Honestly, the biggest mover and shaker in the world of entertainment and technology in 2021 wasn’t necessarily a who at all, but a what.
For the second year in a row, COVID (in all its mutated iterations) managed to upend many of pop culture’s best-laid plans. Half of Americans were reluctant to go to a theater. Many musicians canceled concerts or instituted some pretty strict guidelines. But if going out took a hit, staying home was a hit. TV viewership has soared. Playing videogames has seen a bump up, too. And parents, of course—who always battle their kids’ overuse of screens—found the issue even harder to deal with.
But with that rise in screentime in many homes, who dominated those screens? Who filled our earbuds with music? Who landed in our newsfeeds and fed our water-cooler conversations?
Here’s a list of who Plugged In thinks impacted pop culture in big, bold and occasionally bad ways in 2021.
Benedict’s been busy. Check out the British actor’s IMDb page, and you’ll find that he’s been involved in no fewer than eight productions this year, ranging from voicing Lisa’s imaginary friend Quilloughby on The Simpsons to appearing as Frankenstein’s Monster on Great British Theatre. But what earns him a place on this list is twofold: One, he plays Doctor Strange in the year’s record-breaking blockbuster, Spider-Man: No Way Home. Two, he’s likely the frontrunner for a Best Actor Oscar for playing a deceptively rough and rowdy Montana cowboy in The Power of The Dog. (Read our review before watching!) That’s two wildly different roles in one calendar year. Add his portrayal of the talented, eccentric cat aficionado Louis Wain (in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain), and you’ve got a one-year acting portfolio that perhaps even Meryl Streep would envy.
You won’t see Hwang in front of the camera much. But you’ve heard his work behind it. The Korean director created Netflix’s runaway hit Squid Game—a show wherein adults compete in children’s games for money. And if they lose, they die. Hwang intended the show as a critique of Korea’s class disparity when he wrote it back in 2009. No one was interested until Netflix bought it 10 years later—where it became the streaming service’s biggest hit ever, with more than 142 million homes streaming it at some point. Curiously, and disturbingly, the ultraviolent show attracted a lot of children, too, many of whom replicated the scenarios on their own school playgrounds. (Thankfully without the blood and death.)
She’s not a household name like, say, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But when she started talking, the woman nearly brought Facebook itself to its knees. The social media whistleblower first spilled her secrets to The Wall Street Journal back in September—detailing Facebook’s controversial inner-workings in what the Journal dubbed “The Facebook Files.” (She later testified before Congress and participated in a slew of other interviews.) Backed by reams of internal documents, she said that Facebook stoked controversy for more clicks, and it did nothing when even its own research found that its adjunct social service, Instagram, was harming the mental health of young teens. “The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,” she said on 60 Minutes. “And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.” We’ve yet to see if Haugen’s testimony will push meaningful change in social media, but here’s to hoping.
You’ve probably heard that Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed someone on the set of Rust, a film he was starring in and producing. But you might not know the name of the victim—cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. I know I didn’t remember her name before I started writing this blog. And as such, I think the story serves as a tragic reminder of the power of celebrity. We see these stars, hear them, read about them. We feel, in some ways, like we know them. But sometimes, that celebration of celebrity can overshadow humanity—where in a story like this, a life tragically ended, can feel like a footnote. And for me, it’s a reminder that each of us should be treated with equal dignity and importance in life and death. God doesn’t care about someone’s IMDb page.
The star of the Halo videogame franchise is no newbie. He’s been shooting up screens for 20 years—before many Halo players were even born. But it’s been six years since Halo 5: Guardians came out, so the release of the sixth true game in the franchise—Halo Infinite—was greeted with big interest. How big? Why, 81 million copies of the game were sold before it was even released. That translates to a $6 billion gross, which makes the much-ballyhooed first weekend take of Spider-Man: No Way Home ($680 million worldwide) look like couch-cushion change by comparison. And for those who just can’t get enough Master Chief in their lives, Paramount+ announced this year that a Halo TV series is coming, too. It’ll hit the service in early 2022. (And yes, we’ll definitely be reviewing it.)
Like a little music with your entertainment? Lin-Manuel Miranda has been doing his best to provide it. This year alone, he’s had his hand in Vivo (which he wrote, produced, made music for and starred in); In the Heights (a movie version of his first Broadway success); Tick, Tick … Boom! (he directed that one) and Encanto (he helped write the screenplay and composed eight songs for, too). (And, of course his creative opus, Hamilton, continues to stream on Disney+ as well.) You could also argue that Miranda’s success helped spur on a renewed interest in movie musicals themselves—not just movies that make a realistic excuse to sing and dance a little, such as Pitch Perfect, but where characters burst into song with no provocation at all. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is generating some awards buzz (if not much traffic at the cineplex); and Cyrano, a musical based on Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac, coming early next year. Yep, Miranda set Hollywood’s toes a-tappin’ in 2021.
“I admire anyone who is making a positive contribution to humanity, whether that is in entertainment or technology,” Musk told Time when the magazine chose him its Person of the Year. Seems like a no-brainer that he’d land on our entertainment-and-tech-centric list, too, right? He’s driving much of the conversation and technology regarding artificial intelligence. He’s pushing for something called the Hyperloop—essentially a combination between a subway and a vacuum tube that would shoot folks around at perhaps 700 miles an hour. And—unusual for a businessman—Musk has become a celebrity in his own right, boasting 48 million followers on Twitter and a Saturday Night Live hosting gig to his credit. Plus—just between you and me—doesn’t he seem just a teensy bit like a villain from a Bond movie? (More evidence: He bought James Bond’s iconic 1977 underwater Lotus Turbo Esprit a couple of years ago, too. Hmmm …) We’ll hope that the world’s richest human is not secretly plotting world domination, but he’s certainly a mover and shaker, no doubt.
Speaking of techno-visionaries, we meet one in Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines: Mark Bowman, the Mark Zuckerberg/Steve Jobs/Elon Musk-like creator of PAL, a phone-based AI system. Alas, when Bowman’s set to replace his trusty ol’ PAL phone with a new, improved version, PAL takes offense … and decides to take over the world. Voiced by Olivia Colman (who was in contention for a spot on this list herself), PAL represents the uneasy relationship many of us have with today’s near-magical technology. We love what our phones can do for us. But let’s be honest: They can kind of creep us out, too.
The youngest person on this list (beating out Master Chief by a couple of years), 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo started her career in earnest on Disney+, starring in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. But a litany of successful singles and the release of her debut album, Sour, catapulted her off the small-screen and forced Time to dub her 2021’s Entertainer of the Year. Her song “Driver’s License” was the No. 1 track streamed on Spotify this year (and another, “Good 4 U,” was No. 4), and she’s been nominated for seven Grammys. But while her career’s cleaning up, her songs are none too clean. We’ll be watching her in the years to come, but so far, this former Disney princess is following an all-too-familiar trajectory.
Most of the folks on this list earned their spots through multiple achievements, be they film credits or songs or electric cars. Simpson’s here because of one picture. The singer/actor/celebrity posted that picture—a raw photo of herself taken in 2017—on Instagram to celebrate her fourth year of sobriety. Simpson appears in it without makeup, wearing a pink tracksuit, her face red (some speculate) after crying. Simpson herself called the photo “unrecognizable.” She writes that “drinking wasn’t the issue. I was. … The real work that needed to be done in my life was to actually accept failure, pain, brokenness, and self-sabotage.” Simpson, whose father was a Baptist youth minister, has increasingly talked about the influence of faith in her life. Her 2020 memoir Open Book talks transparently, and painfully, about lots of issues, from the sexual abuse she experienced as a child to her struggles with substance abuse.
In a celebrity-soaked world that often embraces photoshopped figures and airbrushed lives, it’s nice to recognize someone—no stranger to that world of fashion and artifice—for showing her fans something real.
Happy New Year, everyone. May 2022 bring you peace, joy and a deeper understanding of God’s grace. Because when it comes to being real, that’s as real as it gets.