Election, ‘Jeopardy!’ and more

Kelly Lawler

Bill Keveney

Erin Jensen

Gary Levin

Patrick Ryan
 
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TV streaming: How the pandemic affected TV watching in 2020

USA TODAY TV Critic Kelly Lawler discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic affected TV shows, networks and productions in 2020.

Entertain This!, USA TODAY

In a year that saw the world turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, TV had its share of big moments.

Sure, many of your favorite shows were sidelined by production shutdowns, and the virus dominated news coverage. But creativity often triumphed as entertainment producers sought to provide refuge; a wild presidential election sparked record ratings for cable news networks; plenty of shows were already filmed before the virus began taking its toll; and the streaming age exploded with more newcomers. (And let’s not forget that 2020 began with several weeks of relative normalcy.) 

USA TODAY’s TV staff offers a look back at the highs (and lows) from a year we’d rather forget. 

A happy water-cooler moment: What is the ‘Jeopardy!’ GOAT Tournament?

Legendary “Jeopardy!” champions Ken Jennings, James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter got a prime-time stage for ABC’s Greatest of All Time tournament in early January. The special event was a huge hit and had the country talking. Jennings clinched the title with three wins in four nights, telling USA TODAY that he feared going into the contest that he was “no longer as sharp as I used to be,” which obviously wasn’t the case. (Viewers will get to see the three champs again on ABC’s “The Chase,” which premieres Jan. 7.) Despite Jennings’ achievement, the real star was host Alex Trebek, a game show legend whose fan base grew even larger during his fight against Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

‘The Good Place’ goes out on a high note

Everything actually was OK in the January series finale of NBC’s existential afterlife sitcom “The Good Place.” The series came to a fitting end that left the show’s signature plot twists and food puns behind in favor of a sentimental journey of goodbyes. “Good Place” didn’t have any more answers to life’s big questions than we humans can provide. It was just like us: imperfect, messy, ambitious, loving, open-hearted, funny and well-intentioned. Or at least, it was just like the best version of ourselves we can be. 

Jennifer Lopez and Shakira rock Super Bowl’s halftime show

Although February feels like a few decades ago, yes, there was a Super Bowl this year. And who could’ve guessed just how infectiously joyous the combo of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira would be as the halftime show stars, smiling and dancing their way through an energetic set that was short on over-the-top spectacle – there were no giant tiger puppets or high-flying entrances – but had plenty of jaw-dropping choreography, Top 40 hits and celebrations of Latin culture.

Sarah Palin rapped on ‘The Masked Singer’ the day the pandemic got real

Many of us fully started to appreciate the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11. That Wednesday night, the NBA suspended its season and Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson announced they had tested positive for the novel coronavirus while in Australia. Also that day? Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was revealed as the tie-dyed, rapping (Alaskan) Bear on “The Masked Singer.” The combination of the serious with the surreal would come to define the news of 2020. 

The remoteness of awards shows

The pre-pandemic Golden Globes and Oscars went off without a hitch. But there was no red carpet to strut down for the Emmys and other awards shows as the year progressed. Instead,  stars served stylish looks anyway when accepting an award – or losing, as Ramy Youssef (Hulu’s “Ramy”) showed at the virtual Emmy Awards ceremony. We were also gifted the (controversial) moment when Jennifer Aniston put out an actual dumpster fire.

Pandemic-era reality TV: ‘Tiger King,’ ‘Love is Blind,’ ‘Floor is Lava’ 

We were a captive audience thanks to the pandemic, and there was plenty of jaw-dropping television to keep us occupied, especially on Netflix. “Tiger King” became a phenomenon. “Floor is Lava” recreated a childhood game. Little did we know “Love is Blind” would foreshadow dating in 2020: being in two different rooms, all alone with copious amounts of wine. And  “Too Hot to Handle” offered its own brand of ostensibly sex-free quarantine. 

When the talk shows lost their audience (and then went home)

There was a weird, almost intentionally Dadaist bent to Whoopi Goldberg opening the March 11 episode of “The View” shouting “ “Welcome to ‘The View’!” over and over again to an empty room. The next night, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon hosted episodes of their late-night talk shows in similarly deserted studios devoid of traditional laughter. The audience-free talk show, a pit stop on the way to quarantine TV made from home in the early days of the pandemic, was a bizarre, absurdist historical document of how the world changed in an instant.

Virtual audiences fill empty studios on ‘Masked Singer,’ other reality contests

 Without audiences to cheer on its contestants, “The Masked Singer” borrowed footage from earlier seasons to create the illusion of a communal experience. Not ideal, because the network never copped to the ruse, creating the impression it was violating California guidelines by inviting an audience into the studio.   “America’s Got Talent,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and other shows did their best to make up for a lack of a theater audience with virtual viewers, watching on camera from home. 

… And at televised sports contests, too, as the pandemic restricts crowds 

The NBA tried that, too, making sure famous fans were in virtual courtside seats. Pro sports including the MLB and NFL also tried to make up for often-empty stadiums with canned sound and even cardboard cutout fans (an alternate money maker during a pandemic) at baseball games. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than crickets. And, a home run that almost decapitated a cardboard fan gave us a new way to enjoy the long ball!

Pandemic production shutdown is the mother of TV invention

When the pandemic shut down TV production in March, some stations found creative ways to continue. With cast members restricted to their homes, CBS legal drama “All Rise” produced an episode focused on a trial conducted via video conference, as some real-world courts did, with cast members filming from their homes. NBC’s “The Blacklist,” stuck with a partially filmed episode, ingeniously employed eye-catching animation to create a memorably makeshift season finale. NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” came out of retirement for a much-praised, socially distanced reunion episode, a fundraiser to feed the hungry. Unfortunately, another great comedy, “30 Rock,” had a much-derided remote return for a numbing ad-sales infomercial plugging NBCUniversal. Blerg!

The streaming service club gets even bigger

Streaming approached saturation levels, as two more big industry players, Comcast (Peacock) and WarnerMedia (HBO Max), just months after Apple TV+ and Disney+ launched, joining Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. As Disney+ enjoyed early success with “The Mandalorian” and its staggering library of films, and Peacock introduced a free, ad-supported service. HBO Max had a less-than-robust launch – just over 12 million have activated the service – but the success of “The Flight Attendant,” renewed for Season 2, and the Christmas premiere of  “Wonder Woman 1984,” the same day it opens in theaters, provide a shot in the arm. In response to theaters closed by the pandemic, Warner Bros. decision to launch its entire 17-film slate on HBO Max in 2021 could be transformational.

Say goodbye to the big, long-running, culturally connecting sitcom

April’s “Modern Family” finale not only marked the end of a hilarious, Emmy-laden comedy. The critically praised ABC sitcom might just be the last of TV’s top-rated, long-running sitcom hits,  one year after the exit of CBS  juggernaut “The Big Bang Theory.” With audiences fragmented by streaming and shorter, fewer seasons, it’s hard to imagine another series, no matter how good, becoming as big a fixture in the cultural conversation. And that was before the pandemic, which threatens to accelerate the trends pushing against a big, bonding comedy – the kind of thing we all could use these days. At least we still have reruns of “Family,” “Big Bang,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “The Office” on streaming services, but there don’t appear to be many newer shows on that level to join them.

‘Schitt’s Creek’ says goodbye, and sweeps the Emmys

There were no vacancies at the Emmys for “Schitt’s Creek,” the Canadian best-comedy winner from obscure Pop TV – popularized by Netflix – which wrapped after six seasons in April and swept the comedy categories, a first. Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy won as lead actors, while Annie Murphy and co-creator Daniel Levy took the supporting categories. With wins for writing, directing, casting and costumes, there wasn’t a thorn for the Roses in sight.

The TV season launch that wasn’t 

Mid-September usually means it’s time for the (declining) broadcast TV business to roll out a slate of new and returning series, a custom that dates back to sponsorships by automakers to roll out their new car models each fall. But the pandemic production shutdown led to a staggered rollout: Some shows arrived in late October, others in November. And two entire networks (Fox and CW) will wait til 2021 to introduce their programming staples. 

‘SNL’ returns with a masked audience (and Jim Carrey’s bad version of Joe Biden)

In a year as tumultuous as 2020, “SNL” writers made valiant efforts to air spring shows remotely. But the 46th season, which boasts hosts including Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, has been more of a whimper, especially when it comes to covering the 2020 election. Jim Carrey’s Joe Biden impression fell flat in a year when the news is stranger than anything sketch comedy writers can come up with. He bowed out, and regular cast member Alex Moffat replaced him on Dec. 19. 

Netflix hit ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ starts a chess craze

Who knew chess could be so cool? Anya Taylor-Joy’s vivid performance as (fictional) champ Beth Harmon in what Netflix called its most popular limited series, which debuted in October, made the ancient game of strategy more appealing than ever and boosted sales of chess sets. While it’s easy enough to grab a fancy set and try your hand at the game, replicating Beth’s genius is a little harder.

The 2020 election (aka The Never Ending Story)

Who needs fictional drama? The presidential election and the way TV news covered it offered thrills, chills and spills that will keep everyone talking until the next presidential contest. The first presidential debate was one for the ages, mostly because of President Donald Trump’s out-of-control interruptions; Trump had dust-ups with CBS’ Lesley Stahl and NBC’s Savannah Guthrie; Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and NBC News got into an on-air fight days before the election; and the race was too close to call on Election Night, as news divisions had predicted. Network anchors seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when Joe Biden brought back a more traditional tone a few days later, after news organizations determined he had the votes to be anointed president-elect. But Trump still managed to get coverage with claims of a “rigged” election, even after the Electoral College sealed Biden’s win.

Legendary ‘Jeopardy!’ host Alex Trebek dies after brave cancer battle

Fans cheered Trebek as he continued to tape ‘Jeopardy!’ through October  as contestants offered emotional testimonials. The host provided a great service, speaking publicly about his Stage 4 pancreatic cancer while setting a wonderful example by embracing life. Unfortunately, the disease claimed Trebek’s life on Nov. 8, leading to an outpouring of tears and tributes. Fans will see his final episodes the week of Jan. 4, a clue to the correct question: What is a happy yet bittersweet way to start 2021?  

‘Supernatural’ says goodbye after 15 (!) seasons

Few prime-time shows last a decade and a half – you can count “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “NCIS” on one hand – but the long run of CW’s “Supernatural” is a truly paranormal feat. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padadecki played demon-fighting brothers since 2005 (the first season aired on predecessor WB, before CW even existed). The series had a special connection with its social media-savvy fans, including USA TODAY film critic Brian Truitt, who wrote that the series allowed him to “escape my own purgatory and head into a demon-filled world with two dudes who carried on, no matter what.”

Holiday movies become more inclusive  

As holiday TV specials (and outlets for them) mushroomed, from Mariah Carey to Carrie Underwood, from Rugrats to Snoopy to Minions, the made-for-TV Christmas movie, a programming staple on Lifetime, Hallmark (and lately, Netflix) began featuring more diverse characters, including LGBTQ couples, after facing pressure to represent. “It feels like it’s progress,” said gay actor Jonathan Bennett, who starred as half of a same-sex couple in Hallmark’s “The Christmas House.” 

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