Why Critical Role and Binging with Babish Were the Best TV of 2020
With 2020 in the books and all the retrospectives done, it's time to face some cold, hard facts: broadcast network TV as we know it is a wasteland. Cable is better, but it shouldn't be surprising that Bleeding Cool's Top 10 of 2020 was dominated by shows premiering on streaming platforms Amazon Prime, Netflix, and, yes, CBS All Access. But it's streaming shows on Twitch and Youtube, specifically Critical Role and Binging With Babish, that made the top of my year-end list.
I'm a big believer in the adage that Wayne Gretzky followed that made him such a great hockey player: skate to where the puck is going, not where it is. And the TV puck in 2020 moved away from not only the broadcast behemoths but to low-fi shows streamed predominantly on YouTube and Twitch. This is the future of television.
Part of that is due to how we changed what we watched in 2020. The global COVID pandemic took us out of movie theaters and gave us more time at home. It shut down or delayed most television production, leaving a big hole in summer and fall television. The big corporate attempts to fill that void were spectacular failures (RIP Quibi, press F to pay respects) but there are only so many episodes of The Great British Baking Show and Queen's Gambit.
So what to do? Well, if you were like me, you leaned hard into people who were still able to put out content regularly. That meant YouTube and Twitch, where streamers continued their creation of peak content. So when Ray Flook asked us to give him our top 10 shows of the year, I delivered a respectable list that included Lovecraft Country, The Boys, and The Mandalorian, (all of which ended up on our collective list) but my top 2 shows were not included in the Bleeding Cool Top 10 of 2020. And I just have to stop and praise them for going where the puck is going. They are not only the two best shows on television, they are poised to continue being the best even as traditional productions have to shut down amidst worsening COVID restrictions.
Also, a quick honorable mention shout-out to other puck-chasers, including Everyone Who Played Among Us in 2020, especially Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and to Matthew Patrick aka MatPat of Game Theory and Film Theory who during the pandemic decided to launch a third YouTube channel: Food Theory. Now on to our best:
The Babish Culinary Universe
Andrew Rea, who adopted the nom de plume "Oliver Babish" (a West Wing reference!) for his YouTube channel, began with re-creating iconic food from movies and television on his YouTube channel four years ago. But 2020 is the year in which he went to the next level. My quarantine began with watching lots of the Bon Appetit YouTube channel. But when fan-favorite Sohla El-Waylly took to Instagram to reveal that she and other women of color on their staff were not being paid the same as the white male stars, it began a mass staff exodus and the channel went on a 4-month hiatus and lost tens of thousands of subscribers, yours truly among them.
When Sohla then reappeared on Binging with Babish in the midst of this controversy, a seismic change was afoot. A few weeks later, Rea announced the beginning of Sohla's own show on his channel, "Stump Sohla," and that they would be rebranding as the appropriate yet puckishly grandiloquent Babish Culinary Universe. Bringing on El-Waylly was an important but quiet step in passing the mic. Andrew Rea wasn't just going to be Tony Stark any more: he was going to start his own kitchen version of The Avengers.
And they've continued putting out some of the best cooking content anywhere, quickly jumping on a recreation of the macarons Baby Yoda was feasting on in The Mandalorian (featuring Jon Favreau!) along with recipes with Parks and Recreation, Schitt's Creek, Steven Universe, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Friends. Sohla took on her own challenges, including recreating "spooky" Halloween candy, a Thanksgiving livestream, and culminating in a year-end showdown which is full of homages to The Great British Bake-Off.
Oh yeah, that British Bake Off challenge? Sohla makes a Festivus party-scape, and Babish made a Gingerbread Borg Cube for "Captain Picard Day." Let me explain: He made little. gingerbread. Borg. men. He frosted the gingerbread Borg cube with earl-grey tea flavored icing. And talked about how the plural of Borg is Borg. This is the show.
This was my comfort food all year long. This is what I turn on when I don't know what else to watch. Thank you Babish, and thank you Sohla.
This was the best show I've watched all year. The self-described "bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors who sit around playing Dungeons and Dragons" have provided the best story, best characterizations, and the most fun of any show I've watched all year.
I've said repeatedly that Critical Role is the future of television, and specifically praising their response to COVID that continued their show in a safe way where no one has gotten sick. Let me pause there for a moment: no one has gotten sick. They have been smart and responsible and safe. That's no small feat, and even more refreshing, the show has always taken a safety-first approach, simply saying that no show is worth anyone's health and they won't do the show if everyone can't be safe. Wow. How amazingly refreshing.
Now look out: 2021 is poised to be another breakout year for Critical Role. Their comics series expands this year with new Origins series focusing on Jester and Caleb. We're getting more Sideshow collectibles to add to our Vox Machina Funko Pops. Their long-awaited Legend of Vox Machina animated series, backed by a record-breaking Kickstarter, will drop on Amazon Prime (Serenrae willing) later this Fall. And don't forget their non-profit, the Critical Role Foundation, which literally puts their money where their mouth is (seriously, name another TV show that gives away a sizeable portion of their profits. I'll wait.), and Darrington Press, their new board game publishing wing.
But even more important is what they did this year. They are, weekly, one of the most-watched streams on Twitch. And just like network television of yore, they are must-see-tv every Thursday evening. In a world of on-demand and DVR, they are my only "appointment television" every week. They gave fans something to look forward to every week– an incredible feat given the endless monotony and despair of socially distant quarantine life.
But for four hours every Thursday night, something magical happened. We were transported to a faraway land full of mystery and intrigue, and we did it with a worldwide fanbase screaming in the chat or on Twitter. We cheered for characters in their growth and development. We got gigantic payoffs for story seeds planted literally years earlier, mysteries uncovered, and romances finally consummated.
There is more heart, more pain and glory, more comedy, more tension on Critical Role every week than any other show on television. And they do it all with the most basic of methods: voice actors creating characters acted out by tiny resin miniatures playing a board game on tiny resin sets. And that's sort of the magic to it: we, the audience, add the special sauce. Because we can imagine what these settings look like, and those fantasies will be better than any practical or digital effects anyone could possibly make.
And it's what makes the show's players so great. These actors are at the top of their respective games. They are master improvisers and actors– even turning the smallest of things (say, an interaction with a patch of crabgrass) become something completely memorable with surprising social commentary about bodily consent (yes, that really happened).
But part of the magic is that we, the audience, get to enjoy not only the characters and their story, but also the meta-game elements knowing that these eight people are not just playing these roles, but are also real people underneath with long, complicated histories and friendships. We also got to see these interactions as, during the show's COVID hiatus, BFF's Liam O'Brian and Sam Riegel would just jump in a stream and talk about their dogs, their kids, and normal stuff. It was so beautiful and human. It was a reflection of what we were all going through. In a larger sense, Critical Role helped fill the void of playing with our friends every week. It's part of the social interaction we craved and needed in 2020.
Thank you, Critical Role. You made us all feel a little more connected to each other, to friends and other fans, in a time when most of us were very isolated. You made us laugh, cry, and every other emotion. You gave us something to live for– to look forward to in the darkest days of monotony and despair. So to Matt, Travis, Laura, Liam, Sam, Ashley, Taliesin, Marisha, Dani, Brian, and the dozens of other people who make Critical Role happen every week: thank you. You are the best thing on TV in 2020.