Each year, the Christ and Pop Culture team develops a list of the Top 25 cultural artifacts of the past 12 months. The list covers everything from film and TV to internet memes to notable events and people to music and games. But the past 12 months have been unusual, as you already know. The entertainment industry has slowed to a crawl. Gatherings are impossible. News has revolved around a certain global monster.
Because nothing is the same, our team decided to forego our usual ranked list of 25 artifacts for this past year. Instead, each writer submitted items from 2020 that managed to break through the dark days and deliver a bit of goodness. Stop by each day this week to see the roundup for the pop culture categories of film, TV, music & podcasts, books & games, and happenings & people. We hope these provide a bit of hope and a few new artifacts to enjoy.
Amid the cold sterility of an Autumn under the weight of a worldwide pandemic, Bluey has been a continued source of peace, calm, and warmth for my family. While we the people still might not expect to find mature, wonderful storytelling in television programmed for children, it’s increasingly become the case that shows geared toward this demographic can surprise us. Among others, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Ronja The Robber’s Daughter, and Over the Garden Wall each appeal to parents as well as to their children, offering thoughtful and nuanced takes on a variety of themes. Add to this tier of entertainment the Australian series Bluey (now in its second season), a show ostensibly catering to the tastes of children but absolutely attracting the attention of parents and older siblings.
Bluey is the story of Bandit (a work-at-home archaeologist/stay-at-home dad); his wife, Chilli (who works in airport security), and their two daughters, Bluey (age 6) and Bingo (age 4). While each episode explores the normal themes of such fare (sharing, imagination, friendship, etc.), one of the special delights beyond the pure-hearted humor of the show is watching Bandit and Chilli interact with and encourage their children’s imagination and play, and guide them through life toward something magnificent and indeterminable. Their world is wide open and, if they have eyes to see, spectacular.
Bluey is a joy. The creators utilize music for cadence and climax perfectly; whether to express chaos or crescendo or elation, the show excels at matching mood and music. The animators hold a brilliant attention to visual detail, not just in set design but in nuanced character expression as well. When Bingo is having fun, laughing and playing in the evening but is still quietly troubled by some moment from hours earlier in the day, you can see it in her face. It’s clear from even a passing glance that Bluey is a labor of love for the creators. Bluey is available in the United States to stream on Disney+ or for purchase on Amazon video. You can sample three representative episodes from season one here on Bluey’s official YouTube channel.
—Seth T. Hahne
The Netflix series Connected won’t win many awards this year. In fact, there’s a good chance most of you reading this haven’t heard or seen much about it. If and when you do watch it, it won’t be the best thing you’ve seen all year. Nonetheless, Connected is the kind of viewing that’ll fill you with renewed optimism and awe for this incredible world in which we live.
Connected is a six-part docu-series, hosted by Radiolab’s Latif Nasser. And if you’re familiar with Radiolab, that may be all the description you need to get a sense of what’s in store when you start streaming Connected.
Nasser takes his viewers around the globe, full of childlike wanderlust at the subtle, profound throughlines that connect the dots between all life on earth. Did you know that Saharan dust storms help seed the rains that fall on Amazonian rainforests, which in turn supply the oxygen you’re breathing at this exact moment? Did you know the energy emitted from each of your Google searches today could probably power the lights in your entire house? Connected will almost certainly spark your curiosities and shift your perspective in ways you didn’t expect, yet ways that’ll make you happy to be alive and thankful for this beautifully intricate planet our good God gave us to steward.
When we first met the Rose family of Schitt’s Creek back in 2015, they were a dysfunctional group of near-strangers trying to grapple with the loss of everything they held dear, namely, their wealth. They were related, yes, but it’d be hard to label them as a family as they were each so focused on their own careers, goals, relationships, and lives that they hardly knew each other. But that not-knowing coupled with the loss of everything they did know made for a compelling and particularly hysterical show. Schitt’s Creek made us laugh with its witty writing and its self-focused, arrogant, wacky characters. But more than a comedy about a rich family adjusting to normal life, Schitt’s Creek was a show about redemption—which is why it has earned a place on our Best of 2020 list.
Over the course of its six seasons, we watched these wild, outrageous people grow and change. They went from selfish individuals to caring members of the community. They found hope and redemption as they slowly came to realize what they had been saved from and what they had been given in their new life. They were still wild and quirky but they learned to see other people, to listen and care for those around themselves. And it was beautiful to watch. The character development is one of the reasons Schitt’s Creek was such an amazing show.
But it wasn’t just about character development or individual redemption, it was also about the redemption of a family. As each member changed, we got to see the family change as well. They got to know each other, grew to care for each other, and learned to support each other in all of their differences. They truly became a family! And while redemption of a person is not unusual in TV these days, I found this idea of redemption of a family to be markedly profound. We just don’t get to see groups (families or otherwise) grow close, to heal, very often. But in 2020, we needed that. We needed to see that families that have grown apart can heal and come back together. We needed to be reminded that losing everything doesn’t mean that all is lost. And we needed to see the hope of a community restored. While 2020 saw us saying a last farewell to the Roses in the show’s finale, it wasn’t a sad goodbye. Schitt’s Creek was a fantastic show, and it brought a lot of laughter, a lot of happiness, and a lot of joy to an otherwise rough year.
This year, one show swept in to save us from the pit of despair that was 2020. That show was the Apple TV+ sleeper hit Ted Lasso. A heartfelt dramedy about an American football coach who is hired to coach a Premier League football (soccer) team in England, Ted Lasso deserves every accolade you might see about it and more. Ted (played by Jason Sudeikis) takes the job in England with complete ignorance of English football, or English culture, but that’s just fine with him—he sees challenges not so much as hurdles to overcome but as ways to bring out the best in people. And he believes that everyone has a “best” that is worth bringing out. He takes to his new job with gusto, bringing with him into every circumstance unbridled enthusiasm, respect, and care for people, both on and off the field. But Ted is unaware that the team’s owner has brought him on board intending for him to fail—and tank the team.
In a year filled with heaviness, lament, isolation, and anger, Ted Lasso has given us a rare form of entertainment to beat back the dark. It’s an authentic story where that authenticity points to a relatable goodness that we long for—especially when we’ve watched so many people cling to badness in 2020. “Authenticity” in entertainment often leads to gritty stories and a brand of realism that sears rather than soothes, but Ted Lasso does exactly the opposite. In Ted, we see a man whose authenticity leads him to a genuine love and respect for everyone he meets—and it makes all of us want to be on his team.
—K. B. Hoyle
The Last Dance
In a disastrous year, The Last Dance felt like a small consolation gift.
ESPN x Netflix’s documentary series on Michael Jordan’s 1997-1998 Bulls season showcased scores of unseen footage and featured Jordan’s reflections on his career and final title season. During the early stretch of COVID-19 when lockdowns first disrupted communal connection, The Last Dance made life feel a bit normal again, a testament to sports as a shared common grace. The Last Dance instantly turned text threads and Twitter feeds into the type of bonding connections we’ve missed for most of 2020. Once again, sports fans were debating Jordan v. LeBron and reminiscing over Jordan’s drive and achievements.
What makes The Last Dance one of 2020’s best offerings is its ability to serve multiple dishes at once: communal bonding, nostalgic comfort, and soul-searching food for thought. In the midst of a global pandemic, The Last Dance transported me to seemingly simpler times: when the aura of his Airness dominated seemingly every inch of American life and his posters every inch of my bedroom.
At the same time, by letting Jordan the man speak on Jordan the man and the myth—his drive, his ego, his spite—and by giving voice to his teammates, The Last Dance forced viewers to take off our nostalgia-colored glasses and consider the cost of MJ’s captivating brand of greatness. The series again revealed Jordan’s competitive spirit to be reminiscent of a fire: something you admire from a distance which will also singe anyone who gets too close. Jordan’s penchant for bully leadership forces viewers to ponder if there’s an alternative way of achieving greatness that doesn’t require crushing those who can’t keep up. In other words, the GOAT from Wilmington, NC, points, by common grace and counter example, toward the Lamb from Nazareth.
It’s safe to say Disney+’s The Mandalorian took the world by storm last fall when it debuted and dropped the cuteness bomb that was “Baby Yoda” into the Star Wars universe. The show about a Mandalorian bounty hunter turned child-protector that takes place in the immediate years after the fall of the Empire quickly developed a rabid fanbase, and also one that was surprisingly loyal, considering the rifts that usually exist between Star Wars fans. Baby Yoda (actually called The Child) had united all corners of the Galaxy—it was a 2019 miracle that left fans of the show clamoring for more. So when 2020 turned out to be such a terrible year, anticipation for season two of The Mandalorian ran even higher than before.
Season two started out slow, however, with “monster of the week” episodes that left fans wondering if Mando was able to go to any planet without a side quest. Despite being enamored with season one, I was getting a little bored of it, to be honest, and aside from wanting to see The Child, by mid-season I was struggling to find a compelling reason to continue. But then something happened. The writers made the keen decision to connect the story more directly to what has come before—and to have Mando make some hard decisions between his strict Mandalorian principles and his love for The Child. (Matt Poppe, in his excellent recap, calls it “Sacrificing the Sacred.”) Furthermore, characters plucked from the beloved stories of our youth appear like reincarnated friends to save the day, and even though I have serious ideological concerns about the widespread use of anti-aging technology in Hollywood, I couldn’t help but feel the full impact of the eucatastrophic turn in the final episode of this season.
I think it speaks to the power of stories and the hope that certain characters give us that Luke Skywalker showing up in the final episode of season two gave so many people so much happiness. Would it have landed the same way if 2020 had not been so awful? I don’t know; there’s literally no way to know. Stories are not just a product of their creators, but products of the times and cultures in which they’re consumed. All I know for sure is that 2020 needed some goodness, and (for lifelong Star Wars fans), The Mandalorian delivered.
—K. B. Hoyle