Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 Flashback: Television

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2023 TV Shows I Missed That I Wish I Had Seen Before Compiling This List: Jury Duty, Gen V, Poker Face, Mrs. Davis, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off

2023 TV Shows I Missed, Don't Regret Missing, and Will Go Out of My Way to Continue Missing Until the End of Linear Time: Grease: The Rise of the Pink Ladies, Citadel, Bupkis, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, Ahsoka

Top Ten Episodes of 2023 

#10 "Joan is Awful" Black Mirror

Black Mirror goes funny with this tale of a woman whose life is turned into a prestige streaming series starring Salma Hayek, and it thrives on the back of randomly pairing Hayek with Schitt's Creek's Annie Murphy with spectacular results.

#9 "February 14th" And Just Like That

An episode of And Just Like That that involves dating and sex comedy? Well, I never! This episode also features Charlotte's best moment on the entire show, which is her reaction when she mistakenly thinks she's having a stroke.

#8 "Guns for Hire" The Mandalorian

Don't let the picture fool you, neither Lizzo nor Jack Black are the reason I'm putting this here. Their joint appearance is... random. But this episode uses a side quest plot to pull the show's head out of its own ass (temporarily, anyway) and just digs in on sci-fi mayhem to deliver a fun afternoon matinee adventure set in Space Epcot.

#7 "Jennifer's Body" Chucky

The only negative about this episode is the fact that this show's habit of reintroducing its legacy characters in siloed-off episodes that interrupt the flow of the main narrative is still in full force. But it's so downright hilarious and full of gnarly kills that it sands the edges right off of any possible complaints that could arise from that fact.

#6 "Sorry" Heartstopper

Heartstopper season 2 had some pretty severe ups and downs (seriously, not everybody in a school can be queer, let's maybe relax just a smidge), but this one thrives because it acknowledges that bad things do exist in the world sometimes. I would consider it a high point just for the tremendously awkward dinner party at Nick's house, but it also features one of the show's best moments, both aesthetically and narratively, during a confrontation between Charlie and one of the most challenging characters in the ensemble.

#5 "Big Mouth's Going to High School (But Not for Nine More Episodes)" Big Mouth

This episode effortlessly introduces the new storylines that will be taking place this season as the core characters prepare to graduate junior high. However, it also pulls off the dazzling tightrope act of doing this while still pushing the pedal to the metal on grossout comedy, absurdism, and satire that all zip by at an impossible breakneck speed. The way they cram so much mayhem into one 30-minute chunk should not be humanly possible.

#4 "KSGY-95 Prizewinner's Luau" Party Down

Judy Reyes is a great guest star to bring in here, it's always a delight seeing her. However, the truly astounding feat that the episode pulls off is committing to a drug trip storyline that is neither hackneyed nor fundamentally misunderstands how drugs work. Will the wonders ever cease?

#3 "Urgent Care" What We Do in the Shadows

This episode is full to bursting with everything that makes this weird little show so terrific. While Laszlo in particular is in rare form, nearly everyone else gets just as much to do, and John Slattery makes for a surprisingly epic guest star.

#2 "Cary & Brooke Go to an AIDS Play" The Other Two

The Other Two has been one of our best cultural documents of being gay in the modern world, and this is a hilarious, incisive skewering of the way so much art self-indulgently mines the trauma of AIDS (and the way criticism is powerless in the face of how Important the subject matter is). Lukas Gage is a guest star to beat the band (a band that played on, I'm sure) and the bottle episode that forms the first two-thirds of this is rib-shatteringly hilarious.

#1 "Cary Gets His Ass Handed to Him" The Other Two

I usually try to limit myself to one episode per show, but the dearly departed The Other Two is no typical show. There's nothing I love more than a well-executed farce, and this one builds to a crescendo so exquisitely as poor, poor Pat just tries to have a normal family meal at an Applebee's while everything (and somehow more) goes wrong around her. This episode also nails a few significant emotional beats, which should be impossible among the absurdity and mayhem.

Bottom Five Episodes of 2023 

#5 "Breaking Brad" Loki

The convoluted gobbledygook on display in the worldbuilding here really suffers from this show having been on hiatus for two years, because they quite unreasonably assume you to have an intimate knowledge of goings-on from Loki season 1 that any person with interests outside the Marvel universe would have consigned to their brain's recycle bin at least 18 months ago. The titular Brad is, just like Earring Magic Ken, a character in need of a guest star. They're trying to sell him as this deliciously wicked Hannibal Lecter type, and it fails in every possible way. Also, the "justified torture" of it all makes it feel more than anything else like a latter-season episode of 24. I can't imagine why anybody behind the scenes might have thought this episode would be fun to sit through.

#4 "Trust the Process" High School Musical: The Musical: The Series

Just when you think High School Musical: The Musical: The Series might have figured its shit out, they pull an episode like this. Just like Glee before it, they decided to cement in their final season by spending most of an entire episode withering away the viewer's time on endless, useless flashbacks that are meant to bring the story full circle but add absolutely nothing. 

#3 "She's Not There" You

As if we needed a psychedelic freakout in the penultimate chapter of this already extremely erratic season. Penn Badgley directs this one, and he has no vision of how to restrain his own performance. This episode also features the immortal line "You've changed me the way opening a window changes a dark room." Windows are famously see-through, my dude!

#2 "Resurrection" Secret Invasion

It's always nice to see Olivia Colman, but there are so many other places one can see her. Why bother with this musty paranoid drama that assumes the MCU's Nick Fury has character traits worth exploring beyond "cool old dude?" It's so caught up in its nonsense politics that it forgets to put him in a story worth telling, squandering away an Invasion of the Body Snatchers setup that should have been a piece of cake to mount in a satisfying way. Also, this episode features one of the most poorly planned spy maneuvers ever conducted, which is then executed even more poorly. 

#1 "tricky legacies" Barry

Barry season 4 took a wrong turn and ended up smack-dab inside its own ass. This time jump episode is meant to be disorienting, but it's also just dour and po-faced and desperately uninteresting on top of that.

Best New Show: Party Down

It's always astonishing when a beloved "canceled too soon" show gets a revival and it's actually good, but Party Down really picked up without missing a beat. It's such a blessing to have been right about how good things could have gotten if they had just let the show keep going.

Worst New Show: Secret Invasion

2023 has scuppered the MCU, and not a moment too soon. This show was a miserable trudge through the worst the franchise has to offer.

Best Returning Show: What We Do in the Shadows

It's not often that season 5 of a show is as good as season 3, which in turn was as good as season 1. The show has constantly found new ways to shock, surprise, and delight, and the recent news that it will be ending with its upcoming season 6 has been a real blow.

Worst Returning Show: The Afterparty

I'm not the type to give up on a murder mystery. Hell, I spent half a year reading every Agatha Christie novel, including the incoherent ones that she wrote when she was losing her faculties. But The Afterparty resolutely failed to construct an interesting storyline, forcing me to give up midway through. It doesn't help that they doubled down on season 1's idea of giving all of its different genres the same slack, digital aesthetic rather than actually trying to make good on their interesting premise.

Most Improved Returning Show: Schmigadoon

Season 1 was certainly cute and fun, but the musical pastiche wasn't all that interesting. This new season both finds a way to breathe new life into the premise by changing up the musical era being parodied and deliver pastiche music that is actually worth listening to in the first place.

Most Degraded Returning Show: You

You has always been up and down, but season 3 was such a huge up that it's a bummer how far it slid, more or less immediately. Season 4 is an overheated narrative disaster that seems to fundamentally misunderstand what the show has been about this whole time.

Best Dramatic Actor: Walker Scobell, Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Scobell was the only reason I pressed play on episode 2 of this show after its sloppily written, garishly underlit CGI sludge of a premiere episode. And what he did was give me the best two-second performance of the year. There's a moment during a particularly tough day where he does that classic gag of tapping his mom's shoulder while hiding behind her other shoulder. After she turns to face him properly, he gives her a cheeky grin that he can't sustain and his face falls, incapable of even faking cheeriness for longer than a second. It's a subtle, vulnerable, and devastating moment that is perfectly rendered by an actor so young that he wasn't even alive when the first Percy Jackson books came out. If there are only five more seconds of acting like that scattered throughout the rest of the show, we'll be in good hands.

Best Comedic Actor: Matt Berry, What We Do in the Shadows

I spend too much time being in love with Natasia Demetriou to spare much praise for the rest of the superb WWDITS cast, but Matt Berry really shone this season, generously donating dozens of unforgettable line deliveries to the fan lexicon.

Best Dramatic Actress: Alyvia Alyn Lind, Chucky

Chucky is a show plagued by spotty acting, but Lind knows exactly how to transition her former mean girl character into someone worth following and caring for. She plumbs new depths of the character without losing the traits that made her so memorable in the first place, and that is a difficult tightrope for any actor to walk.

Best Comedic Actress: Salma Hayek, Black Mirror

It's so easy to reward stars for fearlessly playing caricatured versions of themselves, but usually the ones who agree to do so have a real vision for the role, and Hayek's deliriously cutting performance is one of the best.

Best Dramatic Supporting Actor: Jai Courtney, Kaleidoscope

Look, I know he's been in a lot of bad movies that make nerds very mad, but I've quietly been on the Jai Courtney train for a long time. He gives Kaleidoscope a truly dangerous edge with his performance as the team's meathead wild card.

Best Comedic Supporting Actor: Ke Huy Quan, Loki

It sure was nice to have a reprieve from all the boring sci-fi nonsense Loki season 2 was throwing at us. Quan is an effervescent presence whose palpable enthusiasm for getting back in front of a camera is infectious.

Best Dramatic Supporting Actress: Anna Torv, The Last Of Us

Much more than Pedro Pascal, who is doing the gruff TV thing he does, Torv uses her supporting performance to ground the post-apocalypse in a lived-in and human set of emotions, showing us layers of calcified responses to the world around her that imply a history that we never get to see due to the show's episode 1 time jump.

Best Comedic Supporting Actress: Zoe Chao, Party Down

Chao doesn't undervalue her silly new side character, a catering chef who is obsessed with using food as an anti-art statement, and commits to the bit so wholeheartedly that she lights up the screen whenever she appears.

Best Recurring Actor: Fin Argus, The Other Two

God, what a fun role this must have been to play. The terrifically named method actor Lucas Lambert Moy is constantly prepping for a new role in a variety of hilarious ways, but the little cracks where Argus allows the character's real personality to shine through are where he truly shines as a performer. 

Best Recurring Actress: Meryl Streep, Only Murders in the Building

Is it maybe redundant to say Meryl Streep is good at acting? Sure. But she is really bringing it to this role in a show that many actors of her caliber would probably consider beneath them. She's also playing a fearless reversal on herself: a decently talented but unremarkable actress who never made it. Her character's tasteless joy at getting to play a role with a limp is the clincher though, as that scene is both pathetic and hilarious in equal measure, devastatingly bringing this down-on-her-luck performer to satirical life.

Best Trans/Nonbinary Actor: Yasmin Finney, Heartstopper

Elle has really come to the fore as one of the most compelling characters in Heartstopper. Finney is such a charming presence that you even believe Elle's attraction to Tao, one of the most obnoxious characters ever brought to the small screen.

Best Child Actor: Callum Vinson, Chucky

It's been a long time since we've had a properly creepy child actor, and Vinson is both convincingly grief-stricken and eerie, something that would be a difficult feat for an actor four times his age.

Best Couple: Mr. Farouk & Mr. Ajayi, Heartstopper

It's probably not a good thing that the season's most compelling romantic couple was a pair of adults, but their courtship was a delightful surprise amid all the teen drama, showcasing a deeper dimension of queer attraction that the teen couples by definition cannot.

Worst Couple: Carrie & Aidan, And Just Like That

This storyline is unhinged. Aidan refuses to go back to Carrie's apartment because they had a fight in it 20 years ago, forcing them to shell out for expensive hotels whenever he comes to town. They eventually kick Carrie's friend Che out of their own apartment so they can turn it into a bachelor pad on the weekends. And Aidan follows this by scream-crying before kicking her to the curb for five years when he announces he has decided to "focus on raising his children," apparently full-time despite sharing custody. And she's not allowed to visit his home while he does this. Aidan'
s infantile behavior and Carrie's simpering willingness to cowtow to his increasingly twisted demands is just sick.

Best Costume: Literally Anything Elle Wears, Heartstopper

There's a scene where Elle is gliding elegantly along a Paris street and responds to her friend's story by saying something like "that sounds awful," and all I want in life is for such an excellently dressed person to icily acknowledge my pain.

Worst Costume: Aidan's Jacket, And Just Like That

He looks like a Civil War general dressed in a BDSM garbage bag, and this is his triumphant return to the franchise! Carrie shoulda known he'd be trouble.

Best Finale: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series

This show has had some tremendous ups and downs, but the very last shot of the finale is the first time it remembers that it's a parody of high school theater since season 1. SPOILER ALERT: Ending on a shot of the entire cast pulling up to a Denny's in a limo redeems anything that has gone wrong over the past three years.

Worst Finale: Heartstopper

A treacly, content-free trifle that mistakes "queer joy" for "lots of group hugs." It's exhausting.

Biggest Laugh: Yes, The Mandalorian

The scenes of Baby Yoda slamming the button that forces his robotic exoskeleton to say "yes" over and over and over again is probably torture for parents in the room (I remember when my sister and I got our hands on an Easy Button from Staples)
, but it's hilariously accurate to the feeling of a child playing with a new toy.

Biggest Scream: "Hanging Balloons" Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre

One of my favorite manga horror short stories is brought to life in a way that almost manages to perfectly match the eerie uncanniness of Junji Ito at his best.

Biggest Squirm: The Podcast Studio, And Just Like That

The Sex and the City universe has long had a complicated relationship to real-life class and economics, but the storyline where Carrie refuses to read ad copy about her vagina, thus shutting down a podcast company, and reacts to this by celebrating that her Thursdays are now free, is... chilling.

Biggest Thirst: Ethan, Never Have I Ever

Michael Cimino's himbo heel turn post-Love, Victor has been a real treat to watch.

Biggest Cry: Cary's Feed, The Other Two

The literally and figuratively dark scene where Cary scrolls through social media comments about his new movie, trying to fill himself with compliments while surrounded by his empty and cold apartment, is the most chillingly realistic expression of modern Internet angst since Haters Back Off! pulled a similar trick back in 2016.

Best Kill: The Umbrella, Chucky

The umbrella is underutilized in slasher movies, and Chucky makes every part of it work to his advantage. Glorious.

Best SNL Sketch: "Question Quest"

The thing that makes this sketch so compelling is how low-concept it is. It understands that you don't need an over-the-top conceit to sell one person's spiral into paranoia and madness, merely a guy who's pawning off his tortoise.

Worst SNL Sketch: "Convent Meeting"

In addition to being deeply unfunny in its execution, the premise is transphobic and homophobic in a desperately 1990s way. The only "joke" is "what if a man wore a nun's habit?" and it perpetuates a lot of dangerous stereotypes, all in pursuit of a useless, go-nowhere premise.

Best Musical Performance: "Good Enough to Eat" Schmigadoon

I can't say I believed it would have been possible to mash up Annie and Sweeney Todd and I was deeply, desperately wrong.

Worst Musical Performance: "This Is a Life" The 95th Academy Awards

This is just... not for me. Like... what?

Best Guest Star: Doug Jones, What We Do In the Shadows

If this whole performance was just him saying "wampires," it would already be solid gold, but Jones has so much more to offer on top of that.

Worst Guest Star: Dwight Howard, Never Have I Ever

I forgive everything I've ever said about John McEnroe's affectless narration of the show, because it turns out they have even less compelling athlete-actors in their rolodex.

Best Line: "Shut up, Big Lots, you sell piss and shit." The Other Two

Get 'em, Brooke!

Worst Line:
"And just like that, for the first time, I was worried." And Just Like That

What could this possibly mean?! This line closes the episode where Carrie worries that her relationship with Aidan is ending, something that has already happened to her in the past. I don't know what they were going for! Has Carrie Bradshaw been on molly for 30 years and we never noticed? 

Is this show really written by human beings who have been on Earth for more than 12 seconds? I simply don't see how it can be.

Top 5 Melr0210 Episodes

So I've been binging all 11,000 episodes in the original runs of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place and it's a huge undertaking so I thought I'd honor the best of what these 1990s gems have had to offer me this year.

#5 "Twenty Years Ago Today" Beverly Hills, 90210 season 4 episode 8

If this isn't the most unhinged episode of television to air in 1993, then I've got some binging to do. This contains both the "Brandon breaks into Dylan's house to retrieve something he forgot and is threatened by a shirtless Dylan waving a gun" storyline and the "Brenda announces her engagement to a man she barely knows at her parents' anniversary party" storyline. What a cornucopia of treasures!

#4 "Two Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" Melrose Place season 4 episode 14

In addition to being one of the first episodes where Sydney's incoherent villain arc becomes actively hilarious rather than annoying (she hires Dr. Kimberly Shaw as her therapist - bad idea - and poorly tries to disguise the names of people they both know they know), "Two Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" features the glorious sight of Kristin Davis trying to snatch an engagement ring off Courtney Thorne-Smith's finger while at her character's father's will reading, which is prime time soap opera mayhem at its best.

#3 "What I Did on My Summer Vacation and Other Stories" Beverly Hills, 90210 season 5 episode 1

It turns out Tiffani Thiessen's debut on the show wouldn't pan out into a character arc that was satisfying or really made much sense, but her first appearance does shake up the post-Shannen Doherty dynamic in a vitalizing way.

#2 "The Big Bang" Melrose Place season 3 episode 31/32

Dr. Kimberly Shaw blows up half of Melrose Place, what more do you want me to say?

#1 "Christmas Comes This Time Each Year" Beverly Hills, 90210 season 5 episode 15

Yeah yeah, Christmas special, whatever. What this episode is really about is the first appearance of Wings Hauser chewing the scenery to shreds as the ghoulish and unpredictable FBI agent for hire J. Jay Jones. Truly a character for the history books.

2023 Crush: Lance (The Other Two)

Never change, Lance.

Word Count: 3614

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