It’s been a tough year. Here’s what we listened to, watched and read to get through it.

It’s been a tough year. Here’s what we listened to, watched and read to get through it.


The Opinions staff asked our columnists to share one book, TV show, movie, album, video game or other piece of culture, broadly defined, that had a big impact on them this year. Here’s what they recommended, and why.

“Grant” by Ron Chernow

Grant book cover

The book that has had the most lasting impact on me this year is Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, which I found even more powerful than his “Alexander Hamilton.” Grant’s personal tragedy was (and remains) our nation’s collective tragedy. Here was the general who, according to Chernow, hated bloodshed but fought the Civil War because he believed in its cause — and came to embrace emancipation and equal rights under the law. Then, he dedicated his presidency to the vindication of that cause through Reconstruction and federal enforcement of the Reconstruction amendments. But his presidency was a failure, and therein lies both the personal and national tragedy, with Reconstruction and all that it stood for slipping away. It left me feeling that, as our nation grapples with the backsliding of our Second Reconstruction (the civil rights era), we can’t fully understand our national identity without coming to terms with this twin tragedy. — Edward B. Foley

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“The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns book cover

This epic nonfiction work tells the story of our country through the lives of three African Americans who fled the South for the North, the Midwest and the West between 1915 and 1970. The individual stories told through the decades are steeped in history. Through vivid and beautiful writing, Wilkerson portrays the cruelty of our history and the perseverance of a people breaking free of it. — Jonathan Capehart

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“In Search of Greatness”

In Search of Greatness poster

This documentary by Gabe Polsky looks at the greatest athletes of all time — Wayne Gretzky, Pelé, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, Muhammad Ali, Serena and Venus Williams — and examines how they became great. I am fascinated by the pursuit of human potential and the debate over whether greatness is born or grown. I love books such as “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, which argues that what separates truly high-achievers from the rest of the pack isn’t necessarily greater natural ability but a higher level of commitment to improvement — and that though we can’t all be Gretzky, anyone who is willing to put in the work can maximize their potential and become great at what they love. — Marc A. Thiessen

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“Uncommon Type” by Tom Hanks

Uncommon Type book cover

This miserable year has validated the wisdom of the essayist Logan Pearsall Smith, who said: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” I have escaped from the affronts inflicted by 2020 by immersion in fine fiction, such as the short stories in “Uncommon Type” by Tom Hanks. Yes, him. His surplus of talents confirms a lesson of 2020: Life really is unfair. — George F. Will

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“No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” and “The Sword of Honour Trilogy” by Evelyn Waugh

No Direction Home cover Sword of Honour cover

To watch: “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary on America’s Nobel laureate. To read: Evelyn Waugh’s “The Sword of Honour Trilogy.” Both will draw you in and not let go if you will give them an opening. — Hugh Hewitt

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“Normal People”

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Lenny Abrahamson’s profound and beautifully crafted series, adapted from the Sally Rooney novel, was more than a reprieve from the daily political madness; it haunted me for weeks. A nice reminder that stories of young love and self-discovery are timeless and universal. — Matt Bai

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“Good Night Gorilla” by Peggy Rathmann

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And also “The Runaway Bunny,” “Hug” and “The Little Engine That Could.” My 3-year-old son is a creature of habit, and these four books are part of our nightly ritual. His baby sister, now 8 months old, joins in, too. Snuggling together and reading give us comfort in these unsettling times. — Leana S. Wen

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“Strange Rites” by Tara Isabella Burton

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I like religion — I enjoy understanding what people believe, why they believe it (or at least why they think they believe it) and what it means to them. So I loved “Strange Rites.” Basically, Burton tours America’s shifting religious landscape, describes categories of belief that I had brushed up against but never named, and pulls together a compelling picture of exactly how and why America is changing. If you like understanding what makes people tick, it’s a great book. — David Byler

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“Laurel Canyon”

Laurel Canyon poster

I went for escapism, of a nostalgic nature: “Laurel Canyon,” Alison Ellwood’s two-part documentary about the ’60s folk-rock scene in Los Angeles. The title refers to the rustic hillside enclave that was home to Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Cass Elliot, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Johnny Echols and many others — a short drive from the Troubadour, the West Hollywood performance space they made famous. Was there ever a more creative time and place for American popular music? Will there ever be again? Through rare interviews, archival footage and still images, this film answers with a wistful “no.” — Charles Lane

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“Simon the Fiddler: A Novel” by Paulette Jiles

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Fans of Paulette Jiles’s wonderful 2016 novel “News of the World” received a treat this year: “Simon the Fiddler," in which a minor character from the first novel takes center stage, with delightful results. Both novels have everything you might hope to find in fiction during a pandemic: the vivid depiction of an unfamiliar place and time (in this instance, Texas just after the Civil War) and characters, stories and ideas you find yourself mulling over long after you’ve finished the book. — Fred Hiatt

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“The Lives of the Artists” by Giorgio Vasari (Translated by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella)

The Lives of Artists cover

Nothing helps you put your own life in perspective like … perspective. Vasari’s biographies of great Renaissance artists express tremendous, even naive optimism about aesthetics, culture, even human perfectibility. Read in a pessimistic age, the book reminds one of the exhilaration of believing that one is participating in a great leap in human progress, based on skill and reason. The volumes also depict the limits and the dangers; Vasari is — sometimes hilariously, but always arrogantly — dismissive, snide, even angry toward those who fail to share his aesthetic standards, which he unironically describes as perfect. — Stephen Stromberg

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“Confessions” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and “Hannibal”

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The two things I’ve enjoyed most this year are Rousseau’s “Confessions and NBC’s “Hannibal.” One is a completely off-the-rails story about a narcissistic monster who ruins the lives of everyone he interacts with, and the other will make you think, “Hey, maybe if I invested more effort in cooking, my life would be nicer!” They’re not the ones you think! I recommend both, though neither is for the faint of stomach — Rousseau because he abandons all his children to a foundling hospital and then has the audacity to write a book about child-rearing, and “Hannibal” because it involves people voluntarily driving from Wolf Trap to Baltimore on a weekly basis to get therapy from a man who wears three-piece plaid suits with paisley ties. — Alexandra Petri

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The cast recording of “Soft Power”

Soft Power cover

I’ve listened to the cast recording “Soft Power,” a wickedly funny musical satire by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori, frequently since its release this spring. The show is an inversion of “The King and I,” in which the wise foreign visitor is a Chinese man advising an American leader about how to civilize her barbarous, backward democracy. Originally, I craved this album because I wanted to savor all the lyrics to “Good Guy With a Gun,” a rootin'-tootin’ celebration of America’s firearms obsession; but in the weeks leading up to the November election, I listened nonstop to the show’s torch song to an emotionally abusive, fickle lover (“Democracy”). — Catherine Rampell

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“The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor cover

I will confess to being something of a re-reader, and the old favorite I’ve found most comforting when I revisited it this year was “The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison. Yes, this gentle fantasy novel is full of elves, goblins and quasi-magical detectives. But it’s also a lovely book about good government; it’s exactly the sort of book to awaken hopefulness and resolve at a time when we need both of those qualities badly. — Alyssa Rosenberg

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“Twilight of the Gods” by Ian Toll

Twilight of the Gods cover

My reading experience of the year was “Twilight of the Gods,” the last volume of Ian Toll’s masterful narrative of the World War II in the Pacific. The human suffering of that war, combined with the need to fight it through to final victory, makes for haunting reading. My father, who just turned 100, fought on a carrier in that last year of the war, from the Battle of Leyte Gulf on, and reading of the horrific success of the kamikazes — like the ones that struck his ship — was a revelation. The phrase “the Greatest Generation” rolls off our lips, but this book makes it real. — David Ignatius

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“Schitt’s Creek”

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This delightful ensemble comedy deserved every Emmy it got. Witty, creative and supremely well-acted, “Schitt’s Creek” delivered a message of tolerance and personal growth sorely needed in these increasingly intolerant and stunted times. — Henry Olsen

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“Monsieur Lambert” by Jean-Jacques Sempé

Monsieur Lambert,” a graphic novel by the French writer and cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé, is the most adorable piece of culture that I first accessed during the pandemic. The book was published 55 years ago and tells a delightful story of friendship and love with undeniably French mood. It’s a good bet for anyone who enjoys mixing words, drawings and smiles. — Sergio Peçanha

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“The Queen’s Gambit”

Queen's Gambit Poster

The Queen’s Gambit,” a gorgeous period piece about a fictional female chess prodigy, was among the gems in my covid-induced Netflix binging. A beautifully designed ode to intellectual excellence and perseverance, it served as a timely reminder that our internal life can sustain and elevate our lives despite external hardships. — Jennifer Rubin

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“The Queen’s Gambit”

Queen's Gambit Poster

I’ve played chess three times in my life, and now that I have watched Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” many times more than that, I understand why sales of chess-related merchandise are up 1,000 percent from last holiday season. The series’ evocative portrait of a brilliant girl overcoming and achieving, on her own terms, is deeply satisfying. Who doesn’t want a non-pandemic world in which a woman is respected for her strategy and skill, who triumphs over adversity in a man’s world without being dismissed, ignored, harassed or forgotten?

I also relish a series that takes us from Kentucky to Russia — the easily stereotyped state my husband grew up in and the regularly maligned country we visited together for four decades. The humanity of the final scene is rare and precious in this cold world. — Katrina vanden Heuvel

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The “Off Menu” podcast

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In each episode of the podcast, two amiable and quick-witted hosts, British comedians James Acaster and Ed Gamble, invite a special guest to describe his or her dream meal. That’s it — there’s nothing to it — just invocations of childhood pleasures, tributes to perfect foods and strong opinions about inconsequential things (whether a cheese plate counts as dessert, the morality of appetizers, if pesto can be eaten with a spoon). In other words, everything I needed in a pandemic companion. — Kate Cohen

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“The Gift” soundtrack album by Beyoncé

The Gift cover

Black pain was everywhere this summer. We were dying in a pandemic, hunted down while jogging or begging for breath while pressed under a police officer’s knee.

But in July, Beyoncé released “Black Is King,” a surprise visual album based on the music from “The Lion King: The Gift” (itself based on 2019’s generally overlooked live-action version of “The Lion King”). The imagery was delightful, of course. But it was the soundtrack, with effervescent contributions from artists across the African continent, that functioned as the most buoyant retort to the summer’s narrative of pain. Each Afrobeats-inflected track was a reminder that to be Black is not all sadness and struggle: Blackness is also joyful, audacious, unique, creative and proud. The album reminded me that America’s tortured relationship with race was only one part of an international experience, not the whole of it. Blackness is bigger than that; in fact, it’s transcendent. — Christine Emba

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Tenet poster

It’s been a weird and rough year for movie lovers, and next year isn’t shaping up to be much better, but seeing “Tenet” on a big screen — on the biggest screen, on an Imax screen — is a memory I’ll hold on to until we can all get back to theaters in a real and regular way. Set aside the film’s complexity if you can: The opening sequence’s sweeping tracking shots and swooping crane moves and slightly off-kilter, high-octane action made me grin like I was a kid again. — Sonny Bunch

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“Raised by Wolves”

Raised By Wolves poster

I think my favorite piece of culture this year was Ridley Scott’s “Raised by Wolves” — an astonishing series that packed more ideas and surprises into an episode or two than most series manage in their entire run. I can’t say it was heartwarming — Scott, the director of “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” does not do heartwarming — but it did wrap me so completely in its inventive world that I forgot about the problems of this one for a while. — Megan McArdle

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“The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show”

The Sit-In Poster

I grew up a big fan of Johnny Carson, and this recently produced documentary reminds us of a time early in the tumultuous year of 1968 when Carson turned over “The Tonight Show” for an entire week to actor, singer and civil rights advocate Harry Belafonte, who was given free rein to select his guests and his topics. The week’s guests ranged from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby to Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Aretha Franklin, Wilt Chamberlain and many others, all discussing the civil rights movement, politics, entertainment and sports. The program — directed by Yoruba Richen and based on an article in the Nation by Joan Walsh — notes that not everyone was thrilled about an outspoken African American activist being handed television’s premier showcase for an entire week, but Belafonte — now 93, and a participant in the documentary — exhibited the skills as an interviewer to show how controversial subjects could be addressed effectively and respectfully, in contrast to the often snarky and degrading tone of too many of today’s late-night hosts. — Gary Abernathy

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“Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels” by Catherine A. Sanderson

Why We Act cover

During a year in which reading for fun has often felt like an impermissible indulgence, I found the right balance of inspiration and education in this book. Catherine Sanderson’s discussion of the consequences of failing to exhibit moral courage felt ripped from 2020 headlines — all of them. It informed my thinking and conversations with everyone from my kids and colleagues to my law students and the police officers I help educate about how to make moral courage part of their work every day. At the same time, Sanderson’s book shares many traits with a great novel: The recounting of social psychology experiments was in turns uplifting, suspenseful and horrifying. Most avid readers have probably experienced that almost eerie feeling when you read a book that seems to have been written just for you, just at the moment you read it. That’s how “Why We Act” felt to me in 2020 — it encouraged me to persevere through many moments when it felt far easier to stop trying. — Christy E. Lopez

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“The Bureau”

The Bureau poster

The Bureau” is the best TV series I’ve seen this year — and one of the best ever, up there with “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos.” Perhaps the most realistic and engrossing depiction of the intelligence world ever filmed, this French series (five seasons, available on Amazon Prime) focuses on a handful of operatives for the French external security service, the DGSE. It is downright revolutionary for showing intelligence officers recruiting sources rather than acting as assassins. Mathieu Kassovitz is a captivating leading man, and his character, codenamed Malotru, is far more thoughtful and vulnerable, and therefore far more interesting, than James Bond or Jason Bourne. — Max Boot

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“The Bureau”

The Bureau poster

I got through those first grim months of the pandemic in two ways. First, I wrote a book, which was great therapy for dealing with the covid-19 crisis. Second, I watched “The Bureau,” a superb television series set in France’s version of the CIA. The show is filled with equal measures of international intrigue and office politics — in other words, highly realistic. Its five seasons will keep you engaged for a long time. — Fareed Zakaria

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Turner Classic Movies

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I can’t get enough of old movies. — Karen Tumulty

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“Jack Reacher” by Lee Child, “Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968” by Martin Conway, “The New Working Class” by Claire Ainsley and classic jazz

Jack Reacher book cover Western Europe's Democractic Age book cover The New Working Class book cover

After family and friends, books and music have been essential blessings during the pandemic. As a mystery and thriller lover, I have enjoyed binge-reading Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” series, which I had not fully explored before. Two books related to history and politics have had a real influence on me: Martin Conway’s “Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968″ and Claire Ainsley’sThe New Working Class.” But I am happiest when there is a musical soundtrack to life (thank you, Spotify), and I added some classic jazz greats to my list of favorites, including Red Garland and Art Pepper. Listening to them makes me look forward to being able to go to concerts again someday! — E.J. Dionne Jr.

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“The Liberation Trilogy” by Rick Atkinson

The Liberation Trilogy cover

To remind myself that times have been harder and mistakes can be overcome, I’ve used my Audible.com account this autumn to experience again “The Liberation Trilogy” by my generation’s greatest military historian, Rick Atkinson. This riveting, illuminating, exhilarating and heartbreaking three-volume history of the Allied effort in North Africa and Europe during World War II sugarcoats nothing. Lives were wasted by the thousands and taxes squandered by the billions on that oldest and saddest of stories: human error and weakness. Yet the chance to ennoble this fallen world in ways large and small is always present, and somehow, Atkinson is always there to notice. — David Von Drehle

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“The Great British Bake Off”

The Great British Bake Off logo

Ever since my British wife introduced me to this show, it has been my No. 1 escape from pandemic reality. It’s filmed entirely in a quarantine bubble in the countryside, so contestants and judges alike interact maskless and face to face. All participants are mutually kind and supportive amid good-natured competition — you can watch them being industrious and social, shielded all the while from the pandemic’s harsh medical and economic realities. Of course things are starkly different for all those unjustly bearing the full brunt of those realities: In effect, this show poignantly demonstrates how all of us should be able to experience this terrible moment. — Greg Sargent

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“Unauthorized Bread” from “Radicalized: Four Tales of Our Present Moment” by Cory Doctorow

Radicalized cover

It begins with a premise that is both absurd and just a step or two away from current reality: a toaster that only allows you to make toast using bread authorized by the manufacturer. The first-order referent is the “right to repair” movement that rose up in response to the way companies such as John Deere try to make it hard for their customers to even fix their own property, but Cory Doctorow is interested in broader questions of how technology and capitalism structure and limit the choices we’re supposed to make. But it’s not just bleakness; he also explores how people can use their creativity and social ties to recapture their autonomy. — Paul Waldman

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“The Mandalorian”

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A year ago, following the release of “The Rise of Skywalker,” the final installment in the Star Wars series as George Lucas originally conceived of it, I swore off new spinoffs from a galaxy far, far away…

But that was before the disturbance in the Force that is the coronavirus pandemic.

After binging “Ozark” — a great but heavy show — “The Mandalorian” was everything I needed: fun, familiar, exciting and escapist.

My introduction to the impish and incredibly cute Baby Yoda character happened in the weeks just before the birth of my own baby boy, which probably helped me look past Baby Yoda’s controversial antics. — Jason Rezaian

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“The Great”

The Great poster

Mix a tantalizingly strong empress-to-be with the antics of an 18th-century Russian court, and the alchemy is near-perfect. “The Great” is a witty, spirit-boosting, bawdy romp that bills itself as “intentionally ahistorical,” with Elle Fanning impeccable as Catherine and Nicholas Hoult wonderfully odious as Peter. Huzzah! — Lizette Alvarez

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“Forward Day By Day”

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These daily devotional readings containing scriptures and meditations are very centering. — Colbert I. King

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“Babylon Berlin”

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Talk about a TV show transporting you somewhere else entirely — in this case, the capital of the Weimar Republic in 1929. Full of flashers, shellshock and plenty of camp, this detective story grabbed me in a single scene: A nightclub crowd throbs in choreographed concert to the crooning of an androgynous magician-singer. Her anthem, “Zu Asche, Zu Staub,” translates as “to ash, to dust.” And indeed, “Babylon Berlin” is suffused with death. We know how this story ends after all. But, meine Güte, does death feel alive! — Molly Roberts

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Violin vigils for Elijah McClain and “Between the World and Me”

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The performances that moved me most, this plague year of sickness and violence, were elegies to Black bodies. I still cannot watch the violin vigils for Elijah McClain, the young musician who died in police custody in Aurora, Colo., without crying. The stunning television production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” was lyrical testimony of the precarity of our lives, and a gorgeous demand for resistance. — Paul Butler

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“The Crown”

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Because the royals, for all their spectacular dysfunction, still feel like extended family. And because the third-best season of “The Crown” is still better than anything else on television. — Michael Gerson

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“Ted Lasso”

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I was surprised by just how much I loved the Apple TV show “Ted Lasso.” It’s about an American football coach who is recruited to run a soccer club in England. What Ted Lasso doesn’t know is that the club’s owner — a steely businesswoman who inherited the team in a nasty divorce settlement — has hired Lasso to drive the club into the ground as sweet revenge on her lecherous ex. What I didn’t know, when I turned to the series on the recommendation of some of my Twitter pals, is how a half-hour sitcom about a sport I don’t even understand could provide the balm I didn’t know I needed in this year of tumult and cynicism. With his Southern accent and stuck-in-the-’70s mustache, Lasso is a honey-dipped cornball. He comes across as a rube and a lightweight. A redneck in King Arthur’s Court who inoculates himself against ridicule by laughing loudly at his own mistakes. But it turns out he is the smartest guy in most rooms because he’s willing to admit what he doesn’t know. He’s willing to lead with a wide-open heart, accepting instead of exploiting other people’s vulnerability or weakness. He is willing to look for talent in places most would ignore. His optimism is a shield against his own insecurities, and his compassion is an ointment for other people’s fears. He even quotes Walt Whitman! Now just imagine if America had that kind of leadership in our highest office while trying to confront a global pandemic. This is not just a show about soccer, and that’s why its was a winner in my household. — Michele L. Norris

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“Rick and Morty”

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A few months ago, my younger son suggested I might want to watch an episode of the animation cult favorite “Rick and Morty” with him. He’s 17, and I am aware that our moments living together full-time are coming to an end soon, so I said yes. As it turned out, the bizarre and grotesque adventures of crazed scientist Rick, and his sidekick and grandson Morty, and the rest of the family are not just funny but also some of the most trenchant and moving commentary on everything including American life, family relations and mortality — not to mention dog ownership — that exists on television. — Helaine Olen

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The diaries of Anaïs Nin

The Diaries of Anais Nin cover

As someone who has kept a journal since she was 12, my favorite books this year have been the diaries of the French Cuban writer Anaïs Nin. So far, I have read her first two volumes, which span from 1931 to 1939. Her observations about writing, relationships, beauty, sex, psychology, politics, and the influential writers and activists in her life are lush and addicting. She writes about love, romance, loss, war and her experience of different cities. In fact, her warnings about the dark undercurrents of American society seem quite prophetic today. As the pandemic has forced us all to isolate ourselves from one another, her work is a reminder of the power of honest observation and introspection. Reading her feels like an adventure into her inner world, and by extension, an invitation for us to do our own inner adventures during this time. As Nin said, “The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself.” — Karen Attiah

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“Sula” by Toni Morrison

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In this short and unforgettable novel, Morrison, who died in 2019, dishes out tragedy in various forms, including fiery deaths and a drowning. A startling passage at the end of the book, however, stopped me cold. It depicts a group of residents of the Bottom — a black neighborhood of Morrison’s fictional Ohio town of Medallion — marching down the streets toward a tunnel that the government was building under a river. A route to prosperity, it was to connect the community to a nearby town. When the residents arrive at the tunnel, their good spirits turn sour with their collective realization that they’d been sidelined from its construction. They set out to destroy it. “Old and young, women and children, lame and hearty, they killed, as best they could, the tunnel they were forbidden to build,” writes Morrison, reminding us that not everyone views “progress” the same way. — Erik Wemple

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“Long Way Up”

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One of the 2020 discoveries that did the most to keep up my morale was “Long Way Up,” an 11-episode documentary featuring Ewan McGregor (of “Star Wars” fame) and fellow British actor Charley Boorman. The idea is simple enough: In 2019, the two of them set out to ride electric motorcycles from the tip of South America to Los Angeles. The joy of the show — perfectly timed for the lockdown era — comes from its air of freedom, mobility and camaraderie. The two men, longtime friends, tried out the concept in 2004’s “Long Way Round” (when they rode across Eurasia and the United States) and 2007’s “Long Way Down” (from the northernmost tip of Scotland to the bottom of Africa). This latest version has its disappointments, as when McGregor’s prototype motorcycle dies on him as they’re about to enter Central America. But at its best — above all thanks to spine-tingling drone footage of drives through stunning Andean landscapes — it offers a desperately needed spirit of adventure at the time when I needed it most. Turns out there’s a beautiful world to be discovered out there — preferably in the company of good-humored traveling companions. — Christian Caryl

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Read more:

Karen Attiah: ‘Black Is King’ is built on problematic narratives. Still, its power is undeniable.

Kinitra D. Brooks: With ‘Black Is King,’ Beyoncé has gone all in on Black. And Beyoncé doesn’t lose.

Alyssa Rosenberg: The summer Black culture pushed back

Alexandra Petri: My RNC review: Hannibal Lecter’s dinner party was visually sumptuous!

Molly Roberts: The secret that makes Baby Yoda so captivating

Jason Rezaian: After ‘The Rise of Skywalker,’ this Star Wars fan needs a new hope

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