All The Art & Pop Culture That Helped Us Survive 2020

These TV shows, video games, albums, and movies helped us get through a really, really, really hard year.

An Arizona Cardinals fan dressed as The Mandalorian cheers during the NFL game against the Buffalo Bills at State Farm Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. | Getty Images
An Arizona Cardinals fan dressed as The Mandalorian cheers during the NFL game against the Buffalo Bills at State Farm Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. | Getty Images

As 2020 wraps up, we’re looking back at the year in pop culture and the art that kept us going through tough times. We hope it gives you some ideas for how to spend your downtime the rest of the year — and some motivation to maybe stay offline and not send that bad tweet

The golden age of TV hits a new peak (with everyone streaming at home)

When it comes to TV shows, we’ve never had more content to choose from — though the streaming wars, of course, come with a price (Disney, for example, is determined to take all our money). Whether you’re into the horror drama of shows like HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” where the setting of 1950s Jim Crow America still feels tragically relevant to today’s United States, or you want to escape our world completely and visit a galaxy far, far away, there’s something out there for everyone. Here are some of our other favorites:
  • “PEN15” (Hulu) continues to nail the nostalgia factor for millennials, with a hilarious and at times heartrending second season that delves deeper into the friendships of awkward teenage girls.
  • “The Crown” (Netflix) introduces Princess Diana and has Gillian Anderson playing the UK’s first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in its fourth season. What are you waiting for?!
  • “The Good Lord Bird” (Showtime) is an underrated, undercovered gem: Ethan Hawke plays slavery abolitionist John Brown in one of the most compelling performances I’ve ever seen in this historical drama about Brown’s real-life attempts to organize a revolt against slaveowners. It also has Daveed Diggs playing Frederick Douglass. Though the miniseries is set in the 1850s, 2020 felt like the perfect year for it to come out, as we continue to grapple with America’s racist history — and hopefully make some real progress. The finale of this series hit me like a gut punch.
  • On the lighter side, “Insecure” (HBO) season four continued to bring the laughs as it followed the trials and tribulations of the dramatic friendship between its two main characters. It’s also just a great show for watching beautiful, awkward, and funny people live their lives in pre-pandemic LA.
  • “What We Do In The Shadows” (Hulu) season two is pure comedy. If you haven’t yet watched this hysterical take on a reality show about vampires on Staten Island (!!), I highly recommend it.
Perhaps no show has had more impact on pop culture in the past year than Disney+’s “The Mandalorian.” We’ve only known Baby Yoda for a year, but he’s already ubiquitous. No spoilers, but we find out his real name in season two; if you’ve ever liked “Star Wars,” we guarantee you’ll like the finale, which just aired last week. (How is it not on Obama’s list of his favorite TV shows of 2020?!)

—Versha Sharma, Senior Correspondent and Writer, @versharma

Actor Kate Lyn Sheil starred in “She Dies Tomorrow.” | Neon Films

2020 was almost as horrifying in film as it was IRL

Everything that we’ve watched this year has been viewed through the lens of a global pandemic, but no genre has a better fit with 2020’s human experience than good old-fashioned horror. Did you feel like an invisible force was preventing you from feeling safe anywhere you went? Watch “The Invisible Man.” Did wonky Zoom connections make you paranoid about your literal connection to your friends? Check out “Host.”  What about being so bored with your new isolated life that strange things made you feel safe? I might suggest “Swallow"! Do you get the feeling that maybe your home is literally trying to eat you? Stop whatever you’re doing and watch “Relic.” But maybe no film encapsulated the feeling of 2020 better than the indie hit “She Dies Tomorrow,” in which a woman wakes up one day and just knows that her doom is imminent. Every person she shares this with laughs it off, only to soon question their own mortality and realize that they, too, will die the next day. Scripted and filmed long before the novel coronavirus became present in our droplets, writer-director Amy Seimetz captured the essence of what now scares us the most: knowing that our futures are finite — But in a fun way!

If scary movies are your thing, check out NowThis Nerd’s series “How To Kill, where our hosts break down how cinema’s smartest evil villains can be destroyed (and where we give justice to the underrated classic “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later”).

—Matt McDonough, Executive Producer

Fiona Apple performs onstage during I Am the Highway: A Tribute to Chris Cornell on January 16, 2019 in Inglewood, California. | Getty Images

Women absolutely dominated music in 2020

2020 was the year women took over the music scene. While our minds were being filled with pandemic anxiety and political noise, our ears were at least being blessed with new songs from some of the biggest names in music. Here’s my interpretation of how these talented musicians got us through this year:
Fiona Apple had us “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, while Chloe x Halle told us to prepare for the pandemic’s “Ungodly Hour.” “This is the ‘Punisher,’” Phoebe Bridgers said about COVID-19. But Dua Lipa came in with a more positive outlook by trying to convince us we might feel “Future Nostalgia” about 2020. Taylor Swift kept us busy with tall tales and scandalous “folklore,” while Megan Thee Stallion always delivered the “Good News.” Haim and Miley Cyrus agreed that “Women In Music Pt. III” inspired us this year with their “Plastic Hearts.” Carly Rae Jepsen told Summer Walker to please see “Dedicated Side B” for more information about our current “Life On Earth.” Also, Lady Gaga came out with “Chromatica.” (I didn’t have anything for that because how does one even use “Chromatica” in a sentence other than “‘Chromatica’ slaps”?)  And finally, Ariana Grande switched “Positions” to be more like The Chicks, becoming more politically outspoken about the “Gaslighter”-in-chief.

Here’s the takeaway: Women made incredible music in 2020. Except for Rihanna, who has been holding out on us since 2016. Maybe she wants us to work, work, work, work, work, work for new music (I’m sorry).

— Ashleigh Carter, Multiplatform Writer, @AshweeCarter

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) gets out the virtual vote with a star-studded stream of “Among Us” on Twitch. | Twitter/@People4Bernie

In 2020, video games met the moment

After a year that left the future of movie theaters, live concerts, and countless other legacy forms of entertainment in peril, video games proved the perfect distraction for a world of people trapped indoors. Games like “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” provided a virtual island escape during life in lockdown, while social titles like “Among Us” connected us with our friends, favorite Twitch streamers, and the occasional elected officials. We should note: the industry still faces serious problems including sexual misconduct in the workplace, a disappointing dearth of diversity among top developers, and workers laboring long hours under “crunch” conditions. Yet despite these issues and a struggling economy, the new generation of Playstation and Xbox consoles launched this November to unprecedented success and frustrating scarcity, leaving little doubt of the dominance of games as the premiere media format of 2021 and beyond.

The COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged the video game market like never before. Between April and June of 2020, video game revenues reached $11.6 billion, a 30% increase from the same period the year prior, according to the NPD Group’s trade report. And that was before November’s extremely lucrative next-gen launch. In comparison, global cinema revenue has fallen 65% from 2019, shrinking from $11.4 billion to $3.9 billion.

—Charlie Lopresto, Senior Writer, @moosethemark


Surprise! This documentary about the Pepe the Frog meme is a cinematic masterpiece

“Feels Good Man” made me laugh, tear up, and scream at my TV screen. Watch in awe and horror as Pepe transforms from a character created with love, to a popular meme, to “Trump’s invisible running mate,” to a registered hate symbol, and even a magic sigil. Fast-paced editing, stunning animation, a chills-inducing score, and the inclusion of many women in the kaleidoscope of voices make this film a surprisingly tender work of art that I recommend to memelords as well as boomers.

Darren Aronofsky, the director of “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream,” called the Pepe doc “a wonderful portrait of a brilliant artist.”
—Claire Ensslin, Director and Video Editor
This newsletter was edited by Natalie Daher & Versha Sharma and copy edited by Luria Freeman & Shayna Posses.