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Jane Lynch is one of our favorite pop-culture humans of 2009.
Oh, we can all talk about work product and quality of entertainment, but there are also people you just ... trust. The ones you're glad are out there making things, talking about things, or generally contributing to your enjoyment of popular entertainment. These may not be the best pop-culture humans of the year, and we may leave off some who are delightful year after year, but they are ten to whom we owe a debt of gratitude in this particular year.
1. Neil Patrick Harris. Look, I'm not going to lie. The guy comes up every five minutes around here, and I've been called on it, and I've admitted it. He hosted the Tonys, he hosted the Emmys, he's still brilliant on How I Met Your Mother, he sings in cartoons ... come on, now. Don't take him for granted just because he's consistently so good.
2. Jane Lynch. Are you kidding me with this? How great is Jane Lynch? Not only is she the best thing about Glee, the most buzzed-about new show of the year, but she also starred in the inaugural season of the excellent Party Down on Starz, and every time she opens her mouth, she's utterly delightful. How many actors can answer five questions and give five consecutive knockout answers?
3. Craig Ferguson. When I sat down to read Craig Ferguson's autobiography American On Purpose, I wasn't expecting a whole lot beyond a celebrity memoir full of good stories. The book certainly provides that, but it's also thoughtful, very wise, and terribly generous, which is unusual in memoirs, unfortunately.
Ever since his 2007 discussion of why he didn't want to do jokes about Britney Spears, it's been clear that there was a lot more going on with Craig Ferguson than late-night jokestering, but as he grows in confidence and influence, his The Late Late Show has gotten better and better. Even a power outage doesn't keep the guy down.
The rest of the list, after the jump.
4. Jim Parsons. I came to The Big Bang Theory late, but I quickly became a Parsons convert. It's very hard to give a performance in a comedy as a character who is almost completely unrelatable, in that he barely registers human emotions like anger or sympathy, and have that character nonetheless feel real and interesting. Doing "quirky" well is actually terribly difficult, but Parsons does it wonderfully.
There's a good reason why the December 2008 Christmas episode, in which Sheldon struggles to exchange gifts with Penny, is one of the show's best and most significant. Writing and executing a brilliant geek joke that relies on the geek's attachment to Leonard Nimoy is a recipe for overplayed schlock, but it felt fresh and believable, and Sheldon's heart grew three sizes that day. I have no idea — none — what Parsons' range is like, but right now, this character is right in the pocket in the best way.
5. Matthew Weiner. It's kind of a slam-dunk, I admit, to go with the creator of Mad Men. Lots of awards, lots of great writing, plenty of kudos already given.
But when Weiner sits down for interviews, like this one with Alan Sepinwall, he tends to be very unpretentious for a showrunner of a very cerebral show. He can talk and talk and talk about the story, and it doesn't take on the air of "this is why I am great and I am special and no one else does it like I do."
Unfortunately, when you've been praised as widely and as rightly as Weiner, it's sometimes hard to still sound like a guy who just loves your work. When he talks about the show, he radiates careful thought to the point of slightly obsessive nerding-out over his own characters, and there's more enthusiasm than ego in the way it comes across.
6. Dave Holmes. I've written before about Dave Holmes' Twitter feed, and it's genuinely enough to make Twitter worthwhile. He also links to the things he writes here and there, and if you only read one thing about the grotesque MTV series Jersey Shore, make it his description of it.
Holmes (no relation to me, unfortunately for the entertainment value of my Thanksgiving dinners) is one of the few people who honestly uses Twitter for "micro-blogging" (a rather odious term that doesn't fit all that many feeds) and does it in a good way. The fact that he has done all this after losing an MTV VJ contest years ago to Jesse Camp (who does this now) seems like some kind of magical karmic justice that almost makes me believe some pop-culture forces of good are watching over all of us.
7. Ben Folds. Folds, probably most famous for the late '90s hit "Brick," has been kicking around a long time doing wacky audience-participation stuff, like this wonderful cover of "Such Great Heights," which he performed with a wall of guitarists.
But late in the year, he showed up as a judge on NBC's The Sing-Off and immediately seemed like a guy who should be on television in some capacity as often as possible. His presence was warm and generous, charismatic and funny. Somehow, even within the confines of a highly corny network a cappella competition, Ben Folds was enthusiastic and very smart, and his feedback was actually specific and helpful. Not that he would (or should) do it in a million, billion, squazillion years, but if American Idol had this kind of judging, it would be a whole different ball game.
(Honorable mention to Bobby McFerrin, who was also wonderful on the finale of The Sing-Off and in the viral video about the pentatonic scale that you should watch right now if you never have.)
8. SB Sarah. One of the founders, and seemingly the current primary blogger, at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Sarah Wendell is fearless and opinionated and puts her chin out every day to do one of the toughest jobs a lady can assign herself, which is to challenge people's preconceptions and prejudices about culture. In Sarah's case, she writes thoughtfully and hilariously about romance novels, dumping on the worst cliches and celebrating the writers who find ways to make a difficult genre interesting.
She's also become very knowledgeable about e-books (which are perfect for romance readers), and wrote wisely and well about the new FTC guidelines for bloggers. Nothing warms my heart like a stereotype-buster, and nobody busts the stereotype that women who read romances are dumb, unthinking, or anti-feminist quite like Sarah.
9. Drew Barrymore. No, not for He's Just Not That Into You.
It's true that Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It, was not a box-office success — though I hold out hope for a DVD/cable revival. But this was a wonderful, special, thoughtful movie, and I'm extremely glad she (and, of course, screenwriter/novelist Shauna Cross) made it.
Not everything Barrymore does is a good idea, by a longshot, but her production company, Flower Films, put out its first movie (Never Been Kissed) when she was 24. She's long been interested in getting on the other side of the camera and driving her own projects instead of being content to hang around and be a movie star, and even if Whip It goes down in history as a massive commercial flop, it will live on as a great movie, especially for girls, that might well not have existed in this form if she hadn't leveraged her commercial successes to make it.
10. Roger Ebert. When Roger Ebert lost his ability to speak following cancer surgery, it wasn't clear exactly what his future would hold, but it turns out that he entered a phase of his career that's been utterly fascinating. He does talk about politics quite a lot on his blog, but even if all you read is his coverage of movies and culture, it's well worth the time.
Ebert recently addressed the changes in his old show, At The Movies, in an essay that is bluntly critical but never needlessly unkind. That's not to say he can't pull out a knife now and then — read his open letter to a sports columnist who quit the Chicago Sun-Times and declared newspapers dead. Combine that with his constant advocacy for his beloved rice cooker, and you have a genuinely fabulous journal full of wisdom about popular entertainment and cooking tips.