The Pandemic in Pop Culture Trends
Tracking the phases of the first year of the pandemic through the stories that comforted us and distracted us.
The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was both a universal and incredibly personal experience. While not everyone’s life in the first year of the pandemic looked the same, there have been some common joys, struggles, and tragedies. And there have been stories that have helped get us through the first year of pandemic. The global COVID-19 pandemic is not over, but it has hopefully reached a turning point. Multiple vaccines protecting against the worst of the virus have been developed and have begun to be (unevenly) distributed around the world, with Israel, the U.K., Chile, and the U.S. currently with the greatest percentages of their populations having received at least one dose. As we hopefully move into a less deadly phase of the pandemic, we’re taking a moment to look back at the TV series, games, movies, and other pop culture moments that brought comfort, distraction, critique, and catharsis for many in the pandemic’s first year, as well as some of the major trends and news stories that shaped the industry itself between March 2020 and February 2021.
The NBA Suspends the Season (March 11th)
Many use the NBA’s March 11th announcement that the 2019-2020 season would be suspended until further notice as an unofficial start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The season would continue four months later in the “NBA Bubble,” but no one could know what the future would look like, only that things were indeed very serious for the billions-dollar professional basketball and media industry to shut down.
Everyone Watches Contagion
Though Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic thriller came out in 2011, Contagion jumped from Warner Bros.’ 270th most digitally rented movie in December 2019 to their second most rented one in February, and that trend would only continue into March. As the pandemic continued, we would see audiences turning towards more “escapist” fare, but, in the early days of this international crisis, people turned towards this matter-of-fact, fictional imagining of how a global pandemic might play out to help process their new and frightening reality.
Movie Theaters Essentially Go Dark
In addition to the immense loss of human life the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, there has also been an economic cost that will no doubt continue to impact human health and livelihood in the coming years. On March 17th, the movie theater chains Regal and AMC announced their temporary closures, an early sign of just how bad the pandemic would be for the movie theater business.
Movies in Theaters Begin Going to VOD
With movie theaters closed, studios needed to get creative about how best to distribute their movies still “in theaters.” Universal Pictures was the first to make the decision to move its new releases to a video on-demand model, bringing The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Emma to VOD on March 20th.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is Released (March 20th)
On March 20th, Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons for Nintendo Switch, allowing players (most of whom where stuck at home) to digitally move to an island and nurture their own community. The fifth game in the Animal Crossing series, New Horizons would go on to major commercial success. It broke the console game record for most digital units sold in a single month, became the 15th best-selling video game in history, and the second best-selling game of all time in Japan. It was also the most blogged-about subject on Tumblr in 2020!
Tiger King Drops on Netflix (March 20th)
Netflix remains the largest streaming service worldwide, with over 200 million global subscribers and roughly 74 million of those subscribers in the U.S. Because of this, when a Netflix Original becomes a hit, it usually becomes a major part of online discourse, especially in the United States. This was the case for Tiger King, the true crime (and truly wild) documentary series that dropped on Netflix on March 20th. With most watchers stuck at home, the online discourse around the show felt even more intense than usual. For a few weeks, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a Tiger King meme.
Quibi Launches (April 6)
While not necessarily pandemic-specific (did Quibi ever really stand a chance?), 2020 saw the launch (April 6th) and death (December 1st) of Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s short-form streaming platform that squandered $1.75 billion in investment capital and star power like Sophie Turner, Kiefer Sutherland, Idris Elba, Chrissy Teigen, Karlie Kloss, and Laura Dern before bowing out in December.
Trolls World Tour Becomes First Movie to Break Theatrical Window (April 10)
Remember when it was radical for a movie to break its theatrical window? Yeah, that was in April, when many media professionals were shocked with Universal’s decision to release Trolls World Tour, the computer animated musical comedy sequel to 2016’s Trolls, as both a limited theatrical release and via video on demand services. The move led AMC Theatres to temporarily announce that they would no longer be distributing Universal films, but the two companies quickly came to an agreement shortly after.
Extraction was a Thing (April 24)
Honestly, every week in 2020 felt like its own lifetime. Remember when Extraction, the Chris Hemsworth-helmed action-thriller, became the most watched original film in Netflix’s history? Directed by Sam Hargrave and written by MCU vet Joe Russo, the film follows a black ops mercenary who must rescue the kidnapped son of an Indian drug lord in Bangladesh. As self-reported by Netflix, the movie was watched by 99 million households in its first month of release.
TikTok was already firmly a thing heading into 2020, but the pandemic was when more people found it—especially the olds… by which I mean millennials. In October 2019, TikTok had almost 40 million U.S. users (and 507 million global users in December 2019). By June 2020, that number was at almost 92 million in the U.S. (and 689 million globally by July 2020). This was part of a larger trend over the course of the pandemic that saw people spending more time on their mobile devics than ever before: According to a report from mobile app intelligence agency App Annie (via Social Media Today), by the end of 2020, Americans spent more time on TikTok than they did on Facebook, and the average American now spends more time per day on their mobile device (4 hours) than they do watching TV (3.7 hours).
Avatar: The Last Airbender is Released on Netflix (May 15th)
In many ways, the pandemic has been an accelerant of global processes, and this applies to pop culture as well. While we were already seeing the rise in more foreign-language TV, including anime, and the return to some major nostalgic properties due to broader and easier accessibility because of platforms like Netflix, the pandemic really ramped that process up. When all three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender became available on Netflix in May, the American animated TV series that originally aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, was discovered or re-discovered by millions of viewers, becoming one of the top Tumblr fandoms of 2020. It was indicative of a larger trend of old shows becoming new again through release on major global streaming platforms.
Buffy Lands on All4 (June 1st)
In a year where what’s old was necessarily new again, all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer came to UK streaming platform All4, and were broadcast on E4 every weeknight at 11pm. Elsewhere in the UK streaming market, the BBC iPlayer saw its best-ever quarter from April to June with 1.6 billion requests, an increase of 59% on the same quarter last year (according to a BBC press release).
Staged Premieres (June 10th)
As it became apparent that TV and film production would not be going back to normal anytime soon, many creators got, well, creative and began making things in lockdown. One of the best and most high-profile examples was BBC’s Staged, in which David Tennant and Michael Sheen play fictionalized versions of themselves, trying to rehearse a performance of Six Characters in Search of an Author via video chat, alongside director Simon Evans. The low-budget, high-charisma series is filmed in the actors’ real-life homes but, unlike some celebrity efforts during the pandemic (see March), strikes the right tonal note in relation to its subjects’ privilege.
Ray Fisher Speaks Up About Alleged Abuse on the Justice League Set (July 1st)
Actor Ray Fisher raised his voice on July 1st in a tweet, calling out director Joss Whedon for alleged abuse on the Justice League set, and WB execs Geoff Johns and Jon Berg for “enabling” that alleged behavior.
Later, in December, Fisher would add WB exec Walter Hamada’s name to that list, following a December 11th announcement by WarnerMedia that their investigation connected to Justice League “has concluded and remedial action has been taken.”
Hamilton Blows Us All Away (July 4th)
One of the deepest cultural cuts during lockdown was the necessary elimination of live, in-person theater, which is probably one of the reasons why Hamilton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage musical that originally came to Broadway in 2015, made such a splash when it became available in its filmed format via Disney+. Even without a pandemic, Hamilton (and all Broadway theater) is only accessible to a select group of people, making the addition of the pop culture phenomenon in a more accessible form so very important.
Host Becomes the Most Zeitgesty Movie of 2020 (July 30th)
Another particularly impressive entry into the “filmed from lockdown” genre that sprouted up during the first year of the pandemic was British found footage horror film Host. Written and made over 12 weeks in a pandemic and based around a haunted Zoom call, few pandemic-made stories managed to nail the balance between both frighteningly topical and escapist quite so well.
The NBA Bubble Begins
Professional sports went into their bubbles, aka tightly controlled settings in which pro sports players live, practice, and play their respective seasons—to varying degrees of success. The NBA’s Disney World bubble went into effect on July 22nd for exhibition scrimmages, before launching into the final eight games of its regular 2019-2020 season and then the 2020 NBA playoffs. Twenty-two of the NBA’s 30 teams were invited to participate and ended the bubble in October with no recorded cases of COVID-19 amongst its participating players. The MLB bubble was… less successful.
SDCC @Home: WTF Was That? (July 22)
San Diego Comic-Con is one of the most important and lucrative pop culture events of the year, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into downtown San Diego to celebrate and discuss some of the largest franchises in the world. SDCC was one of the many in-person conventions that attempted to transfer its programming online in 2020 and… it didn’t really work. Part of the fun of Comic-Con is in the excitement of the crowd and the exclusivity of the events. (Though not on Thanksgiving, thank you very much.) There is nothing quite like getting to be part of a major Hall H announcement, and watching via video chat is just not the same.
Tenet Comes Out in the UK (August 26th)
In what was largely a year without theatrical cinema in the U.S. and the U.K., a brief respite in COVID-19 cases and therefore lockdown meant a proper theatrical release for Christopher Nolan’s latest in August 2020. Sci-fi blockbuster Tenet hit U.K. theatres on August 26th, bringing in $5.3 million domestically in its first week of release and marking the first major studio release since the pandemic began.
American Sports Leagues Go on Strike to Protest Jacob Blake Shooting
Many professional sports in the U.S. came to a temporary halt when some players and teams refused to take the field or court following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black American who was shot in the back and paralyzed by a police officer in front of his sons on August 23rd in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The incident re-ignited ongoing protests over racism and police brutality, with which many players and teams stood in solidarity. The NBA, WNBA, MLB, and MLS all postponed games as players protested Jacob Blake’s shooting.
Chadwick Boseman Passes Away (August 28th)
In a devastating loss to American culture, Chadwick Boseman, the star of Black Panther and many other films, passed away due to complications from colon cancer, a condition with which he had been living and working since a 2016 diagnosis. Boseman was one of the most successful Black actors and creators working today.
“He … knew that his voice was now strong and people were listening and paying attention,” wrote Kelley L. Carter in The Undefeated. “And he knew that even as this moment was victorious, Hollywood still needed to be called to task on the things that make this industry problematic, even as it was in the infant phases of creating a groundbreaking blockbuster with a mostly Black cast.”
Tenet Flops in the U.S., Hollywood Abandons Ship for Fall 2020 (September 3)
While Tenet may have been a hit in the U.K., the Nolan blockbuster flopped upon its release in the U.S., where many theaters remained closed or empty through the summer and fall. The film would make around $58 million in the U.S. and Canada, prompting Hollywood studios to further push back major releases slated for the fall.
Mulan Becomes First Disney “Premier Access” Release (Sept. 4)
After several pandemic-caused release delays, Disney’s much-anticipated, live-action adaptation of Mulan became the first “Premier Access” release for Disney+, causing a bit of a stir. In the U.S. and in some other markets, Disney forwent releasing Mulan in theaters, instead offering a “Premier Access” window on Disney+ that viewers could access for an additional fee of $29.99. While the film received middling reviews from western critics, it was not received well in China. Additionally, a #BoycottMulan movement, which started out as a response to social media comments star Liu Yifei made in support of the Hong Kong police in their (sometimes violent) suppression of pro-democracy protestors, gained some traction in the lead up to the release.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things Makes People Go “Whaaa?” (Sept. 4)
As our Rosie Fletcher wrote in the “Ending Explained” for I’m Thinking of Ending Things: “[this story is] a movie, and a book, which really requires you to watch/read twice to actually fully understand.” It’s a gloriously confusing movie, and many in September dove right into the mystery chiller adapted by Charlie Kaufman from a novel by Iain Reid. As Fletcher put in her review, the film is “a perfect storm of philosophy, ambiguity and wankery.” What’s not to love?
Trial of the Chicago 7 Debuts on Netflix (Oct. 16)
However you may feel about Aaron Sorkin, the man knows how to make a taut political drama. Trial of the Chicago 7 is a dramatic retelling of (as it says on the tin) the 1969-70 trial of the Chicago Seven, a group of anti–Vietnam War protesters charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The movie has an all-star cast of dudes, and is both written and directed by Sorkin. It made many critics’ best-of-the-year lists and made a cultural splash when it dropped on Netflix in October, after a summer of American and global protests ignited by the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans.
Borat 2 Makes (a Bigger) Fool Out of Rudy Giulilani (October 23rd)
Rarely do the paths of pop culture and politics so explicitly intersect as they did in Borat 2. The mockumentary comedy sequel came out in October, in the long, plateau-ed height of the lead up to the presidential election, and featured a scene in which Republican politician Rudy Giuliani puts his hand into his trousers in front of actress Maria Bakalova, who is impersonating a conservative journalist. While Giuliani attempted to spin the event in both the lead up to and following the release of the film on Amazon Prime, Sacha Baron Cohen told Good Morning America in an interview after the film’s release: “It is what it is. He did what he did.”
The Queen’s Gambit Turns Everyone into a Chess Player (Oct. 23)
Odds are that, in October 2020, you either knew someone or were someone who watched The Queen’s Gambit and then fell hard into the world of chess. The Netflix period miniseries tracks the highs and lows of fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon (the brilliant Anya Taylor-Joy), from her upbringing in a Kentucky orphanage in the 1950s to her time at the top of the competitive chess world in the 1960s. In its first month of release, The Queen’s Gambit became Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries, and sent chess set sales soaring—yet another sign of just how commercially and culturally powerful Netflix has become.
PlayStation 5 Alleges Launches, But No One Can Get Them (Nov. 12)
Even if you aren’t a gamer, you probably heard about the release of the PlayStation 5. Though the PS5 technically became available in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, North America, Singapore, and South Korea on November 12th (and worldwide a week later), the limited supply of the console made it almost impossible to find.
As Matthew Byrd wrote in his November article on the subject: “We know that the initial PS5 shortage can at least partially be attributed to a shortage of the console’s chips (as well as distribution and manufacturing problems caused by the complications related to the COVID-19 pandemic), but as we’re already seeing in Europe where some who pre-ordered a PS5 were warned they may not receive their console until 2021, Sony faces some notable additional issues moving forward.”
This is partially a story of supply and demand, and the growth of gaming in general. According to a report by market researcher SuperData (via Venture Beat), the game industry grew 12% (to $139.9 billion) in 2020, with console games revenues up 28% from 2019. While growth is expected to be slower in 2021, as fewer people will hopefully be stuck at home, more people than ever are gtting their story fix in the world of gaming.
WB Announces HBO Max Release Hybrid Model (Dec. 3)
In a move that seems to be paying off, in December, Warner Bros. announced that it would be moving to a release hybrid model through 2021, putting its entire 2021 film slate on HBO Max. As David Crow explained in our film section: “The move will put all 17 of WB’s scheduled 2021 films on a ‘hybrid’ model where films will premiere on HBO Max the same day as their theatrical release in the U.S. Technically speaking, the films will still be playing in theaters, particularly in international markets without HBO Max as a streaming option, but for the first (and most lucrative) month of their release, they’ll also be available on WarnerMedia’s streamer.”
People Actually Get to Play Cyberpunk 2077, Immediately Realize It’s Broken (Dec. 10)
Hooboy, Cyberpunk 2077. In December, after literal years of anticipation, CD Projekt released action RPG video game Cyberpunk 2077 to disastrous results. While the narrative and design of the game is ambitious and has its rewards, the rollout was plagued by performance issues (particularly in the console versions) that led to player backlash and actual lawsuits.
The Mandalorian Finale Breaks the Internet (Dec. 18)
The second season of The Mandalorian may not have technically been the most-watched series of 2020, but it certainly felt like the most-talked-about, proving that, even in the era of streaming, there’s still such a thing as appointment television. This all came to a culmination with The Mandalorian Season 2 finale, “The Rescue,” which featured an appearance from Luke Skywalker himself.
Wonder Woman 1984 Premieres (Dec. 25)
Wonder Woman 1984 dropped on Christmas Day in the United States, and quickly became the most-watched straight-to-streaming title of 2020 (knocking Disney+’s Hamilton out of the top spot), despite its middling reviews. In the U.S., it would be the first of WB’s “hybrid model” releases, getting a simultaneous release in theaters as well as on HBO Max.
Bridgerton Gets Saucy (Dec. 25)
Bridgerton, Netflix’s deliciously addicting period romance based on the Julia Quinn novels, also dropped on Christmas Day, and went on to become the streamer’s most watched series ever, reaching #1 in 76 countries. The Shondaland produced drama made leading man Regé-Jean Page a global star, so much so that the announcement that he would not be returning for Season 2 (as each season focuses on a different romantic pairing featuring a member of the Bridgerton family) into a bit of a meltdown. Bridgerton has already secured another three seasons—a post-Season 1 announcement that is unprecedented for a Netflix original.
Soul Brings on the Feels (Dec. 25)
Called Pixar’s “most ambitious movie in years” by Den of Geek film editor David Crow, Soul was another Christmas release that brought solace to people stuck at home, many without their families, for the holidays. Directed by Pixar vet Pete Docter (Up, Monsters, Inc., Inside Out) and co-directed by Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami, Star Trek: Discovery), the film follows middle school music teacher and pianist Joe Gardner as he seeks to reunite his soul and his body after they are accidentally separated, just before his big break as a jazz musician.
The Little Things Kicks Off WB’s 2021 Film Slate on Streaming (Jan. 29)
Fans of crime thriller and/or Denzel Washington and Rami Malek flock to HBO Max and theaters for the hybrid release of The Little Things, the first of WB’s planned 2021 slate.
WandaVision Ensnares Us
Stop hogging the zeitgeist, Marvel!
In February, Disney+ released its first MCU show, WandaVision, and it broke the internet. The miniseries, created by Jac Schaeffer and starring Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, wowed audiences with its clever use of the sitcom format and superhero tropes to tell a story about grief that, for all of its fantastical elements, was oh so relatable.
Judas and the Black Messiah Debuts (Feb. 12)
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakith Stanfield lead an all-star cast in this 1960s period piece that follows the real life story of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, who was the victim of a targeted assassination by the FBI. In a year that saw an increased mainstream awareness of Black trauma, the Oscar-nominated Judas and the Black Messiah shone a cinematic light on yet another state-led historical injustice against Black Americans.
Charisma Carpenter Speaks Her Truth
In February, actress Charisma Carpenter came forward with allegations about Joss Whedon’s alleged abuses of power during her time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, inspired by Ray Fisher’s own efforts to seek justice and systemic reform for Whedon’s alleged behavior on Justice League.
Many older millennials have spent their time during quarantine reconnecting with their childhood faves. This culminates with a massive renewed interest in Pokemon cards to the point where McDonald’s Happy Meals with Pokemon cards as toys sell out instantly.
Did we miss anything? What have been the stories and pop culture trends that have helped get you through the pandemic so far? Let us know in the comments below.