Well, that was certainly a year. But even with cinemas, galleries, playhouses, and concert halls shut for most of 2020, the past 12 months offered a wide-ranging and excitedly varied period of high, low and mostly in-house culture. The Globe and Mail’s Arts team reflects on their favourite moments outside their beats, and in and out of the zeitgeist.
Grounded, Streetcar Crowsnest Community Studio
The last theatre performance I saw before theatres went dark was a solid reminder of the heft, poetry and power of one actor’s presence, and vitality of her ambition. George Brant’s solo play requires a performance fully anchored in the rich imagery of the text. Carly Street was magnificent, alone on-stage in a sparse but vivid set (by Melanie McNeill with Kerry Ann Doherty directing), telling her story of collapse.
Measha Brueggergosman, Great Hall, YouTube
Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman sings in an empty Great Hall in Toronto, the first in a concert series put on by Urgnt, a music collective, in the face of the COVID pandemic. The filmed concert, done in black and white, has an eerie intensity, the venue being empty, but the vigour of Brueggergosman’s voice and her presence just soars. Her band (including Aaron Davis and Rob Pilch) rise magnificently to the occasion as the soprano does gospel, jazz and standards and joshes with the audience watching at home.
A Little Too Cozy, digital prequel to A Little Too Cozy, YouTube
Against the Grain Theatre’s A Little Too Cozy re-imagined Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as a TV dating show in 2016. This year AtG’s artistic director Joel Ivany turned TV writer/director for a web series that will act as the backstory to the crazy reality-TV/Mozart mash-up. Inventive and cheeky, it’s about the contestants and the makers of an absurd show about love and ego.
How to with John Wilson, HBO
At first, I was puzzled why HBO decided to release new episodes of this quasi-documentary series every Friday at 11 p.m. But after watching the docuseries, in which the title character roams around New York City attempting to answer seemingly simple queries like “how to improve your memory,” and “how to cook risotto,” the timing makes perfect sense. This is surreal, dark, hilarious, and often beautiful television that is best consumed late in the evening, when distractions are minimal and your mind is open to new possibilities.
After Hours, The Weeknd
Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye said aloud what a good portion of the music industry thinks privately when he tweeted last month that “the Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency … ” The social-media vitriol was in response to The Weeknd being denied a single Grammy nomination for his album After Hours, which is the most layered and arresting record of the year. From the hypnotic single Blinding Lights to the on-the-town synth rhythms of In Your Eyes, After Hours is an album to savour. Who needs the Grammys anyway?
Tehran, Apple TV+
The new spy series Tehran invites a lot of scrutiny. Namely: is this drama presenting an even remotely accurate depiction of daily life inside Iran? Probably not, even though it stars a number of expatriate Iranians. But the show, from the minds behind Israel’s other problematic espionage series Fauda, is not aiming for verisimilitude so much as intense small-screen thrills, which it nails again and again.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story
Ten million years ago, in late January, I sat in a packed theatre and fell in love with a play – even before the perspective that would come from the catastrophe that was just weeks away, unbeknownst to all of us who delivered a standing ovation. Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, written by Hannah Moscovitch, is based on her great-grandparents’ story – from the shtetls of Romania to the Canadian big city (Halifax, where they meet). It bursts with life, love and ecstatic and sorrowful klezmer music, anchored by the God-like Ben Caplan (who co-wrote most of the songs). It also delivers a non-preachy lesson about the contributions of refugees. In their descendants you might find, among others, a masterful playwright.
Schitt’s Creek, CBC
I resisted for years. I had no interest in the fish-out-of-water, riches-to-rags story of the Roses. But when COVID-19 hit, I sought the Netflix equivalent of easy-listening radio and landed here. Surprise – the show is hilarious, smart and warmhearted – joyously written with some of the best dialogue in series TV history gifted to Catherine O’Hara as the bewigged matriarch Moira Rose (“the live crows on set welcomed me as one of their own; one even tried to mate”), masterfully delivered. My binge-watch managed to provoke actual LOLs even as the real world was crashing down around me. And a few authentic tears along the way too. “Caw-CAW!”
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, NBC
Two TV shows, I know – but there was a lot of television consumption this year. This show, set in a police precinct run by the enigmatic captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher) proved essential pandemic family viewing. It distracted and calmed both my son, now 12, and me; we could laugh together and have important discussions like: who is the least quirky character on the show? I’m not sure whether it’s man-boy detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) or straight-talking, tough-on-the-outside Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz). My kid’s vote is for the body-building, third-person-self-referencing Lieutenant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews), whose twin daughters are named Cagney and Lacey.
Dolly Parton’s America, WNYC Studios
When this came out, late last year, I thought: a nine-part podcast about Dolly Parton? Seriously? When I finally listened this fall I found a master class in audio series. Host Jad Abumrad gets extraordinary access to the superstar and does not squander it. The interviews are revelatory, the writing is sharp and the use of sound and music – oh the music! – is exquisite. This is podcasting at its best, with a central thesis: that Dolly Parton’s story is an essential American story, and America is personified in her.
J. Kelly Nestruck
I May Destroy You, HBO
Finally, a year where I can feel virtuous in admitting I consumed most of the culture off my beat from the living-room couch. I May Destroy You made me believe in the idea of prestige television again. British creator/star Michaela Coel’s half-hour dramedy following a young writer in the aftermath of a rape went to consistently surprising places while staying emotionally rooted and real. At the end of one particular episode that suddenly broadened the universe of the show to include (brilliantly acted) teenage versions of several of the characters, my wife and I shouted at the credits: “Emmys! Emmys for everyone!” Bonus: Paapa Essiedu’s radical reinvention of the “gay best friend.” (Look up the Hamlet he did for the Royal Shakespeare Company at your local library.)
Mrs. America, FX
I’m tempted to list off all the very popular period fare I hated this year, but I don’t want to get in trouble with my bubble again, so: The way I like my history tackled, informed but not washed out by our present concerns, was exemplified by Mrs. America, the funny and shrewd FX series created by Canadian Dahvi Waller about the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the U.S. in the 1970s. Cate Blanchett killed as that great anti-feminist paradox Phyllis Schlafly.
Ted Lasso, Apple TV+
A comedy about an American football coach who becomes a British football coach sort of by accident? Starring the bad-project-picking Jason Sudeikis? I gave Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso a hard pass until the recommendations piled up too high to ignore. Thank you, Twitter pals: It was what my heart needed. Nice comedy is the new shock comedy.
After Life, Netflix
Man loses wife to cancer. In real life, utterly unfathomable. As a TV premise, it likely sits at the treacly edge of maudlin. But we’re in Ricky Gervais country. So instead there is biting sarcasm, begrudging social outings, unlikely friendships, and wrenching intimations of mortality. It might sound like the isolation of COVID-19 doing the talking here -- where any park-bench natter with a stranger is a good one – but actually, this show will more than survive the pandemic. It’s one for the ages.
The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy and the Life of John Maynard Keynes
This timely and wildly engaging tome, by Huffington Post reporter Zachary Carter, chronicles the eventful life of the groundbreaking British philosopher and economist – a one-man Davos in his time. It also charts the legacy of his then-stunning and counterintuitive proposition: if governments wish to preserve national order during a Depression, they must spend their way out of it. Well, like it or not, we’re all Keynesians now.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple’s first album after an eight-year-hiatus, this release is arguably even more raw and wrenching than her previous work. And that’s saying something. Applying a lo-fi, high-intensity aesthetic, she did much of the album on Garage Band. Found objects act as percussion: pots, pans, her dead dog’s bones. As always, Apple’s fierce piano playing soars, grooves and jars. Lyrics are cast in pain and quirk, glorious earworms abound. More self-aware than self-conscious, the work exhorts listeners to cut the shackles from situations or people who weigh them down. Here’s hoping! But the album itself is downright umbilical.
Ryan Heffington’s Lay Your Head on Me
In early spring, when both COVID-19 and sheltering at home were novel, the Los Angeles-based choreographer Ryan Heffington sent a breakdown of the dance for the video Lay Your Head on Me, by Major Lazer and Marcus Mumford, to 209 people in 29 countries. He kept the moves simple, so anyone could do them. No one was paid; they used their own cameras. He left space at the end for improvisation. And the result, from director Filip Nilsson, is an explosion of joy and tenderness: Every kind of body and backdrop, united by the unshakeable human spirit. I’ve watched it dozens of times. I cry every time.
Stratfest@home and National Theatre livestream
No, you don’t get the frisson from being in the room as, say, Gillian Anderson plays Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. But you do get something you normally don’t in a theatre: close-ups.
Although I’d subscribed to the poem-a-day series from poets.org long before the pandemic – at 6 a.m. every weekday, a new work from a contemporary poet arrives in your inbox; on weekends it’s a classic poem – I’ve been so grateful for it in 2020. There are virtual events, where award-winning poets read work from others they admire. But I especially love starting my day with a poem, bathing in that little oasis of words, and wondering who else out there is doing the same.
The Father, Sony Pictures
At a pared-down Toronto International Film Festival, Florian Zeller’s debut feature The Father offered a dastardly dramatization of dementia. Adapting his own stage play, the French dramatist abruptly switches story lines and even changes the cast to reproduce an old man’s confusion in the audience itself. A magnificent Anthony Hopkins stars as old Anthony, a London widower living alone … or perhaps with his middle-aged daughter (Olivia Colman), who is married or perhaps single, and may – or may not – be moving to Paris. As though Harold Pinter had rewritten King Lear, the results are both mind-bending and heart-rending.
The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel
Sometimes it’s best if you look your problems in the face. Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott’s The New Corporation, a sequel to their 2004 film The Corporation, argues capitalism is still destroying workers, democracy and the planet, but now it’s greenwashing too. This fast and powerful doc argues that tax and regulatory cuts have permitted corporations to replace the public sphere, creating a world where social media undermine elections while climate change and income inequality continue apace. Cutting together searing interviews with cleverly edited imagery, the film is right up to the minute, deftly including COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. Solutions lie in activists running for political office – and taxing the rich.
Canada’s Communications Future: Time to Act (Report of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, released Jan. 29)
That title says it all: Enough deferring and ducking, the freeloading tech giants need to be corralled into the Canadian broadcasting system. And if the Liberal government manages to do so, it will be thanks in part to the brave and practical report of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel chaired by Janet Yale. Its main recommendations include spending requirements on Canadian content for foreign players such as Netflix, who would also have to start charging the HST on their bills.
The Quarantine Chronicles, CBC and Expect Theatre
Billed as “bedtime stories for bizarre times,” the collection of new radio plays from PlayMe was of great service to theatre fans with no place to go. The series included Don’t Get Me Startered, a hilarious surrealistic satire from actor-playwright Mark Crawford on the pandemic-triggered sourdough craze.
Perry Mason, HBO
While I’ve enjoyed every melodramatic moment of The Undoing, my favourite miniseries of year was the gumshoe ballet that was Perry Mason. Sure, The Undoing wins points for Nicole Kidman’s eyebrow acting – each crushing plot twist elicited a unique show of ocular surprise from Big Red. And The Undoing’s Hugh Grant was unavoidably brilliant in a role he was born to play: A sociopathic murder suspect. All that said, the private-dick drama Perry Mason and star Matthew Rhys’s “moody fedora acting hour,” as one wag described it, was better. The scene in which Rhys spot-on imitated co-star John Lithgow’s character alone was hands-down my favourite television moment of the year.
Ridge, Chan Centre
For the first time in many years, Don Cherry’s poppy-mongering shenanigans on Hockey Night in Canada weren’t on display this November. Fired by Sportsnet a year ago, the Coach’s Corner commentator wasn’t missed. Patriotism and respect for military service is essential, but context is required. Ridge, a monologue with music created by Brendan McLeod and his band The Fugitives for Vancouver’s Chan Centre, was a poignant (and occasionally pointed) rumination on the soldier’s plight and the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
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