Looking back at the year’s disappointments has become somewhat of a tradition for this blog (if you can count doing something for two years running as a “tradition”). While I’ve made a post about my favourite TV shows of the year, and I’ve got posts about my favourite music and video games of the year on the way, I think it’s worthwhile to remember some of this year’s disappointments. Some had the potential to be good but fell short. Others were just plain terrible. So without further ado, here are the ten biggest pop culture disappointments of 2012.

10. The Academy Awards telecast
The Academy Awards telecast clocked in at #10 last year, and here it is again this year. Oscar staple Billy Crystal was brought in to fix up the show (apparently fresh from a botched plastic surgery job), but his usual effortless charm was nowhere to be found. There was almost nothing fresh or enjoyable about the entire telecast, and as usual, it ran for too long. The Academy Awards get worse and worse each year, and it doesn’t look like anything is going to reverse that trend. Can we get Hugh Jackman back, please?

9. The final three episodes of Homeland’s second season
I named Homeland as my tenth favourite show of the year, but that was in spite of, not because of, its final three episodes. Up until those installments, Homeland was a taut political and psychological thriller. In those three episodes, though, it became something else entirely. Logical plotting was eschewed in favour of God-knows-what, because it sure as hell wasn’t good drama. Abu Nazir was running around a warehouse like a villain out of a shitty horror movie, plot holes piled up on top of each other, and the whole affair collapsed under its own weight.

In the season finale, things got even worse. The show tried to paint Carrie and Brody’s relationship as a twisted romance for the ages, but it came off as weird, icky, awkward, and unbelievable. Claire Danes and Damian Lewis are amazing actors; however, even they couldn’t sell the high school love letter dialogue they were being forced to spew. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV series crash so fast and so hard before. Yikes.

8. Deltron 3030’s Deltron Event II delayed to 2013
NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

Seriously, if this album doesn’t come out by spring, heads are going to roll.

7. Smash
There’s little that irks me more than wasted potential, and Smash was full of it. With a fine cast, an intriguing premise, and a talented group of songwriters, NBC’s musical drama should have been, for lack of a better word, a smash. But while it certainly did okay in the ratings, it was a critical flop. At times, it even seemed like self-parody. All the characters were loathsome, even the ones we were supposed to root for. The storylines focused far too much on their personal lives and not enough on the musical that was supposed to be the subject of the show. Katharine McPhee turned in a dull, lifeless performance as the ingenue who was supposedly full of raw talent (which never materialized, but all the characters seemed to think it existed). On the other hand, the undeservedly-praised Megan Hilty was no better, choosing to overact instead of underact. Every line she spoke or sang seemed to be dripping with sex, and watching her became uncomfortable and kind of embarrassing. Overall, Smash was a huge disappointment. I love musicals, but I couldn’t make it past the sixth episode of this dreck.

6. Skyfall
I’ve never been a fan of Bond movies, finding that their ridiculous, unrealistic plots and setpieces are incongruous with their self-serious tone. But I’d heard a lot of good things about Skyfall, and with many critics dubbing it a fantastic film, I thought that checking it out would be worth my time. It turned out that Skyfall was worse than I could have ever dreamed. Starting out with an exciting chase sequence aboard a moving train, the movie became less and less interesting as it wore on. I could literally see the film coming up against its budget constraints as the action sequences became less and less ambitious and more and more confined. The plot made absolutely no sense, as if long explanatory sections had been excised from the film. The tone of the movie was relentlessly dour, which contrasted jarringly with its outlandish plot. Moreover, Javier Bardem made a ludicrously terrible villain, inspiring more laughter than terror. Finally, one thing must be said: Daniel Craig is a terrible actor. He can’t play Bond. He has no charm, and he lacks the ability to adopt the superspy’s debonair demeanour. If the Bond franchise is to produce even a remotely enjoyable movie, he needs to go.

5. No Doubt’s Push and Shove
There are worse artistic works on this list, but sometimes, receiving a mediocre product when a quality one was expected can be more disappointing than receiving a terrible product when expectations were low. I guess I just hyped up No Doubt’s first album in 11 years too much in my head, and when I finally heard it, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Sappy lyrics, oppressive production, unimaginative riffs – this was not the No Doubt that recorded Tragic Kingdom or Return of Saturn. There have been reports that they’re back in the studio again working on some new stuff, but I honestly don’t care anymore. Their transformation from ska-punk outfit to radio-pop quartet has been completed.

4. Spec Ops: The Line bombs in sales
Every once in a while, a game, movie, or TV show comes along that may not be one of the best things I’ve ever experienced, but is unique enough to be something that everyone should try to play or watch. This year, Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line was one such work. Using narrative tools that most designers shirk, The Line asked tough questions about violence, duty, war culture, and even why we play video games.

But publisher 2K Games’ attempt to turn the game into the third-person version of Call of Duty, complete with an irrelevant, tacked-on multiplayer mode, proved to be the game’s downfall. Most of the pre-release promotion for the game marketed it as just another military shooter set in the Middle East with a typical white male protagonist. It was only in the couple of weeks leading up to the game’s release that developer interviews revealed how much care had gone into crafting the game’s narrative. But this small amount of interesting buzz couldn’t undo months of promotion – scant as it was – portraying the game as another run-of-the-mill military shooter.

In the end, Spec Ops: The Line bombed in sales, selling less than half a million copies worldwide. Nobody wanted another typical military shooter that wasn’t Call of Duty or Battlefield, but it’s quite possible that those who passed on the game would have been sold on its complex, twisty narrative. I guess we’ll never know.

What saddens me the most about the game’s commercial failure is that I fear game publishers will take the wrong lessons from it. Rather than pinning the blame on bad marketing, execs may conclude that games with deep, challenging stories don’t sell. As a result, we may end up with fewer interesting games and more shallow dreck, both on physical and virtual shelves.

3. The Girls backlash
If you’re young and successful, people will hate you. That much is a given. But if you’re a young, successful woman who is bigger than a size 4, be prepared for a barrage of disgusting, misogynistic sludge from the mouth-breathing morons who occupy seemingly every corner of the Internet. Comments about Girls’ creator, Lena Dunham, got so bad in the episode reviews over at the AV Club that reviewer Todd VanDerWerff had to step in and make this comment, which spread across the Web.

While the rampant sexism that some Internet denizens spewed in response to Girls was certainly disappointing, it wasn’t the only kind of backlash to the show. As I explained in a piece I wrote earlier this year, some people reacted negatively to the show because they believed that its focus on a group of twentysomething white girls was too narrow. Others accused Dunham of nepotism because she is the daughter of an artist. While these criticisms have their merits, they’re not relevant to the quality of the show itself.

Thus, while TV critics were fighting a war against sexist trolls and responding to comments about the show’s alleged racism and nepotism, actual criticism of the show itself seemed relatively scarce. Placing a creative work in a wider cultural context can be a valuable part of analysis, but that shouldn’t preclude discussion of the work as its own entity. I can’t recall a single critic commenting on the show’s tonal shifts, its thin characterization, or the cast’s acting talent (my main criticisms of the show), but thinkpieces about viewers’ reaction to the show are easy to find.

To be clear, I would never expect a single critic to agree with my opinions of a given show. But I would have liked to be able to discuss what I liked and didn’t like about the show in an environment where criticism wasn’t equated with misogyny and cynicism, and praise wasn’t equated with racism and white privilege.

The silver lining of this mess is that it has brought issues of race, class, and gender to the forefront of many TV viewers’ minds. But to make Girls a lightning rod for these issues is reductive at best and harmful at worst. Girls is at most an anecdote, an example. It is not the embodiment of whatever cause-du-jour the Internet has taken up. It did not create any of these issues through its mere existence. Girls is simply one part of a larger system of popular entertainment that has largely favoured a straight white male viewpoint since its inception. Losing sight of that leads us to make misguided conclusions, like blaming Girls for racism or declaring it the sole harbinger of a new era of female-created shows on television.

In the end, Girls is just a middle-of-the-road dramedy. Without all the conversation surrounding it, I doubt I would have given it a second or third viewing. It’s great that it has led us to discuss important social issues facing North American society. But I fear that we haven’t moved past analyzing those issues in the context of Girls, seeking to impose a normative morality on or to draw a normative morality from the show. We need to move to the next step and apply that normative morality to the real world. It would also be nice if we could get some positive analysis of the show, looking at it in terms of what it is instead of what it should be.

And oh yeah, if you’re a sexist, fat-shaming troll who enjoys making disgusting comments about Dunham’s physical appearance, then just stop. You’re not funny. You’re not witty. You’re just an asshole.

2. House of Lies
How in the world do you take a show with Glynn Turman, Kristen Bell, and Don Cheadle and make it utterly repulsive? Seriously, how? Because House of Lies isn’t just bad; it’s execrable. There is not a single bit of irony in this putative satire. I’ve already made my opinions on this show clear, so I’ll just say this: House of Lies is one of the most misguided, ill-conceived programmes ever to grace my television screen.

1. The Mass Effect 3 backlash
Sometimes I find myself defending something that I don’t really like. I was no fan of how Mass Effect 3 ended. While I appreciated how it worked on a thematic level, I think that from a pure gameplay perspective, it fell short; limping around for ten minutes at a snail’s pace isn’t exactly engaging.

But you know what I did after Mass Effect 3 ended? I registered my disappointment, and I moved on with my life. I didn’t draw up a petition to get the ending changed. I didn’t participate in an exploitative charity drive. And I certainly didn’t report BioWare to the FTC.

Those who say that Mass Effect 3’s ending can be changed because art is not immutable are arguing against a straw man. That was never the point. Art can – and in some cases, should – be changed. But it both saddens and baffles me that gamers will rage against the likes of Roger Ebert when they have the temerity to suggest that video games aren’t art, while having no qualms about treating games like products themselves, as if a video game were somehow equivalent to a kitchen appliance and Mass Effect 3 were missing an important feature.

To some extent, that’s a reflection of how video games are marketed, with lengthy lists of features. Can you imagine a movie being promoted with the lines “features a nuanced, mature story” or “contains several well-directed action sequences”? Until publishers stop treating their games like soulless products and start treating them like thoughtful creative works that are worthy of our consideration, attitudes won’t change, and we’ll end up playing Mass Effect 3 Ending Bingo with the next game that disappoints us in some way.

Mass Effect 3 Ending Bingo

Mass Effect 3 Ending Bingo – Click to enlarge

At the end of the day, the bottom line is this: I paid $40 to see what Mass Effect 3 had to say – not what the Internet thought it should have said.

(Dis)honourable mentions: The Anita Sarkeesian debacle; The lacklustre fall television schedule; Last Resort; Season 5 of Fringe; E3 press conferences; The collapse of 38 Studios; NBC’s horrible treatment of Bent; Sexual harassment on Cross AssaultThe Newsroom; Doritos-gate and the subsequent hypocritical response from some gaming outlets; Media coverage of mass shootings in the United States; Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito separate; The “fake geek girls” non-controversy; Poor sales of Sleeping Dogs; Season 4 of Parks and Recreation; Season 8 of How I Met Your Mother; The NHL lockout; NBC’s Olympics coverage; The fact that this list is so long.

Okay, enough with the negativity. Sure, a lot of stuff disappointed me in 2012. But a lot of stuff delighted me too. And I’ve got plenty of things to look forward to in 2013. Stay tuned.

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