This year spent mostly in quarantine produced some of the strangest (and let’s be real, cringiest) content this side of Priyanka Chopra clapping for essential workers from her mega-mansion’s balcony. Creaky Zoom jokes and saccharine storylines invaded our TVs. And then there’s the curiosity of Law & Order: SVU’s, uh, loose understanding of how masks work.
But life in quarantine also pushed creators to new levels of insight and originality. TikTok hosted some of the funniest reflections of our new stir-crazy states of mind. Borat made an unexpected return—and nailed the people in power bungling our nation’s pandemic response. John Wilson, of HBO’s moving new series How to With John Wilson, captured better than anyone what it felt like to be in New York in those first terrifying few days of the city’s exposure.
Here’s a look back from my Daily Beast colleagues at the highs and lows of a year in quarantine content. It’s a record of Hollywood, comedians, and internet creators responding in real-time to a transformed audience’s cravings for distraction, reflections, and anything to assure us we’re not all (really) alone. —Melissa Leon
BEST: How to With John Wilson season finale
John Wilson didn't set out to make a mini documentary about life in New York City grinding to a standstill in the early days of the pandemic. He was just on a mission to make the perfect risotto as a thank you to his doting landlord, a grandmother figure in his life. Capturing the ways in which COVID precautions forced them to stay apart, the episode pivoted into a meditation on the melancholy, uncertain, and fear palpable at the time—a portrait that was only so effective because it was never the one Wilson set out to make, just as none of us expected to be going through a pandemic. After spending a season revealing the different ways in which we are all connected, a matter-of-fact look at the shock of isolation was heartbreaking and wholly unexpected. —Kevin Fallon
WORST: Love in the Time of Corona, Connecting, Social Distance
It's an understandable instinct to pivot as quickly as possible to tell this monumental human story, and the ways in which these shows improvised to safely produce professional-quality content while in quarantine was undeniably impressive. But whether it was too soon or too little still to say, these series were incredibly grating and, at times, tone deaf. Jokes about Zoom meetings and the novelty of wearing masks were groan-worthy and twee by the time they aired, and far too often the instinct was to find a sweet, heartwarming angle into a story that, for so many of us, has yet to reveal those colors at all. —Kevin Fallon
BEST/WORST: The Real Housewives
If the issue with some series was that the fiction scripted about life in the pandemic didn't sit quite right, there's no arguing that what's being played out across several Bravo series, including two different Real Housewives franchises right now, doesn't seem real. These shows were in production when the world came to a halt, and it's fascinating to watch in real-time how these women, for whom the cares of life aren't always relatable, react to the escalating severity of the pandemic and lockdowns. You watch some take it seriously, and some embarrass themselves by reciting Fox News party lines about it being a hoax. You even watch some cast members test positive and suffer through the effects of the virus. But then there's the exasperating part: That you're watching these women at all. There are face masks and sanitizer and constant talk about social distancing, but these conversations are happening at cocktail parties, brunches, and girls' trips that they can go on because Bravo can afford constant testing. Should the world's priority right now be to ensure the Housewives can go on filming? Inarguably, no. But we welcome the distraction, and the decision to embrace the reality of the current situation while doing it. —Kevin Fallon
BEST: Colin Quinn & Friends: A Parking Lot Comedy Show
“Idea to save stand up comedy,” Colin Quinn tweeted on March 24th. “Drive in comedy clubs! You stay in your car and the show is where the drive in movie was!” About eight months later, the stand-up comic and former Saturday Night Live cast member manifested his idea into reality with an HBO Max special featuring sets from his comedian friends including Keith Robinson, Sam Jay and Dan Soder, who delivers the best joke about performing for a sea of cars. Since Quinn insisted that they only perform material written during quarantine, the results can be a little uneven. But what makes the special really great is that about 50 percent of it takes place “backstage” where we get to see the comics roast and critique each other during the show. They try their best to keep their social distance, but you can tell how much they’ve been dying to hang out again after months of isolation. —Matt Wilstein
WORST: Law & Order: SVU’s major mask fail
It would have been enough if the long-running NBC procedural had just decided to address the summer of Black Lives Matter protests when it returned for its 22nd season this fall. But instead, Law & Order: SVU made COVID-19 a central part of its story and in the process may have done far more harm than good with its bafflingly inconsistent use of masks. On the one hand, the show tried to depict the new reality of criminal courts, with their plexiglass shields and lack of spectators. But on the other, there was zero rhyme or reason to when characters wore face coverings and when they didn’t. By the second episode of the new season, it had more or less become a running joke among viewers that every time a character had something important to say, they would dramatically lower their mask to deliver the line. For a show that prides itself on its progressive outlook, the “elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit” started looking like members of the Trump administration. —Matt Wilstein
BEST: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Borat was washed. The only people howling “very nice!” were frat boys after a few too many raspberry White Claws. So it’s truly remarkable that Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, and filmmaker Jason Woliner were able to not only breathe life into a tired character but also pull off a series of increasingly hilarious pranks with a guy everyone recognizes. As Borat’s daughter, Bakalova is the breakout here, terrorizing a creepy Southern-virgin dance and thoroughly embarrassing a disturbingly horny Rudy Giuliani. And at the risk of providing a giant spoiler, the way they folded the COVID-19 pandemic into the plot was a stroke of genius. —Marlow Stern
WORST: That crazy TikTok anti-vaxx lady
I hate that I cannot stop thinking about this godforsaken video. Set to the interminable song “Train Wreck” by Christian singer-songwriter James Arthur, the blessedly brief comedy sketch (?) sees fashionista and anti-vaxxer Taylor Rosseau embodying two characters—one who takes the COVID vaccine and is implanted with some sort of microchip, and the other who refuses and proceeds to cry hysterically, be beaten bloody, and is ultimately rewarded with a ticket to heaven for her troubles. It’s not only wildly irresponsible and potentially dangerous to spread anti-vaxx nonsense in the middle of a global pandemic that’s killed 1.7 million people worldwide but the video itself is batshit insane. —Marlow Stern
BEST: GhostHoney’s TikTok channel
I must admit, most videos I’ve watched from viral TikTok star Tyler Gaca, AKA Ghost Honey, exist in some dark, weird corner of my brain like a half-remembered dream. Did he really make a video spoofing the supernatural YA craze of the 2000s in which he’s crushing on a murderous merman—or did I make that up after watching Avatar meme videos until it was way past my bedtime? Did he really do a whole video evaluating fancy ducks in dresses with that mesmerizing, ASMR-like voice—or have I just dissociated from reality completely? Plenty of films and shows that debuted this year, like Palm Springs and She Dies Tomorrow, felt accidentally timely. But none of these projects captured the feel of quarantine quite like the homegrown content stir-crazy creators began churning out online. Like viral TikTok comedian Sarah Cooper and Mary Neely, who performed Broadway numbers from her home under a pile of wigs, the relatively low-fi feel of GhostHoney videos feels like a more appropriate window, emotionally and aesthetically, into These Times. They’re also, more importantly, very funny. —Laura Bradley
WORST: That “Imagine” Video
It’s not that I think the infamous video of Gal Gadot and other celebrities was particularly heinous. Out of touch? Yes. Cringe inducing? Obviously. The video itself was pretty innocuous, if clueless—but still, as I think about the year we’ve had in “content” created expressly to make us feel or think something about The Era of Coronavirus, I cannot think of a bigger miscalculation than this off-key group number. Quarantine has underscored the gap between the lives celebrities lead, or even the ones they want us to think they lead, and those of their audience. Videos like that “Imagine” singalong, or the one of Priyanka Chopra bewilderingly and vociferously clapping on her balcony to no one in a salute to healthcare workers, felt like blithe displays of wealthy hubris. It felt as though these A-listers assumed that the public looks to them for moral and spiritual guidance when, in fact, most of us would much prefer they simply open their wallets and see what tangible help they might provide. As we head into 2021, hopefully that’s a lesson some will take to heart.