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50 wonderful things from 2021: The performances, moments, and laughs we'll remember

Stills from (L-R): CODA, The Morning Show, Summer of Soul, Starstruck, Plan B, the Olympics, Ted Lasso, and Spencer.
Apple TV+; Drew Angerer/Getty Images; Apple TV+; Searchlight Pictures; Mark Johnson/HBO Max; Brett Roedel/Hulu; Patrick Smith/Getty Images; Apple TV+; Pablo Larraín/Neon

I've been making 50 Wonderful Things lists since 2010. These are lists of big and small things, important and fleeting things, things that stuck with me and things I almost forgot until I looked back on the year. Both last year and this year, it has been challenging to put together a list like this, because the world in general and the art world in particular still struggle with the effects of the pandemic and all manner of resulting, cascading challenges.

But it seemed more important than ever to remind myself that however I felt in 2021, other people's creativity — whether profound or profoundly silly — kept me company, lifted me up, taught and changed me. So here are 50 Wonderful Things (and, as always, these are pop-culture things only) from 2021.

1. Troy Kotsur's performance as the father in the charming film festival favorite CODA is a funny, warm, fresh presentation of a loving parent who is flawed, devoted and mischievous. And, not for nothing, it presents him as still having a great sex life with his wife, played by the also wonderful Marlee Matlin.

2. The purely calming pleasures of the PBS update of All Creatures Great And Small were a moment of deep exhalation at a time in January when everything was cold and isolated and I was hanging on by a thread.

3. Very few people got to see the pilot of a series called These Days, in which William Jackson Harper and Marianne Rendón played a pandemic pair flirting over Zoom. But I saw it at Sundance, and I am here to tell you that while it seems not to have gone anywhere, before Harper was blowing minds with his performance as a sexy romantic comedy lead in Love Life on HBO Max, he was just divine in this little experimental project that I didn't forget all year.

4. Summer of Soul is easy to love and admire just for its richness as a historical document and for the opportunity to watch so many brilliant performers work. But something about its particular mix of performers across generations and genres made it even more than that — it's a piece about the nature of art and community.

5. I could not imagine a successful film adaptation of Derek DelGaudio's magic-storytelling-interactive theater piece In & Of Itself. But the adaptation that aired on Hulu is beautiful and makes the points that the show makes, even if it has to come at them in a different way.

6. I watched a ton of Rachael Ray this year. So much. (So very much.) And I found her at all times to be easy to follow, friendly, great company, and — not for nothing — awfully good at explaining how to make simple but satisfying food.

7. My friend Alan Sepinwall came up with a swell idea for a podcast: Too Long; Didn't Watch. In it, he sits down with various actors who have never seen a particular show and has them watch only the very first and very last episodes of the series. If I could only recommend one episode, it would be the first-season finale, in which Paul Scheer watches the first and last episodes of Dexter.

8. A keeper from almost the precise moment of transition from last year to this year: a (seemingly) (allegedly) very drunk Andy Cohen ripping a strip off Mayor Bill de Blasio on New Year's Eve on CNN was one of my true highlights.

9. Danielle Henderson's memoir The Ugly Cry is one that I expected to love, because I know Danielle a bit, enough to know she is smart and funny and very wise. But still, the book surprised me with its blend of profound love (especially for her grandmother, maybe the most indelible and unforgettable character I met in a book all year) and deep pain and belly laughs.

10. I had a deeply complicated relationship with the Apple TV+ drama The Morning Show. Much of its second season was messy and weird and very strangely written. But! In the first few minutes of the eighth episode, it delightfully displayed the show it tries to be and sometimes is: strange and darkly funny, full of bad people presented as the comic weirdos they are.

11. This year, NPR endeavored to fix the problem of a very specific listener: Leo, who thought All Things Considered needed more dinosaurs.

12. The movie Together Together, starring Ed Helms and Patti Harrison as an aspiring single dad and the surrogate he hires, got a lot of things right. But one of its most refreshing qualities is its focus on how the setting and enforcing of boundaries can, perhaps counterintuitively, be a critical part of becoming and remaining close to people.

13. Like most television that's genuinely ambitious, WandaVision didn't manage to do everything right. But in exploring the way that television, as a form, could be satirized and played with as a way to talk about trauma and its aftereffects, it continued the ongoing experimentation with what a superhero show can be.

14. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The weird moments from the televised ceremony were the only reasons to keep the Golden Globes around. So let us all pause to appreciate Jane Fonda yelling, "Happy birthday, Tommy Tune!"

15. It's been interesting to watch the very different reactions to the fourth season of The Handmaid's Tale, particularly given the widespread critical sense that the show has lost steam steadily over its run. For me, while I have often found Handmaid's flawed and frustrating, the catharsis of the eighth episode of the season, called "Testimony," was a moment I would not have missed.

16. A thread on Twitter started by someone who said he gave his illustration students an assignment to design a post-COVID New Yorker cover resulted in a bunch of beautiful drawings being widely shared. Some of them will really stick with you.

17. Great Performances on PBS aired a version of Romeo and Juliet that dove deeply into physical theaters themselves, using their physical spaces to make the story about both the young and tragic lovers and the isolation of being separated from art.

18. Every year, I like to look back on one thing that made me remember why Twitter is occasionally not a giant mess. This year, it was a tweet in which I noted that there's a good actor I always think is an older Anthony Michael Hall who is not an older Anthony Michael Hall, and it turns out ... I was not alone. (His name is Terry Serpico. Thank you for your service, sir.)

19. I admired many things about the HBO series Mare of Easttown, but the performance of veteran character actor Julianne Nicholson as Mare's friend Lori — complete with a spookily good accent — was perhaps the most heartening.

20. The TCM podcast The Plot Thickens brought in writer Julie Salamon to create an audio adaptation of her wonderful 1992 Hollywood history book The Devil's Candy, which is about the tumultuous production process behind the famously disastrous film adaptation of The Bonfire Of The Vanities. Salamon revisited her old interviews, her old interview tapes, and a movie that people don't talk about very much anymore. But the story feels timeless, and many of its lessons about celebrity, art and commerce are as true now as they were 30 years ago.

21. The Netflix animated film The Mitchells vs. The Machines contains my favorite movie sequence ever located inside a mall.

22. I discovered Ryan Ken this year, and they made some of the funniest, sharpest, most poignant and sometimes pointed comedy I saw.

23. Lin-Manuel Miranda took some criticism that was well deserved this year (and he agreed) for the colorism that infused the casting of In the Heights. But he also proved a couple of different times that despite his flaws, he takes seriously the obligation to try to be an ambassador for Broadway, and especially musicals. This was evident in his appearance on Jimmy Fallon to promote Broadway reopenings, and in the "Sunday" number he staged for Tick Tick ... Boom!, and in the Times Square gathering he helped organize to remember Stephen Sondheim.

24. When Bo Burnham released the Netflix special Inside in late spring of this garbage year, my immediate reaction to it was only partly that it was brilliant, that it was funny and weird and wildly creative. Mostly, I felt the familiarity that this, this, was a painful and specific vision of how isolation had felt to me, as a person who lived alone and spent a lot of time trying to find ways to be creative. It was like watching a dark fairy tale about my own brain, and while I'm not sure I want to rewatch it very often (these are not fun things about isolation), it gave me a way to explain the effects of all this to myself.

25. It is very difficult to pick out the moment I most loved in the second season of Ted Lasso (I am not among the people who was ever disappointed in it). If I had to choose one indelible element, it would be Sarah Niles as Dr. Sharon Fieldstone. But if I had to choose the tiniest moment that made the biggest impression, I am going with the disappointed little "mmm" noise that Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt) makes in the "Rainbow" episode about four and a half minutes in. I watched it over and over, and it never stopped making me laugh out loud. "I believe in communism!" Ted says. Beard's eyes widen in curiosity and maybe even excitement. Then, Ted adds, "Romcommunism, that is." A bummed-out Beard grumbles and wrinkles his nose in distaste.

26. The Netflix series Maid, starring Margaret Qualley as a young single mom trying to survive via a tattered social safety net, was one of the few high-profile projects I saw on TV this year that tried to reckon with the traps we set for poor people: can't get housing without a job, can't get a job without a place to live, can't keep a job without a car, can't afford a car without more money than the job pays. The performances are top-notch, but the series, based on Stephanie Land's book, also has a lot to say about how even for a relatively fortunate poor person — an able-bodied, conventionally attractive, cisgender white woman — our systems are designed to inflict misery — and to prevent escape.

27. In the great divide of The White Lotus, I was mostly in favor of its acidic take on the people you'll run into at many hotels, let alone fancy resorts. And one thing I found the most widespread agreement about is that Natasha Rothwell's performance as Belinda was revelatory and beautiful. Along with her long history on other shows like Insecure, it should lead to much, much more from her.

28. John Moe relocated his essential mental-health podcast Depresh Mode to the network Maximum Fun this year. No episode made more of an impression than his conversation with the brilliant comic and writer Joel Kim Booster. Booster's willingness to talk about his depression while he was feeling it very acutely, rather than waiting until he felt a lot better and a lot more hopeful, was a service to everyone who feels alone when darkness descends.

29. The FX series Reservation Dogs set its second episode at the Indian Health Service clinic, where the four lead characters have very different experiences inside and outside. Not only is it a look at a system rarely shown on television, it's a very, very funny episode featuring standout guest performances from Jana Schmieding (also wonderful on this year's Rutherford Falls) as the receptionist and Bobby Lee as Dr. Kang. A just about perfect episode from beginning to end.

Gold medalists Mutaz Barshim, left, of Qatar, and Gianmarco Tamberi, of Italy, celebrate after tying for gold in the men's high jump at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Christian Petersen / AP
/
AP
Gold medalists Mutaz Barshim, left, of Qatar, and Gianmarco Tamberi, of Italy, celebrate after tying for gold in the men's high jump at the 2020 Summer Olympics, which took place during 2021 due to the pandemic.

30. The Olympic Games are such a messed-up system in many ways that it can be hard to let yourself enjoy them. But this summer, when Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar — high-jump athletes who are also friends — decided to share the gold medal rather than have a jump-off, and when they celebrated with one of the best hugs of the year, it almost felt like the whole thing had some merit after all.

31. Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings are kind enough to join us on Pop Culture Happy Hour on occasion. But this year, what mattered most was the return of their podcast For Colored Nerds, which is where we first got to know them. Nothing — nothing — is quite like a passion project made and controlled by the people whose passion it represents.

32. I watched a lot of YouTube series this year, and a lot of cooking stuff. But maybe my favorite was Mystery Menu with Sohla and Ham, in which Sohla El-Waylly and her husband Ham took a mystery ingredient and made a whole menu out of it. It's a hoot.

33. Drew Magary's book The Night The Lights Went Out is a memoir about his difficult recovery from a brain injury. While it's not uncommon for journalists like Magary to try to apply journalistic techniques to their own lives, the oral history he creates of the night he collapsed at a Deadspin function and was rushed to the hospital is a riveting, weird, frightening story of a time when he himself was mostly out of commission and is reliant on others to fill in what happened.

34. There was a lot of terrific acting in Hacks, but no performer left a bigger impression on me than Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marcus, second in command to Deborah Vance (the brilliant Jean Smart). In the show, Marcus bore a lot of Deborah's lousy behavior, and Clemons-Hopkins brought that complex relationship to life with an often understated but unforgettable performance.

35. From time to time, a Twitter feed arrives that the world has gone without for too long. This year, it was SNL Hosts Introducing The Musical Guest, one that does nothing except ... well, put up clips of hosts on Saturday Night Live introducing the musical guest. It might seem like small potatoes, and it is, but occasionally you get to see how the hosts manage to introduce bands they'd clearly never heard of until they hosted. You also get combinations of host and band that perfectly capture a particular moment in time. Melrose Place's Laura Leighton saying "Rancid!" is somehow my favorite.

36. Not everybody is a TikTok person, and not everybody needs to be a TikTok person. But I do sometimes find it a fascinating place to dip into and then quickly dip back out of. A few very different accounts I appreciated this year: Tatum, a dog who gets a little help from his mom and dad in expressing his feelings; Dutch, a New Yorker who tells stories about his day and sometimes serves up some pretty serious truths about the world as he sees it; and Ann Russell, who specializes in cleaning tips and economic and racial justice.

37. Antoine Wilson's book Mouth to Mouth, which comes out January 11, unfolds as an encounter in an airport lounge between two men who once knew each other, one of whom decides to pass the time telling the long story of how he came to have the life he has. Psychologically complex and suspenseful until the literal last sentence, it uses every word of its 200 or so pages to the fullest.

38. The Slate podcast Slow Burn has been consistently excellent over its six seasons, with perhaps a higher batting average than any similarly made show (outside of public radio, of course). But this year, host Joel Anderson tackled the 1992 L.A. uprisings following the verdicts in the police beating of Rodney King. It's a vital look at a city gradually seeing decades and decades of simmering problems explode at once, and while the story has been covered a lot, it's rarely been done better.

39. Kelsey McKinney's novel God Spare The Girls, about two sisters whose father is a popular and charismatic preacher, is highly readable and absorbing. But it also does something that's all too rare in contemporary fiction both on the page and on screen: it considers in a serious way what it means to have faith and to love God, in a way that's respectful and accessible to both people who go to church and people who don't.

40. Laura Lippman's Dream Girl is only one of the novels this year that explored the relationship between writers and the fiction they create. But it's also a twisty, claustrophobic, quite funny mystery for people who enjoy a story in which it's entirely unclear who can be trusted.

41. An episode of the podcast Criminal took a fresh look at the famous Milgram experiments, which are often cited as proof that people will unthinkingly obey authority, even when they know they are harming others. Based on a book by Gina Perry, the episode was a great example of questioning the history we think we know, no matter how famous and handy it may be.

42. The third season of HBO's Succession appeared at times to be reshuffling its cast of the hateful and rich while only incrementally changing the trajectory of the story. But just when it appeared that it was a tale of slow decline and the curdling of family relationships, the last half-hour of the season — like the final acts of the two seasons before — fundamentally changed the dynamics going forward in a bunch of crucial ways. It's hard to find new ways to praise one of the best shows and best casts on television, but over and over, they keep earning their spot at or near the top of a lot of our lists.

43. It's hard to justify, at this point, another fictional take on Princess Diana. But in Pablo Larraín's Spencer, Diana — played masterfully by Kristen Stewart — gets not just another version of her story but a different atmosphere. Unlike most staid and soapy versions of her life, this one is really a horror movie, complete with spooky hallways, visions, and looming figures who barely speak. Replanting a well-known princess into a new genre did something that might have seemed impossible: It said something new about one of our most familiar public figures.

44. Jane Campion's The Power Of The Dog is a western, it's a story about domestic abuse, and it's tense and frightening. Campion's mastery of dread, in collaboration with her leads (Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee), makes the film as much about the mind's eye and it's hunger to anticipate the result of evident menace as it is about the plot elements themselves.

45. The movie Plan B is a raunchy teenage friendship comedy about two girls named Sunny and Lupe who go on an adventure. But the nature of the adventure — Sunny needs a morning-after pill after a birth-control mishap and the pharmacist in her hometown refuses to give her one — gives it an added layer of tension. In a year in which reproductive health care was so much a part of public conversations, it's an achievement that this film is smart and insightful, funny and endearing, honest and painful. And on top of that, it has one of the most satisfying — and, in retrospect, one of the simplest — endings of the year.

Woody Norman as Jesse in <em>C'mon C'mon. </em>
/ Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes / A24
/
Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes / A24
Woody Norman as Jesse in <em>C'mon C'mon. </em>

46. Okay, this is a niche pick. But can I just acknowledge for a moment how refreshing it was, in Mike Mills' C'mon C'mon, to see an accurate depiction of audio journalism? Audio people everywhere have lamented the cinematic visions of creators supposedly making podcasts who would in reality be collecting garbled and unlistenable tape because they don't know how to hold a microphone. Here, perhaps in part because Mills hired actual Radiolab correspondent Molly Webster to play Joaquin Phoenix's co-worker, you will see the uncomfortable and weirdly intimate process of sticking microphones in people's faces, which may not always make neat-looking film, but which is an integral part of what podcasting actually looks like. (And they gather ambient sound!)

47. Not everything about the very experimental AMC show Kevin Can Go F*** Himself worked. But the concept — the wife on a corny dumpy-guy/hot-wife sitcom is seen both on that show and in separate dramatic scenes that show her misery and isolation — was, like WandaVision, part of an exciting moment in which TV showed some willingness not only to experiment with traditional forms but to comment on them. Kevin didn't always succeed, but in its best moments, it looked at the idea of the "lovable bad husband" with the skepticism it deserved.

48. Thank goodness romantic-comedy limited series are getting some traction. The second season of Love Life (starring William Jackson Harper) and the first season of Starstruck (starring Rose Matafeo) both aired on HBO Max this year. And it turns out that the moderately-sized season is actually a very good format for following a love story from beginning to ... well, not to end, but to one of the many places of rest where relationships find themselves along the way.

49. The HBO Max sci-fi series Made For Love sometimes seemed to have bitten off a little more than it could chew, as we followed Cristin Milioti's Hazel through the nightmarish experience of being surveilled by her husband from inside her head. But Milioti is an outstanding, sympathetic, inventive and skilled lead. And, as she did in Palm Springs early in the pandemic in 2020, she helped ground a tricky premise in real feeling.

50. The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal in her feature debut, is not an easy movie to watch. But the film, based on a book by Elena Ferrante, has a respect for silence, for leaving space in which characters are simply observing the world around them, that make it feel almost like a trance.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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