The movies, TV shows and pop-culture bits that stopped me going full-on insane during lockdown
After more than a year stuck indoors, this never-ending bastard lockdown is (hopefully) showing signs of fucking right off. While we all look forward to pints, cinema trips and eating meals somewhere other than the bum-grooves in our sofa, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate some of the movies, TV shows and cool pop-culture bits that literally helped me stay sane during the darkest hours of the pandemic. While the past twelve months have shown us some dark stuff, they've also showcased how healing, therapeutic and necessary a steady hit of escapism can be. Without it, all we’d be left with is reality - and right now, reality is shit. So with that in mind, here’s a few (but not all) of the lockdown lifesavers that have kept me going through this viral nightmare...
Binged before but always worth a revisit, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s tale of blue ruin was one of the first things I ducked into when the shit hit the fan. It’s a show that’s become so big, a mere mention of how good it actually is has, in turn, become a bit of a worn out cliche. I don’t care though. It is good - fucking well good - and that bears repeating. Watching Walter White transform from doormat dad to crack kingpin is one hell of a nail biting and joyous high that struggles getting old. Despite knowing exactly what dangers lurk around each of its corners, it amazed me just how fresh and tense the show remained throughout my second run through. Essential viewing.
Like all good shows, Succession’s elevator pitch sounds boring as fuck: Super-rich 1%-er family desperately struggles to hold on to their super-rich 1%-er lifestyle. However like all good shows, the real joy lies in its subtle character interactions and rapid-fire dialogue. Produced by smart silly man Adam McKay and created by Peep Show hero Jesse Armstrong, Succession was, simply put, one of the most enjoyable twenty hours of lockdown. Brian Cox’s prick patriarch Logan Roy gives Rupert Murdock a run for his money; his scorned successor Kendall is played to painful perfection by Jeremy Strong; Matthew MacFadyen’s executive idiot Tom left me giggling for ages at a stupid egg-based name-pun and Kieran Culkin’s irresistibly weird Roman Roy beat them all while still only giving a tiny amount of fucks. Stop reading, go watch.
It’s the TV show that changed TV shows. At its core, The Sopranos is James Gandolfini's finest hour. His three-dimensional performance as mopey mob boss Tony Soprano is staggering; making us love, hate, emphasise, sympathise and root for someone who's essentially a brutal killer. However beyond Tony, the experience of losing yourself in The Sopranos really is like joining a family. From the inevitable tragedy of cousin Christopher and the wing-tipped eccentricities of Paulie Walnuts, to the tight-lipped excellence of Silvio Dante and constantly conflicted conscience of Carmela. By the end of its six season arc, you’ll be questioning your own moral compass when it comes to just how much you care for these terrible people. Truly the Godfather of lockdown entertainment.
Some unfiltered stupidity was exactly what 2020 needed and Stath Lets Flats delivered it in droves. The mark of a good comedy surely comes in its ability to create quotes that unconsciously worm their way into your every-day vocabulary, and writer/creator Jamie Demetriou - together with comedy king Robert Popper - created some gems that became instant convo classics. Essentially, it’s a show about the world’s worst letting agent, his wannabe singer sister Sophie (Jamie’s real-life sibling Natasia) and their painfully polite pal Al (Alastair Roberts). However much of its funny comes from the broken phraseology of Greek-born-London-lad Stath and his hopeless family, alongside a peek inside the bizarre world of small-time residential lettings. Lockdown delivered the standard Zoom-reunion - but a third series can’t come quick enough.
When I’m not stuffing colourful content stuff into my eyes, I’m ramming music into my ears - and recently, we’ve needed an abundance of both to drown out the sorrow. I sort of feel like BBC 6 Music should get some kind of post-pandemic award for their unrelenting dedication to distracting us from the flaming poo-heap that took control of early 2020 and refused to let go. Their DJs have clearly been under strict instructions never to mention the terrible reality of the outside world under any circumstances and if it wasn’t for the depressing dirge of their a-bit-too-regular news updates (this just in: everything’s still shit), you’d likely never know that the world had ground to a halt. Who knew hearing Shaun Keaveny share details of listeners' lunch options could be so important for my mental health?
I was late to Taskmaster. Admittedly, I was initially put off by the mainstream, panel show look of it. Then, all ten seasons hit 4OD (and I ran out of things to watch), and I realised just how wrong I had been to judge it so prematurely. The secret to Taskmaster’s genius is its stupid simplicity. Each season pits a new (and varied) group of comics against an increasingly ridiculous set of tasks - some easy, some sneaky, some near impossible - and all of which can be tackled in an infinite number of ingenious ways, as long as they stay within the predetermined rules set by series creator and task-thinker-upper, Alex Horne. Once complete, they’re judged by the Taskmaster himself, Greg Davies - who’s clearly having loads of fun lording it up as the high and mighty point-giver. Ingenious and frequently hilarious, it’s like lockdown medicine.
One of the most enjoyable things about living through a time where entertainment is key to survival is sticking something on that genuinely blows your socks off. I’m talking about the things you had little-to-no expectation for going into them that literally emerge as one of your new favourite things by the time you're on the way out of them. Bong Joon-Ho’s barrier-shattering award winner Parasite was that movie for me during the early days of lockdown. When you start out watching this family of highly-skilled con-artists slowly worm their way into a wealthy home, you stupidly assume you know where it’s headed - only for it to pull the rug out from under you time and time again. Most people will have seen this already - so I’m not saying anything new - but if you’re among the few that haven’t, hit play blind.
Released during the dark days of the second wave but only just making its UK debut in April 2021, Palm Springs is a time-loop comedy that flips the format on its head. You may not think that a movie set in a world where every day is literally the same as the one that came before it is the ideal viewing experience to help you through our own personal Groundhog Day - but you’d be wrong. Starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and JK Simmons, the cast's positive vibes and the bright and peppy aesthetics of Palm Springs are more than enough to lift your mood. Throw in some great gags, touching unexpectedly performances and an overall ethos that re-enforces the importance of appreciating what you have - and suddenly being stuck in the same situation day in, day out doesn’t seem so bad.
If ever there was a time where we could ALL use a Jeff Winger motivational speech, it’s been during the past twelve months. Throughout Community's troubled six season (and hopefully a movie, yeah?), it was these uplifting monologues, delivered by star Joel McHale, that helped Greendale’s weirdo study group find order in the chaos - no matter how dark (or meta) their situation. Unfortunately, while we haven’t had the same calming quotes to help us through COVID, we have had all episodes of Dan Harmon’s much-loved cult-hit. Packed with throwaway gags that are funnier than the A-game material from most mainstream shows, Community's reliable humour certainly helped keep spirits high - but it’s the show’s heart and warmth that assured us that things ultimately can, and will, get better.
Have a movie or a TV show that you treat like comfort food? Something you stick on in the background purely because you just enjoy its rhythms and familiar sounds? For me, 30 Rock is that show. Set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-esque late night variety show in New York City, 30 Rock is literally bursting at the seams with one liners that are not just brilliant - but smart, multi-layered and packed with a level of hilarity that seems to improve with age. These aren’t just ordinary jokes - they’re Airplane level rib-ticklers. The type that force a unfiltered belly laugh out of your face before you’ve even had chance to comprehend exactly what it is you’ve heard. No matter how shit things get, 30 Rock is guaranteed to lift my mood.
One of the best bits of early lockdown was getting to binge Broad City in its entirety. I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of this show much before my amazing fiancée recommended we watch it. As a huge fan of wandering around New York City, its urban, street-worn look was enough to lure me in but it was creator/star duo Ilana Glazer and Abbie Jacobson that kept me glued to its five season journey. Their brand of outlandish yet painfully relatable comedy made the show more than just one of the best comedies I’d seen in the past few years. Instead, it transcended into a kind of coming of age ode to leaving your wild twenties and facing up to the (sometimes harsh) realities of adult life.
If - like me - you enjoy feeling smarter than the people around you whilst knowing deep down that you’re really a complete moron that doesn’t even know words good - then listening to science podcasts is a great way of maintaining the lie. Of all the brainy conversations currently out there in the pod-verse, I found myself drawn to the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage Podcast mainly thanks to its mix of intellectual brains and low brow humour. Led by razor sharp comic Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox - it’s one that I’d listened to quite a bit before the pandemic hit. However when things really started to look bleak, being reminded how pointless and insignificant everything really is suddenly took on a new level of importance.
You can’t stop Saturday Night Live. The weekly variety show that has helped forge the foundations and future of modern alternative comedy has survived almost five decades and when the pandemic hit, they were among the first to push forward in whatever way they could. Thankfully, those live-streamed audiences didn’t last long - and when they’d finally worked out the kinks and repurposed the show to safely resemble a familiar shape, its ability to puncture the ever-constant stream of stress bubbles caused by COVID and politics was hugely therapeutic. Combating the unpredictable craziness of an out-of-control year with a hit of irreverent humour is a much needed reminder that sometimes, you’ve just got to laugh.
Making the transition to live streamed living may have been an awkward for most - but for Scottish comedian Limmy, it’d long been his bread and butter. After earning his place in the all-time alternative comedy Hall of Fame a few years back with his slightly psychotic Vines and viral videos and three series of the weird and wonderful Limmy’s Show for the BBC, Limmy had since turned his attention to Twitch and was making a healthy living live-streaming games, telling jokes and dreaming up improvised stories based on fan-suggested titles. Limmy’s humour has always edged on the dry and dark side of life - which is something I personally love - so listening to his meandering and strangely specific improv stories quickly became a nice end-of-the-day decompressor. The guy’s a constant content generator too - so this is one piece of escapism that’ll hang around long after COVID stops trending.
Author: Simon Bland