We’re going to be spending the next couple of weeks thinking and writing and podcasting about our favorite movies and movie moments of 2020, but I wanted to give a special shout-out to a handful of pieces of non-movie entertainment that kept me going through the hell-year that was 2020. For me, these podcasts and TV shows were like faint lights in a dense fog, guiding me forward and serving as brief oases before I lurched back into the swirling chaos of 2020. If you’re looking for a way to end this hellacious year on a high note, I encourage you to seek out any (or all) of these recommendations.
Wind of Change
Was “Wind of Change,” the 1991 power ballad by hard rock band The Scorpions, actually written by the CIA? That’s the hook for this wildly entertaining podcast, which was the most addicting thing I listened to all year. Using a whispered rumor from inside the agency as a starting point, host Patrick Radden Keefe takes a deep dive into the history of the CIA’s use of popular culture to manipulate world events, and travels the globe talking to experts in an attempt to answer this fascinating question. My only advice would be to not start listening until you can carve out enough time to binge all eight episodes, because once you begin, you won’t be able to think about anything else.
The Last Dance
Director Jason Hehir‘s ten-part series about NBA superstar Michael Jordan and the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls team’s quest for a sixth championship was the perfect new show during a time in the pandemic when we all desperately needed something fresh to talk about together. But it wasn’t just an exercise in fluffy nostalgia: it showcased some of the darker sides of the team dynamics and interpersonal relationships, too, and hearing these guys reflect back on this special period of their lives brought an extra layer of humanity to their stunning highlight reels. (Plus, it inspired some absolutely incredible memes.)
Middleditch and Schwartz
Two titans of improv comedy scene, Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz managed to capture three of their long-form improv shows and make the audience feel as if they were in the room when it was recorded – which is far more difficult than it sounds. But watching these guys, who are whip-smart and laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally forget the details of the elaborate imaginary worlds they weave for themselves on stage gave this show a grounded, personal touch which made the overall series not only hilarious, but endearing as well.
Never Have I Ever
Mindy Kaling‘s absolutely delightful Netflix series was one of the most joyous things I watched all year. It does everything a great high school story should do, without resorting to lazy stereotypes or cheap jokes. Told from the perspective of the eminently relatable protagonist Devi (the affable and charismatic Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), the show walks a perfect line between humor and drama and invites audiences into a South Asian family without feeling like it’s going out of its way to educate people about the culture or traditions of that family. Those aspects feel organic and almost carefree, while the show overall is still full of the type of teen-centric relationship drama that a series like this thrives on. I don’t think any other show has ever pulled off this specific vibe quite this well.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
The gruesome details of the Golden State Killer’s crimes are horrifying, to say the least. But by shining a light on his heinous deeds, providing a detailed look into the journey to discover his identity, and most importantly, by putting his victims in the center of the narrative for the first time, this show felt like it yanked away much of the power that son of a bitch once had when he was lurking in the California shadows. Author Michelle McNamara‘s quest to bring this killer to justice was a righteous one, and even though she died far too young, this show was a wonderful crystallization of her legacy, serving as a biography, a tenacious investigation, and a moving tribute all at the same time.
Pen15 Season 2
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle returned for a second season of this terrific Hulu comedy, playing teenaged versions of themselves surrounded by actual teenagers. The second season traded some humor for genuine character depth, and was all the better for it: season 2 was not quite as laugh-out-loud funny since the premise of the show no longer feels as novel as it once did, but that allowed these actresses more room to really dig into these fictional versions of their younger selves and explore what happens when interests begin to diverge a little and a single ride-or-die friendship is no longer the only thing you consider important in life. Great, great stuff here.
How To With John Wilson
To see the world through someone else’s eyes can be a gift, and I felt like John Wilson gave me that gift this year by being uncompromisingly true to his own vision. How to With John Wilson is an unusual show that will absolutely not be for everyone, but I found it to be a hilarious, observant, and surprisingly profound quest for knowledge through New York City (and far beyond). It’s the rare documentary that slows down to listen to its subjects, and that patience often yields unforgettable results.
The Secret History of Hollywood: Cary Part 1
The Secret History of Hollywood is, and I say this with no exaggeration or hyperbole, a titanic achievement in podcasting. Host Adam Roche paints immersive portraits of his subjects (in this case, iconic actor Cary Grant) and goes far beyond the surface-level details that have cemented themselves as part of these peoples’ legends to give us hours-long episodes that provide genuine insight into their inner lives. It’s a podcast about Hollywood, yes, but it’s really about hopes, dreams, flaws, foibles, addictions, and relationships, about soaring personal victories and devastating, heartbreaking losses. The first part of a new series about Grant is no different: it’s a twelve-hour episode that earns every second of its runtime, and it left me eagerly awaiting the next chapter. Jump on board this bandwagon with me – you won’t regret it.
Ted Lasso should not work. On paper, the lead character’s combination of earnestness and obnoxiousness would cause me to revolt and swear off the show entirely. But there’s something about the way Jason Sudeikis plays him – that ineffable, magical meld between performer and character – that elevates this show to another level. Against all odds – or perhaps fittingly, in a year in which everything seemed topsy-turvy – this sincere, heartwarming, good-humored blast of wide-eyed optimism ended up becoming my favorite show of the entire year. Thanks for coming along when you did, Ted Lasso, because I desperately needed that dose of optimism this year.
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