50 Wonderful Things From 2020
I've been making annual lists of 50 Wonderful Things since 2010. And I have to admit, I was not sure I was up to it this year. It's been a hard one and a lonely one, even though I had the blessings of dear friends, a job I could do remotely and a dog who apparently never gets tired of me. As I point out every year, this is not the actual best things of the year, or it would be full of doctors and nurses and activists and delivery drivers and so forth. It would be the family and friends who held me up and checked on me and had a cocktail with me on Zoom. This list is instead some favorite things, things that brought happiness or enlightenment or that stunned feeling of recognition that someone's art sees something in you.
It was a weird year, culturally. There was a lot of Netflix; more than usual, because of all the things they picked up. There was little reading or new music for me, because I found myself so restless it was hard to settle down and simply read or listen. I thought about just skipping the idea that I could ever combine the word "wonderful" with the four digits "2020."
But while this list is an act of curation and an effort to boost what I loved every year, it's also my biggest annual fountain of gratitude. And I've never been more grateful for the people who kept going, and for the people whose work arrived at the right moment, and for the things that made me feel human and seen. And much of that was art and entertainment. Arts organizations, the film and television industries, live performance spaces, artists and the people they work with — all have had extraordinarily difficult times this year; all will need our support to recover. Meanwhile, what the heck — let's be grateful.
1. Michaela Coel's HBO series I May Destroy You is experimental and groundbreaking in a number of ways as it unspools the story of a woman's sexual assault and its aftermath. But in the finale, it breaks with its own form in a way that is perfectly tailored to providing the only conclusion to the story that makes sense.
2. The afterlife NBC comedy The Good Place had a lot of business to do in the series finale after four seasons. But when, one last time, we saw Ted Danson as Michael say, "Take it sleazy," it was the perfect example of the show's bone-deep silliness, crossed with its unapologetic sincerity.
3. The Invisible Man became more and more timely in a year full of conversations about gaslighting, as a woman played by Elisabeth Moss becomes convinced that her supposedly dead abusive ex-boyfriend is stalking her. Of many startling visuals in the film, perhaps none is more arresting than Moss' kitchen fight, which takes the idea of the invisible enemy to new and better places.
4. Lovecraft Country on HBO was an ambitious and often messy show. But Jurnee Smollett's baseball-bat rampage was satisfying and balletic. She's a star.
5. It's hard to wrap up a story like Schitt's Creek, given that characters stranded in a small town must either be left in the small town or must depart the small town, both of which can be sad endings. The finale juggled that problem deftly, ending with a loose, intimate scene that understood the value of both staying and going.
6. The first episode of the most recent season of The Great British Baking Show (as Netflix viewers know it) was divisive, featuring as it did a challenge in which the bakers had to make busts of famous people's heads, which essentially none of them knew how to do. But if you can't appreciate the utter unpredictability of the choices — two people who could choose anyone they wanted to make a bust of chose Bill Bryson and Tom DeLonge of Blink-182! — then we are very different indeed.
7. Ryan Murphy's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest prequel Ratched, on Netflix, was mostly a mess when it came to storytelling, characterization and any kind of structural discipline. But the production design, and particularly the color palette, were among my favorite coffee-table-book television aesthetics of the year.
8. I was barely able to judge the actual quality of Bill & Ted Face the Music, so relieved was I to have its company when so little company could be had. But it had a relentlessly amiable nature and an earned weirdness, and it culminated in a finale that, darn it, felt good.
9. The Starz series P-Valley from Katori Hall was a welcome change from the way popular culture has often dealt with stripping and sex work in general. Its finale included a mysterious incident that closed the loop of one story while opening another, a deft way to provide both satisfaction and intrigue.
10. The physicality of Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Old Guard brought new visual interest to how bodies in action movies break and suffer. It's easy to show blood; it's hard to evoke fragility in people who are apparently immortal.
11. The film Palm Springs showed up on Hulu at a time when an offbeat romantic comedy couldn't have been more welcome. And while the hangout montage that highlighted the development of the relationship between the characters played by Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti uses a familiar framework, it's so much sillier and stranger than most montages like it that it makes the entire form feel fresh.
12. In the terrific and unnerving Promising Young Woman, at a pivotal moment near the end, there is a song choice that is so brilliant and so unexpected it made the bottom fall out of my stomach. The film should be streaming sometime in January; we must talk about it then.
13. There are lots of dog videos; there is but one "Jack only enters the pool like this."
14. The food writer Helen Rosner wrote about apples this summer — specifically about bad apples. The short essay is a thing of beauty, an example of confident deployment of a metaphor that results in a piece more pointed than it would have been if it had spoon-fed its intention to the reader.
15. I've always found David Letterman a vexing personality — sharp but elusive, both brilliant and brutally disappointing at times. His interview with Jesse Thorn on NPR's Bullseye podcast is the most clearly I've ever felt like I could see him: his smarts and odd brand of warmth right there, but his regrets and their inadequacies both evident.
16. People who found this a disappointing year for film must not have seen Radha Blank in her funny, painful, thoroughly original Netflix release The Forty-Year-Old Version.
17. A few weeks into what became months and months of isolation, Samin Nosrat (who made the wonderful book and series ) presented a recipe for what she called the Big Lasagna and suggested people cook it together at home. I did. I made the sauce, the ricotta filling, the bechamel — I even made the noodles from scratch. For her to present the project was a clever kindness; for me to do it knowing others were doing it too was a poignant pleasure.
18. Never has a sudden heartthrob been as map-reliant as MSNBC's Steve Kornacki. As the November election stretched out with several states uncalled, he remained at the Great Big Map, circling this and listing that and doing math in his head. While his work was deeply appreciated, what delighted me the most was the appreciation for his nerd charms that exploded from the Internet in much the same way that very, very unpleasant things sometimes do. Khakis 4-eva!
19. For quite a while, writer and podcaster and actor and general man-about-town John Hodgman hosted a series on Instagram called Get Your Pets. It featured Hodgman bringing people on with him to introduce him to their cats, dogs, chickens, birds, horses, snakes, bunnies and whatever else they had on hand. This is to take nothing away from the animated detective show Hodgman made with David Rees, called Dicktown, which was ambitious and very funny, but Get Your Pets came to me in a time of emergency and gave me the company I very much needed.
20. Everyone knows the wonderful special The Year Without a Santa Claus, starring the Heat Miser and Snow Miser, right? Well, the TikTok dance genius who goes by xChucklesx made two videos emulating the misers. If you aren't a TikTok person, you can also find them on YouTube: Snow Miser and Heat Miser.
21. The film Nomadland has only played festivals so far, but in a year when I could not travel, its presentation of the vast and wild places in the American West and the Great Plains couldn't have been more welcome. When Frances McDormand, playing a woman who travels and lives out of a van, skitters across some rocks as she delights in the pure exploration of the outdoors, it will get you right in the throat.
22. There wasn't a lot of Christmas content I felt like taking in this year, to be honest. I couldn't fully commit. But I took great pleasure in the Netflix series Dash & Lily, and in its twinkly, wintery magic.
23. I demand a series as soon as possible that gives a central role to the marvelous Nicola Coughlan, whom I first encountered in Derry Girls and then again loved in Bridgerton. She is having moments all over the place; I want more of them.
24. One of the first HBO Max originals I watched was called The Dog House UK. It follows dog adoptions at a U.K. shelter, and if you don't melt like a Popsicle watching shelter dogs win over their prospective parents, what are we even doing here?
25. Not every talk-show chaos agent who fancies himself a trickster is charming; they often come off as self-indulgent and surprisingly boring. But when Seth Meyers sat down with established odd duck Timothy Olyphant and Olyphant began to read from the talking points FX gave him about Fargo, that was some good chaos agenting.
26. I will always wonder whether, in another year, I'd have had such warm regard for the game show Floor Is Lava. It has some DNA from the series Wipeout, without the meanness, and some DNA from American Ninja Warrior, without the seriousness. It floated into my isolation life like a butterfly — one that landed on my shoulder and then immediately began screaming about how it didn't want to fall off.
27. There has been a lot of Aaron Sorkin pastiche unleashed upon the world since he started writing his musical, repetitive, unmistakable dialogue for TV and film. But this year brought one of the best examples, as a writer named Jelena Woehr imagined what a West Wing episode about the current president getting COVID-19 might look like.
28. The game Good Job! posits that you are the boss' kid at a business where you are completely unqualified to do anything, but you are given a series of jobs to do anyway (such as moving a copier from one place to another). So you fling things through walls, you knock stuff over, you break the windows, and then you get promoted. The first time I played with the game's elastic, almost drunken sense of weight and gravity as I swung a projector around on its cord, I felt like I had found a game I'd been searching for all my life.
29. I couldn't be more grateful for the moments when Twitter is just weird and funny and offers something that fills a void in your ability to describe the world around you, as when Late Night With Seth Meyers writer Mike Scollins noted that The Rock looks like the Fruit of the Loom grapes.
30. HBO's Watchmen aired in 2019. But it continued to deliver moments in 2020, when it cleaned up at the Emmys and creator Damon Lindelof gave a speech full of lessons he learned from what worked on the show. Among them: "Stop worrying about getting canceled, and ask yourself what you're doing to get renewed." True in television, but, needless to say, not only in television.
31. The Frederick Wiseman documentary City Hall, all about city government in Boston, is 4 1/2 hours long. Its best sequence simply observes a garbage truck as it devours a series of objects that escalate in size and sturdiness. The garbage truck will not be defeated.
32. One of my favorite films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year was called Beans. It features a great performance from the young actress Kiawentiio as the titular Beans, a Mohawk girl we follow through the Oka Crisis of 1990, a Mohawk protest in Quebec over the destruction of land to expand a golf course. The performances are sharp, the family story is rich and complicated, and Kiawentiio is one to watch for sure.
33. Finding anything new to do with comedians and podcasts is, at this point, something of an accomplishment. So what a pleasure to find both Mike Birbiglia and Josh Gondelman having success with new formats. Birbiglia's show Working It Out invites comics (and Ira Glass) to discuss the development of material; Gondelman's Make My Day is a game show he hosts where there's one contestant per episode (including, on one occasion, me!), and thus a guaranteed victory.
34. The HBO Max documentary Class Action Park is in part a raucous and nostalgic memory trip for people who went to one of the most dangerous theme parks in the country back in the 1980s and 1990s. But there are complexities under the surface, many of which become clear during interviews with the smart performer Chris Gethard, an expert on the mix of light and dark. It's one of the best uses of a so-called talking head I've seen in a while.
35. I honestly believe that for the rest of my life, I will laugh every time I watch the video I call "The Seal With Amazing Comic Timing."
36. It's so unusual for the Oscars to be perfectly satisfying that many of us both hoped and somehow didn't dare to hope that Bong Joon Ho — not just a brilliant filmmaker but also a hugely appealing character in Hollywood — would earn best picture for his film Parasite. But he did. It seemed so unlikely, and then it wasn't, and it felt amazing. It's one of the few truly unblemished movie memories of 2020 for me.
37. Songwriter Eef Barzelay wrote a piece called "Roger Ebert" for the Clem Snide album Forever Just Beyond. Using some of Ebert's reported true last words — including "It's all an elaborate hoax" — he spins a delicate, sensitive song about life and loss and the movies. Ebert's wife, Chaz, tweeted that she was "astonished and moved."
38. The loss of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts was a painful thing for many of us across the company, not to mention the series' many fans. But leave it to NPR Music to find a way forward with "Tiny Desk Home Concerts." They grew more complex with time, featuring everyone from Billie Eilish to BTS. But one of my favorites was one of the first: Tarriona "Tank" Ball (of Tank and the Bangas) dropped her home show on March 27 after only a couple of weeks of pandemic life. She's inventive and whimsical and great, and she starts with advice about the pandemic itself — "Don't go out to the cookout" — that manages to be both funny and painful. And, you know, smart, even now.
39. I would never claim to be much of a games person, but like many, I got swept up in the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. And while I greatly enjoyed playing it inside the lines (look, it's my personality), some of the variants I enjoyed the most came when people rebelled — gently, sweetly — against the game itself. At one point, writer and artist Jonny Sun ran into the part of the game where you diligently deliver animals you've caught to the local museum and its curator, Blathers, and he decided ... well, not to. Instead, he piled them all up outside the museum. "Come visit Jonny's museum instead," he advised.
40. The game Kentucky Route Zero was released in chapters, over many years. I found it after it was completed, and tore through it as one game. It's a game, certainly, but it also has elements of a film, a novel, a ... musical? ... and its purpose is pointed commentary about capitalism and industry and forgotten people. It's just a stunner, and its finale is as moving as any film you could have seen this year.
41. If I may give a shout to my own Twitter followers, who gave me such comfort this year, I called upon them to tell me about (and hopefully show me pictures of) animals named after food. Boy, did they deliver.
43. Before Tiny Desks had to become Tiny Desks at Home, we were lucky enough to get one from Harry Styles. And while yes, that was lots of fun, my greatest delight was the bonus video in which Pop Culture Happy Hour's Stephen Thompson talked to Styles about their joint fandom: the Green Bay Packers.
44. Not long before lockdown, one of my favorite new podcasts of the year premiered. Called Fanti, and hosted by the marvelous Tre'vell Anderson and Jarrett Hill, it was designed as a show about "problematic faves," as you might call them, although the show is way more interesting than that makes it sound. But over the course of this unpredictable year, Fanti and its gifted hosts have swerved and adjusted to meet the moment, and their work is hugely valuable.
45. Sometimes you just have to admit that you loved that thing — you know, the thing everybody loved? One of those things this year was the Reply All episode "The Case of the Missing Hit" in which host PJ Vogt tries to figure out whether a song that a guy remembers but can't locate has ever actually existed, or if he imagined it. Or wrote it. Or dreamed it. The lengths that the team goes to in attacking this question are ... let us say, extensive.
46. I loved the fighting in the movie Birds of Prey. It is brutal, it is unrelenting, it is creative, and it has hair ties.
47. One of the things that kept happening to me this year was that I would find the tender pieces of my isolated heart revealed in the most unexpected places. When I listened to the May recording of the cowboy lullaby "Ride Along, Sparks Nevada" — written by Eban Schletter and recorded by Schletter, Jonathan Coulton, Paul F. Tompkins and Janet Varney, and part of the sprawling world of The Thrilling Adventure Hour — I somehow felt that in this Martian marshal's song, they had strummed a string deeply buried within my own heart.
48. A late entry in this list — but an absolutely essential one — is a clip that circulated of the actor Danny Pudi being interviewed by Larry King, and while I would not dare give away the punchline in the event you haven't seen it, if you have seen it, you know why it was instantly indelible.
49. I was moved by two different documentary productions that I imagine were meant to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics when they were going to happen: the podcast Heavy Medals, about the gymnasts who trained at the Karolyi Ranch, and The Weight of Gold, an HBO documentary about the mental health of Olympians. Both are excellent, and both made me better at thinking about what certain kinds of pressure can really do.
50. Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani created a pandemic podcast this year called Staying In With Emily and Kumail. Launched on March 18, just as isolation set in, it capitalized on their good humor, their candor and Gordon's training as a therapist to help people navigate those early months (it ran until June). I saved it for long walks with my dog, so when I think of it, in my mind I am always walking the hills of my neighborhood, feeling less alone, and hoping not to run into any squirrels.
51. One of the things that was most important to me in 2020 was people who shared little, simple moments in which they continued to live. One was Grant Hill and his wife dancing. While watching this video is really fun (they're good dancers! Maybe him especially!), what I really like is that watching it makes me imagine a lot of very enjoyable rehearsing.
52. I absolutely loved the Netflix documentary Mucho Mucho Amor, and while so many moments in it are delightful and touching, I admit to a special fondness for watching Lin-Manuel Miranda absolutely freak out meeting Walter Mercado, whom he's been watching on television since he was a child.
That's right — there are 52 things on this list. Why? Because there's no excuse for not taking absolutely every opportunity in 2020 to deliver unexpected good news.
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