This year was very long. This year was very hard. And yet this year was not without its moments of joy.
Some of that joy came from the culture we consumed. Books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, TikToks, YouTube videos, poems, music, video games, comics — all of these forms can provide comfort, escape, even a way to confront and process a world that frequently feels as if it is falling apart.
So as 2020 draws to a close, I’ve asked members of Vox staff to reveal the cultural works that brought them joy this year. Here, in no particular order, are lots of things we watched, read, and listened to in 2020 that brought us joy. We hope they bring you joy, too.
—Jen Trolio, culture editor
Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives
When I was a little kid, I was transfixed by infomercials. Their relentless optimism drew me in: If only you had this one kitchen gadget, so many of life’s problems would melt away. It was just weirdly, and mindlessly, comforting knowing these products existed, and that they were so beloved, however cartoonishly.
Today, reruns of the long-running Food Network show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives scratches a similar itch. It’s structured a bit like an infomercial. What is it selling? Flavor! Where can you get flavor? All over this country! It has an over-the-top pitchman — Guy Fieri — compelling us to get in on the action. It even features testimonials in which regular people (i.e., diners) talk about how much they love their local flavor. Like an infomercial, the show is unfailingly positive. Fieri never criticizes anything he tastes, even when the look on his face suggests he didn’t totally love what he bit into.
On Fridays, the Food Network often airs back-to-back episodes of the show, nonstop, between 1 pm and 4:30 am (you read that right — a nearly 16-hour block). So it’s always there after a long workweek, for however long I care to watch. Watching during the pandemic, there has been a little twinge in the back of my mind, reminding me that some of these wonderful establishments, or places like them, might be shutting down. But I know there will be some, still, waiting at the end of all this horror. And that’s hope I can feel. Flavortown is America. Flavortown awaits!
—Brian Resnick, senior science reporter
Misfits is a messy, unapologetically profane UK teen show from 2009 that takes a giddy joy in everyday squalor, and I could not stop watching it this year. It deals with a group of young offenders who acquire supremely terrible superpowers while performing their court-mandated community service: the ability to read minds, but only when other people are thinking shit about you; the ability to rewind time whenever you feel regret, but then you find yourself unable to break up with your girlfriend because every time you try, she starts crying and you uncontrollably rewind time.
Its charismatic young cast is stacked with future stars (Umbrella Academy’s Robert Sheehan, Game of Thrones’ Iwan Rheon, Lovesick’s Antonia Thomas), and it’s a pure joy to watch them all roll their eyes about how stopping one episode’s zombie plague is going to be a real pain in the ass because of all the blood they’ll have to clean up. More than any other show I’ve seen, Misfits captures how blindingly absurd and petty the apocalypse turns out to be. Which made it the perfect show for 2020. (Misfits is streaming on Hulu.)
—Constance Grady, book critic
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
Every time I picked up a book this year, the world, the pandemic, whatever, always crept in around the edges. What I wanted was an escape, a real one, and I finally found it in a place I thought I’d never want to see again: high school.
Or, at least the high school Quan Barry creates in her novel We Ride Upon Sticks. The book follows members of a field hockey team in Danvers, Massachusetts, the home of the accusations that led to the Salem witch trials. It’s about 300 or so years later, the team is terrible, and so they turn to the dark side for some help winning the 1989 state championship. The dark side, by the way, involves each player signing an Emilio Estevez notebook and tying a torn blue sock around their arms.
The book shifts perspectives throughout, with different players telling different parts of the story. The individual characters all embody high school archetypes — the rich girl, the slacker, the smart one — but Barry gives richness to each of them, and, in the end, none of the storylines play out quite as expected. The book captures with aching precision the struggle to belong, and to find your people and your place outside of how others define you. It’s also just a tremendously fun read, the details so sharp and witty that it somehow made me nostalgic for the days of bus rides to away games and being forced to run sprints.
Like I said, not at all the place I thought I’d want to escape to, but I’m so glad I did.
—Jen Kirby, foreign and national security reporter
The Repair Shop
The Repair Shop is like Antiques Roadshow, except the hook isn’t centered on learning the monetary value of beloved family heirlooms; it’s centered on repairing them after they’ve seen decades of neglect.
The BBC series has everything I could ask for in a crafty reality show, and it took me a full week of bingeing it on Netflix this summer to realize exactly what makes it so perfect. The magic starts with the cast, which is made up of a horologist and his sister, whose specialty is repairing items made of leather. There’s also a metalworker, a carpenter, a ceramics conservator, a painting conservator, and two women who mostly repair teddy bears.
Instead of being tasked with contrived challenges that have no basis in reality, these specialists are asked to fix priceless family treasures. In one episode you might see the horologist, Steve, take apart every minuscule gear of a grandfather clock to figure out why it doesn’t chime, while the painting conservator, Lucia, meticulously mends the torn canvas of an 18th-century portrait. At the end of every episode, the cleaned-up and repaired items are returned to their owners. There are hugs and tears, and then the craftspeople are back to work. It’s endearing, fascinating, and incredibly satisfying TV. (The Repair Shop’s third season is the only one currently available on Netflix, but hopefully the streaming service will add more soon.)
—Estelle Caswell, senior video producer
Call of Duty: Warzone
I bought my first video game console in March 2020, as the world shrank to the size of my one-bedroom apartment. It was a panic purchase, made with a few friends who were scattered across the country. We settled on the first-person shooter game Call of Duty: Warzone.
In its most basic format, several dozen teams of one to four players are dropped into a gigantic map littered with weapons, vehicles, and challenges. Every few minutes, the map gets smaller. Kill or be killed. Last team alive wins. Nearly 75 million people play it, and we were worse than all of them.
Yet it quickly became the thing I most looked forward to every day. It was a relief to put on a headset and hear familiar voices talk not about a pandemic, but about the safest place on the map to drop in, the risks of piling into a helicopter together, or if anyone could share their extra rocket-launcher ammunition.
Soon we had a round-the-clock text chain, a daily lunch “meeting,” and a serious habit. And while we still can’t assure each other’s survival in Warzone, it’s how we committed to getting each other through the year.
—Sam Ellis, senior video producer
Netflix’s TV adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club
Being a particularly feminine trans woman who transitioned as an adult — as I am — sometimes feels like constantly wearing a button that reads “ASK ME ABOUT MY MISSING GIRLHOOD.” But I don’t really need people to ask before I start saying things like, “I always found it easier to hang out with the girls in my class than the boys, but everybody told me to hang out with the boys anyway! Oh, well!” or “Ha ha ha, we all secretly longed to wear a prom dress, am I right, fellas?” while my cis lady friends smile indulgently and avert their eyes.
If I’m honest with myself, I feel a deep, trenchant sadness about the girl I never got to be, and I’ve spent much of my time in quarantine this year desperately trying to backfill a sense of self that never quite developed because I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. That’s where Netflix’s ultra-enjoyable Baby-Sitters Club comes in. Showrunner Rachel Shukert created a 10-episode adaptation of several books in the venerable series by Ann M. Martin that successfully reimagines many of their plots for the world of 2020, while still bending over backward to let the titular baby-sitters use a rotary phone.
For a series about 12-year-old girls hanging out and dealing with their problems, The Baby-Sitters Club has a surprising amount to offer adults, from sweetly self-aware writing to winning performances by both the central kids and the actors playing their parents (who include Alicia Silverstone!). So it’s a show worth watching even if you’re trying desperately to capture a thing that never existed to begin with. Either way, please let me know which baby-sitter you are, so I can invite you to my club. I am so very obviously a Kristy, and I’m not happy about it.
—Emily VanDerWerff, critic at large
ChilledCow’s lo-fi hip-hop YouTube videos
I thrive on the separation of my work life, home life, binge life, and whatever else occupies me in the comfort of my apartment. So when the time came to transform my home into an office, I panicked — quite literally. It’s December and I still haven’t bought a desk lamp because I can’t find a happy medium between aesthetic and efficiency.
One thing that has helped me this year is ChilledCow’s lo-fi hip-hop videos on YouTube. They’re essentially just beats on a loop — perfect for someone who needs a bit of noise in the background while they work. There are no lyrics to distract me; the videos provide just enough of a hum to make me think I’m working on something very important in a neighborhood coffee shop. And when paired with my simulated office clock, it almost makes me feel like I’m not at home. Almost.
—Kaylah Jackson, social media manager
2020 was a hard year for reading, which is why I pivoted some of mine to listening instead. I’ve never been a book-on-tape person, nor have I been much of a nonfiction person, but I’ve unlocked a secret to filling up lots of hours without having to look at a screen: long nonfiction audiobooks, especially when they’re read by the famous people who wrote them. It’s like a 30-hour podcast! This is a good thing!
My first foray was Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles, a 700-page book about Princess Di I started on my Kindle and just couldn’t finish until I switched to the audiobook, read by a British woman who unfortunately is not Tina but who does say “Charles” in a way befitting The Crown (“Chawls”). I then moved on to Michelle Obama’s memoir, a book made even more readable when Michelle is the one reading it to you. And then there was her husband’s memoir, a 700-pager (volume one of two!) that is only enhanced by the former president’s perfect delivery. Bonus tip: You can request audiobooks from your local library and get them delivered straight to your phone for free.
—Julia Rubin, editorial director, culture and features
The New York Times’s Spelling Bee game
As routines melted away this year, the New York Times Spelling Bee morphed from a buzzy distraction into a dependable daily ritual.
It’s a simple puzzle: You make as many words as you can think of out of seven hexagonal tiles with seven letters. (The central letter has to be used at least once.)
But the game never makes you feel insufficient. Even if you just find a word or two, you’re off to a “good start.” And the tantalizing goal of attaining a “genius” ranking always lurks in the distance.
Whether I was playing solo or with my partner, the Spelling Bee quickly became a fun daily challenge to find just one more word. And it’s no wonder the game has spawned a devoted online fan base, the #hivemind.
Is it a Monday? A Wednesday? It doesn’t matter, a new Bee is always there for you.
(A subscription to play the full version of the Spelling Bee — as well as a variety of other games and puzzles offered by the New York Times — costs about $3.50 per month or $20 per year.)
—Agnes Mazur, deputy engagement editor
Star Trek in the age of Trump
The United Federation of Planets has always represented liberal hopes for what America could be. In the 1960s, when memories of Klan terrorism were still fresh, Star Trek presented a future where Lt. Nyota Uhura, a Black officer, wielded considerable authority over her white crewmates, and this fact was viewed as so banal by those crewmates that it wasn’t even discussed.
In the 1990s, when American power was at its apex, Captain Jean-Luc Picard stood as the ambassador of a benevolent hegemon, and as a proud defender of universal rights.
After four years of Donald Trump, this vision of America as a shining city on the hill is no longer tenable. So 2020’s contributions to the franchise feature idealists consumed with sorrow at what the Federation has become.
One of those idealists is Picard himself. In the first episode of Star Trek: Picard, which debuted in January, the legendary officer is asked why he left Starfleet (the Federation’s hybrid of a navy and a diplomatic corps) after being made an admiral. “Because it was no longer Starfleet!” an angry Picard responds, denouncing the Federation’s descent into prejudice against a vulnerable minority group.
Later in the year, October brought the third season of Star Trek: Discovery, which sends the crew of the show’s titular starship years into the future, when a catastrophic event has reduced the Federation to a shadow of its former self. The crew of Discovery seeks to rebuild it, but looming over the season are vague hints that the former hegemon has become something wicked and menacing.
On both shows, the heroes remain committed to liberal democracy. But they can no longer be confident that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. In 2020, even Star Trek must confront the possibility that Trumpism could win.
I love Star Trek with an unironic sincerity that’s no less uncool today than when I was recording episodes on my parents’ VCR. I suspect that no one, real or fictional, did more to shape my sense of how a moral society should wield power than Jean-Luc Picard. I no longer believe that I live in such a society, but even in this dark age, Star Trek still lionizes men and women who insist that power and justice must be intertwined.
It’s a joyous vision. Star Trek’s audacity has always been its hopefulness.
(Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard are streaming on CBS All Access.)
—Ian Millhiser, senior correspondent
Emily in Paris
With everything going on in the world, the last thing my exhausted brain needed were more dark, grim stories about miserable, awful people. So I found immediate comfort in the delightful harmlessness of Emily in Paris.
The Netflix series, created by Darren Star (Sex and the City), is a warm, low-effort form of pleasure. Details like Emily’s age or her backstory about her former life in Chicago are not important. Details about characters who aren’t Emily are even less so.
All that does matter is that Emily’s job embodies the show’s loose understanding of “marketing,” that she has the innate talent of creating viral content for social media, and that she’s an American fish out of water in Paris. She doesn’t get along with French people who don’t understand her kooky ways, in large part because they are terminally French (almost every French person on the show smokes, is sexy, and prefers to avoid speaking English). Nothing too bad ever happens to Emily, and most of her problems are neatly solved by the end of each episode. And, spoiler alert, she is always successful at work.
Emily in Paris presents the fantasy of someone living without consequence or any grasp of whatever terrible reality we’re living in right now. In any other circumstance, I might be tougher on the show’s lack of substance. But sometimes we just need an escape, and I can’t think of a sillier one on television than this.
—Alex Abad-Santos, senior correspondent
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
I didn’t watch much TV at home growing up, but when I was commuting to college, I’d spend one night every week at my grandparents’ house, where I had access to their full array of cable channels. Sometimes I’d throw on the TV while doing homework. Late at night, Whose Line Is It Anyway? would come on, and I was mesmerized and delighted. Back then, Drew Carey was still hosting the show; Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, and Wayne Brady were regulars, and a rotating cast of improv comedian guests sat in the fourth chair, participating in games where they made up stories or acted out scenes from cues chosen by the audience — basically, a more polished and less cringey version of whatever live improv shows you may have been dragged to in your 20s.
In the early days of the pandemic, my husband and I, browsing YouTube one night, were served a Whose Line sketch. We laughed and laughed, and then hunted some more, and realized that virtually every Whose Line episode in existence is streaming somewhere. That includes the British original (which is on Amazon Prime and Hulu) hosted by Clive Anderson, as well as both American versions: Drew Carey hosted the show for ABC from 1998 to 2007 (all of which are on HBO Max), and then it was revived in 2013 for The CW, with Aisha Tyler hosting, and it’s still running there (and streaming on The CW’s app).
Over the decades, the faces and format have changed only slightly — in the current iteration, the four comedians are joined for a few games by a star from The Vampire Diaries or an Olympic synchronized swimmer — and the games have barely changed at all. And I find that immensely comforting. Some old jokes, as you might imagine, don’t land as well as they used to. But for the most part, the humor is goofy and silly and disconnected from current events and the instability of the outside world. And at the end of a workday during this maddening, exhausting year, it was exactly what I needed.
—Alissa Wilkinson, film critic
The Twitter account @apoemcalledlove
I love standing around talking on other people’s lawns, never going home
— Alex Dimitrov (@apoemcalledlove) December 8, 2020
This was the year I got into poetry, and my favorite discovery was Alex Dimitrov. Dimitrov’s next poetry collection comes out in February (preorder it!), but you can read some of its most show-stopping poems now: “Sunset on 14th Street” simply flattened me, a longtime resident of 14th Street; “June” made me long for the New York summers I normally despise but didn’t get to experience during this terrible year; and then there was “Love.”
“Love” is an “endless poem” cataloging the things Dimitrov loves. It was started in The American Poetry Review and is printed in his forthcoming book, but it actually grows by one line each day through the Twitter account @apoemcalledlove. Some of the lines are profound, some are funny, some are dreamy, some are shockingly earnest. Reading a new one every day has been a gift, a corrective to the many bad posts of 2020. In a great many months filled with so much pain, I have never been more in need of an ongoing list of what is good.
—Julia Rubin, editorial director, culture and features
I’ve spent the past several months trying to figure out how to recommend Ross Sutherland’s fiction podcast Imaginary Advice to various people in my life, and I still haven’t figured out how to explain why it’s one of the best podcasts I’ve ever heard except to say, “Please just listen to it?”
But let me try this way:
I sat on a roof in quarantine and completely disappeared into the series’ two-part “Sex and the City: The Return,” a paranoid fever dream in which the main character narrates his gradual descent into the deep underbelly of a Sleep No More-esque immersion experience based on the classic TV show.
It was weird, and magic, and the kind of radio storytelling that makes you think, “How did someone write something this perfect?”
So if you like podcasts, you owe it to yourself to give this one a try. Please just listen to it.
—Byrd Pinkerton, reporter/producer, podcasts
Harry Potter TikTok
2020 was the year TikTok went mainstream, and it’s fairly obvious why: People had more time on their hands, and TikTok is the single most time-sucking social media platform that has ever existed. It seemed like every other day there was a new dance everyone was learning or a heartwarming video of a family quarantined together doing a goofy trend.
But my favorite part of the app was the side that felt fresh and creative yet comfortably familiar: Harry Potter TikTok. I don’t know how it started, but sometime this summer my feed became full of hilarious impressions of the more bizarre moments from the movies — an overacted inflection in a certain Voldemort cackle, for instance — as well as some truly technically impressive fanfiction videos in which someone edits themselves into movie scenes to make it seem like they’re in a love triangle with Harry and Draco Malfoy. Harry Potter TikTok is the reason I watched the Harry Potter movies more times than I’d like to admit this year, and it’s a nice way to remember that you don’t have to be embarrassed about turning to a favorite kids’ book in scary times — everyone else is clearly doing the same.
—Rebecca Jennings, internet culture reporter
Emma (1815) and Emma. (2020)
In times of chaos, there is nothing like Jane Austen when you want to feel a sense of control. Here is a book in which all the sentences are so precise, have been polished with so much attention to detail, that they shine like cut glass. Here is a world in which everything exists in perfect order, and the biggest problems involve working out who will go home in whose carriage, and who will feel snubbed if someone else gets the first dance at the ball. And Emma, with its tiny country village and a heroine who reigns over it like a condescending queen, is perhaps the most reassuringly controlled of all Austen’s novels.
It’s also the latest Austen novel to get a big-screen film adaptation. Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. (with a period!) stars Anya Taylor-Joy of The Queen’s Gambit, and it is a deeply charming take on Austen’s classic. Its rapid-fire ratatat editing mimics the comic rhythms of Austen’s prose, and it is probably the most effective of the Austen adaptations at capturing both the viciousness of her social satire and the warmth of her romance. Like the novel before it, it brought me a small window of joy in this plague year.
—Constance Grady, book critic
When Cougar Town, the ABC sitcom starring Courteney Cox and Busy Philipps, first aired over a decade ago, the show’s name made many people (myself included) dismiss it, thinking it was about a bunch of divorced middle-aged women dating younger men. But it turned out the name is incredibly misleading and that assumption couldn’t have been more wrong.
I picked up the show earlier this year while seeking my next quarantine binge-watch, and found it to be a funny and sweet sitcom about a group of 40-something neighbors — men and women, plus one teenage son — who all live on the same cul-de-sac, become best friends, and navigate adulthood together, jokingly calling themselves the “cul-de-sac crew.” The show’s voice, humor, and sensibility may remind you of the beloved medical comedy Scrubs, and with good reason: Cougar Town was co-created by Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel, a Scrubs writer.
I was pleasantly surprised by how delightful the show is, and found myself looking forward to watching a couple of episodes every day after work. It became a bright spot in my quarantine routine, and when I finished all six seasons, I wished I still had more episodes to watch. If you, like me, once dismissed Cougar Town based on its title, give it a chance! (Cougar Town is streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.)
—Nisha Chittal, director of audience
Rocket League is a video game with a simple concept: soccer, but with rocket-powered RC cars. It’s easy to pick up, with only a few buttons to know and no complicated rules to memorize. Even before you learn to consistently hit the ball, the game is a fast-paced, chaotic joy. The numerous whiffed shots and miscalculated saves are all part of the fun. With matches that last all of five minutes, you can squeeze in a game or two (or 20) without having to block off a bunch of time to settle in. The game offers casual and competitive game modes, so whether you’re looking for a way to distract yourself from the world or a healthy place to direct your competitive energy, you’ll find it in Rocket League.
Rocket League has been a go-to for me since its release in 2015. But between the February 2019 introduction of cross-platform play (which allows you to play with your friends regardless of what console any of you have the game on) and the launch of an entirely free-to-play model in September 2020, the game has seen a huge influx of new players. Now is the perfect time to jump in!
—Zac Freeland, associate designer
In October, my best friend sent me a link to a video called “Make this Coconut Look Like a Businessman.” It is only a little bit of an exaggeration to say that it completely changed my life and single-handedly pulled me out of a quarantine depression.
That’s because the video introduced me to Taskmaster, a British TV show where comedians are assigned absurd tasks. (For example: “Tie as many balloons as possible together under your smock! Longest balloon chain wins!” “Paint a horse while riding a horse! Best painting of a horse wins!”)
There are multiple seasons available for free on the show’s official Youtube channel, so pretty soon I was watching episode after episode and enjoying such delights as, say, a contestant singing multiple verses of “Old Shep” while painstakingly collecting tears from grown men’s eyes with a spoon.
There are points. The points are irrelevant. There are prizes. The prizes are terrible. The real task of the show is to create as much joy as is humanly possible; most joy wins! (But really, we all do.)
—Byrd Pinkerton, reporter/producer, podcasts
Ben Gibbard: Live From Home
In the Before Times, often the way I would spend my weekends or evenings was at shows — whether playing them with my band Broken Record or going to see bands at venues or DIY spaces in town. So when the lockdowns started in March (on my birthday, no less), I was struck by how much I had taken these opportunities and experiences for granted.
Thankfully, one of my favorite songwriters, Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service fame), started doing acoustic performances live on YouTube to fill the ensuing void. At the start of the pandemic, casual performances like Gibbard’s were not only something to look forward to during a confusing time, but also a way to connect to artists I enjoyed in a different way; it was comforting to see that even people I previously viewed as larger than life were just playing songs in their homes and telling stories about their lives in the midst of an uncertain, unpredictable historical moment.
—Matt Dunne, motion graphics designer
Maji’s (마지) cooking YouTube channel
A food stylist living in South Korea, Maji makes cooking videos with titles like “Now is the happiest moment – Daily Life Vlog” and “How to eat 10 types of jam, from a bread-lover.” Filled with shots of her sauteing tteokbokki and artfully draping fettuccine onto minimalist plateware, Maji’s everyday cooking projects offer a glimpse of a domestic life that feels placidly joyful — a welcome change from the depressive claustrophobia that characterized so much of my time indoors this year.
Everything Maji prepares, whether it’s as simple as a cup of coffee or as elaborate as japchae for a crowd, is imbued with a genuine sense of self-care. Her videos seem to suggest that she takes time in the kitchen because she’s worth taking time for, and that’s maybe the most enticing aspect of her YouTube channel. Perhaps making food at home, even when sheltering in place, doesn’t have to be a drudgery. Perhaps it can be a gift we give ourselves every day, and a reminder that now really is the happiest moment.
Or perhaps they’re simply well-executed cooking videos, and I’m projecting a year’s worth of yearning onto them. We may never know, but either way, I’ll be logging on in the new year to see what Maji has in store for 2021 and beyond.
—Alexa Lee, social media manager
The Koker Trilogy
The great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was a master of slow cinema — films that, if you surrender yourself to their mood and look and feel, can completely absorb you. The first installment of his Koker Trilogy, Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), is a straightforward narrative: a charming tale of a young boy on a quest in his village. But everything changes with the second film, And Life Goes On (1992), which is really about how you can wake up one day and find that the world as you know it irrevocably changed — and that life will, yes, go on. The trilogy concludes with the lighter Through the Olive Trees (1994), where, yet again, what we’ve seen in the previous film is placed in a new context. With beautifully composed themes, sincere emotion, and meta twists, the Koker Trilogy is a fantastic introduction to Kiarostami’s art. And if you, too, love it, move right on to his next and most shattering film, 1997’s A Taste of Cherry.
—Andrew Prokop, senior correspondent
Street Dance of China, season 3
My greatest pop cultural joy of 2020 was Street Dance of China, a reality dance competition series whose third season aired this fall. It featured The Untamed’s Wang Yibo as one of four competing celebrity dance captains, alongside actor Wallace Chung and Yibo’s fellow pop idols Wang Jiaer (stage name Jackson) and Zhang Yixing (stage name Lay). Their goal? To represent and perform an authentically Chinese version of street dance, while ultimately singling out the best street dancer in China.
Street Dance of China is loud, bloated, controversial, and dramatic. Season three entailed blatant producer interference, stirred fan debates over appropriative portrayals of hip-hop and street culture, and featured an exhausting rehearsal schedule and dangerous stages that wound up injuring multiple contestants. Each episode was a two- to three-hour drama; the finale was over six hours long.
And yet I loved it so much that during the long wait between weekly episodes, I tracked down a private Street Dance of China Discord just to get access to subtitled episodes a few days earlier, and signed up for Chinese lessons in hopes of better understanding the un-subbed episodes. I came for Yibo and his ridiculous, stunning Chanel outfits and stayed for Lay’s four-word Chinese idioms; Jackson shouting “This is ART!”; Wallace needing hugs every week; and a slew of incredible dancers like Xiao Jie, Bouboo, Su Lianya — the list is long and heartfelt. As for the winner, I’ll avoid spoilers here, but the cap-off is satisfying and unexpected, and the dancing speaks for itself.
The version of China on display here is transparent but deeply compelling: a diverse, modern, sophisticated cultural hub, where blatant nationalism coexists with egalitarian respect for other cultures — street dance culture above all. Street Dance of China presents dance as vividly political, thoroughly tied to both individual and national identity, yet also bursting with international influences, from anime to spaghetti Westerns. In a year spent mostly locked away from the rest of the world, Street Dance of China somehow made me feel more connected to the rest of the world than ever.
Thanks to a team of dedicated fansubbers, full translated episodes are available to watch for free. The show’s network, Youku, also recently released the entire third season on YouTube with English subtitles — a welcome holiday gift.
—Aja Romano, culture reporter
Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Everybody in the world, seemingly, adored Tamsyn Muir’s 2019 release Gideon the Ninth, a book that we have written about a number of times here at Vox. Following a badass sword maiden into the heart of a strange necromancy competition/pageant, the book lived up to its elevator pitch, which is (rather famously at this point) “Lesbian necromancers in space!!!”
And, yes, that’s good, and yes, you should read it. But can I interest you in the sequel?
I enjoyed Gideon quite a bit, but its follow-up, the 2020 novel Harrow the Ninth, ditches Gideon’s point of view for that of Harrowhark, the necromancer whom Gideon swore to defend (against her better judgment) in the book bearing her name. Harrowhark is damaged, to put it mildly, but in a deeply believable and nuanced way. Muir writes much of the book in the second person — “You didn’t know whose arm was being touched,” goes one sentence — which a lot of people find maddening, but I find deeply moving.
I don’t know if Harrow the Ninth “brought me joy.” It is, after all, about a necromancer who’s in love with a long-dead corpse she once saw as a little girl and who has suffered tremendous amounts of trauma at almost every stage of her life. But it offered me more catharsis than anything else I’ve read this year, because its use of second person and other literary techniques that I won’t dare spoil provided an amazing look at the dissociation that occurs after trauma in a way few other books can match. When, late in the book, Muir used a first-person point of view for the first time, I almost cheered. GOOD FOR YOU, HARROWHARK. I WILL PROTECT YOU FOREVER.
—Emily VanDerWerff, critic at large
The Face (the US and UK editions)
My roommate and I watched a lot of TV in the void of time between March and May, becoming intimately acquainted with the frustrating reality of the streaming era: There is simultaneously too much to watch and nothing to watch at all. So we retreated from the glossy originals peddled by Netflix and all the HBO series we’d always planned to watch once we found the time, choosing instead to immerse ourselves in the world of reality TV. That’s how we found The Face, Naomi Campbell’s modeling competition show from the mid-2010s. It’s a twist on the America’s Next Top Model formula in which three competing teams of aspiring models are each led by a professional (Campbell and two other pro model co-hosts who rotate from season to season) who desperately wants her girls to win.
We watched what was available on Amazon Prime, which was sadly not much; the service only has the series’ single British season and its two US seasons available, although there are also Australian, Thai, and Vietnamese versions of The Face. (If you know how or where to watch those, hit me up.) In those 26 episodes, we found utter joy amid some occasionally great modeling, some hilariously awful acting challenges, and some unforgettably harsh barbs from Campbell aimed at her co-hosts. Thanks to the glorious time we had with The Face, Campbell has become a holy figure in our reality TV-loving household. She is the matriarch of all things chic and snippy, and the woman who transported us into a melodramatic modelland for three seasons’ worth of gloriously lowbrow content. The Face may not be fondly remembered by most people, if it is remembered at all, but we will always be thankful for it.
—Allegra Frank, associate culture editor
After 20 years and 40 seasons on the air, Survivor is as good as it’s ever been. The long-running CBS reality show is still wildly entertaining and addictive, with lots of heart and big personalities. And crucially, now that it’s winter and many of us are stuck inside, there are 40 seasons to watch to help pass the time.
In case you need a refresher: 20 people spend 39 days stranded in a remote locale with little more than a machete, cooking pot, and some water canteens. They vote each other out one by one until the eventual winner, selected by a jury of eliminated players, takes home a million-dollar cash prize.
To make it to the end, the contestants scheme, form alliances, sleuth around their camp for hidden advantages, and compete in challenges to win immunity from elimination. You, meanwhile, scream at your TV as your favorites win, lose, sneakily backstab their competition, or fall victim to a vicious blindside.
I often escaped to Survivor in 2020 because, while the drama, stakes, and tension constantly run high for players in their tiny sliver of the world, the outcomes had no impact on my world. Their problems were never my problem or responsibility to solve. I just got to kick back and talk smack about what I’d do differently if I were playing. And in a year packed with very real problems and consequences, it was blissfully cathartic. (You can find every season on CBS All Access, and Netflix now carries two seasons — 28 and 40 — as well).
—Taylor Maycan, shortform audio producer
I thought channel-flipping was dead. I have cable, but surfing has been joyless for years; strange shows I never wanted and SVU reruns I’m trying to break free of. On Netflix and Hulu and AppleTV+ and everything else, there’s clicking, searching, scrolling, and frustration that you’ve been looking for 35 minutes and found “nothing.” There’s no, as the streaming service PlutoTV puts it, dropping in.
PlutoTV — tagline “Drop in. Watch free.” — is so good, it’s insidious.
For one thing, nothing is free, and especially nothing is free that comes from Viacom, a multinational company known for various types of exploitation. But mostly, PlutoTV’s content is too perfect.
The service, watchable on just about any device, is set up like traditional TV, channels running all the time. You can’t pause or decide what’s on, but you can flip: through stations devoted entirely to Bob Ross and The Love Boat, MTV dating shows from the aughts, and ’90s daytime. Standup comedy, Hot Ones, Midsomer Murders, music videos, Degrassi. Flip over to an entire channel devoted to showcasing Christmas lights set to music, down to another just for holiday rom-coms.
Flip, also, through things I don’t choose to watch, but maybe you would: military history, golf, Naruto, news from sources reputable and disreputable. It’s bad all right. But in 2020, it was a real joy to have someplace to drop in.
—Meredith Haggerty, deputy editor, The Goods
Marvel’s X of Swords
Over the past year, Marvel has reimagined the state of mutanthood in its comic book universe with a titanic, dual event called House of X/Powers of X; in it, Marvel’s mutants created a utopian sovereign nation called Krakoa, in which all mutants are welcome and humanity and its ills are not.
But then Krakoa was revealed to have a dark past. And in order to preserve their future, characters like Storm, Wolverine, and ultimate villain-turned-everyone’s favorite mutant dad Apocalypse had to reckon with the horrors and villains of Krakoa’s history in X of Swords.
The story (mainly written by Jonathan Hickman and Tini Howard, and drawn by artists Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva, Marte Gracia, and designer Tom Muller) is an amalgam of action-adventure, splashy spectacle, slapstick comedy, and high myth. I found myself simultaneously puzzled by the fantasy storytelling, worried for my favorite characters, and just eager to see what happens next.
And I think that’s a testament to the world-building of Marvel’s X-team.
The reason all of this matters is that it pays off decades of emotional investment and storytelling. These characters have created their second family, a home for themselves, and lives that truly are worth something. For the X-Men, the punching, smashing, and pew-pewing has always been secondary to the cause they’re fighting for. And in X of Swords, they aren’t fighting for a possibility of a better world — which they’ve always been fighting for — but rather to preserve the better world they’ve already built for themselves. And that makes this battle one of the best X-Men adventures in ages.
—Alex Abad-Santos, senior correspondent
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
I don’t really play video games — I’m usually more of a bookworm or social media doomscroller. But I ended up buying a Switch and playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons whenever I had down time after interviewing people for this story I wrote on unlikely digital friendships during the pandemic. It’s probably the best decision I made this year.
When I wasn’t busy writing or reporting, Animal Crossing kept my mental health in check. There was something so soothing and comforting about designing my own island, giving gifts to people virtually, traveling, talking to strangers, and doing DIY projects, even though I was stuck indoors and sitting on the couch.
—Rachel Ramirez, reporter
The ASMR lectures that helped me go to sleep
I’ve never been good at falling asleep, but the pandemic turned a problem into a bit of a crisis. My bizarre solution, which I had tested before but became fully reliant on in 2020, is to lull myself to sleep with accented lectures. They have to be in English; if it’s a language I’m not fluent in (so … all of them but English), I zone out and find myself awake at 3 am. And American- or British-accented English often feels too harsh. But a Bulgarian or Norwegian or Korean accent works great.
So I’ve grown reliant on Norwegian peace scholar Johan Galtung, Italian writer Loretta Napoleoni, and Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev for my overall wellness. Whether I agree with what they’re saying is irrelevant; I have no idea if Napoleoni is right about the effects of the PATRIOT Act. I sometimes get story ideas out of the process. I keep meaning to write about pro-dictatorship intellectuals in China because Beijing propagandist Zhang Weiwei got into my rotation. But I also like having a nighttime intellectual life that’s almost entirely different from my daytime life: more global in scope, including some wackadoos like Zhang and clever moderates like Krastev. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to traveling during this whole mess.
—Dylan Matthews, senior correspondent
NPR’s Tiny Desk At Home Concerts
NPR gave its time-honored Tiny Desk format an entirely different energy this year with Tiny Desk At Home concerts — and enabled viewers to vibe with some of their favorite artists who were staying home, too.
Whether it was Jhené Aiko’s soothing medley of hits, Dua Lipa’s kinetic disco bops, or Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’s tender duets, these shows offered an intimate and personal way to collectively enjoy music in a year when going to shows simply wasn’t an option.
While some concerts featured more extensive production efforts, others were entirely stripped-back performances that were cozy and transporting all at once. “Maybe a cluttered desk concert,” Isbell quipped about the setting of his and Shires’s show from their home. Regardless of the setup, each homegrown show was a safe, comforting alternative to the real thing.
—Li Zhou, politics reporter
Embracing the sprawl of Slow TV
I’ve always thought travel was the best way to truly clear my mind. There’s something about being in a foreign country, trying to navigate its public transportation while not speaking the language, that helps me forget about the daily grind. While it will probably still be a while before I feel safe traveling internationally, I’ve found something that does quell my desire a little bit: Slow TV.
Slow TV is a genre of video — more a concept rather than a series of discrete works — that presents a lengthy, marathon-like process to be viewed in real time. Nothing of note really happens in a Slow TV video. The genre can encompass anything from the famous yule log burning during the holidays to footage of fish tanks that you play to keep your cat occupied, but I’ve found the most joy in first-person travel videos. A tram in Amsterdam completing the entirety of its route, the seven-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo, a person riding their bike aimlessly through Tokyo. It’s not distracting from whatever else I might be doing, it provides nice ambient noise, and, most importantly, it gives me a little glimpse of what the world looks like when I can’t see it for myself.
—Zac Freeland, associate designer
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