Is it just me, or did 2023 feel like a really dry year for entertainment?
It’s probably just me. I live in a corner of upstate New York that’s closer to Bennington, VT, than anywhere else in New York, and the movie theater in Bennington is small and doesn’t always get distribution of all of the big movies of the year - or if they do, they don’t play for long, so my window of opportunity to see movies in a theater is small and I rarely make it.
But then again - this was also the year of the WGA strike, and SAG-AFTRA’s strike in solidarity, which halted production on many films and television shows, delaying many of them. I have been eagerly awaiting the return of Apple TV’s Severance, for example, since its Season 1 finale in April 2022, and that show’s production schedule was dramatically affected by the strike. There was a period of time in which our household was legitimately floundering for things to watch during the thick of the strike. (I chronicled our strange journey in search of entertainment in a recent Story Screen piece), and things got…dire.
That being said, it’s not like there was NOTHING good to watch in 2023 - it’s just that my Best Of lists tend to be TV-heavy due to my not having a good movie theater nearby, and the strike kind of made TV stop for a few months there. With all of those caveats in place, here’s a rundown of what I really enjoyed watching last year:
The Last of Us, Season 1
There have been many, many words spilled about HBO Max's masterful adaptation of this post-apocalyptic zombie-adjacent show about people struggling to survive in the aftermath of a massive global pandemic (yeah, a very timely show, too), and I don’t know if I have a whole lot more to add to that conversation. Early last year Pedro Pascal ascended to some sort of combination of Most Famous Man Ever and National Treasure due to his ubiquity playing leading roles in both The Mandalorean and The Last of Us and I am here for it. His performance as Joel, the reluctant guardian to Bella Ramsey’s potential Savior of the Human Race Ellie was brilliant, as we saw him transform from traumatized grieving father, resentful of having to be in Ellie’s presence (as it only reminded him of the daughter he lost in the early days of the cordyceps pandemic), to full-on ass-kicking semi-super-human-strength protective Papa Bear as his bond with Ellie grows throughout the show. And of course, we can’t forget Episode 3 “Long Long Time” - essentially a bottle episode featuring two side characters, Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) - that turned out to be a gorgeous, aching, multi-decade story about two middle-aged gay men who found each other amidst catastrophe and built a beautiful life and love together and made us all sob collectively. (If you didn’t sob watching that episode, I question your humanity.) It is perhaps the best single episode of television that aired in 2023. The ending of season 1 is polarizing by design (a shot-by-shot remake of the polarizing conclusion to the video game that inspired this show), but I’m just going to leave this article here, because I think the gang at The Mary Sue is absolutely spot-on in their take on Joel’s choices in the end, regardless of how it affected his relationship with Ellie: 'The Last of Us' Finale: Joel Was Right | The Mary Sue. I’m excited to see how the next two seasons (as they have been planned) will tackle the also-polarizing sequel to the original video game.
Shrinking, Season 1
I wrote a review of this lovely new show by Apple TV+, so it might be best to just point yourself in the direction of that essay instead of me rehashing it here; that being said, this is a wonderful show about grief, love, and family (blood and chosen) featuring the always-loveable Jason Segel as Jimmy Laird, a therapist who goes vigilante with his clients and tries to repair his relationship with his daughter as he processes his grief over the untimely death of his wife, and Harrison Ford, in his television debut, having the time of his goddamn life playing Paul, Jimmy’s mentor and father figure dealing with his own complicated issues with his family of origin. With an amazing supporting cast (including MVP Jessica Williams as Gaby, another therapist who works in the same practice with Jimmy and Paul, Christa Miller, and Ted McGinley), there’s a lot to love about this show.
Lucky Hank, Season 1
I also wrote a review of this show for Story Screen so hop on over there to get a deeper dive so I don’t have to rehash it all here. Long story short: I was eager to see Bob Odenkirk’s follow-up after playing the notorious Saul Goodman for over a decade, and I was not disappointed; this show where he plays Hank, a small-town college professor grappling with his feelings of mediocrity and depression and his traumatic relationship with his father while navigating campus politics and a growing chasm between himself and his wife, was an absolute delight. Odenkirk, originally a sketch comedy writer and performer, really became a gifted actor during his journey turning Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman, and it was wonderful to watch him sink his teeth into another, different type of complicated character. I am heartbroken that Lucky Hank was not picked up for a second season on AMC, but this first season works as a standalone miniseries, unresolved cliffhanger ending notwithstanding.
(Is it weird that the three shows I’ve just listed as some of my favorites of 2023 are about people dealing with grief and trauma? Anyone who’s read any of my non-Story Screen writing or listened to my debut record will undoubtedly conclude that I enjoy pounding on this drum because I am projecting my own trauma wildly onto these shows. And they wouldn’t be wrong, frankly. Self-awareness, folks.)
Ted Lasso Season 3
I’ll be honest, I don’t think this final season of Ted Lasso was nearly as strong as Season 2; many of the episodes felt a bit disjointed and meandering, and I would argue that they may have tried to jam in way too many character stories in a short number of episodes at the expense of really telling those stories well; Nate’s arc in particular I think was wrapped up far too easily given his descent into the dark side in Season 2, and the entire situation with Zava’s stint with Richmond was ultimately pointless and baffling. That being said, there were enough little delightful moments in this season that keep me from writing the whole thing off - getting to spend more time with Trent Crimm, for example, as he shadows the Greyhounds all season to write a book, was absolutely wonderful; that man is just the most adorkable journalist ever (with the best hair), and stepping into the role of queer mentor to Colin as he goes about navigating coming out as gay in the not-always-gay-friendly world of Premier League soccer brought some real depth to both characters. The growing friendship between former nemeses Roy Kent and Jamie Tartt was another wonderful thing to behold; I challenge you to watch the sequence where Jamie teaches Roy how to ride a bicycle in Amsterdam and not laugh belly laughs while feeling your heart grow three sizes. Learning more about Beard’s mysterious backstory was a wonderful payoff after three years of just wondering what Beard’s deal is; though it was in service of wrapping up Nate’s arc in a way that felt facile, I was happy to truly understand the nature of his relationship with Ted and see how it complicated our understanding of both men. I don’t think Ted Lasso stuck the landing in its series finale perfectly, but in the end, I’m mostly ok with how they finished things, mostly because of the time we got to spend with Trent, Roy, and Jamie.
The Crown, Season 6 Part 1
The Crown finished out its run this year with its final season split into two parts; the first chronicling the last summer of Diana’s life and the second delving into the next generation of the royals by following William as he goes to college and meets Kate Middleton. I don’t want to get too detailed here as Bernadette Gorman-White and I are planning to do a Cathode Ray Cast episode about this final season but to keep it simple for now: I knew they were going to have to tackle Diana’s death and I was dreading it, but thought it was handled very well, chronicling the whirlwind romance between her and Dodi Al-Fayed and their tragic end; both Elizabeth Debicki as Diana and Khalid Abdalla as Dodi did a tremendous job bringing real humanity and pathos to a story that we all know all too damn well. I also knew that they were going to focus on Will and Kate to close out the show and… well… what can I say? William is probably the most boring member of the Windsor family, and those episodes featuring him suffered; I wish we had gotten more time with Margaret (who might be the most interesting member of the Windsor family), although the episode featuring her illness and death was lovely, and I question the veracity of Dominic West’s portrayal of Charles as a hands-on father in touch with his sons’ emotions as they grew up without their mother. I’ve read Spare. I have questions. But the Diana-Dodi business was well done so that half of the season makes my list.
For those of you who listened to my Hot Takes podcast about this film with Mike Burdge, you probably know that I struggled a bit with figuring out whether I actually liked this movie or not. Based on the story of sex offender Mary Kay Letourneau and her relationship and marriage to her former student Villi Fulau, the film featured strong performances by Julianne Moore as Gracie (the Letourneau analog) and Natalie Portman (as the B-List actress hoping to make it big by portraying Gracie in a film and sidling her way into Gracie’s life ostensibly for research for her performance). A lot was going on in this movie, some of it bordering on campy which I found to be a questionable choice, and I absolutely despise the soundtrack. But in the end, I kept returning to Charles Melton as Joe (the Fulau analog). Melton is an absolute revelation in this role, and the film is worth it just for his performance alone. If this is the film that makes Charles Melton a huge star, I would be thrilled. He is an actor on the rise, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.
I know. I KNOW. Is this too obvious a choice for a Best Of list? I’m guessing this is going to be on the lists of many of the Story Screen fam, and just like with The Last of Us, I don’t know how much more I can add to the existing conversation about this film. So let me just leave it at this: I wanted so badly to see Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer in a theater (especially an IMAX theater), but the timing of when it hit Bennington just didn’t work with my work/life schedule (and there’s no IMAX in Bennington), so I didn’t end up seeing it till much later when it hit Amazon Prime Video. J. Robert Oppenheimer is the role of a lifetime for Cillian Murphy and I was so happy to see him finally get to take center stage after being a long-time supporting actor in the extended Nolan-verse. This film has a hugely sprawling supporting cast, all of whom were fantastic. Still, it was lovely to see Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss (Oppenheimer’s one-time supporter turned secret antagonist) after having taken a hiatus from acting for a few years - and I’m sure he enjoyed getting to sink his teeth into a really meaty role as a complicated, conniving man after so many years Tony Stark-ing it up. The visual effects in this film are stunning - that is a given. The recreation of the Trinity test was heart-stoppingly good. And the end of the film - what an ending! Haunting, troubling, thought-provoking… it made me sick, but in a weirdly good way? But ultimately what I found compelling about Oppenheimer - aside from the story itself, being about such a hugely world-changingly important man and his dreams, visions, and achievements - was the way it was written. The story is structured with Strauss’ Senate confirmation hearing as a framing device and the Gray Board hearing regarding whether Oppenheimer’s security clearance would be renewed as a sort of sub-framing device, and then the rest of the script sort of bops in and out of both of these frames with a chronological telling of Oppenheimer’s origins and journey towards becoming the Father of the Atomic Bomb. It’s very cleverly done, it’s somehow never confusing, and it has the bonus effect of being a reality-based version of the time-play Nolan does in the screenplays for his more fanciful films like Memento (ground-breaking!), Inception (fun!), Interstellar (depressing!), and Tenet (baffling as fuck!). It’s so very Nolan-y, but in the best, most accessible way. I got so obsessed with the way this screenplay was structured that I ended up watching the film multiple times in a row after the holidays in an effort to map it out. It’s a wildly ambitious telling of the story of a wildly ambitious and complicated man, and I might just watch it again tonight. The art and costume direction are also absolutely sublime. I want to live in this movie. (But aren’t we all kind of living out the consequences of this movie? I mean… that ending…)
Honorable Mention: Welcome to Chippendale’s
This was on my best of 2022 list, and that’s because the majority of the episodes of this Hulu miniseries were broadcast in the winter of 2022; however, the final episode aired in January 2023, so while I might be cheating a bit by including it again here, I will justify this decision by saying that the final episode was very, very well done and I think it’s worth it to reiterate, once again, that Kumail Nanjiani did an exceptional job in his first dramatic performance ever as the complex, egotistical, megalomaniacal Somen “Steve” Banerjee, founder of the male stripping franchise Chippendales’ and ABSOLUTELY NO RELATION TO ME I SWEAR.
My list is thin this year. I know it. I own it. I wish I’d seen more movies this year, but it just is logistically impossible for me unless the film has a streaming release. And I openly admit that once my partner and I started watching the entire run of Kids in the Hall from start to finish in our quest to find entertainment in the drought wrought by the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike we got pretty tunnel-visioned about it and probably missed out on other shows and miniseries that deserved attention (like, we haven’t gotten to The Bear yet - WUT?! It just cleaned it up at the Emmys and we know we gotta watch it but we just… really love those Kids in the Hall). We’ll be moving to a more populated area very soon (oh yeah, buried the lead there but more details to come soon!) - a place that definitely has more than one movie theater nearby and at least one multiplex - so I promise that next year, my Best Of 2024 list will be epic. In the meantime, please give Shrinking some love so it doesn’t meet the fate of Lucky Hank, okay? Still very salty about Lucky Hank getting canceled.
Reeya is a musician and writer based in New York's Capital District. Her debut album, “The Way Up,” was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.