A Year in Review with 'Frontline'

Daniel Hautzinger
Frontline 2020 films

Pandemic, protests, polls: as you've heard and thought a million times since March, this has been an unprecedented year. Throughout, Frontline has continued to produce documentaries and investigative journalism to help you make sense of it all, even if the COVID-19 pandemic has demanded some adaptations in how Frontline works behind the scenes. All of Frontline's documentaries chronicling this year of upheaval are available to stream on-demand for free (as are other Frontline films); revisit them below. And don't miss the Frontline Dispatch podcast; the Frontline Transparency Project, which lets you view unedited interviews conducted for their documentaries; and written reporting from both Frontline and local journalism partners.

America's Great Divide: From Obama to Trump

Photo: Courtesy of, left to right: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images; BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty ImagesPhoto: Courtesy of, left to right: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images; BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Coming in between the House of Representatives' impeachment of Donald Trump and his acquittal by the Senate (yes, the impeachment trial happened this year), the two-part America's Great Divide tried to understand how America became so polarized and went from electing Barack Obama to Trump. It served as "kind of an overture as the curtain goes up on the political year," producer Michael Kirk told WTTW, a prelude to November's presidential election produced before COVID-19 was on many Americans' minds. 

Coronavirus Pandemic

Image: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS; Center for Disease ControlImage: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS; Center for Disease Control

Coronavirus Pandemic was produced in the uncertain early days of the pandemic's arrival in the United States and as such required some creative thinking about how to deal with constantly updating safety protocols, as producer Miles O'Brien explained to WTTW. The film narrates the first cases of COVID-19 in this country, in Washington, and investigates the federal failures that led the U.S. to have the worst outbreak in the world. 

Inside Italy's COVID War

Dr. Francesca Mangiatordi, who leads the emergency department at Cremona Hospital in Northern Italy. Photo: Sasha Achilli/FRONTLINEPhoto: Sasha Achilli/FRONTLINE

Northern Italy was one of the areas of the world hit hardest by COVID-19 in the first few months of the pandemic. Frontline went inside one beleaguered hospital and followed an ER doctor as she and her colleagues exhausted themselves trying to save as many lives as possible. 

The Virus: What Went Wrong?

President Trump holds coronavirus response event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington. May 15, 2020.Photo: Kevin Lamarque/REUTERSPhoto: Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Although the United States had warning of the devastation of COVID-19 as the virus swept through Asia and Europe, America's leaders failed to adequately prepare and protect its citizens. Frontline investigates what happened. 

COVID's Hidden Toll

Workers at the Field Fresh Farms in Gonzales, CA. Photo: Victor Tadashi Suarez/FRONTLINEPhoto: Victor Tadashi Suarez/FRONTLINE

The COVID-19 crisis has hit underserved communities particularly hard, including immigrants and undocumented workers who lack crucial protectiosn in meat-packing plants and on farms, as Frontline shows. 

United States of Conspiracy

Alex Jones screams into a megaphone as protesters against the state's extended stay-at-home order to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) demonstrate at the Capitol building in Austin, Texas, U.S., April 18, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Callaghan O’HarePhoto: REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare

A shared sense of reality has become ever more shaky in the United States in the past few years, as conspiracy theories have even reached the White House. Frontline looks at how Donald Trump and his associate Roger Stone have helped amplify conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. 

Love, Life & the Virus/Undocumented in the Pandemic

Hospital workers help COVID-19 patient and mother Zully to take her first steps after being removed from a ventilator at a Stamford Hospital ICU on April 24, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Photo: John Moore/Getty ImagesPhoto: John Moore/Getty Images

These two films tell the stories of immigrant families during COVID-19: one in which a mother diagnosed with the virus gives birth while on a ventilator; the other about the detainment of a father in an ICE facility where COVID-19 is rampant. 

Growing Up Poor in America

Growing Up Poor in America. Photo: FRONTLINEPhoto: FRONTLINE

COVID-19 has only exacerbated the poverty of families who were already struggling, and thrown huge amounts of people closer to poverty as jobs have vanished overnight. Frontline follows famiiles in Ohio as they reckon with poverty, homelessness, racism, and the pandemic. 

In January, WTTW's FIRSTHAND series takes on poverty in Chicago, having already told stories related to coronavirus and gun violence, at wttw.com/firsthand.

Policing the Police 2020

A demonstrator raises his arms towards a convoy of police vehicles during a protest in Oakland, California in May 2020 after the death of George Floyd. Photo: Stephen Lam/REUTERSPhoto: Stephen Lam/REUTERS

Four years ago, New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb examined the tension between police and African Americans in Newark for Frontline. In the wake of this year's mass demonstrations for racial justice and police accountability, he revisited Newark to see whether reform can work. 

The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden

Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Image: FRONTLINEImage: FRONTLINE

As it does every four years, Frontline offered profiles of the two candidates for U.S. President as the election approached, in The Choice 2020.

Producer Michael Kirk talked about the stakes of the election with WTTW in September.

America's Medical Supply Crisis

Various N95 respiration masks at a laboratory of 3M. Photo: REUTERS/Nicholas PfosiPhoto: REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi

Medical professionals and first responders faced a dangerous and infuriating lack of critical medical equipment and protective supplies in the early weeks and months of the pandemic in America. Frontline and the Associated Press investigate why. 

Whose Vote Counts

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, residents of Milwaukee, Wisconsin wait in line to vote in the presidential primary election while wearing masks and practicing social distancing. April 7, 2020. Photo: Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK via REUTERSPhoto: Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK via REUTERS

A presidential election in the middle of a pandemic ended up with record turnout, but it could easily have gone differently. Frontline, Columbia Journalism Investigations, USA Today, and New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb investigate reports of voter disenfranchisement, insinuating rhetoric around mail-in ballots, and the other challenges of this year's election. 

American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil

Frontline: American Voices. Image: Mike Shum/FRONTLINEImage: Mike Shum/FRONTLINE

How have Americans responded to and forged through this trying year? Frontline shares their experiences, hopes, and fears. 

Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court

Mitch McConnell and Amy Coney Barrett. Photos: From left to right: Aaron Bernstein/REUTERS; Claire Anderson/Unsplash; POOL New/REUTERSPhotos: From left to right: Aaron Bernstein/REUTERS; Claire Anderson/Unsplash; POOL New/REUTERS

With the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Republican rush to confirm Amy Coney Barrett as her replacement on the Supreme Court in the month before the election, Frontline revisited its 2019 film about increasingly partisan battles over the land's highest court, updating it to include Barrett's nomination. 

Producer Michael Kirk discussed the original Supreme Revenge with WTTW in 2019, and his thoughts still hold true.