News gaffes, MasterChef and TikTok pranks: Australia's most memorable on-screen moments in 2020

When premier press conferences are among the most talked-about TV shows, you know it’s been a strange year

Last year’s list of the most memorable moments on Australian screens was dominated by drama series, comedy shows and fun. This year’s version is packed with exactly what we might have expected: moments from the news.

Below, Guardian Australian staff and contributors remember 2020’s highlights – and lowlights – of the small screen, which takes in social media as well as TV. Join us with yours in the comments below.

Paul Kelly v Malcolm Turnbull

For me, the most powerful moment on Australian TV this year was when Malcolm Turnbull faced off with Paul Kelly, the most senior Murdoch journalist in the Australian empire, over News Corp’s “climate denial”.

“I mean, it is so horrifically biased and such propaganda that Rupert’s own son James can’t stomach it,” Turnbull said. “How offensive, how biased, how destructive does it have to be, Paul, before you will say – one of our greatest writers and journalists – ‘It’s enough, I’m out of it’?”

The éminence grise of the Australian couldn’t hide his fury at being singled out and accused the former prime minister of “transferring” his own political failures. The interplay between political power and the media were played out right in front of us on the ABC. – Amanda Meade

WA premier Mark McGowan cracks up over kebabs

The 3 April news clip of McGowan “teetering on the edge of a full-blown cack” (as my friend said) is one for the ages and an evergreen reminder of something we’ve all felt: it’s hard to not laugh solely because you’re not supposed to.

It’s a pandemic time capsule too, showing how easily fear could careen into mania, as well as how abruptly our state premiers were shoved into their new roles as Behaviour Police. “A gentleman today in New South Wales,” said a journalist, dangerously close to busting up himself, “was going for a run, stopped to have a kebab, and then was handed out a fine.” It all unravelled from there. – Kate Hennessy

Dancing with the Stars: Covid edition

My memory of the sudden arrival of the new [Covid] normal on Ten’s Dancing With the Stars feels like a strange dream. The incursion of the catastrophe into the world of professional(ish) dancing was like Oz’s Technicolor draining back to greyscale. First the audience was banned, then contestant Christian Wilkins and his partner Lily Cornish were quarantined – and it seemed as though the fantasy was over. Until, on 22 March, the pair’s Viennese waltz was remote broadcast live from the rooftop of their hotel apartment.

In the midst of the rising panic of Covid-19, the sight of Christian and Lily gliding around the concrete garden in glimmering blush pink silk and sequins to Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s cover of It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World was a testament to the restorative, transportative nature of art. Even as the curtain seemed to be falling on everything we held dear, their dance – Christian’s poise and gender expansiveness; Lily’s strength – felt like a spark of hope before dark times. – Clem Bastow

Cardboard cutout fans at the footy

What could possibly go wrong? So said the (understandably) sceptical public, when the NRL announced a scheme whereby fans could upload a photograph and have cardboard cutouts of themselves placed in stadiums devoid of real supporters due to first-wave Covid restrictions.

Cardboard cut-outs of fans placed in seats at Central Coast Stadium during the round three NRL match between the Manly Sea Eagles and the Canterbury Bulldogs on 31 May 31.
Cardboard cut-outs of fans at Central Coast Stadium during the round three NRL match between the Manly Sea Eagles and the Canterbury Bulldogs on 31 May. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

With the kind of predictability that has largely been missing from the last year of sport, the scheme was hijacked by pranksters who first planted the faces of Brexit strategist Dominic Cummings, and then serial killer Harold Shipman, in the stands.

Things took a turn for the worse when Fox Sports added a digital Adolf Hitler, prompting outrage from the public and an apology from the broadcaster. – Mike Hytner

Jonathan Swan v Donald Trump

Jonathan Swan brought two secret weapons to his spectacular interview with Trump: a series of incredulous facial expressions, and actual follow-up questions. It’s not technically an Australian on-screen moment – but it has to make the list.

The young Australian, a former colleague of mine from the Sydney Morning Herald, skilfully unpicked the president’s nonsense, and laid bare the ignorance and lack of empathy at the heart of his non-response to the pandemic (“It is what it is” Trump replied when pushed on the spiralling death toll).

In a year where hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of the virus, the interview was a moment of cathartic farce, but at its core was pure tragedy. – Josephine Tovey

.@jonathanvswan: “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.”@realdonaldtrump: “You can’t do that.”

Swan: “Why can’t I do that?” pic.twitter.com/MStySfkV39

— Axios (@axios) August 4, 2020

Bachelor contestant has enough

Australian reality TV viewers were gearing up for a happily-polygamous-ever-after ending to The Bachelor this year after Locky Gilbert told both finalists he was in love with them the day before having to choose just one. So when crunch time came and Locky rejected Bella Varelis on national TV, an incredulous Bella turned to the show’s producers and uttered that memeable line: “Can I leave?”

It's all over for Bella and Locky 😥 #TheBachelorAU pic.twitter.com/SibDRXHQSj

— The Bachelor Australia 🌹 (@TheBachelorAU) September 24, 2020

But perhaps the most tea-spluttering moment from the whole hot mess of that season goes to the mother of semi-finalist Izzy Sharman-Firth, who cornered Locky during a home-town visit and blankly asked if he would consider donating some sperm as a “consolation prize” if her daughter didn’t win. – Janine Israel

Michael Rowland pranked by his son

For a period of time during lockdown, all art was created at home. Musicians streamed from their rooms, actors read Shakespeare at the dinner table. If you were the son of ABC breakfast host Michael Rowland, your medium was classic pranks, and the canvas was your dad.

😢 https://t.co/7DCYAIC7KY

— Michael Rowland (@mjrowland68) February 9, 2020

A series of virtuoso performances from son Tom, and his good-humoured father, went viral on TikTok, much like Rowland’s ABC colleague Andrew Probyn below. It was relatable to a whole generation of kids and parents who similarly now had to find a way to liven up lockdown. Endearing and, above all, very, very funny. – Naaman Zhou

Reckon it's about time to confiscate a certain someone's phone.. https://t.co/Skza7CQS5x

— Michael Rowland (@mjrowland68) February 13, 2020

Poh staring endlessly into the oven on MasterChef

MasterChef: Back to Win was a standout for so many reasons. But when I think back, what I remember most is Poh. I remember settling in each night, in the depths of Australia’s first lockdown, to watch a national treasure stare into an oven.

Find yourself a someone who looks at you the way Poh looks at her cake in the oven #MasterChefAU pic.twitter.com/eRQEzgz3Rn

— Sal (@Sal_Shad_) May 6, 2020

POH I WILL FOREVER BE YOUR RIDE OR DIE BUT THIS IS STRESSING ME THE FUCK OUT #MasterChefAU

— Benjamin Law 羅旭能 (@mrbenjaminlaw) July 5, 2020

Poh was a primetime panic attack. She made hugely ambitious dishes that left no time to spare, and did it all while radiating manic joy. It was stressful and kind of wonderful and, with so few TV shows still in production, it was all we had.

The chaotic cooks eventually caught up to her. Poh was eliminated for an undercooked curlugione, but her name lived on as a verb. To “do a Poh” is to sit in your kitchen stressing, helplessly waiting for everything to work out OK. It’s very 2020. – Meg Watson

Check your ovens for Poh #MasterChefAU pic.twitter.com/73g4GbdbTy

— Spiky Trap Podcasts (@SpikyTrap) July 5, 2020

Meyne Wyatt on Q&A

Closing a June episode of Q&A which focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and Indigenous deaths in custody, Meyne Wyatt stared down the barrel of the camera to deliver a monologue from his play City of Gold that made the nation’s hair stand on end. “‘How are we to move forward if we dwell on the past?’ That’s your privilege. You get to ask that question,” he told the audience with increasing and justified fury, in a speech that navigated the many overt and subtle forms of racism Indigenous people, including Wyatt and Adam Goodes, have lived with their entire lives.

“You want your blacks quiet and humble. ‘You can’t stand up, you have to sit down’,” he said. He then electrified the studio and the nation with his final lines: “Silence is violence. Complacency is complicity. I don’t want to be quiet. I don’t want to be humble. I don’t want to sit down.” – Steph Harmon

Andrew Probyn doesn’t run the press conference

It was gone 9pm on 22 March and an episode of the most talked about television show of the year – political press conferences about the Covid-19 pandemic – was under way. For those that can remember that far back, 22 March was the day that Scott Morrison announced the first major wave of restrictions, and told the ABC political editor, Andrew Probyn, that he, Andrew, did not run the press conference.Probyn had been repeatedly pushing the then chief medical officer, Prof Brendan Murphy, on why the medical advice allowed for schools to remain open. Until Morrison intervened.

“Andrew, I’m sorry … Andrew, I know, but you don’t run the press conference, OK? So I’m going to go to other questions of members of, of the group, Katharine hasn’t had a question, I’m happy to return to you but let’s just keep it civil. Katharine?”

If you hear that quote with Duke Dumont’s Red Light Green in the background, you’re not alone. It was a TikTok sensation. Only Daniel Andrews saying “get on the beers” could compete, despite Morrison’s attempt to turn his mispronunciation of “barre” on 24 March into a year-long exercise in likeability.

Both Probyn and the Katharine in question, Guardian Australia’s political editor Katharine Murphy, have been good natured about becoming famous not for their consistently excellent reporting but because bored teens made a bunch of parody tracks. – Calla Wahlquist

Contributors

Amanda Meade, Kate Hennessy, Clem Bastow, Mike Hytner, Josephine Tovey Janine Israel, Naaman Zhou, Meg Watson, Steph Harmon, Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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