Saturday, November 21, 2020

Jenn’s Pick: The Very Best of a Very Bad Year [Contributor: Jenn]

As we wind down the year, you’re probably feeling a sense of gratitude that at midnight on December 31, you’ll get to bid 2020 goodbye for good. And while this has been a famously bad year, there are still some things in pop culture we can be grateful for. As you prepare to send off this year in the coming month, let’s reflect on some of the best TV shows, movies, and moments this year actually had to offer. 

JULIE AND THE PHANTOMS

I’ve already talked about this show at length in an article this year and also in a bonus episode of our Community Rewatch podcast, but it begs to be stated again: Julie and the Phantoms is just the most delightful serotonin boost in a god-awful year. This Netflix family show stars newcomer Madison Reyes as Julie Molina, a teenager who has stopped singing and performing since the death of her mother a year prior. On the verge of being kicked out of the music program at school, Julie then gets a visit from three ghosts — Alex, Reggie, and Luke — who were a band in the 1990s and died. Soon, Julie realizes that she’s the only person who can see the guys, except when they perform together.

Julie and the Phantoms features an array of talented young actors, incredible music, directing by the legendary Kenny Ortega, male characters dismantling toxic masculinity, and women of color in lead roles. Honestly, why aren’t you watching this show yet?

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT

I know absolutely nothing about chess. After watching The Queen’s Gambit, I don’t know that I learned anything substantial about it but man was I compelled by it. In the show, Anya Taylor-Joy plays a complex woman named Elizabeth Harmon who becomes a renowned chess player. She got addicted to pills as a child and spends her adulthood in brilliance but also spiraling. Elizabeth may be highly intelligent but she doesn’t allow herself to feel emotions, pain, or the traumas of her youth. Watching her excel as a chess player is exciting and the cinematography of the show makes it look so beautiful. The scenes put me on the edge of my seat — and the music was amazing and aided that — but the relationships between Elizabeth and the other characters truly compelled me. 

What I love in a show is a complex female character and Beth is definitely complex. I thoroughly enjoyed watching her struggle and ultimately find redemption and healing. Truly even if you know nothing about chess like me, I recommend The Queen’s Gambit for a compelling and beautiful character study.

THE CAST OF COMMUNITY REUNITING

You all know how much I adore Community. I started a podcast about it. This website was founded on Community reviews. So when the cast of the show decided to reunite this year for a Zoom table read of “Cooperative Polygraphy” with Pedro Pascal stepping into Walton Goggins’ role, I was game. In addition to just reuniting, the table read raised money for World Central Kitchen and COVID-19 relief. It was a joy to watch everyone step easily back into their characters and read through the original script — which contained some differences from the episode that actually aired. Truly, the real highlight though was Pedro Pascal’s inability to make it through certain lines without laughing. 

I’ll always love the Community cast and here’s to hoping that the next reunion we have is on set for a movie!

TEENAGE BOUNTY HUNTERS

Honestly, I didn’t expect much when I saw my friend Allison tweeting about Teenage Bounty Hunters. It seemed like a pretty self-explanatory title that I wondered how much I would enjoy the show. I was pleasantly surprised! The Netflix series (which has since been cancelled, RIP) centered around a set of twins named Sterling and Blair who — as the show’s title would suggest — accidentally become teenage bounty hunters. The show focuses on them pursuing this job secretly, while both trying to grapple with their school and personal lives, especially in a conservative Christian town and school and family.

The show is basically a dark comedy with some genuinely hilarious moments, heartfelt character growth, and strong female characters. It tackles some tough subjects and threads a plot throughout the season of mystery without being too overt. Teenage Bounty Hunters was such a fun romp; I just wish it had stuck around longer to continue to unspool its plot threads.

OUTER BANKS

Both my sister and roommate recommended this show to me with the same selling point: “It gets INSANE.” I didn’t know exactly what to make of that rousing recommendation... until I started watching the show and began to understand exactly what they meant. After a few episodes, every subsequent episode would end with some wild, unexpected cliffhanger and beg me to let Netflix continue to autoplay to the next episode.

I didn’t mean to get hooked, but I definitely did. The show centers on a group of teenagers in the Outer Banks of North Carolina nicknamed “Pogues.” They’re essentially outcasts and are often mocked by the wealthier kids. But there’s a mystery that the Pogues are determined to solve — the disappearance of John B.’s (Chase Stokes) dad. Joining him are Kie (Madison Bailey), JJ (Rudy Pankow), and Pope (Jonathan Daviss) and John B.’s new love interest, Sarah (Madelyn Cline) who is from a wealthy and considered to be part of the “Kooks,” the rich kids on the island.

I won’t spoil the rest for you because literally every episode builds on the previous one. You get smacked in the face repeatedly with twist after twist, genuinely heartbreaking and emotional moments (the storyline with JJ and his dad will probably make your heart ache if you’re like me), and a season finale that left me wondering, “What in the world happens now?!”

Buckle up for the wildest ride, friends, and binge-watch Outer Banks soon!

PSYCH 2: LASSIE COME HOME

I absolutely love Psych. I loved the first movie but obviously something, or someone, was missing: Timothy Omundson. After the actor’s massive stroke, fans were just grateful that he survived and had a brief cameo in the first movie. The second movie, Psych 2: Lassie Come Home, centered around Carlton Lassiter’s identical situation — a stroke — and featured stellar performances by the whole cast, with the standout being Omundson of course.

I will gladly take any opportunity to have Psych back in my life, but this film felt especially poignant; the cast and crew behind the scenes were incredibly supportive of Omudson’s recovery, and so many of the conversations between the characters on screen just felt like the actors talking to each other. It’s clear that this case loves each other immensely, and I want them to have more adventures together.

TED LASSO

Ted Lasso is one of the best things that 2020 had to offer us and I stand by that. Created by Bill Lawrence (a master in making me laugh and then immediately punching me in the feelings), the show follows Ted Lasso — a character created for NBC commercials — who’s played expertly by Jason Sudeikis. Ted is a football coach in Texas and gets hired to coach football (also known as “soccer” to us) in England. He’s set up to fail with a team who doesn’t believe he’s qualified or intelligent enough to lead them. No one, in fact, believes in Ted Lasso besides his friend and coach, Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt). Ted, however, will not be dissuaded. He’s constantly optimistic, though not rooted in fantasy as most people suspect.

Ted spends the whole season growing and we get the chance to see that even though he chooses to believe the best in people and fight for goodness, he’s not naïve. He experiences anger and sadness too. But in a dumpster fire year, it was so heartwarming and emotional to watch someone combat pessimism with optimism. Ted Lasso was the character we needed this year and I’m so grateful we’ll get more of this show next year.

THE QUARANTINE EPISODE OF MYTHIC QUEST

I’m allowing exactly one show to have a quarantine episode about COVID-19 and it’s Mythic Quest. In a genius move, the show decided to use their literal quarantine as a plot point for their characters. Since the show is produced by Apple, the company sent all the actors iPhones and AirPods, and everyone learned how to set up their own lighting and cameras. But what makes the Mythic Quest episode work isn’t the savvy tech work (though that is impressive): it’s the heart of the story. 

Quarantine impacted us all differently. Some spent all day in pajamas. Some tried to navigate full-time work while full-time parenting kids at home. And some threw themselves into work to avoid the feeling of emptiness. That last one is exactly what we see Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) do in the episode. It’s emotional, it’s real, and it hit me hard. Truly if you haven’t yet watched Mythic Quest, make it a priority this month to do so.

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

What could I possibly say about Lovecraft Country that hasn’t already been said far more eloquently? It’s a brilliant combination of character study, science fiction, and so many other genres. I’m constantly blown away by the acting on this show. Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Michael K. Williams, Aunjanue Ellis, and Wunmi Mosaku all deserve awards for their performances.

Ultimately, Lovecraft Country does a really solid job navigating its standalone episodes and creating a season-long story arc and overarching mystery. The show is rooted in our understanding of its characters and its strong writing, incredible twists and turns, and acting prowess compel you to keep watching.

I MAY DESTROY YOU

The best thing I watched in 2020 was the season finale of I May Destroy You. Truly, this HBO series is compelling, surprising, heartwrenching, funny, and surprising in ways I couldn’t have participated. Since it follows a woman who is sexually assaulted, the show may be triggering to victims so I would recommend caution. But for those who may not find it triggering, please watch this incredible show. The story follows Arabella (Michaela Coel), a writer who is struggling to come up with copy for her next book and goes out with friends. While out, she’s assaulted and the remainder of the show is a story about Arabella’s exploration of trauma, grief, healing, and finding her voice as a writer. 

The show features a wonderful supporting cast, is helmed by Michaela Coel who is an absolute brilliant actress and writer, the episodes are inventive, and it’s just incredibly powerful overall. Do yourself a favor and watch this show soon.

THE FINAL SEASON OF SCHITT'S CREEK

When you think of perfect series finales, hopefully Schitt’s Creek makes it into your list. Even though I was incredibly sad to see the Roses leave my screen this year, the way they did was so satisfying (including all of those award wins too!). “Happy Ending” is such a wonderful, emotional, happy series finale. One of the best things about Schitt’s Creek is that they allowed their characters to grow slowly, but organically. When we send them off in their own directions in the finale — David and Patrick staying in town, Alexis off to New York, and Johnny and Moira going to Los Angeles — I know full well as an audience member that these characters will be okay. They’ve become better versions of themselves, they’ve learned to change and love, and they’ve become closer than they ever expected to be. They’re going to be okay.

The final season of Schitt’s Creek did a great job setting up all the departures, continuing to develop the characters, be genuinely funny (why is “The Bachelor Party” so dang good?), and heartwarming at the same time. The entire cast is amazingly talented, and I’m so glad that they each got the chance to shine and got their dues this year at the Emmys.

SELENA + CHEF

New on HBO Max, Selena + Chef is a fun cooking show featuring Selena Gomez and an array of celebrity chefs who teach her how to cook. Selena is the first to admit that she is not a chef and notoriously bad at cooking dishes. And because of the pandemic, Selena gets groceries dropped off at her door and then video calls the chefs who walk her through preparing a full meal. With appearances by her roommates and family, Selena + Chef is such a fun, lighthearted, enjoyable series. Besides the fun, the show also does good in the world: every celebrity chef gets to choose a charity and Selena donates $10,000 to it at the end of each episode.

If you’re looking for some cooking inspiration but are worried because you’re a novice, don’t be! If Selena can do it, so can you. 

NEVER HAVE I EVER

If you’re looking for a coming-of-age show about teenagers that is both hilarious and genuinely emotional, look no further than Mindy Kaling’s Netflix show, Never Have I Ever. The series stars newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi, a 15-year old Indian-American girl who’s trying to make her life better after dealing with the loss of her father, which left her in a wheelchair, the year prior. The show is a genuinely wonderful look into a complex teenager — we don’t always root for Devi, and we’re not supposed to which is refreshing — and her relationships with her friends, her love interests, her cousin, and her mother. The latter is the most emotional, deep relationship that gets explored throughout the first season and the highs and lows will leave you in tears by the final episode, I promise you.

Never Have I Ever got lost in the shuffle of shows for a lot of people because it came out in April, at the very beginning of a very bad pandemic, but I highly recommend that you go back and watch it before the show’s second season!

THE OLD GUARD

I had heard a lot of buzz about The Old Guard but was hesitant to check it out because I’m notoriously squeamish. But I was pleasantly surprised that there were only one or two moments in the film that made me avert my eyes. The Old Guard is a brilliant movie that’s based on a comic book and is fully grounded in its complex characters. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is at the helm and she, I think, is a large part of what makes this film so special — especially because it features two prominent female characters that never feel like they’re being portrayed as tropes, rivals for men’s affections, or one-dimensional characters.

The Old Guard is more than “just” a comic book movie. It’s a dramatic, romantic, dark comedy that dives so deep into all of its characters. The plot is fairly simple: a group of immortal mercenaries realize that someone is onto their secret and they spend the movie trying to figure out who. If you haven’t yet watched this movie, I highly recommend that you do. It has wonderful representation, complex female characters, incredible action sequences, and an ending that leaves you wanting more.

What very good things in TV or film got you through this very bad year? Sound off in the comments below!

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