We were pretty bored around the midway point last year, but #2015 has given us more than enough to celebrate (and condemn). It’s been a wild six months, and pop culture is no exception. Our list of the peaks and troughs ranges from a heroic coming out and a record-smashing TV debut to an embattled comedian who just won’t go away and a divorce that leaves our hearts gone, baby, gone.
HIGH: The introduction of Caitlyn Jenner
A stunning 17 million people tuned in on a Friday night to watch the reality TV star and former Olympian come out as transgender during a nimble Diane Sawyer interview. A month and a half later, Caitlyn Jenner made her debut in a Vanity Fair photo spread captured by Annie Leibovitz. Both moments resulted in triumphant celebrations of an American hero finally granted the chance to claim her true identity.
HIGH: Taylor Swift is changing the music business
It’s not like the world needed another music-streaming platform to ignore, but for a well-situated brand like Apple to deny artists royalties during users’ three-month trial period is just piggish. Leave it to Taylor Swift to save the tech gods from their next mistake. The singer wrote an open letter in which she gracefully condemned the company’s decision, and within hours Apple reversed its plans. That, friends, is clout.
Beyond the fact that “Boyhood” should have topped “Birdman” for Best Picture, one conversation — nay, one hashtag — defined February’s Academy Awards:#OscarsSoWhite. One year after “12 Years a Slave” nabbed the top award, each of the 20 acting contenders was white and “Selma,” one of 2014’s best-reviewed films, was shut out of several major categories after an arguable smear campaign.
HIGH: “Mad Max: Fury Road”
What started as summer’s most eclectic reboot — director George Miller rejigging his own 1979 dystopian classic — turned into the season’s surprise feminist paean. Drenched in a hyper-saturated orange landscape that’s at once desolate and kinetic, the new “Mad Max” took us down an adrenaline-pumping path that included dazzling practical effects and modern heroes brought to life with quiet poise by Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy.
LOW: Bill Cosby continued to perform
In the wake of ongoing legal battles over repeated rape allegations, Bill Cosby pressed on with his “Far From Finished” comedy tour. He ignored hecklers,protesters and all-out cancellations, even going so far as to joke (if one can apply such a generous label) at his Ontario show, “You have to be careful about drinking around me.” Gross.
HIGH: “Inside Out”
Pixar’s latest became one of the studio’s largest opening-weekend grosses for a non-sequel, and with good reason: The tear-inducing film about the emotions inside our heads scored glowing reviews and provided a solid therapy session for every adult who thought he was just keeping his daughter entertained for a couple of hours.
HIGH: “To Pimp a Butterfly”
Not only does Kendrick Lamar have the honor of making the first No. 1 album with “pimp” in the title, but he’s also been graced with 2015’s best reviews. A complex but endlessly listenable symposium on race relations, “To Pimp a Butterfly” was hailed as a “dizzying rush,” a “bravura masterpiece” and a “celebration of the audacity to wake up each morning to try to be better.”
LOW: Still awaiting new albums from Rihanna, Adele and Kanye West
Bitches better have our records. Soon. Please.
HIGH: “Inside Amy Schumer”
LOW: Ageist hot takes on Madonna
The “Rebel Heart” press tour has seen its share of bumps, starting with last year’sleaks and continuing through Madonna’s Brit Awards tumble and a Drake smoochthat didn’t appear to go as smoothly as planned. But if there’s one thing to take away from how 2015 has treated Madge, it’s in the ageism that pops up anytime she does, well, anything. So understand this: Whether or not you think Madonna is still making quality music and promoting herself in a worthwhile way has nothing to do with her age. “What, are you supposed to just die when you’re 40? That’s basically what everyone wants people to do,” she said back in 1992, when she was 34. Madonna will be 57 next month, and she is still very much alive. Don’t tell her to stop.
HIGH: “Empire,” the ratings conqueror
“Empire” ended with a whopping 17 million viewers, a number that sounds impossible for a freshman series in 2015. But believe it: The Fox breakout was the first new show to see weekly ratings increases since at least the early 1990s, when Nielsen began tracking such records. And we haven’t even begun to discuss Taraji P. Henson as the feisty and fabulous Cookie. Hello, Emmys! Don’t screw this one up.
LOW: Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck’s split
After 10 years, America’s romantic superheroes ended their marriage. Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck met on the set of “Daredevil” in 2003, and we’ve been worshiping them as bastions of true amour ever since. While we don’t need any celebrities to “restore our faith in love,” we do long for a world where Ben and Jen can remain as happy as we hoped they’d be.
HIGH/LOW: Saying goodbye to “Late Show with David Letterman”
David Letterman was in fine form throughout his final few months on the air, which makes it hard to label his exit a low point. But it’s a heartbreaker to wave farewell to the last member of late night’s old guard, whose famously cantankerous aura was in bright spirits as his departure neared. Still, New York lost its No. 1 celebrity, America lots its most insightful bedtime linchpin and the comedy landscape closed the door on an era in which Letterman’s wry humor reflected a subversiveness that was uniquely his own.
HIGH/LOW: “Mad Men,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Justified” series finales
Three bittersweet finales managed to satisfy the bulk of their viewers: “Mad Men” strutted into the 1970s with a Coke in hand, “Parks and Recreation” hinted at a Leslie Knope presidency and “Justified” gave Raylan Givens a sendoff that would make Elmore Leonard swell with pride.
LOW: Jon Snow’s death
Spoiler alert? Oh please, if you’re still trying to avoid this “Game of Thrones” bombshell, then just stay off the Internet for eternity. The cone of silence on this travesty has been lifted, and we are still weeping. “GoT” has never shied away from nixing its signature characters, but Jon Snow’s quietus proves we know nothing about how emotionally trying this show can be. (But something else that’s emotionally trying is a year’s worth of speculation as to whether the lord commander will be resurrected in some fashion.)
LOW: “Fifty Shades of Grey” and Grey
Did you enjoy the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie? How about the book series’ prequel? You probably didn’t appreciate the responses to E.L. James’ Twitter Q&A, then, and while we don’t condone Internet harassment of any kind, we can’t say that the general vitriol directed toward this series is anything but entertaining.
LOW: Joss Whedon’s battles with Marvel and Twitter
From “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Much Ado About Nothing” to two “Avengers” movies, Joss Whedon’s range has secured his spot as one of today’s best directors. That’s why it was disheartening to hear him admit to “really unpleasant” dealingswith Marvel over some of the more Whedon-esque quirks in his “Age of Ultron” script. That news culminated around the same time the noted feminist left Twitter. He was seeking a “quiet place” while working on his next film, but the death threats over his not-inaccurate comments about the “’70s-era sexist” nature of “Jurassic World” surely couldn’t have helped the matter.
If you’re captivated by reality TV and not watching Lifetime’s new show, you are wasting your summer away. Even if you’d rather sweep floors than turn on reality TV, you are wasting your summer away by not watching “UnREAL.” The addictive drama goes behind the scenes of a “Bachelor” analogue called “Everlasting.” Without condemning the viewers who worship reality programming, “UnREAL” calls into question everything we know about the genre, helped along by sharp performances from Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer.
LOW: All these damn TV reboots
We do not need to know what the “Full House” characters are up to. Cut it out. Nor do we need to see Mulder and Scully solve more mysteries (sorry, “X-Files” diehards!) or Matthew Perry suffer through another middling sitcom like “The Odd Couple.” Shows like “Twin Peaks” that ended prematurely are one thing, but reviving a series out of misplaced nostalgia is cheap and uninteresting. Syndication and Netflix exist for a reason.
HIGH: “The Jinx”
The timeline of “The Jinx” may have raised some ethical eyebrows, but there’s no denying its masterful storytelling techniques or that incomparable finale. Robert Durst blinked his way through the miniseries, but we sure didn’t: After five captivating episodes, his “killed them all” confession transcended entertainment to become an event so fortuitous a director couldn’t even dream it up.
LOW: TLC still hasn’t canceled “19 Kids and Counting”
Not only do the Duggars technically still have a TV show even though “Here Comes Honey Boo” got the ax days after Mama June’s sex-offender ties were outed, but the family could earn a spinoff series that would basically ignore their sexual-abuse allegations altogether. Priorities!
HIGH: Miley Cyrus’ advocacy
Miley Cyrus doesn’t need to release new music to make waves. As much as we’re looking forward to her next album, we’ll gladly pay attention to a nude photo spreadin Paper magazine, a gender-fluid advocacy campaign, a rumored Victoria’s Secret model girlfriend and these impactful 20 words regarding her open-mindedness to human sexuality: “I am literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age.”
Noble intentions and star-studded ownership spanning the likes of Beyoncé, Jack White, Madonna and Usher hasn’t managed to make Tidal — and Jay Z’s $56 million investment — a success. Despite Jay’s best attempts to convince us otherwise, many have labeled the pricey new streaming service a “flop” and a “train wreck.”
HIGH: Shamir’s breakout
With an androgynous voice and a modern take on Prince’s stylings, Shamir is the artist that 2015 deserves. His brand of funky indie pop, replete with disco-infused rap and flashy fashion hues, has more heft than any of the forgettable anthems competing for Song of the Summer.
HIGH: Llamas on the loose
Maybe it’s not technically pop culture, but these liberated llamas darting through an Arizona retirement community is the year’s best entertainment. Relive it here.