For decades, Hollywood viewed television and film actors the way the public thinks about the two houses of Congress. Like television, the House of Representatives, though important, lacks the august credibility of the Senate. In entertainment, the top talent and best quality flowed into film. Yet, since the alleged “Golden Era” of television — which many critics date back to the debut of the Sopranos and which includes The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, and a number of (debatable) others — and the rise of superhero dominance in movies, the “boob tube” now seems to enjoy more luster than its older counterpart, a fact reflected in our Best of 2020 lists. As per usual our lists are not limited to the calendar year, but whatever television and film helped our editors cope in the Covid Era.
Best TV Binge
Avigail Oren: I watched The Sopranos twenty years after it first aired and found it profoundly timely on matters of corruption, community, and faith. Who is our family and what is our responsibility to them? Can you still be a good person if your work is profoundly antisocial? Is justice retribution or reparation? The first three seasons are also incredibly funny, though as the show goes on the writers become increasingly dependent on malapropisms and mispronunciations for laughs. Finally, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco deliver consistently flooring performances. But maybe I’m just preaching to the choir two decades too late. If so, I put forth What We Do in the Shadows as the second-best binge of the year. My husband and I cannot resist randomly quoting two of the oddball vampire roommates, Nadja and Nandor: “No nuns. No nuns. None” and “F*cking Guy” being our favorites.
Troy Hallsell: The Great British Bake Off. I’ve never been one for reality TV or competitive cooking shows, but there was something about this one that was lighthearted, low stakes, and fun to watch. It also got me to start cooking bread (poorly).
Charlotte Rosen: The Good Wife! I think the show starts out with abolitionist tendencies but then definitely becomes more carceral and it’s absolutely awful when it comes to its foreign policy, among other things. That being said, the show is clear in demonstrating that Chicago’s criminal legal and political system is entirely bankrupt and corrupt, which, honestly, is refreshing to see amid a sea of totally uncritical copaganda shows out there. I think the character of Diane, too, could be read as a critique of girlboss, corporate, white feminism – maybe a stretch, though. Anyway, the acting is solid, the drama is dialed all the way up, and Alicia Florrick drinking wine is a constant mood. Also, somehow this show has cameos from literally every actor?????? Like potentially the entire cast of the Wire appears in this show. It’s impressive.
Dylan Gottlieb: Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4 in the UK and HBOMax). A single-camera comedy about an apartment-rental firm on the uncool margins of London. Jamie Demetriou plays Stath, a wildly incompentant letting agent who just wants to impress his beleaguered Greek-Cypriot father/boss. Think The Office. Only weirder.
Matt Guariglia: Star Trek: Next Generation.
Angela Stiefbold: Now that actual travel is limited, I have instead been time traveling via television, in a variety of genres: historical fiction, fantasy, and documentary. While a lot of recent popular releases have fit that bill, I am also slowly working through the twenty seasons of a British series that documents the work of archaeologists: Time Team (Britain’s Channel 4/Amazon Prime/YouTube). There are also two seasons of Time Team America (PBS/Amazon Prime). They’ve been my go-to multitasking background for much of this year. Sites are mostly in Britain, both rural and urban (a Wedgwood factory dig was one of my favorites), and occasionally they go abroad, including a Caribbean sugar plantation.
Ian Toller-Clark: While it has been fun to rewatch older shows like Chuck, Psych, and Community, the best TV binge of the year was the first half of the 5th Season of Lucifer. Looking forward to the second half, which includes a musical episode!
Ryan: Despite its shortcomings in regard to historical accuracy, I thoroughly enjoyed Mrs. America on Hulu. I’m pretty sure I’d watch Kate Blanchett portray a paper bag at this point and while she’s a suburban force of nature in the series as Phyllis Schlafly, so are her peers including Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug (check her out in Blow the Man Down discussed below!), Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan, and Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus. I don’t know if it counts as television since its really a collection of five films, but in “Small Axe,” at least through its first two “episodes”, Mangrove and Lover’s Rock, Steve McQueen movingly documents the struggles, passions, and culture of Black London during the 1960s and 70s. Definitely worth a look.
Troy Hallsell: I mostly stuck with TV shows, but watched Contagion over the weekend. After living through COVID-19 I understood all the public health references.
Charlotte Rosen: Gremlins 2. Was not expecting it to offer a cogent and entertaining critique of gentrification and monopoly capitalism. Who knew?!
Dylan Gottlieb: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Come for the Frenchy eroticism. Stay for the big ideas about art, class, and the female gaze.
Matt Guariglia: The Vast of the Night.
Eric Michael Rhodes: I watched Sorry to Bother You for the first time and it really captured the spirit of the 2010s.
Ian Toller-Clark: I finally got to watch Knives Out! I felt like I was watching an episode of Poirot!
Ryan: I’ll second Contagion as the re-watch of the year, though as one person noted on Twitter, it also deluded the viewer into thinking the nation would be united in fighting a pandemic. Present circumstances suggest otherwise, instead we settle for what shouldn’t be celluloid fantasy: governmental and societal competence on the big screen. So some of us turn to it because, as Wesley Morris pointed out in March: “Watching movie stars be world-savingly smart really does lower your blood pressure.” Other suggestions? Two: Netflix’s Dolemite is My Name provided a really joyful depiction of 1970s Black Los Angeles with a great performance from Eddie Murphy that should have gotten more notice in 2019, while Blow the Man Down, a noir available on Prime, flipped the usual gender roles so common to the genre as it explored murder in a small New England port town.
Featured Image (at top): Thomas J. O’Halloran, “Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower watching a television during the Republican National Convention, Chicago, Illinois,” July 1952, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.