The WGA strike might finally be getting resolved, and hopefully, SAG will follow. And while the entertainment business as we know it has been in limbo, it didn’t really slow down the battles that were being being played out for our viewership before picketing began. Clearly, there was a lot in the bank when it came to TV and streaming, though not all of it was great.
The much-hyped post-pandemic return to movie theaters that was the “Barbenheimer” box office bout was no accident and it couldn’t have been better timed. These two have yet to come to streaming, but they are sure to be competing again come awards season.
Otherwise, pretty much all of 2023’s best (and worst) releases are available to watch at home right now. In 2023, the lines have been blurred: cinema is TV. We’ve indicated which services to watch what on in parenthesis below and hyper-linked reviews from our LA Weekly/Village Voice critics.
The movie year started off strong with Blumhouse’s M3GAN (Prime Video) kicking butt over titles like Plane with Gerard Butler (Starz) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike’s Last Dance (Max). John Wick: Chapter 4 starring Keanu Reeves (VOD) triumphed over other releases including similarly stunt-driven superheroes like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (Disney +) and The Flash (Max).
Michael B Jordan’s anticipated directorial debut with Creed III (Prime Video) scored a knockout against Spring releases including Scream VI (Paramount+) and the Fast and Furious closer Fast X (Peacock). Star power was only part of the equation, by the way. Ben Affleck in Air (Prime Video) fared way better than Owen Wilson in Paint (Sling), Joaquin Phoenix in Beau is Afraid (VOD) and Nicolas Cage in Renfield (Peacock).
Read our cover story on Creed III with Michael B. Jordan here.
When you consume a lot of entertainment, certain trends start to emerge, often around the same time. Beyond superheroes and animation, comedy and young adult material has been prominent. Attempting to attract both the YA market and Gen-X nostalgia-seeking viewers, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (VOD) was better received than the Disney live action version of The Little Mermaid (Disney +), for example. Adult comedies are still having a moment: the Asian cast comedy Joy Ride (VOD) killed the Burt Kriescher movie The Machine (just debuted on Netflix), and Cocaine Bear (Prime Video) kinda mauled both.
The biggest money makers so far this year after Barbie, are The Super Mario Bros. Movie (Peacock), Spiderman Across the Spiderverse (VOD) and Guardians of the Galaxy (Disney+). Not too surprising. But were they really the best?
Straight to streamer offerings were plentiful too, especially series. Some shows returned with new seasons, some were new and begging for binges, some were so good we screened them twice and others were one-time hate-watches. Even bad TV has its own kind of droll delights, not the least of which is sharing disses on social media as the shows air or the next morning.
Winning Time (Max) ended forever with a big loser-themed finale nobody needed or wanted, while American Horror Story jumped the surgically enhanced shark with its latest season co-starring Kim Kardashian. But the great stuff outshone the bummers. What We Do In the Shadows’ (Hulu) latest season, fittingly and funnily, flew by. We’re still waiting to see how Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) wraps up and getting ready for deathly TV delights as Halloween season is upon us, which will be followed by holiday programming we’ll watch in all its familiar lit-up lunacy.
In the meantime, here’s a look back at prominent 2023 TV shows, good and not so much. Some are of similar ilks and seek the same audiences so we pitted them against each other to contrast their strengths, weaknesses and most importantly, their watchability.
Popstar vs. Rockstars
Let’s start with what will probably end up being the biggest entertainment fail of 2023, shall we? HBO’s name change might be a lasting misstep (or not) but its biggest mistake, maybe ever, was The Idol (MAX) which just announced its cancellation a few weeks ago. Great acting and cinematography might save Sam Levinson’s bleak teen drama Euphoria, but even big names and some strong performances couldn’t do the same for The Idol, an equally empty glamorization of drug use and messed up sexual dynamics. Provocative dramas are par for the course at MAX, but Levinson’s vibe is high style with little substance. Considering the subject matter –the music business– he might have pulled off something interesting with a more forceful satiric tone and a different male lead.
But The Idol glared with the arrogance of its creators, lacking relatability or any kind of contextual resonance to keep us engaged. Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd)’s input brought out the worst in Levinson’s exploitive proclivities and the result was a vile television experience as abusive for the viewer as it was for the main character Jocelyn (played with palpable effort by Lily Rose Depp). From its weak narrative and cartoonish character development to its gratuitous, not-hot sex scenes to the awful music that was supposed to help explain why anyone should care, this show was harder to watch than Britney Spears’ Instagram.
The analogy of course, is appropo, as The Idol was meant to be a commentary on the manufactured and cut-throat nature of pop stardom, with attention to how it uses and abuses women. At least that’s what original director Amy Seimetz seemed to have in mind before she was let go and the series underwent significant reshoots to tell a different story, highlighting Tesfaye as a sexually manipulative cult leader that Jocelyn falls for and ultimately gets musical inspiration from.
By the final episode (cut from six to five) the toxic tale attempted to flip the script, serving up a slightly twisty (and twisted) faux feminist take: turns out all the abuse and control Joc suffered each episode was her choice after all. She was looking to re-conjure the abusive relationship she had with her deceased mother through her romance with the rat-tail haired manipulator. She was using him, see.
The show ended with the popstar’s career back on track and a romantic reunion that re-established who was in charge, but instead of offering empowerment, the final message was more dire: everybody’s basically evil. The star, her team, the record company, the journalists who cover celebrity (thanks) and even the fans are all part of the problem, after all they’re the ones who buy in and help these cretins continue the cycle. The show tanked because it celebrated this disdain for everything, which was nothing to idolize.
By contrast, Daisy Jones and the 6 (Prime Video) at least infused some heart into its depiction of hedonist rock & roll music-making and band drama. Based on the best-selling novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid, the show (which we hope will come back for another season) explored the tempestuous relationships between members on a trajectory toward stardom. Clearly, there’s some Fleetwood Mac-ian influence here (Stevie Nicks, who recently shared her love for the show on social media, sure thinks so). Fronted by two charismatic lead singers—Daisy (Riley Keough) and Billy Dunne (Sam Claflin)—the show’s structured documentary style as a look back on how the group imploded.
It might have seemed like a quaint take on the music business compared to The Idol, but the 70’s setting and Almost Famous fashions felt authentic enough to ring true, providing flashbacks to another time before social media and filtered selfies. The characters have their vices (mostly drugs), but they’re presented as complex individuals who share a chemistry that makes most of the scenes pop, even when the music didn’t. That’s a feat in itself.
And speaking of music as dramatic subject matter, we need to mention the film Spinning Gold (VOD) which we screened around the same time these two shows came out. The story of Casablanca records creator Neil Bogart (played in over the top fashion by stage actor Jeremy Jordan), had a lot going for it, but it never felt real and it was hard to get lost in the story. From the badly cast actors playing Donna Summer, KISS and P-Funk, to an off-putting pace that sought to reference a stage musical and a proper biopic, but never quite landed either, the film featured some cool covers of the famed label’s gold selling hits, but qualified for bronze at best cinematically. Making movies and TV shows about music is still, it seems, hard to do.
The Bear vs. the Beef
The Emmys feel less relevant than ever right now, but they got it right with nods for these two shows. The Bear (Hulul/FX) and Beef (Netflix) are not only very watchable, but we dare say, they are mandatory re-watches. Both are better upon repeated viewing with nuances and new bits and pieces to notice in nearly every scene, creating a richer viewing experience all around.
In The Bear season 2, Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) decides to open a new fine dining restaurant in the space formerly owned by his deceased brother after discovering hidden money stashed in tomato cans. The staff of misfits introduced in season one are fleshed out further as they push themselves to help the stressed out chef accomplish this goal. We also get more family background in season two, which helps explain a lot of the chaos in season one.
The cast is top-notch, the acting is emotive and the writing is revelatory, but what stays with you most after watching Christopher Storer’s intense dramedy isn’t the humanity but rather, what backdrops it– the city of Chicago and the fast-paced insanity of the professional kitchen, which is captured in lingering close-ups, dizzying camera views, and lovingly shot locales. The Bear is a beautifully well-crafted work from start to finish, and we can’t imagine ever being too full for what it might serve moving forward.
Beef’s realistic portrayals of imperfect human interaction are equally meaty. Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) and Amy Lau (Ali Wong) share a chance meeting (a near car accident turned road rage incident) that ultimately becomes an obsession for both, with each infiltrating the others’ life to make it pure hell. Because that will make them feel better about their own unsatisfactory lives, ok?
It’s obvious that the show’s initial encounter will end up nowhere good but that’s what makes the show so fascinating. We’ve all felt this level of frustration, on the road, in the supermarket, at work and at home. Amy is rich and Danny is poor but neither seem happy and both seem too entitled to realize the blessings they actually do possess. As a viewer, watching what happens as their “beef” escalates and they finally do open their eyes to the insanity of their actions, is deliciously amusing. And it’s simply wonderful to see a talented all-Asian cast bring this riveting story to life. Cultural differences aside, we’re all the same. Unlike The Bear, which counts on viewers rooting for the main characters, Beef counts on the opposite. We want to see both protagonists learn a lesson from and move beyond the lunacy, which they do, but not before several acts of raging revenge.
(Note: The televised Emmy ceremony was supposed to air this month, on Sept. 18, 2023, but it’s been postponed to next year on Jan. 15, 2024 due to the strikes).
Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!
The Eva Longoria-directed movie Flamin Hot (Hulu) about the guy who invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, was a music-video style ride, even if the story was a bit ahem, embellished. Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) was the janitor at Frito-Lay who claimed to have invented the spicy version of the snack, and his story is told in zesty, swiftly paced montages that are fun if not exactly fulfilling, or historically accurate, apparently.
It’s nice to see authentic portrayals of Latino stories depicted on TV though, even when they’re not aspirational or inspirational. Mayans AC (Hulu/FX) just finished up its final season following the tribulations of the Mayans motorcycle club, and while it tried to tie up loose ends with a dark and violent finale, it ended up being more convoluted than the show itself, a problem we saw a few seasons in, and which became more irritating near the end for those of us who stayed with it. It was a respectable spin-off to Sons of Anarchy, but each show simply ran its course as it rode off into the sunset.
This Fool (Hulu), our favorite show depicting Latino life, finds the perfect balance between cultural immersion and comic absurdity. Co-creator/comic Chris Estrada is Julio Lopez, a 30-year-old South Central L.A. native who still lives at home and works for Hugs Not Thugs, a non profit that helps ex-gang members rehabilitate. Chris’ cousin Luis (Frankie Quiñones), who got out of jail last season and moved in with Chris’ family, made for plenty of back and forth quipping between the pair, and it was hilarious to watch last season.
Both fellows grew up a bit this year: Luis got a job and a girlfriend, even as Julio saw his own life turn stagnant, professionally and romantically. The storyline got a bit wacky this season, but it served to elevate both leads’ lives so things moved forward. Through it all, we got the intimate conversations, perspectives and disagreements that come up as each sought a better life. This is the most realistic depiction of the living in “the hood” we’ve seen in a while and what we love most is that, even when it’s negative, the humanity of the people depicted shines through. There’s a respect for the subjects and a realness (especially in the way people speak to each other) that permeates this show, and you don’t have to be Latino to relate or to laugh, a lot.
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