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Before consigning these last 12 months to our Facebook timelines, let us remember 2015 — the year we said goodbye to “Stephen Colbert” and hello to Stephen Colbert, were mesmerized by documentaries that were often stranger (and better) than fiction, hate-watched all those GOP debates with all those GOP presidential candidates, and everybody bought Adele’s new album.
Speaking Of Colbert
Colbert retired the former conservative blowhard character he memorably played for nine seasons on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” and replaced David Letterman on CBS’s “The Late Show.” After Letterman’s lascivious curmudgeon, Colbert’s nerdy affability has been a welcome change, and that wasn’t the only shift in late night TV. “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” took over for Colbert; newcomer Trevor Noah replaced the irreplaceable Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show," while cuddly Brit James Corden took over “The Late Late Show” from sorely missed Craig Ferguson. Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait until next year for a woman to finally join the current late night lineup when Samantha Bee’s show debuts on TBS.
'Killed Them All, Of Course'
Which was more chilling: hearing wealthy scion Robert Durst, suspected in the 1982 disappearance of his wife Kathleen and the 2000 murder of his friend Susan Berman, utter what sounded like a confession to murder when he assumed no one was listening in “The Jinx” or the first-person tales of abuse and nefarious wackiness in “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” Alex Gibney’s fierce takedown of the controversial religion? Whether on TV (both of these aired on HBO) or in theaters, documentaries were among the year’s best films, including the elegiac “Amy,” about the tragically abbreviated life and career of singer Amy Winehouse, and “3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets” about Jordan Davis, a black teenager shot to death by a white man in Florida after an argument about loud music.
So Many Franchises, So Little Time
“Star Wars,” “The Avengers,” “Fast and the Furious,” “The Hunger Games” and on and on. It’s like movies want to be TV shows, except with much bigger budgets and years-long gaps between installments. Of course, so long as they keep making money, and the most of them do, there’s no reason for moviemakers to knock themselves out trying to come up with original ideas or concepts. (They also tend to do well overseas since they’re driven by action, not narrative.) Fortunately, this was also the year of “Spotlight,” “Carol” and “Room,” serious, tough-minded films that reminded why, with everything else trying to divert our attention, we still look forward to going to the movies.
Kendrick Lamar's Year
Not only did Kendrick Lamar surpass high expectations for his sophomore album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” he became hip-hop’s new superhero. Righteous and searching, Lamar’s music recalls Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone at their most socially provocative. With its chorus of self-possessed affirmation — “We gon’ be alright!” — his single “Alright” became spontaneous soundtrack for the Black Lives Matter movement. This is more than a great album that crystalized a singular historical moment; this is one for the ages.
After a four-year hiatus, Adele returned with a lushly produced vengeance. Her third album “25” sold more than three million copies in less than a week, obliterating all previous sales records. (It probably didn’t hurt that she withheld the album from full-album streaming sites like Spotify and Apple Music.) Is it, as noted grouch Noel Gallagher (formerly of Oasis) recently carped, music for “(expletive) grannies”? Well, yes — but what's remarkable is that their adult kids and grandkids love Adele, the best singer of her generation, just as much.
Very loosely based on Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” Fox’s “Empire” is a collection of Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon gifs shaped into a garish hip-hop soap opera — and we lapped up every minute of it. Co-created by Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels and featuring an all-African American starring cast, the drama was an instant ratings juggernaut when it premiered in January. With her audacious wardrobe and tongue like a cutlass, Henson’s hip-hop matriarch had all the best lines, stole every scene, and was easily the show’s breakout star. We can also thank Henson for resurrecting the name “Boo Boo Kitty,” from ashes of “Laverne and Shirley,” and returning it to its rightful place in the pop culture lexicon.
Meanwhile, after seven seasons, “Mad Men,” AMC’s loving ode to sexism, three-martini lunches, and midcentury design, ended its award-winning run. More a critical darling than a commercial hit, one of the beloved series’ most lasting contributions will be introducing the world to the wondrous Elizabeth Moss. Other shows that called it a wrap: the poignant/funny/infuriating “Nurse Jackie,” quirky cult favorite “Parks and Recreation,” and “Two and a Half Men,” which lasted for 12 years without a single person actually admitting to having watched any of it.
All Things Kanye
With a major assist from his wife Kim Kardashian, rapper Kanye West, America’s most talented troll, became a dad again, this time to a son named Saint, meaning big sister North should no longer feel bad about her own curious name. He also announced plans to run for president in 2020 (one imagines he’ll be a third-party candidate on his own Yeezus ticket) and presented his new clothing line at New York Fashion Week, stuff that looked like it had been balled up on a closet floor. The one thing Kanye didn’t do, despite assurances to the contrary, was release a new album. On the upside, he’s already mastered the broken promises part of being a politician.
Real Reality TV
Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. Eric Harris in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati. Laquan McDonald in Chicago. In horror and disbelief, we all became witnesses. In cellphone videos, body cam, and dash cam footage, we saw these men and others die, all of them killed by law enforcement officers, most of them black and unarmed. We didn’t see Freddie Gray of Baltimore die, but we watched his neighborhood boil over after he was mortally injured, his spinal cord nearly severed, while in police custody. As difficult as they were to watch, they proved what African-Americans have been saying for decades about unfair, even lethal treatment by those sworn to serve and protect. Artists such as D’Angelo and Prince addressed the tragedies in their music, and programs like as “Empire” and “Scandal” kneaded the news into plotlines. Yet no fictional story was as searing as the hard truths we saw again and again.
Vintage soul singers Percy Sledge (“When a Man Loves a Woman”) and Ben E. King (“Stand By Me”); legendary New Orleans music man Allen Toussaint; Lesley Gore, whose soaring 1960s classic, “You Don’t Own Me” became an evergreen feminist anthem; Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver singer Scott Weiland, one of rock’s great front men too often derailed by substance abuse issues; coloratura soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, the third African-American to appear as a principal at the Metropolitan Opera. Actors Leonard Nimoy, Maureen O’Hara (“The Quiet Man”), Robert Loggia (“Big”); horror master Wes Craven; and B.B. King, King of the Blues, its greatest ambassador, and a seminal figure in American music for more than 60 years.
Renee Graham is pop culture correspondent for WBUR’s Here & Now and The ARTery, and was a longtime arts writer and pop culture columnist for The Boston Globe. Follow her on Twitter at @reneeygraham.