We’ve had a lot of time on our hands over the last year. With restaurants closed, gatherings with friends and loved ones unadvisable, travel discouraged, and live performances nonexistent — especially during the first months of the pandemic — certain types of pop culture, like books, albums and TV shows, have been some of the only ways to escape reality and entertain ourselves.
There are titles that we won’t be able to disassociate from the first time we consumed them amid pandemic times.
Some of the Best TV Shows We Binged During the Pandemic
Hulu’s Normal People was released right on time at the end of April of last year to help us kill time and to serve as a form of binge-able therapy. Connell and Marianne’s on-and-off relationship not only made us ugly cry, it also reminded us about the fragility and complexity of love.
Lovecraft Country, a timely supernatural horror set in the 1950s, came to HBO in the late summer to remind us of the horrors of sundown towns, segregated buses and separate entrances for Black people. Along with that terror, it also packed all the ingredients of an adventure thriller.
In October we chose to be very interested in chess — but mainly ’60s and ’70s fashion — thanks to Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. And then we went back to the comforts of Mando having to successfully solve one mission by the end of every episode of The Mandalorian. Needless to say, The Child’s cuteness very much helped to soothe our souls too.
In November, Kaley Cuoco proved she’s much more than just Penny from The Big Bang Theory by starring in and producing HBO’s The Flight Attendant. And thanks to this whodunnit and hilarious international thriller we got to go from New York to Bangkok and then Rome without leaving the comfort — and safety — of our homes.
And in December we simply swooned away with delight at Bridgerton.
We started the new year with Netflix’s thriller Lupin about a gentleman thief obsessed with the literary character Arsène Lupin. The fact that the show is set in Paris and that it stars the charismatic actor Omar Sy surely helped make this French show an international success. 2021 also brought Marvel’s delightful lesson in television creativity, WandaVision.
The Movies We Mostly Saw From Home
For a few months at the beginning of the pandemic, there wasn’t that much to watch in terms of new movies. So you had to make do with renting some of the early releases of the year if you hadn’t had the chance to watch them in a theater. The Invisible Man, Emma., Birds of Prey and Onward made for perfect at-home viewing, as did the obligatory rewatch of Contagion (2011), of course. Steven Soderbergh’s movie about a global pandemic, which has a lot of things in common with COVID-19, had already hit the top 10 charts on iTunes by the end of January 2020.
The closure of theaters worldwide prompted an ever-changing movie calendar release that hasn’t completely stabilized yet. Other than renting previously released movies, we could also count on Netflix for some new movies at home. The streamer released the action-packed Extraction starring Chris Hemsworth in April. May was the occasion for the contemporary romantic comedy The Lovebirds. In June, it was time for Spike Lee’s 156-minute long movie about a group of Vietnam War veterans, Da 5 Bloods. And in July, Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne proved how to kick ass in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s action-adventure film The Old Guard.
By July other platforms warmed to the idea of opening movies directly on streaming. And we were gifted with the possibility of watching the Broadway hit Hamilton on Disney+ from a very unique vantage point. Disney+ would also offer up the live-action version of Mulan in September.
It was also in early September that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet tried to single-handedly bring back the moviegoing experience. The film opened exclusively in theaters, making it impossible for most viewers to watch it. The John David Washington vehicle would end up topping the pandemic box office.
October brought Amazon’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. The Sacha Baron Cohen sequel would become an instant headline-grabber due to the inclusion of a very compromising sequence with New York’s former mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Christmas Day brought two big releases similar to what we’d normally watch at the megaplex: Pixar’s animated movie Soul and the superhero sequel Wonder Woman 1984.
The pandemic also meant that most of the Oscar-bait movies of the year — Nomadland, Minari, Promising Young Woman, The Father, The Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Mank, Judas and the Black Messiah — were easier to access from home.
Documentaries and Interviews That Shaped Our Pandemic Viewing
When it comes to non-fiction viewing, the early days of the pandemic were very much defined by the Netflix true-crime miniseries Tiger King, released on March 20, 2020. Things didn’t necessarily get less bizarre after that.
In September we obsessed over filmmaker Craig Foster’s fixation with an octopus in the documentary My Octopus Teacher. And then we learned about the prevalence of voter suppression with Stacey Abram’s documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy.
The arrival of the new year made us reevaluate Britney Spears in a very different light. With Framing Britney Spears we gained some knowledge about the concept of conservatorship and met some of the pop singer’s fans who are leading the #FreeBritney movement.
And March 2021 was the month to simply devour all 86 minutes of Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special and learn from the best — Oprah Winfrey — about how to conduct an incisive and flawless interview and become a meme sensation all at once.
The Music We Couldn’t Stop Listening to
The Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny got the top spot on Spotify’s 2020 list as the most-streamed artist of the year. His work YHLQMDLG was also last year’s most-streamed album on Spotify. But it was the song “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd that got the most listens. The theme has been played more than 2 billion times on Spotify. And we still don’t seem to be tired of it.
The pandemic also made us move to the pop and disco sounds of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia. Even if we’ve been mainly dancing to “Don’t Start Now” and “Break My Heart” at home.
Less dancing inducing but equally definitive of pandemic times is Taylor Swift’s folklore. Her themes “cardigan” and “exile” — which Swift sings with Bon Iver — will make you want to grab the chunkiest, coziest sweater in your closet, put it on and lay by the fireplace while nursing a generous glass of red wine.
And we couldn’t leave out Paul McCartney’s McCartney III, which we’ll always associate with our time sheltering at home. Most of us have been too overwhelmed with the health crisis, lack of socialization, economic crisis, political divide and racial reckoning to do anything else. The former Beatle managed to record this solo album, where he sings and plays all the instruments, while in lockdown in England.
The Books We Had All the Time to Read During the Pandemic
Fortunately, there was also time for some reading. You know, the ultimate socially distanced activity.
Among Amazon’s fiction best-sellers in 2020 were Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. The popularity of Ng’s book, initially published in 2017, is linked doubtlessly to Hulu’s captivating miniseries, which stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Bennett’s historical novel, on the other hand, was also chosen as the best Historical Fiction book of 2020 by the users of Goodreads. Another favorite among Goodreads readers was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, which won in the Best Horror category.
On the non-fiction side of literature, lots of readers sought the words of the activist and Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi. His book, How to Be an Antiracist, became an educational manual for many after the Black Lives Matter protests resurged in the United States in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the spring of 2020.
We also bought, read and enjoyed all 768 pages of A Promised Land, the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs.
But tell us, what did we miss that you will always associate with memories of these bizarre pandemic times?