A Very, Very Big Year

Photo-illustration by Gluekit; Photographs, from left: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of the Public Theater, Patrick McMullan

If you were to gather the culture stars of 2010 in a room and ask them to retroactively pitch their biggest ideas, it would sound like an inmate’s meeting at an asylum for the delusionally grandiose. I’m going to make a three-hour 3-D movie using technology I’m inventing myself! (Okay.) I’m going to write a riveting drama about a college kid sitting at a computer! (Good luck with that.) I’m going to plant myself in a chair for 736 hours without moving! (Sounds great, Ms. Abramovic.) I’ll dress entirely in meat! (Please don’t sit next to me.) I’m going to mount a theatrical show in which I read The Great Gatsby from beginning to end! (Really?) I’m going to host 90 minutes of high-expectations live-TV comedy at age 88! (Yes, Ms. White. We’re sure you are.)

Yet if there was one thread that connected the highlights (and a few failures) of the last year, it was this: the Grand Gesture, the Big Gamble, the all-out Swing for the Fences. This is not to say, of course, that people haven’t taken bold risks before. But we, as an audience, definitely have a newfound proclivity for dissecting cultural happenings in real time: by chattering over our various social networks about what things will be like (“Avatar? Sounds terrible”), what they are like (“OMG I’m in the theater RIGHT NOW!”), and what they were like (“Just saw Avatar. James Cameron FTW.”). So it may well be that, to grab and hold our collective attention this past year, you absolutely had to think, and dream, and deliver, big.

Marina Abramovic vs. Gatz’s Gatsby-Reading Scott Shepherd An endurance face-off. Hours spent performing per week
Abramovic: 52:36 Shepherd: 24:40 Average daily audience
Abramovic: 21 sitters Shepherd: 199 Mid-performance meal breaks
Abramovic: 0 Shepherd: 1 Total length of performance
Abramovic: 736 hours, 30 minutes; Shepherd: 752 hours, 20 minutes Photo: Photo-illustration by Gluekit; Photographs, from left: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of the Public Theater, Patrick McMullan

Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead In 2010, network TV showed the perils of playing it safe: The big four trotted out a fall season that was distressingly familiar (jolly fat-person sitcoms; cops shows upon cop shows) and failed to produce a single breakout hit. (Maybe viewers no longer even look to networks for risky drama: The ambitious Lone Star lasted just two episodes.) Meanwhile, on cable, AMC and HBO pushed all-in on huge bets like the hypergory The Walking Dead and the hypergorgeous Boardwalk Empire, which had an estimated budget of $30 million”and that was just for the Martin Scorsese”directed pilot. Photo: Top: Abbot Genser/HBO; Bottom: Courtesy of AMC

Inception Here’s an idea: Why not follow up your sure-thing, box-office-topping Batman movie The Dark Knight with a convoluted, complicated, based-on-nothing-but-your-own-twisted-imagination thriller with a title that sounds like a movie about IVF treatments? Yet Warner Bros. gambled $160 million on Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the only 2010 summer blockbuster that wasn’t a sequel, a franchise, or a reboot. It made $823 million globally. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The End of Lost The show’s finale reminded us that sometimes the biggest gambles don’t pay off, especially when they’re spread out over six and a half years. Lost“the greatest shell game in TV history”ended not with a bang but a shrug, as long-invested viewers wondered if they’d been conned. (Series creator Damon Lindelof felt the same way about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, which allowed him to forgive Lost’s critics: “It doesn’t make you any less a fan. In fact ” it just makes you honest.”) Still, in one sense, the Lost gamble was a winner, as evidenced by the fact that each new season still brings a blatant clone, including this year’s The Event. Photo: Courtesy of ABC

OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” How do you exist as a band in a post-label, post-single, post-band world? Apparently the same way you get nearly 20 million views on YouTube amid a sea of competing distractions: with a riveting, militaristically choreographed, single-take video involving a Rube Goldberg sculptural-art installation. The video with the dogs was pretty awesome too.

Lea Michele In its second season, Glee’s crowd-pleasing engine began to run at high efficiency, fueled by the teeny-tiny Lea Michele and her great big voice. For her, 2010 will be remembered for two big gambles: a risqué photo shoot with Terry Richardson and a lollipop. And, more in the spirit of the Grand Theatrical Gesture, a balls-out rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on the 2010 Tony Awards. Michele chose to wrestle a legend (Barbra Streisand), and she not only held her own”she brought down the house. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy You’ve heard nothing about him this year, right? Us neither. Photo: Wenn/Newscom

How to Make a Splash on Broadway Estimated budgets of the year’s most expensive Broadway shows.

The Longest Sentence At 305 words, from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the big novel that made the world safe for big American novels again. (It opens the chapter called “Mountaintop Removal.”)

A Very, Very Big Year