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Despite star couples, scandals, pop culture was decidedly flat

Amid the raging celebrity soap operas and "breaking" tabloid "news," you may not have noticed that 2003 was a dull year in pop culture. There were no artistic fireworks during this E! True Hollywood Year, no entertainment breakthroughs signaling our creative future. There was just the endless rat-a-tat of overly hyped scandals -- the shocking claims against Pete Townshend, R. Kelly, and Kobe Bryant, for example, and the awesomely self-destructive behavior by Rush Limbaugh and Courtney Love. There was the twisted sequel to "When David Met Liza," the de- and then re-throning of Queen Martha, and the video debut of a blond stick figure named Paris Hilton. There was Scott Peterson.

If it's possible for tabloidism to top its own lows, it did so this year, with CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News covering Operation "SURRENDER MICHAEL" as passionately and seriously as the capture of Saddam Hussein. Early in the spring, country singer Darryl Worley crooned, "Have you forgotten when those towers fell?" -- and the answer has turned out to be yes, well, kind of.

Our minds have consistently turned from real-life turmoil in Afghanistan and Iraq to the "Surreal Life" turmoil of accused killers Robert Blake and Phil Spector, or to the really hot talk show "get" of the year, kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart, or to the cheesy reality spectacle of "Trista and Ryan's Wedding." Two weeks ago, Hilton's flighty Fox series "The Simple Life" actually drew more TV viewers than an ABC interview with President Bush. Flashbulb-flickering footage of Ashton and Demi at a premiere? Give us Moore.

Indeed, celebrity matchups kept us inordinately distracted this year, as the infotainment TV shows stalked Ben and Jen as eagerly as Ben and Jen stalked them. Even when "Gigli" rivaled "Ishtar" as the movie flop of all flops, we didn't tire of J.Lo and B.Aff. And Bennifer-styled rock-acting romances were all the rage. Chris Martin of Coldplay landed Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore hung with Fabrizio Moretti of the Strokes, Justin Timberlake lucked out with Cameron Diaz, Nicole Kidman hooked up with Lenny Kravitz, and Jack White of the White Stripes courted Renee Zellweger -- when he wasn't beating a singer from the Detroit-based Von Bondies, that is.

In short, the year was a Gwyntin, Fabymore, Justeron, Nicovitz, and Jackweger media orgy.

Law & disorder

One of the most linked websites of 2003 had to be The Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com), which served up enough tabloid dish to keep the syndicated likes of "Celebrity Justice" and "Entertainment Tonight" fat for a few more years. In 2003, legal troubles were as prevalent and persistent as Coldplay's piano progressions. Tommy Chong was sentenced to nine months in jail for bong trafficking, Bobby Brown was charged with beating Whitney Houston, and Scott Weiland was arrested again, for driving under the influence. Less predictably, legal issues trailed Al Franken, who was sued by Fox News over his use of the phrase "Fair and Balanced," as well as OutKast, after Rosa Parks got Supreme Court permission to sue the duo for its 1998 song "Rosa Parks."

The year's most curious legal twist, though, has to be the class-action suit against Fred Durst and limpbizkit brought by audience members at a July concert near Chicago who felt ripped off when Durst left the stage after 17 minutes. The fans' breach-of-contract complaint, posted at www.thesmokinggun.com, also alleges that Durst yelled "disgusting homophobic and anti-gay statements" at the crowd. Durst, by the way, spent the year generating tabloid attention, claiming a romantic relationship with Britney Spears despite her denials and causing a post-Grammys debate about whether "agreeance" is a word. Alas for Fred, none of his misbehavior turned his band's new album, "Results May Vary," into a hit. The controversies came fast and furious all year long, even when they were about mediocre product. Unable to resist Reagan supporters, CBS's Leslie Moonves caused a brouhaha by refusing to air a silly movie called "The Reagans" because, like most biopics, it was dishy and unflattering. The nation cared little about the shallow "8 Simple Rules" until the death of its star, John Ritter, when ABC caused a fuss by keeping the sitcom alive. Many watched and defended the poorly glued-together TV movie about the Jessica Lynch rescue, "Saving Jessica Lynch," more because of their emotional connection to the real Lynch than because of the movie's quality, or lack thereof. And the Dixie Chicks hatched a great debate not for their music but for their criticism of President Bush at a London concert. Yes, folks, in 2003, Natalie Maines was compared to 1960s radical Jane Fonda.

Not so extreme makeover

Many of us were waiting to be wowed by the next "Sopranos," a series that didn't air any new episodes this year, or to find a few good movies not built for teenagers. But our prayers for a cultural makeover were met with a pair of mangled "Matrix" sequels, yet another leg of Timberlake's campaign for post-'N Sync credibility, more TV dating dolts with names such as "Joe Millionaire" and "Average Joe," and still one more Harry Potter book. The annual Madonna pseudo-transgression occurred at the MTV Video Music Awards, when the icon-for-hire sapphically smooched Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, which probably moved many of MTV's teen-male viewers -- as well as more of Madonna's best-selling children's books.

The Fab Five of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" goosed the entertainment world, but even they couldn't save it from putting on the same old duds. They couldn't restyle Spears's plastic "In the Zone" or David E. Kelley's not-so-fantastic new series, "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H." They couldn't trim the impact of "American Idol," as Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, and Ruben Studdard sold millions of records and sang at any awards show that would have them. "Raggedy Andy" Aiken may have lost to Studdard, but he won more sales -- as well as the best-manners prize from the National League of Junior Cotillions.

Shake it

OK, there were exceptions. Thankfully, there always are. Maybe the new did not arrive in pop music, but there was more driving post-punk from the Strokes and the White Stripes, and more felt emo from Dashboard Confessional and Brand New. To counteract Spears's "In the Zone," there was bionic rapper 50 Cent's irresistible "In Da Club." And while Liz Phair may have sacrificed originality to get a hit single, "Why Can't I," OutKast gained artistic scope with "Hey Ya" and the rest of "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below." The duo inspired all kinds of demographics to shake it like a Polaroid picture -- the year's most acceptable bit of product placement. This, in turn, inspired Polaroid to shake a check in their faces for some promotional work, which will find them incorporating Polaroid cameras in their stage act.

Meanwhile, the music industry wisely began to adapt to the new e-scape, compensating for declining record sales with a growing number of sanctioned downloading services. More than ever, iPod-wearing music lovers became their own happy DJs.

At the movies, Johnny Depp and Jack Black got well-deserved attention in "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "School of Rock," respectively, and Sean Penn was the awards contender to beat with his peak performances in "Mystic River" and "21 Grams." Sofia Coppola gave Bill Murray the vehicle of his career with "Lost in Translation," a quiet, ambient film that was as far from the box-office-busting spectacle of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" as you can get. "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" was an engrossing high seas adventure and a testament to Russell Crowe's subtle interpretation of fearless leadership. It reminded us that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's transition out of action movies won't leave us short of action heroes.

Television, on the other hand, offered little to compensate for its third year of reality offenses, which included Shannen Doherty's heart-attack-inducing "Scare Tactics" and Monica Lewinsky's nausea-inducing "Mr. Personality." OK, MTV did provide brief schadenfreudian amusement with the Lucy-and-Ricky-esque adventures of "Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica" and Ashton Kutcher's candid camera on the stars, "Punk'd." David Letterman had another high point when he had a son -- and a corresponding ratings spike. And HBO continued to charm, with "Angels in America," "Six Feet Under," and "Sex and the City."

But none of the networks' fall series became appointment TV, which only contributed to the increasing drift of viewers to the cable regions. If audiences didn't want to see CBS's interview with "preppie killer" Robert Chambers, they could easily cross the great divide for shows such as USA's "Monk" and FX's "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck." While video games, DVDs, and the Internet have been cited as reasons for the defection of young male viewers from TV, there's no denying the role of network programming in their flight. If network executives really think guys between the ages of 18 and 34 will settle for a mess like "Coupling," they're sadly in for more rude awakenings in 2004.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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