Pop culture took wacky diversions in 2003

Girl-on-girl kisses. Talking fish.

Weddings announced. Weddings postponed. Weddings broadcast worldwide.

Nasty front-line video from Baghdad. Nasty backroom video from Paris.

Trying to make sense of our culture's crazy-quilt imagery over the past year is a confusing task, but some ironic contrasts and confluences present themselves.

It was a year when America went to war, yet our fascination with the trivial reached strange new highs. But most of all, 2003 was the year when reality TV finally became our collective reality:

The marriage of "Bachelorette" Trista Rehn to Ryan Sutter was one of the most talked-about TV events of the past 12 months. Was the high-maintenance former cheerleader a bad match for the laid-back Colorado firefighter? Would their million-dollar union last past the honeymoon? Who cared? Apparently, lots of us did.

We also cared -- weirdly but passionately -- about the adventures of two high-society babes who traded Guccis for gumboots to work on a farm. Despite, or perhaps because of, her infamous sex video (leaked against her wishes, the heiress claims), Paris Hilton, the terminally ditzy star of Fox's "The Simple Life," gets the prize for Most Undeserving Celebrity of 2003.

Television's most talked-about moment in 2003 had nothing to do with reality. Britney and Madonna's lingering smooch at the "MTV Video Music Awards" telecast was this year's primo example of sex as manufactured commodity. By co-opting a trademark of the once-taboo porn industry -- faux lesbianism -- the media-savvy pair made several simultaneous statements: As pop culture's queen envelope pusher, Britney is Madonna's heir apparent; what was once shocking is now fit for basic cable; and sex, as always, sells.

So do sequels. Despite critical misgivings and lackluster fan response, "Matrix Reloaded," the second part of the Wachowski brothers' dark alternative-universe trilogy, grossed $735.7 million worldwide, making it the 13th most successful film in history; the last chapter, "Matrix Revolutions," which came only a few months later, has made more than $400 million. "The Return of the King," the just-released third and final installment of director Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" series, will undoubtedly top that figure (its two predecessors have made a combined total of $1.782 billion, putting each of them in the top 10 of the box-office pantheon, and "King" made $246 million worldwide in its first five days of release). Despite their impressive numbers, the two series followed opposing trajectories: Jackson's saga seems stronger now than ever, while the Matrix magic has largely dissipated.


AP Photo

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is joined by law enforcement and government officials during a news conference on the state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento. Schwarzenegger's successful venture into politics was just one of the instances where celebrity and reality collided in 2003.

Only slightly less popular at the box office were Pixar's "Finding Nemo" ($669.9 million) and Johnny Depp's comic romp, "Pirates of the Caribbean" ($650.5 million), proving that the decade-long animated-film trend is bound to continue, and a new cinematic source -- the theme-park ride -- may well be the next vogue.

Celebrities made the front page this year in ways that shocked and saddened, amazed and delighted. Arnold Schwarzenegger, not content to launch another chapter in his "Terminator" franchise, ousted Gray Davis to become California's second movie-star governor. Michael Jackson, whose career seems to be disintegrating in slow motion, is fighting child-molestation charges. Rush Limbaugh may have to rethink his position on drug abuse. U-2's Bono scored what has to be a pop-culture first: He was among 150 finalists for the Nobel Peace Prize. J.Lo and Ben Affleck played with our loyalties and had a grand time flummoxing the media with their on-again, off-again wedding plans. Do whatever you want, kids, except make a "Gigli" sequel.


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