2020 has been a strange year, by nearly any metric you choose to use. And that weirdness has bled over to pop culture, as the seemingly endless news cycles of disasters, the ongoing global pandemic, the turmoil of the US elections, the rise of TikTok, the dearth of traditional releases of big movies, and just so many memes resulted in a year of cultural moments that awed, amazed, and just straight-up confused us.
It was a year that seemed almost determined to constantly one-up itself on nonsensical events, each headline more impossible than the last. And faced with all that frightening reality, is it any wonder that the weirdness of 2020’s culture became almost a mirror reflection of the year itself? When the world gets strange, sometimes the only answer is to seek out things that are even stranger — if only to reassure ourselves that we’re not quite at rock bottom just yet.
Here are some of our favorites:
Class Action Park — This is a documentary about a penny-stock-mogul-funded New Jersey theme park called Action Park which was — due to a combination of a laissez-faire regulatory enforcement and a teen workforce — particularly bizarre and at times, deadly. To get to the go-karts, for instance, you had to go through the beer tent. (One of the highlights of the documentary is discovering Action Park was too weird for Donald Trump to invest in.) The rides were designed by amateurs and tested by the park’s workforce. Stories of lost teeth, bloodied knees, and other battle scars abound. Eventually, the park had to buy its own ambulances. The ride-by-ride story of the park, as told by people who went there, starts as a lark, but as the movie progresses, the viewer begins to realize they are in fact watching a horror film. The documentary itself isn’t that weird — it’s brilliantly done — but the subject matter is so strange it can only possibly have existed in America. Specifically, in the part of America that is New Jersey. — Liz Lopatto
The Ratatouille TikTok musical — Broadway has been shuttered for almost the entire year thanks to the pandemic, but TikTok has found a way to fill that void with its glorious, crowd-developed Ratatouille musical adaptation of the 2007 Pixar film. It started when just one lone TikToker, Emily Jacobsen, posted a video singing an ode to the cooking rat. It quickly exploded after another TikTok user, Daniel Mertzlufft, remixed that song into a full Broadway number, and it now has dozens of videos across the internet with additional musical numbers, set designs, playbill programs, elaborately choreographed dance numbers, stage directions, giant rat costumes, and more. The whole thing has even broken free of TikTok into a one-night-only benefit concert. It’s a bizarre, wonderful culmination of how the internet can come together to make something beautiful — even if it’s just a made-up musical. — Chaim Gartenberg
“I hope this email finds you well in these strange times.” — It’s reassuring that even when normal life all but disappears, you can still count on a daily deluge of emails in your inbox. But how do you start a message when the person on the other end of it could be experiencing anything from feeling a little cooped up from working from home for too long to being in any number of far worse professional or personal situations. The solution, of course, is the ever-reliable “I hope this email finds you well in these X times” opener. Just replace X depending on your mood, whether it’s “unprecedented,” “difficult,” or just plain “strange.” — Jon Porter
Four Seasons Total Landscaping — It started as a series of incredulous tweets from political reporters in Pennsylvania covering President Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election — “Is Donald Trump convening the world’s press at a small landscaping company on the outskirts of Philadelphia?” — and it ended as one of the strangest, uncomfortable, and most meme-worthy turns in an already unorthodox election season. The Trump team’s unexplained decision to hold an off-the-rails press conference declaring election fraud at a nondescript landscaping company located on a highway in between a sex shop and a crematorium has since spawned Zoom backgrounds, a VR hangout for furries, and, naturally, a whole bunch of merch.
Whether or not Trump thought he was actually booking the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia hardly seems to matter anymore. And since Rudy Giuliani and others graced it with their smarmy presence, the landscaping company has become a tourist attraction, a curiosity in a year already replete with strange goings-on. To their credit, Four Seasons Total Landscaping is doing their best to ride it out, leveraging their newfound infamy for good by selling official merch and retweeting the best quotes to show they’re in on the joke. The conspiracy theorists, though, are doing their best to slander the company as DNC money launderers, or worse, vote stealers. (Seriously.) Let’s hope the company can ignore the threats and get back to blowing leaves in the near future. — Andrew J. Hawkins
How To with John Wilson — Maybe it’s my nostalgia for being able to freely walk around New York City, but HBO’s How To with John Wilson is the closest thing that comes to the joys of real-life people-watching. The show is largely footage of strangers around Manhattan, chopped up into short clips —glimpses, really— and strung together by awkward voiceover meditations from Wilson himself. The concept might resemble a bad student film uploaded to Vimeo (actually, his early work was on Vimeo), but the vignettes escalate to something unexpected and, at times, profound.
An episode about improving memory ends up taking Wilson to Idaho, where he attends a conference of narcissistic believers of the Mandela effect. One episode, the fourth, titled “How to Cover Your Furniture,” was about exactly that. Then I looked away for a moment, and when my eyes returned to the screen, there was Wilson, interviewing a man attempting to elongate the foreskin of his penis with a weighted contraption in his pants.
A normal stroll through a city isn’t as eventful or cohesive an experience as the one John Wilson delivers in any given episode of How To. But watching the show will leave you with the comforting feeling that New York is bustling, big, and full of strange people and possibilities. At any point, you might catch Kyle MacLachlan at the subway station, struggling to swipe his MetroCard. — Kevin Nguyen
Baby Yoda eating Frog Lady’s babies — (This entry includes spoilers for the current season of The Mandalorian.)
We know space is a cold, empty vacuum where no one can hear you scream, but then The Mandalorian brought us the wide-eyed visage of Baby Yoda to make it slightly less awful. So the sight of the beloved green creature — official name Grogu — slurping down the eggs of a desperate Frog Lady hit fans of the show hard. She was trying to take the last of her brood to her home planet to avoid the extinction of her species. The backlash was swift: He’s a murderer! He killed her babies! It’s genocide! One Lucasfilm exec tweeted that the eggs were unfertilized “like the chicken eggs many of us enjoy,” and that Baby Yoda eating them was “intentionally disturbing for comedic effect.”
Yes, but, the show introduced the unfertilized eggs as the last hope for the Frog species, the whole purpose of the two-part mission that nearly got Mando and the Razor Crest eaten by frost spiders. They were important and probably shouldn’t have been used as props for “comedic effect.”
To be perfectly honest, it raised more questions (for me, at least) about the people in charge of watching the eggs than the hungry baby who ate them. Wouldn’t Frog Lady notice there were eggs missing? Shouldn’t there have been some kind of child-proof lock on the egg container? And doesn’t Mando ever feed the poor kid? We find out in subsequent episodes that he does, but he should think about packing some string cheese and crackers for the kid next time. Because for parents of small children on a long road trip, this is the way (to avoid a cranky kid meltdown). — Kim Lyons
Tom Felton’s DracoTok obsession is also my obsession — I’ve pretty much done nothing other than have an endless stream of Netflix running on my TV and TikTok running on my phone. TikTok goes through rapid waves of trends. Something is hot for a minute and then it disappears, as is life on the internet. One thing that stuck around, however, and I can’t peel my eyes away from is DracoTok.
DracoTok is this beautiful wholesome world that my 12-year-old, Harry Potter-fanfiction-writing self would likely cry over. Tom Felton, who played Slytherin prince Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, joined TikTok at the height of 20- and 30-somethings rekindling their obsession with the series through cringe-inducing posts about being in love with Draco Malfoy. Most actors would ignore these types of sentiments that people post without really understanding the concept of going viral (no one ever thinks they’re going to go viral, and I imagine most people instantly regret it the second it happens), but Felton has jumped in and embraced it! He’s kick-started contests looking for the best version of Malfoy’s “Potter!” bark. He duets with TikTok creators roleplaying their love for Draco. From thousands of miles away, he cheers on people’s deepest obsession with his Harry Potter character — and it’s positively charming.
Everything about it is so inherently dumb, but it’s the heartwarming, fluffy, absurdly adorable type of dumb that I really needed this year. If you were a Harry Potter kid or are a fan today, I highly recommend tuning into Felton’s ongoing saga of trying to hype up his fans while also being a dork himself. Guaranteed smile. — Julia Alexander