2018 in Review: In an Otherwise Garbage Year, Pop Culture Is What Made Us Feel

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Photos by Danny Lawson/AFP / Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

When it comes to year-end lists and critical reviews -- especially when looking back on news and politics -- it’s easy to be cynical about the past 12 months. Months filled with violence, political divide, destruction and loss. When I was asked to review the year overall, I first thought of all the negative things -- to list them here would trivialize their impact and meaning -- that happened throughout the year. And given room to consider culture, internet, politics and just about anything else, I would have given 2018 a poor review or low ranking overall.

But at the risk of sounding earnest (and honestly, I’m OK with that), I turned my attention to the many, many positive moments that caused me (and those around me) to laugh and smile, moments that embraced ideas of love and acceptance, moments that allowed us to feel all the good feelz.

For me, nothing better encapsulates that than the return of the thought-to-be-dead romance genre, which thrived both on and off-screen. This summer saw the back-to-back releases of the critically acclaimed and box office successes, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Crazy Rich Asians. The former -- a dual story about many loves lost and a family reunion set to the tunes of ABBA -- cemented Lily James’ status as Hollywood’s latest leading lady-in-training while giving us one more project in the cap of Cher’s latest comeback. (For anyone counting, that’s Mamma Mia, her ABBA cover album, The Cher Show on Broadway, a new tour and the Kennedy Center Honors.) Meanwhile, the latter went a long way to expand Asian representation and revived long-lost rom-com tropes -- over-the-top fashion, the makeover scene, an airplane proposal and a kickass soundtrack -- not seen since Sex and the City 2 nearly killed the genre in 2010. (Crazy Rich Asians, along with Ocean's 8, gave us one of the best breakout stars of the year: Awkwafina.) On top of those came Love, Simon, which finally offered a gay perspective on the classic John Hughes narratives, and a bevy of Netflix original films, including A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding, Ibiza, The Kissing Booth, Set It Up, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser and To All the Boys I Loved Before -- the last of which produced the most adorable sensation of them all: Noah Centineo’s happy face.

In real life, former Suits actress Meghan Markle became an American princess thanks to her whirlwind romance with Prince Harry culminating in a high-profile, must-see wedding that was watched live by a reported 29 million people in the United States alone. (Only 12.1 million viewers watched the Game of Thrones season seven finale during its original time slot.) Their ceremony (and subsequent pregnancy announcement) was bookended by another showy, equally high-profile marriage between Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra. It was like watching two Disney princesses come to life (and not one of those horrid live-action remakes that they’ve been pushing out). Even the Primetime Emmys got in on the romance action with a surprise proposal during Glenn Weiss’ acceptance speech.

While showing a darker side of love, A Star Is Born was one of this year’s biggest box office hits, causing fans to weep loudly in theaters around the nation and collectively sing “Shallow” anywhere we felt fit. And let’s be honest: nothing about this film was supposed to work. A remake stuck in development for years? Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut? Lady Gaga in a feature acting role? Yet, here it is as the 2019 Oscars frontrunner -- up against Black Panther; Wakanda forever! -- and deservedly so. (Hey… I just wanna take another look at it.) The ugly cries didn’t stop there, thanks to the revival of Angels in America on Broadway, This Is Us, Grey’s Anatomy (kudos to Krista Vernoff for bringing the ABC drama back to its original glory), all the dogs on Dogs, every makeover on Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot, the Parkland school shooting survivors’ performance at the Tony Awards and Pose.

To quote the sixth episode of co-creator Steven Canals’ groundbreaking series about the transgender and queer community in 1980s New York City, “love is the message.” While the show gave us many tears -- watch this cover of “Home” by Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) -- it also taught us about family and acceptance. Two themes never more important than in 2018. Additionally, the series, which features the largest cast of transgender actors, also went a long way to expand LGBTQ visibility. And thankfully, the show wasn’t alone. There was The Prom on Broadway (and the cast’s lesbian kiss shown during NBC's coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Emmy win for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, Schitt’s Creek, which takes place in a TV universe where homophobia doesn’t exist, Hannah Gadsby and Ellen DeGeneres’ Netflix stand-up specials and Gus Kenworthy’s live kiss with boyfriend Matt Wilkas during the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Making history at Pyeongchang, South Korea, Kenworthy was one of two openly gay athletes to compete for the United States. The other was Adam Rippon, a fierce ice skater who made a dazzling debut that even left commentators and former Olympians Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski speechless at times. Rippon quickly became the international competition’s breakout star thanks to his unforgettable performance and quotable tweets and interviews. He showed a nation (and most athletes) how to flawlessly mix class and wit and do it all "with better eyebrows."

While the competition was fierce on the ice, it wasn’t better than the subdued, heartfelt reality series that put its contestants first and the drama last. On The Great British Baking Show, amateur bakers vied for Paul Hollywood’s handshake and a glass cake stand; on Nailed It, even more novice bakers attempted to create food art; on Making It, competitors put their crafts on display; and the return of Trading Spaces saw families just looking to update a room or two.

Elsewhere in the pop culture world, BTS broke all the records, Cicely Tyson won a much-deserved honorary Oscar, Jennifer Lopez was honored with the MTV Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, John Legend EGOT’d, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child kept the magic alive, Mary Poppins Returns reminded us to imagine (listen to “Nowhere to Go But Up”), RBG told us to stand tall, Emma Gonzalez showed us how to rise above, Saturday Night Live kept us laughing (if you watch one sketch, watch “Diner Lobster”), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? demonstrated the power of kindness, Romalet us look back, and Black Panther kept the pride alive.

Speaking of pride, take a moment to read Ava DuVernay’s Twitter account. There’s not anyone more proud, supportive or celebratory of her friends and colleagues or anyone deserving of a shout-out. She’s created a social media echo chamber of positivity rather than fear or hate. Also, take heed of DuVernay’s suggestion and watch Netflix’s Salt Fat Acid Heat hosted by Samin Nosrat. She’s the second coming of Ina Garten, sharing nothing but good vibes and great food tips with her fans.

In fact, take a note from all those positive pop culture moments of the past year, whether it be any of the ones listed above or ones that you cherished on your own. Let them make you laugh, smile, cry or escape. Because these are truly the moments that shaped 2018, a year that was otherwise full stress and strife.

Grade: A

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