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12 Movie Moments of 2012: Shared Pop Culture History (Ted)

As well as counting down the top twelve films, I’m also going to count down my top twelve movie related “moments” of 2012. The term “moment” is elastic, so expect some crazy nonsense here. And, as usual, I accept that my taste is completely absurd, so I fully expect you to disagree. With that in mind, this is #2

When it comes to end of year “best of” lists, comedy seems to draw the short straw as a genre. Like some of the less earnest genres, comedy is far too easily overlooked in favour of something more “worthy” of attention. Seth MacFarlane’s Ted has been something of a contentious film this year. Depending on where you sit, the film is either the epitome of everything wrong with American comedy, or it was a refreshingly profane yet heartfelt breath of fresh air. I lean more towards the latter than the former, and I appreciated the way that it played to MacFarlane’s strengths – concealing a surprisingly sincere sentiment behind a cynical and glib exterior.

As such, it’s no surprise that the most effective sequence in the film – the opening credits – managed to play to both that side of MacFarlane and also to his wonderful ability to channel pop culture as something of a shared collective history. Call me sappy, but there was something wonderful about seeing Ted interact with Johnny Carson and watching Ted and John queue for The Phantom Menace in costume, that created a tangible sense of back story between the characters.

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MacFarlane has been criticised for an over-reliance on pop culture as part of his comedic stylings. Some of his more vocal critics would argue that his style of comedy is nothing but juvenile riffs on pop culture standards. While I’ll concede that those sorts of cut-away gags, name-dropping and cheap shots have occasionally been a crutch of some of the work he is associated with, I think that’s a bit harsh. At his best, MacFarlane does a wonderful job creating a relatively broad sense of familiarity to a generation of people who grew up with mass media.

MacFarlane’s approach to comedy wouldn’t really have worked even two decades ago, before the era of the multi-channel cable, before the internet, before it pop culture became so incredible vast and so incredibly widespread that virtually everybody on the planet could get gags at the expense of American cultural institutions. To be fair, it’s an acquired taste, and I can understand criticisms that such an approach might be American-centric, but I’d argue that given the reach of pop culture, it can be a strangely effective one.

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As such, Ted effectively manages to establish the relationship between John and his talking teddy bear in a clever way by grounding it in instantly recognisable moments. Hearing that John and Ted did everything together is grand, but we get a sense of how deep their affection must be when we see them attend a midnight screening of The Phantom Menace together, John dressed as Darth Maul and Ted as Yoda.

Similarly, their appreciation of Flash Gordon together (“it’s so bad, but so good”) is the kind of detail that seems like a tangible piece of character development. It’s the kind of thing that seems so strangely and weirdly personal, yet it’s something we can all relate to. We might not share John and Ted’s devotion to the film, but we can imagine how two stoners in Boston might take their obsession with Sam Jones to the next frickin’ level.

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It does an excellent job of instantly establishing the dynamic of the two – they are, effectively, children refusing to grow up – and it does it in a way that never feels quite as nasty as it could. While it’s easy to lambaste a spoilt man-child for neglecting obligations or refusing to move past childish obsessions, it’s somewhat harder to begrudge a man for still heartily enjoying a cheesy eighties space opera. And that’s the beauty of MacFarlane’s Ted.

While John is a child refusing to grow up, MacFarlane manages to keep him sympathetic, focusing on these shared cultural moments to help texture his relationship with his oldest and dearest friend. John does have to mature a bit, but MacFarlane manages to present his man-child protagonist in a manner that manages the delicate task of both establishing he is an overgrown child who does need to grow up, but without seeming overly harsh in his assessment.

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MacFarlane is known for his vulgar humour, and there are any number of moments in Ted that will offend even the most relaxed of audience members. Yet, despite all that, MacFarlane seems to harbour a great deal of affection for his targets. After all, this is a man who appeared in a cameo role in a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise as an avowed Trekkie. (He even provides commentary on The Best of Both Worlds on the upcoming Star Trek: The Next Generation blu ray.)

MacFarlane realises the power of these pop culture touchstones because they are fairly close to universal. Not every film fan will love Flash Gordon, but most harbour at least own particularly guilty pleasure they share with a close friend. Dressing up for The Phantom Menace is an illustration of shared devotion, and the emphasis isn’t on the devotion to the particular franchise, but the fact that Ted and John share in it so completely.

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It’s strangely touching, because these moments are close to universal. If you are going to attend a Seth MacFarlane comedy, odds are you have your own Flash Gordon style shared experience, or that you’ve been hyped about a thing in the same way that John and Ted are hyped about The Phantom Menace or you even have a goofy shared romantic moment over something as incredibly stupid as Octopussy, to the point where a goofy movie theme like All-Time High could be “your song.”

It’s worth noting that the references are – across the board – pretty terrible. Flash Gordon is hard to defend as a piece of legitimately classic cinema, even though I will be the first to argue in favour of its value as entertainment. I suspect that both John and Ted were disappointed in The Phantom Menace. And Octopussy manages to compete for the title of “Roger Moore’s worst Bond film.” With All-Time High competing for the title of “worst Bond theme ever”, even when sung by a gloriously out-of-tune Mark Wahlberg.

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Then again, you could argue that’s the beauty of Ted. It’s not the pop culture item that has intrinsic value of itself, it’s the fact that it was shared that makes it so special.

Check out our other movie moments of 2012:

12. We Built This City (Rock of Ages)

11. September (Intouchables)

10. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises, Premium Rush, Looper)

09. Throwing the toys together (The Avengers)

08. Running (Shame)

07. “You’d love my boyfriend, he’s a total chick flick nut.” (ParaNorman)

06. The Dark Knight Returns (The Dark Knight Rises)

05. Dancing (Monsieur Lahzar)

04. “… it has its moments …” (Men in Black 3)

03. Missing children (End of Watch)

02. A Shared Pop Culture History (Ted)

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