I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a ridiculously stressful year, and that's understating it. Turns out, living in a historical moment is actually not much fun at all. There have been countless discussions about how creative people might or should depict all of this, but here's my two cents: I really, really just want something joyful.
There's an argument to be made that art — movies, TV, music, podcasts, theater, books, etc. — in 2021 and beyond ought to address the difficulties of 2020 head-on, especially the COVID-19 pandemic. I do think it's important that there be stories that look at the tough realities of this year, the major movements, the major frustrations, all the things that have been on our minds. We can't ignore that, and I don't believe we should. But I also believe we are tired. We're not meant to handle this much sustained trauma and collective grief, and after living through it, we don't need every piece of storytelling we consume to ask us to relive it. We don't need a dozen comedies about families quarantined together or dramas about losing loved ones — we've been living it. We've been pretty short on joy this year, and it would be nice to replenish those reserves again.
"After all the sad stories of 2020, can we make 2021 the year where we finally acknowledge that happy stories are not less-than?"
By "joyful," I should say, I don't mean shallow escapism that just swipes the surface with fluffy plots and a nice aesthetic to pretend everything is fine. I'm talking about stories that lift us up without pretending that the tough spots of life don't exist. I'm talking about romance books that let their protagonists work through major issues but assure readers that things will be alright in the end. I'm talking about shows like The Good Place or One Day at a Time that have used humor and heart to prod at the ridiculous moments in life as much as the heavy ones, or sci-fi and fantasy that's more about a utopian, hopeful vision than a dystopian one.
Yes, some of these shows are off the air now, but all that means is that there's a wide opening for new storytellers to come in and fill that much-needed gap. One of my most-anticipated movies of 2021 is In the Heights, the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's pre-Hamilton Tony-winning musical. It deals with issues of immigration and gentrification, but it's also an unapologetically celebratory story. I'm excited for the return of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, which seems to have picked up the torch for funny TV shows that understand heartache too. It's hard to be certain what will and won't come out next year, given the continued uncertainties of the world, but I'm hopeful that these titles will just be a few among many that embrace a spirit of hope.
The biggest argument I hear about these kinds of stories are that they're "unrealistic" or "easy." But you know what? Joy is neither unrealistic nor easy — not to write, and not to live. Somewhere along the line, we decided that "prestige" storytelling was a synonym for grim, unhappy, and morally gray. But there's just as much skill involved in writing a complicated story that leads to a happy ending as there is in writing a sad one. After all the sad stories of 2020, can we make 2021 the year where we finally acknowledge that happy stories are not less-than?
That's not to say we should turn a blind eye to the important knowledge and awareness that has come out of 2020. In fact, I believe some of the things that have been in the spotlight are fully compatible with joy and hope as well. Movements for racial justice, awareness of class and economic disparities, and conversations about equality and equity are all complex ideas that can and should influence storytelling going forward, but that doesn't just mean a bunch of "struggle" narratives; narratives with the "bigotry has no place" ethos of Schitt's Creek can live alongside narratives that unflinchingly depict the horrors of bigotry and brutality. Shows like Watchmen have proven that complex social issues can live alongside incredibly entertaining storytelling.
People who live through terrible things don't need every single piece of art and entertainment to rehash those things, but also don't need those things completely swept under the rug. As in most things, it's about balance — and right now, the "struggle" side of the scale is pretty heavily weighted, so it might be nice to add a little to the "joy" side.