We can probably agree that 2020 was the worst year for a lot of things, including movies. I usually go to a couple movies per month, but this year, the last two movies I saw were this horrible Ben Affleck movie that I thought was going to be about basketball but instead turned out to be about alcoholism, and Sonic The Hedgehog.
To the rescue comes television, which continues its infuriating trend of having too many great things available to be able to watch them all. I really like the Australian black comedy Mr. In-Between, about a doting dad/hit man. I understand (and join in) the hoopla around The Queen's Gambit and I'm really hoping that the final season of The Crown turns out to be as good as the first three.
In 2020, these three series stood out for me:
The Good Place (NBC): It's simplistic (but also so very human) to judge a TV series by the way it is brought to a conclusion. An ending can be perfect (Friday Night Lights), spectacular (Breaking Bad), awful (Seinfeld), or God-awful (Dexter). It seems like ages ago, but The Good Place actually wrapped up its amazing four-year run early this year. And while I've gone over the ending in my head a number of times, I still can't decide if it was perfect (probably) or awful (in a heartbreaking, really depressing way). I am pretty sure that the series will be studied by college film students and its ending debated by philosophy and theology majors for a long time to come.
For those of you who missed it, The Good Place screams to be binge-watched. It involves four mismatched people who end up in an afterlife that none of them could have envisioned nor even felt that they deserved. Their genial host (played by Ted Danson) offers all smiles and free frozen yogurt, but he definitely has a hidden agenda.
The show is hilarious, but it also poses BIG questions, among them is whether doing good is the same as being good.
The Plot Against America (HBO): This mini-series came along at a grim time and only served to make these even grimmer. It's 1940 and FDR and his New Deal are finally lifting America out of the Great Depression. Nazi Germany is laying waste to Europe, but in America, Charles Lindbergh is leading a movement to keep the U.S. out of the coming war. (All of that is true.)
But in this nightmare scenario, Lindbergh decides to run for President. In a tragicomic montage, we see that Lindy's entire campaign strategy is to fly his plane from one city to the next, get out on the tarmac and deliver the EXACT SAME SPEECH about how he'll keep the U.S. out of the war.
Lindbergh wins and darkness begins to fall. There are small, subtle shifts that make what's coming all the more sinister. Powerful anti-Semites (including Henry Ford) hatch a plan to relocate all of America's Jews away from the coasts and then...?
Airing when the pandemic was first raging and Trump was raving, this miniseries kept show one scene after another of "This can't happen in America, except it actually is." Scary stuff.
The Good Lord Bird (Showtime): This is a rip-roaring depiction of the last years in the life of true American hero, John Brown. The seven-episode mini-series starts in Bloody Kansas and ends with his failed attempt at starting a slave rebellion by seizing the military arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. He was captured by forces led by (then-Union) Colonel Robert E. Lee and his subsequent hanging was attended by Walt Whitman, Stonewall Jackson, and John Wilkes Booth.
Frederick Douglass said that Brown "(began) the war that ended slavery." A century later, Malcolm X said that while no white people were allowed to join his movement, "if John Brown were alive today, we might accept him."
Brown is often portrayed as maniacal and while star Ethan Hawke's performance occasionally tiptoes up to that point, it never crosses it. This is a riveting American history lesson.