NBC and Donald Trump
It would be a lot more fun to watch SNL’s blistering takedowns of Donald Trump were it not for the suspicion in the back of audiences’ minds that NBC was in some ways complicit in the normalization of the candidate’s media rise. There was the platform given to him in late 2015 when he hosted the show, for example, a move that actually awarded Trump a gravitas needed to be taken seriously as a candidate. But then there was the appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, a goofy, simpatico ribbing between two guys that, with one touch of the hair, humbled, humanized, and, again, normalized for many Americans a man whom most others considered dangerous. Now, Trump will retain his executive producer credit on Celebrity Apprentice even while running the most powerful nation in the free world, a conflict-of-interest (not to mention of time prioritization) decision that likely fell outside the network’s purview, but nonetheless continues to stain its reputation as overly gracious to the president-elect.
#OscarsSoWhite, the Sequel
The fact that, for the second year in a row, not a single acting nominee of color made it into the Oscars lineup—and not one film centered on a black ensemble included in Best Picture—wasn’t just ridiculous because there were actually films and performers—Straight Outta Compton, Creed, Beasts of No Nation—that deserved nominations. But it shone a spotlight on the institutionalized racial biases in an organization with the power to influence a culture in profound ways, from the opportunities for people of color that its recognition could kickstart to the power of the stories it would greenlight and spotlight from creators of color.
Hypocrisy and Double Standards
Like any year, 2016 didn’t meet a celebrity scandal it didn’t like. It was particularly special, however, in its hypocrisy with how it dealt with them. The starkest example is the media crucifixion Nate Parker received when details of a past rape case resurfaced while he was on the press tour for Birth of a Nation. Not a single interview passed without the case being brought up, the end result of which was Birth of a Nation’s Oscar chances being erased and the film essentially buried. Horrifying accusations of sexual harassment previously brought against Casey Affleck also resurfaced during the actor’s Oscar campaigning for Manchester By the Sea. By contrast, Affleck has yet to be directly asked about them by the dozens of media outlets producing fawning and flowery puff pieces and profiles on the actor. Not to equate the severity of the incidents, re-litigate either case, legitimize, or dismiss any allegation, but the fact that one actor faced the media’s inquisition while the other did not suggests racial hypocrisy (and perhaps a fear of the Affleck-Damon mafia). Then there’s the case of Mel Gibson, whose Hacksaw Ridge has received the kind of awards attention that suggests all is forgiven for his sexist, racist, homophobic behavior of the past. Take that in contrast with, say, the likes of Katherine Heigl, whose career was ruined because she was a little pricklier than we prefer our actresses (or any woman who says something lightly inflammatory in a public forum). We’re seeing a total double standard for the way we treat scandal by gender and by race.
From the first trailer, it was hard to escape the notion that Passengers was more like one of those jokey big-budget sci-fi romances than are used to satirize Hollywood in movies about movie stars (Notting Hill, for example) than an actual, serious movie. But then the film came out and proved to be not a joke at all, but a problematic bore. Misogynistic and predatory issues with agency and consent only highlighted the fact that the film had few redeeming creative qualities. Worse, the amount of money spent to put Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in this mess is the kind of affront to audiences that those aforementioned fictional films are meant to satirize: the idea that money-hungry studios can lure us to any blockbuster by simply using two very famous stars as cineplex sirens.
There’s something going on across the country as audiences walk out of their screenings of La La Land. It’s certainly… good. Maybe they even liked it a lot. But the sort of life-changing “masterpiece” they’ve expected based on months of advanced raves from critics? It’s hardly that. From shaky song-and-dance skills by its stars to a woefully thin script to sound mixing issues and troubles marrying the Old Hollywood homage bookends to the intense relationship drama, it’s certainly not perfect—which, if you’ve read anything about La La Land out of the film festival circuits, you definitely expected it to be. The Culture of Hype is actually serving as a hindrance to pop culture, with the amount of advanced praise heaped on things creating a bar that no piece of entertainment can live up to, be it La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, or HBO’s Westworld, all of which fell victim to overhype this year. Can’t things merely be good anymore? In the race for superlatives, apparently not.
It’s the first commandment of Hollywood: If something succeeds, thou must do thy damnedest to replicate that success. In that regard, it’s a bit of a watershed moment in television that the spate of copycat programming is finally in the image of female-led, diverse dramas directed to a female audience but with respect for their tastes. In other words, this year there was a flood of attempts at recreating Shonda Rhimes’s magic. While last year’s Quantico barely executed Rhimes’s singular formula, its second season has proven a disaster—almost as disastrous as the network’s freshman drama Notorious and Conviction, each of which makes its own compelling case for why it might be the worst new show of the TV season. (Not to mention a case for why we should leave the Shondaland formula in Shonda Rhimes’s hands.)
The Conversation Surrounding Asian-Americans in Hollywood
If 2016 was the year we were finally supposed to start having real, intelligent, productive conversations about diversity and inclusion in entertainment, it seems that the Asian and Asian-American community has been ignored. With only singular examples, like ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, to point to, visibility is still inexcusably low and underrepresented. More, riffing off last year’s Emma Stone/Aloha debacle, key roles scripted for actors of Asian descent—and often steeped in Asian history—continue to be whitewashed, whether it’s Scarlett Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, or even the voice cast of the animated Kubo and the Two Strings. No person involved in those decisions is able to produce a valid, credible excuse for the casting when affronted by the backlash, all culminating with the recent release of emails between Swinton and Margaret Cho, to whom Swinton reached out to start a dialogue about/seek approval for playing her whitewashed Doctor Strange character. The public’s response to the emails was woefully obtuse, shaming Cho for taking offense to Swinton treating her like a “house Asian” and treating Swinton’s final salvo that she is producing a film with a Korean lead as a mic drop moment absolving her of guilt. What that reaction misses is the reductive self-congratulation permeating Swinton’s emails, her confusing of feminism and racial erasure, and her rationalizing of the silencing of Asian culture. The conversation is certainly more nuanced than this little blurb indicates. The issue is that, largely, it’s not really taking place at all.
“Privilege” was a magic word of 2016, and one to blame for most of its problems and much of our ignorance. And one of the greatest examples of it came this summer during the Olympics in Rio, which, for all the problems with its green swimming pool, actually saw its grossest controversy come outside of it. Swimmer Ryan Lochte and a handful of teammates got drunk in Rio and stopped at a gas station that they urinated in, defaced, and damaged before security guards caught them and forced them to stop their debauchery by threatening them with guns. Lochte, in his infinite wisdom, decided to save himself from embarrassment by instead concocting a story about being robbed at gunpoint. Why would he think that security camera footage wouldn’t capture the incident and that he would get away with the huge, public lie? #Privilege. And how did we as a culture punish him? Ha ha, we didn’t: He was rewarded, with a plum role on the new season of Dancing With the Stars.
Billy Bush’s failures are directly linked to two of the other members in this year’s Hall of Shame. The NBC commentator was promoted from Access Hollywood to a prime slot as co-host of the Today show. One of his first big interviews was a sit-down with Ryan Lochte, where the swimmer launched into his whale’s tale about being robbed at gunpoint that, in a low point for journalism in 2016, Bush bought hook, line, and sinker. But that embarrassment couldn’t hold a candle to the one that ended Bush’s career: a leaked tape from his Access Hollywood days that caught the host engaging in the infamous “locker room talk” with Donald Trump that at one point we thought would doom the then-candidate’s election chances. Instead, its only repercussion was the spotlighting of the kind of predatory sexism that exists in the world of broadcasting. Bush, we suspect, was just the one culprit in the industry who happened to get caught.
There were plenty of blockbuster big swings and misses in 2016, though these days even the biggest duds at the U.S. box office seem to make up their stateside losses in international theaters. This year, the most confounding Hollywood play wasn’t the usual CGI orgy, but a star-studded emotional drama. The cast is outstanding: Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Naomie Harris, and Keira Knightley. The plot: head-slappingly patronizing in an attempt for your tears. Smith’s character is grief-stricken by the death of his daughter, but his co-workers at the ad agency have no time for it! He needs to be back at work! So they hire actors who pretend to be Love, Time, and Death in order to convince him he’s ready to head back to the office. Critics torched the film, as something so crassly cute about bereavement and loss deserves.
“How could our pundits get things so wrong? For more on that, let’s turn to our pundits.” Few things about election night—well, save for the outcome—were more frustrating than the feeling we’d all been given a false sense of comfort (lied to, even?) about the eventual results by the talking heads who had been gabbing our ears off 24 hours a day through the exhausting election cycle. There was something laughable about the very people whose jobs it was to predict the election results being so utterly and completely wrong, only to find themselves more in demand afterward to explain why. Worse, the 2016 election season, perhaps more than others, played host and star-maker to the kind inflammatory, baiting, and alienating aspiring media stars, from Milo to Tomi Lahren, whose reliable ratings- and buzz-power trump (heh) any danger a media outlet might have felt complicit in by giving them a platform.
TV shows fail. It’s a fact of Hollywood, and, because of that, shouldn’t be too embarrassing. But then there’s Vinyl, HBO’s 1970s-set music biz drama executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger. The star wattage of the creative talent was staggering in its own right, perhaps explaining the $100 million HBO threw at them for the show’s first season ($30 million for the two-hour premiere alone). But reviews were unkind, bordering on angry at its misdirections, and the ratings even worse—one of the smallest audiences ever for an HBO drama. False projections and misguided faith clearly abounded in the production of the series, but never more so than when the network renewed it for a second season anyway, only to backtrack and cancel its renewal four months later.
The Michael Strahan/Kelly Ripa Divorce
Kelly Ripa is our morning show queen. How dare she be disrespected. In a gross mishandling of events that likely was not completely former Live With Kelly and Michael co-host Michael Strahan’s fault, Ripa was blindsided by the news that her right-hand man was departing their (wildly successful) show for a full-time gig at Good Morning America. The lack of respect for the 15-year face and workhorse of the morning show, not to mention 26-year employee of ABC, led to Ripa vacating her chair for several days to gather her thoughts—by extension shaming the company for its treatment of her. It was a PR nightmare for ABC, but a fierce moment for a woman who showed her viewers the value of standing up for yourself in the workplace and demanding the respect you are owed… all while illuminating institutionalized sexism and double standards in her industry.
Batman v. Superman
At one point in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the plot seems to essentially be a live-action manifestation of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor playing with his Batman and Superman action figures. In the end, that actually might have been more entertaining. The battle between the two superheroes is set up so superficially that it’s impossible to invest in it, let alone in the bloated, meandering 151-minute running time. There were enough men-in-cape triumphs in 2016 (Captain America: Civil War, for example) to make the case that the superhero-movie bubble isn’t actually in danger of bursting. We’d argue that Batman v. Superman, coupled with Suicide Squad, might suggest that it’s time for our heroes to make sure their spandex is sticky-proof.
The Year of Kanye
Early reviews for Kanye West’s Saint Pablo tour, complete with a stage that floats over its audience, were ecstatic. So much so that any sane music fan was wise to rearrange their lives and max out a credit card or two to land tickets to upcoming dates. But then the came the rants against Beyoncé and Jay Z, and one retroactively endorsing Donald Trump. In Sacramento, he ended his show after just three songs. Fans chanted, “Fuck Kanye!” Then the remainder of the tour was canceled altogether when it was announced that West was being hospitalized after a reported nervous breakdown. Obviously we wish good health and good judgment to West, especially after a year that was seemed unusually erratic—even for him. From the disastrous fashion show on Roosevelt Island to his meeting with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower, The Daily Beast’s Amy Zimmerman sagely pronounced: “2016 Kanye is canceled.”
The Walking Dead
The one thing a show should never do is disrespect its fans, and that’s precisely what The Walking Dead did this year. The show’s Season 7 premiere was its all-time most unwatchable hour, according to The Daily Beast’s Melissa Leon, owed to its needless reliance on torture porn. It perpetuated the frustration over the previous season’s much-maligned cliffhanger by stringing viewers along for much of the episode with the worst, most aggravating payoff possible in the death of not one, but two characters by barbed-wire bat. The show has also yet to atone for its involvement in the year’s most problematic TV trope: “Bury Your Gays,” in which a disturbing spate of lesbian or bisexual female characters were killed off their shows, often needlessly, sending a message to viewers that these lives don’t have value beyond cheap narrative ploys. When a show is as popular as The Walking Dead, it should be operating under a mandate: Be better.