Wednesday, December 31, 2008

That Was the Year That Was 2008

When it comes to pop culture, the year 2008 was much like any other year. It had its highs and lows. It had those things which made it unique among years, and those things which made it the same. In some respects, it could be considered the year when nostalgia reigned supreme in the media. In the movies there were new entries in old franchises (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Quantum of Solace, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Rambo). In music there were new releases from artists who have been around for quite a while. On television there was a revival of Knight Rider and an American adaptation of Life on Mars.

With regards to motion pictures, in some respects 2008 could be considered the Year of the Superhero. The two top grossing movies in the United States were The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Hancock came in at #3. These were not the only superhero movies released in 2008 either. There was also Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Incredible Hulk, and The Spirit. While the current superhero cycle reached its peak this year, the cycle of movies based on young adult fantasy novels continued. Most did not do too well at the box office. The Spiderwick Chronicles and City of Ember died quietly. Twilight proved to be a hit, although it would seem to appeal to girls more than boys. One films based on a young adult novel, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was moved from a holiday 2008 release to a summer 2009 release. It was a good year for animated films. Early in the year Horton Hears a Who became the first feature film based on the works of Dr. Seuss to actually be good. Kung Fu Panda proved to be a surprise hit. Wall-E proved once more just how remarkable Pixar is.

Strangely enough given the gross made by The Dark Knight, 2008 was not a record breaking year at the box office over all. In fact, attendance was down 5% from 2007. What save Hollywood was that many theatres raised their ticket prices this year. Because of that, profits were only down less than 1% when compared to 2007. Even given this, the movies did quite well given the ongoing depression.

Perhaps the biggest news in film was the ongoing writers' strike, the longest in the history of film. NBC and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association cancelled the Golden Globe Awards ceremony and held a so-called press conference instead. The writers' strike would also have an impact on film production, delaying some films going into production.

Television saw the 2007-2008 season cut short by the longest writers' strike. Many older shows never recovered. Many new shows found their lives ended prematurely. The 2008-2009 season would be mixed bag this year. With the possible exception of CBS, the networks seemed more willing to take risks. NBC debuted two fairly original shows: My Own Worst Enemy and Crusoe. ABC gambled on an American adaptation of Life on Mars. While the networks took some risks, however, they tempered these risks with a bit too much caution. NBC cut the lives of both My Own Worst Enemy and Crusoe short. ABC cancelled Pushing Daisies (the best series on network television besides 30 Rock).

The networks also debuted shows that were basically more of the same. This was especially true of CBS, which may have debuted its worst season (quality wise, anyway) in years. The Mentalist is a direct ripoff of Psych and not a very good one at that. Worst Week, while funny at times, is pretty much Meet the Parents; the Series. And while Eleventh Hour is an adaptation of an ITV series, it was not a particularly original ITV series. Both the American and British versions of Eleventh Hour would appear to rip off House, The X-Files, and CSI in equal measure. While CBS may have debuted the most derivative shows of any network this fall, the other networks debuted shows that were not particularly original as well. NBC insisted on reviving Knight Rider, even giving the show (which is as bad as the original) more of a chance than more original series such as Crusoe and My Own Worst Enemy (there really should be a moratorium on reviving Glen Larson shows...what's next, Alias Smith and Jones?). ABC offered the none too original (and not long for this world) game show Opportunity Knocks.

With regards to music, 2008 was the year of older artists. The Eagles toured to support a new album (released in 2007) that was regarded as a major disappointment. Guns N' Roses release their first single in 9 years, as well as a new album (Chinese Democracy). AC/DC released Black Ice, which was well received by many fans, even if it wasn't comparable to their classics. Perhaps the best album of the year was released by Todd Rundgren. Arena marked Rundgren's return to the genre with which he began, power pop, while still featuring a good deal of variety (everything from the guitar driven pop of "Mad" to the heavy metal of "Mercenary and Gun" to the anthem "Mountainpop." Other old rock bands reunited this year, including Stone Temple Pilots, The Specials (under the name Terry Hall and Friends--Jerry Dammers own the name "The Specials"), Face to Face, and My Bloody Valentine.

Leaving the world of rock music and entering the world of pop, the big news may have been Katy Perry. Sounding like an electropop artist circa 1981 and equipped with a little bit of humour and a lot of sex appeal, Perry had hits with the controversial "I Kissed a Girl" and "Hot N Cold." Reflecting the return of older artists to rock music, pop also saw some of its oldsters releasing new music. Madonna released her eleventh album, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. Mariah Carey had her 18th #1 single, putting her in reach of The Beatles' record (which was 20 #1 singles). There was also the rather unwelcome (well, for some of us) return of New Kids on the Block. A bit of good news is that rap continued its decline in 2008. With any luck, perhaps it will go extinct in 2009....

Sadly, 2008 would see many passings. Perhaps none made as much news as the death of Heath Ledger. While Ledger's death filled newspapers for weeks, 2008 might well be remembered as the year when acting legends left this earth. The year saw the deaths of Suzanne Pleshette, Roy Scheider, Richard Widmark, Mel Ferrer, and Cyd Charisse. There were perhaps no bigger names as far as deaths go this year than Charlton Heston, the controversial actor who played Ben Hur and El Cid, and Paul Newman, who played Cool Hand Luke and Hud. There were many other movie actors who passed as well, including scream queen Hazel Court and John Philip Law. Television saw its share of performers pass, including Harvey Korman, Dick Martin, Estelle Getty, and Edie Adams. One television figure was not a performer, but was as famous as any of them. Tim Russert was arguably the best host Meet the Press ever had, and will forever be identified with the show. There were various movie directors who died as well, perhaps the best known being Sydney Pollack and Jules Dassin.

The world of writing saw two of its best pass--George MacDonald Fraser, creator of rapscallion Harry Flashman, and Arthur C. Clarke. The world of comic books lost two of its biggest names, Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck, and Dave Stevens, creator of The Rocketeer. In the world of music, Mike Smith, lead singer of the Dave Clark Five, composer Earl H. Hagen, Nick Reynolds (co-founder of the Kingston Trio), rock 'n' roll pioneer Bo Didley, and singer/actress/temptress Eartha Kitt all died this year. Geekdom lost three of its icons this year: Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Forrest Ackerman, the most famous and influential sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fan of all time, and Bettie Page, the Queen of Pinups, all passed in 2008. Many more pop culture figures died this year, but to list them all would take several posts.

In many respects the year 2008 was nothing remarkable. If anything it might well be remembered as the year when nostalgia reigned supreme. It would seem as if this was true at least of movies and music. Whether because the decade of the Naughts is nearing its end or the ongoing economic depression, the average American appears to have wanted to watch characters familiar to him or her from old comic books and movies, and to listen to music artists whose first albums were released years ago. One has to wonder if 2009 will bring us more nostalgia or if individuals will start looking forward to the future.

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