TV has honestly been my saving grace of 2020. It was one of the few pros of early quarantine, and even now, when there still isn’t much to do safely but stay home, it remains a great distraction. This year, I’ve had the time to try out some prestige TV, revisit old trashy favorites like Four Weddings, 16 and Pregnant, and America’s Next Top Model, and discover some unexpected gems.
Up until the summer hit and the glaring uncertainty of the fall TV season was palpable, 2020 really delivered when it came to escapist TV. While I’ll refrain from my rant about Peter Weber’s Bachelor season cursing the rest of the year (his finale aired just as everything was imploding in March), I feel like 2020 allowed for a new kind of inclusive creativity that hasn’t quite happened before.
By that, I mean that there was truly something for everyone. I have no interest in dark, brooding dramas like Ozark and I can’t find the energy to commit to a new dating reality show like Love is Blind, but they’re there for whoever wants them. I want nothing to do with shows’ COVID-adjacent storylines, but they’re there if you want them. On the other hand, witty dramedies with smart female characters that delivered a perfect combination of joy and heartbreak? There was an abundance of them this year that I don’t think I’ve seen before.
That being said, I’m still working through popular 2020 favorites like The Queen’s Gambit and Normal People, because content that’s on the slow, bleaker side isn’t really doing it for me now. The common theme among the following favorites is definitely a sense of optimism and happiness.
1) Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Season 1
The final scene of this season finale is honestly the most beautiful piece of television I’ve seen in a really long time (and I cry at a lot of TV!). My parents unexpectedly stumbled upon the premiere episode on their own and loved it, so all of us watching the show together every Sunday became a highlight of our early quarantine. It delivered so much joy but could also crush your heart within a matter of seconds. I’m so excited for its second season premiere on Jan. 5 and its schedule upgrade from a Sunday night slot to Tuesdays.
It took extremely gloomy weather and moods for me to pull another Emily Gilmore and insist upon finding some joy and letting it be satisfying and enough and motivating. I made an indulgent brie grilled cheese for lunch. I played Christmas music while working. I exercised after the workday, which I haven’t done enough in the pandemic world because, gosh darn it, I love and miss my Planet Fitness. I also recognized that I’m still finding joy in certain pop culture that really has made this time more manageable.
Let’s start with the title of this post. I keep playlists for my writing projects that consist of songs that either inspire this particular work or are directly included in it. For my current work-in-progress, I recently stumbled across “For Now” from the musical Avenue Q, which is just a sweet, delightful song reminding us that everything, good or bad, is temporary — for now. Every listen of it always cheers me up.
I’ve recently discovered the Pod Ledom podcast, a recap series of America’s Next Top Model. If there’s anything my 2020 posts might have taught you, it’s that ANTM rewatches will always be my top TV guilty pleasure. Just when I had exhausted my favorite cycles and confirmed that certain seasons are still unwatchable, this podcast came along with its hilarious and insightful trio of hosts. Plus, they’re only up to Cycle 10 of their rewatch, so I have tons of content to look forward to. If you’re a fan of America’s Next Top Best Friend, Pod Ledom is similarly goofy, but it dives a little deeper into ANTM episodes without tangents.
I’ve struggled emotionally over the past few weeks. I think it has to do with both the election and the end of the year seeming closer than ever with only the vaguest of pandemic resolutions in sight. So I’ve embraced the eff-it attitude, soaking in joy-inducing entertainment that reminds me that this might be a temporary normal but, God willing, it doesn’t have to be our new forever. Think of my new 2020 mentality as Emily in the Gilmore Girls reunion when she’s happy to toss anything that doesn’t bring her joy.
I’ve never had any particular feelings for or against Drew Barrymore, probably because E.T. just freaked me out as a child and none of her other work was formative for me. But her earth mother-esque quality intertwined with brutal honesty is what won me over about her new talk show’s YouTube channel. While her actual interviews become a little too earnest for me, I recommend her pre-premiere “The Art of the Interview” videos with Andy Cohen, Whoopi Goldberg, and Gayle King, followed by Chloe Fineman’s SNL parody of the show.
I loved the episodes of The Michelle Obama Podcast with Barack Obama, her girlfriends, and her brother Craig. To be frank, I miss having warm, personable humans in the White House, so listening to this weekly insight into the former First Lady’s thoughts and relationships has been so refreshing.
I read Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand’s Harry-and-Meghan tell-all, Finding Freedom. There honestly wasn’t too much in there that was new or shocking to me, but the narrative that really stuck with me was how passive the Duchess of Cambridge reportedly was in trying to befriend Meghan. I firmly believe that sisters–in-law don’t have to be best friends or even close, so I respect that these two didn’t click naturally. On the other hand, this was such a unique and overwhelming situation that I really don’t understand the supposed argument that Kate was too loyal to William to bother trying. Still, consider me in the camp of believing that the Sussexes and Cambridges are exactly where they’re meant to be now and that some form of forgiveness will happen down the road.
In other royals new, the Meghan Markle and Gloria Steinem conversation was really exciting. I’m also really interested in seeing how the Sussexes’ Netflix deal pans out, but I definitely understand the critique that the move supports the belief that they’ll go full Hollywood. But then again, how about all those British tabloids turn their attention to Prince Andrew’s seedy ties rather than a couple just trying to contribute positively to the world?
Weekdays off in elementary school meant watching Live! with Regis and Kelly and giggling uncontrollably at the opening conversation. Now looking at all of these commemorative clips of Regis Philbin, I realize just how much his joy and self-deprecating humor remind me of my grandfathers, both lifelong, hearty New Yorkers of that age and likely to have experienced the same cultural touchpoints. Sure, America chose to wake up to him, but New Yorkers had a particular familarity with him. Kathie Lee Gifford’s tribute to him on TODAY made me cry, and although I don’t remember the Regis and Kathie Lee era, their occasional reunions on TODAY‘s fourth hour showed me just how magical their daily dynamic must have been. For a laugh, watch Regis’s delight at a bird landing on Kathie Lee’s head and then his Halloween stint as Gelman on TODAY in 2016. I also love his guest spot on How I Met Your Mother.
Either the Queen has an obvious favorite among the grandkids or she feels really bad about Princess Beatrice having to cancel her original wedding plans and deal with Prince Andrew’s shenanigans. Whichever it is, I loved how Beatrice wore an old, tweaked gown of the Queen’s as well as her grandmother’s wedding day tiara on her own big day. I wouldn’t want to wear Beatrice and Eugenie’s wedding dresses, but they both did such great jobs of achieving classic fashion while still adhering to royal modesty rules.
The Parent Trap is one of two or three movies I can quote verbatim, and as her fellow Long Islander, I’m always going to want Lindsay Lohan to be well. How great did she seem in Katie Couric’s cast reunion?
I keep track of every book I read in a year, so in 2020, I look at this ongoing list and see a clear divide between the books I read while commuting and the ones I read during the stark emptiness of early quarantine. Erin Hahn’s More Than Maybewas a slight crossover between the two stages, distracting me from the rising panic of the New York metro area and introducing me to the delightful world of Luke, Vada, and their dreams to fill the world with music.
While Hahn’s first YA romance, You’d Be Mine, followed the summer tour of teen country music stars Clay and Annie, More Than Maybe picks up in a typical suburb, introducing Luke, the son of a rocker, and Vada, an aspiring music journalist. As Luke hides his songwriting from the rest of the world, he can’t help but like the ambitious Vada, who strives toward getting into a prestigious music journalism program and scoring an internship with Rolling Stone. With the help of Phil, local musical legend and Vada’s mom’s boyfriend, the two teens must learn how their growing feelings for each other fit into the visions that they have for their futures.
On shelves July 21, More Than Maybe was such a delight to read in uncertain times. Luke and Vada’s love of music and their growing trust in each other is reminiscent of Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby, one of my all-time YA faves. On top of an earnest portrayal of first love, More Than Maybe also hooks older readers with insight into the second-chance romance between Phil and Vada’s mom Mary that is rarely seen in YA. If you sorely miss summer concerts and local hangouts, the story is the perfect antidote for corona blues.
I was lucky enough to ask Erin Hahn some questions about her book ahead of its release. Thank you for being so great, Erin!
After focusing on budding country music stars in You’d Be Mine, what was the inspiration for More Than Maybe and exploring teens with a similar love for music but who are living a more typical life?
The Plot AgainstAmerica, which I watched during a week-long free trial of HBO Max, was a little too slow and vague for me, but the finale was particularly good. I loved Zoe Kazan as a terrified Bess trying to soothe a hysteric child over the phone. If anything, the series got me more interested in the work of both Kazan and Anthony Boyle, and the parallels between Philip Roth’s original story and today are startling.
We finally downloaded Disney+ to indulge in the wonder that was Hamilton, but since that inaugural weekend, I’ve traveled down memory lane and watched some of my favorite old DCOMs. Gotta Kick It Up!, Go Figure, andRead It and Weepwere still really delightful, and I have viewings of my ultimate favorites — Stuck in the Suburbs, Smart House, and Cadet Kelly — to anticipate. Since the movies are so short, it’s really easy to get through one right before bed.
Thank God for the much-delayed renewal of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. At the rate everything is going, I was expecting heartache on this front, so this is at least one nice thing to look forward to in the ambiguous future. If you haven’t watched this yet, I highly recommend it. It honestly feels a little naughty getting to watch this cast and their caliber of talent in every episode.
I recently binged Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever and absolutely loved it. Anything Kaling-adjacent is a must-watch for me, but I was a little wary about this beforehand. I typically don’t enjoy most teen shows because of characters’ unrealistic or oversexed situations, and without full episodic context, the trailer was sort of giving me those vibes. But chalk it up to iffy marketing, because Never Have I Ever was so multifaceted, emotional, and witty in that classic Mindy Kaling fashion.
Since police killed George Floyd on May 25 and an international fight against police brutality and systemic racism began, blogging about pop culture felt highly inappropriate. So rather than writing here, I’ve spent this transformative time after Floyd’s passing trying to educate myself, check my privilege as a white woman, and learn how to do better.
In the past few days, laws have passed that give me hope that we’re living out the same kind of turning point seen during the civil rights movement. But with quarantine still in place in major cities and not much else to distract us from this moment, resting on the belief that change will come doesn’t suffice. You can donate, sign petitions, and protest, but it’s also important to take note of what you choose to consume in pop culture and how it contributes to your knowledge about race.
That’s when books, TV, and movies come into play for me. Sticking to the news cycle can be overwhelming and depressing, especially in this already unprecedented time, but one concentrated source of information at a time can leave just as impactful of an influence. So after taking in plenty of recommendations and consulting my existing TBR list and streaming queues, here are the things about Black lives and experiences or made by Black creators that I plan to read and watch, as well as a few select titles I already love. My list is obviously far from complete, and I recognize that my pop culture choices often have a severe lack of diversity. So if you have more recommendations, please let me know!
Favorite TV shows formulate in your consciousness in a different way than favorite movies do. Favorite movies often stem from sometime in childhood, when you had ample time to watch and rewatch and when obsessions were encouraged. These are less likely to fade away from your favor because they’re so reminiscent of how you became who you are. These stay embedded in your mind, serving as an ever-faithful time capsule that triggers your brain to recite lines and reenact scenes like nobody’s business.
Favorite TV shows are liable to change over time, molding to fit the phase of life you’re in, and you may outgrow these more quickly. Such is the case for me with this list, and the favorite shows I decided upon only were mostly newer shows that feel particularly monumental to who I am and what I’m drawn to.
This is the most constant of my TV favorites. It hooked me from an early age, so it really blows my mind when I hear about people in their late teens and twenties watching it for the first time. I don’t watch it as often as I did then, but its take on friends-as-family, clever wordplay, and physical comedy is the ultimate recipe for comfort in my book. The Thanksgiving episodes remain a must-watch every year, and, yes, I’m a total Monica with underlying qualities of Chandler and Ross.
I’ve mentioned before that finishing Lost inspired me to pursue entertainment journalism, and as a gradual result, I was lucky to spend almost two years in a dream position in that field. It was the first series I watched that showed me the power of television storytelling and how the medium could be used to its full potential. I stick to the belief that it kicked off the flashback trend in TV dramas, and as seen with NBC’s Manifest, its mystical plot and ensemble cast are still inspiring the basic structure of so many shows.
3) The Middle
In addition to Everybody Loves Raymond, The Middle is the closest existing TV portrayal of my family. We watched this one from the beginning, and our real-life situations always closely mirrored what was happening on it at the time. Reruns provide a dose of nourishing nostalgia and, seeing as I once watched episodes on a international flight that was homeward bound, revisiting it will always feel like coming home.