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How We (Actually) Watched TV in 2020

Great television often puts us in touch with the world, but this year called for television that allowed us to escape it

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The Ringer’s list of 2020’s best TV shows features many fine achievements. The historical fiction of The Crown and Small Axe by turns dramatized and challenged our collective memory of the U.K. Better Call Saul is set to go out better than it began, while I May Destroy You announced the maturation of a formidable artistic voice. Gangs of London kicked ass. In an era of such abundance, television as a whole can be frustratingly mediocre, but there is always excellence to be found.

And yet, I must be honest. I’m a TV critic whose job it is to locate and recommend great shows as they are released. But the shows I actually spent the most time with and got the most out of this year aren’t the kind of shows that make annual best-of lists. Many of them didn’t come out in 2020. Some aren’t even TV, strictly speaking. For instance: The moving image I spent the most time staring at this year didn’t come from the souped-up 43-inch TCL I shelled out for in a fit of audiovisual snobbery. It was on my phone, where the “For You” page of my TikTok app delivered an endless stream of custom-curated content to scroll through when I felt unable to focus on anything else.

Fear not: This isn’t yet another story in which a millennial explains the structure or subcultures of the Gen Z–dominated social app to their even later-adapting peers. (That’s best left to more knowledgeable writers than me, like my colleague Alyssa Bereznak.) It’s more a reflection on how the extraordinary events of this year have changed who and what I look to for entertainment. As pandemic lockdowns confined nonessential workers to their homes, TV took on a burden it was never designed to shoulder. Art is often a means of accessing experiences outside our own realm of possibility. In quarantine, virtually every experience is outside our realm of possibility. Escapism takes on a much more literal meaning when you’re social distancing—so much so that thought-provoking television could itself feel like something to be escaped.

So, yes, I became one of the millions of homebound Americans who downloaded TikTok out of boredom in the darkest days of March. And judging by the app’s numbers, which ballooned from just under 40 million U.S. users in October 2019 to more than 90 million by June 2020, I’m far from alone. I watched dance challenges; I learned the difference between “straight” and “alt” TikTok; I fine-tuned my algorithm until it fed me the ideal mix of niche crafts, recipe videos, and memes I struggled to explain to the even marginally less online. (“OK, so the audio is from an old clip of Bad Girls Club, and over it the text says … ”) TikTok is too massive and deliberately dissonant to sum up nine months of its content in a paragraph. The only common denominator among the TikToks I watched was how much easier I found it to lose myself in the endless stream than in anything more structured.

Even the conventional TV I spent the most time with this year did more to numb than stimulate. I lost myself in the cheery pastel embrace of The Great British Baking Show on Netflix, and before that, the petty workplace squabbles of Below Deck: Mediterranean on Peacock. When HBO Max launched armed with the full archive of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, I sped through entire continents in search of more soothingly avuncular voice-over. In the spring, I had big plans to use my sudden surfeit of extra time to dive back into denser texts like Mad Men. By the summer, torpor set in. Often, I’d know I really should check out some new, buzzy show—but I just couldn’t stop myself from pressing play on Biscuit Week.

I’m under no illusions that my own highly skewed relationship with TV is a perfect proxy for the typical viewer’s. (Many of us have grown disengaged from our jobs with the temporary end of office life; mine just happens to involve watching a lot of television.) But some of this year’s biggest success stories hint that this was a shared impulse. The Queen’s Gambit is, per Netflix’s fuzzy metrics, the company’s most popular limited series to date. Some critics took issue with the chess saga’s frictionless plot, which gestures at obstacles to its heroine’s ultimate triumph more than it addresses them in any meaningful sense. And yet the fantasy of a female athlete overcoming sexism and addiction with an improbably loyal support network is an undeniable part of the draw. In real life, women have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s crisis in childcare; for Beth Harmon, expected gender roles are surface details swiftly steamrolled by skill.

Elsewhere, Apple countered a rocky start for its streaming service, launched late last year, with TV+’s first bona fide critical success: Ted Lasso, the greatest sitcom ever made out of a one-joke ad campaign. (No offense, Cavemen.) Like a Mike Schur show crossed with Friday Night Lights, the football (no, not that kind) series is always just a spoonful shy of saccharine. Starz’s P-Valley grew its audience almost every week, a feat unheard of in the streaming era outside of Killing Eve, with a story that acknowledged the dangers of sex work without letting its characters succumb to them. In the finale, one character even becomes a literal knight in shining armor. Fronted by a neophyte star, Never Have I Ever swept Netflix’s internal charts with its contemporary take on John Hughes, a real-life underdog story to echo its awkward coming-of-age saga.

The pattern even applies to shows well outside the warm-and-fuzzy category. HBO’s The Undoing could be silly, slow, and profoundly unsatisfying—but when it gave us movie stars and murder on a holiday weekend, it proved to be more than enough. And while no one could seriously call the emotional sadism of a Real Housewives show “feel-good,” the newly launched Salt Lake City has become a social media sensation in part because, like the best reality garbage fires, its human drama is as direct and accessible as it gets. There is no subtext to calling someone a “grandpa fucker.”

I’m far from the first to suggest that TV has shifted from an arms race to excellence into a vast, comfortable middle. But the pandemic has partly worked to align audience demand even closer with industry supply. Thanks to the logistical hurdles now facing production, precious little that came out in 2020, apart from some high-profile exceptions, was produced with quarantine in mind. TV just happened to be ideally positioned to suck up our housebound hours like an ultra-absorbent sponge.

It’s a newly hatched truism that the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already picking up steam: the shift from brick-and-mortar retail to e-commerce; the empowerment of performers over studios in adult entertainment; the decline of the theatrical experience in favor of home viewing. That shift is less dramatic in TV: Streaming was already the industry’s center of gravity; TV is already associated with idle time on one’s couch. Still, the pandemic overlaps almost eerily with the so-called Streaming Wars, the launch of four major corporate-backed, subscription-based hubs—Apple TV+ and Disney+, last fall; HBO Max and Peacock, this spring and summer—to bring the medium into an even more atomized and oversaturated future. Some, like Disney, have capitalized on this coincidence better than others; others are anchored by bingeble catalogs, such as Peacock, which will begin streaming The Office early next year. The marketplace is slightly more receptive to infinite entertainment, and comfort over cultural cachet, than it was before.

In the first full year of a post–Game of Thrones landscape, TV was already poised to lean into its neat future as a constellation of customized bubbles—or as Netflix likes to call them, “taste clusters.” (And really, what is a TikTok For You page if not the most customized bubble of all?) At the end of 2020, we’re less united in what we’re watching than why. As much as I enjoy twisty thrillers like The Flight Attendant, I have a sneaking suspicion that Kaley Cuoco’s previous show, The Big Bang Theory, is bringing far more viewers to HBO Max; as much scholarship as there is to do on The Mandalorian, most fans are likely there for Baby Yoda. Yes, TV can put us in touch with the world beyond our four walls. For most of 2020, though, we leaned on it to help drown that world out.