My Favorite Culture of the 2010s

The aughts stuff I couldn’t love enough

Ryder Kessler
Dec 21, 2019 · 14 min read
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The Crown: Somehow not my favorite show of the 2010s!?

Two weeks from now, it’ll be the 2020s, making this an apt moment to engage in some pre-2020 hindsight. (How’s that? Has that line been used yet in one of these end-of-the-decade retrospectives?) I’ve been combing the fossil record of my iCal and scanning my bookshelves to remember all the things I’ve seen and read since 2010. What works of art really stuck with me from these ten years? What will I still remember when the calendar turns to 2030?

In thinking back on my 2010s favorites-in-culture, the most notable pattern is how disproportionately distributed they’ve been across media. Trying to account for all the TV shows I’ve loved? A nearly endless task. (Yes—Golden Age, peak, insert-superlatives-about-quality-and-quantity-here TV is real.)

Coming up with my favorite books, movies, and albums? Almost impossible to scrape together more than a few. Was I just not a fan of this decade’s stuff? Were the decade’s TV shows just better than their big-screen brethren? Maybe I’m simply out of sync with the times. (I’d be hard-pressed to narrow down my favorite books of the 1910s…)

My favorite things!

In any case, top tens were impossible (you’re in luck if you want to make it to the end of this post). Keeping it simple, here you have it: my one favorite entry in eleven categories from the decade overall. These are the creations that left the strongest impression—the one’s I look forward to looking back on in the decades to come.

MOVIE: Lady Bird (2016)

Though my brother reported that he spent the duration of Lady Bird “wondering when something would happen,” I thought it was a perfect movie.

What doesn’t happen in Greta Gerwig’s come-of-age masterpiece?

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Beanie Feldstein!

Identity is self-constructed, self-destructed, and then rebuilt again. Friendships, romances, and family relationships are all represented with bracing clarity. It’s the kind of naturalism that serves the purpose Diderot ascribed to the novels or Richardson, representing “‘what passes every day before your eyes, and what you never see.”

The movie has a similar veneration of representation, as captured in perhaps its most crucial exchange:

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Lady Bird: I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Lady Bird: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well, it comes across as love.
Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

But Lady Bird is much more than its philosophy. Every performance —Timothée Chalamet! Lucas Hedges! Beanie Feldstein! — is flawless. The note-perfect (if off-key) theater-kid realness is hilarious. The coming-out scene rang truer about the queer experience than anything in awards-show-competitor Call Me By Your Name. And the extended shot capturing Laurie Metcalf’s slow expression of acknowledged regret is heartbreaking.

This movie is beat-perfect; I could watch Lady Bird’s nothing-happening for decades and decades to come.

Honorable Mentions: Carol; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; Love, Simon; Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again; Roma; Wonder Woman

TV SHOW – COMEDY: Veep (2012–2019)

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Selina Meyer, icon

No other show so perfectly captured America’s descent from easy-to-satirize to stranger-than-fiction.

By the end of its seven-season run, the HBO comedy simply had to end—no farcical plot-lines about candidates conspiring with foreign governments to rig elections, no dystopian representation of cravenness tempered by incompetence, could possibly keep up with what was happening off-screen.

Seeing America through the looking glass before we actually got there ourselves was chilling, but Veep was also the funniest show of the decade when measured by laughs per minute. The whole cast had impeccable timing and fully rounded characters, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus rightfully set award-win records as Veep Selina Meyer. (“Jonah! Hey, listen, settle something for me: You like to have sex and you like to travel? Then you can FUCK OFF.”)

As Joan Rivers said, “If you can laugh about it, you can live with it.” We’ll see how much longer the Republic can survive—but, as long as Veep is accessible online, we’ll certainly keep laughing.

Honorable Mentions: BoJack Horseman, Girls, Happy Endings, Insecure, Lovesick

TV SHOW – DRAMA: Downton Abbey (2010–2015)

I know, I know. People think Downton Abbey is milquetoast TV milk toast like the kind the characters might eat with their afternoon tea.

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Delicious, delicious milk toast. Perfect for high tea!

This aughts gave us Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, The Americans, The Leftovers, Succession!—how could a semi-prestige production filed under “Laundry Folders” by Vulture (named for the kind of shows you keep on in the background while doing household chores) be my favorite of the decade? Middlebrow much?

Still, I loved it—and for reasons opposite those that made Veep my top-pick comedy. If Veep was incisive in helping us understand the convulsions we’ve been living through, Downton was our respite from them.

Many comedies this decade were brilliant in treating cultural ills, from #MeToo to mass shootings (see: BoJack Horseman); in telling specific stories across diverse experiences (Insecure, Kim’s Convenience); in exploring the growing pains of early adulthood, dating, and marriage (Pen15, Girls, Lovesick, Catastrophe); in unpacking existential angst writ large (Russian Doll) — in short, in explicating human experience. If D.C. is more Veep than House of Cards, maybe life at large is just more comedy than drama.

The dramas didn’t heighten real life with jokes; instead, they used science fiction or fantasy (GOT, The Leftovers, Black Mirror) or focused on the super-rich, offering schadenfraude-fests of watching masters of the universe twist in interpersonal and regulatory winds (Succession, Billions, actually maybe GOT again). For me, the genre dramas are too ungrounded; meanwhile, in more directly addressing the knotty issues of contemporary life, the naturalistic dramas end up treating them more hamfistedly than the comedies that tackle them sidelong.

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Sexually attracted to all three

Downton was escapism, sure—to a time, place, and economic milieu far unlike that of its contemporary American middle-class viewers—but, as RuPaul likes to say, it understood the assignment. Stakes felt low even when they were life-and-death. Yes, the social unrest and diversity we might have lobbied for was not on the embossed and calligraphed menu, but we knew that when we accepted the invitation for dinner.

What we were served over six seasons (and a movie!) were sumptuous romances, familial flare-ups, and a largely backgrounded World War. We were constantly told the world was changing, but things at Downton stayed mercifully the same. Lord Grantham, Carson, and co., provided the mooring we’ve lost in our own world: even as we hanker for change, or fight for it, it’s nice to know that Thomas’s part won’t ever be out of place and that the Dowager Countess will always have a delicious quip ready to unwrap.

It wasn’t the same after you

Honorable Mention: The Crown

(Yes, I could’ve written an almost identical take about The Crown as I did about Downton. And, indeed, I assumed it would be my decade’s best — that is, until I watched season 3. I just couldn’t get on board with the Windsors post-Claire Foy. It was like an uncanny valley Crown: oddly close, but not the real thing. Couldn’t they have Merrily We Rolled Along-ed with the original cast and just shot the series over a lifetime?)

BOOK – FICTION: Outline, Rachel Cusk (2015)

If you’ve been anywhere in my orbit over the last five years, you know I’ve proselytized for Cusk’s novel—hard. The first in a three-book series, Outline introduces us to Faye, the palpably absent protagonist, and to the series’s distinct style of weaving a trenchant tapestry of human experience through the stories Faye’s companions tell her.

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As I wrote last year in praising Kudos, the last book in the series: “If the novel form exercises our empathy by moving us to inhabit other points of view, the Outline novels push us onto an epistemic tightrope”:

We partially inhabit narrator Faye’s listening consciousness, and we skeptically but sympathetically extend an ear to her interlocutors. These people should be judged by Faye, and us by extension — but Cusk silences this judgment in a kind of moral asceticism.

Outline is the best of the trilogy, in large measure for shocking us with the introduction of Cusk’s new and singular style.

Most more-naturalistic contemporary novels seems to me like weak echoes of their nineteenth and early 20th century forbears—the classics from the Golden Age of fiction. As Cusk wrote herself, novels like that feel “fake and embarrassing.”

It takes a fresh approach to say something new, and to make it feel true. On that front, Outline triumphs. That’s why it’s my favorite novel of the decade, and why I think it’s likely to stand the test of time.

Honorable Mention: Normal People, Sally Rooney (2018)

BOOK – NONFICTION: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb (2019)

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One of the most important things I did this decade was start going to therapy. I spent over a quarter-century without a dedicated space for exercising my emotional muscles, without working through patterns of thought that have served me poorly. It didn’t take Lori Gottlieb’s memoir-cum-excursus on the values of therapy to get me through the doctor’s door—I’d already been doing the work for almost two years. Still this brilliant, heartbreaking, hilarious book reaffirmed why therapy is so important—to me and to everyone.

Therapy is a space to find deeper compassion for oneself, to be clear-eyed about what works to move your life forward, to learn how to be vulnerable and ask for help. And so is Gottlieb’s book. Picking up Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is like having a particularly potent therapy session—an experience that, even if it makes you cry or face your deepest fears, leaves you lighter and more vital than you were before you came.

Honorable Mentions: The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (2010); Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch (2013); All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister (2016); Locking Up Our Own, James Forman Jr (2018)

BEST OPERA: La Sonnambula at The Met (2014)

It’s easy to remember my favorite theatrical productions—they’re the ones I go back to see twice. There weren’t many operas I revisited this decade, let alone in the same season. But this production was different: as soon as I walked out once, having had Diana Damrau tear my heart in two with her perfectly sung and perfectly performed lament over lost love, “Ah non credea mirarti,” I knew I’d be back as soon as possible.

Bellini’s opera is not the greatest work, and the Met’s latest production—set within the framework of a modern-day rehearsal of an older opera, in which the actors in the opera are also real-life lovers—is a bit under-baked. But in spite of scores of visits to The Met (and other opera houses) this decade, no production, and no performance, stuck with me more.

Honorable Mentions (all at The Met): Rigoletto (2011), Giulio Cesare (2013), Manon (2015), La Traviata (2018). And, yep, Diana Damrau was my Gilda, Manon, and Violetta. Somehow I loved Giulio Cesare without her.

BEST MUSICAL: Hello, Dolly! (Broadway, 2017)

Yes, this decade had some solid new musicals (cough Hamilton cough), but my absolute favorite production of the decade was the 2017 Broadway revival of Jerry Herman’s 1964 classic. I’d never seen it before, but in two visits—first with Bette Midler, then with Bernadette Peters—I watched with a grin for hours on end.

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The production was refined to the last quarter-kick of the top-hatted chorus men, gorgeously costumed and choreographed, and sung with uniform lushness and comedic dexterity. Not only did I see this show twice, but I gave two standing ovations each time—yes, once at the end, but also after the title number. I can’t remember ever before feeling the need to rise mid-show (I rarely ovate even at the curtain call), but something about that line of waiters telling Dolly not to go away again pulled me up by the heartstrings. Also: Beanie Feldstein!

Honorable Mentions: Anything Goes (Broadway, 2011), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Broadway, 2011), The Band’s Visit (Broadway, 2017), Cruel Intentions: The Musical (Le Poisson Rouge, 2017), A Chorus Line (Encores!, 2018), A Strange Loop (Playwrights Horizons, 2019)

BEST PLAY: Significant Other (Roundabout, 2015)

Joshua Harmon’s play about a gay man in his late twenties whose female friends get married off while he’s never been in love hit me hard—when I saw it Off-Broadway in 2015, saw it on Broadway in 2017, and then re-read the script this year.

As I wrote last year about the (admittedly shallower) gay teen romcom Love, Simon: “After an adolescence spent watching Clueless, Ten Things I Hate About You, Can’t Hardly Wait, She’s All That, American Pie, Cruel Intentions, Mean Girls, and all the rest, Love, Simon was the revelation of kissing a boy for the first time: this is what it’s like when it’s for me.Significant Other hit a similar if much deeper note.

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“I don’t believe in casual sex.” “I mean, it’s not, like, religion, casual sex is not something you can choose to believe in or not. It exists.””

Never before have I seen an experience so much like my own represented on stage or screen. Jordan, played heartbreakingly and hilariously both times by the great Gideon Glick, is dealing with the questions that, yep, keep coming up for me in therapy. As articulated by the playwright: “How do you make life work for yourself when you feel that you’re not living the life you’re supposed to be living or want to be living? And how do you deal with that when the changes that you need to make are in some ways outside of your control?” I’m not sure, but my dog-eared copy of the Significant Other script has some good ideas about the answers.

Honorable Mentions: The Merchant of Venice (Broadway, 2011), The Glass Menagerie (Broadway, 2013), What the Constitution Means to Me (NYTW, 2018), Slave Play (NYTW, 2018), Choir Boy (Broadway, 2019)

BEST ALBUM: Days Are Gone, HAIM (2013)

I don’t really do albums (besides musical theater cast recordings). Sure, I’ll download the odd top-40 pop hit or the years-old Little Mix song I happen to hear at a bowling alley. When it comes to non-theater music, I’m more of a song person than an album person.

But sometimes I encounter a song that hooks me into the full story of which it’s a chapter (I guess I can’t help but think of all art in literary terms…) and come to appreciate the overarching narrative. Over the last decade, the exemplar of this experience was coming to Haim’s timeless 2013 album Days Are Gone. I came through “If I Could Change Your Mind” and stayed for the whole sonically engrossing, emotionally vibrating album.

The Haim sisters embody the vibe of the 2010s — earnest without being saccharine, cool without being cynical. Their 2017 follow-up Something to Tell You was also super solid, and the few singles from their coming 2020 album bode well for entry number 3.

Honorable Mentions: Listen Up!, Haley Reinhart (2012); Title, Meghan Trainor, (2015); Voicenotes, Charlie Puth (2018); Bloom, Troye Sivan (2018); Gashi, Gashi (2019)

BEST COMEDY SHOW: Live on Broadgay (2015–2017)

For a brief moment mid-decade, the greatest gay male comedians of our age assembled on stage to reenact episodes of Sex and the City.

They weren’t stars yet, but it was clear they were going to be. Joel Kim Booster (Samantha), Brandon Scott Jones (Carrie), Julio Torres (Miranda), Bowen Yang (a creator)—they’ve gone from Broadgay to featuring in movies alongside Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson, starring in NBC and HBO comedy series, writing for SNL and recording their own comedy specials, and much more.

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Joel Kim Booster, Brandon Scott Jones, Julio Torres, and Sam Taggart—the brightest queer minds of a generation

The show wasn’t parody, exactly, since the re-enactments were word-for-word—but in making the queer subtext of the gay-male-penned show text, Broadgay celebrated this touchstone of queer culture by amplifying its fundamental ridiculousness. Torres deadpanned, highlighting Miranda’s intractable ennui; Jones flopped around the stage, each time entering with a comically bigger flower pasted to his lapel. It was nonsense—but it was our nonsense. And it was some of the funniest shit I’ve ever seen.

Honorable Mention: The Female Gaze (2015–2017). While Broadgay was running periodically around town, The Female Gaze—a parody of The View with a stage full of nutso cohosts—ran at UCB, “a daytime talk show at night where everyone has something to say!”

It was endlessly entertaining and soul-feeding, especially the performance that they did on November 9, 2016, when we all needed a place to mourn and, mercifully, laugh together. (Ending perfectly when they brought an audience member on stage to talk about her peripheral relationship to a minor reality show star and discovered in a final twist that the audience member’s name…was HILLARY! The performers went crazy, and so did we, in a moment of desperately needed post-election catharsis.)

Another highlight was the Rosie O’Donnell “episode,” featuring the patron saint of daytime talk herself. Thank the talk show and improv gods (and my dear friend Janie Stolar) for blessing us with Gaze; it was better than anything Oprah might have left under our chairs.

Koosh balls for everyone!

BEST PODCAST: Seek Treatment (2018-Present)

I had an appendectomy recently and thought I’d catch up on some episodes of Pat Regan and Cat Cohen’s podcast about “boys, sex, fucking, dating, and love” while resting in the hospital, but I quickly had to turn to something drier (Ezra Klein, I think) because I was laughing so hard I thought I would give myself a hernia.

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I cannot believe I’ve listened to Cat and Pat shoot the shit for an hour-and-a-half every week for the last year-plus. (They would tell me that I am spiritually sick and need to find God.)

And yet I can’t imagine not having their voices in my ear. None better capture the (I’m nauseous even writing this) millennial experience—not cynical but not exactly earnest; genuinely striving but inflected with irony; ego-inflated but self-loathing—and fucking funny.

They’re going to be mega-stars, so we have to savor this time they’re spending letting us eavesdrop on their beautiful and utterly ephemeral banter.

As they said in the line that made me turn off the episode (at least until my incisions healed a little more): “Women are crazy. Gays are women. Any questions?”

Honorable Mentions:

Dear Sugar (2014–2018), Serial Season 1 (2014), My Dad Wrote a Porno (2015–Present), Where Should We Begin (2017-Present)

There you have it! My eleven favorite things from the 2010s. (I really should’ve just picked ten categories, shouldn’t I…?)

Anyway, it’s been a good decade. And I’ve noticed some common threads while writing this: it’s been a decade of earnest representation that’s still knowing—clear-eyed without being cynical. It’s been a decade of interrogating the stories we tell about ourselves and our world, of trying to understand both better through representation. It’s been a decade of specific voices telling specific stories, unapologetically and without the self-undermining pursuit of “accessible” universality.

And it’s been a decade of discovering Beanie fucking Feldstein.

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