Today is the final day of 2011 and I cannot say that I am unhappy to see this year go. From a personal standpoint this has not been a particularly good year for me. Indeed, 2011 will always be to me the year that my best friend died. It was on 12 June of this year that my friend Brian passed on. I must confess that I still am mourning him and I still miss him a good deal. This past holiday season was a particularly difficult one for me because of that.
Even if my best friend had not died, however, it would be hard for me not to view 2011 as a year of death. Many of my favourite celebrities died this year and in such quantities that I swear I spent the first six months of this year writing eulogies in this blog. I am guessing the big news as far as celebrity deaths go this year was the passing of screen legend Elizabeth Taylor. As much as I loved Elizabeth Taylor, however, she was not the celebrity I mourned the most this year. Indeed, there were others I mourned more and a few I actually shed tears over. I am guessing that many of us felt the passing of Peter Falk more intensely than we did Miss Taylor. The reasons go far beyond the fact that he played Lt. Columbo. Mr. Falk was a multi-talented actor who also had a career not only on television, but on the screen and stage as well. I believe many of us also mourned a good deal over Jane Russell. Miss Russell was well known for her physical attributes, but it was for her wit and her talent that we all loved her. She was both on screen and off screen the perfect combination of brains, beauty, and wit. Of course, she was not the only beautiful brunette to pass this year that I found myself mourning. Elaine Stewart was an actress on whom I had a crush since childhood. She was beautiful and quite versatile. I think because of her beauty her talent was often underestimated, something I hope will change in coming years. I also found myself mourning John Neville. Most people probably knew him as Baron Munchausen from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), but he played may more roles, including Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Terror (1965) and the Well Manicured Man in The X-Files.
Others of my favourite actors worked primarily in television. This was particularly true of James Arness. Most of us know him as Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke, but Mr. Arness also appeared in such films as Big Jim McLain (1952), The Thing (1951), and Them! (1954). What made me feel Mr. Arness's death even more acutely was that he left behind a letter in which he thanked his fans for his career. It's the only time I have ever seen an actor do that. This year also saw the passing of what may have been the most popular of The Doctor's companions on Doctor Who of all time. Elisabeth Sladen played Sarah Jane Smith on Doctor Who. She was the first of The Doctor's companions to whom I was ever exposed and she still one of my favourites. In fact, in my humble opinion Sarah Jane ranks alongside Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and Honey West as far as independent female characters who could think for themselves on television. Arguably Cliff Robertson was as much of a film actor as a television actor, but it was on television where I first encountered him. He was a frequent guest star on television shows in the Sixties, including The Twilight Zone and Batman. Of course, he also had an extensive career in film, appearing in such movies as PT 109 (1963), Sunday in New York (1963), and Charly (1968).
Of course, actors were not the only celebrities who died this year. Director Sidney Lumet, who helmed such films as 12 Angry Men (1957), Fail-Safe (1964), Serpico (1973), and Network (1976) , passed this year. This year also saw the passing of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, whose screenplays for Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) turned Hammer Pictures from an obscure British studio into the studio most identified with horror movies besides Universal. The world of television saw the passing of three men who had a huge impact on my life and on Anglo-American pop culture. Sherwood Schwartz created Gilligan's Island, arguably one of the most successful sitcoms of all time. David Croft co-created several successful sitcoms, including Dad's Army, Are You Being Served, and 'Allo 'Allo. Bert Schneider was the co-producer of The Monkees. He went onto produce some of my favourite films, including Head (1968), Easy Rider (1969), and Five Easy Pieces (1970). The world of comic books was also hit hard this year. Les Daniels, the comic book historian died at a terribly young age of 68. Jerry Robinson, the creator of The Joker and well known advocate for creator rights, also passed this year. Legendary comic book artist and writer Joe Simon, who created Captain America and other characters, died only months after his creation finally saw life on the big screen in a major motion picture.
While there were many deaths this year, in many ways 2011 was unremarkable as far as pop culture goes. The biggest movies this year were primarily sequels--Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two, a third Transformers movie, a fourth Twilight movie, and so on. Even when a movie wasn't a sequel, it was often a remake (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) or based on existing properties (the various superhero movies and so on). If anyone wants to use a year as an example of the possibility that Hollywood has run out of idea, 2011 could well be it.
Fortunately, television would at least make an attempt to be original in the 2011-2012 season, although the quality of the end results were often questionable. On the surface The Playboy Club was something different for NBC. Unfortunately, it was also very, very bad. Similarly, its fellow period piece Pan Am was something that ABC usually would not do. Unfortunately it was also a bit of a disappointment. The major networks have made more of an effort to air genre shows this year. Early in the year NBC aired The Cape, a superhero drama that lasted rather briefly. This season NBC and ABC debuted two very different shows that draw upon fairy tales (Grimm and Once Upon a Time). While the networks at least seem to be experimenting with different sorts of shows, they also seem to have lost all tastes when it comes to sitcoms. When it comes to the 2011-2012 season, it may be remembered as the Season of the Banal Sitcom. Up All Night, Whitney, and How to Be a Gentleman also seemed to demonstrate that NBC and CBS have forgotten what a good sitcom is. Indeed, his might be particularly true of NBC. Late this year NBC shelved the best comedy on television, Community, but is keeping the frightfully unfunny Up All Night and Whitney on the air!
There is somewhat better news in the world of music, particularly for those of us who worry that Justin Beiber and The Jonas Brothers may be taking over the world. Indeed, tween heartthrobs figured in none of the top ten albums. What is more, some of the top ten albums came from vocal talents who can actually sing. Adele, Lady Gaga, and Michael Buble held the top spots for the year. Even better, rock music seems to be making a bit of a comeback. Albums by both Coldplay and Mumford & Sons ranked in the top ten. Another upside is that not one of the top albums was by a rap artist, something those of us fear that particular musical genre could make a comeback have to be thankful for. On the downside, the top ten albums of the year worldwide also included what I call "pop rubbish." Both Rihanna and Beyonce had albums in the top ten.
Whatever the impact had on myself personally, I have to say it was not overly remarkable year with regards to pop culture. While television and music seem to be improving, motion pictures seem to be stuck in a rut of sequels. I suppose we can only hope that movies follow the course of television and music in trying something different. Sadly, that might not be 2012, as there seem to be more sequels on tap.
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