12 Good Things I Saw On Television In 2020


What to say about television in 2020?

It’s hard to come up with much, largely because there really wasn’t a whole lot of television to watch.  With the pandemic shutting down several productions and even knocking out stuff like the Olympics, network television was even more of a wasteland than usual.  As far as the major networks were concerned, 2020 was a year of rerurns and overproduced celebrity-themed game shows.

I’m sure that some would say that the presidential election livened things up and I have to admit that I did enjoy snarking on Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and MJ Hegar, all three of whom seem to be competing to see whose campaigns could put out the most cringe-worthy commercials possible.  But, with Trump on one side and Biden on the other, there was little about this election that was enjoyable to watch.  Indeed, I’ve reached the point where just thinking about hearing someone say, “Fake news” or “Come on, man,” makes me want to throw something across the room.

Even my old reliables failed me this year.  Survivor halted production.  The Amazing Race and Big Brother both featured the least likable cast imaginable.   It’s hard to get excited when bullies are winning your favorite shows.

As usual, the streaming services did a bit better than the networks but, in the end, it feels as if I spent most of 2020 watching the retro channels.  Whenever the real world got too stressful, annoying, or stupid, I would go out to my private office and I’d watch a channel like MeTV, AntennaTV, ForwardTV*, or maybe even CoziTV.  To be honest, it really didn’t matter what old shows they were showing.  All that mattered was that watching those shows of the past provided an escape from all the bad stuff happening in the present.  They provided non-threatening background noise and there’s something to be said for that.  They’re televised time capsules, perfect for a history nerd like me.

(*To be honest, I’m not sure that there really is a network called ForwardTV.  I do know that I frequently watch Ghost Whisperer on one of the retro channels and I’ve never actually caught the name of the channel.  Maybe it’s ForwardTV.  Who knows?)

So, this year, my list of good things that I saw on TV is going to be shorter than usual.  Who knows?  It could be for the best.  I usually watch too much TV as it is.

  1. A Teacher

This miniseries, about a teacher who has an affair with a student and how it continues to determine the shape of their lives long after the affair ends, was an unusually intelligent and thought-provoking show.  As the teacher and the student, Kate Mara and Nick Robinson both gave realistic and empathetic performances.

2. Bad Education

One of the best films of the year premiered on HBO.  On the one hand, it’s sad to think that the film would have been eligible the Oscars if it had only been bought by Netflix.  On the other hand, though, it’s totally possible that more people saw it on HBO than would have seen it otherwise.  Hugh Jackman didn’t win an Emmy and he’s not going to get an Oscar but he still gave one of the best performances of 2020.

3. Michael Bloomberg blowing it during his first Democratic Debate

Considering how obnoxious and ever-present his commercials were (“Mike will get it done!”), there was something deeply satisfying about watching this smug technocrat totally blow it when he actually found himself on live TV and having to deal with actual human beings.  There wasn’t much to enjoy as far as politics went in 2020 but seeing Bloomberg get booed after trying to explain away all of the HR complaints against him was a joy.

4. Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult

There were two high-profile NXIVM series last year.  HBO had The Vow, which was a lengthy series that was produced by a bunch of former NXIVM members and which tried to make the director of What The Bleep Do We Know into some sort of hero.  Seduced, meanwhile, was an honest look at life in the cult, one that pulled no punches and which made The Vow look worse and worse with each episode.

5. Saved By The Bell: The Reboot

The Saved By The Bell reboot turned out to be a 100 times better than it had any right to be.

6. 9-1-1: Lone Star

This show is a guilty pleasure for me, I’ll admit it.  On the one hand, it does a fairly good job of capturing the feel and attitude of my homestate.  On the other hand, I don’t know that there’s as many volcanoes in Texas as this show seems to think.  No matter, though!  It’s over-the-top and fun.

7. The Mandalorian

I’m not even into Star Wars and even I had to admit that The Mandalorian was pretty damn cool.  I’m among the many people who started watching for Baby Yoda and who stuck around because the show itself turned out to be so unexpectedly entertaining.

8. Better Call Saul 

Saul Goodman never lets us down.

9. The Queen

Neither does Queen Elizabeth.

10. Ghost Whisperer Reruns

And neither does Melinda!  Eve when she’s appearing in reruns airing on Hulu and whatever ForwardTV actually is.

11. Coronation Sreet

They have a ton of episodes on Hulu!  Considering that it often seemed as if I might never get to leave the country again, there was something nice about being able to go on Hulu and watch something as British as this show.

12. I learned to appreciate the Daytime Dramas

When you’re working from home in the middle of a pandemic, there’s something oddly comfortable about turning on the TV and seeing something like the Bold and the Beautiful or General Hospital.  Those shows are always there, they’re always dealing with same stuff that it’s been dealing with for decades, and they are also the shows most likely to get interrupted by a breaking news alert.  So, as long as I turn on the TV at 12:45 and I see The Bold and the Beautiful instead of Norah O’Donnell looking somber, I know that the day’s probably going to be crisis-free.

TSL Looks Back at 2020:

  1. Lisa Marie’s Top 8 Novels of 2020 (Lisa Marie Bowman)
  2. Lisa Marie’s Top 8 Non-Fiction Books of 2020 (Lisa Marie Bowman)
  3. Lisa Marie’s 20 Favorite Songs of 2020 (Lisa Marie Bowman)
  4. Lisa Marie’s 16 Worst Films of 2020 (Lisa Marie Bowman)
  5. My Top 20 Albums of 2020 (Necromoonyeti)
  6. 25 Best, Worst, and Gems That I Saw In 2020 (Valerie Troutman)
  7. Top 10 Vintage Collections (Ryan C)
  8. Top 10 Contemporary Collections (Ryan C)
  9. Top 10 Original Graphic Novels (Ryan C)
  10. Top 10 Ongoing Series (Ryan C.)
  11. Top 10 Special Mentions (Ryan C.)
  12. Top Ten Single Issues (Ryan C)

“Going All Kanye On You”: New Year’s Eve (dir by Garry Marshall)


“New Year’s Eve is the worst, people who don’t drink or party all year suddenly going all Kanye on you.”

That line was delivered by Ashton Kutcher in the 2011 film, New Year’s Eve.  Seven years ago, when the film was first released, I thought it was an awkward line, partially because Ashton Kutcher sounded like he was drowning in self-loathing when he said it and partially because the sudden reference to Kanye West felt like something that would be considered clever by 60-something screenwriter who had just spent a few hours scanning twitter to see “what the kids are into nowadays.”

(Of course, hearing the line in 2018 was an even stranger experience.  People who don’t drink or party all year suddenly going all Kanye on you?  So, they’re putting on red MAGA caps and spending New Year’s Eve tweeting about prison reform?  True, that’s the way a lot of people celebrated in my part of the world but I’m not sure how exactly that would play out in Times Square.)

In New Year’s Eve, Kutcher plays a character named Randy.  Randy is a comic book artist, which means that he’s snarky and cynical and doesn’t really see the point of celebrating anything.  Fortunately, he gets trapped in an elevator with Elise (Lea Michele) and, with her help, he comes to learn that New Year’s Eve is not the worst.  Instead, it’s the most important holiday ever created and, if you don’t think so, you’re worse than the devil.

Fortunately, Hillary Swank is present to make sure that we all get the point.  Swank plays Claire Morgan, who is in charge of making sure that the ball drops at exactly the right moment at Times Square and who gets a monologue where she explains that the purpose of the ball is to make you think about both the past and the future.  As she explains it, the world comes together one night a year, all so everyone can watch that ball drop.  Apparently, if the ball doesn’t drop, the new year doesn’t actually start and everyone is trapped in a timeless limbo, kind of like Iron Man at the end of Avengers: Infinity War.

Of course, there’s more going on in New Year’s Eve than just Randy taking Kanye’s name in vain and Claire refusing the accept that Times Square is not the center of the universe.  There’s also an old man (Robert De Niro) who wants to time his death so he passes right at the start of the new year.  Sarah Jessica Parker plays the mother of frustrated teenager Abigail Breslin and gets to make a “girls gone wild” joke.  (A Kanye reference and a girls gone wild joke in the same film?  It’s like a pop culture tsunami!)  Michelle Pfeiffer tries to accomplish all of her new year’s resolutions with the help of Zac Efron.  Halle Berry worries about her husband (Common) , who is serving overseas.  Josh Duhamel searches for a woman who once told him that his heart was more important than his business.  Seth Meyers and Jessica Biel compete with Til Schweiger and Sarah Paulson to see who can be the family of the first child born in the new year.  Jon Bon Jovi thinks about the woman that he nearly married and Katherine Heigl wonders if she’s ever going to have a career again.  In other words, New Year’s Eve is an ensemble piece, one in which a bunch of slumming Oscar winners and overachieving TV actors step into small roles.  It leads to some odd pairings.  De Niro, for instance, shares scenes with Alyssa Milano while Sofia Vergara and Ludacris are both relegated to playing sidekicks.  Michael Bloomberg, New York’s then-mayor and general threat to civil liberties everywhere, also shows up, playing himself with the type of smarminess that already has many people dreading the prospect of his 2020 presidential campaign.  This is one of those films where everyone has a familiar face but no one makes much of an impression.

New Year’s Eve was directed by the late Garry Marshall and it’s the second film in his so-called holiday trilogy, sitting right between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.  By most accounts, Garry Marshall was a nice guy and popular in the industry, which perhaps explains why so many familiar faces were willing to sign up to appear in New Year’s Eve.  Though the film is ruthlessly mediocre, it’s actually the best of the holiday trilogy.  For all the schmaltz and forced sentiment, one gets the feeling that the film actually is sincere in its belief in the importance of that ball dropping in Times Square.

I remember that, when New Year’s Eve was first released, a lot of people joked that Marshall was going to make an ensemble romantic comedy about every single holiday, all with the hope that at least one of them would eventually become a television perennial in the style of It’s A Wonderful Life or The Ten Commandments.  Interestingly, that’s exactly what happened with New Year’s Eve.  Yesterday, E! aired New Year’s Eve three times, back-to-back!  For better or worse, this film is probably going to outlive us all, ensuring that, in the far future, viewers will spend New Year’s Eve asking themselves, “What’s a kanye?”

5 Documentaries That I Saw in 2014: Bansky Does New York, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, The Last Patrol, Private Violence, Stop At Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story


So, here it is 2015.  That means that next week, I’ll be posting my picks for the best and the worst of 2014.  However, before I do that, I need to get caught up on reviewing what I saw in 2014.  So, let’s get started with 5 quick reviews of 5 documentaries that I saw in 2014.

 Banksy Does New York (dir by Chris Moukarbel)

To be honest, any film about Banksy is going to start with the automatic handicap of not being Exit Through The Gift Shop.  No matter how good or bad the other documentary may be, it’ll never be as good as Exit Through The Gift Shop.  Banksy Does New York is no exception.

Banksy Does New York chronicles the artist’s wonderfully subversive “31 works of art in 31 days” tour through New York City.  For 31 days, new Bansky graffiti and installations appeared throughout New York City.  It was up to the city’s residents to track down and discover Bansky’s latest work.  (Making things difficult is that New York City, at that time, was being ruled by a tyrannical philistine named Michael Bloomberg, a man who has all the personality of a James Bond villain.)  With Banksy remaining predictably off-screen, Bansky Does New York instead focuses on the aficionados who spent 31 days trying to track down Bansky’s work before it was destroyed by the jack booted thugs of the Bloomberg administration.

And that’s where Banksy Does New York struggles because, ultimately, Banksy is always more interesting than the majority of the people who claim to love him.  Ultimately, the documentary is valuable as evidence that Bansky’s New York tour actually happened but it provides little real insight.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart (dir by Jeremiah Zagar)

Captivated tells the true story of Pamela Smart, a teacher who was accused of convincing two of her students to murder her husband.  As the film shows, the Smart trial became a big media event and movies were made that were based on the crime and … *yawn.*

Sorry.

Usually, I love true crime documentaries but Captivated just bored me to tears.  As far as the film’s point about media and celebrity are concerned — oh my God, who cares!?  It’s been made so many times!  I’m sorry but I refuse to get excited over any more documentaries that serve to only make the same point that’s been made by hundreds of other documentaries and self-impressed think pieces.  If you can’t offer me any more insight than I might find in an article on Salon, then why should I pretend to be impressed?

The best part of Captivated were the clips that they showed from other, better films that had been inspired by the case.

The Last Patrol (dir by Sebastian Junger)

In this sad but ultimately triumphant documentary, filmmaker Sebastian Junger walks across America with two veterans who have recently returned from Afghanistan and a combat photographer.  Along the way, they talk about the war, the struggle to adjust to being back home, and what the future holds.  They also talk to several people that they meet during the journey and ask them what they think about America.  One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that everyone — regardless of whether they supported the war or not, regardless of whether they like Barack Obama or not — seems to share a similarly pessimistic outlook as far as the future of America is concerned.  Ultimately, The Last Patrol becomes less a celebration of America and more a tribute to the ability of humans to survive bad times.  It definitely makes for interesting viewing.

Private Violence (dir by Cynthia Hill)

Private Violence is probably one of the most important documentaries to have been released in 2014.  I first saw it on HBO and I’d recommend that everyone else keep an eye out for it as well.  In a stark and matter-of-fact way, it follows the story of Deanna Walters, an Oklahoma police officer who was abducted and, over a four-day period, savagely beaten by her estranged husband.  The film shows Deanna’s attempts to both rebuild her life and her struggle to get legal justice.  (Despite nearly killing her, Deana’s husband was not initially arrested for the crime.)  Working with Deanna and other abused women is Kit Gruelle, a former victim of domestic abuse who is now an advocate and who leads the viewer through the frustrating and often infuriating world of the courts, law enforcement, and shelters.  Anyone who thinks that domestic abuse is not a problem or that victims were “asking for it,” should be forced to watch Private Violence over and over again.

 (Though the film was submitted for consideration for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, it was not about the Koch brothers so it didn’t make the list of semi-finalists.)

Stop At Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story (dir by Alex Holmes)

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Lance Armstrong.  On the one hand, I really didn’t care much about him when everyone thought he was a hero.  But then, when it was revealed that he essentially cheated his way to the top, I suddenly found myself wondering what it was like to be literally one of the most hated people in the world.  Personally, I found it interesting that, suddenly, not only was it socially acceptable to hate another human being but it was practically expected.  You could look at anyone on the street and know that person probably hated Lance Armstrong.  It was all a bit overboard, I thought.

Anyway, Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story is a collection of talking head interviews with people who knew Lance Armstrong before his career was destroyed and, essentially, they spend most of the film talking about how much they all hated Lance before the scandal and how much they hate him now.  I’ve never heard so much ill will directed at a cancer survivor.  Stop at Nothing will be interesting to people who want to have their negative feelings about Lance Armstrong justified but it really doesn’t add anything new to the story.