As we say goodbye to 2011, here’s FrumForum’s look back at the year in politics and popular culture — and the way the two keep intersecting year in and year out. It was the year when John Boehner replaced Nancy Pelosi as the House’s number one power broker — or so he wished. (With Eric Cantor and a rebellious Tea Party caucus standing in back of him, how’s that Speakership workin’ out for ya?)
2011 began with a tragedy that dwarfed electoral politics, when a madman went on a shooting spree at an Arizona campaign event on January 8th, assassinating a federal judge and gravely wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). Miraculously, Giffords returned to the chamber after a grueling recovery to cast a vote on the year’s other biggest domestic story – a debt-ceiling standoff that dominated worldwide headlines and threatened everyone from Main Street to Wall Street.
Meanwhile, speaking of federal judges, the courts (and in at least one case, the Supremes) took on the issues that will no doubt define the 2012 election more than anything besides the unemployment rate: the individual mandate, nationwide gay marriage (Prop 8), and the Arizona immigration law.
But even this seemed tame compared to massive, widespread revolution in the Middle East, which saw decades-old dictatorial dynasties like those of Mubarak’s in Egypt and Quadafi in Libya topple like so many dominoes. And after taking their cue from these bottom-up democracy movements — and the exponential growth of “social networking” sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter over the past half-decade — the Occupy Movement became the biggest financial news story of the “fourth quarter” of 2011.
With the stress-o-meter set to “tilt”, it’s no wonder people kept looking to films and TV for some release, escape, or catharsis. As the dust settles of 2011, here are the events that left the biggest pop-cultural footprints:
The Departure Lounge: The Law & Order family took its second hit this year, with the windup of Vincent D’Onofrio’s scene-stealing showcase on Criminal Intent. Denis Leary’s fiery Rescue Me was extinguished, Steve Carell bid farewell to The Office, Patricia Arquette’s Medium had her final vision, and Brothers & Sisters broke up. And fans of Desperate Housewives, 30 Rock, The Closer, and House have been given fair warning — enjoy them while you can, because they won’t be there to celebrate the next New Year.
But four TV departures ranked head and shoulders above all the rest. The year began just after Larry King signed off of his 25-year-old CNN interview show, even as his contemporary Regis Philbin, a small-screen fixture since his 1960s days as Joey Bishop’s sidekick, gave his “final answer” 11 months later.
So much for the Kings of TV talk — but 2011 was also the year when the Queen herself, Oprah Winfrey, decided to end her 25-year-old talk show, still top-rated after all these years (and a key player in President Obama’s election), to focus on her troubled OWN cable network. Yet even Oprah’s departure was dwarfed by the worldwide headlines made by Charlie Sheen’s messy, melted-down and drugged-out exit from the wildly popular Two and a Half Men, and his successful replacement by Ashton Kutcher (who also endured his own tabloid traumas).
Closing the Book(stores): Likewise in book publishing and home video, it was more of a year of traumatic endings than beginnings. Borders and Blockbuster both began the year by shuttering many if not most of their walk-in stores, and while Blockbuster has been given something of a second chance (if a heavily reformatted and refocused one), the presses stopped rolling for Borders permanently in September — an unimaginable development even 10 years ago.
Nice Jobs, Steve (and Hitch): Unimaginable, perhaps, to everyone except for the late techno-wizard and visionary, Steve Jobs, prematurely dead at 56, after years of battling cancer. Along with his contemporary Bill Gates, perhaps no one else had as much influence on modern life as the man who really essentially “invented the Internet”, and turned the lowly telephone into a Pandora’s box of informational pleasures and possibilities.
Jobs’ nearest-equivalent as the preeminent Boomer barometer of his time, Christopher Hitchens, also lost his long and painful battle with cancer at 62. Those who believe God has a sense of irony might find it interesting the inveterate atheist (who once even took on Mother Teresa) died at the height of the Christmas season. But what made Hitch’s writing divine is how he refused to submit to dogmatism and groupthink at any cost, and his willingness to hit all sides with equal lethality, based on the considerable courage of his provocative convictions.
The Last Axis: Three other deaths deserve special mention, of people just as notable as Jobs and Hitchens — but for all the wrong reasons. How appropriate that the year America “celebrated” (if that’s the right word) the 10th anniversary of 9/11 would be the year that Osama bin Laden would meet the same richly deserved fate he meted out to 3,000 innocent civilians – who most assuredly never deserved it. His longtime contemporary in Middle Eastern terrorism, the author of 1988′s Locherbie horror, Muammar Quaddafi, died at the hands of his oppressed people, at the age of 69.
And anyone who believed communism to be “Godless” obviously never got a look at the open idolatry, 24-hour propaganda, and virulent bastardization of Christian and Buddhist themes (a thousand cranes taking his father, Kim Il-Sung, to the afterlife in 1994!), that characterized North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il’s reign of horror.
While state reports had Kim dying on a train, selflessly working round-the-clock as usual to better North Korean society, the CIA suspects Kim succumbed in bed — obese, sickly, aged 70, after a lifetime of gorging himself on fine wine, gourmet chocolates, and imported lobsters while his people died of famine in genocidal proportions. Probably surrounded by his library of some 20,000 DVDs, even as his people faced no-knock midnight warrants to ensure that they aren’t committing the “thought crimes” of watching Japanese or South Korean movies and TV, or trying to access the Internet. “Evil” is an overused word — but sometimes, it’s the only one that fits.
Feminine Mystique: Back on the tube, young women continued to shatter whatever’s left of the glass eye’s glass ceiling, withWhitney and Up All Night serving as moderate hits and Two Broke Girls emerging as a breakout. Cold Case veteran Veena Sud effortlessly segued from that show’s cancellation to running her own dark, literate (and controversial) procedural on AMC, The Killing, which traced a Twin Peaks-style murder mystery over the course of a full 13-episode season.
ABC also scored big with a considerably lighter female forensic thriller, Dana Delany’s stylish and sassy Body of Proof(which shoots it out with Poppy Montgomery as an Unforgettable policewoman with total memory.) Indeed, Tuesday officially joined Sunday (Desperate Housewives, The Good Wife, True Blood) as TV’s Ladies Night, with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s stylish and witty thriller Ringer facing off against Zooey Deschanel’s adorably goofy New Girl.
The Year of Magical Thinking: Notable art films included The Tree of Life, a pretentious hodgepodge (or gourmet feast, depending on your point of view) of pseudo-Biblical symbolatry, while the forthcoming Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close uses an imaginative autistic child as a guide to post 9/11 trauma.
Woody Allen returned to the screen with the time-tripping Midnight in Paris, while the considerably less literate Super 8 looked at working-class 1979 with a supernatural twist. Miranda July had a terminally ill cat wryly narrate, Desperate Housewives/Sex and the City style, her witty “mumblecore” look into The Future. And vampires, werewolves, and zombies continued to show strong signs of life, with The Walking Dead, True Blood, Being Human, The Vampire Diaries, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the latest Twilight film packing ‘em in.
Politics in Cinema: There were plenty of provocative political films the past year, as Meryl Streep added the next famous face to her gallery of real-life portraits as The Iron Lady (which will release January 13, along with our review). The horrors of Saddam-era Iraq were brilliantly essayed by Dominic Cooper as The Devil’s Double, while Demian Bichir’s illegal-immigrant father sought A Better Life for his son. George Clooney and red-hot Ryan (Drive) Gosling bewared The Ides of March, and J. Edgar got a big-screen biopic courtesy of Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio.
FF Remembers: Hollywood lost its Queen, Elizabeth Taylor, who left us in March aged 79, joining fellow Old Hollywood superstars Farley Granger, Harry Morgan, Anne Francis, Dana Wynter, Elaine Stewart, Jackie Cooper, and Betty Garrett. John Dye really was Touched by an Angel, as his compassionate Angel of Death went on his way due to a heart attack, as did Familymatriarch Sada Thompson and British acting royalty Margaret Tyzack. And Columbo solved the ultimate mystery, as Peter Falk exited at age 83.
Character acting champs Jeff Conaway, Dan Frazer, Alan Sues, Sid Melton, Alan Fudge, Charles Napier, Doris Belack, Michael Tolan, Dolores Fuller, Mary Fickett, Claudia Bryar, GD Spradlin, Phyllis Avery, Jill Haworth, Peggy Rea, Cynthia Myers, David Nelson, Pete Postlethwaite, Maria Schneider, and Marian Mercer went to that great repertory theatre in the sky. Pioneering female film execs and writers Polly Platt, Laura Ziskin, and Sue Mengers faded out, as did I Love Lucy’s Madelyn Pugh and her fellow sitcom-creating superstars Hal Kanter, Sol Saks, Bob Banner, Sam Denoff, and Sherwood Schwartz.
The typewriters silenced for screenwriters and playwrights Arthur Laurents, David Zelag Goodman, Kevin Jarre, Del Reisman, Christopher Trumbo, Lanford Wilson, Shelagh Davis, Leonard B. Stern, and Norman Corwin, as well as bestselling mystery novelist Lillian Jackson Braun. The cameras stopped rolling for Sidney Lumet, Ken Russell, Peter Yates, and Reza S. Badiyi, while Lynn Samuels, Fred Imus, and Andy Rooney gave their last broadcasts.
Fitness legend Jack La Lanne worked out to the ripe old age of 96, joining Joe Frazier, Virgil Atkins, and Duke Snider in the locker room, while record execs Sir Jimmy Savile, Don Kirshner, and Randy Wood had their biggest “hit” yet. Big-band legends Dolores Hope, Margaret Whiting, and “Champagne Lady” Norma Zimmer stopped the music, along with Gerry Rafferty, Dobie Gray, Ferlin Husky, Phoebe Snow, Andrew Gold, Andrea True, and composers Fred Steiner and Jerry Lieber. Clarence Clemons, Uan Rasey, “Blues Brother” Alan Rubin, and Gil Scott-Heron joined Gabriel’s horn section.
And pioneering politicians Sargent Shriver, Mark Hatfield, and Warren Christopher, fearless feminists Geraldine Ferraro, Betty Ford, and Dorothy Howell Rodham, and Vietnam “veterans” Nguyen Cao Ky and Mme. Nho Dinh Nhu, also bade us a fond farewell.
All in all, after a year like this, who can blame someone for going completely blotto this New Year’s Eve! (Although all of us at the FrumForum wish you a safe and sane start to 2012 — we don’t want anything to happen to our readers!)
And as the very “interesting” — in the Chinese sense of the term, I fear — election year of 2012 kicks off, I wish you all a Happy New Year. And as an even greater writer than I once said, “God bless us, every one.”