The 20 Films And TV Shows That Defined 2020
From the miniseries that most accurately explain our contentious presidential election to the small indie films that broke through as a result of the pandemic-induced theater closures.
2020 has been an awful year — one I hope I never have to think about again, let alone relive. But it’s also been an important year that has taught us a lot about who we are as people, and more broadly, as a nation. From the on-going COVID-19 pandemic to the presidential election that seemingly never ends, this year has been defined by calamity. We’ve experienced racial unrest and political upheaval. The past twelve months have been a whirlwind of a roller-coaster, filled with ups and downs alike. So I’ve tried to recount this terribly chaotic year through the films and TV shows that spoke to it most.
When Politics Felt Crazier Than Fiction: All In, Mrs. America, and The Plot Against America
It’s hard to talk about 2020 without talking about the presidential election. To try to sum up everything that has happened politically over the last twelve months is an impossible task. But when reflecting on the narrow margin by which Biden secured the presidency in November, I can’t help but return to All In: The Fight For Democracy, a documentary about the history of voter suppression in America. Centered on the historic gubernatorial race between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp, in which Abrams lost only after Georgia-based Republicans disenfranchised more than half a million Democratic-registered voters, the film is devastating. But its focus on Abrams’ tireless effort to right these wrongs ahead of the 2020 election was inspirational — particularly in hindsight, as we see just how big of a role Georgia played in the eventual Biden win. Abrams is a politician unlike many, more interested in positive change for her community than she is in power for its own sake. Though it’s Biden who will be moving into the White House come January, it’s people like Abrams who really made the difference.
On the other hand, there’s still the fact that the race came as close as it did — definitive proof that, despite his awful track-record, Trump still commanded a shocking amount of conservative American support. In some liberal circles, such a revelation came as a surprise, especially after months of watching him flounder through a pandemic that has completely changed the world as we know it. But for others, it made perfect sense.
HBO’s under-discussed The Plot Against America offers an explanation, following a working-class Jewish family as they watch real-life conservative Charles Lindbergh secure a presidency on a blatantly white supremacist platform. Though the miniseries isn’t factual, its depiction of the ease in which fascism can become insidiously normalized is strikingly similar to what we’ve witnessed with Trump. Through dog-whistling speeches and double-handed political regimes, Lindbergh successfully spoke to the underlying anxieties of white people already intimidated by the power being gained by hopeful Jewish-Americans.
FX on Hulu’s excellent Mrs. America went one step further by telling the quasi-true story of the rise of Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), a stay-at-home mom-cum-conservative political activist widely known for her vocal opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. A compellingly rendered depiction of two warring sides (Schlafly’s fellow STOP ERA supporters vs. liberal feminists like Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm), Mrs. America may feel weird in the present, when debates about women’s rights have extended far beyond “should they get to go to work and earn their own money.” But the Emmy-nominated series’ basis in real events from our recent past make it a prescient example of just how hard some people are willing to fight against their own best interests.
A New Kind of Sexual Assault Story: I May Destroy You and Promising Young Woman
As we look toward a Trump-less future, though, many people have begun to wonder what our media will look like in the years to come. The predominant consensus amongst my own circle of friends contends that much of what has come out since our 45th president took office has been reactionary, mere outbursts in response to the plentiful horrors of our present society. In 2020, a year in which Trump’s presidential ineptitude was at its peak, things naturally still felt reactionary, but several programs managed to show brief glimpses of what the hereafter could offer.
In I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel reflects on her own experience with sexual assault, in a show that deliberately resists easy categorization. (Is it a comedy? A drama?) But in its spellbinding finale, Coel ups the ante, using a fantastical dream sequence to show her enacting sexual assault on the very man that once assaulted her. Upon its release, I described the finale as “utterly transfixing in its execution,” stressing that it was “one of the most thoughtful conclusions” I had ever seen for a TV show. While other shows (like the hit-or-miss Lovecraft Country) also toyed with depictions of rape-as-rape-revenge, Coel’s did so in a way that felt provocative but not exploitative. It wasn’t meant to be celebratory, but rather challenging — a risk that acknowledged just how difficult it is to truly recover from such a life-altering event.
This carries over into Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell’s debut feature. Starring Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan as former star medical school student Cassie, the film follows as she frequents nightclubs, pretending to be debilitatingly drunk in order to trick men into trying to assault her. While rape revenge stories are certainly nothing new, the idea that a female protagonist, particularly one who wasn’t even a rape survivor herself, would make a habit of putting herself in harm’s way was admittedly novel. Exactingly raw in its critique of the prevalence of sexual assault, the film is a deliberately complicated cautionary tale, goading its viewers into tricky territory as it takes its time revealing its true motives. Its disheartening but inevitable conclusion only adds to these complications, presenting a scenario in which no one emerges the victor — an ultimately effective denouement that, like IMDY, accepts that, very often, sexual assault is a lose-lose game where the smallest wins still comes with loss.
The Rise of Comfort TV: Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso
No one was prepared for Schitt’s Creek’s complete and total domination at September’s Emmys ceremony, and yet, there it was, securing awards for Comedy Series, Writing, Directing, Casting, and Contemporary Costumes. Not to mention the four trophies it secured for each member of its central cast — the first show to sweep all acting categories since HBO’s Angels in America in 2004. After airing for six seasons on Pop TV, 2020 was the first year the sitcom had ever won any Emmy; in fact, it wasn’t even nominated for the top TV honor until 2019. It’s easy to argue that this historic showing was merely in response to this being the Canadian sitcom’s final season — and thus, its last opportunity to be awarded. But I can’t help but think this outpouring of love for such an adorable series — about a formerly wealthy family of divas that find themselves relegated to a comparatively podunk town that the family patriarch once bought his pansexual son as a birthday joke — was also a result of our current pandemic.
As people all around the world locked themselves in their homes for quarantine, TV binging became the norm. But this time indoors also coincided with the embrace of a specific type of programming: easygoing fare that made us smile and forget how much the world was burning around us. Schitt’s Creek, with its saccharine outlook on life, fit the mold perfectly. That Hollywood decided to uplift such a delightfully chipper show now is no mere coincidence.
The same could be said about Ted Lasso, a big enough hit for Apple TV+ to immediately renew it for a very comfortable two seasons. Starring reliable funny-man Jason Sudeikis as the titular former American football coach, who is hired as a British soccer coach despite knowing nothing about the sport, the quick-moving comedy was defined by its unrelenting sense of optimism. Recruited as deliberate sabotage by the team’s new owner, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), Ted was supposed to fail; but through sheer force of will (and plenty of surprisingly effective inspirational speeches), he somehow ends up succeeding. By definition, Ted Lasso is peak comfort TV — its inherent appeal is its ability to make you feel positive precisely because Ted himself radiates positivity. He refuses to let any kind of bad vibes ruin his own perception of how things on the outside should look — and in the middle of such a painfully dour year, nothing was more welcome than a show that insisted everything would eventually work out.
Embrace The Cringe: Emily In Paris, Love Is Blind, and Tiger King
On the other hand, this pandemic also sparked an interest in something slightly different: cringe-inducing TV that we simply couldn’t turn away from. Take Emily In Paris, the latest project to emerge from Darren Star (he of Sex and the City and Younger fame). The Paramount Network-cum-Netflix hit followed Lily Collins as the titular Emily, who somehow goes from Chicago-based PR assistant to Paris-based C-list fashion influencer overnight. Most people agreed that the ten-episode series was not particularly good, and yet, so many people, myself included, found ourselves plowing through it over a matter of nights, entirely incapable of escaping the grasp of its impossibly unrealistic vision. Emily In Paris isn’t the first show to capture universal attention in spite of its clear failure to actually deliver any sense of quality storytelling — and Emily is such a wholly unsavory character that one can’t even argue that we’re watching simply because we like following a nice character do dumb stuff — but this year, as we desperately sought out worthy distractions, watching so-bad-it’s-good TV was king.
I first noticed this frame-of-mind shift several months prior, thanks to a pair of insanely captivating reality series — both which (unsurprisingly) aired on Emily In Paris’ home network of Netflix. The first was Love Is Blind, a dating show that dared to ask whether a real love connection could be formed on conversation alone (aka without ever seeing one another). Though it predated the pandemic (its reunion special aired on March 5th, two weeks before New York’s lockdown took effect), in hindsight, the show was always a harbinger of dating during quarantine. Though we were still able to see who we were talking to, the idea of being unable to touch or meaningfully engage with someone you were pursuing romantically (or sexually) resonated. A completely batshit take on The Bachelor's and Love Island’s of the world, Love Is Blind was largely a nonsensical mess. Yet its insistence that it was something more — something profound — kept audiences tuning in, an impressive feat, especially considering how much its weekly release schedule went against the very ethos of Netflix’s binge-forward business model.
Then, there’s Tiger King, inarguably Netflix’s biggest show of the year. A soap-opera dressed in a docuseries’ clothing, it attempted to tell the story of real-life “Tiger King” Joe Exotic, an eccentric gay zookeeper who speaks with an exaggerated Southern twang, and his arch nemesis (and recent Dancing With the Stars competitor) Carole Baskin, the CEO of a radical big cat activist group. A real-life story involving animal exploitation, murder-for-hires, and a mysteriously disappeared ex-husband, the series was addictingly salacious. Except much like HBO’s recently-concluded The Vow, Tiger King didn’t entice from any sense of intelligent documentary filmmaking. Rather, it capitalized on our dishonorable desires for crude stories about people messier than ourselves. Released right at the beginning of lockdown, Tiger King effectively became the talk-of-the-town, dominating headlines and Twitter feeds for weeks on end — so much so that Netflix even greenlit a surprise bonus episode three weeks after its premiere. A cringe-inducing series too juicy to pass up, Tiger King was evidence that sometimes shock-factor is more than enough to capture an audience’s attention.
A Year Without Blockbusters: First Cow, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and Palm Springs
Of course, the most important pandemic-induced shift for Hollywood came in the closure of theaters nationwide, which not only led to the permanent shuttering of one of our largest movie chains but also caused a constant reshuffling of the studio release calendar, with some films being pushed back by months (sometimes, even years) while others were sent straight to PVOD. While it will take some time before we really feel the true impacts of this sea change, one positive effect of studios safeguarding their biggest-budget blockbusters was a renewed focus on the small films that did make the cut.
In any other year, a film like Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow would have quietly floated under the radar, seen only by people who watch and review movies for a living. The indie follows an unlikely pair of men as they strike gold when they find a cow in an area where there are none; soon, they’re secretly milking it to make dairy-based biscuits that quickly become a sought-after commodity in their small dairy-less town. One of the first films to be impacted by the pandemic — it was released in limited theaters on March 6th, only to be pulled by its distributor immediately after — First Cow eventually benefited from that delay when it was released on PVOD in July, where desperate-to-rent cinephiles could rent it on a bored night inside. First Cow has been my favorite 2020 film since I saw it in February, but I could have never foreseen it becoming the cult classic it has since become thanks to its relatively easy accessibility.
Films that were acquired by streaming platforms fared even better. Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a somber film about one girl’s (breakout Sidney Flanigan) cross-state journey with her cousin to get an abortion, is a stunning followup to her 2017 queer classic Beach Rats. A heartbreakingly poignant tale about our antiquated healthcare system, it was an important film during a year when discussions about reproductive rights were everywhere — but such a film would have inevitably floundered at the box office. On HBO Max, however, where it’s available to stream for subscribers, it has been able to find an audience of dedicated supporters.
Ditto to Palm Springs, an inventive comedy starring Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg and How I Met Your Mother’s Cristin Milioti as two people stuck in a vicious time-loop that forces them to relive the same wedding over and over again. It’s upsetting to accept that such a smart, fresh, and above all, hilarious comedy would have struggled on the big screen — mid-budget comedies are dying, haven’t you heard — but on Hulu, it was thankfully able to become a word-of-mouth hit, such is the case when subscribers nationwide can find you with the click of a button.
Time To Crown A New Ingenue: Emma. and The Queen’s Gambit
Every year, America embraces a new starlet. Last year, it was Florence Pugh, who starred in three critically acclaimed films before being cast in a Marvel project and concluding it with a much-coveted Oscar nomination. This year, that award went to Anya Taylor-Joy, who has parlayed her breakout in Robert Eggers’ cerebral thriller The VVitch into scene-stealing roles in blockbusters (M. Night Shymalan’s Split) and indie hits (Cory Finley’s dark comedy Thoroughbreds) alike.
The 24-year-old has been quietly rising in stature for years, but in 2020, she finally became the name on everyone’s lips. It started at the end of February, with the release of Emma., Autumn de Wilde’s inventive take on the beloved Jane Austen novel. The classic tale has been adapted several times before — and I wouldn’t necessarily qualify de Wilde’s as the best — but this 2020 take was a brilliant showcase for Taylor-Joy, whose wide expressive eyes were key to this version’s bright-eyed take on self-important meddling. Taylor-Joy’s reign only intensified with the release of The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s biggest scripted limited series in history, which followed the young actress as a fictional chess prodigy whose undeniable knack for the male-dominated game turned her into a celebrity in her own right. The miniseries proved a perfect parallel for Taylor-Joy herself, who similarly found herself thrust into the spotlight, where her delightful demeanor only endeared her to audiences more — whether the native Spanish speaker was talking about teaching herself English by binging Harry Potter films or getting discovered by “stupidly” agreeing to stop and talk to a stranger in a sketchy car.
A Blackness, Re-Examined: Small Axe, Black Is King, and P-Valley
Whether Small Axe, as a whole, should qualify as a TV series or an interconnected set of films will probably be up for debate forevermore, but one thing is for certain: there has never been anything like it before. Watching its opening installment, the scene-setting two-hour Mangrove, would be a disillusioning experience at any time, but watching in September, so close to the civil unrest erupting all over the country in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, was infuriating. As I contended with the never-ending cycle of police brutality in my own world, watching a group of bullheaded white officers make it their life’s mission to unreasonably terrorize a group of Black people was hard to stomach. The parallels between Mangrove and America’s current racial predicament were obvious, especially during its second half when we follow a group of activists as they organize peaceful protests against police brutality. But Small Axe was more than a reflection of our nation’s present horrors — it was also a way forward. Lovers Rock, the second installment (and also one of my favorite films of the year), takes place almost entirely at a packed reggae house party, where West Indian Brits sweatily dance the night away, largely unconcerned with the white outside world. Education, its concluding hour, spotlights the power of Black community as they rally together to help educate a young Black man who was expelled from his high-performing school due to his low IQ.
Black Is King, Beyoncé’s 85-minute self-directed feature music film, similarly offered a vision of a self-affirming Black future by looking to an (imagined) past. Retelling the story of The Lion King, Beyoncé takes viewers on a tour of Africa in a tale that follows a young king as he embarks on a life-changing journey of self-discovery. As its name suggests, Black Is King ignores the white gaze almost entirely, rooting its own exploration in one of the wider Black diaspora, carving out a path towards greatness unperturbed by racial limitations. The film featured cameos by dozens of brown-skinned celebrities, but in the end, it was its reimagination of a coming-of-age tale that stood out. As an entertainer, Beyoncé herself has always been an exemplar of the potential of Black excellence, a roving empress of tireless work and spotless execution. (Not to mention, a paragon of the possibility of creating new work in complete secrecy, even in the age of inevitable social media leaks.) In Black Is King, the Grammy-winning perfectionist offered Black viewers their own opportunity to take part in her radical vision.
P-Valley, STARZ’s television adaptation of a play written by Katori Hall, resonated on the same level. Centered on the Mississippi Delta strip club The Pynk, the neon-lit drama told the wide-ranging stories of the exotic dancers who made their living on The Pynk’s poles. Coming just a year after Lorene Scafaria’s great Hustlers, the world seemed ready for a thought-provoking drama that centered strippers instead of using them as background setpieces. But where Hustlers sometimes fell prey to an unrealistic cinematic sheen, P-Valley kept its central cast near the ground, never once glamourizing their struggles as sex workers with bills to pay. And with its unflinching focus on a group of differently-minded Black individuals (from the tough-minded Mercedes to the light-skinned Autumn Night to the nonbinary den mother Uncle Clifford), P-Valley felt like a raw depiction of modern-day Black life.
The Surprisingly Sincere Heart of Crude TV: Dave and Big Mouth
And finally, 2020 offered a bevy of shows that went deeper than they needed to. I felt this most through Dave, an FXX series loosely based on the life of white rapper Lil Dicky. For months, I avoided this show like the plague, wholly convinced that a comedy about a rapper I already found unforgivably annoying (listen to his racially insensitive Chris Brown collaboration if you don’t want to take my word) would offer nothing worth my while. But in October, I finally caved, thanks to recommendations from numerous people whose opinions I hold in high regard. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found — not just because Dave was utterly hilarious, but because it was also sincere and often profound. The show was surprisingly self-aware, boldly acknowledging the controversy of Lil Dicky’s entire existence as a white rapper, but it was also interested in other discussions — about the prison industrial complex, about bipolar disorder. Dave was, by all means, a Trojan Horse of a series, packing its shallow premise with dozens of deeper ideas. I’m just thankful that I didn’t let my own stubbornness keep me away for too long.
Around the same time, I dove into Big Mouth, a show that I actually have been a fan of since its premiere three years ago. While the animated series, about a group of young teenagers trying to navigate the perils of puberty, has always used raunchy humor to tell sensitive stories, its fourth season, in particular, was a revelation. There was, of course, the controversy surrounding Jenny Slate, who, after three and a half seasons of voicing biracial fan-favorite Missy, stepped down to be replaced by Black comedian Ayo Edebiri — a brilliantly-timed switch, as the voice change comes right at a crucial moment in Missy’s rising racial self-awareness. But there was also the delicate storyline about Natalie, a trans girl trying to find herself, and one about Aiden, the show’s token gay kid, who finally gets his chance in the spotlight. That the show has managed to pack this much heart into its bawdy world is an accomplishment — and for the first time since it happened, Netflix’s landmark three-season renewal makes perfect sense.
It’s interesting to consider this trend in the context of 2020, a year that, by all accounts, felt like the opposite: one many expected to be great but ultimately turned to complete and utter shit. Yet even throughout these last few months of tragedy — the pandemic, the stressful election, the back-to-back-to-back murders of innocent Black people — there were moments that shone through to offer us all a reason to keep moving forward, ones that hinted at better days to come. After swearing that 2020 would be my year, I’ve learned my lesson and have no intentions to do the same for 2021. But just like the silly slapstick of Dave, which ultimately proved much deeper, I do believe that the future can offer us a light at the end of this very dark, very long, very terrifying tunnel. If nothing else, we’ll always have TV and film to help us make sense of it all.