Television has been pop culture’s go-to medium for awhile now. You can debate on exactly when it happened: with the debut of The Sopranos in the early 2000s or the watercooler madness of Lost that followed it, or maybe even to recent history with the advent of streaming services.
Whenever it happened, however, is irrelevant because as of right now, TV is pop culture’s bread and butter. Before TV though, movies were king. And it was that way for quite awhile. Movies were such a dominant cultural force for a long time* and there are so many strong, fascinating individual years of movies.
*It’s not like movies aren’t a powerful cultural force now. Marvel movies make approximately 8 pajillion dollars a summer. And the Oscars are still the presumptive most “important” awards show. Also, Hollywood movies that do get awards love are more likely to have international appeal than most shows that are not pop culture phenomenons (Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, etc.). TV is just in the driver’s seat as far as current cultural influence currently.
One of the more important recent years in film, however, is 1999. Maybe it’s because 1999 was right on the edge of both the millennium and TV’s ascendance to pop culture prominence, but 1999 was undoubtedly one of film’s biggest years with dark, reality-questioning movies like The Matrix, Fight Club, and Magnolia entering the collective unconscious forever.
So, if we still remember 1999 as a banner year for film, what year for television will also stand the test of time? How about right now in 2016? 2016 is to television as 1999 was to film. Think of how many comparisons to Fight Club a show like Mr. Robot has received…even right down to a winking allusion to The Pixies “Where is My Mind?” Mr. Robot is undeniably 2016 television’s Fight Club. What other modern shows can we connect to a 1999 movie counterpart?
Game of Thrones – The Matrix
This is one of the less obvious comparisons we can draw but it’s no less apt than Mr. Robot and Fight Club: Game of Thrones and The Matrix share little in actual plot points and mood, but the position they occupy in culture are incredibly similar. Both came out of nowhere to become pop culture juggernauts and both are going to undoubtedly lead to dozens of pale imitators and even a few spinoffs or sequels.
The Walking Dead – Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menance
The Walking Dead couldn’t be more different from The Phantom Menace tone-wise. The Walking Dead is a relentless slog of misery while The Phantom Menace was generally directed towards children with all the alien-farting jokes they absolutely couldn’t get enough of. Where the two are most similar, however, are the sense of crushing disappointment they leave in their audiences. EVERYONE watches The Walking Dead and EVERYONE saw The Phantom Menace. And how people felt after the abrupt and foolishly incomplete ending of The Walking Dead season 6 is how walking out of a theater in 1999, and seeing George Lucas’ Jar Jar-Palooza, must have felt.
The Americans – American Beauty
Both of these have a lot more in common than just having “American” in their name. In both The Americans and American Beauty, something is a little off about American life and how we perceive it. Both take place in idyllic versions of the American Dream, one in the 1980s and one in the 1990s. Everything seems like it should be perfect but it isn’t. Either the family next door are Soviet spies or a very angry Chris Cooper.
Silicon Valley – Office Space
Come on now. This one is too easy. Both Silicon Valley and Office Space come from the mind of Mike Judge, and both cover the ridiculous reality of the corporate world. In Silicon Valley, the characters may be more in control of their own destiny, but they seem just as hopeless as the crew of Initech.
The Leftovers – Eyes Wide Shut
This is a particularly fascinating comparison. Both The Leftovers and Eyes Wide Shut come from a titan of their respective mediums: Damon Lindelof of The Leftovers and Stanley Kubrick of Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick is obviously one of the titans of cinema and while Lindelof doesn’t have close to the same resume, he has a similar artist’s sensibility and penchant for “weird” cerebral sci-fi. Both also created some very strong critical opinions in both directions. Eyes Wide Shut is either Stanley Kubrick’s misunderstood masterpiece or an over-pretentious farcical enterprise designed just to get Tom Cruise divorced. The Leftovers is one of the most emotionally affecting shows of the millennium… or is pure TV showrunner hot burst of hubris.
Better Call Saul/Fargo – Being John Malkovich
Being John Malkovich absolutely belongs on this list, but it was too hard to figure out what was its closest cousin: Better Call Saul or Fargo, so let’s just go with both! Noah Hawley and Vince Gilligan’s directing and showrunning styles are somewhere between the scripting sensibilities of the Coen Brothers and Charlie Kaufman, so it’s only fitting that they get compared to Kaufman’s 1999 debut film. Being John Malkovich isn’t really a comedy and it isn’t really a drama. It’s just a movie… and a weird one. Better Call Saul and Fargo also defy any categorization other than “transcendently great TV show.”
BoJack Horseman – The Iron Giant
Oh hey, an animated comedy let’s check it ou…..I DIDN’T ASK FOR THESE FEELS. Animation often comes along with a certain amount of expectations, and those expectations range from childish to fun, to abstract. But they rarely branch into “exploring the heart-wrenching depths on the human condition.” The Iron Giant is a family film while BoJack Horseman is clearly geared towards adults but the emotional acuity each property has is far beyond what’s expected from their animated medium. Both The Iron Giant and BoJack Horseman take whimsical, colorful premises and use them to enlighten rather than just entertain.
Preacher – Dogma
Dogma and Preacher the TV show fit together so nicely because they were both undoubtedly inspired by Preacher, the comic book. Preacher creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and Dogma filmmaker Kevin Smith are both avowed comic book fans, and it seems reasonable to conclude that they were equally inspired by Garth Ennis’ masterpiece. Both Dogma and Preacher are concerned with taking a fun, raunchy look at the Christian religion and many of its arcane rules and regulations. And who are Fiore and DeBlanc if not Jay and Silent Bob?
Stranger Things – The Sixth Sense
Apart from the obvious comparisons: both occupy the horror genre and one involves M. Night Shyamalan directly and the other involves his protegés, there is one very important similarity between Stranger Things and The Sixth Sense: both became unexpected runaway hits by offering something to audiences that they didn’t know they wanted yet. In The Sixth Sense’s case, it was a big twist ending that changed the paradigm of all horror movies going forward and was so successful it damn-near ruined the career of its author. In Stranger Things’ case it is a playful sensation of nostalgia complete with heavy synth music. Or if that’s too complex, both are just awesome watching experiences.
The Night Of – The Green Mile
The Night Of is a lot more concerned with the ins and outs of courtroom drama than The Green Mile is, but both share quite a bit when it comes to the depiction of prison life. The main characters of each piece are individuals from beleaguered minority groups who do not belong in prison. And the struggle in both The Night Of and The Green Mile isn’t a question of will this person be exonerated but rather a question of: will the long path to redemption destroy them before they can reach it?
Last Chance U – Varsity Blues
Sure, one is a documentary but the other might as well be a documentary. The real players at East Mississippi Community College are a perfect complement to the James Van Der Beek-led high schoolers of Varsity Blues. Football is awesome but apparently it’s not particularly hard to depict football players.
South Park – South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut
Both are crude animated features about schoolboys in Colorado named Stan, Cartman, Kyle and Kenny who go on socio-political and cosmic adventures based on current events. Other than that, I guess they’re not that similar. In all seriousness, the South Park of 2016 is starting to resemble Bigger, Longer & Uncut more and more. After two seasons of serialized storytelling, South Park is set to continue that more structured trend in its 20th (!!!) season.