The pop culture that’s entertained us the most in 2020 so far

Clockwise from top: Netflix documentary series Cheer; Jackson Wang, “100 Ways”; Ziwe Fumudoh’s Baited
Clockwise from top: Netflix documentary series Cheer; Jackson Wang, “100 Ways”; Ziwe Fumudoh’s Baited
Photo: Netflix, Screenshot: YouTube
AVQ&AWelcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences.

To state the obvious: 2020 has mostly sucked. But pop culture, as always, remains a small respite in our increasingly miserable world. So we’re concluding our Best Of The Year So Far coverage with an AVQ&A:

What new pop culture has entertained you the most this year?

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2 / 11

Patrick Gomez

Patrick Gomez

Patrick Gomez

Enjoying entertainment on the big screen has been impossible for most of the year, so maybe it makes sense that I’ve found solace on the smallest screen. Be it watching Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and Christine Baranksi singing “The Ladies Who Lunch” on YouTube, seeing Marty Miller’s puppet shows on Instagram, or finally figuring out what a Tik Tok is, my phone has become an increasing source of entertainment. (I’m still not getting Quibi, though.) The best short-form content is coming from Sarah Cooper. The comedian and author has turned lip syncing to Trump soundbites into a hypnotic art form, managing to convey a deep (yet vapid) inner monologue in the brief silences between Trump’s various ramblings. Only a few seconds long, Cooper’s videos are perhaps most impactful because of their simplicity. By using unaltered audio, she lets Trump hang himself with his own words, and by forgoing any hair and makeup, the female Jamaican immigrant is doing it all as an embodiment of so much of what he rages against. Thirty-second satire is apparently my new favorite genre.

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3 / 11

Cameron Scheetz

Cameron Scheetz

Cameron Scheetz

Baited is nothing short of legendary. What started as a hysterical interview series where comedian/writer/Twitter darling Ziwe Fumudoh gleefully grilled her comedy pals about race has evolved into raw, gasp-inducing performance art. Ziwe now conducts her Baited conversations over Instagram Live where pop culture pariahs and paragons of performative allyship—including Caroline Calloway, Alison Roman, and Rose McGowan—subject themselves to her polite, but probing questions (seriously, how would you respond to, “qualitatively, what do you like about Black people?”). Though there’s an appealing cringe-factor in watching interviewees squirm for answers, Baited is also an effort to combat society’s stigma around discussions about race. America may still be catching up to Ziwe’s particular brand of genius, but I’m so glad we have her to lead the way.

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4 / 11

Sam Barsanti

Sam Barsanti

Sam Barsanti

I’ve barely consumed any media this year that’s new, since things from before the pandemic are just delightfully pre-pandemic, but Podcast But Outside has done an impressive job rising to the challenge of having its entire premise become wildly dangerous. Traditional episodes involved hosts Cole and Andrew setting up a table on a sidewalk and interviewing whoever happened to walk by, but lately they’ve resorted to clever approximations of that experience like a ChatRoulette show, a fully scripted episode, and—my favorite—a chaotic and somewhat hostile Omegle talent show that featured Andrew convincing a guy to smash a Lego set and Cole mailing dog food as a prize.

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5 / 11

Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy

This is a deeply sentimental choice, but if I’m being honest, it’s also the most true: I genuinely could not wait to sit down each Monday night, starting back in March and April, to watch Jason Segel’s Dispatches From Elsewhere. The series appeared just as it seemed like the world was falling apart, and for my significant other and myself, it became a warm, humanist balm to soothe the fraying nerves created by simply trying to get through each day at the pandemic’s outset. With just the right amount of mystery, humor, and heart (not to mention one hell of a meta kicker in the finale), it’s the show that helped make 2020 feel like something we’ll get through together.

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6 / 11

Gwen Ihnat

Gwen Ihnat

Gwen Ihnat

I can binge-watch just as well as the next person, but nothing made me toss my friends and family aside like the Netflix documentary series Cheer. I got totally caught up in the travails of the cheerleading squad of Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, as they fought for yet another national championship, ignoring pretty much everything else until I had burned through those six perfect episodes. Directly Greg Whiteley wisely zeroed in on the most sympathetic members of the squad, so that I became completely absorbed in discovering whether Jerry was going to make mat, how many unbelievable times Lexi could flip in a row, and the vast difference between Gabi’s awful parents and Morgan’s benevolent grandfather. As the squad worked for weeks just to get those perfect few minutes down for the competition, I found the finale so stressful I could barely look… then I immediately watched the whole thing all over again for a much-needed dose of riveting inspiration.

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7 / 11

Erik Adams

Erik Adams

Erik Adams

Two words: Jackie Daytona. Sorry, five words: Jackie Daytona, regular human bartender. Ardent high-school volleyball supporter, Big Mouth Billy Bass enthusiast, so modest he covers every mirror in the local watering hole he runs—the guy’s too good to be true, which is just one of the sources of comic tension What We Do In The Shadows ratchets throughout “On The Run.” The show has a lot of fun with both the rules of its supernatural world and the often-hand-waving nature of genre storytelling, and nothing in its second season did either as well as the toothpick and dungarees that transform vampire dandy Laszlo Cravensworth (Matt Berry, in role he was born to play for something like the fifth time in his career) into the totally unrecognizable Jackie Daytona (let’s call that number six). The WWDITS ensemble works so well together, it’s a shame to take one of them off of Staten Island for a week. But in the case of Jackie Daytona, the results were simply irresistible.

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8 / 11

Randall Colburn

Randall Colburn

Randall Colburn

I’ve seen and listened to plenty of beautiful, challenging stuff this year, but if we’re talking about pure entertainment I have no choice but to say The Challenge. MTV’s long-running competition series—once an offshoot of The Real World and Road Rules and now a maelstrom of Viacom IP—is my personal soap opera, a trashy ensemble piece in which decade-old romances and alliances are routinely tested/torn asunder by beautiful newcomers and the ravages of time. So, while I celebrate the brevity of today’s prestige dramas, I make an exception for The Challenge, which premiered early in the pandemic and, three months later, continues to fill my Wednesday evenings with an hour of pure escapism. I’m dreading the finale.

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9 / 11

William Hughes

William Hughes

William Hughes

The idea of one of Andy Daly’s reliably hilarious sociopath alter-egos finally having his own regular podcast would already be enough to make Bonanas For Bonanza the highlight of my pop culture year. But it’s not just that Dalton Wilcox—cowboy, poet, vampire murderer—is digging through the frankly bonkers history of a terrible, terribly long-lived TV Western. It’s that he’s joined by Mutt Taylor (Matt Gourley) and especially Amy Sleeverson, i.e., the transcendent Maria Bamford, doing one of the most wonderfully weird characters she’s ever performed. Hello friend, come on in. The gate… is open wide.

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10 / 11

Shannon Miller

Shannon Miller

Shannon Miller

As I try to recall as much consumed pop culture as my atrophied memory will allow, the form of entertainment that continues to stand out to me are music videos—especially the cinematic-grade productions of “before times.” I can’t think of another video I watched more than Jackson Wang’s “100 Ways,” a breathtaking short following a man’s quest to find his (literally) eternal love. It’s the perfect marriage of everything that holds my attention hostage: romantic storytelling, a striking color palette, and razor-sharp choreography. The juxtaposition of ancient Chinese imagery and a modern house beat aligns with other current-day, period-skewing amalgams that I’ve enjoyed, like Hulu’s The Great and Apple TV+’s Dickinson. Plus, it’s the best song to scream-sing while making dinner.

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