The four best things of 2010

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I know that best of lists are kind of a year-end tradition. Pitchfork, The AV Club, and virtually every other pop culture critic in the world likes to post a list at the end of the year, recapping their top choices for that particular 12 month period. They’re always in list form, and they’re always divided into various categories: best movies, best music, best TV. Sometimes they make an attempt to be objective, usually by polling various writers for that organization.

I will not be doing any of those things. This list isn’t in any particular order, it’s not divided up into different mediums or genres, and it’s certainly not objective. It’s just my list of things you should have experienced last year. I know I’m a bit late to that party, but it’s not my fault that The Cluster isn’t published until the end of January. Or that we don’t have a website for more timely articles. But I digress. These are the ten best things of 2010:

Parks and Recreation:

Is it the best show on TV?

While this TV Show debuted in 2009, it wasn’t until this past year that the sitcom began to really take off after its rough first season as a midseason replacement. Starring Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, and Nick Offerman, the show, shot in a faux-documentary style similar to The Office and Arrested Development, follows the titular parks and recreation department of the fictional Pawnee, Indiana. The parks department is home to the ultra masculine, über-Libertarian Ron Swanson (Offerman), the department’s spunky, career-oriented second-in-command Leslie Knope, fashion obsessed would-be playboy Tom Haverford (Ansari), and the disdainful, snarky intern April (Aubrey Plaza). The department exists in a fully-realized world with a growing cast of interesting side characters similar to what you’d find on The Simpsons or Futurama.

The thing that really sells the show to me, though, is its wide cast of genuinely likable characters. Over the past few years, there’s been a trend for TV shows to feature some pretty deplorable, if charming, main characters. The cringingly awkward humor of The Office and the absolute depravity of, well, every character on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia illustrate the trend perfectly. But Parks and Recreation doesn’t wallow in its characters’ misery or laugh at their failures. I’m as much a fan of misanthropic humor as anyone, but it’s a breath of fresh air when you can genuinely connect with a cast of characters and root for their success. As a result, I’m more invested in the drama of Parks than any other show on air (except for maybe The Venture Bros. — but I’ll get to that in a little bit).

The show recently added Rob Lowe and Adam Scott to the cast as a pair of state auditors, with Lowe playing an almost uncomfortably enthusiastic and ernest “good cop” and Scott backing him up as the dour, no-nonsense “bad cop,” setting up some amazing plot-threads for Season Three, which just debuted on NBC this past week. It’s amazing, and you need to watch it.

Kanye West:

Don't tell me you don't love this man.

I want to make it clear here that I’m not just honoring Kanye’s latest record My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which is, by all rights, an absolute masterpiece. I really can’t praise it enough, and I genuinely believe that it’s our generation’s Thriller, but I also want to praise Kanye West himself, because this has been a hell of a year for him.

Before Fantasy dropped, West released Runaway, a 35-minute short film that also doubles as a music video for the album’s first single “Runaway.” Before I actually watched it, I was pretty sure it’d be self-indulgent and more than a little insane. And I was right about that, but it was also something else: a fantastically directed short film. Up until that moment, I’d always viewed West as someone who, despite his monumental talent, always thinks a bit to highly of himself and reaches a bit too far with some of his efforts. But honestly, it looks like West really is as talented as he believes. The film is equally reminiscent of Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, elegantly shot with interesting and bizarre subjects. I don’t want to claim that West is as talented as those particular directors, but I’ve seen Hollywood blockbusters with less luster than Runaway displays.

And then there’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which, in the short time it’s been out, has already begun to crawl into my list of all-time most played records. It’s an endlessly catchy record, with beautifully layered beats and darkly elegant lyrics both humorous and heartbreaking. West’s penchant for wordplay is at the top of its game here, with lines such as “How do you say broke in Spanish? Me no hablo.”

Far too many modern rappers are willing to spit out lazy rhymes overtop a bare-bones beat consisting of a drum machine and a single synth line, West creates gorgeous backing tracks, demonstrating his always masterful use of sampling. “Power” and “All the Lights” are particularly amazing examples of West’s talent.

In all honestly, Fantasy is my number one record of the year. It’s an amazingly complex, grandiose, and personal album, and I love it with all of my heart.

The Venture Bros.:

The Monarch confronts the Venture twins.

This Adult Swim original series, which debuted its fourth season in 2010, is one of the most breathtakingly entertaining shows to ever wind up on television. On its surface, it’s a parody of the old Johnny Quest cartoons from the ’60s, with the Johnny analogue, Dr. Venture, all grown up and trying to lead a super science team of his own. Except he’s terrible at his job. And addicted to pills. And his two twin sons Hank and Dean are idiots. And his bodyguard Brock Samson is a “Swedish murder machine.” It all takes place in a very strange world with an increasingly complex mythology behind it.

One of the main tenets of the Venture universe is that supervillians choose a life of costumed crime as a profession and must register with the Guild of Calamitous Intent, which is locked in a surprisingly calm perpetual battle with the government’s Office of Secret Intelligence, specializing in “protagonist relations.” The Venture family is right in the middle of this insane world of bureaucratic, pop-culture loving psychopaths. Of course there’s also the shadowy S.P.H.I.N.X. organization, Phantom Limb’s Revenge Society, The O.R.B, and … well, my main point here is start with season one.

Honestly, The Venture Bros. is a difficult show to write about, because it’s all based in a very specific pop-culture heavy, nerdy type of humor, and the show’s structures make it seem far more complicated than it really is. At its heart, it’s a character-based comedy, but all the characters are fundamentally broken failures of men living in a completely insane world. This year’s fourth season saw the titular Venture twins graduate from their creepy home schools and attempt to enter the real world after being both incredibly sheltered to the facts of life and exposed to more insane danger than any comic book super hero could hope for. It’s been an interesting progression for the boys, and now that the season’s over, I’m mourning the fact that it won’t be back on the air for another two years.

Scott Pilgrim:

Scott Pilgrim vs. A Volleyball

For the past couple of years, Byan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series has been one of my favorite comic series. It’s comprised of six graphic novels following the life of Canadian garage band bassist and slacker extraordinaire Scott Pilgrim as he competes for the heart of the mysterious Ramona Flowers by literally fighting her seven evil ex-boyfriends. It’s kind of an odd story, but its endlessly entertaining in its mix of humor, action, and genuine drama.

2010 saw the release of the final graphic novel Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour as well as a feature-length film, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, recapping the entire series in one 90-minute bout of mayhem.

I don’t have the space in this column to talk about how amazing I think Finest Hour is, because I could go on pretty much forever. There’s so much going on thematically, artistically, and emotionally in this genuinely ground-breaking comic, but in short, Scott grows up. We get to watch the selfish man-child of the past few volumes confront his past and grow into a fully-realized adult after some 800-odd pages of wondering when he’ll finally get his life together.

The series as a whole is amazing in that is starts out as a very humorous story that revolves entirely around Scott, because we’re seeing the whole thing through his eyes. It’s quirky, exciting, and plays out pretty much like a video game, full of over-the-top action. As it progresses though, we start to see the cracks in his self-image, and it becomes a far more dramatic.

One of the most interesting realizations is that the video game motifs show up in the work primarily because Scott is unable to deal with reality in any way outside of the type of fiction he grew up on. He can’t —or at least doesn’t —deal with the real world, and the real story isn’t whether or not he ends up with Ramona, but whether or not he ends up an adult.

Aaand I used up all my space talking about the comics. The movie deals pretty much with the same themes, but with the benefit of Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame)’s direction. It’s full of good music and flashing lights, and it is fantastic.

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