The Best Pop Culture That Got Us Through 2020

People are vivid

And small

And don’t live

Very long—

—Kate Knibbs

Midnight Gospel

At a minimum, watch the first and last episodes of Midnight Gospel—the first because it will change the way you think about zombies, the last because it will make you cry. Also, don’t go reading about the show beforehand, how it works, how it was made. All you need to know is it’s animated (by freaks) and that there’s something of a disconnect between words and images. It might bother you, at first. What am I looking at? What should I be concentrating on? Then you’ll embrace it and experience the very state—post-narrative, dreamlike—that the show is thematically/structurally/literally all about. Confused? Just accept it. Meditate. Be at peace. Eventually, it’ll make perfectly imperfect sense. —Jason Kehe

Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, Swamp Dogg

Swamp Dogg, the 77-year-old soul and R&B legend, put out a country album this year—working with Jenny Lewis, John Prine, and Justin Vernon—because Swamp Dogg can do whatever the hell he wants. It’s warm, elegiac, and funky; opener “Sleeping Without You Is a Dragg” and closer “Please Let Me Go Round Again,” a duet with John Prine, will break your heart. (It’s Prine’s last recorded song released before he died of Covid this year.) It sounds exactly how 2020 has felt: like a reminder to hold the ones you love while they’re here. —Kate Knibbs

P-Valley

TV’s sleeper hit of 2020 was a sensual southern noir that put the lives and concerns of sex workers, and women in particular, front and center. Even for a show about strippers struggling to make ends meet in the Mississippi Delta, P-Valley is about more than the eroticism it sells. The show’s real draw was its choice to not diminish its Blackness, its southerness, its raunchiness, and its womanness. To say nothing of its lush cinematography or the sumptuous script penned by creator Katori Hall (the show was inspired by an old play of hers, Pussy Valley), it’s a riot of pleasure in ways expected, surprising, and necessary. Anchored by actors Brandee Evans, as veteran dancer Mercedes, and Nicco Annan, who shined as the quick-tongued gender-fluid club owner Uncle Clifford, P-Valley is what the cultural historian Mark Anthony Neal calls a “critical intervention”—which is to say it’s a story that insists on a more imaginative contour of Black identity. It doesn’t play small. It knows what it is. We’re lucky to have it. —Jason Parham

Small Axe: Lovers Rock

Throughout the end of 2020, British director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) released a series of five films on Amazon called Small Axe. The anthology, which told the stories of West Indians living in London from the late-1960s to the mid-’80s, was rich, but the one that’s stuck with me the most so far is Lovers Rock. It’s not the most hard-hitting—other installments deal with police brutality and the 1981 Brixton Uprising—but it’s the one that feels the most lived in. It has a scant 70-minute runtime, but nearly all of those minutes are spent lingering at a single party, experiencing the drama, exhilaration, and burgeoning romance of its celebrants. McQueen films it in such a lush, inviting way, it’s impossible not to feel swept up and engrossed. —Angela Watercutter

Hades

This year was one of reckoning, forcing me to recalculate every aspect of what I thought I knew. I thought I disliked most indie video games, that I needed low stakes, that looting would always be preferable to dying. Hades made me realize just how wrong I was. You’ll flit through the Greek underworld in an attempt to escape—hundreds if not thousands of times, each more satisfying than the last. Hades is about incremental progress, perseverance, certitude, and hope. It’s an especially fitting game for 2020 (and it helps that the soundtrack, art, and voice acting are incredible). I dedicated 1,200 words to it in this review, but you’ll see what I mean within the first 10 minutes of gameplay on PC or Nintendo Switch. —Louryn Strampe

Reaganland, Rick Perlstein

The word of the year might have been “unprecedented.” We live in “unprecedented” times, et cetera—and yes, 2020 was a particularly trying stretch of time for the United States. It’s pretty much impossible to make sense of some recent events, but I found historian and journalist Rick Perlstein’s most recent book, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 an invaluable source of context for understanding why things are the way they are. I’ve been a Perlstein fan for a while now; he manages to blend political history and cultural history in an organic and digestible way. If it was up to me every high schooler in America would have Perlstein’s series on American culture since the 1960s (he also wrote 2008’s equally indispensable Nixonland) as a backbone of their US history curriculum. The unprecedented usually has some precedent if you look hard enough. —Kate Knibbs

Woke

2020 hurt so much it’s almost funny, and so does Hulu’s bizarre social justice comedy Woke. The show stars New Girl’s Lamorne Davis as Keef Knight, a cartoonist who suffers a surreal nervous breakdown after experiencing police brutality. He talks to googly eyed markers, trash cans, bottles of malt liquor, and nightmarishly whitewashed versions of his own face; he sees racism everywhere. His friends diagnose him: “Man, you woke.” Which all sounds very virtuous and highbrow in a snoozy sort of way, but trust me, it’s too strange to be sanctimonious. One episode revolves around the hunt for an escaped koala rumored to understand sign language. Knight screams “I am the sausage!” at polite conference-goers. Davis is effortlessly funny playing straight man to a world gone mad, and watching him slowly come undone is only more poignant for the show’s unabashed wackiness. Of all the shows I watched this year, its tone resonated most with the soup between my ears. —Emma Grey Ellis

“I Know the End,” Phoebe Bridgers

Truly all of Phoebe Bridgers’ second full-length, Punisher, is worth your time, but the album’s finale—rightfully the track titled “I Know the End”—is the reason to stick around until the finish. Simultaneously about the end of relationships and the end of the world, it starts with whisper-sung lyrics about feeling lost and looking for home, and ends in a cacophony of shredding guitars, horns, and guttural screams. Catharsis in audible form. —Angela Watercutter

Bubba, Kaytranada

Though technically released in December 2019, Kaytranada’s thump-resonant, dance floor radiant, synth-rich flurry of color and beats was the perfect reservoir of music to escape into this year. The DNA of the record is all about people coming together—13 of the 17 tracks have features; from the R&B singer Tinashe to cultural polyglot Pharrell—and works as a kind of metaphor: In a year that forced us to seek new ways to live and collaborate, Bubba is the ultimate collaborative effort. Dark times don’t last forever, but while they do, it’s best to take a note from Kaytranada and dance the darkness away. —Jason Parham

Euphoria

Earlier this year, Zendaya made history, becoming the youngest woman ever to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama series. It could easily be the most deserved award of the whole year. Her portrayal of Rue on HBO’s Euphoria is heartbreaking in its rawness. As Rue, she plays a teenager who is struggling with both crippling drug addiction and being in love with her best friend, Jules (Hunter Schafer). It’s the kind of role that could easily be taken too far. Every actor who wants to Go There and give a “real” performance attempts to portray the life of an addict. Yet, at no point in Euphoria does anything Zendaya does feel performed. It’s just lived. Nowhere is this more true than in Euphoria’s special one-off episode earlier this month. The show was supposed to begin filming its second season at the beginning of 2020, but got shut down due to Covid. To fill the void, show creator Sam Levinson wrote a bottle episode that begins with Rue’s dream of what her life with Jules could’ve been and then pivots to nearly an hour of conversation between Rue and Ali, a friend she met in NA, at a near-empty diner on Christmas Eve. They talk sobriety, spirituality, grief; ultimately, as Rue ponders her own end, Ali asks her how she’d like her sister and mother to remember her. The answer, given after nearly 30 seconds of silent trembling, is “as someone who tried really hard to be someone I couldn’t.” In a show that often gets by on style and movement, it’s the most quietly wrenching minute of TV aired this year. —Angela Watercutter

Marnie

In a year that left so many of us adrift in our spiritual seas, the arrival of Marnie has felt like a lifeboat. Marnie—a character created by actor Brian Jordan Alvarez—may look and sound like a counterfeit Marianne Williamson, but she is so much more than her bug eyes and blunt bangs. She is joy personified, pure source energy. When one of Marnie’s videos appears in your lifeless Twitter feed, you stop your scroll and listen to her dreamlike soliloquy, because Marnie contains infinite wisdom. Her credentials include a doctorate in astrology and a master’s in clinical spirituality. She invented drugs, and the idea of “the sexual breakfast buffet.” She has existed for longer than money, or light. How long can the joke go on? Seemingly forever, now that Alvarez has turned Marnie into a regular feature on Cameo. While you have spent the year relegated to your couch and your computer, Marnie has traveled various planes of consciousness, and to spiritual retreats in Turkey, Napa, and the Bahamas, to bring back an important message. And her message is this: You, the viewer, are god consciousness, you are love, you are the essence of the essence, and everything in this surrealist world will be OK so long as you sign up for Marnie’s class. — Arielle Pardes

His Dark Materials, Season 2

The best thing about season 1 was Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter. She’s still the best thing about season 2—but the rest of the show, miraculously, has almost caught up to her. Gone are the pacing problems and the depressing non-focus on daemons. Now, the world feels real. Worlds plural, rather, since Lyra and her new friend Will must travel between them to realize their destinies. She has a truth-teller. He has a knife. Together, they can cut through the lies of religion! Or something. Let’s hope the show doesn’t back away from Philip Pullman’s greater blasphemies, speaking of. It doesn’t seem to be—Dr. Mary Malone is here, talking to angels on her supercomputer, learning of their vengeful ways. She’s played by Simone Kirby, in a performance so convincing it’s like they plucked her from a real physics lab. Watch out, Wilson—there’s a new woman in town, and she’s got science on her side. —Jason Kehe

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, Bess Kalb

Full disclosure: I’m biased. Bess Kalb and I used to work together in WIRED’s research department long before she became a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live! I’d like to think, though, that I would still love her book—an autobiography about three generations of women: Kalb, her mother, and grandmother—just as much. Funny, heart-wrenching, and written with a gentle flourish many attemp but few master, it’s a delight. It’s also a quick read that can be tackled on a weekend, or over a holiday break. Finish it in a few days and then call your mom. —Angela Watercutter

How To With John Wilson

The unique, funny, tender HBO docuseries How To With John Wilson was just renewed for a second season, and it may take years to come together. Wilson has a laborious and not particularly efficient method of collecting footage for his episodes; he walks around New York with his camera and sees what he can see, and then cobbles together a narrative based on what he finds. I’ll wait a decade for another round. I reviewed the series for WIRED last month, and wholeheartedly meant it when I called it “the year’s best nature documentary.” It’s a feat of observation and mischief, and I promise you haven’t seen anything like it before. —Kate Knibbs

Bright and Dangerous Objects, Annaliese Mackintosh

Solvig is a commercial deep sea diver who spends weeks working on the bottom of the ocean. She’s also trying to have a baby with her tender-hearted tattoo artist boyfriend, James. She’s also a finalist in a contest to become one of the first humans to colonize Mars, although James doesn’t know that yet. It’s a one-way trip. Bright and Dangerous Objects follows Solvig as she chases several incompatible dreams simultaneously, questioning what it means to be a mother and whether her impulses to explore the far-flung corners of the ocean and universe are something she should curtail or embrace. While most people would turn down a suicide mission to the Red Planet, Solvig’s struggle—how to make her dreams fit inside her life?—is a universal one, and this is a beautiful book. —Kate Knibbs

Birds of Prey

In any other year, Birds of Prey might have been the cherry on top of a sundae of superhero delights. As far as comic-book movies go, it’s definitely the quirkier—but also smarter—kid sibling to more serious-minded DC films like Justice League or Suicide Squad, and would’ve easily fit in as the beloved oddball of the bunch. But as it turned out, director Cathy Yan’s movie about the exploits of Harley Quinn ended up being one of the few movies to hit theaters, period, in 2020. Good thing it was a good time. Bright, action-filled, and perfect in its imperfections, it’s a delightful popcorn flick. And Margot Robbie’s embodiment of the film’s main antiheroine just gets better with each new movie where she plays her. —Angela Watercutter

Dave, Episode 5

Of the many things I thought we didn’t need this year, one of them was definitely a show about an aspiring white rapper trying to break into the music business in LA. Yet the awkward charm of Dave—created by and starring Dave Burd, aka rapper Lil Dicky as a version of himself—will eventually win you over, as it did me. Past the plethora of excessive dick jokes and its sometimes thorny treatment of fame, what the show did better than almost all of the TV shows I watched this year was write with empathy about mental health, and particularly what that means if you’re Black and have bipolar disorder. If there’s one episode of Dave to watch, it’s this one. It will change you. —Jason Parham

Luster, Raven Leilani

Earlier this year, I wrote that Raven Leilani’s debut was “a story about race, class, and everything else that eviscerates people’s ability to live and connect. Luster is bled through with an honesty about the subterfuge of survival that is both gripping and often hilarious.” I fully stand by every word of that. It’s been three months since I put it down and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. —Angela Watercutter

Devs

If you watch a lot of TV, Devs will feel wrong to you. Very wrong. It’s paced lugubriously. It’s highly visual. And like the science fiction of old—a genre of ideas—it’s actually about something. Something big. Something like destiny, as understood by godlike technology. The star of the show is a pulsing, bright-gold quantum computer. It sits right there in the center, influencing everything, and around it squirm and dance the engineers, churchgoers of a near future. No other show captures Bay Area tech worship quite the same. Or the Bay Area itself, riven with self-contradiction. (You’d think creator Alex Garland, a Brit, was a lifelong resident.) There’s also a Russian subplot, in case you were thinking this all sounds a bit heady and heavy. By the end, story and subject merge in a spectacular way. Maybe it’s one thing. Maybe it’s another. Observation is all. —Jason Kehe

Mrs. America

All historical fiction, but especially historical fiction about conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and the rise of second-wave feminism, should feature Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, and Rose Byrne. —Angela Watercutter

Teenager Therapy

Gael, Mark, Kayla, Issac, and Thomas are five teenagers from Anaheim, California. They make a podcast about teen life. Subjects include: high school crushes, depression, the presidential election, LGBTQ issues, racism, their favorite TV shows, what it’s like to lose a loved one, friendship, acne and skincare routines, abortion, Instagram, prioritizing happiness, the Black Lives Matter movement, eating disorders, navigating social media, heartbreak, body image, cancel culture, funny YouTube videos, struggling with self-worth, and basically anything that has to do with being human. From time to time, the show will bring on guests, like TikTok influencer Shalom or a specialist from The Trevor Project, but mostly it’s five friends sitting around talking about life. In other words, Teenager Therapy is a podcast about feelings and knowing that you’re not alone in the world. —Jason Parham

Unorthodox

Taking its cues from Deborah Feldman’s autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, this Netflix miniseries is an often heartbreaking, often liberating look at one woman’s struggle to escape her life, and marriage, in the ultra-Orthodox community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. At times nerve-wracking, and often unexpectedly funny, Unorthodox is full of rich characters, but its true treasure is the breakout performance of Shira Haas as the show’s young heroine. She’s transfixing. —Angela Watercutter

The Future of Work

A lot happens to human consciousness in our new collection of sci-fi short stories—it’s uploaded to servers (“Remembrance”), studied by machines (“Collaborative Configurations of Minds”), and beamed across the universe (“Beyond These Stars Other Tribulations of Love,” “ars longa”). This was accidental; we didn’t tell these authors what to write about. Just gave them a prompt—what’s the future of work? Of course, science fiction reflects the present, and the world right now is in a state of hyperconsciousness. We’re all very aware of ourselves, our situations, our livelihoods, and we’re trying to survive as best we can. That’s the other thing that comes through in these illuminating stories—the desperation for human connection. In the end, the collection suggests, we’ll do anything to stay together. —Jason Kehe

Monsterland

I hate horror as a genre. I don’t require recreational fear. Real life is scary enough. But I loved Hulu’s horror anthology series Monsterland because, despite all the supernatural creatures, the real monster is real life. Specifically, American life. Each episode follows a drab, ordinary person in an American city during their gravest moment: losing a child, being unable to afford life saving medication, being the cause of a disastrous oil spill, learning that her husband is a sexual predator. Each time some supernatural creature appears to give form to their desperation, and it nearly always destroys them. The show makes no overt statements about social issues, but every character is driven into the arms of monsters by some grinding social ill, whether it’s classism or climate change. It’s grotesque and it’s beautiful. In other words, it’s America. —Emma Grey Ellis

Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt’s Reunion on the Fast Times at Ridgemont High Live Table Read

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but big name celebrities hopping on Zoom to do live table readings of old movie and TV scripts became kind of a thing this year. Mostly it was a way for well-meaning Hollywood types to raise some money for charity and fill the hours they couldn’t work. Mostly these efforts were what folks would call A Perfectly Nice Time. But when everyone got together to read Fast Times at Ridgemont High to benefit Sean Penn’s Covid-19 relief efforts, it turned into Broken Up Couple Goals. As the table read started and each actor logged on, Brad Pitt spotted his former flame Jennifer Aniston and cooley said, “Hi, Aniston.” She replied with a similarly cool, ‘Hi, Pitt.” And when he inquired, “How you doin’?” she responded with a completely unbothered, “Good honey, how are you doin’?” It was the biggest, “Should I text my ex?” moment of 2020. (The answer to that question, though, is “no.” You should not text your ex; it is impossible to be as chill as these people when doing so.) Watch the whole thing at 0:19 below. —Angela Watercutter

Locally Grown TV

Everything felt like TV this year. The last 12 months were an endless torrent of Zoom meetings, FaceTime calls, TikTok comedy, Verzuz Instagram battles, Netflix binges, chats with family members via Facebook portal, White House news conferences, Twitch streams, and strange YouTube conspiracy theory videos. We live on our phones and through our screens. We’re endlessly watching and being watched. More than that, though, we’re becoming TV—an infinite form of entertainment for one another to consume, share, and bicker over. One corner of the internet where traditional TV was reformatted in a radically cool new mode was Locally Grown, a streaming website with the luster of public access programming. With about a dozen user-curated channels, surfing through its slate of programming is like stumbling across lost treasure, from hard-to-find Soul Train episodes to discussions between academics and artists. One recent night this past February, just before midnight on a channel titled Black Art, Black Cinema, Black Excellence, I watched the French documentary Universal Techno; following in the next hour were clips from 1998’s Freaknik, the iconic spring break festival. The range of programming on Locally Grown is as robust, visionary, and exhaustive as Black culture itself. —Jason Parham

Dunking on Nevada During the Election Vote Count

2020 was nothing if not a year in which almost everyone with internet access was Very Online. Largely this led to even more bickering, flame wars, and depressing scenes than before, but in the high-tension days before news outlets called the 2020 US presidential election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, folks did manage to have some fun at the expense of Nevada. For days after November 4, as other states finished their vote counts, the tally coming out of the Battle Born State moved at a sloth’s pace. The resulting jokes broke the tension at a time when America needed it most. —Angela Watercutter

Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson Live on Instagram

Just hit play, here. Do it now. Yes, that’s Cate Blanchett, in close-up, saying “virgin.” And there’s Sarah Paulson, smelling her pits and doing a Southern accent. Ostensibly they’re promoting Mrs. America, their Hulu show, but legendary actors eschew the expected. Their 40 minutes together devolves—evolves—into high art, a real-time redefining of the genre of the celebrity Zoom. They sink, they swim, they soar. This is what the medium promised us, but what no other actors have been able to achieve. When it’s over, your face will hurt, and you will know the power of pure performance. —Jason Kehe


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