Am I 'Alone' in 'The Circle'? 21 television shows I watched to get me through 2020
It’s hard to believe that it hasn’t even been a year since the biggest drama in my life was whether Jessica and Mark were actually going to get married at the end of “Love Is Blind.”
The Netflix show that debuted in February features single men and women meeting and dating without seeing each other. They get dressed up for "dates" and talk through mesh screens. It was silly and wasn't the kind of show I'd typically indulge in, but looking back, that show was a warmup for the couch quarantine to come.
Now, this year wasn't entirely spent in front of my TV. Keeping myself entertained during this most unnatural time meant getting out into nature as much as possible, and I read more books than usual this year, but that still left me a couple of hours of downtime at the end of each day.
Television provided a much-needed escape, perhaps more than any other time in my life. I can think of only a few other times when I so clearly remember what I was watching when — a “Sex and the City” rewatch my last year of college and the entirety of the “Up” film series when I was pregnant with my oldest come to mind. Those were anxious times, too, but not quite like 2020's gift that keeps on giving.
To put a pin in this to remember later, these 21 television shows will forever be known as “the shows I watched during the coronavirus.” Some are new, but many are not. Treasures from the past, I'd come to think of them, hiding in the internet's streaming libraries, just waiting for me to unearth.
It was apt that 2020 was the year I discovered “Alone,” a reality TV show that debuted on the History channel in 2015. Contestants are dropped off by themselves in the deep woods of Vancouver Island or the Canadian Arctic, and whoever lasts the longest wins. It’s a simple concept that at first sounded cruel until I saw how passionate these people were about finding harmonious ways to live in nature. And in a year when it would have been easy to take running water, a soft bed and a hot shower for granted, this show made me exceptionally grateful for the comforts of home.
This year’s new season of “The Great British Baking Show” has been delightful — new co-host Matt Lucas is exceptionally witty alongside Noel Fielding — but neither of them keeps me quite as engaged as Kevin McCloud, who for 20 years has hosted an architecture show called “Grand Designs.” My boyfriend and I savored each and every episode of “Grand Designs” that we could track down on any streaming platform, including episodes from the first season in 1998 on YouTube. There's something about McCloud’s insights into architecture history, design, materiality and human nature that make it a not-your-average homebuilding show, and it was soothing to watch other people get frustrated with and then overcome a multi-year project. I needed that reminder: When you think things will never end, keep going.
In the early days of the pandemic, when I couldn't take any more what's-it-like-to-live-in-a-cage drama from “Tiger King,” I opted for the cotton candy drama found in dating reality shows.
I’ve never been a fan of “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette,” but there was an earnestness about “Love Is Blind” that sucked me in from the trailer. “Married at First Sight” continued to scratch that itch for watching everyday people do somewhat everyday things in the “before time.” “Love on the Spectrum,” which profiled autistic Australians on the search for love, brought many happy tears to my eyes, and “Indian Matchmaker” gave me a better understanding of arranged marriages. I’ll even confess to enjoying “Too Hot to Handle.”
My kids and I sometimes have a hard time finding shows that we all like, but two science shows gave us lots of happy family streaming time this year. “100 Humans,” co-hosted by one of our favorite podcasters, Alie Ward, let us glance into the human psyche and behavior by putting willing volunteers through experiments that challenge our perceptions of one another. Another podcast host, Latif Nasser, starred in “Connected,” which explored the surprising ways that everyday aspects of our lives, like weather and computers, are interconnected.
Netflix released two oddball sports shows this year, both of which also kept my kids and me coming back for repeat viewings. “Home Game” explored lesser-known sports around the world, including the unforgettable polo-like game of buzkashi played in Central Asia. (Austin’s Texas Roller Derby gets its own episode, which offers our own special glimpse into the “before time.”)
More recently, we devoured “We Are the Champions,” which chronicles misfit competitions, from frog-jumping to yo-yo. (I have watched the inaugural episode about cheese-rolling four times, and I cry very genuine tears at the end of each viewing.)
As far as scripted shows go, the only show I’ve enjoyed more than the recent season of “The Crown” has been “The Durrells in Corfu,” a Masterpiece comedy-drama that debuted in 2016 and is set on the stunning Greek island. Over four seasons, we watched the widowed mother of four who wants more for her life than what the English town of Bournemouth can offer.
Late in the quarantine, we started a rewatch of "Downton Abbey" because my boyfriend hadn't seen it yet and we needed something to watch in between episodes of "Victorian Farm" and "Edwardian Farm," two single-season shows from the BBC that chronicle a yearlong experiment with a historian and two archaeologists who try to bring 19th- and early 20th-century British farms back to life using only the techniques and knowledge available in those earlier eras.
Because I apparently can't get enough documentary shows about the history of Europe, "A Stitch in Time" is another can't-miss gem from the back catalog. Host Amber Butchart uses a single piece of clothing to explore a specific time in fashion history and asks a team of ateliers to recreate the garment.
In a year when social media was one of the primary ways to socialize, I shouldn't be surprised by how much I loved all three seasons of "The Circle," a Netflix show that features contestants trying to connect with one another while confined to their apartment rooms. They can communicate with each other only through a voice-activated chat, and each episode, they kick someone out of the game. It's essentially a popularity contest, but having watched both the French and Brazilian seasons, I can tell you there's a very sweet and sincere connection that can happen between people who are getting to know each other only through text.
And lastly, "Instant Hotel," perhaps the cheesiest, least sophisticated series on this entire list. This Australian show is a competition between people who run fancy vacation rental homes. Some of them are in the desert; others on the coast. One brother-and-sister duo have a houseboat on a river in the middle of nowhere. I started watching this show with my dad, when he was nearing the end of his life a few years ago. When I'd go to Missouri to visit him, this show would be our little treat to watch together at the end of the day, if he was feeling up to it. (My dad was a big "House Hunters International" guy.)
We never finished the show, but when I visited my mom in Missouri in August — the only time we left the state this year — we finally watched the last season. The coronavirus made the whole concept of a show about competing vacation rental property owners seem obtuse, but that didn't matter as we sat in the living room and let ourselves go somewhere else for a while, together.