2017: The Year in Pop Culture — A Look Back

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13 pop culture moments that brought us to our feet last year.

For many of us — and for the country — 2017 was a tumultuous year, one often marked by a corrosive divisiveness. In this current climate, common ground is something that is more often mentioned than practiced or achieved, but thankfully pop culture serves as the steady bridge beneath our wheels — call it neutral territory. But while a barrage of headlines flooded our news feeds describing catastrophes, disparities, calamities and other problems, the pulse of pop culture never ceased. Indeed, at times it brought us together to a collective place of wonder, galaxies far, far away, homecomings, discovery and hope. In many ways, pop culture served as the well-needed pause button that gave us all time to reflect on our shared experiences.

So, in celebration of this, let’s take a look back at the best that pop culture had to offer in 2017.

1. Star Trek: Discovery

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When J.J. Abrams infused Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise, a series known for its cerebral underpinnings, with the pulse of a Star Wars film (circa 1977 or 1980), audiences immediately embraced his reboot (we’re talking 2009’s Star Trek). Back then, no one really thought there would be a new Star Trek TV series on the horizon. Trekkies were happy to have some movies to gather in multiplex darkness to see. But here’s the thing: as good as the movie series has the potential to be, Star Trek’s strength was in the weekly format provided by TV. CBS brought Roddenberry’s vision back through a subscription service called CBS All Access. Not only that, but our main character is played by a Black woman (Sonequa Martin-Green). It’s different in tone and pace from Abrams’ cinematic template, and while the special effects are the best they’ve ever been for any Star Trek TV series, it’s got that Roddenberry thoughtfulness that makes it truly Star Trek.

2. Spider-Man: Homecoming

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Columbia Pictures

Is it safe to say Tobey Maguire is to Spider-Man what Christopher Reeve was to Superman? Well, not exactly, but Maguire has the distinction of giving us the first real cinematic take on the character, and for some millennials, Maguire is and always will be Spider-Man. The first two Spider-Man films are good (especially Spider-Man 2). By the third film, though, the veneer wore off and we thought we’d never see the Web Head again. Then Andrew Garfield donned the mask in 2012’s Amazing Spider-Man five years after the critically panned Spider-Man 3. No one was really clamoring for another Spider-Man movie until Tom Holland came along in Captain America: Civil War. Homecoming finds another corner of the superhero big-budget film sandbox to play in thanks to Michael Keaton’s nuanced portrayal of the Vulture.

3. Wonder Woman

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Warner Bros.

Finally. A good DC Universe movie. Not that Man of Steel didn’t have its moments (mostly that Wonder Woman scene), and some people really enjoyed the heck out of Suicide Squad. That withstanding, DC hadn’t come up with a movie with the same universal praise as the average Marvel Universe film. But with Wonder Woman, the critics and fans broke bread and came together in a glorious algorithm that essentially said, “This movie’s on a different level.” No one would’ve guessed this would be the Wonder Woman movie we all wanted, but it was that and more.

4. Justice League

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Warner Bros.

Depending on who you talk to, Justice League was either exactly what we all should have expected (on the positive side), or it simply didn’t live up to its potential. It’s possible Zack Snyder’s departure from the project hurt, and by extension, one wonders if Joss Whedon’s contribution marred what could have otherwise been a solid, cohesive film. One thing that is great about the movie is seeing Superman smile again and Henry Cavill playing the character lighter than his portrayal in Batman v. Superman. Also, Aquaman rocks. Can’t wait for his solo film.

5. The Orville

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20th Century Fox Television

In some ways, Seth McFarlane’s The Orville is the heir apparent to the Star Trek franchise. Clearly, Star Trek: The Next Generation is the DNA it draws from (Brannon Braga is an executive producer on both), but the difference here is that McFarlane’s humor injects a wonderful space opera quality to the series. In the very beginning the series struggled to find its footing. Was it going to be a little funny, a little serious or somewhere in between? The series works best when you just come in knowing you’re going to be entertained, and through it, you will laugh and you might be moved. If Star Trek: Discovery didn’t exist, The Orville would’ve filled the star exploration slot perfectly.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale

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Dystopian dramas are all over the place these days. A sci-fi staple, like zombies and vampires, the concept can be a bit worn over time. From the Margaret Atwood novel, this Hulu series goes into the darker reaches of a future remarkably contemporary. Thanks to a stunning performance by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling appropriation of our daily reality rendered in watercolors.

7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi Teaser

We all collectively held our breath when, during the Super Bowl halftime, the teaser for Star Wars: The Last Jedi hit the screen. That shot of Rey gasping. Luke Skywalker’s voice saying, “Breathe….just…breathe.” And, as luck would have it, the teaser crashed the internet. It was reportedly viewed over 120.1 million times in a 24-hour period when it made its first appearance online. Star Wars brings out a special force in us all. It’s the ultimate icebreaker.

8. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

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W. W. Norton & Company

It is always a delight to see where Neil Gaiman’s imagination takes him. Instead of giving us an “original” novel, the creator of The Sandman gives us Norse tales starring Thor. This isn’t Marvel’s Thor, though in his introduction Gaiman does acknowledge those comic books written by Stan Lee. Instead of Lee and Jack Kirby, Gaiman finds his true inspiration in Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen. It’s a wonderful retelling only Gaiman, the master, can deliver.

9. Talking Hulk

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

OK, technically the movie’s called Thor: Ragnarok, but you have to admit one of the most delightful things about the movie was seeing on the big screen an actual talking Hulk. Sure, we’ve had some words spoken in the original Avengers movie, but this was a living, breathing Hulk just as he used to be in the comics. Of course, Chris Hemsworth was great as Thor, but it’s safe to say Hulk embodied one of the best pop culture moments of 2017.

10. The Defenders

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Did it live up to all the hype? Not exactly, but that’s not a bad thing. Netflix’s answer to The Avengers, but on a street level, was Marvel’s The Defenders. The product of building a grittier Marvel Universe first with Daredevil, then Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and, finally, Iron Fist. This gave us the small-screen Marvel team-up we’ve been waiting for.

11. Doctor Who

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Peter Capaldi’s run as the Doctor didn’t have the same sheen as fan-favorite David Tennant’s, or his successor Matt Smith’s, nor the immediacy of Christopher Eccleston’s, but he did have some fantastic moments. It was a game-changer when we discovered the Master had regenerated as a woman — now the Doctor’s going down a similar road with less nefarious leanings (we hope). As with all the previous incarnations of the Doctor, the show’s lead will bring all the character traits of the past Doctors into a new synthesis. Retrospectively, Capaldi’s run is destined to become a sort of niche fan favorite. Think of Capaldi as a jazz musician way ahead of his time, discovered perhaps by the next generation who will get all his riffs and odd ideas. We all know Jodi Whittaker’s going to be great, but let’s not forget that Capaldi delivered a notable performance as the Doctor. He will be missed.

12. Saturday Night Live

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The best of Saturday Night Live comes in unexpected waves. It’s hot. Then it’s cold. Fortunately, 2017 was a hot year for the sketch comedy show. It took jabs at the current administration but also found a wonderful synergy with its current cast. Weekend Update with Colin Jost and Michael Che has risen to the level of the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler yesterdays. The musical guests are more daring, and you just feel the energy emanating from the screen. When it fails, it’s often on an epic level; however, every week, it manages to be completely irreverent, funny and caustic. Welcome back, SNL.

13. Twin Peaks: The Return

It’s not that you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but when Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return went against HBO’s behemoth, Game of Thrones, the common wisdom was that it would lose heartily. From a ratings perspective, that was sort of true; but from an artistic perspective, Twin Peaks won. David Lynch and Mark Frost brought an arthouse quality and sensibility to the premium cable lineup. The journey was uneven at times, but getting there was most of the fun. And that standalone episode (“Gotta Light”), chilling, monochrome, delivered the real blow. Game of Thrones is good — but it’s not artsy good. Twin Peaks rose above the Mother of Dragons in a moment that shattered TV history. end

What were your favorite pop culture moments in 2017?


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