My Favorite Pop Culture (media & moments) of 2020.

What an…interesting year it’s been. Thank God for pop culture to distract and comfort us through many months of confusion, uncertainty, and grief.

*in order of appearance

Catch and Kill (podcast)

November 2019-February 2020

Technically starting in 2019 but concluding in 2020, Ronan Farrow’s companion podcast to his Pulitzer Prize-winning crime novel Catch and Kill elevates and makes audibly tangible the stories he uncovered about Harvey Weinstein and the dangerous scrutiny he went through because of it.

Where to listen: Apple Podcasts & Spotify

Awkwafina makes Golden Globe history (moment)

January 5th

‘The Farewell’ star is the first performer of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe Award in a lead actress film category.

“She’s [also] only the sixth woman of Asian descent to be nominated in the lead actress in a musical or comedy category. The others were Machiko Kyo (1956’s The Teahouse of the August Moon), Miyoshi Umeki (1961’s Flower Drum Song), Yvonne Elliman (1973’s Jesus Christ Superstar), and Constance Wu (2018). Hailee Steinfeld, whose mother is of Filipino descent, was also nominated for her work in Edge of Seventeen.

Wu’s nomination last year was notable for ending a disappointing drought of female nominees of Asian descent that lasted almost half a century.” — CNN

I love Awkwafina and The Farewell and loved this ground-breaking moment!

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

Cheer (docuseries)

January 8th

As a friend to many a Texas cheerleader in my youth, I was so excited to see how this documentary really celebrated the athleticism and accentuated the intensity of competitive cheer. Plus, the way it was shot was so well done and the backstories of the cheerleaders were super intimate. The final episode made me cry. A lot.

Where to watch: Netflix

The Outsider (TV)

Jan 12th

Between this and The Haunting of Bly Manor, I really stretched my horror threshold this year and I’m very glad I did. This dramatization of Stephen King’s novel of the same name is the perfect amount of unsettling and Cynthia Erivo’s performance is the stand-out.

Where to watch: HBO

Diary of a Future President (TV)

January 17th

Ilana Peña, a staff writer for the comedically unique & highly underrated Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (and a pal of my sister’s from Northwestern University!) creates a timely, inclusive and mature comedy that all ages can enjoy and relate to. It was so fun to feel like a 13-year-old again watching a modern Disney show that mixes in deep, relevant moments into a slightly whimsical reality.

Where to watch: Disney+

Alicia Keys graceful handling of Kobe Bryant’s death at the Grammy’s (moment)

January 26th

“We’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”

“After a heartfelt speech, Keys brought Boyz II Men out for an a cappella tribute, singing their song “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” They cut to the sight of Bryant’s retired jersey numbers “8” and “24” hanging side by side, reminding us that Bryant’s legacy and impact will live on.” (EW) (Staples Center)

No one else could have handled the gravity of this moment better than Alicia Keys. Bryant was honored so beautifully at this globally viewed event.

Where to watch: Youtube

Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana (documentary)

January 31st

Taylor Swift’s vulnerable documentary showed her journey in all its vibrancy and intimacy. It also put to rest any doubts I had of how involved she truly is with each song she releases.

Where to watch: Netflix

Parasite wins best picture (moment)

February 9th

Parasite wins best picture, becoming the first South Korean film to achieve this.

Parasite was a dark comedy turned thriller with such a unique screenplay and incredible cinematography that somehow managed to make a statement about classism amidst the chaos.

The word “parasite” comes to represent so many thematic elements and the ensemble-driven story places its individual parts so perfectly and purposefully in the canvas of the story and its statement. I’ve truly never seen a film like it, it’s so technically proficient, and it was one of the most audience-engaging movie experiences I’ve ever had.

It felt like everything went downhill from this victory for 2020…

Where to watch: Hulu & Amazon Prime

Monica & Jess Love Boys (podcast)

February 14th

Monica Loves Monica & Jess Love Boys.

Dax Shepard’s “soulmate” Monica Padman pairs up with her friend Jess to embark on a 10-part relationship-focused journey (featured on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast). They intimately dissect their personal hindrances to finding a long-term partner and receive challenges from therapists, psychologists, etc. to get them out of their cyclical rut.

I loved how honest they were with their guests and with each other. I listened to it all the way through twice!

Where to listen: Apple Podcasts & Spotify

Harvey Weinstein is convicted & sentenced to 23 years in prison (moment)

February 24th

A historic & hopefully behavior-changing conviction.

Harvey Weinstein, formerly one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, was accused on countless accounts of sexual assault and misconduct in 2017. As he’s sentenced to essentially life in prison, Hollywood hopes this sets a precedent for change.

Also, announced at the end of June, an $18.8 million settlement fund has been put in place for survivors, and they will all be released from any NDAs they signed, now free to share their stories.

Little Fires Everywhere (TV)

March 18th

Two of the very best female actors of our time set a much subtler & quieter novel ablaze onscreen.

I’m actually glad about the order in which I consumed Little Fires — show first, book second. I found the show fascinating and uncomfortable in the best way. I thought the elements they added really elevated the story. The book allowed the reader to fill in the blanks and was beautifully written.

Its themes of race, motherhood & socio-economic privilege were conveyed poignantly — whether quietly in the novel, or much louder onscreen.

Where to watch: Hulu

Tiger King (docuseries)

March 20th

COVID will always be associated with Tiger King.

The memes, the tweets, the debates of who should play who, kept us nice and distracted at the beginning of quarantine. I have nothing additional to say about Tiger King but couldn’t not include it…

Where to watch: Netflix

Conan Gray & Dua Lipa’s album releases (music)

March 20th & March 27th

Conan Gray & Dua Lipa release two of my favorite albums of the year on consecutive weeks amidst the pandemic.

The neo-disco era of Dua and the youthful alt-pop Conan album really lifted my spirits as I adjusted to quarantine life.

Favorite tracks from Dua: Don’t Start Now, Cool, Physical, Pretty Please, Break My Heart

Favorite Tracks from Conan: Wish You Were Sober, Maniac, Checkmate, Little League, The Story

Where to listen: Spotify & Apple Music

John Krasinki’s Some Good News (moment)

March 29th

Just another reason we don’t deserve this man.

John Krasinski chose to spend his time at home collecting and “reporting” on happy stories. He also hosted a prom for high school seniors featuring The Jonas Brothers, a wedding with the entire cast of The Office, and more. This is something we need everyday, but especially in 2020.

Where to watch: Youtube & IGTV

The Last Dance (docuseries)

April 19th

Before this documentary I knew the sparknotes of MJ. I knew he didn’t make his high school team the first time, knew he played for The Bulls, knew he left briefly to play baseball, and knew he was probably the greatest basketball player of all time (now I know for sure). But this documentary dived intimately into those moments and weaved in the layers of who Michael Jordan is so effectively.

Also we all PTL’d for something to count on for 5 straight Sundays of quarantine.

Where to watch: ESPN

Defending Jacob (TV)

April 24th

Incredible performances and gripping scenes. Although the ending was quite chaotic, I found this show really engrossing. It was great to see Michelle Dockery in something completely different and it was the best performance I’ve seen from Chris Evans.

Where to watch: Apple TV+

Never Have I Ever (TV)

April 27th

Mindy Kaling can do no wrong.

Her newest comedy is sweet, quippy, and progressive, and becomes much deeper than I thought it would. The music supervision is also 10/10.

Where to watch: Netflix

Normal People (TV)

April 29th

Normal People was heartbreaking, visceral and beautifully acted. I love quippy dialogue but also love when stories are quiet and there’s huge spaces in between the script for the viewer to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the story.

Where to watch: Hulu

Dead to Me (Season 2) (TV)

May 8th

Season 1 was much better plot wise, but the comedic writing of this season was so clever and it continues to be the best role I’ve seen Christina Applegate inhabit. My whole family cracked up in every episode.

Where to watch: Netflix

How To Get Away With Murder (Season Finale) (TV)

May 14th

One of the few network shows I was still watching, HTGAWM did a great job of tying all its murderous loose ends in this rare sweet and satisfying twist of an ending. I will miss the incredible performances on this show but I’m excited to see what Viola conquers and triumphs in next.

Where to watch: ABC & Hulu

Athlete A (documentary)

June 24th

Athlete A encapsulated the physical, emotional and, for far too many, sexual abuse our gymnasts have endured and poignantly exposed how USA Gymnastics actively protected its perpetrator rather than its victims. The physical and emotional strength of these women was incredibly moving to witness and it showed how passionate, thoughtful journalism can really make a broad impact.

Where to watch: Netflix

Haim, Women In Music Pt. III (music)

June 26th

I know alone, like no one else does.

Those lyrics have been in my head since they released “I Know Alone” as a single. These three are some of my favorite women in music and their newest album is lyrically top notch and experimentally accessible.

All 50 States Participate in Black Lives Matter Protests (moment)

June

This feels odd to include in a pop culture article, but it felt more odd not to highlight in a piece about the biggest moments of 2020. People in all 50 states, more than 700 U.S. cities and at least 17 countries have protested in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, fighting for police reform and justice for the loss of far too many Black lives.

Joy Oladokun releases ‘in defense of my own happiness (vol. I)’ (music)

July 17th

One of my top and one of the most important releases of the year.

Oladokun’s first volume of the defense to the right to her own joy is filled with beautiful heartbreak, desperation, and resilience. You can read my full album review here.

Where to listen: Spotify & Apple Music

Taylor Swift drops surprise album ‘folklore’ (music)

July 24th

My #1 album of the year!

Swift not only pens great songs, but always tends to nail the timing of the release of those songs too. A warm but dark record that just felt like isolation was what we all needed and this was my favorite album of the year. You can read my full review here.

Where to listen: Spotify & Apple Music

The Vow (docuseries)

August 23rd

NXIVM consumed my headspace for the better part of 2020 Q3.

Between this docuseries, listening to the first season of the podcast Uncovered where a childhood friend of Sarah Edmondson’s turned investigative reporter digs deep into the cult and to Sarah’s complicity in it, and Seduced, it was all I could think about at this point in 2020. The Vow contains intimate moments with former power players and exposes what this organization became.

Where to watch: HBO

NEEDTOBREATHE releases ‘Banks’ (music)

August 29th

The heartbreaking announcement of the departure of Bo Rinehart earlier in the year was combatted with the release my favorite album from NEEDTOBREATHE since college.

This record brought me a much needed comfort at a point in the year where it really started to feel like…will this pandemic ever be over? NEEDTOBREATHE never fails to emote in their music the kind of optimism that is real, impassioned and never once flirts with denial or artifice.

Where to listen: Spotify & Apple Music

The Social Dilemma (documentary)

September 9th

A cautionary tale told from the ex-execs who created the mess they’re warning against, The Social Dilemma voiced the fears we all feel about the mental health and emotional security consequences of the opinions and filtered photos we stare at everyday. I thought a little less time could’ve been spent on the dramatization aspect, and it was an interesting point to only add anything remotely hopeful at the credits, but this doc struck me and stayed with me and I hope it increases awareness of the dangers we face in this neo digital age.

Where to watch: Netflix

The Haunting of Bly Manor (TV)

October 9th

This new Monica-now-watches-scary-things trend continued with Bly Manor.

It’s told at the beginning that this is not a scary story but a love story. Creepy exes pop up in mirrors, faceless ghosts linger, and you quickly forget this sentiment. And then you near the end of the story and everything spooky had a purpose and the theme of love being the antithesis of ownership is beautifully and painfully lived out in Dani and Jamie’s relationship. This show made me scream, scared to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and made me cry tears of joy and sadness all at once at the end. Bly Manor lingers but it is the final emotions you feel, not the fear.

Where to watch: Netflix

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult (docuseries)

October 18th

More NXIVM! Someone make me stop!

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult specifically focuses on India Oxenberg’s story which was a perfect follow up to The Vow which spent a lot of its screen time on her mother’s journey in saving her. Seduced is graphic and hard to watch, but exposes Keith Rainere’s pure evil more pointedly.

Where to watch: Starz

The Crown (Season 4) (TV)

November 15th

It’s been quite the love affair between The Crown and me this year.

I watched the first three seasons for the first time this year and quickly fell in love with Claire Foy and Matt Smith’s portrayal of Elizabeth and Phillip, found myself unexpectedly empathizing with Josh O’Connor’s portrayal of Prince Charles (in Season 3 only…), and delightfully amused at Olivia Coleman’s quippy line delivery and her character’s adherence to tradition. There was a lot of hype for Season 4 and we were not let down one bit. Gillian Anderson’s Thatcher rivaled the great Meryl Streep and Charles and Di’s “grotesque misalliance” was painstakingly and perfectly captured. Amazing performances, compelling writing, and gripping cinematography.

Where to watch: Netflix

Murder on Middle Beach (docuseries)

November 15th

Filmmaker Madison Hamburg’s is searching for the truth of his mom’s murder in Murder On Middle Beach. Through the most personal POV possible, Madison’s docuseries is incredibly raw, emotional, and shocking.

And a bonus…Madison looks like this^

Where to watch: HBO

The Flight Attendant (TV)

November 18th

I was blown away by Kaley Cuoco’s performance in The Flight Attendant.

I might’ve had an unfair opinion on the actress because of The Big Bang Theory (bleh) but Cuoco did such an incredible job of portraying someone who’s lifestyle seems comical on the surface, but is harboring so much trauma beneath. This show is really fun and creative and Zosia Mamet’s deadpan next to Cuoco’s crazy was such a great dynamic. I hope Cuoco nabs a nom for this!

Where to watch: HBO

Happiest Season (film)

November 25th

The redemption of Kristen Stewart continues!

I know people had qualms with this movie. They hated Harper and were crushing REAL hard on Aubrey Plaza’s character—who didn’t? But I think having the conflict of a lesbian-couple-at-the-focus-Christmas-rom-com be that one of them screws up and digs a deeper and deeper hole and then apologizes and makes up with their love interest and everyone lives happily ever after is justtt about the most progressive thing they could’ve done.

We saw the worst parts of Harper in Happiest Season, and Mackenzie Davis’s performance still managed to make me empathize with her and root for her relationship. Mary Steenburgen, Mary Holland and Dan Levy peppered in great comedic moments throughout, and this movie will now be in my Christmas film rotation!

Where to watch: Hulu

Health Workers Throughout The U.S. Receive The First COVID-19 Vaccinations of the Year (moment)

December 14th

As this insanely unique year comes to a close, health workers begin taking the first COVID vaccines and we all begin to (cautiously) see a bit of hope.

Again, this feels weird to include in an article about pop culture (as I closed the first half of this with the civil rights protests over the summer), but 2020 is a year of its own and I don’t think any of us will be able to NOT associate this year with racial reckoning and Coronavirus — whether thinking of pop culture or not.

Bridgerton (TV)

December 25th

Bridgerton is one of those gems that is definitely a guilty pleasure, and an overall vibe that takes a second to “get,” but still has great, compelling performances, and some intriguing subplots. This show is fun and steamy and I’m excited to hear more string quartet covers of modern top 40 pop songs.

Where to watch: Netflix

Soul (film)

December 25th

Soul was beautiful. Only Pixar can create a movie that can make both children and adults laugh and think existentially about their lives. And as a musician/performer, I felt the moment he placed all the arbitrary items on the piano to make him return to the center of music and his purpose so viscerally.

Where to watch: Disney+

Monica Moser is an Austin-based singer/songwriter, podcaster, & freelance journalist working in digital marketing in the music industry. TW/IG: @monicamoser

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