2020 in Review: A Month-by-Month Guide to What We Watched and Why

2020 in Movies and TV
Netflix / HBO / Artwork by Nick Mantle

From 'Cheer' and 'Tiger King' to 'The Vow,' 'The Last Dance' and everything in-between.

Throughout it all, we had content. In a year that saw the nation grappling with one of the most contentious elections in history amid mass protests and a literal global pandemic, we could still turn to movies and television to help grapple with our present -- or escape it, as was more often the case -- just as we'd done every other year.

Certainly, 2020 saw its fair share of challenges for the industry, as the coronavirus forced movie theaters to close their doors -- with studios bumping most of their titles to a future date -- and Hollywood at large to temporarily shut down. Meanwhile, confined to the safety of our homes, we pivoted to streaming full time, all the time.

With so much to watch, our collective viewing habits might have felt like an unintelligible free-for-all. But with the wisdom of hindsight, what we were watching at any given time said a lot about where we were at this year. Let's take a look back, shall we?

January: Cheer


Twenty-twenty began like any other year, offscreen and on: With Andy and Anderson and the rest broadcasting live from a packed-to-the-rafters Times Square. In January, the only changes we were bracing for were BoJack Horseman and Schitt's Creek both coming to an end. (Though we would wind up returning to the latter over and over again in the coming months.) Netflix's Cheer, meanwhile, became the year's first must-binge series, everybody captivated by these college kids with their broken bodies and their voices hoarse from mat talk who saw such promise in this great, big world. We thought we were all going to Daytona this year. Little did we know, Daytona would not happen.

February: Parasite


February was the month when your dad finally asked, "Have you heard of this movie Parasite?" And you told him to trust you, just watch it, and he did! And he liked it! Your dad liked Parasite, even though it was sort of out-there for him! And it turns out everyone liked Parasite, because at the Oscars, it won Best Picture and Best International Feature Film and Bong Joon Ho won Best Director. Everything seemed right with the world. (Hey, remember awards shows?) Over on the small screen, we had so much extra emotional bandwidth that we voluntarily tried to figure something like HBO's The Outsider out, even if we never fully got it. We took our precious time in the world for granted and watched every episode of Netflix's Love Is Blind! We watched that woman give her dog red wine, and we laughed! We were so naïve.

March: Tiger King


March was when the low-grade buzz around the coronavirus became the realization that it was something we would have to deal with became a full blown locky d. And the only show capable of matching the chaos of the outside world was Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness on Netflix. Joe Exotic was the topic of conversation on every Zoom hangout and happy hour, as we used our newfound free time stuck indoors to dig far too deep into the disappearance of Don Lewis and whatever the hell was actually happening at Doc Antle's zoo. For how much it consumed our lives then, it's nuts to think that by the time Carole Baskin would compete on Dancing With the Stars in September, Tiger King would feel like a lifetime ago.

April: The Last Dance


Those early weeks of quarantine felt almost novel. With nowhere to go for the first time in a long time, we made time (or the time was just there) to develop hobbies we wouldn't have in the time before: Baking bread and doing puzzles and spending an unfathomable number of hours terraforming our islands on Animal Crossing: New Horizons. We devoured feel-good content -- bingeing Netflix's Never Have I Ever and Leslie Jordan's Instagram Stories -- and found a way to relive the glory days via ESPN's surprisingly juicy Michael Jordan docuseries, The Last Dance. It was appointment viewing for both sports fans and TV enthusiasts alike. As the record will show, we did not, however, watch Quibi.

May: Normal People


May should be redacted in the register of this year. Entering a third month of 'tine was not an especially great look on any of us, whether that was sloth or gluttony or wrath. Mostly, it was when quarniness set in in a big way. With bars closed and swiping on apps essentially moot, a little series called Normal People on Hulu was all that could scratch that itch. Stay for the romance and pining, come for Paul Mescal and his chain.

June: The Help

Walt Disney Studios

The murder of George Floyd in March, following the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and more, sparked protests around the globe, as people were pushed to leave quarantine for a greater good and take to the streets to affirm that Black Lives Matter. Amid a cultural reckoning with racism, Americans turned to media to further educate themselves on the Black experience and watched... The Help, a film made by white filmmakers and told through a white POV which became Netflix's most-streamed movie in June. (Even Bryce Dallas Howard said, "We can all go further.") And people did, with should-be-required viewing like Ava DuVernay's 13th and When They See Us, along with The Hate U Give, Just Mercy, Selma and others. Insecure on HBO, meanwhile, was in the midst of perhaps its best season yet, while writer-director-star Michaela Coel returned with her astounding I May Destroy You.

July: Hamilton


With summer effectively called off, we had to make do with summer adjacent. There were no superhero tentpoles or popcorn flicks playing in the local cineplex, but there was Palm Springs on Hulu, a high-concept comedy that was bizarrely prescient about what it feels like to live the same day over and over and over again. Plans for world tours were scrapped or rescheduled, which meant there were no concerts to attend, but there was Black Is King on Disney+, which gave us an excuse to dance to Beyoncé in our living rooms. With Broadway having gone dark, there was no theater, but there was Hamilton, beaming into your home so that you could take as many and as long of intermissions as need be. There were no first summer jobs or unexpected crushes or hugs from our best friends, but there was The Baby-Sitters Club on Netflix. If we didn't exactly have a traditional summer, we made the most with the summer we had.

August: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills


If there's been one constant throughout this hellscape of a year, it's Bravo, proving that it takes more than a pandemic to keep a good Housewife down. When we were first ordered to stay at home, we lived vicariously through The Real Housewives of New York City. If we couldn't get drunk, get naked and toss tiki torches, well, at least we had Leah McSweeney to do it for us. As the months wore on and real-world tensions escalated over, say, wearing a mask and adhering to social distancing guidelines, we could channel that anger into the Team Denise vs. Team The Other Ladies drama of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which came to a head in August's three-part virtual reunion. (Bravo was constantly finding new and innovative ways to get the Wives to the people.) That carried us into the much-needed escapes provided by The Real Housewives of Potomac and The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. In our eyes, Housewives are essential workers. And while they have become the most important ladies in our life, August also introduces a new man into our lives: Ted Lasso, of Ted Lasso Presents Apple TV+'s Ted Lasso.

September: The Vow


September might have been the pinnacle of us trying to fit a square year into a round hole, attempting to live our lives as normally as if there was anything normal about any of this. Not sure if you've heard, but there's a pandemic out there and life is bleak. As is the worst sort of frothing over true crime, yet The Vow was there with a cult leader and sex slaves and late-night volleyball to take our minds of our own trauma. (Shortly thereafter, we got a second serving of it all in Starz's Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult.) Speaking of true crime, Love Island was on! The month ended with Tr*mp getting COVID, and everything and nothing made a lick of sense.

October: Emily in Paris


Coming off a summer sans any sort of traveling for pleasure's sake and facing down the barrel of a holiday season that most people would celebrate remotely, we needed to get away. Bless Emily (pronounced, apparently, Emil-ee) in Paris (pronounced, apparently, Par-ee), a show that is what the critics would call "not great" yet which we happily binge-watched every second of. Emily in Paris requires zero brain power -- it actually ruins the show to consider anything that happens in it! -- but instead allows its viewer to simply enjoy the sights and sounds of France. (The sights being all those men.) That is, it seems, exactly what we needed to get by in another month of this crazy pandemic. That, and the gentle pleasures of The Great British Baking Show, which gave us lovely contestants to root for and beautiful tartes to second guess from our couches (alongside a reminder that the U.K. handled their initial wave of COVID a lot better than we did, but hey, what are you gonna do).

November: MSNBC


Whether you'd been tuned into election coverage all year or had avoided previous debates and town halls and other general punditry like a(nother) plague, everybody's eyes were glued to the 24-hour news cycle come Nov. 4. Election Day became election week as "Key Race Alerts" haunted our dreams and every new day provided few new answers. Yet through it all, one man kept us sane: MSNBC's resident chartthrob Steve Kornacki, whose omnipresence over days-long, nonstop coverage of the presidential race provided a necessary comfort and reminder that if he could make it through, we could too. In the end, with a new president finally elected and the weight of the future of our democracy lifted, we had the available headspace for more high-minded prestige programs like The Queen's Gambit and The Princess Diana Show The Crown on Netflix and A Teacher on Hulu.

December: Wonder Woman 1984

Warner Bros.

Well sh*t, what are y'all watchin'? Sometimes it feels like we're just white knuckling it to 2021. Sure, there are the requisite holiday movies -- continuing from noted Aubrey Plaza vehicle Happiest Season into this month's glut of Christmas offerings from Lifetime and Hallmark and who knows what other streamers (I recently found ourselves watching a program called 12 Dates of Christmas on HBO Max) -- and The Mandalorian is essential viewing. Plus, Kaley Cuoco on The Flight Attendant is the best thing that's happened to us this year. Here's hoping the at-home releases of two would-be blockbusters -- Wonder Woman 1984 and Pixar's Soul -- will fill a void that's been largely missing all year long: Big-time Hollywood movies with major movie stars that call for a big bucket of popcorn and provide some escapism from *waves hands around wildly* all this. At the very least, we'll get Chris Pine, and then it's basically a new year.