The Not-So-Apocalyptic Year in Culture
In the real world, there were escalating political nightmares and merciless superstorms and terrible shootings. But on TV and on the radio, at the movies and all across the Internet, there was revitalization and renewal, invention and good old-fashioned fun.
In 2012, our apocalypse obsession reached something of a fever pitch. It got overplayed, as the kids say, even if it was a useful distraction. Obviously there's something fun about all that whispering, or shouting, about the end of the world; it puts a blithe spin on some very real, very scary, and very sad things. There's almost a sense that we can push back on an actual doomsday with our fictional riffing on the topic, with morbid jokes and hands-in-the-air mock surrender to a confusing and capricious higher power. If we act silly and dismissive about this creeping fear that the world is spinning out of control, then maybe that means we can beat it someday — or at least be prepared for it. Oh, the apocalypse? Yeah, we've known about that for ages. It's a sign of these instant-fix times that everyone wants to claim I knew it first, even when we're talking about the extinction of life as we know it. So, yes, there was perhaps some broader social utility to this apocalypse fixation; it helped us confront the bad and difficult things but also steeled us, in the everyday, against them. We were able to fashion a lot of our daily despair into a kind of reflexive armor, reveling in the possibility of doom before the actual notion of it could take hold of us. And, sure, many of us spoke reasonably (and unreasonably) about Syria, and Gaza, and Staten Island, and Newtown — places ravaged by serious forces that all indicate larger, looming problems. But we also didn't let all the world's ills completely consume us in 2012. We got out ahead of the problem, so to speak, took the biggest fear imaginable, the sum total of all these other calamities, and we transformed it, grabbing on to a dark joke, or a cultural meme, or an ironic talisman that we hoped, amid the chaos, no one would notice we were clutching pretty tightly.
But now, unless something catastrophic happens in the next three days, it seems we may have escaped this dreaded year, and mostly intact. All those apocalyptic rumblings were the background score of a long and difficult 2012, but in the end they were just that: mere noise. Maybe the noise did too good a job distracting some of us, because despite all the doom and gloom, this was an oddly uplifting twelve months. Well, OK, out there in the real world, where there were escalating political nightmares and terrible shootings and merciless superstorms, some pretty armageddon-type stuff happened. But in the world of culture — specifically what we read and watched and listened to for entertainment and enlightenment — all of our cute hand-wringing about the prophesied end times belied what was actually going on: revitalization, renewal, invention, and good old-fashioned fun. Many things went terribly wrong in 2012, but at least we had some excellent ways to distract ourselves. So wipe away that cloud of foreboding and accept that this was a year that gave us a whole lot to be happy about.
On television there was certainly plenty of dark stuff, and not just from the dramas. Comedies like Louie on FX and Girls on HBO often played like winces in the face of arbitrarily cruel times. Or if not cruel, at least chafing, at least unfair and unpleasant. But while these dyspeptic, exasperated comedies — the fruitless political garble of Veep, the moral wasteland of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia — certainly didn't take a Pollyanna approach to the world, they weren't total downers either. Girls is a show whose entire premise hinges on the notion of the future, that it is out there, waiting to welcome Lena Dunham and friends whenever they hurry up and get there. Louie takes pauses to humbly marvel at the mundane, ubiquitous beauty of the world, found in small places and slight gestures; while its tone is often mournful, it's also deeply humane. These shows reflect a dark and troublesome world, but they are not without hope. (Well, maybe It's Always Sunny is.) On the lighter side, shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation tingled and popped with giddy spunk and spirit, both riotous little jewels that in no way feel like swan songs for a doomed age. Even the once moribund The Office is running its final lap with brio, heading off into the unknown, that lovable old rumpled smile beaming on its face.
And think of all the communal good times we spent huddled around the television this year. Political debates and conventions and all other manner of noxious windbaggery were made ribald entertainment by Twitter jokes and GIFs and all those Internet accessories. We somehow made that usually intolerable process almost fun! Would a species on the brink of collapse really be capable of doing that? Aside from the election circus, we also had joyous watercooler hits like Downton Abbey and Homeland to unite us in thrilled, spoiler-phobic fascination. It felt like the conversation about television started to get smarter; well-crafted, canny shows, be they period soaps or, uh, espionage soaps, got the spotlight over dull rehashes like Revolution. That dystopian show certainly had its fair share of viewers, as does the increasingly enjoyable zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead, but they didn't seem to capture a particular chatty fancy the way other shows did. Maybe they felt too familiar to people warily counting down the days to the Mayan end. Whatever the reason, it was more fun to wonder about terrestrial things this year, to focus on some semblance of the "real world" instead of imagining what our doom might look like.
It was a decidedly positive year at the movies. We had paeans to hope, both political (Lincoln) and spiritual (Life of Pi). The indie darling Beasts of the Southern Wild was a hymn of redemption and survival. Ben Affleck's comeback story became even sweeter with his ultimately uplifting rescue drama Argo. While what happened in Aurora will of course forever cloud the film, Batman got a nice grace note of happiness at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. Joss Whedon's The Avengers and Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man gave us bright-hued expansions and reinventions of American mythology. Grim, nihilist fare like Killing Them Softly and Savages didn't seem to people's liking. Instead we went to see all-male revues starring Alex Pettyfer's perky behind, James Bond came back with a renewed vigor, the Twilight series ended its long and gloomy run with a surprisingly nimble ta-da finish. Even stark Austrian auteur Michael Haneke used a softer lens in Amour, his admittedly devastating look at mortality. That isn't to say that we didn't challenge ourselves with dark things at the movies this year, one need look no further than the critical success of the murky, answerless Zero Dark Thirty to see proof of that, but even then we were challenging ourselves, in some ways, to do better in the future. The future! It does exist. And, as Looper urged us, we can make it better. Turns out, 2012 wasn't the bleak year of all Hunger Games all the time after all.
Look how shiny and cuddly something like BuzzFeed made the Internet this year. Or at Gawker's turn to long-form pieces that often rang with more earnestness and sincerity than they did snark or ironic anguish. GIF-mania spread like wildfire, helping to usher millions into the strange world of oddball web humor that is the source of a surprising amount of simple, daily joy. The communal nature of these memes made them oddly comforting, like everyone was sitting at the same large lunch table trading jokes back and forth. Sure all that "Binders Full of Women" and "Clint Eastwood's Chair" stuff got pretty tired pretty fast, but for some brief moments there, we were all laughing at the same thing. While the Internet is still lousy with the stuff that might provoke one into fits of apocalyptic worry, it was also a tool of carefree good this year, genuinely enriching experiences in new and surprising ways. We all watched the Olympics from the same huge bleachers, we cheered or booed at politicians from the same sprawling convention floor, we watched with held breath as that guy jumped out of a space balloon for some mind-boggling, glorious reason. The Internet's ability to provide such moments is not a new thing specific to this year, of course, but for a time when it would have been all too easy to focus on all the pain and problems surrounding us, this new media of ours provided booster shots of much-needed levity.
Everyone went dancing this year, with EDM infiltrating the Top 40 and Carly Rae Jepsen's goofy "Call Me Maybe" giving us sweetly uncynical cause to jump around. We certainly had our share of moody music this year, be it Frank Ocean's plaintive crooning or Lana del Rey's breathy moaning, but we spent most of our time surrounded by the thump of a club beat or those Mumford guitars. And really, can any year that gave us new albums from Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and British boy-Skipper dolls One Direction really be anything but an ultimately upbeat one? (Don't lie, even the most hard-hearted among you has bopped your head to at least one of those kids' songs.) Some might say that this is all just one big end-of-the-world party, but I think they'd be mistaking swoony melancholy for fatalism. While there was definitely a chord of sadness rippling through this year's popular music — in Swift's musings on growing up, in the darker corners of Fiona Apple's triumphant The Idler Wheel, in people trying to do that damn Gangnam thing — little of it was utterly despondent. And some of it was surprisingly good! Maybe everything is over produced to within an inch of its life and no one is really singing, but compared to years when gloomy Seattle rock bands ruled the airwaves, 2012 gave us a lot of bounce.
So while it may have been fun, and in some cases necessary, to swaddle ourselves in the cold blanket of The End, I think it's important to remember that 2012 was also a time when popular culture didn't give in and settle down into the ditch, but rather made some pretty noble attempts to lift us out of it. In the wake of things like Newtown, when confronted with pictures of Homs and Damascus and Gaza City, or when staring at the ruined coast of New Jersey, it's impossible to say that 2012 was a good year. Some might even argue that, in its own way, the world did end. But think of how much worse it would have been if we'd let that feeling sink all the way in, if we didn't have good, positive stuff to help stanch the tide of dread. For all the talk of how dystopic our culture has become — it's all over Young Adult fiction, for example — there were a lot of people making things that reflected something else. Amid all the rumbling and keening, there was some singing and laughing and cheering, too.