There are so many ways to look back on the bizarre year that was 2020 in television, and no doubt we'll be seeing a lot of them in the coming week. The usual focus is on the standout shows and performances of the year, but what about those most unheralded of contributors, the props? The shows we loved in 2020 wouldn't have been the same without the inanimate objects that set the scene and got us all talking. Someone call the Smithsonian — these are the ten TV props that most captured our fascination this year:
You have to love a prop that drives an entire narrative. Netflix's sweet teen Christmas romance Dash & Lily kicks off when Dash comes upon a red Moleskine notebook at the Strand bookstore in New York City. Inside is a message from an unknown girl (psssst — it's Lily), who sets him off on a series of dares to see if they might be a match. Dash gives it a go, and leaves the book for her to find, and so begins a city-traversing series of romantic adventures that took our mind off the real-life horrors of 2020, and got us in a holiday kind of mood when we needed it most.
There are so many hair and clothing accessories in Hulu's Mrs. America that could be singled out here, and we really should give a special honorable mention to the tinted glasses that Rose Byrne dons to get into character as Gloria Steinem. But it's the famous big hats worn by pioneering NYC politician Bella Abzug that really deliver. As played by Margo Martindale, Bella is a true dynamo, and in a field where attention is power, those hats certainly helped Bella strike a memorable posture in her battles against the patriarchy.
CBS's much-ballyhooed Survivor "Winners at War" season was an epic undertaking — and it hit its stride just as the early days of the pandemic had so many of us sheltering at home and binging the previous 39 Survivor seasons. One of the show's highlights was poor Adam, whose squirrely nature had him in the tribe's doghouse from day one, making a last-ditch effort to save himself at tribal council by attempting to dislodge the fleur-de-lis pendant on Jeff Probst's podium in hopes that it was a hidden immunity idol. And while the vision of skinny little Adam struggling in vain to wrest the tiny wooden flourish from its perch was a perfect metaphor for his fruitless struggle in the game, we shouldn't be too hard on him. For one thing, the South African version of Survivor did hide an idol at tribal once, and Jeff Probst even floated the idea of a hidden idol at tribal during press for an earlier Survivor season. For another, I can guarantee that future Survivor players will be scouring tribal for idols because the idea is just too good for the show not to do it now. Perhaps in defeat Adam will have been a game-changer anyway.
We don't want to be too cutesy about this. The NXIVM cult was a dangerous and predatory organization that led to many cases of sexual assault and predatory behavior by Keith Ranerie. Whether or not HBO's The Vow was wholly successful in its depiction of this story, we keep going back to that first episode, when we got the reveal that instructors, or "proctors," within the cult were given colored sashes to wear, and that the higher up the ladder they went, they earned a corresponding sash. All at once, the sashes became both a perfectly unsettling visual cue of the Scientology-inspired, vainglorious, sinister machinations which were to come, and the most utterly dorky signifier one could ever imagine.
No matter what one may think of The Undoing, the HBO series captivated pop culture for a brief amount of time, in part due to its habit of pulling shocking moments out in its episodes' closing moments. One such moment was Nicole Kidman's Grace uncovering the murder weapon, a sculpting hammer, in son's bedroom. It was a shocking moment, made all the more so by the look of the hammer itself, a heady, thudding, square-headed weapon, that delivered a visceral turn of the stomach.
The audacity at play in any given season of The Good Fight is, at this point, both a given and yet also wildly underreported. This show is on a whole other level in terms of reflecting the absolute lunacy of our current era back at us. So when the COVID-truncated fourth season ended with an episode that attempted to "solve" the notorious prison death of Jeffrey Epstein, it seemed perfectly in line with the show's bonkers ethos. Still, even those of us well-versed in The Good Fight's extra-ness had to catch our breath when, in the episode's closing moments, we got a Citizen Kane homage (the object in question was called Bud, after all) that ended with what was meant to be Epstein's preserved dick in a jar. 2020 was crazy, y'all.
An obvious choice, perhaps, but an indispensable one. That The Queen's Gambit was as much about actual chess as it was came as a welcome surprise, and that was accentuated by the tangibility of the chess scenes. Kudos, then, must go in tandem to the art directors who provided the chess sets and the sound designers who made sure that every dull thwack of the pieces on the board felt like heavy punctuation. We could feel those moves in our chest.
We've never been to Montreal, and thus have no firsthand knowledge of their bagels. But if "Bonjour Hi!" — the fake Quebecois morning show depicted by Bowen Yang, Kate McKinnon, and Issa Rae in SNL's most slept-on and best sketch of the year — is anything to go by, the bagels in Montreal have big, gaping holes. As Mikey Day's American outsider points out, everything in Montreal feels 25% different, and in this case, that means slathering cream cheese on the inner rim of an odd circle of bagel. Merci, "Bonjour Hi!," merci.
ESPN and Netflix's The Last Dance revisited the many twists and turns of the Chicago Bulls dynasty in the 1990s, a story with a ton of angles that straddle the line between sports history and interpersonal drama. At the center, of course, was Michael Jordan, arguably the best to ever play the game. Jordan's off-the-charts competitive edge wasn't exactly a secret before The Last Dance, but to see it play out in person, even all these many years later, was a wonder: every player he ever imagined had slighted him, every opponent he felt he had to destroy, every executive who disrespected him. At several junctures, the producers capitalized on this by handing Jordan an iPad queued up with interview footage from these people, and we got to see Jordan react to it, whether it was a mix of incredulity and disgust at Isaiah Thomas or busting out laughing at Gary Payton or beaming at his mom, Jordan's iPad reactions were some of the best moments in a great series.
Streaming on Netflix
The second season of FX's adaptation of Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement's vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows may well have been the funniest show on TV this year, and although we'd be hard pressed to choose a single favorite moment, Nadja's ghost doppelganger inhabiting a doll is right up there. The design of the doll itself and the vocal performance by Natasia Demetriou are just outstanding, and rather than just have this be a one-off joke, the doll sticks around for the whole season, popping up when you least expect it and serving as an A+ peanut gallery for the insane goings-on at the house. Like the rest of the show, the Nadja doll is impish, absurd, and dryly hilarious, and it's been a go-to source of joy throughout this strange year.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.