Great art was newly essential in a socially distanced world.

By Darren Franich
December 02, 2020 at 08:30 AM EST
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Credit: Illustration by Kyle Hilton for EW

This is normally the time for a fond look back at the best and worst of the pop culture year. Anyone out there feeling normal? Anyone out there feeling “best”?

Distract yourself from global calamities by merely worrying about the disasters the pandemic brought to show business. In 2019, Disney released seven movies that grossed more than a billion dollars. This year, there’s no such thing as a billion-dollar movie. The company is reorganizing itself into a Disney+ content farm, while it waits for its theme parks to fully reopen. The Mulan reboot was supposed to be a step forward for onscreen representation and one of several Disney releases steered by female directors. Instead, Black Widow and Eternals will see us later, and Mulan’s at-home release brought the kind of controversy that results in multiple headlines about internment camps. 

The studio’s woes are not unique, and they sum up just how many tipping points defined 2020. Protest and pandemic collided in a perfect storm of social awakening, energizing a yearslong reckoning with Hollywood’s systemic failings. Splash Mountain will no longer sing the Song of the South — and the hottest take of the summer declared that Hamilton, the Broadway sensation–turned– Disney+ hit, was too conservative. 

Start with Disney, though, to explain the power of great entertainment in this terrible year. The vanishing of all non-Twitchable athletics meant that ESPN, the company’s sports showcase, turned The Last Dance into a mass addiction, recasting ’90s superman Michael Jordan as an obsessive antihero. Meanwhile, the rise of Disney+ reflected streaming’s newfound centrality. Consider: the freak-show hysteria for Tiger King, the rediscovery of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Emmy- sweeping adoration for Schitt’s Creek. That’s all directly attributable to Netflix, the face HBO Max yearns to see in the mirror. 

It was a year of delays and cancellations. Artists are often defined by their limitations, and in 2020 new connections were formed by an industry cut off from its normal rhythms. Timbaland and Swizz Beatz made Verzuz into a livestreaming showcase for a few generations of musical legends. Late-night hosts found a different energy broadcasting remotely; the only thing keeping me sane was Desus & Mero’s twice-weekly Zoom session. Taylor Swift went home and recorded her most acclaimed album in years. Megan Thee Stallion didn’t miss a beat on her journey to omnipresent megastardom. Sarah Cooper started lip-synching Donald Trump on TikTok, and now people my age understand what TikTok is. John Krasinski’s Some Good News became such an immediate ritual that CBS bought it, and now people TikTok age understand what “selling out” is. 

I miss movie theaters, and feel nostalgic for our dumb arguments about big action movies. Yet there was a strange grace in our de-blockbusterized film culture. The lack of superheroes meant Delroy Lindo’s stunning Da 5 Bloods performance was the summertime event. A drought of Hollywood Chrises coincidentally marked a dominant year for female auteurs, seven of whom appear on our movie critic Leah Greenblatt’s top 10 list (which will post this week as part of EW’s expansive End of the Year coverage). 

There was no shortage of comfort food, and I’m not just talking about all the bread everyone on Instagram claimed they were baking. But pop culture also offered catharsis, as audiences sought insight into our strange new reality. That’s why 2011’s Contagion was suddenly regarded as a prophetic classic — and why Elisabeth Moss’ star turn in The Invisible Man transcended its palpable #MeToo resonance to become a vital portrait of death-at-every-corner paranoia.

Let’s not sugarcoat this. Movie theaters are bankrupt. Live performance is on life support. Bookstores struggle on good days, and there are no good days. Television was unstoppable for months, but even Wile E. Coyote has to look down eventually, and autumn saw cancellations, the Quibi crash, and productions paused by positive tests. (Stay safe, Superstore!) It was a great year for videogame sales, however, and at the risk of sounding unbearably parental, the last thing our lonely species needed was a medical reason to retreat into digital infinity. (No offense, Animal Crossing!) 

Still, there are reasons for hope. After years of corporate bromides about diversity, the awakening force of global anti-racism demonstrations led to progressive action in Hollywood. The Oscars' diversity requirements, CBS’ plan to de-Caucasianize its reality TV, the implicit promise that Johnny Depp will be less employed in the future: None of these plans are perfect, but they are a start. 

It’s always darkest, and all that. The next president listens to scientists, so that’s a big improvement already. In moments of despair, think of Ben Affleck. A couple of years ago, the onetime Argo Oscar winner was a meme-y, unfortunately-tattooed tabloid casualty. Now he’s rocketing off comeback reviews for The Way Back toward an intriguing slate of projects. Against all odds and good sense, he will play Batman again. (Not what I wanted for Christmas, frankly, but I’ll support any multiverse big enough to include Harley Quinn.) So when they tell you things will never be normal again, tell them Earth will rise like a very colorful phoenix soaring out of ashes inked on somebody’s back. 2020 was the absolute worst. 2021 won’t have to try too hard to be the best. 

Come back to EW.com throughout the next few weeks for in-depth coverage of the best and worst pop culture had to offer in 2020.

For more on our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Dec. 18. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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