Standard caveats (really standard — same as last year and the year before): I don’t watch everything. I am behind on many things. That’s just the way the world is. So if something you loved isn’t here, it is not a rebuke.
And: These are cultural, mostly pop-cultural, things. These are not the best things in the world. Like yours, my actual list of wonderful things from the year, if I wrote it in a journal instead of for work, would be a list of people and moments spent with them — of days when it was unexpectedly sunny and of times when things suddenly felt better. But whatever journey you’re on at any given moment, you can always use more good things. So here we go.
1. The Knives Out sculpture. We’ve talked about the sweaters in Rian Johnson’s great whodunit, and about the performances, and about the … uh, commitment? … of Daniel Craig’s very silly accent. But let’s also appreciate the enormous sculpture made of knives that frames the heads of every member of the family as they’re interviewed.
2. James Marsden jumping on the trampoline in Dead to Me. James Marsden is one of those interesting actors who can do so many different things well that he’s easy to take for granted. It’s a mistake, though. Playing a slick, inspirational-speaking jerk, he wakes up, goes out on his balcony and executes a series of silly trampoline moves he says are meant to “get [his] lymph nodes going.”
3. John Mulaney’s plaid pants in the “Co-op” episode of Documentary Now. The comedian’s wardrobe choices have showed up on this list before, but they’ve never been quite so indelible as his weirdly magnetic ‘70s get-up as Documentary Now‘s version of Stephen Sondheim.
4. “This is a love story” in Fleabag. We were all so lucky to get two seasons of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterpiece, and the turn to camera to say “this is a love story” set up the brilliant second season with intrigue, humor and Waller-Bridge’s inimitable kind of heart. The sequence of shots is so brilliant, and the entire episode so satisfying. We’ll be lucky to see its equal.
5. Aasif Mandvi in This Way Up. Aisling Bea’s series about a young Irish woman fresh out of mental health treatment offered a lot of simple pleasures. But one was seeing Aasif Mandvi, who was very funny on The Daily Show and plays an awful lot of doctors because Hollywood is Hollywood, play the boyfriend of the character played by Sharon Horgan. A fine romantic lead, Mandvi got to show some chops that I personally hadn’t seen very much before, and it was thrilling.
6. Natasha Lyonne killing it in Russian Doll. Natasha Lyonne is a force, and this performance (and her work in creating the show) is a force. May everyone find such a perfect place to be at the peak of their powers.
7. J. Smith-Cameron in Succession. There is so much to admire about HBO’s rich-jerks drama, but one of the real stars of Season 2 was J. Smith-Cameron as Gerri, one of the Roy family’s faithful lieutenants. Once mostly a figure in meetings hovering over paperwork, Gerri ended Season 2 with a sharper sense of humor, a more distinct role in the family, a star turn at the Roy Family [Figurative] Murder Breakfast and a sexual relationship-ish that’s both offbeat and sweet.
8. The big resolution in Unbelievable. It wouldn’t be fair to say much about the photo that loads late in Netflix’s fact-based series about an unsolved rape case, but making a plot turn feel so simultaneously satisfying and wrenching is very difficult. And while the series largely belongs to performances from Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever and Toni Collette, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better wordless 30 seconds in all of 2020 than the ones Eric Lange, playing a detective, delivers early in the last episode when this scene hits.
9. The manipulation of time in Watchmen episode 6. The first — and maybe the only — season of HBO’s Watchmen was excellent throughout, but it reached a new high in the sixth episode, as interwoven past and present stories created connections that were surprising, but seemed somehow inevitable.
10. Billy Crudup in The Morning Show. I’m among those who believe that Apple TV+’s first big series, about the aftermath of a sexual harassment scandal on a network morning show, got a rougher reception than it deserved — partly because it takes a couple of episodes to find its feet and focus. But even many of those who remained unimpressed by it found kind words for the snake-like, inscrutable, toothy and toothsome performance by Billy Crudup as a network executive who could do good only when it meant doing well.
11. The turn in Parasite. I was very lucky to see Bong Joon-ho’s fabulous, complex film at the Toronto International Film Festival without knowing almost anything about it. I didn’t even really know what kind of movie it was, and that was as it should be.
12. Jeremy Bearimy, baby. At the end of the third season of NBC’s The Good Place, the conscientious, anxious, deeply moral Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and his partner-in-crime Eleanor (Kristen Bell) are forced to part company. After being reminded that theirs is a story that spans many lifetimes, Chidi uses what was once a silly, jokey phrase about the structure of time to make a profoundly romantic declaration, telling Eleanor that they will “chill out in the dot of the i forever.” That this means nothing if you haven’t watched the show, and everything if you have, is what makes it so distinct and moving.
13. Jennifer Lopez’s dance in Hustlers, and the accompanying video. I don’t disagree with the many people who have said J. Lo should be in the running for awards for her performance in Lorene Scafaria’s crime drama. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also appreciate the athleticism of Lopez’s first dance on the pole, as well as the behind-the-scenes look at her training that she shared.
14. Every time Christian Siriano said “You’re killing me” on Project Runway. A great example of how to reset a competitive reality show, Siriano was the perfect new mentor, and the way he freely expressed his frustration with the designers was one of his secret weapons. (See also: “You’re putting a zipper right on the boob?”)
15. Oklahoma! It’s not that Oklahoma! hasn’t always been a dark musical — it has. But the Broadway revival I got to see this spring brought out new layers of darkness, new kinds of bleakness. The finale — which I will not describe — is one of the most startling, provocative stage moments I’ve ever seen, particularly working from such a well-known text. (Bonus: Soraya McDonald’s excellent piece at The Undefeated about the production.)
16. What The Constitution Means to Me. Heidi Schreck shook up the one-woman show with her combination of speech, debate, dramatic monologue and call to arms. The piece is so smart and thoughtful that it’s easy to forget, when describing it, that it’s also funny and entertaining — enlivened by a late development that had the audience I was part of enthralled.
17. The horse fight in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum. The biggest problem with any John Wick movie, I now believe, is that it can’t be all Keanu Reeves fighting bad guys using horses and library books.
18. The way Crazy Ex-Girlfriend landed the plane. It’s so hard to end a show as ambitious as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — particularly when it set itself up as, in part, a romantic-comedy spoof and then demonstrated that a romantic-comedy ending would be an utter betrayal of its first principles. The final episode showed respect to Rebecca’s desire to be loved; her growth as a person; the musical talent that’s been under our noses the entire time; and the fact that no matter how much she works to improve herself, White Josh will never, ever like her. Extra points for the way that, as the show wound down, co-creator and star Rachel Bloom sold it like double the rent was due at all times.
19. The unreal, unsettling doppelgangers in Us. Doppelgangers are such a staple of horror that to make them really, genuinely scary, you have to develop their look and style in a very particular way — as Jordan Peele did in Us. Led by Lupita Nyong’o as Red, the family of copies that shows up in their red jumpsuits, with their scissors and obviously ill intentions, use their stillness as a weapon, settling for “creepy” until it’s time to be worse than that.
20. The “Anna Ishii-Peters” episode of PEN15. I’m not sure why stories in which teenagers bond with each other’s families are so consistently moving, but “Anna Ishii-Peters” follows in the tradition of My So-Called Life and its “Other People’s Mothers” episode to great effect. PEN15 is a lovely, thoughtful, big-hearted look at adolescence — in addition to being a raunchy, candid document of the kind of body horror that only happens in middle school.
21. The third season of the podcast Slow Burn. New host Joel Anderson takes listeners through two of the most famous (officially) unsolved murders of the 20th century: those of rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. Finding the line between overexplaining and underexplaining, the series (in the manner of all good true crime) moves beyond its specific subjects to talk about how rap was developing in the 1990s, and how it was changed by the deaths of these two very young men.
22. Bon Appétit videos! Few instructional YouTube channels are as beloved and useful as the one from Bon Appétit, which has almost five million subscribers. It contains plenty of straight-up how-to pieces, but continues to innovate with series like Reverse Engineering, a monthly show in which deputy food editor Chris Morocco tries to recreate dishes he’s allowed to taste and touch but not see. The whole channel is a pleasure from start to finish, and its passionate following is well-earned.
23. The synchronized swimming in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The adventures of Midge Maisel have sometimes satisfied and sometimes not. But a stretch of the third season set in Miami was full of delights, including an opening sequence in the sixth episode that incorporated underwater filming, synchronized swimming and the hangover from a night out with Lenny Bruce. Great stuff.
24. The end of Again With This: BH. Back in May 2015, Sarah Bunting and Tara Ariano — who were, full disclosure, my bosses at Television Without Pity for years — began a podcast project to recap each episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 one at a time. That dumb show, it turns out, ran for 10 seasons, most of which were supersized, because it ran well into the summer. (There are seasons that have more than 30 episodes.) In December of this year, they finished. Not only was this a nutty exercise in completism, but taking the time to examine individual episodes late in the run of a show that had long since given up on itself offers a rare glimpse at what network television used to look like when it just wanted to run out the clock.
25. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. 2019 was The Year When We Talked A Lot About Theranos, the company run by Elizabeth Holmes, who’s now awaiting a federal fraud trial. There are a lot of ways to learn about the story — the 2018 book Bad Blood by John Carreyrou is probably the best source document. But Alex Gibney’s 2019 HBO documentary is also a corker, for sure.
26. The moment in Mike Birbiglia’s The New One that you’ll know when you see it. You don’t necessarily expect a one-man show to have a twist. But Birbiglia’s show about raising children and buying furniture, which is now available on Netflix, uses surprise better than any show like it that I’ve ever seen.
27. We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin. A book about race, class, parenting and the future, We Cast A Shadow is the book about which I was proud to simply announce: “This book knocked me on my ass.”
28. Points of view in Fleishman Is in Trouble. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s divorce novel is incisive on the ideas of family and relationships, to be sure. But what impressed me most was how pointed I found its implicit critiques of the modern American literary novel — as focused as it often is on sad men and their sad stories and their sad struggles, with no room for anyone else to speak.
29. The audiobook presentation of The Beastie Boys Book. I allow myself one cheat per year, in which I can include something that didn’t technically come out in the year at issue, but that I consumed during the year. This time around, it’s the wonderful audiobook of The Beastie Boys Book. As someone who never really reacted much to the group at the center of the book, I didn’t expect to be so mesmerized by it. But it’s inventively presented, very well written and performed by a large and impressive cast.
32. The Jonathan Coulton album Some Guys recreates defiantly uncool ‘70s music like “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Easy” with an unironic love that brings it beautifully to life. Sometimes you just have to love with your whole heart, and you find that fidelity is the best kind of reinvention.
33. There is a chapter in John Hodgman’s Medallion Status called “Nude Rider,” and it contains not only very interesting information about appearing naked on film, but also a discussion of what it’s like to be told that you look very much like a monstrous historical figure. It is well worth your time.
34. The Internet can be a good place for good dogs. We all need the reminders that they bring, and in Winky‘s case, it was that you have time, and sometimes you just have to do things on your own schedule.
35. Trevor Noah took on one of the hardest jobs one could possibly take on when he assumed the host chair at The Daily Show. And while opinions vary on how the show has been in his era, he’s a smart and thoughtful guy who thrives on teasing out nuance in a variety of situations, as he did in a very good response to an audience question about Liam Neeson discussing his old revenge fantasies. Particularly for an off-the-cuff answer to such an explosive question, I think he knocked it out of the park. More discussions like this, please.
36. Very often, when celebrities drink for the benefit of cameras, they play up how drunk they are. But when Seth Meyers went day drinking with Rihanna, he got legitimately smashed. Just smashed. The combination of his precipitous decline with her wonderful, infectious, cackling laugh made it one of my favorite silly things of the year.
37. Sam Shepard’s True West was revived this year on Broadway, and the lead performances from Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano brought out the differences, and not just the similarities, between the classic theatrical brothers. In particular, Dano’s particular spin on the spinning out of the quieter Austin was tragic and painful and very funny all at the same time, and I could have watched him make toast for many, many hours.
38. This baseball GIF.
39. The Buzzfeed vertical Cocoa Butter has found great success with a series of videos in which black tasters try each other’s home cooking. My favorite is called Black Moms Try Other Black Moms’ Soul Food. There is such joy and such delicious and mischievous suspense as you wait to find out what will happen when everybody tastes the food of whoever is being the most shady about everybody else’s cooking! It’s a fabulous series, inventive and funny and satisfying.
40. Look, you don’t need me to tell you how much of an impact “Old Town Road” and Lil Nas X made this year. But for me, one of the most delightful aspects of that story was how the song was boosted by its appeal to kids, never more clear than in the video of Lil Nas X visiting an elementary school where the kids absolutely lost their minds together. Joy, unbound.
41. Am I allowed to talk about an NPR project? Sure I am. You’ve heard a lot of true crime podcasts, perhaps, and you’ve heard a lot of history podcasts. But I particularly loved White Lies, which delved into the murder of James Reeb in 1965 while he was in Selma, Ala. participating in civil rights activism. Hosts Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace masterfully mixed history and education in the traditional senses with the kind of investigation that can make true crime so interesting. And they showed great care in putting the murder of Reeb — a visiting white minister — in the context of other violence at the time, including killings of black citizens whose cases never received nearly the notoriety this one did.
42. When I started TV critic Emily Nussbaum‘s book I Like To Watch, I would have said I didn’t want to read any more examinations of how to treat artists whose ugly behavior had come into focus, particularly as the #MeToo movement grew. I would have said I was full up, in particular, on Louis C.K. discourse. But Nussbaum has always been a writer of exceptional sharpness when it comes to navigating the complexities of her own reactions. The chapter in the book, right in the middle, that examines these questions at length is essential and wise, one of the best meditations I have read on what fans of these artists — and the many others similarly situated — should do now.
43. I’m pretty confident the most enjoyable piece of culture commentary I read all year was called “Malfunctioning Sex Robot.”
44. In spite of the fact that I already shouted out the wonderful way he weaponized horses to hilarious effect, I’m going to throw a further mention to Keanu Reeves, who not only did John Wick 3, plus a funny turn in Toy Story 4, but was also tremendous fun playing a version of himself in the Ali Wong/Randall Park romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe. As deadly serious as he is in the John Wick series, that’s how goofy he is in Always Be My Maybe, and what a pleasure it was to watch.
45. The book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland takes on the very tough task of unraveling a specific event within the context of a hugely complicated, incredibly sensitive historical conflict — series of conflicts, really — with painful implications for many, many people. Patrick Radden Keefe accomplishes the goal admirably, making the book both a riveting story and a primer for anyone who hasn’t studied Northern Ireland.
46. I feel like the podcast Reply All winds up on this list every year, but I make no apologies, because it truly is one of my most reliable sources of podcast enjoyment. This year, I think my favorite was “30-50 Feral Hogs,” an episode devoted to finding the story behind what had quickly become a running public joke. This show is what genuine curiosity sounds like to me, and I’m always so grateful.
47. Add me to the many voices praising this year’s new edition of The Joy Of Cooking. It’s a big, varied, lovingly and accessibly written book that will take you through the basics while also seeming thoroughly modern.
48. I have rarely been as frustrated by the vanishing of a wonderful network comedy as I was by the end of ABC’s Speechless. But to its credit, the show managed to end in a place that offered hope and a path forward to the lovable DiMeo family. I consider it one of the big losses of 2019, but it still gave me a lot of highlights.
49. There are many pleasures in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, but one that got me right in the heart was seeing Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet work together again. It used to be that screen couples often acted together again and again; here’s one vote for persuading them to bring that tradition back.
50. One of my favorite developments of the year in streaming was the arrival of Billy on the Street at Netflix. Is it a new show? It is not. But now, you can watch it as it was meant to be seen: In exactly the dosages you need.