10 Pop Culture Moments in 2020 That Actually Made Us Happy
Believe it or not, there was joy in 2020, too. From the spectacle of the Super Bowl Halftime Show to the silliness of “Eurovision Song Contest,” a look back at what made us smile.
Rudy Giuliani’s Series of Unfortunate Events
It began with the onetime “America’s Mayor” getting pranked into grabbing his junk on camera by Maria Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen—with the embarrassing image plastered on tabloid front pages across the country. Then, on Nov. 7, four days after Trump lost the presidential election, Giuliani conducted a wacky press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping—a nondescript-looking business in Northeast Philadelphia, sandwiched between a sex shop and crematorium—to argue on behalf of his old pal. (They apparently tried to book the Four Seasons hotel and screwed up.)
Twelve days later, his head appeared to be leaking black fluid, like Gary Oldman’s baddie in The Fifth Element, during an unhinged presser. In early December, he was caught unleashing a strident fart during a fraudulent voter fraud hearing. And finally, Trump announced on Twitter that Giuliani, who’d gone maskless for months and appeared at numerous crowded events doing his corrupt boss’ bidding, had contracted COVID-19. (He’s since recovered.) While decidedly treasonous and despicable behavior, Rudy Giuliani’s six-week stretch from the release of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Oct. 23) to contracting COVID-19 (Dec. 6) will go down as one of the most spectacular periods of self-annihilation in history. —Marlow Stern
‘Parasite’ Winning Best Picture
Between the rise of BTS, the release of Sundance winner Minari, the near death of Kim Jong Un, and its excellent handling of COVID, it’s been a banner year for South Korea. But nothing seemed to warm my heart quite like seeing director Bong Joon-ho receive the Academy Award for Best Picture for his thrilling class-warfare satire Parasite. It was a history-making event, marking the first time in the Oscars’ 92-year history that a non-English language feature took home the biggest award in cinema, with a surprised Bong remarking, “I feel like I’ll wake up to find it’s all a dream. It all feels very surreal.”
And it was a necessary course correction given the previous year’s debacle, where the cloying white savior racial reconciliation drama Green Book took Best Picture over Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful portrait of an indigenous housekeeper, Roma. The image of Bong Joon-ho, who also became the first Asian filmmaker other than Ang Lee to win Best Director, making his two Oscar statuettes kiss is pure bliss. —Marlow Stern
‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Bringing Back McDreamy
I’m not usually too much of a mark for fan service, but even I have to admit that seeing Patrick Dempsey back on my screen for Grey’s Anatomy’s most recent season was as delightful as it was shocking. (We all remember that interview in which Ellen Pompeo spoke very candidly about his refusal to negotiate their salaries together, right?) Meredith Grey’s ABC run has slowly evolved into one of TV’s most gratifying character journeys—an arc that has seen her grow from a terrified surgical intern to chief of general surgery.
McDreamy’s return as a COVID dream ghost is a perfectly calibrated gimmick—the kind Grey’s loves to traffic in. He’s likely just one of many returns to come this season, which has also brought back T.R. Knight as George O’Malley. It’ll be hard to top this surprise—but then again, this is the show that once kicked off its eighth season with a giant sinkhole eating up half of Seattle before killing off, like, half its cast months later in the season finale. So I haven’t ruled it out. —Laura Bradley
Miley Cyrus’ Rock Covers
Honestly, I’d write this entry for her “Doll Parts” performance on Howard Stern alone. Miley Cyrus has been covering rock songs here and there for years, from “Landslide” to “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” which she’s duetted multiple times with Ariana Grande. None of this is particularly surprising: Cyrus’s vocal talent has been astonishing since her Disney days, and even back then she proved adept at navigating and sometimes weaving together multiple genres. (Back then, largely country and pop.) But something happened after Cyrus covered Metallica at Glastonbury 2019.
This year, as millions entered quarantine, the singer covered Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” and, weeks ago, “Doll Parts.” She’s released her rock infused album, Plastic Hearts, in November, and she’s now hard at work recording Metallica covers. And somehow, each performance we see somehow tops the last. As the former Hannah Montana stomps her way across the stage in her black leotards and glam rock makeup—belting and, when the occasion demands, screaming into the mic—she projects pure joy. She’s clearly having the time of her life—and I, for one, hope she does not stop any time soon. —Laura Bradley
Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s Super Bowl Halftime Show
The most irresistible part of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s breathless, athletic, spectacular Super Bowl Halftime Show team up was how unapologetically triumphant the two performers clearly felt. They were sexy and strong. Their marathon-sprint dance choreography seemed to defy the laws of and biology and gravity, whether through Shakira’s hips or J. Lo’s pole dance. And it was a passionate celebration of Latinx cultures and music, blaring horns of pride in the face of a xenophobic administration. We didn’t know it then, but the epic, joyful set played like a grand finale for Before Times, with the world entering a stage of lockdown, darkness, and dread soon after. But what a performance to look back on. —Kevin Fallon
Trixie Mattel and Katya’s YouTube Videos
Nothing makes me laugh harder than popular RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Trixie Mattel and Katya sitting together and talking about things. On their YouTube talk show “Unhhhhh,” they leave modesty and, in some episodes, maybe even dignity at the door as they gab about their experiences on a range from topics from movies to exercise to fame and sex, no conversation getting from Point A to Point B without spiraling, with hilarious detours to Points C-Z and back again.
Their Netflix web series “I Like to Watch” has them watching episodes of the Netflix binge du jour and reacting in shock to the lunacy of the plots, often dragging the very streaming service that has hired them. Trixie and Katya are deeply strange people, but their self-awareness about that yields some of the most uproarious self-deprecating humor on the internet. Plus, in the year 2020 it is still a refreshing pleasure to watch two gay men talking about being gay without a thought in the world about censoring their thoughts or experiences—because why should they?! —Kevin Fallon
‘The Boys’ on Amazon
As someone who is decidedly not a superhero person—and has seen a grand total of two Marvel movies—I reluctantly checked out The Boys on Amazon this year after hearing that it was more parody of than participant in the popular genre. From the minute A-Train unrepentantly turns Hughie’s girlfriend into collateral damage in the first episode, I was hooked and gleefully binged seasons one and two while stuck at home during lockdown. All of the main players, from Jack Quaid’s Hughie to Karl Urban’s Butcher to Erin Moriarty’s Starlight to Antony Starr’s Homelander, are spot on. But the addition of You’re the Worst’s Aya Cash as a white supremacist supervillain Stormfront in season two just put the whole thing over the top. Nothing was more fun to watch on TV this year than The Boys. Am I a comic-book nerd now? —Matt Wilstein
The ‘Hamilton’ Episode of ‘Song Exploder’ on Netflix
In terms of TV episodes that just made me smile from start to finish this year, the one that stands above the rest has to be Song Exploder’s deep dive into my favorite Hamilton song “Wait for It.” After years of listening to the Song Exploder podcast, I was skeptical of how host Hrishikesh Hirway would be able to translate such an audio-centric show to the visual medium of Netflix. But this episode in particular, in which Lin-Manuel Miranda unveils the first voice memo he recorded of what ended up being Aaron Burr’s show-stopping number, proved me wrong. A month later, Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. managed to take that song to even greater heights by turning it into a public service announcement to urge people to wait for the results of the 2020 election before jumping to conclusions about who had won. Too bad Trump isn’t a Hamilton fan. —Matt Wilstein
Luke Skywalker Finally Made It to Tosche Station—and to Baby Yoda
Last year ended on a dud note for some Luke Skywalker fans with the anti-climactic disappointment of The Rise of Skywalker. Luke’s final appearance as his older, grizzled (Force ghost) self was as garbled and rushed as the rest of the film, somewhat undercutting the quiet power of the character’s final act in The Last Jedi. Sadly, that seemed to be that for the character. Then The Mandalorian returned this year.
In its second season, the Disney+ series became just about the platonic ideal of a live-action Star Wars TV show, using the expansive fictional universe as a limitless sandbox for its samurai-western space saga. And that was even before Jedi Master Luke stepped in. The de-aging CGI used on actor Mark Hamill was wonky, sure. And the most distinctive Star Wars property in years could probably have gone without finding a way to work in a Skywalker. But watching Luke mow down a platoon of space Terminators was a thrill of the purest sort—and a dream for lifelong fans of the character.
A week and a half later, Hamill himself supplied the cherry on top. Amid the internet’s celebration of Luke’s jaw-dropping showcase of super-cool laser-sword moves, Hamill tweeted a picture that called back to the character’s objectively uncool beginnings. It showed Hamill at a photoshopped gas station labeled “Tosche” with red power converters in hand. “I can finally cross this off my to-do list,” he wrote. “#BetterLateThanNever.” The whiny Tattooine farm boy has finally finished his chores and can now waste time with his friends. And national treasure Mark Hamill's Twitter feed remains a trove of superstar dad-joke cheese. —Melissa Leon
Dan Stevens in ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’
I have never been to Iceland. I have never met an Icelandic person. Yet every time I watch Rachel McAdams’ character Sigrit belt out the final notes of “Husavik (My Home Town)” in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, I end up weeping with pride for a nation I know next to nothing about. Such is the power of the goofiest movie spectacle of the summer, in which McAdams and Will Ferrell play definitely-not-related bandmates/childhood friends whose Icelandic musical act makes it to the Eurovision big leagues.
Ferrell and McAdams swing big and weird in this delightfully baffling comedy. But it’s Dan Stevens as the hyper-sexed Russian performer Alexander Lemtov who ends up stealing the show through good-natured silliness (and sheer pelvic force). Stevens gyrates and purrs and lip-syncs his way through the movie’s wildest number, “Lion of Love” (sample lyric: “I was happily laying ’round in the shadows unbothered by flies”), and seems to generate columns of flames and gold lamé wherever he steps. Sassy, flirtatious, and as confident as he is confused, Lemtov is an overwhelming presence both onstage and off—and full of surprises, too. This would-be Russian movie villain turns out to be totally supportive and sweet, making his happy ending a joy for us, too. —Melissa Leon