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The entertainment that got us through 2020

Seeking comfort in old favorites

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

If there is one peculiar comfort to 2020, it’s the knowledge that misery was universal. Rattling off the many reasons why feels redundant. We all know the score.

This year was an exercise in coping with no wrong answer: whether it was Zoom parties, TikTok, Animal Crossing, YouTube yoga, bread baking, or any of the countless other activities people used to pass the time, each one offered some sort of escape. At The Verge, we found our own comfort through movies, games, music, art, and so much more.

“The Difference” by Flume feat. Toro y Moi

Released on March 13th, just days before San Francisco would become the first US city to issue a shelter-in-place order, “The Difference” by electronic music producer Flume featuring singer-songwriter Toro y Moi inadvertently became an early but resilient quarantine anthem for me. It features Chaz Bear’s unmistakable vocals over an uncharacteristic high-tempo drum-and-bass beat from the Australian producer, all married together with some heavily engineered vocal chops and swelling synths. 

“It’s another world that I’ve gotta get a grip of and hold onto,” is Bear’s refrain in the final chorus, and it felt like a fitting little line to tell myself as everything I knew and enjoyed about my life on the West Coast began to fade. As each day bled into the next and the cycle of waking up, rolling out of bed, and staring at a computer screen and nothing else for nine hours began to take its toll, I would put my headphones in, put this song on, and skateboard to Alamo Square Park in the center of the city. There I would get mildly intoxicated sitting on the grass six feet apart from my friends and circuitously return to talking about positive case numbers and wondering aloud when the world would get back to normal. 

I no longer live in San Francisco, having fled the high rents and slow, coronavirus-accelerated cultural decay of the city after seven years, for my hometown, in the far less warm-weathered western New York. But “The Difference” is still with me as a reminder of how music can help you mark time and also lose track of it. Here’s to hoping I’ll get to hear it played live, somewhere at some point in the future. —Nick Statt

Horizon Zero Dawn

One of my goals for the summer had been to spend more time hiking. By the time it got warm, it was clear that wasn’t happening. I spent April cat-sitting for a friend, wearing bike gloves and a construction mask to walk three blocks to the grocery store, trying to stretch out each load for as long as I could so as to limit exposure. I spent most of my time there on his PlayStation 4, playing Horizon Zero Dawn instead of going outside.

I hadn’t played a AAA open-world game since GTA 4, when the limited hardware meant you could only see a few blocks into the distance. A couple console generations later, the world had gotten a whole lot bigger. Now I could climb a Tallneck and see for miles, or scale Pitch Cliff and see whole ecosystems stretch out beneath me. It was surprisingly soothing for a video game that is still mostly about the end of the world.

There’s a surprising amount of death in Horizon Zero Dawn, not just NPCs but friends, allies and family, and a deeper mournfulness as you piece through the wreckage of human society. Piece by piece, it sketches out an immediate future for humanity that’s heartbreakingly plausible — full of failed plans and self-inflicted loss — but there’s something beyond it that keeps drawing me back. The game is what happens after the collapse, a reminder that we can emerge from our bunkers to a world that’s still worthwhile. —Russell Brandom

The Lord of the Rings trilogy

This feels sort of clichéd, but back when all the lockdown stuff started in March, I went and spent a week rewatching the Lord of the Rings movies. I get that they might not be everyone’s sort of peaceful, relaxing comfort food cinema, but I just sort of gravitated toward the idea of a group of people banding together when times seemed darkest to push back and bring some light back to the world.

It’s been a few months since I marathoned those movies, and if anything, things have only gotten more chaotic in the world. But I think I might go and escape back to Middle Earth soon — because even though it’s a fantastical world where good always triumphs and the bonds of friendship and fellowship can overcome any obstacle, as Neil Gaiman once wrote: “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” It’s the sort of sentiment that I’d like to take into 2021. —Chaim Gartenberg


I barely recognized Taylor Swift the first time I listened to Reputation. She was a different character from the one who’d sung some of my favorite songs in the past. She was defensive, detached, the music was produced and bombastic — she was performing sharp resilience in the face of adversity. “All the liars are calling me one/Nobody’s heard from me for months/I’m doing better than I ever was.” I don’t care what’s happening, she shouted at us. Look how okay I am.

It’s a fair enough message. And there have been years of my life when I needed Reputation. Once when I was cheated on, I listened to “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and, incensed, thought “Your loss, dude.” When I was embroiled in Twitter drama and Facebook doomthreads, “Look What You Made Me Do” rang through my head. “You’ll all get yours,” I would grin to myself, alongside her. 

But this wasn’t a year I needed Reputation. Despite the fact that there are plenty of loving people in my life, much of my year was isolation, scrolling through social media and reading terrible news after terrible news. I have struggled. And I have struggled with the struggling — I have wondered whether I’m selfish and unreasonable to struggle, when the people on Instagram seem to be doing just fine. 

This was a year I needed Folklore. I needed music that placed heartbreak and anguish on an open table — music that mourned, and didn’t try to hide that it was mourning. I needed an album that captured the raw truth of being a person who lives. I needed to hear “At least I’m trying” over and over again. I needed an album to tell me “Other people feel this way, too.” 

This year, I needed to hear that other people feel — that feeling bad because bad things are happening isn’t a sign of weakness. Or maybe it is a sign of weakness, but that doesn’t matter. Folklore, it is. —Monica Chin

Inspiring quotes from video game characters

My wife and I have spent hours in video game worlds during the pandemic, which means that we’ve heard a lot of virtual characters say the same one-liners over and over again. Sure, some were grating by the thousandth time we heard them. But there were a few that were so delightfully cheesy or endearingly catchy that we’ve started using them to help us get through the real difficulties of the pandemic.

“It was never in doubt,” often said by Cloud Strife in Final Fantasy VII Remake after a victorious battle, was a common phrase of encouragement when we accomplished something good.

“Let’s do it,” said with smooth confidence by Joker in Persona 5 Royal, helped us step out the door early in the morning for long weekend runs.

“Stand and fight me!” one of Jin Sakai’s battle cries in Ghost of Tsushima, was used as a battle cry of our own before we approached opposing squads in Fortnite

These quips have been a bright spot of humor and actual inspiration during this very stressful year. And even when the pandemic is over and we aren’t playing as many video games, the quotes are now just part of our shared lexicon, and I know we’ll be saying them to each other for a long time to come. It was never in doubt. —Jay Peters

Brave Faces Everyone by Spanish Love Songs

2020 has certainly seemed to be the year for comfort food, both literally and in terms of entertainment: A lot of us have been playing familiar songs, shows, and movies on repeat to make us feel better. It’s a bit strange, then, that the piece of media that got me through the year was a new album from a band I’d never heard of.

Brave Faces Everyone was released in February before the coronavirus really became a thing, but it manages to touch on almost every other social issue that’s been buzzing around my head, keeping me up at night or making me pace around my house the second I run out of things to do. Which seems contradictory; why would I want to think about these things more? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but by the time the final song plays, re-incorporating phrases from the previous songs, I can’t help but feel better. Maybe it’s that the writing seems sincere and unpretentious, or maybe it’s just knowing that someone else is going through the same things and has given me words to yell along to that put things much clearer than I could’ve. —Mitchell Clark

Oh my god... I never thought this would happen!

An ode to all the TV that got me through this year, in the form of an award show acceptance speech

Oh my god... I never thought this would happen! Oh my. My heart’s beating so fast. I have to thank Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video — oh, I’m sure there’s people I’m forgetting to mention. I should have written something down but I didn’t think this could ever happen to me. It’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it? [audience laughter] Wow. There are so many shows that have gotten me through this pandemic, I’m just going to start listing them all before they kick me off this stage. 

What We Do in the Shadows is an absurdly smart but dumb comedy from Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi that I cherish so much. It’s the thing that got me through the saddest parts of 2020.

Multiple Gossip Girl reruns are what I threw on when I was bored and couldn’t leave the apartment. Thank you, Dan, Serena, Jenny, Blair, Nate, and Chuck for people so fun to watch. 

The Mandalorian reminded me what hope and excitement feels like, and I’ve never fallen in love with someone as quickly as I did Baby Yoda. 

Euphoria, which let me feel bad without judgment when I needed to feel bad. 

Adventure Time, which picked me up when sitting in my own bad feelings became too much.

[orchestral music starts to play]

Oh, oh, okay, they’re telling me to wrap up. God. I’ll just list quickly some of the others, but it’s impossible to get to you all. Thank you so, so much to Rick and Morty, Criminal Minds, Good News, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, Harry Potter, Hannibal, Lucifer, Big Mouth, Schitt’s Creek, the Marvel movies, Star Wars, New Girl, John Mulaney, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Regular Show, and everything in between! Some of you are old friends that became new again, and some are new friends I’ve come to love. —Julia Alexander

The Magnus Archives

Leave it to me to rely on an apocalyptic horror podcast to get through what has felt like an actual apocalypse. The Magnus Archives, produced by Rusty Quill, is chock-full of terrible things: flesh-eating worms, doors leading to endless twisting hallways, and the fear that wherever you hide, someone is watching. In a truly incredible instance of bad timing, the fifth and final season was planned to start releasing right at the beginning of worldwide lockdowns. The producers had to put a warning at the top of the first episode of the season saying it deals with themes of “isolation, contagion, and armageddon.”

Leave it to me to rely on an apocalyptic horror podcast

And readers, let me tell you, I plowed through that warning and welcomed Armageddon with open arms. There’s something strangely comforting about listening to characters struggle through the end of the world while you too are trying to survive an extremely rough time in the real world. But beyond that, there are also small moments amid all the cosmic horror where characters laugh at each other’s bad jokes. And there’s gay love! Mid-apocalypse gay love! Right now, listening to The Magnus Archives feels good. And by good, I mean it feels bad in a simultaneously abstract and relatable way, which apparently is just what I need. —Kait Sanchez

’90s television

In many ways, rewatching shows from my youth has been a comfort. I’ve been laughing at the terrible puns in Frasier all over again, and watching intently as young relationships develop in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The theme songs trigger a sort of Pavlovian response forcing me to watch through the opening credits and not hit the “skip” button. I’ve particularly enjoyed how silly these shows can be: my favorite episode of Buffy involves a demonic chatbot and introduced me to the term “technopagan.”

But it’s also been a bit disturbing. There are plenty of things I didn’t pick up on when I first watched these shows, and in retrospect some of them don’t hold up in 2020. Why is a century-old vampire dating a teenager? Why doesn’t anyone stop Niles from being such a creep? And don’t get me started on Frasier’s impossibly large, labyrinth-like apartment. It’s like something out of House of Leaves. I initially watched these shows as a way to escape and turn off my brain. But examining them again as an adult turned out to be much more interesting. —Andrew Webster

Theater at home

In the beginning of the pandemic, when New York City was considered the epicenter and we were frantically trying to sterilize anything that came through the door, there were a lot of theater companies and other entertainers who were offering free online (or on-cable) performances from their repertoire. One of those was the UK’s National Theatre, which offered a series called National Theatre at Home, where it would put up a different one of its filmed productions every few days. We checked it every day to see what was coming, watched several, and were absolutely mesmerized by a wonderful and innovative stage performance of Jane Eyre that ran in April. It was these, and other wonderfully revolutionary productions put on by a bunch of theater companies, that kept us going.

That, and an array of science fiction, detective, documentary, and other series. The most recent has been The Queen’s Gambit, which has a wonderful script, fantastic actors, and a fascinating storyline (and was based on a great novel by Walter Tevis, which I immediately read as soon as the series was over). And, of course, the comfort food show to top all others, The Great British Baking Show — but that almost goes without saying, doesn’t it? —Barbara Krasnoff