If that’s true, then Terra Nova has succeeded. The only way it could be worse is if it turned into a musical.

Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. Singing dinosaurs? That could be fucking hilarious.

8. The Mass Effect blonde Shepard controversy
When reading this blurb, I want you to keep one thing in mind: the appearance of the main character in the Mass Effect games, Commander Shepard, is completely customizable.

One of the greatest things about the Mass Effect games is the element of player choice. Players’ actions and dialogue choices have impacts, both subtle and large-scale, on the eventual outcomes of the games. Everything is customizable, from weapon choice to skill development to character appearance. Heck, you can even choose to play as a man or as a woman, with Mark Meer or Jennifer Hale providing the voice of the protagonist depending on which option you select.

Almost all of the promotional materials for the first two games in the series featured the male version of Shepard, but realizing that about a fifth of the games’ players chose the female Shepard (affectionately referred to as “Femshep”), developer BioWare decided to use her in the promotional materials for the third game of the series, Mass Effect 3. So, BioWare came up with six different designs for the new default female Shepard and let fans vote on their favourite. Keep in mind: Shepard’s appearance is completely customizable.

I tend to be skeptical of creative crowdsourcing, and the issue of Femshep’s appearance illustrates why: it inevitably generates senseless controversy. The blonde Femshep led the poll from the start, and ended up winning by an overwhelming margin. It wasn’t my personal favourite, but ‘no matter,’ I thought, ‘Shepard’s appearance is completely customizable anyway.’

However, for some, the idea of a blonde Femshep was enough to inspire outrage. ‘How could a dumb blonde be capable of saving the galaxy?’ they thought. I’m not joking. They seriously wondered this. An editorial to that effect by Kim Richards, entitled “Death to Blonde Shepard” even appeared on the well-respected PC Gamer website.

Just look at [blonde Shepard], then back to these words. Now look at [blonde Shepard] again – that is the face of a woman who cares more about her glue-on nails and handbag Chihuahua. She’s not the saviour of the goddamn universe.

Richards was savaged in the comments section of the article, and rightly so. The notion that an attractive blonde woman could never have the strength and presence of mind to save the universe is frankly insulting. Honestly, take a look at blonde Shepard again. What about her screams “glue-on nails” and “handbag chihuahua?” To me, she looks like a woman who’s about to kick some Reaper ass, just like the other five candidates put forward by BioWare. (This Penny Arcade comic has the right idea.)

Richards’ article reveals an alarming attitude: the stereotype that all blondes are bimbos. In reality, not all blondes are Paris Hilton types, and assuming so is just as offensive as asking, “How is Asian Shepard going to save the galaxy when she’s doing math problems and piano practice?” or “How is black Shepard going to save the galaxy when she’s busy gorging on watermelon and fried chicken?” Hey, if being blonde-haired and blue-eyed worked for Samus Aran, it can work for Commander Shepard too, right? And if that doesn’t work for you, then you can always change Shepard’s appearance.

Other people, such as Sophie Prell, writing for Destructoid, questioned the very idea of a poll, comparing it to a “beauty pageant”:

See, the FemShep vote was a beauty pageant all along. And I don’t know about you, but that’s what pisses me off. BioWare took one of the small handful of non-sexualized female heroes in gaming and put her on stage for the world to judge on appearances alone, aka a f**king beauty pageant.

This is a more defensible position than “blondes are dumb,” but it’s still problematic, because it ultimately rests on the presumption of endemic sexism in the gaming industry and specifically BioWare. Put simply, we have no counterfactual evidence. We don’t know what would have happened if Femshep had been the face of the series from the outset. Would a similar vote on the default appearance of male Shepard have been met with such controversy? Of course, one could argue that the fact that male Shepard was chosen as the face of Mass Effect is in and of itself indicative of sexism. But one could just as easily argue that Shepard was originally imagined as a male character, and that’s why he’s the face of the series. If that’s considered sexist, then every freakin’ male protagonist in history could be considered an instance of sexism.

Besides, I have no trouble giving BioWare the benefit of the doubt and assuming that there was no sexist intent, whether implicit or explicit, behind their actions. I haven’t gotten around to playing Mass Effect 2 yet, so it’s entirely possible that that game is just a cesspool of sexism (though I doubt it). However, the idea that anyone could accuse the first game in the series, Mass Effect, of sexism is laughable. Both male and female characters occupy positions of power and importance in the story, and it isn’t even so much as hinted that either gender is less respected than the other by the futuristic space society of 2183. The generic baddies that you fight throughout the game, when they’re human, are male or female in roughly equal proportions. The game even goes out of its way to buck stereotypes, making your female human squadmate, Ashley Williams, a badass soldier, while making your male human squadmate, Kaidan Alenko, a “biotic” with supernatural powers. Being a bigger fan of Jennifer Hale’s voice acting than Mark Meer’s, I played Mass Effect as female Shepard, and there was just a single, brief instance when I felt as if my gameplay experience was affected by the fact that I chosen to play as a woman: when Shepard had to deal with Harkin, who is portrayed as a drunken, chauvinist pig. Even then, the game goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Harkin is basically human scum.

So if I’m assuming that BioWare’s intentions in putting Femshep’s appearance out to a vote in the first place were completely innocuous, it’s because Mass Effect has proven itself as a gaming experience that is welcoming to both male and female gamers. And, like I said, Shepard’s appearance is completely customizable. It doesn’t matter if Shepard is white, black, or brown, male or female; regardless of race or gender, he or she can be a badass who SAVES THE MOTHERFUCKING GALAXY.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t end there. Seeing the angry response to results of the first of the poll on the Internet, BioWare put up a second poll: this time, to choose female Shepard’s hair style and colour. It basically boiled down to redhead Femshep vs. blonde Femshep. Redhead Femshep won out, proving that once you accuse gamers of being shallow idiots who prescribe to Western-Aryan standards of beauty, they’ll go out of their way to prove you wrong. (Take this hilarious satirical black Femshep, for example.) BioWare opted to use redhead Femshep as the new official Femshep, proving that the outcome of the democratic process is determined not by the majority, but by those who yell the loudest. And accusations of pageantry were muted after the final choice was made, proving that choosing to follow a stereotype – in this instance, that of the dark-haired heroine – is always safer than attempting to buck one.

Did I mention that Shepard’s facial appearance is completely customizable, rendering this whole debate moot? My Femshep is a badass brunette with her hair in a bun, and when I play Mass Effect 3, it’s her who’s going to save the whole damn galaxy, not the woman on the game box.


7. Community, season 2
I’ve been thinking for a while about why the things that delight fans and critics about this show drive me apoplectic with rage, and at the risk oversimplifying, I think I’ve figured out why: I hated the second season of Community because it didn’t commit to anything.

That’s not wholly accurate. Community’s second season did commit to one thing, and one thing only: being talked about. There was a sense of ambition behind whatever the show did in its second season – A documentary episode! A homage to My Dinner with Andre! – but what it lacked were the talent and ability to pull it off. That singular commitment to ambition and creativity came at a cost. The second season of Community – especially the second half, which aired in 2011 – failed to commit to anything else that makes a good TV show.

Character development was all over the place, with the members of study group forgetting whatever lessons that they had learned in previous episodes at the writers’ convenience. The show’s tone would change from week to week, beyond whatever subtle changes would be required to fit the gimmick-of-the-week. (Dungeons and Dragons! A clip show! Paintball!) Furthermore, its inability to distinguish between parody and satire often left me feeling confused. (Was the documentary episode celebrating mockumentaries or scorning them? I still don’t have a damn clue.) But most alarmingly, Community couldn’t commit to a clear message: are we supposed to root for these characters or not? A show can’t be Parks and Recreation and Arrested Development at the same time; it can’t treat its characters both lovingly and mockingly. Community could never decide whether it wanted to respect its characters or ridicule them.

Community’s supporters would likely argue that this failure to commit is merely a reflection of the show’s creativity, and to some extent, I’m inclined to agree. The people who work on Community are certainly creative; they just have no clue how to pull off their ideas. Unfortunately, they labour under the delusion that they do, that they’re producing great television, and consequently, the show is presented with a totally unearned sense of smugness and self-satisfaction, steeped in juvenile meta-humour. It even mocks shows it considers inferior, such as Glee and The Cape, in the process. That’s not to imply that those are/were good shows. I just find the notion that Community thinks it can be the arbiter of good taste intellectually repulsive.

My opinion of a television show has never fallen faster or harder. I went from unabashedly loving the wit and charm of Community’s  first season to having mixed feelings about the first half of season 2 to deeming the second half borderline unwatchable trash. I applaud those who enjoy the show for what it is, but I can’t muster the level of cognitive dissonance required to appreciate a show that has no idea what it wants to be from week to week other than daring and ambitious. I’ve always believed that disaster could occur if a project’s ambition was unmatched by the ability to execute it, but I never realized how odious the results could be. Community has reached a new low. The post-Christmas run of Community’s second season was not only a terrible half-season of television; it’s also easily the most overrated half-season of television of all time.

6. The aftermath of The Killing’s season finale
I wrote extensively about the aftermath of The Killing’s season finale here, so I’ll keep this blurb relatively brief. I’m not going to deny that “Orpheus Descending” was a terrible hour of television, but what surprised me was just how much anger not only fans, but also critics, expressed about it. In fact, in lobbing personal attacks at showrunner Veena Sud, critics became just like the Internet trolls they try so hard to root out. If critics aren’t held to a higher standard of behaviour, then what reason is there to have faith in TV criticism?


5. The media coverage of the Occupy movement
This might be pushing the definition of “pop culture” a little, but just roll with me, alright?

I’ve always been a detractor of news media and their tendency to sensationalize or even misrepresent the facts. Knowing that, their failure to provide a nuanced examination of the issues surrounding the Occupy movement shouldn’t have come as a surprise.  Still, I can’t help but be disappointed with their reckless disregard for journalistic clarity.

To be fair, some of that lack of clarity came from the Occupy movement itself, whose failure to rally around a singular vision or message made it the laughingstock of conservative commentators and pragmatic liberals everywhere. But the issues underlying their discontent – economic mismanagement and inequality of both income and opportunity – were easily understood. Unfortunately, news media were content to examine these issues in only the most cursory way, never getting to the heart of their root causes. More alarmingly, they conflated these issues, unintentionally implying, for instance that income inequality somehow begot economic mismanagement. (Clearly, direction of causality is not news media’s strong suit.)

If the message coming from the Occupy movement was unclear, then the media’s interpretation of it wasn’t even a message at all. Rather, it was a sensationalized David-vs.-Goliath tale, that of the righteous 99% vs. the evil 1%. (Or, in the case of the perennially wrongheaded Fox News, the ungrateful 99% vs. the benevolent 1%.) They presented sob stories of people who had lost their jobs or had come upon hard times because of the supposed actions of the 1%. But such stories, while tragic, hardly qualified as news. Instead, they were tools in the effort to make the Occupy movement coverage as sensationalized as possible. This wasn’t journalism; this was Inside Edition legitimized.

Intellectuals also hold some of the blame. In a rare display of journalistic competence, news media opted to interview and/or host panels with numerous academics. But instead of presenting clear economic explanations and hard facts, these experts irresponsibly chose to use their platforms as bully pulpits for their political views. Take this CNN debate between Niall Ferguson and Jeffrey Sachs, for example. It’s not an intellectual discussion as much as it is a bout of schoolyard name-calling dressed up in academic language.

With the Wall Street protesters booted out of Zucotti Park, the Occupy movement faded from the public consciousness. This could have been a time to spark a lively, productive discourse about the state of current economic affairs, but the collective failure of protesters, media, and intellectuals to rise above finger-pointing and sensationalism ensured it wasn’t so. In a sense, the disappointment of the Occupy movement and its media coverage is that it is just a “pop culture” disappointment. The Occupy movement lives on only in late-night show jokes and Internet memes. On a larger scale, however, it will merely be remembered as an historical footnote.

4. dredg’s Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy
You might be thinking, ‘How did a little-known album by an obscure art rock band make it to #4 on this list?’ Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy was certainly a disappointment, but does it really merit a place above Terra Nova or the media coverage of the Occupy movement? On some hypothetical objective scale, probably not. But Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy is being placed on this list not only because it was a mediocre album, but also because the backlash towards it illustrates some alarming things about the music industry and fans’ perceptions of it.

I’ve already reviewed the album here, and I wrote at length about the backlash here, so I won’t go into detail about why Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy was a disappointment. Suffice it to say that dredg abandoned their signature soaring art rock sound for an awkward, clumsy foray into synthpop, at the direction of producer Dan the Automator.

Unfortunately, the band has shouldered most of the blame for the product, and Dan the Automator has emerged from the backlash unscathed. This isn’t an unprecedented phenomenon. Bob Rock is shat on – and rightly so – by some fans of Our Lady Peace and Metallica for fucking with those bands’ sounds. However, nobody but passionate fans of those bands seems to care, and Rock continues to be gainfully employed as one of the most sought-after record producers in the biz.

If a producer screws up, nobody seems to give a damn. To anybody but hardcore followers of the band, it’s always the band’s fault. Nobody cares about what lead singer Gavin Hayes has said in interviews about Dan the Automator not only producing but also collaborating on Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy, because at the end of day, only dredg’s name is on the album cover. dredg has likely ruined its career, but Dan the Automator has gotten off scot-free.

3. Scotty McCreery wins American Idol
It’s widely acknowledged that American Idol hasn’t had a great batch of singers in a while, but count on America to choose the worst of a bad bunch. As I watched Scotty McCreery being crowned the winner of Season 10 over the far more talented Lauren Alaina, I couldn’t help but wonder: how did we go from the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood to a smirking country crooner who can’t sing very well? Come to think of it, that’s a question I’d rather not ponder.

2. Lowe’s pulls ads from All-American Muslim
Let’s face it: TLC shows suck. Programmes like 19 Kids and Counting and I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant exist mainly to supply The Soup with a steady stream of ridiculous clips. (In a perverse way, I’m kind of grateful for that.) All-American Muslim probably isn’t a good show either. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried watching it, because I don’t have any interest in watching a show that could safely be retitled Average Folks with Boring Lives. (Seriously, putting a hijab on a woman doesn’t automatically make her more interesting.) That being said, I have nothing against All-American Muslim’s continued existence. I think it’s kind of sad that such a show even needs to exist, but if it educates more Islamophobes and encourages them to give up their bigotry, then I’m all for it.

Unfortunately, some Islamophobes are incorrigible. Here’s an excerpt from a letter sent by the Florida Family Association (FFA) to hardware chain Lowe’s, encouraging the store to stop advertising on the show:

‘All-American Muslim’ is propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law. […] The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to the liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.

No, really. That’s from a real letter. Sent by a real organization.

What’s worse is that it actually worked. Lowe’s caved, deciding to pull their advertising from the show. This sets a dangerous precedent. How far is corporate America willing to go in order to indulge a group of ignorant xenophobes? What’s next – will Muslims be barred from entering stores on the grounds that they’re probably terrorists who are hiding bombs under their shirts?

The silliest thing about this controversy is that it didn’t even have to be an issue. Lowe’s could have chosen to ignore the letter, and nobody would have been any the wiser. After all, Lowe’s isn’t the only company that advertised on All-American Muslim. The FFA couldn’t seriously expect to be able to boycott all of them, right?

One thing’s for sure, though: I don’t want to fork over my cash to a company that supports religious bigotry. Sorry Lowe’s, you just lost a potential customer.

1. Google+
Google’s forays into social networking have been largely unsuccessful, unless you count Orkut, which for some inexplicable reason caught fire in Brazil. Nothing Google has done has been able to unseat social networking leviathan Facebook.

So, what did Google do to try to compete with Facebook? It basically remade Facebook but with fewer features and a less pretty user interface. The privacy controls are a mess too. There’s no way to stop your profile from being indexed by Google search, so in case you want to make some aspects of your profile public so that your friends can find you, you’re making them visible to the entire world. There’s no option to make them visible only to Google+ users. The interface isn’t even user friendly, randomly opening up new windows/tabs whenever you want to adjust your settings.

It’s difficult to overstate how brazen a ripoff of Facebook Google+ is. Facebook’s News Feed is Google+’s Stream. Facebook’s Friend Lists are Google+’s Circles. Facebook’s Likes are Google+’s +1s. Facebook has a chat and notification system; so does Google+. Facebook has a space for sharing photos and videos; so does Google+! In fact, I can’t think of a single feature of Google+ that wasn’t directly ripped off from some aspect of Facebook or a popular Facebook app.

Apparently, at least 13% of American adults have joined Google+, and that number is expected to rise to 22% within a year. That’s not the same thing as saying that 13% of American adults actually use Google+, though. Almost 100% of American adults have an appendix, but when was the last time you used your appendix to digest anything?

Google has a reputation for innovation, as evidenced by their eponymous search engine and apps like Google Earth. They had every opportunity to revolutionize the social networking paradigm. Instead, they chose to replicate it and water it down. For that reason, Google+ is the biggest pop culture disappointment of 2011.


So there you have it, boys and girls: the most disappointing stuff that pop culture brought us in 2011, from bad awards shows to mediocre music to pointless social networking sites. I’d like to end this entry on a positive note, however: the disappointment of these things may sting now, but by this time next  year, we’ll probably be laughing about Terra Nova and the blonde Shepard controversy. 2011 still brought us lots of great stuff, some of which I’ll be discussing in subsequent year-in-review posts, and I’m sure that 2012 will bring us plenty of great stuff as well.

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