There isn’t an easy way to sum up this hellscape of a year. We could compile a list of all the devastating, mind-blowing and tear-inducing events of the year, but we’d be in for a timeline that would be too haunting to relive.
Nearly 300,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. We lost political and cultural icons: Chadwick Boseman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kobe Bryant, Alex Trebek, John Lewis and others. We collectively mourned Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and more — and then flooded the streets to demand change. Jobless rates climbed. Trump refused to concede. And that’s just skimming the surface.
But amid the chaos, we found ways to cope. We turned to TV, film, music and podcasts to escape. We nurtured long-dormant hobbies and undeveloped skills: that home decor project that seemed ripe to finish now that we were staring at bare walls all day, that recipe that seemed too complicated to make, that Amazon wish list item we first coveted in 2014. We got very creative with how we date, how we party and how we celebrate our favorite musicians.
What a pleasure and a privilege it has been to compile this list of pop culture delights that kept us sane in 2020. A team of HuffPost culture writers and editors recalled the many things that either brought us joy or distracted us from the trash-fire events of this year. Reminisce with us for a moment.
A year of fractured attention spans, news alert overloads and yawning expanses of unfilled time left many of us craving bite-sized distractions. Twitter always beckons, though we know it will leave us still more miserable. At some point this year, I began to navigate instead to @AITA_reddit, a Twitter account that tweets out particularly outrageous posts from the subreddit “Am I the Asshole?” Users can ask for verdicts on whether they were the asshole in a conflict. (“AITA for telling my wife I don’t want to look at her boudoir photos?” “AITA for recording my farts?”) The account, which now has almost half a million followers, surged in popularity this year, and no wonder: Each vignette offers a delicious microdose of human conflict to judge, empathize with and comment on. It’s exactly the mental snack you may need to make it through a dull moment.
Anything In An Air Fryer
Believe the hype. My air fryer is definitely in my top five purchases in quarantine. Crispy chicken wings with minimal oil and effort? Check! Perfectly cooked salmon? Done in minutes. The thought of never trying to figure out what to do with a big vat of old vegetable oil? Priceless.
Ari Lennox On Instagram Live
The best thing about Ari Lennox, aside from her captivating music, is the fact that she doesn’t really realize she’s a celebrity. The Washington, D.C., native carries herself like a true down-to-earth homegirl. That’s most prominently displayed when she goes live on Instagram, sometimes for hours at a time. Most of the time, she’s not dressed up for the cameras. Instead, she’s in the house chilling or cooking garbanzo beans and listening to some soulful R&B. It often feels like you’re on FaceTime with your bestie as she goofs off with fans in the comments and tells stories about trifling men from her past. When she goes on her social media breaks, it feels like a huge void on Instagram. If you’ve listened to the skits on her debut album, “Shea Butter Baby,” that’s just a taste of how relatable this star is.
“The Baby-Sitters Club”
Netflix had many much-talked-about offerings this year, from Season 4 of “The Crown” to “Love Is Blind.” But the most delightful was the new series of “The Baby-Sitters Club,” following the adventures of a group of entrepreneurial tweens in the fictional town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. No, the target audience of this show is not 30-something-year-old adult women who grew up loving the ’80s/’90s book series on which the show is based. And yet, the series does such a fantastic job of updating the time and context in which the characters exist while also harnessing the nostalgia of the original series. Premiering in July, when we were months deep into the pandemic, the show offered a bingeable and heartwarming distraction from the world.
I know, getting into cooking during a pandemic: how original. As a new mom, laborious culinary experiments were off the table for me; I didn’t have the time or the energy. Instead, I was faced with night after night of quick, basic, we-gotta-eat-something cooking. Every day couldn’t be pasta. So I began to look up recipes for quick curries: chickpea curries, red kidney bean curries, chicken coconut curries. Certain recipe building blocks became familiar and cozy: mincing ginger and garlic and sizzling them in oil, adjusting cumin levels to taste, simmering until the fragrant concoction reached the exact consistency I preferred to eat over rice. Learning how to cook up something hearty and sustaining, something that tastes indulgent, was a daily revelation.
This brings me to beans. Until 2020, I simply did not eat them; nothing sounded less appetizing than plump little skin sacks full of something mushy. And then, in late February, I began hearing rumblings that I should stock up on beans and rice to prepare for a few weeks inside. Like a lemming, I bought beans by the pound. When the time came to cook them, I reached out to my younger brother Dan, a longtime artisanal bean subscriber, for guidance, and with his advice, I decided to make bean soup with broth, kale and a Parmesan rind. It is … incredible. If your cabinet is still full of dried beans, soak some white beans overnight and then make this. Trust me.
Bon Appetit Drama
This was the year the Bon Appetit empire fell, and oh, what a fall it was. Over the summer, the magazine and its wildly popular YouTube channel faced major criticism regarding its lack of inclusion and its terrible treatment of its few Black and brown employees on staff. Over the course of several weeks, damning revelations about the magazine came to light, including the fact that chef Sohla El-Waylly was often not paid at all for her on-camera appearances as opposed to her white counterparts. The drama was impossible not to follow — from the numerous public statements of current and past employees to the firing of Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport to the so-far-incredibly-clumsy “diverse” rebranding of the magazine. To hear that any brand is creating an environment where Black and brown employees don’t feel valued is awful, but watching Bon Appetit have to actually contend with the mess it made of a perfect business model was a strangely satisfying experience amid the chaos of 2020.
Cameron Diaz’s “Clean Wine” Brand
Cameron Diaz may have retired from acting, but it’s OK because now she’s a winemaker! Not only did she welcome a baby girl with husband Benji Madden as the year began, Diaz and her business partner Katherine Power introduced their new “clean wine” brand, Avaline, to the masses this summer. Avaline launched with a crisp rosé and a dry white blend, but has now added red and sparkling wines to the mix, just in time for the holidays. All the wines are made from organic grapes, with no added sugars, colors or concentrates, and are vegan-friendly and non-GMO. They’re also $24 a bottle, so sip wisely. Celebrity wines. They get me every. damn. time.
Chef Resha’s Recipes
At one point in quarantine, everyone was cooking and baking. I’m everyone. I already naturally love being in the kitchen, but when I got bored with my standard creations and wanted to get a bit adventurous, Chef Resha held it all the way down. That woman’s recipes are a godsend and watching her chef it up on her Instagram story is so mesmerizing. Her recipes range from super beginner to HBIC. A few personal favorites are the nachos, banana bread, salmon cauliflower rice and sun-dried tomato ravioli. She has recipes for days between her Instagram and her website. What else is there to do but eat, anyway?
So many of us were obsessed with Netflix’s “The Circle.” But who among us knew how prescient this reality series would turn out to be. The contestants were self-isolating before we all knew we’d be stuck in a similar reality. Dear Netflix, we need Season 2 ASAP. Send Message!
City Girls’ Social Media Presence
City Girls’ Yung Miami and JT are true gems. Not only did the Miami rap duo release a heavy rotation-worthy album this year, “City on Lock,” but they also kept us entertained on Instagram and Twitter while we were stuck at home. Yung Miami on Instagram Live offered a true reprieve with her riddle-like cadence as she play-argued with her friend and fellow rapper Santana. And while JT recently deleted her Twitter account after coming under fire for several very problematic tweets from prior years, much of her 2020 commentary about music, dating and money was an entertaining departure from a largely depressing timeline. (But also, sis needs better social media PR!) It felt like a fun escape to witness these two girls from the ’hood with so much character and personality bask in their wins this year, especially given all the naysayers against them.
2020 has been a year defined by anxiety and dread, with one thing after another to be (very rationally!!!) scared and anxious about. Some of that anxiety can be tempered by doing concrete things — voting, donating, protesting, wearing a mask and staying home — but there’s always nervous energy that lingers. That’s where The Class by Taryn Toomey comes in. For me, it’s been an easy way to get out of my head and into my body — a lifelong struggle. Yes, it’s a workout class, but it’s also just a great excuse to jump around your living room like a fool and have a solo dance party. This year, we all needed a little more dancing.
Dionne Warwick’s Tweets
Dionne Warwick is an icon, and the tweets speak for themselves. Plus, her Twitter bio is perfect.
Anyone who says the age of blind-item tabloids is over hasn’t discovered Deuxmoi, a new Instagram account that crowdsources and curates gossipy showbiz morsels. On any given day, you can read about celebrity sightings (both banal and bizarre), backstage Hollywood drama and all sorts of spicy pop culture minutiae. Beware, though: Scroll through the page’s updates once and you’ll immediately crave more.
Before the pandemic began, I couldn’t have told you how to braise anything. But after a couple of months of lockdown in my 400-square-foot apartment in New York City and the acquisition of a very aesthetically pleasing Lodge dutch oven — no need to break the bank with a Staub or Le Creuset! — I became deeply acquainted with the cooking method, and the rich sauces and melt-in-your-mouth meats it can produce. It turns out a dutch oven is a magic product for culinary newbies, and you can make everything from bread to short ribs in it! I may not dress up and go out anymore, but sometimes I can feel like a fancy chef (without any of the actual skills) in my own home, and that’s a real treat.
“Emily In Parasite” Instagram
Netflix’s “Emily in Paris” was … a thing this year. More delicious and delightful than the show itself, which somehow managed to take some of the worst parts of “Sex and the City” and blend them into a gloopy mess, is the “Emily in Parasite” Instagram account. The concept is simple: It edits photos of the titular Emily into various scenes from “Parasite.” Perfection.
Everything But A Rihanna Album
Remember, once upon a time, when Rihanna told fans her highly anticipated ninth studio album would come out in 2019? Me neither. While many hoped that 2020 would be the year we’d finally receive new music from the Bajan pop superstar, she defied expectations once again by releasing everything but a new album. She debuted a new skin care line and a third installment of her annual Savage X Fenty Show. Sure, it’s not new music, but in 2020 we took what we could get.
Fiona Apple’s “Fetch The Bolt Cutters”
This year gave us plenty of memorable albums (see also: Haim, Dua Lipa, Chloe x Halle), but none as wrenching, intelligent or thrilling as “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” On the title track, Fiona Apple muses about finally breaking free from the chains of her past, capturing a lifelong quest for catharsis in five electrifying minutes. The rest of the album is just as wonderful, addressing childhood bullies, rape culture and depression with an eclecticism that is unmatched. Dogs bark, women meow, her voice wails. There’s no one like Fiona.
“Floor Is Lava”
In a year where we would watch literally any garbage Netflix put in front of us, thank gosh for “Floor Is Lava.” The concept is simple: Try to get across the room … because the floor is lava. The show is like the game you played as a kid … if “Pimp My Ride” host Xzibit had taken your house to West Coast Customs and turned it into an actual lava pit. It’s also a mystery show. Where do people go when they fall in the lava? And what is it actually made of? As long as it’s no longer ketchup packets left on the floor by my brothers, count me in.
Four Seasons Total Landscaping
President Donald Trump and his minions trying to set American democracy on fire on their way out is deeply dangerous and damaging, and all of this would be much more comical if it weren’t real life. That said, the Four Seasons Total Landscaping fiasco, starring D-list lawyer and cartoon villain Rudy Giuliani, is objectively funny. It’s an overused bit to remark that the breathtaking incompetence of Trump and his loyalists is beyond parody (or that HBO’s “Veep” is a documentary). But really, you cannot make this up.
Giant Satin Scrunchies
This year, we grew our hair out. This year, we stopped dressing up for parties and office jobs. As Carrie Bradshaw told us (and poor sensitive Berger), “A lot of New York women wear scrunchies. In the bathroom maybe, when they’re washing their faces.” Now we are all, essentially, in bathroom-appropriate dress most of the time, and these circumstances call for a scrunchie. In a bid for comfort-meets-glamour, I invested in a few colors of the Free People super scrunchie, an enormous satiny number. It’s not only gentle on my tresses, it has the bulk and sheen to elevate my daily scraped-together topknot into something akin to an updo. If you’re going to go scrunchie, my suggestion: Go big.
At one point this summer/fall, every weeknight turned into UPN night in my living room as Netflix’s Strong Black Lead sub-brand released our favorite classic Black sitcoms including “The Parkers,” “One on One” and more. Of those in the lineup, it was most pleasurable to rewatch all eight seasons of “Girlfriends.” I remember watching this show with my mom when I was young, but as a 29-year-old woman watching Joan, Toni, Maya and Lynn navigate (read: fumble) similar situations to those I find myself in, this show hits differently. “Girlfriends” resonates in so many ways as these women explore sex, dating, family issues, health and career. Rewatching with my real-life girlfriends was the true gem, however, as this show has reminded me of the beauty and complexities of sisterhood. Showrunner Mara Brock Akil truly created a show that aged like fine wine.
“The Glass Hotel” By Emily St. John Mandel
When COVID-19 hit, Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 hit “Station Eleven,” a post-apocalyptic pandemic novel, was newly crowned as prescient. Meanwhile, she had a new book out that felt, in a certain sense, more backward-looking. “The Glass Hotel” centers on a Ponzi scheme and climaxes in 2008. But like “Station Eleven,” St. John Mandel’s latest has a deft way with disaster, zipping forward and backward in time, placing each moment within a constellation of moments that make up a life. At a time when imagining a future seems impossible, or terrifying, her clear-eyed, absorbing fiction is a powerful reminder that each act has both short- and long-term consequences, and that even the worst catastrophe does not bring time to a halt.
“Home Cooking” Podcast
Created by chef and food writer extraordinaire Samin Nosrat (“Salt Fat Acid Heat”) and musician and podcast extraordinaire Hrishikesh Hirway (“Song Exploder,” “The West Wing Weekly”), the “Home Cooking” podcast features the two chatting about what they’ve been cooking during the pandemic and taking questions from listeners about quarantine cooking dilemmas. Their advice focuses on how to use whatever you have at home to make something delicious, especially if you have limited ingredients and limited time because of the pandemic. Interspersed between the Q&A segments are fun guests, ranging from other food writers and chefs to journalists, comedians and even Yo-Yo Ma(!). One of the show’s MVPs is Hirway’s delightful dad Sumesh, a food scientist who loves his air fryer. Nosrat and Hirway are wonderful and warm conversationalists, so listening to them is like having a friend in your ear. At times, they sound like they’re slowly losing it a little. But hey, who isn’t?
“I May Destroy You”
No piece of popular art this year was as searing, provocative and enchanting as “I May Destroy You,” Michaela Coel’s pitch-black comedy about processing sexual assault. With an evolving narrative structure that sometimes turns surreal, the 12-episode show — which aired on HBO in the United States and BBC One in the U.K. — doesn’t settle for easy answers or saccharine empowerment. It’s messy, and out of that mess comes profound catharsis.
Jhené Aiko’s “Chilombo”
No skips on Jhené Aiko’s “Chilombo” album. The R&B songstress’s sound and songwriting skills has kept a moody vibe going since … well, the start of the pandemic in the U.S. I have vivid memories of coming home from the Omarion + Bow Wow Millennium Tour concert in New York City on March 6, listening to Jhené’s album and never returning back to the office for work. I’m sure this album will stay in rotation beyond 2020.
Kids Crashing Late Night Shows
In the great before, late night TV had a tendency to feel a little too polished. Welp, forget about that. The pandemic forced many variety and talk programs to film from the hosts’ homes, presenting obvious limitations but also giving us our new favorite genre: Kids crashing late night shows. Viewers got to see the hosts deal with the same problems they were dealing with in this new normal, which includes kids crashing your Zoom calls. It’s just in this case, instead of your boss, it’s NFL quarterback Russell Wilson and Ciara on the other screen. While it’s nice late night shows have been able to get back into the studio, kids barging in to say they lost a tooth was one upgrade celebrity interviews needed.
Kim Wayans’ Voting Video
Kim Wayans, of iconic comedy sketch series “In Living Color,” has been out of the spotlight for a while now, but she resurrected her iconic character Benita Butrell, resident neighborhood gossip, for a pitch-perfect get-out-the-vote video.
Leslie Jordan’s Instagram
“Well, shit, what are y’all doin’?” Those six words made Leslie Jordan — best known for playing peacockish Beverly Leslie on “Will & Grace” — an Instagram superstar. His amusing monologues, delivered with a jovial Tennessee drawl into a camera, quickly became a quarantine balm as Jordan disseminated Hollywood anecdotes, childhood observations and other oddities for our enjoyment. In a year monopolized by teenagers’ TikTok ephemera, watching a 65-year-old gay man become a national darling provided pure joy.
“Love Is Blind”
“Love Is Blind” was an early 2020 win for Netflix. Released in February, contestants were isolated from the opposite sex in search of love and ultimately marriage. We rooted for Lauren and Cameron and cringed when other couples just couldn’t make it work. Again, Netflix, we’re ready for Season 2.
Did we always know exactly what was going on in each episode of HBO’s fantasy-horror series “Lovecraft Country”? Of course not. But was every episode absolutely compelling? Absolutely, yes. While deeply flawed (particularly in regard to its approach to colorism and depictions of trans and Indigenous people), the Misha Green-created series offered some of the best TV performances of the year and expanded the universe of Black-led genre fiction.
“Married At First Sight” And “90 Day Fiancé”
There are hundreds of episodes of these two series. TLC ALWAYS has a new installment of its “90 Day Fiancé” franchise, where long-distance lovers have 90 days to decide whether they want to marry their international partner who is on a K-1 visa in America. There’s a lot of love, but also a lot of drama to keep you sucked in for hours and hours of often riveting television. And never had I considered going on “Married at First Sight” until … well, it seemed like I’d never be able to meet an eligible bachelor IRL during the pandemic.
I am of the firm belief that if you are obligated to wear something on or around your face on a regular basis, it should be cute. So seeing designers adapt to the pandemic era and produce chic, comfortable masks — With filter pockets! And mask chains! — has been a real delight. Give me a new accessory with its own accompanying accessories any day. (Real standouts include Second Wind, Lele Sadoughi and Barriere.)
“The Meaning Of Mariah Carey”
Mariah Carey’s bestselling memoir, written in collaboration with journalist Michaela Angela Davis, begins with this sentence: “I refuse to acknowledge time, famously so.” What more do you need to know? The art of a good celebrity memoir is a delicate one, and the most satisfying books in this genre are the ones that find the balance between the self-delusion that comes with being famous and true self-reflection. “The Meaning of Mariah Carey” masters this, offering surprisingly poignant glimpses not only into the career highlights and artistry of the elusive chanteuse, but personal lows that few artists at her level would ever share, making for one of the most compelling (and fun) reads of the year.
Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski And Audra McDonald Getting Drunk
For “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” stars of Broadway and beyond performed musical numbers over Zoom — you know, when Zoom was the main platform everyone used to communicate with and entertain the outside world — to celebrate the great composer’s big milestone. During a particularly spectacular showing, Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald, donning bathrobes, belted out a rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company” while chugging red wine, martinis and bourbon. At one point, Streep even took a swig of Scotch whisky, perfectly capturing the lockdown lives of her fellow citizens. Put this trio in “Mamma Mia 3.”
This year, I felt like we’ve had more time than ever before simply because many of us are working from home. That’s a big lie. But you couldn’t tell me that back in April when it was evident we’d be in the house for months as the pandemic ravaged the United States. The pressure to create and be productive was intensified as the Roc Nation Brunch crowd insisted now is the time to build, build, build. I often asked myself what I would be building this year, ignoring the fact that I was already working on so much. The thought and the energy I put in thereafter was exhausting and led me to feel burned out. One day, I came across The Nap Ministry on Twitter. The account centers Black folks and is dedicated to examining “the liberating power of naps.” Its timeline is filled with reminders to rest and that we are still actively facing both a pandemic and racism. The Nap Ministry empowered me to give myself permission to take naps, every day if I need to, no matter if they’re quick, cute naps or those long slumbers that have you waking up wondering what day it is. Naps are the energy I needed to get me through this hellish year.
Look, I just want to acknowledge upfront that these are unnecessary indulgence items. But if you, like me, were home every day because you normally work an office job and needed the occasional dopamine hit that can only be achieved by way of receiving a package, look no further than the luxurious, endlessly viral nap dresses from Hill House Home. In the grand tradition of cottage-core loungewear, the nap dress is a transitional garment: half dress, half nightgown. It says, “I’m a lady of leisure, but I also haven’t left my home in several months.”
Is Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” a book for children? Maybe so. When I read it, shortly after reading her first, “Conversations With Friends,” I was surprised by the swooniness of it, the teen-romance plot turns. The Hulu series, which came out this year, is a faithful adaptation wrapped in the visual trappings of prestige TV — in other words, a first love story treated with studied seriousness. As it happens, teen romance tropes are tropes I love, and the subtle performances and muted, realist aesthetic allowed for an unfamiliar form of escapism, as if I could easily melt through the screen into the rainy streets of Dublin and find myself standing right next to Marianne and Connell. A nice change from my apartment.
Old “Supermarket Sweep” Episodes
In July, Netflix quietly dropped a batch of episodes from this game-show classic, reviving the vintage joy associated with watching everyday people hurtle through grocery aisles in search of the heaviest hams they can find. The colorful sweatshirts, the goofy puns and the brick-and-mortar capitalism offered an enthusiastic diversion during the summer of our discontent.
“Parakeet” By Marie-Helene Bertino
Bertino’s latest novel tells the story of a bride who, in the week before her wedding, is visited by her late grandmother in the form of a parakeet. The ghostly parakeet wants the bride to reconnect with her brother, from whom she is estranged. A playwright, he is currently staging a play based on his sister’s past traumatic experiences, and finding him requires her to reopen her most painful psychological wounds. “Parakeet” is quietly devastating on the aftermath of trauma, but it is also, blessedly, funny and sharp and profoundly entertaining.
“Parasite” Wins Oscars
This is one of those moments that I really can’t believe happened this year. Bong Joon-ho hive stand up. I’m still undecided on how I feel about this potential HBO series though.
Peloton And Beyoncé Collab
Remember a year ago when everyone was railing on that commercial with the exasperated woman whose husband bought her a Peloton for Christmas? Ha. How times have changed. Peloton’s membership base more than doubled this year. I caved and bought a bike in September, waited the eight weeks for it to be delivered and haven’t looked back. With COVID-19 raging and the streets gettin’ colder by the day, I look forward to snuggling up with my stationary bike to keep my body pumpin’ throughout the winter. Beyoncé has ditched Soul
Cycle for Peloton — the megastar is helping the company gift digital memberships to students at historically Black colleges — and the King Bey-themed rides with Alex Toussaint, Tunde Oyeneyin and Ally Love were worth the wait.
The funniest show on TV is also one of the smartest and most sensitive. Season 2 of Hulu’s “Pen15” finds its seventh-grade BFFs (played by adults Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who co-created the series with Sam Zvibleman) contending with their parents’ domestic tribulations, making a frightening new friend, taking center stage in the school play and engaging in some light witchcraft. You have to watch episodes twice to catch all the jokes.
In the words of viral TikToker Devin Levell, “B***h, I’mma motha … no drama!!” I’ve been a plant mom for about 2.5 years, but my brood quickly grew this year as I attempted to fill my one-bedroom apartment with a little more life. Some are flourishing; some are struggling. But I love them all the same.
Pokemon Go-ing Remote
I’m going to get kind of real right now, Pokemon Go can be a little embarrassing. It’s weird when you’re in your 30s and out with friends, and they’re like, “OMG! There’s the club!” And you’re like, “OMG! There’s a Pikachu with sunglasses!” Even with my friends who do play Pokemon Go, it’s not like we talk about it. On Pokemon, we’re sending gifts to each other every single day; in person we’re just like, “Sup.” But in 2020, Pokemon Go brought in remote raid passes and other features that allow you to catch the pokes with like-minded people from the comfort of your own home. For people with disabilities or people who couldn’t leave their homes for whatever reason, this is a game-changer. These are features that should have been added a long time ago and make the game instantly better. And never again will you have to say out loud, “OK, bae. Go get us a table. I’m just going to run a quick three blocks to catch this Charmander in a birthday hat.”
Quibi’s short life span
It was sad and inevitable to see the fall of Quibi happen so quickly. (R.I.P., “The Nod.”) But could this business model have ever worked? Especially during a pandemic when the idea of watching videos on your phone while commuting was largely moot? Some of the content was cool; it even received Emmy noms! A ton of money was poured into this venture — but perhaps the writing was on the wall when the company sent a cease-and-desist letter to a podcast that literally only wanted to talk about, and in turn promote, Quibi’s content. Grand opening. Grand closing.
“Real Life” By Brandon Taylor
Brandon Taylor’s exquisite debut, set at a Midwestern university, follows a weekend in the life of Alabama-raised biochem graduate student Wallace as he navigates the hostile waters of department politics and the more friendly, yet treacherous, terrain of his mostly white social group. He finds himself caught up in a confusing flirtation, then a fling, with his straight friend; meanwhile, he’s trying to cope with his father’s recent death. From the suffocating competition between labmates to the high drama of a grad student dinner party, “Real Life” takes a scalpel to the cloistered, quietly brutal world of academia.
Regina Hall Meme
Regina Hall is one of the funniest actors working today, full stop. One of her greatest contributions this year, aside from her performances in Showtime’s “Black Monday,” is this meme, which was captured in her appearance in BET’s “Saving Ourselves” news special for COVID-19 relief. When I need to answer “How are you?” this image often perfectly encapsulates my feelings.
Restaurants Turning To Creative Solutions
Restaurants and other businesses in the service industry have suffered so much this year. I feel for the restaurant workers who have had to make the absurd choice between protecting themselves and their families from a deadly disease and trying to pay their bills. In the absence of government aid, many restaurants have turned to creative solutions to stay afloat (if they can) and to assist their neighbors during this horrible year, like transforming their storefronts into makeshift grocery stores, or stocking community fridges, or cooking meals for front-line workers, Black Lives Matter demonstrators and community members facing food insecurity. It should not have had to come to this, but I’m grateful for their efforts.
Saweetie’s “Icy Life” Series
I’ll admit that I wasn’t a fan of Saweetie when she initially got on my radar. “My Type” was cute but I underestimated the Bay Area rapper’s potential for longevity. So Saweetie becoming one of my favorite people to follow definitely wasn’t on my 2020 bingo card. She is the epitome of fun, and the “Back to the Streets” rapper knows exactly what makes for good content. Her YouTube series, “The Icy Life,” gives us a behind-the-scenes look into her work, her life and her God-awful, yet fascinating diet. Bonus points for her cute moments with her boo Quavo from Migos. It’s giving vibes of MTV’s “Diary” but icy. “I know that’s riiiiiiiight!”
Streets Becoming Truly Public Space
There has long been a movement to push cities to prioritize people over cars. In many U.S. cities — and specifically in New York City, where I am based — it took a global pandemic for that to finally, partially happen. In June, the streets erupted with a series of energized, passionate, righteously angry, peaceful protests against police brutality and systemic racism. A few weeks later, the Open Streets program closed down stretches of roads to cars on certain days of the week, and allowed pedestrians freer rein over their own neighborhoods. That has meant picnics in the middle of the street, whole families pulling out fold-up tables and chairs, and pop-up live music — all socially distanced, of course. (The day major news outlets called the election for Joe Biden was unlike anything I have ever seen before.) I never thought I’d be quite so delighted by the ability to eat takeout on the median of a major avenue, but here we are. The streets are ours.
“Survivor” Season 40
Pre-pandemic, I attended the Sundance Film Festival, where I ran into “Survivor” host Jeff Probst at a film party. We chatted (I approached him as a die-hard fan of the show) and, in turn, we scheduled an interview to discuss the historic Season 40 of the long-running reality show. A few weeks into the historic season, which premiered in February and featured 20 former winners fighting for the title of “Best of the Best,” the country was in lockdown and coronavirus-related restrictions were in place. But every Wednesday morning, I woke up excited knowing a new episode of “Winners at War” would be on that evening, allowing me to escape the real world if only for an hour. It turns out, a lot of people felt the same way — with 8 million viewers watching the finale in May, the best numbers the show’s seen for a finale since Season 35. Since then, millions more have discovered “Survivor” as Seasons 20 (“Heroes vs. Villains”) and 28 (“Cagayan”) hit Netflix in November. A show that’s been a stalwart for CBS for two decades — and has catered to a cult following — is now in the Top 10 on the world’s biggest streaming platform. Good going, Probst, and all of us super fans who’ve been watching for years. Now where’s Season 41?
Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” And “Evermore”
When we needed it most, Taylor Swift surprise-dropped one of her best albums to date. Less than a year after the release of her seventh studio album, “Lover,” Swift debuted “Folklore” in July to rave reviews from fans and critics. The singer-songwriter worked alongside The National’s Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff to produce 17 songs (including deluxe edition’s “The Lakes”) that beautifully elicited romanticism and escapism. The group exchanged lyrics and instrumentation through digital files while in lockdown during the pandemic, creating the entire album in isolation. They recently released a concert film on Disney+, in which the trio discusses and performs songs from the now-Grammy-nominated record. If you have a chance, take a nice, long drive down a scenic road and press play. And, in even more news, Swift dropped 15-track sister album “Evermore” on Dec. 11, just in case you were craving more from this fruitful collaboration. Happy holidays, indeed!
Ted Lasso got into the Premier League around the same time I did — in 2013, when I had just started dating a Tottenham Hotspur fan and NBC Sports had just acquired the U.S. rights to Premier League coverage. The network aired a promo spot featuring Jason Sudeikis playing a gum-chewing Kansas City college football coach who has inexplicably been handed the reins to Tottenham’s squad. The NBC promos, while hilarious, seemed like just enough concept for a couple of brief fish-out-of-water sketches: Coach Lasso harangues his players to full-body tackle each other during practice, doesn’t understand the offside rule, and is offended by the concept of a tie. (Americans!) I was skeptical when the character resurfaced with a full show this year, but then I was thrilled to be wrong. The Apple TV+ show tweaks the formula just enough — building out a farcical but plausible backstory; sanding down Ted Lasso’s cocky ignorance in favor of a doofy, good-hearted optimism; and focusing more on the relationships among coaches and teammates than the mechanics of how an American football coach would, uh, actually coach elite footballers — to allow Sudeikis and his supporting cast to shine. The scripts are gentle and funny, bursting with unexpected allusions and unexpected moments of tenderness. “Ted Lasso” is that rare thing in 2020: a joyful surprise.
The Telfar shopping bag had been an underground sleeper hit, primarily among Black NYC folks, but in 2020 it reached an apex in popularity. It was seen on mainstream celebrities including Dua Lipa and Selena Gomez. But the biggest marker of the bag’s transcendence into cult status had to be the ongoing online discourse surrounding what it represents within the culture, particularly after the brand announced its Bag Security Program. To combat resellers and their astronomical markups, Telfar offered desperate fashion fans the opportunity to preorder a bag of their choice in August, with a guarantee they will receive their bag “no later than JANUARY 15 PERIOD.” What a time to be alive.
At the start of the pandemic, I got a text message from a friend who had just watched “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” on Netflix: “This doc is insane. I can’t believe these people actually exist.” He wasn’t wrong. Joe Exotic. Carole Baskin. Doc Antle. Jeff Lowe. The world of big cat breeding and its inhabitants captivated audiences who were stuck at home, and nabbed some Emmy nominations along the way. The cast of characters was so bizarre, in fact, that I swear nearly half the population dressed up as them for Halloween. And Baskin was even selected to participate on Season 29 of “Dancing With the Stars.” Nothing like giving a woman whose husband mysteriously disappeared an even bigger platform on network TV!
Yes, I’m an old millennial. Yes, I’m on TikTok. Yes, I text my friends TikTok videos all day. In the “before times,” I thought it was just for children, but I discovered a world full of organizers, home cooks, astrologers, gua sha experts, iced coffee enthusiasts and comedic geniuses on the platform. I’ve learned how to clean my oven, remove my toilet seat and declutter my life in dozens of 60-second videos. I’ll probably never post anything myself, though.
Tom Pelphrey In “Ozark”
In one of the best performances of the year, Tom Pelphrey fully embodied the complicated character of Ben Davis on Season 3 of “Ozark,” which debuted to critical acclaim in late March. As Wendy Byrde’s (Laura Linney) brother, Ben comes to the Ozarks looking for solace after a bipolar episode leaves him jobless. Soon, he falls for Marty Byrde’s (Jason Bateman) money-laundering sidekick Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) and gets mixed up in the family’s shady business dealings. It doesn’t end well for Ben, but Pelphrey, who is also a standout in David Fincher’s “Mank,” finally got his due. (I’m still mad about that Emmy snub, though!)
“Too Hot To Handle”
Netflix’s reality TV offerings were truly unparalleled this year — and perfect for pandemic times. “Too Hot to Handle” didn’t create the level of fervor that “The Circle” and “Love Is Blind” did, but the fact that it was centered on a group of hot singles trying desperately to exist in close proximity without touching each other for the good of the group was laughably resonant in the midst of COVID-19 isolation. Plus, this show brought underboob to the masses.
“Top Chef: All-Stars L.A.”
I rediscovered my love for “Top Chef” when I was home on maternity leave in 2018. The chefs on the “Kentucky” season — namely BFFs Kelsey Barnard Clark and Sara Bradley — reeled me back into the world of Quickfires and Elimination challenges. So, when it ended, I began rewatching old seasons. By March 2020 when “All-Stars L.A.” debuted, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Bryan Voltaggio was back! Kevin Gillespie was back! Gregory Gourdet was back! OMG, Melissa King! The season was full of former standouts making absolutely drool-worthy dishes, and host Padma Lakshmi and judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons became #careergoals once again. (Can you imagine spending months eating culinary masterpieces and drinking bucket-loads of wine? As a job???) There was nothing better than recording a new episode, waking up early on Friday morning and watching chefs compete for $10,000 gift certificates while I sipped coffee and shoveled pancakes into my mouth.
“The Unreality Of Memory” By Elisa Gabbert
I think of Elisa Gabbert’s latest book, “The Unreality of Memory,” as essays about shit that will keep you up at night. Climate change, tsunamis, catastrophic technological failures — of course, but those are the obvious ones. Her essays examine megalophobia (the fear of huge objects), the perverse human yearning for terror and pain (“My own past suffering,” she writes, “can be a great source of comfort”), and the ways psychological trauma can be manifested in our bodies. At times I wondered why I wanted to read a book about disasters amid the pandemic, Trump’s presidency, the climate change tipping point, and so on. But of course it’s the most natural thing in the world to find comfort in processing those threats. Reading these wide-ranging essays feels like being taken on a relaxing meander through a chamber of horrors, with a steady and wise guide at your side to help you make sense of it all.
“The Vanishing Half” By Brit Bennett
There’s a reason this novel is on nearly every “Top Books of 2020” list I’ve seen. “The Vanishing Half” reads like a thriller — it’s nearly impossible to put down, especially when you get to the second half — but it’s a literary novel that explores our cultural conceptions about race and gender and domesticity. The novel centers on Stella and Desiree, twin girls who grew up in a fictional Black town in the South where each generation has put a premium on having children who have lighter skin than they do. As the twins get older and experience racial trauma, they react in opposite ways. It’s a beautiful, gripping story, and a thoughtful meditation on whiteness, Blackness and the way race is constructed in America.
The iconic Instagram music battle series will hopefully live on past the pandemic — and even if it doesn’t, the artists who have performed on the Verzuz “stage” have given us so much. Erykah Badu and Jill Scott showed us their musical genius and grace. Ne-Yo and Johnta Austin reminded us of all the hits they helped make pop. Jeezy and Gucci turned it into an awkward display. And we even got some laughs in. I mean, really, who can say “throw in the towel” now without thinking about Tyrese’s flub?
Virtual Film Festivals
As a moviegoer, one of my saving graces has been film festivals making their films available online, including many potential Oscar contenders with uncertain release schedules. Sure, these digital cinemas will never replicate the experience of laughing and crying together with strangers in a theater. But I hope these virtual options will become a permanent component of film festivals. In recent years, many film festival organizers and programmers have been trying to make festivals more inclusive and accessible. This would be a great way to make that happen.
Virtual Theater Productions
Once again, in the absence of government aid, arts and cultural institutions have been forced to find creative solutions to keep their work going. Theater artists and companies have tried various kinds of virtual readings and productions. This summer, New York City’s Public Theater turned its annual Shakespeare in the Park production into a fantastic radio play on WNYC. Theater of War — which pairs staged readings of ancient Greek tragedies with timely conversations about social justice issues — is now doing them as Zoom events, with a particular focus on the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. London’s Old Vic theater created several minimalist productions, performed in an empty theater with a handful of socially distanced actors and crew and broadcast live over Zoom. My favorite of them, the one-man show “Three Kings,” starred Andrew Scott (aka the Hot Priest from “Fleabag”). His commanding and riveting performance as a man grappling with the effects of his absent father left me absolutely rapt, even while watching it in my apartment.
“The Vow” And “Seduced”
For the last four years, it has felt as if the entire nation has been held hostage by the cult of Trumpism and dangerous, retrograde masculinity. So is it really a shock that so many of us would be captivated by the abundance of content about NXIVM, a cult dressed up as an “executive success” program, led by a charismatic, mediocre white dude named Keith Raniere, who turned out to be a sadomasochistic psychopath and used trumped-up credentials and misogynist ideology to manipulate and abuse the men, and especially the women, who followed him? First came HBO’s “The Vow,” which follows a handful of high-up NXIVM defectors. Even more unsettling and effective is Starz’s “Seduced,” which follows India Oxenberg, a former second-tier “slave” in NXIVM’s terrifying women-only secret sorority, DOS. Oxenberg’s voice is brave and steady, and she leads viewers through the grooming and trauma that accompany being ensnared in a cult for years, and the reckoning that must occur once you leave. I binged it all without regret.
Wall Decals (And Other Home Decor)
My boyfriend is fond of telling me that he knows I’m on the verge of a mental breakdown when I start putting “stickers” (i.e., peel-and-stick wallpaper and/or wall decals) — like these from Samantha Santana — all over my home. But I’d argue that nesting and home decorating have actually been key pieces of my COVID-19 survival, a way to stave off such aforementioned mental breaks. It gets boring staring at the same five walls all day every day, when your apartment is not just the place you sleep, but also where you make and eat three meals a day, go to the gym, go to work, have therapy, go to the movies, and go to the (solo) bar. Sometimes changing things up helps. And when you can prove to yourself that you have some serious handyperson skills, all the better! In 2020, little paint — and a few stickers — went a long way.
Yes, 2020 was awful. But it will always be the year Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion gave us the phrase “Macaroni in a pot” in “WAP,” and for that we must always be grateful.
“We Are Who We Are”
Luca Guadagnino, the director of “Call Me by Your Name” and “I Am Love,” made a luscious leap to TV with HBO’s “We Are Who We Are,” a coming-of-age escapade set on an American military base in Italy. What starts as a meandering character study about an insolent 14-year-old boy (Jack Dylan Grazer in a sterling breakthrough) becomes a ravishing drama about a group of young friends (and their parents, including a colonel played by Chloë Sevigny) living amid the specter of war.
We think this one is self-explanatory.
“You’re Wrong About” Podcast’s Princess Diana Episodes
Every episode of “You’re Wrong About,” hosted by journalists Sarah Marshall and HuffPost’s very own Michael Hobbes, is a delicious deep dive into the narrative of a person or historical event and what our culture often gets wrong about it. The show is very fun and incredibly informative. It’s a real auditory treat, and a fantastic diversion from the hellscape that was much of the past year. Ahead of the release of the fourth season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” Marshall and Hobbes released a five-part series on Princess Diana, and it did not disappoint. I came away from it with greater clarity about and a greater appreciation for Diana Spencer, “hot mess” moments and all. (Bonus points if you, like me, owned a Princess Diana Beanie Baby as an adolescent.)
Ziwe Fumudoh’s “Baited”
Ziwe is a comedic genius. Her Instagram Live interview series, “Baited,” lured in tons of viewers to watch her go in on her guests with questions like: Name your five favorite Black people. It was quite revealing to see celebs and influencers (including Alison Roman, Rose McGowan and others) struggle to answer her simple questions. I’m looking forward to seeing her flourish with her own series on Showtime.