In an effort to come to the truth of the matter about important issues, and engage in our favorite pastime (arguing), we will from time to time engage in an e-mail version of a barroom debate. Today’s discussion, essentially the decade in review, gets downright cordial, with more agreement than disagreement. What is the world coming to? Join us after the jump for some good-natured camaraderie (?)
David Simon Cowell
Alright Dilemma, we’ve had almost a month to digest the ’00s; that’s more than enough time to make definitive statements about it, right? Let’s try to figure out the best of the decade in TV, film and music.
Obviously, the idea of a decade being cohesive is ridiculous, as is the idea of artistic moments coinciding with calendar dates. But each decade seems to be remembered by history with its own identity (i.e. Roaring Twenties, Boring Fifties) whether it’s true or not, so we may as well try to help out the poor historians; we all know they’re too busy fucking strippers and inhaling blow.
But I have some trouble putting my finger on the Aughts (yes, the Aughts, it’s the winner, get over it everybody). The second half of the ’90s sucked, but the first half was so good that it gave the era an identity…the DIY Decade (led by Nirvana in music and Tarantino in movies). The most important things to happen in the ’00s were technological changes: the digital information revolution changed music (iPod, etc.), movies (making them cheaper and easier to make), television (because Hollywood made bigger spectacles in response, intimate stories moved to the small screen), sports (by making the number of viewable games and amount of sports news overwhelming, not to mention the rise of fantasy sports) and politics (Howard Dean showing Barack Obama how to use the Internet to become president). Oddly, the two most obviously historical moments in America were 9/11 and The Great Recession, and yet our culture got more and more ephemeral and shallow, when history suggested the exact opposite should occur.
Let’s start with the category where the ’00s obviously shined: television. The Wire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Lost, The West Wing, Freaks and Geeks…not only would these be my Top Six Dramas, but they might be the Top Six of All Time.
I had trouble putting my finger on the ’90s, too. The DIY movement you mentioned was definitely part of the ’90s, but that only took place over a small number of years, and only affected a relatively small number of people. I don’t know if we’re having trouble putting labels on decades now because of the ever-increasing fragmentation of our culture (too many options, no “event” TV/music that everyone experiences together) or because we’re wiser and more aware now than we used to be, and realize that there’s too much going on in any given decade to slap a limiting nickname on it and call it a day.
But yes, television has certainly been at its best over the past ten years. I think the reason for that is twofold: more networks, so there’s more empty airtime to fill, meaning networks are more apt to take chances on quality shows; and also networks this decade, to a greater degree than ever before, have learned to get the fuck out of the way and let a show’s artistic talents run the show. Sure, asshole executives still interfere (ABC execs notoriously insisted that the statue foot on Lost had four toes, not six, because they didn’t think American audiences could handle the oddity of a six-toed foot), and they probably always will. But with HBO leading the way, more and more suits have learned to let the David Chases and David Simons have the run of the place. The result has been nervy, weird fare that never would have been allowed on the air 20 years ago.
More channels also means lower ratings, so more shows have been granted more time to find their legs. The Wire was never a big hit by any standard, but HBO gave Simon the five seasons he requested, because the numbers weren’t so low to cause damage, and because the goodwill generated among the critical community gave the network a longer leash going forward (which they unfortunately partly wasted on garbage like John From Cincinnati). A similar situation unfolded with The Office on NBC — the network was OK with letting a show with a fervent cult following anchor its crucial Thursday night lineup, in part because they didn’t have anything else to replace it with but also because every TV critic in the country would have murdered them if they’d cancelled it after season two.
So we got all the shows you mentioned, and we also got the best sitcoms of all time: Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc.
That’s the big TV theme of the decade for me: everything in its right place. When channels like FX, AMC and TNT join the premium channels and the networks in showing original, scripted programming, we’re all winners. If you don’t like the latest CSI incarnation on any given night, you’ve got plenty of other reliable options, plus On Demand, DVDs, Hulu and all that shit. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and we’re lucky to be here. It’s not often you recognize a golden age as it’s happening, so let’s hang on to it for all we’re worth. Don Draper and Pete Campbell didn’t know how good they had it — we do.
One other quick point about television in the ’00s:
We’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss reality television (sigh). Yes, the Real World started in the ’80s (!), Survivor started in the ’90s, but this was the decade when it exploded into a million pieces, most of them terrible. It seems like reality TV has settled on four archetypes, each of which have now launched a thousand iterations: 1) The cutthroat competition (Survivor, Big Brother, the Apprentice), the merit-based competition (American Idol, Project Runway, Top Chef), the “wow, that’s a weird job” show (World’s Deadliest Catch, Ace of Cakes, Pawn Stars), and the “let’s watch these morons do moronic things” show (The Real World, Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With the Kardashians). Of the four groups, I can tolerate the Top Chef-style shows the most, though of course I watched Jersey Shore. Mostly, though, it all just makes me sad.
But, again, everything has a place now. And it’s obvious there’s more idiots out there than ever before. Someone needs to entertain them.
Any important TV trends I’ve missed?
David Simon Cowell
I can’t believe I forgot about reality TV…it’s weird, TV has gotten both better and worse in the past decade. Although it’s probably a bit unfair to kill reality. We both watch more than our share, and when it’s good (even when it’s trashy good) it’s better than most stuff on TV. I mean, I’d rather watch Jersey Shore than CSI: Miami. I don’t know if this is more Internet-related, but the rise of clips has also been a huge change. Not just shows like The Soup and TMZ, but that other shows know that if they can just put together a few minute clip, they can create buzz on YouTube, etc. I mean, SNL has been kept afloat by the Lonely Island guys, who basically put in an afternoon of work with a digital camera and call it a week.
And while I might argue that this change in technology has been good for television, it certainly hasn’t been for films. It’s really surprising to me that the indie revolution of the ’90s, where regional, distinctive voices finally got their pictures made, hasn’t been helped immensely by the digital revolution of the ’00s. You would think that 1,000 Tarantinos would bloom as films essentially became free to make. But, while there have been some decent independent movies in the past ten years, it was nothing like the decade before.
Hollywood recently reminds me of Hollywood in the ’50s…they’re responding to the rise of the Internet in the same way they responded to the rise of television. Make movies that are spectacles, that have aspects that show up much better in a theatre than at home. Lots of noise, explosions, car chases, etc…characterization can move down the list (which is the number one reason I think TV has been so good…those talents have moved over). Those types of movies can be fun, but usually don’t hold up too well. The only popcorn movie that I could see lasting is the Dark Knight.
It’s interesting that you bring this up the week Miramax shut its doors for good. Miramax, Sundance and the rise of independent filmmaking defined the ’90s, but that whole subculture was co-opted by the big studios this decade. Disney bought Miramax, and all of a sudden every studio had a couple vanity boutiques pumping out indie-style fare without truly being indie. Initially, this didn’t seem to have much of an impact on the films themselves, but over the course of the decade, the movies that Fox Searchlight, Focus, Sony Classics et al. were putting out began to take on a design-by-numbers feel. The quirks of character and story that made indie films unique in the ’90s became part of a template in the ’00s. I don’t know if that was because of studio co-option, the genre running its course or a generation of auteurs simultaneously losing their edge. Probably some combination of the three. Whatever the cause, crap like Smart People became more prevalent as the Aughts dragged on, while legitimately adventurous films were drying up.
It’s not like the ’00s were a bad decade for movies. There were more good movies than in any previous decade, due to the studio boutiques cranking films out at a rapid pace, and the availability of movies online and on DVD that we wouldn’t have been able to see in the past. But despite There Will Be Blood and Almost Famous, there were fewer great movies than in the ’90s, fewer great movies than in the ’70s, and fewer really entertaining movies than in the ’80s.
You’re right about popcorn films being in a sorry state. There weren’t any released this decade that I truly loved, other than the Lord of the Rings films — which in my mind are the crowning cinematic achievement of the decade. Three three-hour-plus films released in consecutive years were all massive box office hits, received extremely positive reviews, and were well-written, well-acted and told with just enough heart to counter-balance the action sequences. Nothing else has come close since Spielberg’s peak. Unfortunately, the LOTR series set the stage for the Harry Potter and Twilight movies, which we’re going to be hearing about for another decade.
And other than the increasing blandness of indies and the increasing vapidity and Bay-ness of studio films, I’m not seeing any defining genre trends. And really, the same thing goes for music. Trends have come and gone in the blink of an eye (low-fi, no-fi, all kinds of electronic mini-genres, crunk, emo…) but none of them had made any significant impact on the culture.
Obviously, the biggest music story of the Aughts is how we now get our music and how we listen to it. iTunes, iPods, mp3 blogs, file sharing sites — they’ve all contributed to massive changes in how we experience music, but have they affected the music itself?
David Simon Cowell
I don’t know if it’s affected the quality of the music itself…but I certainly think it changed the relationship of it to the listener. I’ve been slowly digitizing my CD collection, and it’s really opened my eyes to the way I’ve slowly and unconsciously devalued music over the past decade. Even after years, each CD has a distinct memory…I remember consciously buying it, and by buying it I was adding it to my music collection. Each purchasing decision bonded me to the particular album…I owned it. Now, I have a computer filled with music, a good chunk of which I’ve never heard, will probably never hear, and know almost nothing about the band at all. We all do it…when we’re swapping with a friend, the tendency is to say “throw it all on there.” Why not? Memory is cheap, and the cost is free. But it also makes music less valuable.
At the same time, I think the ’00s were an underrated decade for music. The White Stripes, Wilco, Radiohead, Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye West…these are all-time greats who had significant highlights in the decade. And after 6 or so years of regrouping, the underground (or alternative or independant…I don’t know which is apt anymore) had a huge comeback. Bright Eyes, The Postal Service, The Decemberists, The Hold Steady, The New Pornographers (and Neko Case…there’s no doubt that if I had been born a decade later, she would have gotten a mental workout that would have made Liz Phair circa ’94 jealous), Spoon, The Arcade Fire, The Strokes, MGMT…I could go on. That’s some pretty good fucking music. I might even say that over the course of 10 years, it beat the ’90s (that hurts even to write). However, it never hit the heights or had the cultural impact of ’90-’95.
Plus, music let girls know again it was OK to be slutty. As someone who had his puberty during the Riot Grrl/ Indigo Girls years, I couldn’t be more jealous.
I agree that there’s been a ton of great music released this decade — unfortunately, most of it came from 2003 – 2006. The last couple years have been as grim as the late ’80s and the late ’90s; maybe it’s cyclical. But, as you pointed out recently, there’s never been a bigger gulf between what’s good and what’s popular.
For the mainstream, this decade was dominated by shitty proto-country bands like Sugarland, and lowest-common-denominator rap like the Black-Eyed Peas. Mainstream rock is in an awful way: just look at Kings of Leon. Their first two albums were shit-kicking Southern rock, with some new ideas about song structure thrown in. Then they started releasing terrible wannabe-U2 power ballads, and rose to the top of the charts.
In past decades, great bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, U2, R.E.M. and Guns ‘N’ Roses could achieve popular success without betraying who they were. I think those days are gone.
Now…what you’ve all been waiting (and waiting) for: The Dilemma and David Simon Cowell’s Best-of-the-Decade lists for TV, film and music. Because The Dilemma represents order, and DSC represents chaos, Dilemma’s lists are ranked while DSC’s are not. These are definitive, motherfuckers.
Top 20 TV Shows of the Aughts:
David Simon Cowell
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Friday Night Lights
The Office (UK)
Freaks and Geeks
The West Wing
The Amazing Race
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
1. The Wire
2. Arrested Development
3. The Sopranos
4. Mad Men
5. The Office (UK)
6. 30 Rock
7. The Office (US)
9. Friday Night Lights
10. Veronica Mars
11. Curb Your Enthusiasm
12. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
14. The Daily Show/Colbert Report
15. How I Met Your Mother
16. Jack and Bobby
Top 20 Films of the Aughts:
David Simon Cowell (one film per director)
The Dark Knight
Lost in Translation
There Will Be Blood
No Country for Old Men
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Fog of War
Children of Men
The Royal Tenenbaums
I’m Not There
Wet Hot American Summer
24 Hour Party People
1. Almost Famous
2. There Will Be Blood
3. Lord of the Rings (collectively)
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. The Squid and the Whale
6. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
7. The Royal Tenenbaums
8. No Country for Old Men
10. Inglourious Basterds
11. Donnie Darko
12. Kill Bill (collectively)
14. Gangs of New York
15. City of God
18. Brokeback Mountain
19. Hotel Rwanda
20. High Fidelity
Top 20 Albums of the Aughts:
David Simon Cowell
Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
Radiohead – Kid A
The White Stripes – Elephant
Jay-Z and DJ Danger Mouse – The Grey Album
Ryan Adams – Gold
Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning
The Postal Service – Give Up
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
New Pornographers -Electric Version
The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Kanye West – Graduation
Spoon – Gimme Fiction
The Decemberists – Picaresque
The Arcade Fire – Funeral
Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere
The Strokes – Is This It
MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
Counting Crows – Hard Candy
Damien Rice – O
1. Hold Steady/Separation Sunday
2. Spoon/Gimme Fiction
3. The Shins/Chutes Too Narrow
4. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists/The Tyranny of Distance
5. LCD Soundsystem/Sound of Silver
6. Jay-Z/The Blueprint
7. Ryan Adams/Gold
8. Wilco/Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
9. White Stripes/Elephant
10. New Pornographers/Electric Version
11. Counting Crows/Hard Candy
12. Kings of Leon/Aha Shake Heartbreak
13. Arcade Fire/Neon Bible
14. Okkervil River/The Stage Names
15. Kanye West/Late Registration
16. Radiohead/In Rainbows
17. The Old 97’s/Satellite Rides
19. Eminem/The Marshall Mathers LP
20. The Thermals/The Body, the Blood, the Machine