The Best Pop Culture We Caught Up On in 2020

The Best Pop Culture We Caught Up On in 2020
Image: Nippon Sunrise
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It has been a year of weirdness, especially when it comes to wrangling the kinds of media we’ve been watching. Though there’s been new things to read, watch, listen to, and play, 2020 has seen many of us revisit familiar favourites as well as things we missed when they first came out. Here’s the media of years past that kept us sane in 2020.

Screenshot: Sunrise Screenshot: Sunrise

Mobile Suit Gundam

I’ve been a fan of Gundam ever since cries of OZ grunts yelling “IT’S A GUNDAAAAAM” before being blown to bits screamed their way onto Toonami UK with Gundam Wing in 2001. The vast franchise in its myriad forms (and model kits) has been with me ever since, but this was the year that really got me to go back and re-explore the series with older, keener eyes.

This was mostly thanks to the excellent Abnormal Mapping podcast series The Great Gundam Project, whose ongoing analysis of every Gundam series and movie in release order hit Wing earlier this year, and which really helped open my eyes to deeper reads on the series’ overarching themes and the nature of the Gundam as a concept itself (and a lot of Wing’s flaws, a show that really doesn’t hold up!). Since finishing Wing, I’ve been on a whirlwind tour through series I’ve loved or never touched before since, from more recent entries like Reconguista in G and Iron-Blooded Orphans to ‘90s shows just before my time, like Victory Gundam and The 08th MS Team. There’s still so much more I want to watch, like the newly-released Blu-ray collection of Turn A Gundam and the early Universal Century shows I’ve not since since I was a teen — so suffice to say the Devil’s Machine will be sticking with me well into 2021 at this rate! — James Whitbrook

Image: Fox Image: Fox

Fringe

You’d think this one would have been right up my alley back in 2008, but I had some weirdly specific reasons I never started watching the Fox sci-fi series. It goes like this: I was obsessed with Alias, created by J.J. Abrams in 2001. Abrams eventually went on to Lost in 2004 and that became the new big thing. I loved Lost too, but the creator leaving Alias in the hands of others for the most part meant that series started to decline. Then, in 2008, he started work on Fringe, and wouldn’t you know it, I started to get Lost fatigue. Like I said: weird. It also must be noted that from the promotional items around Fringe, it felt like a rip-off of The X-Files, so I was also holding that against it. Long, ridiculous story short, I finally decided to try Fringe this year. Even though it’s filled with tons of absolutely gross imagery, it somehow became my comfort watch in 2020.

I was definitely Very Much Online during the time the series was wrapping up, but somehow I managed to avoid spoilers seeping into my subconscious. Besides knowing there were alternate versions of the characters at some point, and that Leonard Nimoy guest starred, I went in pretty fresh. It was a really enjoyable few months (I tried not to speed through it), and holy hell, a lot of fresh faces from CW’s The 100 showed up along the way! It turned out my oldest brother was a huge fan so we got to chat about the latest developments along the way and he got to tease me with “big things to come.” We even virtually watched an episode together. I actually wasn’t a huge fan of the Big Events of season five, but all in all, Fringe is a really enjoyable sci-fi series with memorable characters and plotlines. — Jill Pantozzi

Image: Fiona Staples/Image Image: Fiona Staples/Image

Saga

I don’t read a lot of comics. But when I read them, they’re usually written by Brian K. Vaughan. Because of that, Saga was something I’d been hearing about for years. Then I’d look at how many issues existed and would just get too intimidated. Catching up without a single volume was just going to be too difficult. Then, in 2019, a compendium of the book’s first 54 issues was released and I immediately bought it…only for it to sit on my bookshelf for months. Basically, it was a whole saga for me to finally read Saga. Eventually I started it, and chipped away every few days, weeks, and months, finally finishing the series over the summer. That’s when I realised this fascinating, unique, epic, raw sci-fi adventure was only half over. But everything about it is absolutely jaw-dropping. The art, the story, the characters, the imagination. It’s the kind of storytelling we dream about and I’m ashamed it took me so long to finish reading it. — Germain Lussier

Image: Showtime Image: Showtime

Twin Peaks: The Return

In 2017, I devoured Twin Peaks: The Return as it aired, fully aware that I was in the presence of some of the most daring and boundary-pushing TV episodes since, well, since the series debuted back in 1990. But unlike the fabled first two seasons of Twin Peaks, which I’ve revisited several times, I hadn’t gone back for another round of The Return since its finale. As 2020 got weirder and weirder, though, I couldn’t get that last moment out of my mind, when a battered and baffled Agent Cooper turns to Carrie Page, who just might be an alternate-reality version of Laura Palmer, and asks her something very troubling: “What year is this?” Rewatching The Return would be rewarding under any circumstances; while the plot meanders into some deliberately puzzling realms, each episode is gorgeous (even when it’s terrifying) and sprinkled with the sort of delicious weirdness that can only come from the mind of David Lynch. But in 2020, Carrie’s howling shriek of a response to Coop’s question feels more profoundly meaningful than ever. You guys…have we been in the wrong timeline all along? — Cheryl Eddy

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Image: ABC Image: ABC

Once Upon a Time

It’s been a couple of years since Once Upon a Time closed the storybook, ending on a pretty low note — but the memory of my time in Storybrooke never quite left me. That’s why I was inspired during the pandemic to go back and watch the series from the very beginning. It’s kind of felt like visiting old friends as I learn new things about them in hindsight, with Emma, Snow, Henry, Regina, Hook, Ruby, and so many others giving me something to hope for and strive toward. Not everything holds up over time — especially not “Rumpbelle” (don’t DM me you know it’s true) — but there’s so much about this show to love over a decade after it debuted. And I can never get enough of Grumpy yelling “It’s the curse!” about every damn problem. — Beth Elderkin

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Image: Paul Youll/Del Rey Image: Paul Youll/Del Rey

The X-Wing Novels

X-Wings are the coolest starfighters in anything, ever. That’s just straight up facts. But another fact? The greatest Star Wars books of all time aren’t the ones about Thrawn, the wild adventures of the New Jedi Order, or even anything that’s been published in Disney’s stewardship of the franchise so far (and there’s been some great books and comics!): it’s the X-Wing saga, dually helmed by Aaron Allston and Michael A. Stackpole. As a kid, these were the Star Wars I craved more than anything else, elite pilots who didn’t need space magic and a glowstick to get the job done, biting their thumb at Imperial remnants with a blaster in hand or behind the cockpit of the greatest fighters ever made (A-Wings were also there, sometimes).

The release of EA’s multiplayer-driven starfighter combat game Star Wars Squadrons this year stoked the flames of my X-Wing passion, and I happily revisited the books of my youth to extend the spaceship fantasy, and you know what? So little Star Wars compares, even today with spiritual successors like Alexander Freed’s excellent Alphabet Squadron series. Wraiths and Rogues for life, friends. — James Whitbrook

Image: Nickelodeon Image: Nickelodeon

Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra

It is wild to think just how different the animation landscape is now versus 10-15 years ago. In just that span of time we’ve seen leaps, not just in production quality but the types of stories being told, who they’re being told by and to whom. I wasn’t watching much animation in the early aughts, and I’m sad I didn’t have any friends at the time urging me to watch this thing called Avatar: The Last Airbender, but with so much happening in the franchise lately I decided 2020 was time to start. I am so, so glad I did.

Between Avatar and The Legend of Korra, I went on an emotional journey this year. When I began the first series I had no idea how invested I’d get in Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s universe but I quickly wanted to protect these children (and Appa) with my life. I did not want their stories to end! I wanted to drink tea with Uncle Iroh forever! Of course, when my Avatar binge was over I immediately jumped into Korra’s world, and I will be honest, I was initially turned off by its more modern atmosphere. However, before long I was equally sucked in to the drama of the new Avatar and her himbo pals, Mako and Bolin. It was also a tremendous evolution of everything that came before it. The villains! The bending techniques! The fusion animals!! I am so glad these two series exist and if, like me, you held off watching them, now’s as good a time as any as they’re both on Netflix. — Jill Pantozzi

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Image: Toei Image: Toei

Digimon

Despite no longer being anywhere near as popular in the west as it was during the late 90s, the Digimon franchise has never really stopped or lost any of its forward momentum. While most of the attention this year’s been focused on the new film and the superb Digimon Adventure reboot, 2020 was an excellent time to go back and rewatch (or see for the very first time) series like Digimon Fusion and Digimon Universe: App Monsters. Both attempted to find new ways to revitalise the franchise’s classic premise involving children partnering up with digital monsters to save the world.

When it comes to properties like Digimon that have been running consistently for decades, it’s often easy to eventually begin to feel as if the magic that first made things fresh and exciting has faded over time. In Digimon’s case, the franchise’s continuous reinvention sometimes felt jarring to experience in real time, but going back to give some of the more recent series a chance — with the benefit of having some distance from their initial airing — makes it clear that Digimon never stopped being excellent. Sometimes, you just need a break from things. — Charles Pulliam-Moore

Image: Wizards of the Coast Image: Wizards of the Coast

Dungeons & Dragons

I’ve been reporting on tabletop roleplaying games for a while, but growing up as a homeschooler (with two sisters who were way less nerdy than me) I didn’t actually have a lot of experience playing them. This time at home inspired me to play more RPGs — Dungeons & Dragons in particular, which had long felt like this giant, unconquerable mountain. What I realised is that roleplaying games are just as much about learning as they are about doing. It’s a collaborative process, for everyone involved. It really doesn’t matter whether you’ve been playing for days or years, there’s always something more to learn. I also appreciated how welcoming it felt, since roleplaying a character can be a pretty vulnerable experience.

I haven’t had many chances to play recently, much to my dismay, but my few months learning the ropes has helped me a great deal. Whether it’s how to work as a team, tell an amusing story…or spend way too long building up a backstory that’ll get tossed out the moment you come up with something better. — Beth Elderkin