Social events were canceled everywhere except television.

By Darren Franich
December 15, 2020 at 08:30 AM EST
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The best TV shows throw the best parties. Holiday dinners, nights out on various towns, long-awaited proms, weddings for sitcom love interests, another Sterling Cooper office bash where everyone passes out under somebody else’s desk, that time Insecure went to CoachellaA great party makes effective comedy or drama, so many plans going wrong in a funny way or a terrible way. There is a narrative structure. Things get louder, things get quieter. Night falls, maybe the sun rises. There is climactic possibility, as subplots spread throughout a vast ensemble arrive at a single geographic space. Animosity fades in the spirit of revelry — or boils over with liquid courage. Your favorite characters dance together, or kill each other. Breaking Bad starts with a birthday. The Wire ends with a wake.

And when was the last time you actually went to a party? For us, it was a baby shower back in February, a few weeks after a 2-year-old’s birthday. Typical social schedule for parents: full weekend days, collapsed exhaustion around 8 p.m. That ended in March. Zoom just isn’t the same. Social distancing isn’t so social. Some people partied like there was no pandemic. (Some people were having fun at the Red Wedding, too.)

For most of us, this was the year of excessive digital interaction. That special Parks and Recreation episode from April summed it up, didn’t it? In its original run, Parks & Rec was a mockumentary, cutting from multiple characters chatting to single characters breaking the fourth wall. The reunion unfroze them into our pandemic present. No actor had a proper scene partner, except the one lucky guy with Megan Mullally in his quarantine bunker. Everyone else just had a camera — and a screen staring back at them.

There were actual party episodes in 2020 television, produced back when you could still safely gather human beings together. They were wonderful to see. Actually, when the EW staff started brainstorming our favorite episodes of 2020, I realized pretty much all of my episodes featured some kind of party or other. The appeal is obvious: Here was all the cool stuff we could no longer do, in cramped spaces we could not visit, with all the other people we cannot see. 

Not enough people stuck with HBO’s We Are Who We Are — which means not enough people experienced its majestic fourth episode, with a spur-of-the-moment Hawaiian wedding and follow-up festivities in a rich Russian’s empty house. We Are Who We Are had the outline of a teens-gone-bad melodrama, with main characters drinking their ages in daily wine gallons. In episode 4, the kids are boozing, drugging, sexing, hanging out publicly naked, and playing videogames — all ready cinematic shorthands for wasted-in-every-sense youth. Director Luca Guadagnino is Italian, though, and that whole national mindset treats hedonism like something worth building cathedrals for. So the delirium was rapturous, breezy: An extremely nice orgy. As the eight-episode season turned darker, you wondered if the point was how far these children would fall — but then the finale was another cool party, a Blood Orange concert from a few years ago recreated for maximum romantic catharsis. The timing was auspicious, onscreen and off. The season climaxes after the 2016 presidential election — and aired its finale on Nov. 2, 2020.

A great party offers an escape from worry. And escapism was already a mainstream existential mood, before COVID-19 made “normality” an escapist adventure. Of course, one paradoxical fact about 2020 was that a year of enforced isolation was also a year of global gathering. In the wake of George Floyd's death, the streets filled with protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Other political inclinations assembled for divergent purposes; goofballs with guns argued against the cruel fascism of basic public health standards, while thousands failed to factualize the name "Million MAGA March."

It would be a strenuous definitional stretch to claim meaningful protest as a "party," so it's notable to consider the two very different public events at the core of Steve McQueen's Small Axe project. The five-part series has been called a collection of five films — hey, it's fun to stretch definitions. Amazon debuted Small Axe with Mangrove, a true-life tale of a peaceful anti-police demonstration that became a street conflict and then a twisted trial. In that context, the rapturous second chapter, Lovers Rock, has the breakaway quality of a great party episode. Other Small Axes dig into explicit political realities of West Indian immigrant life in England: Historic court cases, struggles against brutalizing systems, the crush of institutional oppression. Lovers Rock is just over an hour long, and most of that is a realtime portrait of an exultant night on a crowded dance floor. Bodies grind, beats bump, flirts are projected, eyes meet. It’s the ‘80s, so nobody’s distracted by a smartphone. For 11 straight minutes, the partiers onscreen sing along to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” — a song that is only four minutes long. The plot taps into all of Small Axe’s larger themes, with ghostly appearances by a police car and a white gang, and an act of sexual violence shut down by protective sisterhood. Nothing in Lovers Rock is as expository as the sentence I just wrote. It tells by showing. It moves you by making you want to move.

McQueen and Guadagnino: That’s two acclaimed directors given vast budgets and infinite runtimes, and it turns out what they really wanted to do was throw an hourlong party. Can you spot a political aesthetic in all the choreographed debauchery: The insistence that no one character is as important as the community, that all the problems of the larger world fade to illusion when people join together in happy union? And can we allow for a similar aesthetic possibility in the glittery gutter of reality television?

A typical season of any Real Housewives depends on parties, the venue for social gladiators to settle longstanding feuds while starting new feuds. The latest go-round of Real Housewives of New York really kicked into high gear when newbie Leah McSweeney broke an alleged years-long sobriety spell to get white-girl-wasted in the Hamptons. She convinced famously regal Tinsley Mortimer to join her for a skinny dip. She angrily threw tiki torches across the back yard, nominally some kind of Charlottesville counter-protest. She memorably screamed “1985 is gone! It’s over!” to Sonja Morgan — some sort of generational rallying cry, from a late-thirtysomething never-married Housewife to a gay divorcée of a certain age. She complained about husbands who accessorize their wives, which sounds feminist, though she also called Sonja a trophy wife, which is rude. Gaze upon your millennial Housewife, RHONY fans, who hates white supremacists and ‘80s capitalism but loves tattoos and sisterhood!

Who knows what she’s really like? Old press clippings circulated with McSweeney saying let’s-say-complicated-things about #MeToo and Donald Trump. Reality can be the worst thing about about reality TV, so it helps when the people onscreen seem to have no life except their television personalities. Case in point: Double Shot at Love, MTV’s effusive Jersey Shore spin-off. In 2019, Double Shot was sort of a relationship show. Shore stars Pauly DelVecchio and Vinny Guadagnino pretended to date various much-younger women. The ladies were mostly just stoked to hang out in a medium-sized Los Angeles mansion. The production value was house poor at best; “going out” meant walking across the backyard to a fake night club.

When you’re a low-rent operation, why not move to a state without income tax? Season 2 shed the Bachelor-ish structure and imported the most fun Double Shotters to a Vegas penthouse. Everyone pretended to work at a famous(?) beach club while waiting for Pauly D to invite them to his DJ sets. Everything about the show is ridiculous; anyone with taste is wondering how we got here from arty auteurism, except via some curious Guadagnino-to-Guadagnino wormhole. But MTV should never apologize for silly shamelessness, COVID goggles makes even the goofiest drunk talk sound like sweet beautiful drunk talk. Midway through the season, Pauly hosted a pool party — “Pauly D Day” — which climaxed every romantic storyline from season 1. Pauly D rekindled his thing with Nikki Hall, and their relationship may outlast the coronavirus. Vinny and Maria Elizondo finally hooked up; they’re soulmates, don’t they realize it? For intra-Shoreniverse continuity, Pauly D Day doubled as a guest-starring comeback celebration for Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, recently released from prison. Canonically speaking, this was like when Thor: Ragnarok turned into the best Hulk movie, or those times Better Call Saul gives us a great Breaking Bad episode.

The CDC would recommend that citizens party smarter than the cast of Double Shot at Love. The end of the pandemic should not be a license for unhealthy behavior — and parties can turn sour quickly. In its second season, DC Universe’s Harley Quinn staged a bachelorette bad-decision fiesta. The titular psychopath (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) throws a getaway her engaged bestie Poison Ivy (Kaley Cuoco), requiring a plane trip to Themyscira, famous from Wonder Woman as the island of the Amazons. Harley Quinnis an ultraviolent romp squeezed into sitcom shape, and “Bachelorette” has the familiar quality of a dissolving girl-group lost weekend. The other attendees are a motley crew of acquaintances: Way-too-cool Catwoman (Sanaa Lathan), over-it-all widow Mrs. Freeze (Rachel Dratch), plus a bored normal named Jennifer (Mary Holland) who knows Ivy from kindergarten. People drink their way into regrettable hook-ups, and it turns out that the whole party landscape is threatened by powerfully malicious exterior forces — shades, I am excited to write, of Double Shot at Love and Small Axe. The island of women is rescued, leading Queen Hippolyta (also Dratch) to honor an ancient Amazonian tradition: “We’re gonna have a f---ing rager.” 

I’ve been talking comfort food here, you understand, visions of physical togetherness in a year without much physicality. Worth pointing out, of course, that things weren’t great before everything got terrible. Historians may look back on the years before 2020 as a party that finally had to stop. It’s notable, I think, that when NBC’s The Good Place finally got to its Good Place, Heaven was a kind of Hell. The main characters receive “a welcome gala” tailored to their experiences. Nobody there is having fun. Immortal salvation has narcotized the best dead people into a joyless whiteout of the soul. This was a fascinating concept that could’ve sustained several more episodes — and the last season could’ve used a bolder shakeup. The Good Place struggled in its final year against its own worst lecturing instincts, juggling ever-shakier punchlines with the unforgivably preachy insistence that the heroes were becoming meta-gods rescuing every soul in the universe.

Credit: Colleen Hayes/NBC

The puritanical tone was unexpected, and barely hidden by the show’s “Florida is crazy”-level gags. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a TV comedy written by a bunch of Angelenos to declare that eternal fun was also eternal damnation. And then a day after Good Place ended, Netflix released the final episodes of Bojack Horseman. Mini-trend alert: another dour penultimate-episode afterlife party! On a potentially fatal downward spiral, Will Arnett’s talking horse meets sorrowful ghosts from his past in a dinner theater of the mind. Nobody is having any fun. Nonexistence beckons through an open door — a visual conceit that, via some sort of arty-sitcom act of telepathy, also appears in the Good Place finale. Bojack’s own finale ends with an earthbound party only slightly less despondent, a fake wedding reception that's really a collective networking opportunity. Structurally, that last episode has a gimmick, playing out as a series of one-on-one conversations between Bojack and his old friends. It was emotionally rich, yet curiously blinkered. The format seemed to argue that Bojack really was the center of his world, a message underscored by the entire show behind it.

There were times when I loved both sitcoms. One year out, though, I find myself doubting the sweeping emotion of their final acts. “Everything will be okay” is the hopeful message of too much entertainment today. “Everything is not okay” is the brutal, and honest, corollary. HBO’s I May Destroy You has a famously intense opening act, with a season-premiere blackout assault that leads into episode 2’s picking-up-the-pieces thriller. This is raw, visceral, somehow-still-funny storytelling, a high-wire act that braces you for everything to come.

Creator-star Michaela Coel’s first truly brilliant twist was to make episode 3, “Don’t Forget the Sea,” a gauzy flashback to a clubby night in Italy. Arabella (Coel) winds up riding high on “five actual drugs,” at least in her own hazy memory. Her best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) has a threesome. There is a love connection with endearingly sober Biagio (Marouane Zotti) who happens to be a dealer. You have to remember a not-so-distant time in TV history when even HBO wouldn’t edge so gleefully into this level of M-for-Mature material — when, like, Sex and the City turned every nude scene into some kind of comedy beat, when Girls was boundary-bursting for a subplot about accidental crack inhalation.

The 2010s turned into the everything-goes era for the most mainstream television: skull-crushing, sibling-screwing, you name it. I May Destroy You is a deeply personal tale, full of complex emotional issues I don’t want to butcher. (Biagio will later say that Arabella’s drug use directly caused her own assault — an awful scene that ranks among the season’s most emotionally brutal.) But I wonder if there’s something lightly meta in the wild night of “Don’t Forget the Sea.” This is what television was doing: indulging its most outrageous instincts, pushing the envelope, going brainless from pure excess. It’s an unabashedly fun episode that's also deeply sad, and terrifying, when you remember what lies ahead. The party ended long ago. Everything from here is the hangover.

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