the worst of 2011

Happy holidays everybody! It is traditional, at this time of the year, to make some small allowance for the really awful things that happened to (or, sometimes, because of) us in the past twelve months. So here are my top ten. What are yours, ye lurkers?

1. Reacting to the deaths of Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens

I would sum up the reaction to these deaths, around the nation, as predominantly ghastly. There was something really exaggerated in all the public mourning for Steve Jobs, who was a great CEO, but who fell a little short of being an American hero. On the other hand, a lot of the backlash against the mourning felt stale and even disrespectful. It was painful to read belated praise for the “Think Different” ad, and it was painful to read articles ridiculing it. I’m always happy to see a writer of Walter Isaacson’s caliber land a bestseller, but the book itself became the latest poster child for the middlebrow movement, which embraces reading things uncritically and then quoting bits of them at social events. The book was universally praised when it appeared, but a few scant months later, the best-of-year lists have arrived and it’s nowhere to be seen.

At least, though, everyone agreed that Jobs accomplished some really cool things. The same cannot be said for Christopher Hitchens, who, from my point of view, failed to accomplish much of anything in his extremely loud and incredibly quarrelsome writing career. He was an attention-starved pundit, and he pandered to the conservative demographic that idolizes William F. Buckley, all the while using his former leftism for credibility. Anyway, regardless of what I think of his writing, it is a fact that Hitchens’s death did not produce even a single moment of bipartisanship. Hitchens quotes splattered temporarily across the blogosphere, and various tributes were made to a man who stood (so he said) for skepticism and independence of thought, but his legacy has turned out to be a lot of closed-minded sarcasm and bitter entrenchment.

2. Glee

If you’ve never seen an episode of Glee, here’s the basic Season 3 structure: a couple of times every episode, the entire cast and crew jumps over as many sharks as they can possibly find. The show has turned into another version of The OC. It had a great first season, an incredible villain, and seemingly enough characters and conflicts to last forever. (The OC didn’t have an incredible villain, but it had a great nerd in Seth Cohen. Around the time that TV Guide etc. figured out how cool Cohen was, the show was well on its way to being awful. Ditto Sue Sylvester.) Now it has become sullen and static, full of parents who don’t understand, relationships without depth or chemistry, and songs that don’t even fit but are gonna sell (“Red Solo Cup”?!). You just can’t have a successful show where, even for the length of one episode, the most badass character award goes to a guest spot by Justin Bieber.

Seriously, I want to go back to watching Jane Lynch be a killer divorce lawyer on The L Word, or a terrifying has-been cougar on Party Down.

3. The Social Networking Sites (corporate side)

Just when Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher had us convinced that Mark Zuckerberg was a genius, and that social networks marked the beginning of a new phase in human history, those same networks decided to get kooky, greedy, and weird. Facebook started to build its entire structure around “Like”s, which seemed cool at first, but has gradually proven to be a really dark development. Basically, you are now competing against the other people in your social circle for one of the “top story” slots, which are determined by comments and likes. This encourages people to tweak what they write about their lives, so that it will be more enjoyable and palatable and plain ol’ Likable, so that they can “win” the popularity contest and receive more attention. Since this is happening in addition to the constant self-censorship of anybody with a job or a life to protect, Facebook is becoming a maddening slush of obvious re-posts, quiet bragging, mawkish expressions of gratitude/holiday spirit, and so forth. It’s like visiting an entire website built from what people say in the first and last five minutes of a dinner party.

Twitter, meanwhile, has an Eduardo Severin lurking somewhere in its corporate structure. It’s ready to monetize! It wants the big bucks! It has no idea how to go about selling out! The interface became more complex, which accomplished nothing. The site got a little more cavalier about invasions of privacy, which was annoying. Viral marketing campaigns got dialed up to “blatant.” Yet the site still crashes, and glitches, and permits sophisticated account-hacking worms to come and go as they please.

Google+, last but not least, started with a bunch of good ideas and then screwed them all up. It propagated by invitation only, forgetting that nerds aren’t necessarily the only vectors you should use when growing a social network. (Seriously, didn’t they watch the Zuckerberg movie? Where he insists Severin give him the Purcellion’s email list?) It came out as an extremely rough beta, with all sorts of dealbreaker bugs. There was no iPad app. There were no third-party apps, and barely any website-to-website integration with sites like Twitter.

When I attempted to contact Google about these problems, I was informed that all the employees were having a “jam session” in their music studio while eating free chocolate sushi. I told them that I understood they would be out-of-office next week doing extreme windsurfing, but that I expected to see progress as soon as they returned.

4. Occupy spin-offs

The facets of the Occupy movement that were separate from the original sites in New York City just didn’t work. They did create a sense of a national movement. Occupy LA and Occupy Boston both clearly had some great moments. That said, these were by-and-large a series of spinoffs that created a lot of urban problems and a lot of opportunities for police to hurt people, without doing enough to magnify the message (whatever it was) or to make it more complex. It was awful watching protesters in Davis and Oakland suffer horrible pain and injury under conditions that could have been avoided by more competent, experienced protest planners. As Obama loves to say, let me be clear: I’m not blaming the pepper spraying etc. on the protests. Law enforcement has to be accountable at all times. But these were not civil rights sit-ins; if you were to ask me what those protesters accomplished through all that suffering, I honestly couldn’t say. Nonetheless, every event (no matter how small) blew up across the social networking sites, ricocheting from one feed to the next, part of a determined effort to show support without joining the occupation. Even the Pepper Spray Cop Tumblr stopped meaning anything after a couple of days. It was as if we were all out to prove that Gladwell had been right to scoff at politics migrating online.

5. The New Yorker

Same question as I asked about Ryan Gosling, but in a very different mood: What happened? I won’t repeat the arguments that played out here about Louis Menand and Derek Parfit, but it’s not difficult to guess why these problematic articles appeared in the first place: the magazine is going through an identity crisis. Now that Harper’s is scooping up any political stories that don’t land in The Nation, and now that our depressed economy and lackluster politics have produced a shortage of profile-able great men, The New Yorker is sitting there, fidgeting with the straw in its amaretto sour, trying to figure out what to say. They’ve begun devoting increasing space to profiles of difficult visual artists, without including enough images of the work for the articles to even make sense. They’re running so many humorous pieces that an increasing number, inevitably, are falling totally flat. They’re drawing on a needlessly small pool of writers. I’m surprised Menand has time to do anything besides write for them. Whenever I read another terrible movie review by David Denby or Anthony Lane, I ask myself: can it be that the tenure system has left the university and pitched a tent in the land of magazines?

6. The entire fall season on television

What a disaster. Every show that had the slightest glimmer of charm and fan loyalty was treated to at least one imitator: for every Modern Family, there had to be a Suburgatory, which might be the worst title ever invented for a show. Suburgatory is a great example of why cynical television quite often fails: it’s supposed to be a snarky show about hating life in the suburbs, but the underlying message is definitely “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” You suddenly realize, with a horrible sinking feeling, that the popular girl who hates the protagonist is going to end up being an important and even sympathetic character in every episode.

Kudos to The Playboy Club for making us all terribly uncomfortable for about five seconds, before it was cancelled. Pan Am didn’t survive either, as you probably know; like The Playboy Club, it was a Mad Men imitator that didn’t come up with an equivalent for the actual labor (dreaming up advertisements) that keeps Don Draper and company actively doing something.

I enjoyed watching Revenge for a while, mainly because of Madeleine Stowe and Gabriel Mann, but it’s gotten tiresome. New Girl, while pretty clever, substitutes twee for real emotions. I even tried to get into Grimm and Once Upon A Time, but the former is a really bad remake of The X-Files, and the latter is a family movie that, instead of ending after 90 minutes, has been forced by an evil enchantress to go on and on forever, sprouting subplots weekly, and hacking them off just as fast.

The good shows, such as Archer, all went on hiatus. I just don’t know whether Hell on Wheels is going to be enough to get me through the hard times.

7. “Legitimate” Christmas albums

Of course, there will always be bad holiday music. That’s not the problem. I knew something much worse was afoot when my parents, of all people, bought a Wainwright Family Christmas DVD a couple years back. What business did they have even knowing about the existence of the “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” guy? But 2011 has 2009 absolutely crushed in the holiday category. Busta Rhymes showed up to guest on Bieber’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” a decision so staggeringly poor that it affected the NASDAQ. She and Him produced a Christmas album, further burying M. Ward beneath Zooey’s maniacally bright eyes, and leading to ironic 1980s style advertisements that were also not ironic in the least. These advertisements left irony for dead, grievously wounded, lying in a gutter.

Lady Gaga produced a holiday album, too, perhaps as accompaniment to her recent duet with Tony Bennett. If somebody doesn’t intervene, she’s going to turn into Celine Dion by the middle of next year. She probably already insists on white candles and blue M&Ms wherever she plays a gig.

8 (tie). iCloud and Qwikster

I’m certain that many people will include dearly departed Qwikster, and all the emails our buddy at Neflix sent us about it, in their worst-of-the-year lists. I definitely give Netflix credit for halting their insane plans, but not too much credit, since we still got that price increase shoved down our throats.

So let’s talk about iCloud. “iTunes in the Cloud” is definitely a great leap forward, and it’s nice to be able to update and sync an iPhone wirelessly. However, the new is a disaster for MobileMe users like me, who lose iDisk, and are having all their email moved to a site that isn’t particularly fast or compatible with browsers and other software. Apple created a variety of cloud apps, such as “Documents in the Cloud,” which is an awful version of what Dropbox and Google Docs do already. I swear to God, the only place where iCloud actually works well is Cupertino, CA, where everybody has a state-of-the-art networked Mac. In the real world, it’s just a pain.

9. The publishing industry

To the big publishing houses: allow your editors to do their jobs! The market is getting flooded with books that could have been great if somebody had just taken the trouble to edit them, including George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Sylvia Nasar’s A Grand Pursuit, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and many more. A new book club offered by Time Life books will send you one of these unedited monsters every month, for just $119.95 a year, until you are finally crushed beneath a falling IKEA bookshelf.

Stop raising prices! Stop raising the price of The New York Times; seriously, the Times is getting as bad as the Postal Service. Stop raising the price of new Kindle releases. Stop fixing prices so that the major retailers have no way of trying to outsell each other.

Finally, push through whatever permissions you need to release e-book editions of stuff that’s in print. Make your books completely searchable, online, via Amazon and Google Books. Reject, politely but firmly, any new books by Sarah Palin. That last request is optional, but I do think it would be a really good idea.

10. The feature-length comedy

Were it not for Bridesmaids, and possibly Harold and Kumar, this year would be a complete failure. There were lots of funny moments in dramedies like Crazy Stupid Love, but the general approach was to go back to the basics, which in this case means comedies on a $1 rental shelf from 1995 (cf. Bachelor Party, Brewster’s Millions, Parenthood). Jonah Hill, worried that people would judge him for Moneyball, quickly moved on to The Sitter and Allen Gregory. All sorts of people who shouldn’t even have an Actor’s Guild card, including Nick Swardson and Danny McBride, were now sharing top billing with actors like Natalie Portman and Jesse Eisenberg. The Hangover 2 happened. No wonder Community started to feel like a flickering, solitary light in a dark age. It’s nice to watch Adrien Brody portraying Salvador Dali, for sure, but really we just need somebody to get us laughing a little more boisterously and often.