clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The worst pop culture of 2016

New, 49 comments

The moments, movies, and memes that made us hold our noses and question our profession

Matt Furie mourns his frog character Pepe becoming a racist pro-Trump meme.
Matt Furie, The Nib

As we head into the final weeks of 2016, the inevitable nostalgia for six to 11 months ago is engulfing the pop culture universe. This week, we look back on some of the most awful, inexplicable entertainment we experienced in 2016 — the “how did this get made, and why did we suffer through it?” memes, moments, and movies that made our jobs harder and our lives sadder.

Don’t miss our previous best-ofs:

The pre-2016 entertainment that got us through 2016

The weirdest pop-culture of 2016


A memorial to silverback gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images

Harambe

Harambe was a gorilla shot and killed by a Cincinnati Zoo employee back in May after it looked like he might harm a three-year-old boy who got into his enclosure. The situation was simultaneously tragic and bewildering, calling into question how safe people and animals are in zoos. The zoo was criticized for ending Harambe’s life. The boy’s mother was criticized for losing sight of her son. And the world mourned a gorilla shot on camera by… making memes and dick jokes about the entire thing.

I’m really not trying to be a heavy here (have your fun, internet!), but Harambe memes aren’t funny, especially when they lose sight of whatever outrage they were initially meant to express. Let’s be honest with ourselves. There’s no humor in “Dicks out for Harambe.” It’s bizarre. I don’t want to know why you’re grabbing your dick for a dead great ape. Also, why has this particular tragedy elicited such glee? Is it because Harambe is a funny name for a gorilla? Oh cool, Swahili is hilarious. You know what else is hilarious? How quickly this entire meme was co-opted to mock Leslie Jones. Belly laughs! Even if you strip the meme of its racial underpinnings, it’s still a wonder that humans beings killed on-camera should somehow be polarizing, but the sad, though justifiable, death of an animal in captivity warrants moral outrage from all quarters. Rest in peace, Harambe. Now can we please let this meme die? —Kwame Opam


Mr. Church

Mr. Church was barely released this year: it limped into 350 theaters in September and made a whopping $600,000 in nationwide release. Which is fine; the movie doesn’t deserve better. (By contrast, my other nominee for worst movie of the year, Sausage Party, made $140 million — a particularly fat profit considering it reportedly kept its budget down to $20 million by exploiting, abusing, and then not crediting its animators.) Mr. Church is one of those how-did-this-happen projects where you have to keep your mouth hanging open in the theater to avoid muscle fatigue from frequent jaw-dropping. Eddie Murphy stars as Mr. Church, an endlessly wise, kind, egoless, selfless chef-musician-bibliophile who devotes his life to taking care of hateful, spoiled narrator Charlotte. She deliberately makes his life hell as a child in the 1970s, openly gloating about withholding approval from him, and affection from her mother, who’s inconveniencing her by dying beautifully of cancer. But eventually, Charlotte is so impressed with Mr. Church’s altruism that when she gets pregnant and drops out of college, she shows up, unannounced, on his doorstep so he can take care of her for the rest of his life. And he does! While apologizing profusely every time he has a negative emotion about her snooping, berating him, and taking advantage of him! Even if the racial dynamic wasn’t grotesque and a tired cliché (Charlotte is white, Mr. Church is black), the entire story would still be obnoxious, cloying, and dull as hell. Frankly, it’s weird that Driving Miss Daisy director Bruce Beresford is returning to the “Isn’t it great when infinitely patient black people devote their lives to helping cranky, hateful white people” well again. Worse yet that he somehow got Eddie Murphy to commit this public act of self-emasculation. —Tasha Robinson


colin jost

Colin Jost

Colin Jost is the worst pop culture of 2016, and possibly of my young life. I’m not talking about the human man from Staten Island, because I’ve never met him. Maybe he tips his newspaper-delivery person at Christmas, and unloads the office dishwasher on a regular basis. I’m talking about the Colin Jost who appears on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update week after week — a smarmy, self-satisfied, unfunny, casual bully who has not only presented Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as comparably undesirable potential presidents, but has also mocked Tinder users with non-binary gender identifications, then defended that mocking with a tweet linking to a truly ludicrous New York Times op-ed about (*dance break / seven-minute eyeroll / “oh BUH-rother”*) “identity politics.” This Colin Jost blamed those Tinder users for Trump’s election, as if perhaps he had gotten confused and believed they were the ones who had been making feeble jokes based on false equivalencies for 16 months on a top-rated TV show, and he was the one likely to suffer under a Trump presidency. People like to act as though Saturday Night Live’s audience is exclusively coastal liberals, presumably as a way to let Saturday Night Live wriggle out of the responsibility of writing cutting, incisive satire. But it isn’t. The show is a cultural institution that is, for whatever reason, an unbreakable habit in households across the United States. (Just ask my dad.) I don’t expect comedy to fix our problems, but I expect it to join us boring fact-writers in the quest to speak truth to power in front of a broad audience. SNL’s Colin Jost is the definition of weak sauce, a watery combination of uncaring, uninformed, and unwilling to question his own lame assumptions. —Kaitlyn Tiffany


Donald Trump Pepe

Pepe

Sorry, Matt Furie — Boy’s Club always seemed cool, and I applaud your efforts to reclaim one of your own fictional characters. But the best thing to do with Pepe is let him fade. In 2016, Pepe became the patron saint of the fascist troll, an emblem on the small-minded neo-Nazi moral straitjacket that’s been masquerading as nihilistic anarchy lately. The internet's ugliest philosophy is that the only true sin is sincerely loving or caring about anything, supposedly because the vast majority of people who claim to feel positive emotions are lying to themselves. Indifference is only a viable strategy as long as the status quo is backing you up. With every inch of social progress, free-spirited trolls — the people who prided themselves on "holding nothing sacred" — have demonstrated that they actually hold a great deal sacred: the right to casual racism and transphobia; the right to demand access to women's bodies; and above all, the right to a world that feels safe, familiar, and centered on them.

Pepe is a perfect vehicle for the faux-apolitical politics that came out of this. He can promote hate in a way that makes opponents look ridiculous if they try to respond, while reassuring supporters that mere normies could never understand the sophistication of reappropriated comic art. His good-natured silliness became the snarl of "We're just joking!" above an anti-Semitic murder fantasy, part of the winking but painfully serious ideology that helped put a genuine nihilist — a man who really, truly seems beyond caring about anything but his own name — in the White House. On the bright side, Pepe wasn't my favorite meme at the best of times, so I’m not too sad about putting him out to pasture. —Adi Robertson


Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates

Based on this film's title, you might cleverly infer that it's about two men (played by Adam DeVine and Zac Efron) who need to find dates to a wedding. They need dates because their parents think the presence of women will prevent them from doing the things they usually do to ruin weddings, like set off fireworks on their dicks. Two women whose names don't matter (played by Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza) trick our gullible heroes into taking them to their sister's destination wedding by pretending to get hit by a car. (Long, boring story.) Basically, the only joke in this long, boring movie is that Anna Kendrick's character is dumb and Aubrey Plaza's character is slutty. Plus: one to six dick jokes. There, now you've basically seen Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, which I meant to tell you not to do. —Lizzie Plaugic


The breakout year for virtual reality

2016 was supposed to be the breakout year for virtual reality. So much for that. The Oculus Rift launched in March, but only now, in December, are owners of the VR headset getting their hands on the Touch motion controllers — the long-missing half of a pair. Credit to Valve and HTC, whose Vive headset managed to ship with motion controllers. But the high cost of entry and the obtrusive design — hang two tracking boxes in a room larger than most New York apartments, tether yourself to a gaming PC, and keep two wireless controllers updated on firmware — made for a poor introduction to the very real joy of being inside virtual spaces. Meanwhile, the low end of VR still looks as if someone covered the viewer’s face in Vaseline, then ripped out one of their eyes, depriving them of stereoscopic vision. On top of hardware woes, VR continues to have a software problem. Most games can generously be described as rough drafts, but are sold for $40 to $60. Understandable! With such a small market, developers need to make the most off each player, but the result is a lose / lose scenario. Or in the words of developer and former VR advocate Dean Hall, “There is no money in it.Sony’s PSVR headset is the semi-positive standout: it’s still prohibitively expensive for many, but at least its design is more straightforward, comfortable, and accessible than its technically superior competition.

And it has games — complete games — people want to play, which are sold at reasonable prices. The PSVR, the late release of Oculus Touch, and a trio of inspired games (Superhot, The Climb, I Want You to Die) have done the bare minimum to maintain my optimism that virtual reality will find its way, but the headset makers, Oculus in particular, framed this year to be so much more. After the launch of Rift, the company began moving the goalposts, while subtly acknowledging 2016 wasn’t the year, just a year. In August, AMD’s Roy Taylor looked toward 2017 and the rise of location-based VR, the next big shot for VR to go mainstream. We’ll see. Way back in January, I attended Oculus’ Sundance party, a decadent shindig on the top of a mountain, replete with celebrities and champagne. The event was to honor a short film that still hasn’t come out — rumor has it the short will appear at Sundance 2017. How fitting. —Chris Plante


Chainsmokers ft. Halsey, “Closer”

Yes, I know it’s the easiest thing in the world to hate on the most popular song of 2016, but silence equals complacency, and I will not stand idly by while this smirking joke of a DJ duo waltzes past us to scam America again in 2017. “Closer” is pure pop trash on a whole new spectrum, a three-minute cringe in song form that barely passes for a tune. Not only do the lyrics tell a deeply boring ex-sex story of the two most obnoxious #youths (half the song is just the boy singer and the girl singer declaring they “ain’t ever gettin’ older”), it also appears to have been hastily produced out of classroom toys, specifically the melodica — a keyboard that sounds like an accordion when you blow into it through a tube, and if you play it for too long, you get light-headed. Truthfully, most number-one hits on the Billboard Top 100 have historically been pretty bad. Still, listen to any song repeatedly, and it’s the nature of Stockholm syndrome for you to begrudgingly come around to it. But “Closer”? It’s the musical equivalent of the number zero, and zero times any amount you listen to it is still zero. —Dami Lee


david bowie yellow suit

Mourning cultural heroes

For me, it began in January with the hard news that David Bowie had died. Weeks later, I heard about the death of band leader Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. Then it was the incredible Phife Dawg, from my favorite rap group, A Tribe Called Quest. In April, we all faced the piercing shock of Prince’s passing. This year we lost the G.O.A.T. Muhammad Ali, author Harper Lee, actor Alan Rickman, sage lyrical poet Leonard Cohen, the original bombshell Zsa Zsa Gabor, remarkable journalist Gwen Ifill, and the most important astronaut, John Glenn, who transcended our time and flew into our space. And the list goes on. 2016 was the year the muses died. Each time the Twitter alarm sounded, the floodgates of obituaries, condolences, and personal reflections washed over us in a series of Facebook overshares. Stars are mere mortals, and we lose some every year, but this year, death seemed to strike more often and more suddenly, and it felt more searing. As one star’s light faded, the process repeated. I spent a good part of this year cry-listening, parsing through YouTube videos, and combing through the stream of poetic obituaries that captured these larger-than-lives in final testaments. The tributes were necessary, but they never stopped coming. Even Beyoncé paid homage to the Purple One in a concert interlude. At times it felt presumptuous, mourning people none of us really knew. But each of them made up a tiny part of our collective memory, and their passings were a constant reminder that they were never really ours to share, only ours to remember. —Tamara Warren