I know of exactly three people who are loving the pandemic lockdown. One is my Genius Nephew who taught himself to read at age 3 and did long division problems for fun on snow days. Genius Nephew loves staying home with the cats. He relishes having complete control of all social interactions via Discord. In October, as his parents and sister struggled with confinement, Genius Nephew sighed contentedly at the dinner table and announced, “This is the greatest year ever!”
At least someone is happy.
The rest of us who’ve followed CDC guidelines and state stay-at-home orders are…less happy. We’ve turned to baking, crafting, walking, and the arts to survive. Yeah, THE ARTS: books, movies, and television. (So think about just who saved your ass the next time you denigrate liberal arts degrees.)
Here’s the list of the books, movies, and shows that made me laugh and cry. Best of all, they took me somewhere else when I couldn’t leave the house.
Network Effect, by Martha Wells. In the first Murderbot novel after four hilarious, action-packed novellas, would-be introvert Murderbot must team up with a moody teenager and an Asshole Research Transport ship to rescue a human survey team. Murderbot has no problem with a potential suicide mission. But dealing with actual feelings? Gross.
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune. The charming, heartwarming story of a repressed social worker investigating an unconventional orphanage of magical children–only to find the family he never knew he needed. Laugh over this island of delightful misfits, but bring your tissues for the end!
In Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots, superheroes cause more collateral human damage than natural disasters. They also protected by their parent corporation and law enforcement. Until one woman, armed with spreadsheets and a super villain, decides those super bastards are going down.
A Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker. Two women. One is a musician who lives to play for the crowds–until a pandemic hits. The second doesn’t remember life before school, work, and even concerts became virtual. It will take both of them to outwit the Virtual Industrial Complex and bring live music back to humanity.
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. Mahit leaves her small mining station to serve as ambassador to a sprawling galactic empire. She discovers her predecessor was murdered. Various imperial factions conspire to consume her home station and its resources. No problem. All she has to do is negotiate deadly intrigue, avert a civil war, and not fall in love with the enemy.
A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik. There’s nothing warm and cozy about this magical boarding school. Instead of mentors, murderous creatures make hourly attempts to infiltrate the school and eat magical teens (the younger the teen, the tastier!). Can a girl named El survive without allies…or without resorting to dark sorcery? (Note: This book is a total page-turner, but it has some racist/ colonial characterization issues. The biggest is that the heroine El is mixed race. But while her heroic white mother is all things good and supportive, her non-white family gave in to superstition and decided El was evil and should be destroyed. As a child. Yikes.)
The Half of It. Remember “Cyrano de Bergerac?” Okay, how about Steve Martin’s Roxanne? No? That’s fine. This film by Alice Wu borrows the conceit of a genius ghost-writing love letters from a himbo, but it’s deeper and funnier than previous versions. This time, the Chinese-American girl is the writing genius and a Latina is everyone’s love interest. The growing friendship between the genius and the jock gets solid screen time and is equally delightful.
The Forty-Year-Old Version. Once upon a time, NYC playwright Rhada was dubbed, “young, hot, someone to watch.” Now she’s forty, she’s tired, and she still hasn’t had her big break. Trying to navigate everything from her mother’s death to rich, white theater gatekeepers is exhausting (especially when the old white guy really, really needs to be punched). Rhada finds her voice rapping; Andy and I found her story compelling and pretty damned funny.
The Old Guard. I thought this was going to be another one of Andy’s ubiquitous guns/ car crash/ explosion movies. Instead, I got sucked into a tense, bittersweet story about the joys and horrors of humanity and immortality. Great cast with good banter, too.
Midway. Andy and Baby D picked this one, but I can’t argue (because we didn’t watch many movies). There are cliches galore and the segregation/ rampant racism in the Navy is ignored, but other historical details are spot-on (rarely do filmmakers bother to get the helmets right). The subject matter is inherently dramatic and had us all on the edge of our seats. The special effects were also pretty damned special.
“The Good Wife.” Andy and I never watched this show until COVID. Then we binged through it every night for about a month. Great cast and just enough witty banter to break up all the drama (and there is SO. MUCH. DRAMA.).
“Star Trek: Discovery.” I’m a nominal Trekkie at best and thus lack the hangups many die-hard Trekkies have with “Discovery” (which generally boil down to white men whining about “canon,” i.e., why isn’t the cast all white men and why aren’t all the white men heroic anymore?). The first season has a helluva twist and the third season finally sends the ship into exciting new territory. Andy is enjoying the show so much he hasn’t complained about paying for CBS all-access.
“The Expanse.” I love Sci-Fi, but I did not like this show when Andy first started watching it. It was Sci-Fi film noir and I hated most of the characters: way too much screen time for morally questionable white guys (with one obvious, obnoxious shining white knight exception). Gradually, though, the mystery sucked me in. Later seasons had more women; the banter between the Martian Marine and the President of Earth is a show highlight.
“The Right Stuff.” Disney’s series based on the Tom Wolfe novel kept us coming back every week to see which astronauts would excel in training while fucking up their personal lives with liquor and infidelity. As one character says, “They’re all great. And they’re all terrible.” Plenty of critics hated seeing their white male heroes being de-glorified, but we enjoyed the realism.
“Selena” is a surprisingly funny series. I expected good music and solid drama in this rags-to-riches American story. But the show’s unexpected comedy was my favorite part, especially when the Quintanilla family members and band lovingly roast and mock each other.
“Ted Lasso.” This one is my most favorite of all my favorites. Good comedies are rare. Rarer still is one that doesn’t throw in at least a few racist or sexist jokes. Instead of wandering into that minefield, “Ted Lasso” mines our changing societal expectations for unexpected, delightful laughs. Combining the best of British and American humor, the dialogue is littered with seemingly throwaway lines that land as comedic gems. Brett Goldstein made us laugh out loud as both a writer on the show and on screen as the angry, aging soccer star, Roy Kent.
If you’re looking for more book recommendations, here are my earlier posts on SFF and Mysteries. Feel free to put your own favorites in the comments, too.
15 thoughts on “The Best of the Worst Year (#312)”
Some great recommendations, thanks! I loved Murderbot. FYI the novels that the TV show The Expanse is based on are also great–and totally agree about the Mars marine and Earth president; their interactions are even more hilarious in print! Happy New Year.
Happy New Year to you also! Andy concurs with your assessment of the print series, too.
My 2020 didn’t suck, but that’s despite everything else going on in the world.
Love your idea of giving a shout-out to your favorite books, movies, and TV shows of 2020. Add music, and that’d be a perfect list! Ironically, the only thing I have laid my eyes upon on any of your lists is “Midway.” I would agree with your assessment of the film.
Happy New Year!
Music would have been a great add. Except I didn’t listen to much music this year. Now, soothing nature sounds with noise canceling headphones? Yes. I listened to quite a bit of that.
Ooh, thank you so much for this. I have really been struggling to find good things to watch on Netflix lately — Netflix is my only streaming service and the SA version is different from the US version — but I see a few of these movies and series are available here. Can’t wait to watch!
Glad to help! Let me know if you need something with more explosions and I’ll add some recs from Andy.
Haha, no. I’m good with minimal explosions.
Right? And car chases. I am so over car chases.
The House in the Cerulean Sea sounds like a book I’d enjoy. I haven’t been reading as much as usual. Somehow being housebound has zapped my reading energy. Seems like the opposite should be true, but *hey* I do my own thing, I guess.
I’d like to see Ted Lasso. I’ve read good reviews of it, but no Apple TV here… yet. If this winter gets to be too much who knows, we might spring for it.
I have tried and rejected so many books during this pandemic. I don’t know if it’s having a reduced attention span or being distracted…or maybe I just don’t have any patience or grace for mediocre writing anymore. Any book that actually grabbed me this year deserves all the accolades!
I hear ‘ya. Same here. I’m tired of mediocrity on every level. Every where.
Did you read Ijeoma Oluo’s new book? She nails it.
No I haven’t read that. Will look for it. Thanks for the idea.
The only thing I’ve watched from your list is The Good Wife! A few years ago and I absolutely loved it. Are you now watching the sequel The Good Fight? It’s also very good and Goddess Diane Lockhart is still there as the main character.
I love the Diane Lockhart character, but we just couldn’t get into “The Good Fight.” Maybe we will try again some time.