There are certainly TV shows and episodes that deserve to be called “the best”—that’s why we made this list. But in 2020, a year defined by anxiety and being stuck inside, the best shows weren’t always the ones that mattered most. While there is joy in watching something of supreme quality, this year called more for comfort, nostalgia, and nontraditional entertainment. With that said, here are the things that the Ringer staff turned to in 2020 ...
I admit it: I hopped on Ted Lasso very late in the match. When the series first came out in August, earning rave reviews and filling my timeline with sickly-sweet sentiments about a college football coach who got a new job he was ridiculously underqualified for, I balked. There was no way this show could be that good, that funny, that charming—I pretty much thought people were just bored. But then I caved and discovered that, in the immortal words of Ted Lasso (played by Jason Sudeikis) himself, “Last one there’s a Scotch egg.”
Ted Lasso is about a Premier League club owner who, fresh off a divorce in which she gained control of the team, tries to sabotage their chances by bringing in an American football coach who doesn’t even know what offsides is. But what it’s really about is earning respect (the hard way, not the showy way), putting others before yourself, and—ugh—learning to hope. It’s just as earnest as advertised, but in the best way possible, and by the time they break out “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in the season’s final episode, you, too, will have started to believe in Ted Lasso. —Megan Schuster
I have watched a lot of bad television this year. Some of it was new, some it was old; some of it was acclaimed, some of it was not. It was fine, mostly—being bored on the couch is a luxury in 2020.
I loved The Great both because it was really and truly quite great, but also because of what an absolute surprise it was. Sure, plenty of those more in the know were fully aware of what to expect from Tony McNamara and Elle Fanning. But in my home, it took a gradual talking into: It’s a period drama—but not that kind of period drama; it’s about Catherine the Great—but not, like, in a boring way, or in Russian; also bears are there, I think? So, having trudged in from the 1700s St. Petersburg frost for lack of alternatives, what a joy to find a sharp, bizarre, belly-laughing jewel box of a show. It might be the only 2020 surprise that I absolutely loved. Huzzah. —Claire McNear
Ghosthoney on TikTok
When I was first acclimating myself to Gen Z’s favorite timesuck in mid-March, my colleague Alyssa Bereznak directed me to the account of one Tyler Gaca, a.k.a. @ghosthoney, dubbing him the “Los Espookys of TikTok.” I instantly knew what she meant. Like Los Espookys cocreator and costar Julio Torres, Gaca creates a world of his own, one where a novelty Pokémon donut can be an artistic muse and sunglasses can be traded for miniature owls. Gaca is technically an influencer in that he does social media full time and recently moved to L.A., but his page is a merciful break from the relentless monotony of the online creator aesthetic. Some of his videos are fictional sketches; some are charming vignettes with his husband; some are just takes, like how all golf courses should be public butterfly gardens. All manage to make TikTok’s 60-second format feel expansive, expressive, and just plain weird—all with a fraction of the time and resources “real” television can afford. —Alison Herman
The End of Better Call Saul Season 5
Not much about 2020 has been satisfying—Dan Devine: bastion of the understatement—but the finale of Better Call Saul’s phenomenal fifth season certainly qualified. With one look, one withering “Wouldn’t I?” and one unmistakable hand gesture, the last scene of “Something Unforgivable” fulfilled a promise five years and 50-odd hours in the making, propelling one of television’s best shows into a deeply compelling and terrifyingly uncertain future.
What begins as the sort of small-time-scam spitballing that represents foreplay for Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler turns deathly serious post-coitus, as Kim’s pillow talk produces a “We’d never do it but” pivot that calls to mind Benjen Stark’s received wisdom about that particular transition word. What follows—Kim pitching a plan to destroy Howard Hamlin’s life that would net her and Jimmy “around $2 mill”—is jarringly matter-of-fact and even-tempered, laying bare just how easy it is to keep sliding down that slippery slope once you begin your descent.
It’s not just about the way the electric Rhea Seehorn says “Wouldn’t I?” when Jimmy argues that Kim wouldn’t really be OK with going after Howard like this. It’s also about the way she follows up that bombshell—completely relaxed, contentedly exhaling. She doesn’t just tell you how far she’s already fallen, how comfortable she’d be reducing a man to rubble. She shows you. The finger guns are out of their holsters now, the mask’s off; the journey-beneath-the-journey that Better Call Saul has really been about all along is complete. All that’s left is to find out how far down that slope goes, and how many people will get hurt by the time we reach the bottom. —Dan Devine
The Rick Shiels Golf Videos That Autoplay on My Facebook
I’ve always liked golfing, but 2020 was the year that I became obsessed with golfing. Stuck inside for months, the world sputtering into chaos, suddenly here was this sport that I could play safely outdoors, temporarily protected from reality by a perimeter of pine trees. Contrary to the rest of my life, the laws of nature and cause and effect still seemed to apply on a golf course: I’d hit a white ball, and if I didn’t shift my hips too much or bend my left arm like a schmuck, it’d generally go in the direction that I wanted it to.
At some point Mark Zuckerberg must’ve noticed all of the golf course geotags, because now I can’t scroll through Facebook without seeing this man’s face:
I know nothing about him (I don’t want to complicate our relationship), but I’ve grown to love Rick Shiels. How he moves his hand like an overexcited conductor. The way he slaps the bottom of his irons like they’re a bag of soil at Home Depot. How it often seems like he’s having an existential crisis trying to decide whether to keep talking or actually swing the frickin’ club. The apparently limited resources; most times you can’t even see if the shot he just hit was a good one. I can’t claim that Rick Shiels has made me better at golf—the chunk I took out of a fairway last week would beg to differ—but I do know that I’ll stop and watch every time he crosses my feed. Because at least he seems nice, and at least the world seems to make a little bit of sense, if only for three minutes. —Andrew Gruttadaro
Don Has Not “Caught Them All”
I can tell you the exact moment when Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. It wasn’t once the networks called Pennsylvania a few days after the polls closed. It wasn’t when the Supreme Court denied Texas the right to challenge the vote counts in four states last week. It wasn’t once California cast its votes for Biden in the Electoral College earlier this week. I knew Trump lost once the comedian James Austin Johnson uploaded his latest impersonation: Trump complaining, in his nasal absurdity, about the requirements for beating a Pokémon game. Johnson’s breakout Trump–Scooby-Doo bit from a few months ago is great, too, but his Trump-Pokémon bit really synthesizes Trump into a single, succinct, comprehensive artifact for dissemination to later generations and extraterrestrial scavengers. —Justin Charity
Bomanizer’s Faux Reality TV
I find so much joy in reality TV’s excessive production tropes. The plush interiors, replete with enough decorative pillows and wine to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool; the interstitial interviews where cast members speak in snappy punch lines; the gongs and bowed cymbals that add a heightened sense of drama to otherwise unremarkable conversations. These techniques can make a conversation about life insurance policies interesting, and nobody knows that better than Boman Martinez-Reid. The 22-year-old TikToker’s parodies cram every reality TV trick in under a minute, elevating the climax of each incident to fantastical heights. What begins with a disagreement over what to eat for lunch ends with an exchange so “disrespectful” that Martinez-Reid quite literally melts into a puddle. Microphones are replaced with bananas, makeup blotters are Rubik’s Cubes, and cocktails are garnished with exercise weights and whisks. A true student of the Bravo universe, Martinez-Reid sometimes even drops in a teaser graphic (starring him) at the bottom of the screen midepisode. At a moment when our own understanding of reality keeps being stretched to unbelievable limits, Martinez-Reid’s TikTok offers a welcome alternate universe, where the stakes of everyday life are far more frivolous and where, above all else, whimsy rules. —Alyssa Bereznak
“Obsidian,” Adventure Time: Distant Lands
On average, I cry about once or twice a year. Like a sailor lost at sea, I ration out my tears as if they were the last sleeve of saltines left in the cupboard. It’s partially an act of self-preservation—or, that’s what I like to believe.
Either way, in a year full of devastation, loss, and anxiety, one of the rare pieces of entertainment that managed to break me was a cartoon about a vampire and royal piece of anthropomorphic bubblegum. Adventure Time: Distant Lands is a set of HBO Max specials spun off from the hit 2010s series created by Pendleton Ward. “Obsidian,” the second episode in the series, follows Marceline the Vampire Queen and Princess Bubblegum as they try to save the citizens of the Glass Kingdom and their brittle but beautiful relationship. At the episode’s climax, Marceline (voiced by Olivia Olson) serenades Bubblegum with a song called “Monster.” Over a simple guitar melody, Marceline admits to her partner and, more so to herself, how much her childhood trauma has stunted her ability to give and receive love. In a warm but wounded voice, she sings, “We were messed up kids who taught ourselves how to live / And I’m still scared that I’m not good enough.”
During Adventure Time’s cultural peak, fans passionately shipped Marceline and Princess Bubblegum and were ultimately rewarded when the two characters united at the show’s conclusion. “Monster” is the culmination of that specific moment in time. Instead of Marceline and Bubblegum living happily ever after, the creators of Adventure Time decided to do one better—they gave their beloved characters a relationship as gorgeously flawed as the lives of the people who spent so much time watching them. —Charles Holmes
The Wide (and Deeply Weird) World of Conner O’Malley
It’s quite difficult to describe Conner O’Malley’s videos. ... I mean, it honestly feels impossible. You might have seen Conner O’Malley earlier this year in Palm Springs, in which he played the brother of the bride, and that might’ve been the most normal thing he’s been a part of in 2020. This year, O’Malley published 15 original videos on his YouTube channel—heavy emphasis on the word “original.” His first video of 2020 was a Hudson Yards interactive video game, brought to you by Lululemon Interactive (Lululemon had no part in making this video) in which he walked around Hudson Yards saying hi to tourists. While that may sound somewhat normal, the video takes a turn when he unlocks “Allyship,” as the game turns into a 3D animated hard rock music video about … [Struggles to find words.] honestly I don’t even know.
After two videos about trying to save the stock market with a movie script about Joe Biden and blue Powerade, Conner followed up with his most successful video of the year, titled “Smoking 500 Cigarettes for 5G.” The video, which has racked up over 1 million views, focuses on Conner walking up and down Kosciuszko Bridge smoking cigarettes, in partnership with T-Mobile and Verizon (neither company agreed to this). He eventually succeeds in his “mission,” and when he unlocks the power of 5G he finds out that Jeffrey Epstein was killed by the Burlington Coat Factory. As I mentioned from the jump, these videos make zero sense—but that’s their beauty. They are somehow timely, yet also not from any time that’s ever existed. There is no rhyme or reason to any of them, and each video leaves you scratching your head—but somehow, they spark a sensation that feels unique and necessary in this already absurd year. So with an extremely heavy NSFW warning, I urge you to check out Conner O’Malley’s YouTube channel. I can guarantee you will regret it. —Sean Yoo
Welcome to Philadelphia, the Home of Four Seasons Total Landscaping
Philadelphia is a great city, maybe even the best city, not to mention the birthplace of our nation—which is why it was only fitting that, nearly 250 years after founding America, we managed to save it. As you might know, Philly was instrumental in reducing Donald Trump to a failed one-term president. And if somehow you hadn’t heard on November 7, the day the election was officially called for President-Elect Joe Biden, Philly made sure to let you know. There was music and dancing in the streets and an impromptu pop-up parade. Someone, or several someones, naturally had a giant Eagle ready to deploy on the streets. (Go Birds.) Others celebrated by waving ceremonial loaves of victory bread outside Reading Terminal Market.
And if all of that wasn’t enough, there was the well-chronicled Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference disaster by the defeated and discombobulated Trump campaign to provide all of us with some merch, some memes, and more than a few laughs. Even Captain America dunked on them. What a grand time—courtesy of your friends from Philly. If you think we were obnoxious after the Eagles beat the Pats to win the Super Bowl, we’ll never let you forget that time we came riding to democracy’s rescue. —John Gonzalez
Weird, Classical Living Room Concerts
Classical music is in many ways the most low-tech category of musical art—nearly all the instruments are acoustic; a good chunk of the repertoire predates the steam engine, much less the AirPods Max—but with nowhere else to turn in the midst of worldwide lockdown, soloists and ensembles embraced Zoom. In a famously, and sometimes forbiddingly, formal art form, concerts were suddenly being streamed from living rooms, where some of the world’s greatest musicians sat among their bookcases and houseplants and played deathlessly beautiful music while their cats wandered around, totally bored. At the online Metropolitan Opera gala, I watched awe-inspiring opera divas sing grand arias from their basements and kitchens; on Instagram, I watched members of the renowned vocal ensemble The Sixteen share recipes and TV recs before singing informal concerts with their families. I watched members of the Philadelphia Orchestra play teleconference octets.
And no, it wasn’t the same as going to a concert hall. But 2020 was such a grand tragic opera on its own that the low-key, thoughtful, welcoming spirit of these shows was, if anything, a better consolation for this moment. I hope the moments are better next year, but I’ll never forget how these musicians responded to this one. —Brian Phillips
Throughout this tumultuous year, the YouTube videos of HunniBee ASMR have symbolically held my hand (ears?). I’ve let the world fade into white noise while I sit transfixed as she demolishes an entire family order of KFC fried chicken, ruins her teeth chowing down on desserts made to look like household items, and slurps her way through noodles of almost every variety. HunniBee ASMR’s videos have no plot, no characters save one, and certainly no greater meaning beyond the sensory enjoyment of a random Canadian woman eating colorful foods while mic’d up. I can’t get enough. There’s something so soothing and familiar about her presence, almost as if she’s saying, “Yeah, you’re going to watch and listen to me eat food for 30 minutes, but no judgment! I do this for your enjoyment, and I truly hope it brings you happiness.” —Amelia Wedemeyer
Feels Good Man
No moment on inauguration day in 2017 summed up how stupid the next four years would be more than alt-right provocateur Richard Spencer getting rocked in his jaw as he explained the meaning of the frog pin adorning his lapel. But anyone who spent much time online in the run-up to the 2016 election didn’t need an introduction to Spencer’s amphibian mascot: It was Pepe, a seemingly innocuous cartoon adopted first by 4chan users and later by the alt-right as a means of trolling.
Feels Good Man starts with the story of Pepe’s more innocent beginnings. Matt Furie, a talented cartoonist and seemingly decent human, created the character in the mid-2000s as part of his comic Boy’s Club. (The title of the documentary gets its name from a strip in which Pepe pulls his pants all the way down to pee and declares that it “feels good, man.”) But just as soon as Furie drew Pepe, people started appropriating the frog’s image. Eventually, he became a rallying cry for Trump supporters. Before long, Pepe would be listed by the Anti-Defamation League as a hate symbol.
Directed by Arthur Jones, a friend of Furie’s, Feels Good Man is many things—an exploration of incel culture, a tale of someone trying to reclaim their creation, an excuse to laugh at Alex Jones. But watching the doc as we approach the inauguration of a new president, it feels like a bookend to a moment that began with Spencer getting punched. Pepe didn’t deserve what happened to him, but society certainly deserved such a ridiculous symbol for such a cartoonishly stupid period of history. —Justin Sayles
James Caan’s Twitter Account
Celebrity Twitter, like regular Twitter, ranges from boring to sanctimonious, to offensive, to deranged, to schticky, to occasionally clever. But there’s no single account that better captures a movie star’s on-screen persona than James Caan’s. Every one of his tweets has a pure enough dose of his tough-guy charm that when I’m down, I scroll through his timeline as a pick-me-up.
No Caption needed. End of tweet pic.twitter.com/yrI5eOk8FT— James Caan (@James_Caan) December 7, 2020
His formula is pretty simple: There’s usually a shot from one of his films, an image of a movie poster, or a photo of him on set, and then a snappy caption. And best of all, there’s always a three-word farewell message: End of Tweet.
Two tone kicks = also known as my "dancing shoes" End of Tweet pic.twitter.com/JBR7VPMKZc— James Caan (@James_Caan) December 9, 2020
Is Caan actually the author of the account? Even if he’s not, I don’t care. No TV show, movie, or viral video has made me laugh more in 2020. End of blurb. —Alan Siegel
Twilight … and Its Accompanying TikTok Subculture
In the spring of 2020, my fellow Tea Time hosts and I were faced with a professional conundrum: We had a pop culture news podcast and no pop culture news to report. Other than the occasional Ben-Ana paparazzi photo, nothing was happening. We were forced to get creative, by which I mean we shamelessly mashed together two Ringer podcasts—The Rewatchables and Binge Mode—and created a new segment for Tea Time called “Cringe Mode.” We pledged to rewatch and revisit the cringey, embarrassing movies we loved growing up—starting, of course, with the Twilight saga. All throughout May, I reread every installment of Stephanie Meyer’s enthralling, perfectly terrible series. The books were, if still hilarious, actually better than I remembered; the movies were so, so much worse.
As it turns out, we timed our deep dive perfectly. For some reason, the rest of the internet’s bored millennials also decided en masse to revisit their long-lost obsession with Twilight this year. Part of it was thanks to TikTok—Twilight provided a sort of meme treasure trove that was instantly familiar to much of TikTok’s core demographic. But it was also, at least in my case, a comforting exercise in escapism. Like many newly remote-working millennials, I moved back home temporarily, settled into my childhood bedroom, and fell back into the stories I couldn’t get enough of as a preteen—for better and for worse.
Here’s all I’m saying: If Edward Cullen could get through the Spanish Flu of 1918, we can get through this. —Kate Halliwell
Fast-Talking, Heavily Annotated Niche Sports Analysis on YouTube
Last fall, a friend of mine who plays rugby instructed me to learn about the sport before the World Cup so that she’d have someone to talk about it with. By way of assistance, she sent me a YouTube clip from a Welsh guy who was doing preview videos before the tournament. In the 15 months since, I’ve watched every video posted on the Squidge Rugby channel and gone from wondering why they never throw the ball forward to knowing the difference between a hooker and an inside centre. I’ve also developed a fierce emotional attachment to Japan winger Kotaro Matsushima and his pineapple-like hairdo.
Channels like Squidge and the Lanterne Rouge cycling channel sit in what I consider the ideal tone of sports analysts: Listening to a friend who knows slightly more than you do. Funny and accessible enough to attract and teach casual fans of the sport, but detailed enough to retain the diehards. Full of expert knowledge and insight but with an outsider’s irreverence. —Michael Baumann
Running out of TV has been a constant concern—or, at least, a popular topic for reported thinkpieces—during a year when Hollywood production delays coincided with pandemic-driven increases in time spent streaming. But while networks may have had to scramble to keep new content coming, I found the slight slowdown in the pace of peak TV to be a relief. For the first time in a while, my wife and I felt like we could keep up with new releases during our socially distanced downtime and still have a little time left over to cross off some preexisting series from our decades-spanning TV to-do list. We watched all of The Shield, Halt and Catch Fire, Sex and the City, and Stath Lets Flats. We started (and continue to work our way through) Patriot, Yellowstone, Red Oaks, Money Heist, and Wings. We finally finished The Durrells in Corfu. This year brought many new sources of stress, but even for people who had more time at home, running out of TV wasn’t one of them. In fact, 2020 made me realize how long my media backlog could keep me entertained. Not that I’m trying to give 2021 any ideas. —Ben Lindbergh