Another year is (almost) over, and with it, our interest in everything that happened during that year. After all, keeping track of entertainment news stories is like trying to remember your dreams; both are ephemeral, quickly forgotten and replaced a mere 24 hours later. (And most often, trying to recount them is only interesting if they’re about sex.) That’s why there’s always this rush to give every passing 365 days a name, an illusory stamp of permanence like “The Year Of The Selfie,” “The Year Of The Butt,” “The Year Of The Horse Head Mask,” etc. Yet there’s no way 2014 can be dismissed with such a single, reductive statement. Surely it would take at least 14 of them. So here are some suggestions for what 2014 could be called, and the stories that argued for the reasons why.
“It’s a weird year for comedy,” Chris Rock said in a recent Vulture profile, in what is one of the year’s biggest understatements. Of all the overarching themes to be drawn out of 2014, perhaps the most surprising was this: It was often downright hard to laugh this year. Most obviously, recent months have been dominated by allegations that Bill Cosby, once a beloved proprietor of dad jokes whose biggest sins were hoagie-related, had repeatedly drugged and raped numerous women. Those decades-old charges—ironically, given new life by a stand-up comedy act—resurfaced just as the shock had finally subsided from Robin Williams’ suicide, recasting two of our most cherished comedians as clowns whose dark sides would give Pagliacci pause.
Add to that the auto accident that befell Tracy Morgan—killing comedian Jimmy Mack, and leaving Morgan with a brain injury so severe he may never be the same—plus the deaths of notable comedy figures like Joan Rivers, Sid Caesar, Mike Nichols, Harold Ramis, Jan Hooks, Rik Mayall, Elaine Stritch, and Mad magazine’s Al Feldstein. In that light, Rock’s statement really seems to be putting it mildly. Time and again, 2014 was the year comedy turned to tragedy.
As noted above, Bill Cosby’s scandal is based on charges made years ago, prompting some of his accusers to wonder why it took this long—and a joke from Hannibal Buress—for anyone to care. The answer lies in Twitter, where caring only takes a retweet, and a firestorm of protest can be whipped up in a matter of hours. This year more than any prior proved the power of social media to mobilize the troops and speed along due process in the court of public opinion, as many others found out.
The Internet made similarly quick work of Woody Allen’s similarly decades-old child molestation charges; forced Bryan Singer into near-hiding during promotion of his latest blockbuster, over his own sexual assault accusations; went after Jonah Hill and Alec Baldwin for homophobic slurs; chastised Macklemore and The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne for cultural appropriation; blasted Henry Rollins, X’s Exene Cervenka, and Drake for insensitive comments in the wake of tragedy; and realized, a hundred times over, that Gene Simmons is an asshole.
Perhaps no story this year epitomized both Twitter’s awesome power and its pitchfork mentality than the #CancelColbert movement, in which anti-racism “hacktivists” went after Stephen Colbert for making a satirical joke about racism. In 2014, Twitter proved time and again that everyone is just a hashtag away from becoming public enemy No. 1.
Still, as much as it pains us to admit, no one better captured the peculiar state of celebrity right now than Shia LaBeouf. The actor became a living embodiment of the social media news cycle, after it was discovered he’d plagiarized cartoonist Daniel Clowes in his short film, then spent the ensuing weeks answering widespread charges of plagiarism by leading accusers on an Internet detective hunt to spot what else he’d stolen, like a particularly uninventive Batman villain. (The Googler?)
LaBeouf stoked that Twitter tempest while simultaneously condemning and coopting it—creating viral stunts like hiring a skywriter to scrawl his apology, affixing hashtags to his various (plagiarized) manifestos and bizarre art exhibits—and generally spending a year full of drunken antics, antagonistic behavior, and even rape allegations playing a game of “look at me/why are you looking at me?” epitomized by wearing a paper bag over his head. He’s like a golem created by TMZ and Twitter, lumbering through our digital village, asking us what our fascination is with this rampaging monster. He is 2014.
Celebrities weren’t the only targets of social media furor. This year, the digital streets were filled with voices clamoring for increased diversity in their entertainment—a cause that has long been championed, but perhaps never so loudly or with as much headway as we saw in 2014. January began with Saturday Night Live adding its first black female cast member in ages, and the call for similar franchises to follow suit only became more fervent from there. Most notably, the pressure for Marvel and DC Comics to finally put some non-white male superheroes in their movies, despite some public hesitation from management, resulted in the announcement of an upcoming slate of films starring Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Black Panther, and a female Captain Marvel. (Even as incidents involving sexist superhero T-shirts and Spider-Woman’s butt reminded that the industry still has plenty to overcome.)
Elsewhere, the new Star Wars suggested its galaxy might have more than just its usual one or two women and black guys, the new Fantastic Four cast Michael B. Jordan, who’s African-American, as the typically Chris Evans-American Johnny Storm, and Paul Feig announced plans to give Ghostbusters entirely to the ladies. Predictably, all of these things had a mixed reception. Still, even as every new day brings a study showing that everyone besides straight white guys are underrepresented both in front of and behind the camera—and even as GamerGate continues to demonstrate that discussing diversity on the Internet is only slightly preferable to boiling off one’s own skin—you can’t say that 2014 didn’t make some genuine strides toward changing that conversation.
If the major franchises all began making greater inroads toward diversity in casting, it also saw them doing just about everything to ensure their movies’ basic structures were the same. “Shared universe” became the most overly bandied phrase of 2014, as every studio rushed to follow the Marvel model of making sure that everything it produced was connected—and thus a piece of the puzzle you’re obligated to pick up if you want the whole picture.
Some of these shared universes are more obvious than others. Warner Bros. planning its own Justice League slate—while also the most conspicuous attempt at copycatting Marvel—at least makes sense as a mythology. Ditto Star Wars, whose decades of sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and ancillary tales (to say nothing of those lost in the Expanded Universe, R.I.P.) can probably sustain the franchise for another quarter-century and Max Rebo: Tattooine Nights to come.
But increasingly, the desire to create worlds where “everything is connected”—the Marvel franchises at Fox and Sony; Universal’s classic monsters; King Kong and Godzilla; the characters of Anne Rice’s vampire novels, Arthurian legend, and Robin Hood folklore—has become exhausting, no matter how steeped it may be in those stories’ literary or cinematic traditions. When even a loose assemblage of crazy shit like American Horror Story is being retrofitted to inhabit a shared universe, 2014 is the year that everything became connected, all right. It’s all commonly bloated and homogenous.
Recognizing the biggest “shared universe” is the actual universe, one of the most pervasive trends of the year in entertainment (and indeed, of the last several millennia) has been Christianity. 2014 saw a post-Noah flood of announcements of faith-based properties, building off the attention surrounding both Darren Aronofsky’s epic and the surprise successes of films like God’s Not Dead.
Since January, Bible movies and TV series have been entering, two-by-two, in a procession of films about nonbelievers and other straw men getting their comeuppance in the face of the Rapture or Kirk Cameron; swords-and-sandal epics not seen since the days of Ben-Hur, such as Exodus: Gods And Kings and, uh, Ben-Hur; plus a smattering of miniseries, movies, and TV shows that promise to explore Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, “lost years,” and maybe even his time as a demon-fightin’ exorcist. There’s also plenty of room in the temple for money-lending spinoffs centered around Jesus’ many biblical pals and arch-enemies, everyone from King David to Pontius Pilate. Truly, mankind has never had a more unshakable faith in Jesus’ ability to tap into an underserved audience.
As a result of laying all this groundwork for shared universes (and accounting for much of that attendant preemptive exhaustion), 2014 was marked by looking ahead—not just a year or two down the road, as is usually the case, but well into the next decade of our lives. Marvel once again led the way on this, beginning with studio president Kevin Feige casually revealing he had a timeline for movies that stretched to 2028. And while it’s only outlined five of those years so far, Marvel’s prospective release slate, we’ve seen that its looming introductions of new characters, and its continued branching out into TV and Netflix can easily carry it into Phases Three through 50.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has already matched those plans with its decade-spanning slate of DC movies, and Sony and Fox are both working (with variable success) on spinning Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four into their own going concerns—all but ensuring that time will soon no longer be measured in days, but in comic-book sequels. That is, when they’re not being marked by the next 100 years of Star Wars, at which point all of the above franchises will probably have endured at least three reboots.
In the absence of a Marvel-style universe, 2014 saw studios seize on the prospect of rebooting and extending older franchises with renewed gusto (presumably so they could then be expanded into a Marvel-style universe). Of course, the idea of the unnecessary reboot or sequel is nothing new, but this year, that process seemed more exploitative than ever. Among the films whose follow-ups made the news this year: Rocky, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Independence Day, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, SLC Punk, Spring Breakers, Drumline, Karate Kid, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Smurfs, Hotel Transylvania, The Ring, We’re The Millers, The Goonies, and even An Inconvenient Truth. For many of these, the only criteria seems to be the presence of at least one willing cast member, even if that cast member is Corey Feldman.
If the creatively drained spirit is willing but the flesh is weak—or old, or dead—these movies can always be totally rebooted, no matter if they’re franchises that have already dragged on for numerous iterations (and not even that long ago). Underworld, Resident Evil, The Transporter, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Grudge, Stargate, Friday The 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scooby-Doo, Predator, I Am Legend, Fletch, Zorro, Ghostbusters, The Crow, WarGames, Explorers, Point Break, Masters Of The Universe, Flash Gordon, Timecop, Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Scarface, and The Birds were all tipped for remakes in 2014. All told, that’s 40 different rehashes put into motion this year alone—enough to guarantee that almost every week of next year will see the release of something you’ve already seen, sparing you any unwanted surprises.
And of course, that lack of any real surprise is doubly true of anything put out by Sony. The hackers who attacked Sony servers not only spoiled the studio’s upcoming release schedule by leaking advance copies of its movies, it did everything it could to ruin the company’s entire future, spilling gigabytes’ worth of sensitive emails that have exposed the hard-line realities and petty squabbles behind every one of its business decisions. As of press time, the North Korea-sympathizing thieves who have dubbed themselves the “Guardians Of Peace” had continued to escalate their war on Sony, promising a “Christmas gift” of even more, far more damaging information to come if the studio doesn’t meet its demands and pull The Interview. But it’s difficult to imagine how things could possibly get worse for Sony, which has already seen its employees’ personal information and its executives’ biggest embarrassments splashed across the Internet for all to rifle through—and all because of a comedy where James Franco and Seth Rogen try to kill a fake Kim Jong-un.
The Sony hack paralleled that of the year’s other major privacy story: the theft of hundreds of celebrity photos and videos—most of them taken from the phones of women, many of them in the nude—that were similarly flung to the wolves to salivate and pontificate over. In that case, the moral lines seemed to be pretty clearly defined: Looking at a naked Jennifer Lawrence without her permission is shameful—and in Lawrence’s words, a “sex crime.” But there remains some debate as to whether the same applies to looking at an email that exposes Jennifer Lawrence’s salary. These waning weeks of the year have been spent consumed by this ethical battle over how to approach what was arguably the biggest entertainment story of 2014, without also becoming part of it.
For many in the media, the Sony hack is fair game, so now anyone who wants a window into what the studio is considering doing with everything from Spider-Man to Men In Black can find it with a simple Google search—right alongside private emails that reveal many of those movies’ architects to be no better than petulant, typo-prone teens. The result is an entire industry engulfed in war—Sony employees vs. negligent executives; jilted talent vs. duplicitous producers; protective creators vs. scavenging media; gawkers vs. shamers, etc.—with a blast range we probably won’t be able to measure until this time next year. There are some days when Sony probably wishes North Korea had made good on its nuclear threats instead.
It’s somewhat ironic that the year’s been marked by such huge violations of protected information, considering that never has the public fear of leaks been greater. Since its inception, the Internet has provided a forum for obsessive discussion about pop culture with fellow enthusiasts, but at no time like the present have people been so angry about hearing that discussion. This year, spoiler paranoia gripped everyone to the point where it became its own obsession, equal to the TV shows and movies that fueled it in the first place.
There’s nothing new about not wanting to have your entertainment ruined, of course. But in 2014, the tenor of that conversation changed, spurred by the uncontrollable flood of real-time information on social media, and colored by social media’s knee-jerk rage and self-righteousness. That anti-spoiler backlash left those in the business of obsessively discussing pop culture all but paralyzed, unable to do so without upsetting someone who wasn’t ready to hear it.
This year, spoiler paranoia was epitomized in Game Of Thrones, a show that, thanks to its basis in preexisting source material, has a wealth of potential plot turns that could be ruined by those who’ve read them. As such, every Game Of Thrones update, no matter how minor, has to be blanketed under several layers of warnings and coyly ambiguous text (and even then, people will still get pissed).
But that understandable, if occasionally hyperbolic outrage has now mutated into its own crusade. These days, you can’t even, say, post an update on the real-world criminal case of Serial’s Adnan Syed without receiving several “Fuck you for the spoilers,” chastising you for “spoiling” an actual human life. And as that sentiment began to manifest itself this year in actual court cases—Quentin Tarantino suing Gawker for leaking The Hateful Eight; Marvel battling Google over a leaked Avengers trailer—and as the Sony hack continues to yield its hourly bounty of ill-gotten rumor, it seems we can already offer one spoiler for next year: It’s only going to get worse.
If doing more with less was the strategy on the big screen, it paled in comparison to the amount of recycling taking place on television. Inspired by the success of shows like Hannibal and Fargo—but mostly by the never-ending demand of the year-round development cycle and the increasingly short window TV shows are given to prove themselves—networks and creators alike went after seemingly any pitch based on an old movie. As such, the slate of shows in development reads a lot like flipping around on cable.
Listed alphabetically, this year’s movie-to-TV series announcements include: American Gigolo, Bachelor Party, Barbarella, Big, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, Django Unchained, Frequency, Friday The 13th, From Hell, The Girlfriend Experience, Hitch, In The Heat Of The Night, The Illusionist, Marley & Me, Minority Report, Monster-In-Law, The Omen, Problem Child, Real Genius, The Rules Of Attraction, Rush Hour, Say Anything, School Of Rock, Scream, She’s Gotta Have It, Shooter, Shutter Island, The Truman Show, Uncle Buck, Westworld, and Wet Hot American Summer—and that’s just as of press time. Who knows what the networks will catch on TNT tomorrow?
Meanwhile, the film industry returned the favor by taking old TV shows—that is, the ones not already primed for a small-screen comeback, like Bewitched, Greatest American Hero, The Odd Couple, The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father, Full House, All In The Family, Route 66, or Twin Peaks—and readying them for new film adaptations such as The Six Billion Dollar Man, The Fall Guy, Little House On The Prairie, Baywatch, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Manimal, The Outer Limits, The Flintstones, Green Acres, Jem And The Holograms, Gilligan’s Island, and even the just-completed Magic City.
While Hannibal and Fargo proved that sometimes recycling can get you a better-than-expected return, 2014 suggested that producers are taking those slim margins as a reason to load up their trucks with nothing but used containers. You know, just like Kramer and Newman did in that episode of Seinfeld—to name one show that hasn’t been rebooted… yet.
As the movie studios and TV networks competed to see who could make the fewest gambles, they were matched by one of the most obvious reasons for such risk-averse behavior: streaming services making increasing forays into original programming. Netflix really began to throw its weight around in 2014—most notably collapsing the release window for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 to nil, and announcing its intention to take on the whole theater industry.
This year, Netflix also made an exclusive deal to shorten the dumping time for four new Adam Sandler movies; became an arm of the Marvel juggernaut with series based on Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage; provided haven for more network castoffs like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Trailer Park Boys, The Killing, and Longmire; and continued to prep ambitious, expensive original programming to go with established hits like House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black. It also added maybe one or two movies you might like to watch, if there’s nothing else on.
Meanwhile, Amazon was close behind with its own equally aggressive development slate, led by its first breakout hit, Transparent. Yahoo also started getting in on the TV resurrection game, bringing back Community (and considering picking up Enlisted) to bolster its Screen service you’d never heard of until now. And Hulu acquired its biggest property yet in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, while DirecTV, PlayStation, and (briefly) Xbox all developed their own original programming.
Even Lionsgate and CBS—two increasingly old-fashioned titans of the movie and TV industry—have decided they needed to launch a streaming Netflix competitor, even if it just streams Lionsgate and CBS things. And with HBO answering the clarion call of the world and announcing that HBO Go will soon be offered as a stand-alone product, in 2014 the question was no longer if streaming will become the next dominant entertainment medium, but when.
While streaming is the obvious future for movies and TV shows, whether it will remain the future of music isn’t as certain. 2014 saw a growing resistance toward services like Spotify from artists and their fans alike, as the underpaid musician found an unlikely champion: multimillion-selling artist Taylor Swift.
Swift first made her convictions known in a July op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, declaring, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free.” Months later, she put her unreceived money where her mouth is by pulling all of her music from Spotify, kicking off a debate that’s stirred support from fellow artists like Blink-182 and Billy Bragg (after some initial contention), and shrugs of indifference from Dave Grohl.
Whether more artists join Swift in pulling their music from free streaming services or not, it’s hard to argue with the collateral damage of what she terms Spotify’s “grand experiment”: In 2014, no artist’s album went platinum—that is, until the release of Swift’s 1989. Now some prognosticators are predicting that 1989 could well be the last platinum album ever, should the models of distribution continue down this path. Meanwhile, the discussion Swift started over how albums should be made available only grows more and more contentious. And people only seem to agree on one thing: Just don’t stick it on our phones without asking, Bono.
While streaming made it more difficult for creators to control the distribution of their art, the rise of crowdsourcing has made it easier than ever to see that art to fruition. But even as 2014 began with Kickstarter’s aspirational success story, the Veronica Mars movie, and was soon met by other worthy, crowd-funded causes like a Reading Rainbow revival and a celebrity-backed online art school for girls, the year has also seen the site and others like it slowly consumed by self-indulgence, pranks, and quite possibly, schizophrenia.
Last year, Zach Braff helped change Kickstarter’s life—and took a lot of heat for it—by cyber-panhandling for his next film. But even a Zach Braff movie can’t compete with the rampant self-indulgence of this year’s subsequent campaigns to make a new Shaq Fu game or, in its TV equivalent, create an insane person’s Breaking Bad sequel starring Slash and Val Kilmer.
Increasingly, Kickstarter has also become a place for conceptual jokes, like the NoPhone, or Diplo’s bid to buy Taylor Swift a new butt. It’s a shift best embodied by the year’s most widely circulated Kickstarter story: Potato Salad Guy. And as crowd-sourcing and its smattering of genuinely worthy causes became crowded out by these sorts of obvious viral hopefuls—something that Reddit getting into the game may only exacerbate—2014 saw this once-exciting avenue of expression transformed into another venue for narcissism and stupid memes, just like the rest of the Internet before it.
Still, along with the occasional, restorative smattering of worthy projects, there is some ray of hope. After all, even Potato Salad Guy was able to transform his dumb idea into something for the greater good, a move toward fostering optimism, peace, and nobility we can only pray carries over into next year. In 2015, a jaded world turns its eyes to Potato Salad Guy.