It’s that time of year again where I share my favorite things I experienced in pop culture over the past year. As a reminder these are not necessarily things that came out during 2020 though many of them are. They are however things I enjoyed for the first time this year. This year is a little bit different because some of my standard categories I didn’t really have a choice in thanks to the pandemic. It wasn’t a matter what my favorite thing was. It was a matter of did I even get to do any of these things this year. Although I am sad that I didn’t get to do a lot in the way of seeing things like concerts and theater, which are what I love to do more than anything else in the world, there was thankfully lots of excellent pop culture to keep me entertained while I’ve been stuck at home for most of the year. Let’s get to it.
Movie I Saw in a Theater
This was an easy pick because I saw exactly one movie in a theater in 2020. At least I enjoyed the film, though I doubt it would be sitting in this spot had I seen other movies over the course of the year. It was Birds of Prey, the Harley Quinn movie starring Margot Robbie. Who knew I was going to be enjoying so much Harley Quinn this year, since I also loved the Harley Quinn animated tv series now available on HBOMax. I actually appreciated the smallness of this movie. While I mostly enjoy a lot of comic book superhero movies I hate when they are too what I call smashy smashy where you have long 20-30 minute CGI fight scenes of characters just smashing on things and each other. They bore me to tears. There was none of that in this movie. The fight scenes were at close range and a lot of fun. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but I found a lot to like about it and am not sad that it gets to be the lone movie I saw in a theater this year.
Movie I Watched at Home
I probably watched more movies at home this year than I normally do because I couldn’t see movies in theaters. I normally prefer to see movies in the theater as I have a hard time concentrating on them for that long at home without getting distracted by other things. I think my favorites though were two documentaries about collecting, The Booksellers and Vinyl Nation. As you might guess The Booksellers were about rare book dealers and collectors while Vinyl Nation was about record stores and record collectors. I am not a collector. I guess I don’t have that kind of personality, but I enjoyed seeing the worlds of these people who are super into collecting their books and vinyl records. Despite being a librarian and avid reader I have no interest in collecting books. I borrow most of the books I read and am happy to send books back out into the world for others to enjoy. I rarely reread books so I don’t see the point of having shelves full of them. I do often wish I was the kind of person who was into vinyl collecting though. Music is obviously something I consume over and over again and the idea of having a collection of records that I look through, select from, and then sit down and listen to appeals to me. In reality though the record player we have is not even out on the floor and the two vinyl albums I own were WXPN pledge drive gifts. Realistically I am never going to be that person, but I enjoyed living in the world of the people who are for a little while.
Without actually meaning to or seeking them out I feel like I read a number of books having to do with various wars or people living under the constant threat of violence. Although it is to some degree an entirely different thing I also felt like there were a lot of parallels to our current state living through a pandemic with lots of death, living in a constant state of fear, and not knowing if or when it’s ever going to end. The best of these books and the one that is the best fiction book I read all year is Apeirogon by Colum McCann. I am just going to share my review on Goodreads because I don’t think I have anything better to say about the book than that.
|“An apeirogon is a figure with an infinite number of sides and that is actually the perfect title for this book. I don’t even know how to describe it. At its basest level it is a fictionalized story of the real men Palestinian, Bassam Aramin and Israeli, Rami Elhanan both of whom lost their daughters to violence but who come together to try and fight for peace in the Middle East. It also includes non-fiction passages at the heart of the book written by both men. The story if you can really call it that moves and folds back and around itself while weaving in other facts and histories all written in short vignettes ranging from a mere sentence to several pages. It’s masterfully written and creative in a way that compares to no other book I can think of save for maybe Lincoln in the Bardo, which I more admired for what the author did than I actually enjoyed reading it. Here I think everything comes together perfectly. It’s definitely not a book for anyone who needs their books to have a straight narrative story, but this is beautifully written and full of so much meaning that it is a true masterpiece.”|
I have two books that qualify for my favorite non-fiction book of the year. Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of thee Generic Drug Boom by Katherine Eban was the first book I read in 2020 and even then I said this is probably going to be one of my favorite books of the year. I was not wrong about that. It’s the informative and horrifying true story about how generic drugs are made and why there can be so many issues with them. This has made me question everything when it comes to the medications I take.
The second book, which was no surprise, was Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. I was very much looking forward to this book as I loved Wilkerson’s previous masterpiece The Warmth of Other Suns. Caste looks at how the United States really operates on a caste system based on race. She delves into the history and the effects on people and our country. She offers the best explanation I’ve seen as to why it’s important for us to actually address this issue and do what we need to do to repair rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist or say it’s not our problem because we’re not the ones who caused it. If you read one of the three books I’ve mentioned here make it this one.
I have a few tv shows I want to mention that were the highlights of a year in which I watched a LOT of television and that’s saying something given how much I watched before this. I already alluded to Harley Quinn in the movie section. It’s a fun adults only show that I was sad when I ran out of episodes of.
The first show I watched in 2020 was Schitt’s Creek. I binge watched it over my winter break last year. I had not watched it for a long time thinking it was not something I would enjoy. I was never into all the Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara movies and I generally don’t like shows where people are just awful so on the face of it this show was just not for me. But I had heard so many people talk about how much they loved it that I decided to give it a chance. I’m so glad I did because it is such a delightful show full of so much heart. It is a little rough going in the first half of season one where it felt more like what I was expecting, but eventually the show grows and the characters grow and it’s something that brings me so much joy. If you haven’t watched this show yet please do yourself a favor and do it.
My second favorite show of the year has sadly already met an untimely death after only one season. Thanks Netflix. It’s Teenage Bounty Hunters. I love this show so much! Talk about a show with so much heart. In some ways it shares a lot of DNA with Schitt’s Creek in that it is a ridiculous over the top story with characters that are somewhat caricatures but who have such heart that you just fall in love with them. Everyone I have convinced to watch this show has loved it and I know the many other people I’ve been telling to watch it but who have been resisting my efforts (you know who you are) would love it too. I saw it on a lot of year end best of television lists too. I wish Netflix had let it stick around and grow an audience because get why based on the name and description it wasn’t something people jumped right into when Netflix put it out, but it’s definitely a show that would have grown an audience through word of mouth if it had only been given time. Even though it does end on a bit of a cliffhanger I still highly recommend treating yourself to the one season of this show that we were gifted.
I also fell in love with the show Wynonna Earp this year. It’s not a show I had ever really heard anyone talk about aside from one guest on a podcast I listen to. Apparently her love of the show was enough to get me to check it out and I’m glad I finally did. I tell people if they were Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans than this show is probably for them. It’s got a strong female lead, actually lots of strong female characters, love stories, and supernatural fun. I can’t wait for the second half of the most recent season to air hopefully sometime soon.
I have two episodes to talk about in this category. First Season 4, Episode 8 of Insecure, “Lowkey Happy”. This is one of those pay off episodes that I love from long running tv shows. Season 4 was mostly about Issa and Molly’s friendship and was an excellent season looking at the fading of friendship, but this episode was about Issa and her ex-boyfriend Lawrence. They reconnect over a long night spent together that reminds me of the Before movies. It was lovely and romantic and something that only could have happened with these characters and their relationship being developed over seasons.
Second is Schitt’s Creek Season 4, Episode 9, “The Olive Branch”. This is actually another payoff episode in that earlier in the season Patrick sings an acoustic version of the song “The Best” by Tina Turner to David during an event at their store that David both hates and loves. Then as a romantic makeup gesture after a fight in a later episode David does a dance to the song for Patrick. It’s so wonderful. It’s, no pun intended, the best scene from the entire show and is one of the videos I keep in my arsenal to rewatch when I need something to make me happy. Sadly it seems like the videos on YouTube of just that scene have all been pulled down. So you’ll just have to go watch the show to see it.
I had far too many albums I loved this year to talk about in this post, so I refer you to the separate post I did recently on my favorite albums of 2020.
My favorite song of 2020 was Janelle Monae’s “Turntables”. It’s an amazing empowerment anthem that has kept me going through some pretty dark times in this year.
Also have to give a special mention to the song “It’s Still Alright” by Nathaniel Rateliff. It was the first song I added to my 2020 playlist and it’s a song I came back to a lot. Although the song is about substance abuse and the death of Rateliff’s long time producer Richard Swift, the soothing tones of the song and the lyrics of the chorus repeatedly telling us “and it’s still alright” were a continued gentle reminder in this year full of so much pain and sorrow that there are brighter days ahead.
I will also give a shout out to the following songs that I also loved and listened to a lot this year. “Dreamsicle” by Jason Isbell, “Strangers” by Mt. Joy, “circle the drain” by Soccer Mommy, and “Lockdown on Date Night Tuesday” by Ondara. You can also check out my 2020 playlist on Spotify, which contains all the songs I heard this year that I liked enough to want to listen to again.
Unlike most years when I would have dozens of concerts to choose from in this spot, this year I only had two. The final concert I went to in 2020 before everything fell apart was Trampled by Turtles at Baltimore Soundstage. It was a fun show and one I would have cherished all the more had I known it was the last show I was going to see for who knows how long.
The concert that was ultimately my favorite and probably would have been in contention for that even if I had gotten to see everything I already had tickets to in 2020 was traveling to Nashville to meet up with a friend to see Brandi Carlile at the Ryman Auditorium. One of my favorite artists in a fantastic, historical venue with a friend and fellow music lover. Who could ask for more? If I was only going to get to see two concerts in 2020 I can’t complain that this was one of them.
I’m adding in this new category this year because in lieu of getting to go out and see actual shows I watched a lot of artists perform online this year. Hopefully it’s one that I will only need to use this year because I want nothing more for 2021 than to be able to see live music again. There many, many online shows I watched from artists playing on Instagram and YouTube from their houses for free, shows I paid for with artists playing in their houses or shows I paid for with artists performing in actual venues with no audience. None of it fulfills the same experience as going to an actual live show and sharing the musical experience with a crowd.
The two things that I’m going to talk about here are things that are/were some of the least produced online music experiences but because of the way they are/were done brought at least a little of that communal experience you get from live music. When the pandemic first started Amanda Shires did 30 straight days of shows from her barn, which she called I So Lounging. Most of them also featured her husband Jason Isbell as well as Seth and Kelly Plemmons who were living with them at the time when we thought this would all be over in a few weeks. Seth is a member of her band and Kelly worked on the behind the scenes stuff. It was something that really kept me going those first weeks of lockdown when everything was so new and raw. It was wonderful to hear them play and just laugh and cry together and there was a little community in the YouTube comments for the shows. Although they were up on YouTube for a long time, sadly it seems like they’ve pulled all the videos down now.
The other online shows that I have loved have also been because of their regularity and the fact that they feel a little bit more intimate and personal. Almost every Thursday night since the pandemic started Amos Lee has been going live on Instagram on Thursday nights at 7:30. He hasn’t even been collecting tips. I’m not sure how he’s keeping himself going with no touring income. He’s done a couple of fundraisers for various organizations so whenever he does that I make sure to donate to whatever his chosen cause is. I’ve turned Thursday nights into a little bit of date night surrounding these concerts. We get take out and then I make my husband play a board game or card game with me while we listen to Amos Lee play. He’s even saved a lot of them to his IGTV so you can go back and watch if you want.
Broadway Theatre Production
Even though I had tickets to several shows later in the year I did not get to see any Broadway shows in 2020. My Company tickets were refunded. Who knows when or if that show will ever open. Our Music Man tickets were rescheduled twice and we’re now set to see the show in February of 2022. We thought it was hilarious when we were buying tickets for November 2020 in August of 2019. Little did we know.
Baltimore Theatre Production
I did get to see one show in Baltimore this year before everything shut down. It was Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally at Baltimore Center Stage. Unlike with the one movie I saw I can’t say that this was a show I super enjoyed. Sadly I’m not sure that the new artistic director and I see eye to eye on theatre. After loving almost every show I saw there for many years as a season ticket subscriber, this past season I didn’t really like much of anything. I think most of it was chosen in the interim before she actually started so I’m hoping that I’m wrong and that when the finally do get back to being able to have actual shows there that she selects shows that are more to my liking.
Online Theatre Production
Like with concerts I saw some online theatre productions this year as well. Some were previously taped performances that were released from archives. Some were weird Zoom like things (though not actually on Zoom). And some were live productions in front of no audience. I watched several shows put on at the Old Vic in London that were produced live with no audience. It lead to me watching theatre at some very odd times given the time difference. I think my favorite was Three Kings starring Andrew Scott, who you may know as Hot Priest from Fleabag. Sometimes one person shows where it’s just one long monologue can lose my interest, but I thought he did an excellent job and the story he was telling kept me engaged.
I think I’ve mentioned Make Me Smart to some degree in this space every year since it has existed and that is not going to change this year. This year they expanded from their once a week on Tuesday episode to transitioning to a daily podcast after the pandemic started. They still do what they call the big show on Tuesdays, which is usually around a half hour or so. Then the other days they do short 15 minute episodes most of those they each bring a news story and something that makes them happy to talk about. They started naming the episodes at some point: Make Me Smart Mondays, Big Show Tuesdays, Whatta Ya Want to Know Wednesdays (in which they ditch the normal daily show format and spend the whole episode answering listener questions), Hollowed Out Shell Thursdays (because by that point in the week we all feel like hollowed out shells), and Economics on Tap Fridays (their weekly happy hour episode where they would have a drink and would often live tape over YouTube so people could see them and join in in the comments). It’s the first podcast I put on every time there’s a new episode in my feed. It helps me going and I’m so happy they expanded to 5 days a week.
Staying in with Emily and Kumail was a short lived podcast produced by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani that they put out at the beginning of the pandemic when we were all in lockdown. They basically just talked about their lives and the things they were enjoying and experiencing. Although she is no longer practicing Emily is a trained therapist so she had a lot of great insights to offer about what we were all experiencing and how we were experiencing them. She also is immunocompromised and at high risk for COVID so they were being extremely careful just like my husband and I have been. So it was nice to get their perspective on that as well. It’s not something that would probably make sense to listen to now if you didn’t listen to it when it was first on, but it was super helpful for me in processing everything that was happening and all the feelings I was having at the beginning of the pandemic. I get why it’s not something they kept up, but I do think it would be kind of nice to have a check in episode every once in awhile.
My favorite podcast episode of the year was the Song Exploder episode in which Semisonic broke down their song “Closing Time”. I’m not going to give anything away. You should just go listen to the episode. I will only say this, that song has way more meaning behind it than you think and I will never hear it the same way ever again.