The Best Things We Watched In 2020
11:40 AM EST on December 29, 2020
This is what the staff of Defector watched and enjoyed this year.
La Casa De Las Flores
At the beginning of the year, in a fit of optimism that was clearly very misguided, I made a list of small goals: little things I wanted to change about my life and myself. Some of them (like buying those beeswax papers so I could stop wasting plastic bags) were easily accomplished. Others, like my goal to not look at two screens at one time, were absolute failures. Except for when I was watching La Casa De Las Flores and my phone disappeared from my memory. It could vibrate all it wanted on the table, because it no longer existed to me.
I started watching La Casa De Las Flores to inject more Spanish into my life. I've been taking Spanish classes online for a little over a year, and my teacher recommended I try this Netflix series. In fact, she assigned it to me as homework, so I put off doing it for weeks. My Spanish is bad enough that I absolutely have to read the captions while the show is on, which is part of why I cannot look at my phone, but the other part is that the show is entrancing.
La Casa De Las Flores tells the story of a wealthy Mexico City family who live in a bougie neighborhood and own a flower shop. The pilot episode begins with a big party and ends with a suicide, the arrest of the patriarch, and the revelation that there is another Casa De Las Flores: a struggling cabaret. The show is plotted like a telenovela in that there is constant drama and scandal, and I cannot recommend it enough as escapism from this terrible year. - Kelsey McKinney
“The Pageant” on The Eric Andre Show
Without the fast-twitch editing, The Eric Andre Show wouldn’t work as well as it does. At 11 minutes per episode, everything’s moving at an overwhelming pace, some skits ending with just enough of a reaction for it to register as a punchline, but also leaving the viewer wanting more of what happened next. There were plenty of moments in the fifth season that made my stomach hurt—the “Wheat Paste” skit, “Lizzo Up,” every instance of “Rapper Warrior Ninja” but especially the part where JPEGMAFIA freestyles, “I don’t believe in marriage / but I might do tho” a few seconds before a blast of compressed air hits him in the butt area—but nothing stood out as much as “The Pageant,” the bonus sketch tacked on to the season finale. There were no abrupt cuts to a totally different sketch. It was three minutes of one bit, a Tarantino-tier indulgence in the world of Eric Andre.
The premise isn’t complex, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t involve a lot of planning: The marks think they’re about to see a typical beauty pageant, then things get weird. I’m not sure whether the bags under the host’s eyes were intentional or a natural byproduct of the effort Andre put into this project, but those would have functioned as an early, inadvertent tell that something strange was behind this facade. The swimsuit portion removed all suspicion, and before the audience knew it, there were two glistening buff guys fighting while a large man danced with flashlights like no one was watching, even though they very much were.
That’s not even the punchline. Well, it’s one of the punchlines. There’s a lot going on after that. My guess is “The Pageant” wasn’t included within an episode because even sanding it down to the best parts would have had it eat up too much time and ruin the pace of the show. It almost feels like the showrunners are trying to be punitive: So, you like punchlines, eh? Well, have all the punchlines in the world! Joke’s on them. - Samer Kalaf
Tonally speaking, a considerable amount of prestige TV feels exactly the same. Story beats are meted out along a set path, expectations for the audience are set at the same level, and the camera is always winked to, the better to let the viewer know that this part right here, this matters. The Undoing is the best example I can think of of a TV show with a big-time cast, expensive and slick visual trappings, and a hole at the center where the tonal nuance should be. It's a Law & Order episode that you are told is Significant because Nicole Kidman in it.
But this is not a blog about shows we didn't like, it is a blog about stuff we did like, so: The Great. Hulu's Catherine the Great biopic is a spiritual successor to The Favourite, which The Great creator Tony McNamara co-wrote in 2018. Elle Fanning plays the titular heroine as she's dropped into the hostile and absurdly pageantry-focused world of Russian nobiliary. I hope I am not spoiling things when I say the plot revolves around a coup, though the genuine article happened over 250 years ago.
What sets The Great apart is its propulsion—Nicholas Hoult plays Peter III as an overindulged child who exudes menace at all times even when he's being a huge baby boy—and its ability to maintain a slightly farcical air even while presenting grave, hefty subject matter. The apparatus would collapse under its own ambition with worse writing or lesser lead actors, but the whole thing works. Huzzah. - Patrick Redford
Along with about a dozen of my Twitter mutuals, I picked up a habit of turning on Peter Falk’s old detective drama Columbo for long stretches at a time during quarantine. I’m sure there were plenty of good new shows on TV or the Internet over the last 12 months, but I doubt that any of them could be as solidly engaging as Columbo was for me this year, particularly on an episode-by-standalone-episode basis.
For those unaware, Columbo was a long-running program—or arguably a series of TV movies, since most episodes clock in close to 90 minutes without commercials—whose golden years came in the '70s. It stars Falk, the most inherently likable actor this side of Tom Hanks, as a fantasy version of a police detective who’s always right, never violent, and has a kind of shaggy-dog charisma that allows him to be hilarious and nosy in equal measure.
Columbo’s gimmick, compared to any other murder mystery, is that there is no real mystery, or even any surprise twists to speak of. Act One of these episodes doesn't feature the detective at all, but instead shows us how the murderer commits the villainous deed and tries to cover his tracks. While telling these stories from the killer’s point of view may sound like a way to deflate all the suspense out of the genre, the Columbo formula lends itself to thrilling scenes between cat and mouse as we see a pre-Internet, pre-cell phone sleuth try and puzzle out the true stories behind these crimes while his target gets ever more anxious.
This scene, from an episode in which an evil police commissioner and his equally horrid neighbor conspire to give each other airtight alibis for the murders of their wives, stands out as a particularly great example of the show’s strengths. Consistent with the antagonist-centered action, we never know the exact moment when it all starts to click for Columbo, but watching him inch towards the reveal turns out to be more exciting than any gunplay or chase sequences could be.
Allow me to sound like I’m 80 years old for just one moment: They really don’t make shows like Columbo anymore. There’s no dark past motivating the main character. There are no cliffhanger questions that carry over from episode to episode. It’s just a quirky guy that I like and some smart writing around him. That’s all I need TV to be. - Lauren Theisen
It wasn’t until I started watching Justified that I realized just how tired I’ve become of prestige television shows, which increasingly seem to exist more for the sake of convincing viewers of their importance than for telling a compelling story. Yes, yes, we’re all very impressed with your cinematography and urgent cultural insights.
Justified was a balm applied at just the right time. This is a show that has very little concern for its own importance, and mostly just exists as a delivery device for withering one-liners from Timothy Olyphant and peacocking monologues from Walton Goggins. I watched all seven seasons of the show during quarantine, and constantly found myself trying to come up with quips to say in Olyphant’s drawl or Goggins’s speech patterns.
More shows should be like this, in my opinion. It’s fun to just unplug your brain for an hour and watch charismatic weirdos shoot at each other and talk shit. - Tom Ley
Quarantine had a lot of bizarre effects on my life, but the one I did not see coming is that I became a certifiable Jason Sudeikis stan. It started when I watched what became one of my new favorite comfort movies in Sleeping With Other People, but really reached its fervor after I binged all of Ted Lasso in a couple of days. The concept seemed so bad; after all, a whole sitcom based on NBC promotional material from 2013 doesn’t seem like the best thing to do. And the fish-out-of-water idea of an American college football coach taking over a Premier League side was cloying enough to put me off the show for a few months. That was a mistake.
I don’t know if I can remember watching a show more earnestly positive than Ted Lasso. Sudeikis turns on his everyman charm to nearly toxic levels as the titular character, but his obliviousness to the stupidity of his predicament is more charming than annoying. The supporting cast is pitch-perfect too; the player combo of Phil Dunster as Jamie Tartt, a hotshot wonderkid, and Brett Goldstein’s Roy Kent, the stereotypical angry veteran captain, have the best moments playing off each other and Juno Temple’s Keeley Jones in a love triangle that works more often than it doesn’t.
Hannah Waddingham is the real supporting star, though, as the owner of the fictional AFC Richmond. Her extremely dry British demeanor works wonders with Sudeikis’s earnestness, and her over-arching plan—to tank the club to piss off her fanatic ex-husband—provides the majority of the plot movement and comedy. Really, though, I enjoyed Ted Lasso because it allowed me to shut off the stress and horror that came from life in 2020. In its place, the show delivered 10 episodes of sickly sweet charm, along with soccer action tailor-made for me. I’ve already rewatched the show once, and I probably will again and again. It goes down easy, and leaves me smiling at a time when that’s in short supply. - Luis Paez-Pumar
There are times when I am or at least tentatively have been on top of things, but for the most part I live my life in the feeling and fact of being behind in some way. The reality of that changes without the heavy haunting weight of it ever really shifting significantly; there is always something that I haven’t done, some pressingly literal or purely notional debt to settle, or an obligation that maybe only I perceive on which I am always falling shamefully short in a way that maybe only I can see. Most of this can be filed under “my problem,” but it spills over into other aspects of my life outside of my legacy deadlines and various optimistic hyperextensions.
It is one thing to be behind on work. It is another and much worse thing to feel that you are behind on your leisure, that there are films or TV shows you are supposed to have watched, not out of some obligation to The Discourse or critical opinion or friends’ expectations or one’s own cultural enrichment but just on principle. Because there is so much—too much—television, and because there is always more of it, and because of my aforementioned problem, it can all come to feel like work. Which means that even if I had the time to watch all of it, and was able to persuade my wife to take a few weeks off from work so we could get up to speed on like Breaking Bad together, I wouldn’t want to do it. If it feels like work, I will treat it like work. I have already told you how that goes.
I would say that this is why I was so late to Jim Gavin’s short-lived and stupendously wonderful Lodge 49, which aired for two alternately blithe and scabrous seasons on AMC* in 2018 and 2019. But while it’s probably part of it, there are other reasons why I arrived late, and why a critical mass of viewers never arrived at all. Lodge 49 is, in ways that are relentlessly welcoming and humane, about how the feeling and reality of being behind come to overtake people, and about people who have fallen behind, and about living with all of that.
For all the things that happen in Lodge 49—and there is plenty of incident, much of it overtly cosmic/metaphysical and a lot of it pure hijinkery, with a surprisingly large amount qualifying as both—it is mostly the story of people failing and fucking up in the face of insurmountable odds while trying to hang onto whatever human dignity and residual agency they can. As such, it’s kind of a bummer, although it is also often very funny. It’s the story of a lost and grieving surfer doofus named Dud (Wyatt Russell) who wanders into the Long Beach lodge of the fading Fraternal Order of The Lynx, and the people and community and weird thwarted adventures that he finds there, but also of the other marginal people—his sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy) holds together a foundering Tilted Kilt-style breastaurant with the force of her competence and fury; plumbing supply salesman Ernie (Brent Jennings) is mostly just trying to get through the days he has left with a minimum of annoyance—as they ricochet aimlessly through the lower rungs of Long Beach, California and, repeatedly, into and off of each other. The lodge is at the center of it, either because there really are some mystical secrets buried within its crumbling exterior or just because there is really nowhere else to go.
Gavin is a fiction writer, and Lodge 49 is literary in the ways that more ostentatiously writerly TV shows virtually never are. There are echoes of Thomas Pynchon in the title and Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis in the abiding fascination with dead-end mythos, but they’re never permitted to wander across the screen winking as they might have in other, more show-offy shows. Characters speak carefully but always like themselves, not as mouthpieces for the swinging-dick auteur behind it all; storylines double-back and dabble and often veer into the dreamlike without ever feeling manipulated or manipulative or cute; a real and relentless critique of capitalism as a grift and relentless dehumanizing force runs through it more forcefully than in any other series I’ve seen. For all the myth and mysticism in it, and for all the feats of world-building over the show’s two seasons—in Liz’s workplace and the multiply homely Lynx lodge and the crumbling broader organization, in the increasingly empty shell of the city’s dying aerospace facility and the purgatorial pawn shop towards which every character is relentlessly pushed—Lodge 49 always feels like a show unfolding in this country, in this broader moment. It is sad and funny and angry about the bullshit that demeans people every day and hopeful about the capacity of those people to somehow rescue some comfort and fellowship anyway; I have not even mentioned Paul Giammati’s broader role in things, but it is worth waiting for. I waited too long to find it, but this is a different sort of regret than usual. It’s not that I somehow fell behind. It’s that I deferred this uncanny pleasure for too long. - David Roth
* I originally misidentified Lodge 49 as airing on FX, not AMC, like an idiot.
The Baby-Sitters Club
Whenever I play trivia with my colleagues, I find myself in awe of everything they know. They can tell you how to mix a sidecar, who sang that vaguely familiar song from 1985, recall all of Lara Flynn Boyle's movies, and name almost anyone who has ever played for the New York Mets. As I sit there, confidently cruising to yet another trivia loss, I wonder what is in my brain, because clearly it's none of this.
As it turns out, what's inside my brain is The Baby-Sitters Club. The Baby-Sitters Club, aka the BSC, is a series of young-adult books, launched in 1986, about the adventures of teen girls in Stoneybrook, Conn., who start their own business, in this case a club that provides babysitting services. The club began with four members, Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, and Stacey, although over time another six teens would also join. Each book follows a different member of the club as they all navigate the difficulties of launching their own business, the complexities of watching other people's children, and the many daunting challenges that happen when you're a 12-year-old girl trying to figure out how to survive middle school, homework, crushes, changing friendships, cliques, family drama, vengeful older high schoolers, the loss of loved ones, and society's insane social standards for young women. You might read this and think, "Huh, sounds small," but you would be wildly and embarrassingly wrong.
The BSC books realized, well before the young-adult books boom, that the interior lives of teens are complex and important. The series, soon after it launched, became a massive hit, and its author, Ann M. Martin, became a living legend for many young girls and boys, including myself. I devoured the books as a child—they are quite possibly the reason I grew to love reading and books—and became so obsessed with them that I befriended the staff at our local Waldenbooks so they would call me the day a new BSC book arrived. I was far from alone. New York Times editor Gal Beckerman wrote in the Times about loving the BSC as a kid. Director and producer Lucia Aniello called the BSC, "my Star Wars." And, dammit, they do deserve the Star Wars treatment, which they finally got this year.
OK, it wasn't full Star Wars. It was a 10-episode run on Netflix. But especially this year, shrouded in unending human loss, isolation, and failures by our national government, I needed Stoneybrook. I wanted to be there as Kristy struggles to accept her new step-father, as Stacey does her best to hide her diabetes from her friends out of fear they'll abandon her, and as Claudia grapples with the aftermath of her grandmother's stroke. Because in each of these stories, you don't just see their struggles, you also see their resilience, how they come out the other side, a little bruised but also a little wiser and with their fellow friends and babysitters still right by their side. Call them the anti-Mary Sue.
I nearly cried watching every BSC episode, and I still get misty rewatching them. I watched them with my husband—I insisted that he watch the show with me so he could see into my soul, or something else dramatic I said—and I would pause each time to give him my own backstory from whatever had been happening in my life when I read each book. I breathlessly detailed what changed from the book to the TV show, and weighed in on which characters were my favorite. (For the record, my favorite character growing up was Stacey because I too wanted to be a cool blonde girl from New York City. My husband swears I am Kristy with a dash of Mary Anne). Even after we finished the series, on particularly bad days for me, my husband would ask if I wanted to rewatch a BSC episode or two. No surprise, I'd always say yes.
It sounds counterintuitive, at first, to say that art that's about acknowledging how hard it is to be a teen girl can also be so life-affirming. But if the overarching theme of the Disney Princess Canon is you will find the perfect love and it will bring you perfect happiness (an impossible goal), the overarching theme of the BSC is that life is hard, and that's OK; stay true to your friends and they will help you through it. The BSC is here to tell you that you are not alone. In a year so many of us spent alone, that message is as important and as ever. - Diana Moskovitz
Episode 4 of Outer Banks
My 14-year-old dragooned my wife and I into watching Outer Banks with her because she was into John B (Chase Stokes). And I was like, “Whatever, this show is gonna eat ass.” This show does NOT eat ass. It’s teens on a violent treasure hunt. I have no arguments with that pitch. Anyway, episode 4 is a quasi-bottle episode where John B and the rich girl flee to the mainland to do some treasure hunt research in Chapel Hill. They also go shopping for matching seersucker ensembles even though neither of them showered after stowing away in a ferry’s boiler room. No matter. This is television. The hot people get to look hot anyway. Helps build up the romantic tension. And holy shit, does all that anticipation pay off at the end.
I still watch that scene when the mood strikes. John B’s speech is idiotic but that doesn’t matter because it WORKED. If I were still in middle school I definitely would use that speech on a girl in my grade. She would still give me the Heisman. - Drew Magary
It took watching maybe five minutes of the pilot episode of DC’s Harley Quinn to know this was a show I would love. All it took was one of the most cutting, profanity-laced, and violent monologues on the influences of wealth I’ve ever seen in any cartoon. And then the actual plot kicked in.
Flipping through your streaming service of choice, you could overlook this show. On first glance it looks like another half-hour cartoon with capes and tights and men with square jaws remixing morality plays. Instead, Harley Quinn says a very loud and articulate fuck you (did I mention this is not for kids?) to all of that, focusing on the hard work of discovering your life and the struggle in getting free of abusive relationships (like, say, between you and a homicidal clown, or the will-they-won’t-they dynamic between said clown and the man in a bat suit.) This is comic books rendered as a found-family sitcom, and for DC, which has struggled to define itself against Marvel, it’s a success.
But the real fun in Harley Quinn is how much it wants to interrogate the tropes in comics, like how exactly do you get a nemesis (turns out there are apps)? What benefits do the Legion of Doom offer new candidates (goons on demand, for one)? And what is Commissioner Gordon’s life like outside of running the police force in one of the most lawless cities in the country (incredibly bleak, actually)?
It’s weirdly comforting in 2020 to see that the good guys and the bad guys are just as petty, messy, and neurotic as your friends and family. Maybe that’s why I recommended this show to everyone I know. - Justin Ellis
It was a late arriving treat in a lost and nightmarish 2020, but this video of the vibin’ cat vibin’ to a deep-fried and pleasantly chaotic song sung by an animated cat composed of many little GameCube cubes is the best thing I watched this year:
I assume each component of this video—the vibin’ cat, the runaway cube, its accompanying anti-melodic ditty, the Voltron-like barking mechano-cat made of many cubes, and the compellingly atonal and delightfully muddy number that marks the video’s dramatic climax—is a discrete, known piece of ephemera, each one a little turd launched from the butthole at the excretion stage of the internet’s fractal, algorithmic, runaway metabolizing of every accessible artifact of human civilization. Probably the person or warehouse of typing monkeys or all-devouring artificial-intelligence program that made this video just grabbed several of these fast-decaying turds and mashed them together before the last of their absolutely screamingly insane social value evaporated, and that was that. Who can say? I can’t keep up with it all. No one can!
Lean into the essential hopelessness of the task. It’s more fun, by far, to imagine one really frighteningly strange person sitting in front of a computer one long night and imagining up all of the vibin’ cat, the mechano-cat, the runaway cube, the wandering ditty, and the blasphemous crescendo music from thin air, all in one depraved, Lovecraftian plunge into the void. By the end their hair was perfectly white, their eyes had ruptured out of their skull, and they’d both chewed and swallowed their own tongue. Buddy, let me just say, as your soul endures the torments of hell for all eternity: The video was worth it. - Chris Thompson
It Chapter Two
Somehow, in the entirety of 2020, I watched one movie and zero television shows. That movie was It Chapter Two, which I watched last week. It was aggressively fine. By default it was the best thing I watched this year. - Barry Petchesky