The Film and TV Moments That Defined 2020

In the twilight of 2019, on the edge of an election year that already seemed like it had been going on for months, the worst thing we could have imagined across the entirety of the pop culture landscape was what the butthole cut of Cats might look like. How naive we were. Anyway, here are 20 film and TV moments that defined 2020.

Fondest ‘Before Times’ Memory: Birds of Prey (in a Theater)

For those first 10 or so weeks of 2020, with all the promise of an avalanche of big-budget blockbusters come summer, the ‘last movie you saw in a theater’ inevitably became a question when those months eventually rolled around. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, which was later retitled post-release to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey for mostly SEO-related reasons, ended up being the answer a lot of people gave.

While it wasn’t a masterpiece, Margot Robbie once more reprising the character of Joker’s long-suffering lover proved more than enough mindless fun for its modest run time. And, unlike most films adjacent to the equally long-suffering DCEU franchise, it failed to start the kind of petulant discourse that proceeds it. Although there’d be plenty of time for that by Christmas.

Most Nerve-Racking Moment: Kim Wexler vs. Lalo Salomanca, Better Call Saul

Sometime around the end of Season 2, the question of whether or not Better Call Saul would surpass Breaking Bad. At the conclusion of Season 5, which bridged the pre-and post-pandemic world, that question remains hotly debated. However, the prequel series did manage to ratchet up the stakes as Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) began his descent into the criminal underworld in earnest.

Looking back, the season will most readily be associated with Jimmy and Mike (Jonathan Banks) wandering the New Mexico desert with millions in bail money while being pursued by heavily-armed thieves. Though it was the standoff between Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Lalo (Tony Dalton) in the episode that followed that will end up resonating the most. Suspicious of Jimmy’s missing time, Lalo ultimately confronts Jimmy, demanding to know the truth. As Jimmy struggled to rise to the occasion, Kim stepped in, berating the cartel boss for being unappreciative. And in doing so, took her first real steps into the underworld alongside Jimmy — and possibly sealing her (still unknown) fate.

Worst Circumstantial Success: Tiger King

Once lockdowns and various stay-at-home orders were issued across globe (and, in some cases in the U.S., even adhered to), people turned to streaming in ways they never had before. Coincidentally, Netflix had just released Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, a seven-part “documentary” — in the loosest possible sense of the fucking word. Days later, the story of Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, and other 21st-century carnies unfolded in the most overwrought and overdramatized way possible. Naturally, America couldn’t get enough.

Most Disruptive Moment (on a Purely Superficial Level): All of Television Since March

It’s impossible to overstate just how heartbreaking and utterly disruptive the pandemic has been, and it seemed absolutely no aspect of day-to-day life would be unaffected. When it came to episodic television, it made the ’08 writers strike seem positively quaint in comparison.

As each production slowly ran out of completed episodes, schedules started descending into chaos. Seasons ended unplanned, beloved shows were canceled abruptly, and animators were brought in to help fill in the cracks in a desperate effort to bring what stories they could to a temporary close. To help fill the void, cast members from long-ended programs would virtually reunite to read scripts from years-old episodes, or in the case of Parks & Rec, a brand new one, tailor-made for an audience in quarantine. Which showed just how important on-set chemistry can be.

Some weeks later, a kind of new normal emerged, with news, talk and game show sets suddenly shot with much wider lenses to accommodate six feet of distance between people. Now, some productions (the ones that can afford it) have resumed in isolated bubbles, but the rollout of new scripted content has been slowed to a crawl. Especially when compared to last year, with the pop culture world at the cusp of the streaming wars.

Most Comically-Delayed Film: No Time to Die

Honest to god, the last franchise’s milestone film I would’ve imagined ending up in development hell would be something as steadily reliable as James Bond. Mired with technical difficulties and “creative differences,” the 25th Bond film had already become a something of a running gag. Then, Daniel Craig’s long-professed final round as Agent 007 has been put on hold indefinitely as an entire industry struggles with what to do next.

Stupidest Decision by a Smart Filmmaker: Christopher Nolan Releasing Tenet (in a Theater)

Without a clear plan of what to do, Hollywood seems to have learned what not to do in a global pandemic. Right as things were going from bad to not-really-being-taken-seriously-enough-by-everybody bad, director Christopher Nolan championed his time-bending crime drama Tenet be released on the big screen. Promotional campaigns were unleashed, theaters were restaffed and reopened, and all for a the kind of weekend turnouts that would pay for a handful of late-model used two-door Hondas.

Tenet wasn’t the only film to force its way into theaters, of course, with the likes of Russell Crowe leading the charge of a handful of independent flicks that presented their in-theater viewings as some kind of idiotic badge of machismo honor. Nolan, however, is renowned for being a notoriously ‘smart’ filmmaker, and despite being overrated, has remained committed to the big screen experience. Who’ll now likely remain associated with the seemingly imminent demise of movie theaters, at least as we know them.

Most Subversive Experience: Lovecraft Country

Based on the anthology by Matt Ruff and adapted for HBO by Misha Green, Lovecraft Country relished in employing nearly every well-worn trope of the horror genre against the stark backdrop of Black life in the pre-Civil Rights era. Through its semi-meta approach, it delved deep into the lore of Lovecraftian Weird Fiction, as well as the author’s own well-known bigotry. Most unsettling, however, was that for all the ancient, otherworldly horrors that were introduced across the semi-anthology’s 10-episode run, nothing proved more terrifying than what people are capable of — and how eager they are to act on their ugliest impulses.

Best Folksy Colloquialisms: Ted Lasso

There was a lot to appreciate about Ted Lasso, which was quietly released on AppleTV+ in August and picked up steam following the wave of free year-long trials handed out with each new iPhone. SNL vet Jason Sudeikis played the affable, eponymous coach, who was the closest thing to a real-life Ned Flanders we might ever get. While the show was much more than Ted’s occasional turn-of-phrase, and might be the best sitcom about genuine camaraderie and affection since Parks & Rec concluded in 2015. But I will never not laugh at one of Lasso’s pep talks, which always includes gems like, “You beating yourself up is like Woody Allen playing the clarinet. I don’t want to hear it.”

Most Misunderstood Adaptation: Perry Mason

Perry Mason has been a character since he first appeared in print back 1933, 24 years before Raymond Burr became the fourth or fifth actor (depending on who you ask) to play the infamous lawyer. Although you’d never know it by the sheer volume of reviews and commentary that flooded in this June with HBO’s latest iteration, which was lauded as an unnecessarily dark and gritty detective story with nary a courtroom scene. Much like that very first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws.

Google’s free, for chrissakes.

Best Wikipedia Bait: Hamilton

Four years after Hamilton became a household name, a phenomenal achievement for any first-run theatrical production — on Broadway or off — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about America’s founding fathers was made available to anyone who ponied up for a Disney+ subscription. Unsurprisingly, it started (and revived) a flood of debates over its portrayals of history and slavery, as well as the responsibility that art plays in the conversation.

Like the musical itself, it also sparked a fury of interest in the nuanced history of the Revolutionary War and the founding of America that went far beyond high school history. While Miranda famously billed his musical as “the story of America then, as told by America now,” like all great art, it sparked a much larger conversation, and revealed how those two Americas might not be all that different.

Most Off-putting Impression: Jim Carrey as Joe Biden, Saturday Night Live

In an era where election-year politics becomes increasingly fused with fucking everything, SNL’s commitment to stunt casting key figures from that week’s headlines has continued to prove increasingly tiresome. Never was this more evident when Jim Carrey was selected to play Biden in a handful of episodes through the November elections. What followed were a half-dozen cold-open sketches featuring Carrey straining to unleash a mishmash of prior impressions while under heavy prosthetics.

Okay, the finger guns thing was kinda funny. The first time.

Best Slow-Burn: Fargo, ‘Welcome to the Alternate Economy’

For its first three seasons, Fargo was laden with references to the 1996 Coen brothers’ movie that bears its name. As Season 4 let the show fully come into its own, the premiere, “Welcome to the Alternate Economy,” showrunner Noah Hawley may have moved through a half-century of Kansas City history, but made it clear he’d be taking his time. And practically reinventing the television slow-burn while he was at it.

Most Successful Needle-Threading: The Mandalorian Season 2

For a fandom that seems almost heroically dedicated to hating Star Wars, Jon Favreau not only soothed this perpetually-irritated subset with The Mandalorian’s first season, but bridged some of the coolest aspects of the franchise along with its… less cool aspects. The latter continued to Season 2, as Favreau and company (namely Dave Filoni), managed to thread the needle and incorporate fringe characters from the still-canon parts of the saga that exist outside the films while telling a story that’s accessible to casual viewers. Not to mention having the return of Luke Skywalker make actual narrative sense beyond the fan service.

Best Board Game Cinematography: The Queen’s Gambit

Even with the eruption of content that a dozen prominent, competing streaming services offer to subscribers, it’s nothing short of a miracle that The Queen’s Gambit got greenlit. A 60s-set story about an orphan-come-chess champion, Anya Taylor-Joy was expectedly mesmerizing as protagonist Beth Harmon, as was the set design, costumes, and makeup. Though the way it managed to capture the tension and excitement of a chess match on-screen was perhaps the most captivating. The fact that the on-screen chess games were 100% accurate was just icing on the cake.

Most Immediately Exhausting Discourse: Wonder Woman 1984

When Warner Bros. made the surprise announcement that most of its 2020 (and some of its 2021) film slate would roll out exclusively on HBO Max, reactions were surprisingly divisive. Some once again had doubt cast on the future of movie theaters during an increasingly rampant pandemic, while others simply viewed it as the safest, and really only, way to be able to see this slate of films.

Combine this with the first film up for its streaming-only debut, Wonder Woman 1984. Maybe it was the fact that it had been nearly a year since the last superhero film, or its frequent over-the-top comic-book embellishment in a Superman circa-78 sheen, but it was clear that much of the criticism was unfairly tied into these films taking the blame for the unprecedented circumstances. Seriously, can’t fucking wait for The Snyder Cut discourse.

Best Catchphrase: ‘Happy Millionth Birthday, Dipshit,’ Palm Springs

Technically, this line was never actually spoken in Palm Springs, but this revisitation of the Groundhog Day concept set during a wedding in the desert mirrored a lot of collective sentiment about how the days in quarantine were becoming harder and harder to tell apart. Which made its sentimental narcissism all the more endearing.

Most Pyrrhic Stalemate: The Streaming Wars

So, it turns out, a bunch of networks and studios launching their own, independent streaming services might not have been the best idea. What was hyped as a sci-fi utopia as imagined by 90s kids everywhere, all content would be streaming, all the time. Every Disney movie would live on Disney+, every NBC sitcom would live on Peacock, and… some short things would live on Quibi, I guess. Except, that turned out to not really be the case. Some NBC sitcoms live on Peacock, while others are only found on HBO Max. Disney has most of its best-known content available, but with some notable exceptions (beyond Song of the South).

After some truly botched launch days, infuriatingly bad UIs, and questionable availability depending on which streaming device someone uses, (not to mention original content that was more miss than hit) the streaming wars weren’t quite the entertainment revolution it was initially presented as. Even with Quibi already shuttering just months after its launch, what remains is still an orgy of content spread across numerous streaming outlets that, when the costs are combined, pretty much equals that of an average cable bill. Fantastic.

Least-Comforting Rewatch: The Postman

Remember back in 1997, when Kevin Costner directed and starred in a post-apocalyptic epic about a drifter who ends up uniting the remaining camps of humanity, torn to shreds after an uprising in hate crimes that ultimately collapsed society, through simple correspondence? Remember how we laughed? Well, hindsight, as they say, is… (sorry).

Most Impressive Triumph: Mythic Quest: Quarantine

After a quiet debut on AppleTV+ in February, Mythic Quest ended its season proving it was one of the best, if little-watched, new sitcoms of the year. Though it was its ‘very special’ episode post-pandemic that single-handedly raised the bar for how brilliant a show produced entirely in quarantine with smartphones could really be. Beyond that, it managed to give nuanced portrayals of the chaos, anxiety, and desolation that people continue to endure in isolation, while still being one of the funniest moments all year.

Best Possible News on the Horizon: Atlanta Seasons 3 and 4

I mean…

MVP: Rhea Seehorn

The fact that Seehorn has been routinely denied an Emmy for her portrayal of Kim Wexler shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the awards body has made a habit of denying the Breaking Bad prequel’s secondary characters with the recognition they deserve. But, goddamnit, it does.


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