In a year as stressful and exhausting as 2020, good things in popular culture felt like gifts—more than in a normal year. We couldn’t go to the movies, or really anywhere outside the house. But thanks in part to streaming services—which had a game-changing year—there were ample offerings in art and culture to enjoy safely at home.
Just like in any other year, there were also plenty of bad, twisted, toxic, and profane things in popular culture in 2020 (e.g. Netflix’s Cuties). But there were also diamonds in the rough. I tried to help readers navigate the glut this year by curating lists of edifying things to watch at home, foreign-films to watch when we can’t travel, ways to worship God on YouTube, and more. The TGC arts and culture newsletter and TGC arts and culture Facebook group were also forums for sharing recommendations.
In this spirit, here are 20 pieces of pop-culture goodness (everything from films and TV shows to YouTube clips and cultural trends) that blessed me this year. Like previous years’ lists (2019, 2018), what’s listed (in alphabetical order) is not an exhaustive account of all that was good this year. In the final week of December I’ll publish a separate list of favorite films from 2020. Nor is everything below appropriate for all ages or tastes (as always, exercise discernment and do research before choosing something to watch).
But for those looking for some bright spots in the cultural landscape at the end of a dark year, here are some places to start.
Gluten was a big winner in 2020. Part coping mechanism, part “we need to learn to bake our own bread in case this is the apocalypse,” bread-baking became a global sensation this year. “Bread requires us to be home, and to embrace being home,” Rory Shiner wrote for TGC Australia. “And the pandemic has forced many of us to make peace with a place that in busy lives has become a pit-stop—our homes.” Writing about sourdough for TGC, Tim Willard observed the ways that bread-baking can help remind us of the spiritual value of a slowed-down pace.
Bieber Celebrates the “Holy” of Matrimony
Aside from maybe Kanye West, Justin Bieber is probably the biggest pop music star in the world who regularly speaks and sings about his Christian faith. This year he released the excellent single “Holy,” featuring Chance the Rapper. The song celebrates the covenant of marriage and faith in ways that are quite rare on the stage of Saturday Night Live.
In a year when we all stayed at home more than usual, books offered a wonderful escape. For those (like me) who get tired of screens and streaming entertainment, physical books were a respite and a gift this year. It seems others agreed. Book sales were up in 2020, and there was no shortage of excellent new releases. Consider the winners of TGC’s 2020 Book Awards, or TGC editors’ favorite books, for your to-read list in 2021.
British Period Dramas
As a history lover and Anglophile, I tend to be a sucker for British history in TV and film. There was a wealth of it in 2021—much of it high-quality. These included Jane Austen’s Emma (which I named one of the best films of the first half of 2020), 20th-century dramas The Crown (Netflix) and Small Axe (Amazon), and not one but two new 19th-century dramas from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes: Belgravia (EPIX) and The English Game (Netflix). At a time when the present is, well, rather unpleasant, escapism to the past has never been easier.
Comfort of Old Hymns
In a year like 2020, most of us longed for musical “comfort food.” For me and others, that meant hymns. Thankfully there were some great new releases in the “classic hymn covers” genre: Josh Garrels’s quarantine-made album of hymn covers, RYM Worship’s Sing Over Us, and David Andrew’s instrumental Hymns were some of my favorite go-to soundtracks for shelter-at-home life. In March I watched Ben Rector’s interpretation of the Doxology dozens of times (watch below). This familiar liturgy of the church, performed by the church through the generations, provided great comfort. TGC’s “Songs of Comfort for Anxious Souls” playlist, which contains many versions of old hymns, remains our most-followed public playlist of all time.
Excellent Christian Music
The renaissance in excellent, independent music-making by Christian artists continued in 2020. Highlights included Jon Guerra’s Keeper of Days (read TGC’s interview with Guerra), Jonathan Ogden’s Twenty Four visual concept album, and not one but two timely new albums from The Porter’s Gate. In July I highlighted 15 quality Christian artists you should know, and this week I assembled a playlist of 100 of the best released-in-2020 songs I heard from Christian musicians (available on Spotify or Apple Music). Check it out below to get a flavor for the diverse beauty of music coming from Christian artists this year, around the world.
This AppleTV+ docu-series is sort of like The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes with the sophisticated character portraits of Chef’s Table. Each episode features a different, wildly creative take on home dwellings: bamboo jungle castles in Bali, “transformer homes” in Hong Kong, revitalized cultural spaces in Chicago’s South Side, and more. It’s the perfect series for 2020—a frightening year when “home” became even more of a refuge for all of us. We couldn’t control much of the world’s chaos this year, but we could cultivate a welcoming and safe home. As a Swedish dad (who built his family’s house inside a greenhouse) says in the first episode, “I don’t know if I can change the world, but I know I can change my world.”
LANY’s “i still talk to jesus”
Every year in pop culture we find examples of what Charles Taylor calls “cross-pressures.” These feelings, experiences, or artifacts reveal the push and pull of transcendence (belief) and immanence (unbelief) in a secular age. This year, LANY’s “i still talk to Jesus” is the perfect example of cross-pressures. Watch the moving performance of the song, from LANY’s 2020 album, mama’s boy, below.
“Ode to Joy” Flashmob
Though recorded nearly eight years ago, this clip went viral at the start of the 2020 pandemic, for obvious reasons. All of us needed more joy this year. We needed to see crowds in public spaces gathered in moments of beauty and joy. This clip of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” performed on the streets of Sabadell, Spain, checked all those boxes. Bonus: the orchestra recorded an equally beautiful 2020 pandemic version.
I’m biased because I’m from Kansas City and a big Chiefs fan, but even for non-fans, the phenomenon of Patrick Mahomes is truly a gift to behold. From leading the Chiefs to a comeback Super Bowl victory back in February (basically a decade ago), to his rapidly expanding highlight reel of ridiculous throws, the 25-year-old is a joy to watch. Whether appearing in nerdy Hy-Vee or Head & Shoulders commercials, or taking selfies with Mickey Mouse in Disney World, the newly engaged and soon-to-be #girldad Mahomes also seems like a genuinely joyful person.
The Plot Against America
Based on Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history novel, this HBO limited series imagines an America in which Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to isolationist celebrity Charles Lindbergh. I don’t usually go for “alternate history” narratives, but the six-episode miniseries is so well done—and with obvious, albeit sometimes heavy-handed, resonance with current political dynamics—that I found it both captivating and cautionary. More than anything it’s refreshing to watch a series truly grapple with good, evil, and the compromises of conviction that sometimes blur the lines. Rated TV-MA. Viewer discretion advised.
Quality Christian Music for Kids
This year offered plenty of options for parents looking for quality Christian music for their kids. One big highlight for me was The Corner Room’s Remember and Proclaim album. But there were plenty of others. In August I highlighted 14 artists who represent some of the best music I’ve come across for Christian kids. I put a few songs from each in a new 50-song playlist, “Quality Christian Music for Kids,” available on Spotify or Apple Music.
The pandemic canceled most in-person concerts in 2020, but that didn’t stop artists from creatively performing music virtually for audiences around the world. From the delightful Getty Family Hymn Sings to Jonathan Ogden’s quarantine worship sessions and Ben Rector’s “Covers From An Empty House,” there was no shortage of wonderful “performed from my home” Christian music this year. TGC even hosted our own COVID-style virtual Advent concert recently, featuring artists performing Christmas songs from their homes across the world.
The Queen’s Gambit
This record-breaking Netflix series was probably the most buzzed-about series of the fall, for good reason. Though gritty at times and slightly dark, the show is a compelling and cautionary rags-to-riches character study of a chess child prodigy who becomes a glamorous chess celebrity (in this TV world, those exist). Among other things, the drama thoughtfully examines the shaping effects of trauma, broken families, addiction, and gender dynamics in the 1950s–’60s. Rated TV-MA. Viewer discretion advised.
Random Internet Humor
In a year when most of what we found online was—let’s be honest—a bit of a dumpster fire, the occasional smile-inducing clip of a creative person doing something awesomely funny was very welcome. As Judi Dench randomly declared (wearing dog ears) at the start of the pandemic in March: “Just keep laughing.” A few clips that made me laugh this year included SNL’s “Bartenson’s Grocery Store” ad, Heavy Metal Kenneth Copeland (watch below), and this Austin Powers dramatic monologue from an L.A. acting student.
Singing the Psalms
In the pandemic’s early days I would sometimes just drive—to get out of the house, to pray, to see beauty. I’d listen to the Bible on audio, but often I’d turn on Psalm-based music—of which there was much created in 2020. Poor Bishop Hooper’s EveryPsalm project, with a new Psalm song release every week, is the most stunning example. But The Verses Project also released an album entirely on Psalm 139, and Cardiphonia released an album on Psalm 119. These are just a few examples of the renaissance we’re seeing in Psalms set to music. See also the 2020-released Theopolis Liturgy and Psalter for Psalm chants and guidance on how to creatively incorporate Psalms into church liturgy.
Some Good News
In the midst of March’s terrifying headlines, “good guy” actor John Krasinski recognized that the world needed more good news. So he launched the kid-friendly Some Good News (SGN) YouTube channel to highlight “only good news” in a world of bad. Episodes included The Office cast reunions, prom and graduation for the Class of 2020, and even appearances by NASA astronauts from the International Space Station and the cast of Hamilton (watch below).
“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” was true of a lot of things in 2020—but sports especially. The pandemic abruptly ended all sport seasons in March (including, most painfully for me, NCAA basketball’s March Madness tournament) and postponed the Tokyo Olympics. April and May were long, sad months of waiting for live sports—any sport, even golf or NASCAR—to return. ESPN’s The Last Dance graciously helped fill the sports void for a time. But when soccer, basketball, baseball, and football returned in earnest over the summer, it was a common-grace gift. Despite the loss of Kobe Bryant and the eeriness of no (or few) fans in stadiums, 2020 has been a good year for sports—especially for L.A. sports fans.
It’s worth subscribing to AppleTV for a month just to watch Ted Lasso, probably the most feel-good thing I saw on television this year. A comedy about an American football coach (Jason Sudeikis) who moves to the UK to coach a soccer team (without any soccer coaching experience), the series is not only funny but also offers a rare attempt to celebrate virtue and goodness in a cynical age. The titular character is certainly flawed and sinful, but he’s also a believably virtue-seeking hero at a time when those characters are hard to find on TV. Rated TV-MA. Viewer discretion advised.
Virtual Choirs, Bands, and Orchestras
A new musical aesthetic was mainstreamed in 2020: the split-screen virtual music ensemble performance. There are umpteen examples of it online, but a few of my favorites include this performance of Beethoven by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, this virtual “May Morning” from Magdalen College, Oxford, the UK Blessing, and this performance of “The Sun Will Rise” (watch below).