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The Top 23 TV Shows of 2023; Best Picture Predictions Revisited

Plus, Mickey Mouse enters the public domain and we recall 'Aquaman 2' star Jason Momoa in better times.

Happy Friday, folks, and Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates!

I’ll be staying in Los Angeles over the holidays, so if you find yourself with nothing to do and you wanna catch up, I’m around…

I’m insanely grateful to the thousands of you who have already subscribed to this newsletter. It’s incredibly humbling, and I hope you’ll continue reading in 2024 when the paywall goes up. And if someone has sent you this newsletter and you want to join the party, hit that pink ‘Subscribe’ button below.

In tonight’s edition, you’ll read about the year in television from my perspective, plus the current state of the Best Picture race, and how Jason Momoa’s Aquaman sequel is performing this weekend. Read on for more…

The Top 23 TV Shows of 2023 — And Not the Ones You’re Thinking About, Either

But, but, but, what about Succession? And you forgot about The Bear, Jeff! Did I now?

I know what you’re thinking. In what order will Jeff place Succession, The Bear, and The Last of Us?

After all, those are the shows on just about every “Best of 2023 TV” list I’ve read this year, since critics all seem to watch and like the same shows despite the breadth of diversity across television. Honestly, it’s fucking weird.

I’m a movie guy, so it’s only natural that I spend most of my time immersing myself in the world of film, but I always end up watching a few dozen TV shows every year — just not the ones that people insist I “have to” watch. 

In fact, the more people question my sanity for not watching Succession, the less I want to watch that show, and that goes for any show. I know it makes no sense, but I’m stubborn like that. Hopefully, you’re more open to suggestions than I am.

1. Fargo Season 5 (FX on Hulu) - I haven’t even finished this series but I’m confident that Noah Hawley will stick the landing — because he always has when it comes to Fargo. The cast is once again fantastic this year, with Juno Temple and Jon Hamm trading blows from episode to episode despite not having shared a scene together… yet. I can’t wait to see how this season ends.

2. Poker Face (Peacock) - I devoured this series when it premiered last January, as I loved watching Natasha Lyonne solve crimes involving a sea of exciting guest stars including Adrien Brody, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Judith Light, Ellen Barkin, Hong Chau, Tim Meadows, Chloë Sevigny, and Nick Nolte. I loved how the show varied its crime-of-the-week approach, and thought that each episode’s mystery was clever and compelling.

3. Shrinking (Apple TV+) - This show offered the new characters I loved the most this year, from Jason Segel’s Jimmy Laird and Harrison Ford’s Dr. Paul Rhoades to the patients played by Luke Tennie and Heidi Gardner. Just another really lovely show from Bill Lawrence — one that effectively mixes grief and laughter.

4. Ted Lasso Season 4 (Apple TV+) - This is another show that always walked a fine line between comedy and drama, knowing just when to throttle each lever. The final season didn’t come easy but it stuck the landing, so kudos to Jason Sudeikis and the rest of the team for sticking the landing. Let’s hope that any forthcoming spinoffs are worthy of their predecessor.

5. The Righteous Gemstones Season 3 (HBO) - This was, by far, the best season of The Righteous Gemstones. The show allowed everyone to get their due, resulting in its best storyline — Judy’s affair. Steve Zahn was a fun addition this season, and the kids who play the young Gemstones are spot-on in their impressions of their older counterparts. I can’t wait for this one to come back.

6. Hijack (Apple TV+) - Idris Elba’s airplane thriller had me on the edge of my seat and kept my guessing, effectively filling the 24 void in my life along with Reacher. The pacing of this show was excellent, and a few clever twists kept me engaged.

7. Squid Game: The Challenge (Netflix) - I don’t really watch a ton of reality shows in general, but this one was so much fun. Yes, it helped to have been a fan of Squid Game beforehand, but the personalities that they found for The Challenge made the show that much more compelling. Color me shocked that this competition series proved worthy of the Squid Game brand.

8. Mayor of Kingstown Season 2 (Paramount+) - I hope that Jeremy Renner’s recovery is coming along nicely as I can’t wait for his show to come back, and I’m willing to wait as long as that takes. This is my favorite of the three Taylor Sheridan shows that I watch — Lioness and Tulsa King being the others — and I suspect it’s the one that Sheridan enjoys writing the most, too, as you can tell he has a clear affection for these characters.

9. Reacher Season 2 (Prime Video) - A total blast from start to finish. Alan Ritchson is going to be a huge star — not that he isn’t already. Amazon already announced that more people watched Season 2 of Reacher in its first five days on Prime Video than anything else on the platform throughout the rest of the year. My lord! That kind of popularity proves this one has broken out well beyond Dad TV…

10. The Idol (HBO) - The most unfairly maligned series of the year. It’s a shame that prudish critics simply didn’t understand this one, or why a young woman like Lily-Rose Depp would submit to a rattail-wearing scumbag like The Weeknd, because The Idol actually dared to do something different. No wonder it scared the shit out of so many snowflakes. If only HBO had the testicular fortitude to stick to their guns in the wake of so much faux outrage…

11. Barry Season 4 (HBO) - Barry was certainly one of the better TV shows out there this year, but Season 4 may have been the biggest disappointment of the year for me, which is why I couldn’t allow it to crack my Top 10. It was OK, but it didn’t quite stick the landing. I just didn’t love the big flash-forward, or what Bill Hader decided to do with his titular assassin this year, as it felt like he couldn’t wrap things up fast enough, but hey, we’ll always have those first couple of seasons, right?

12. Shane Gillis: Beautiful Dogs (Netflix) - The funniest standup special of the year, hands down. The sensitive material that Shane does about his cousin with Down Syndrome is priceless.

13. The Continental (Peacock) - This was a pleasant surprise for me. I’m a big fan of the John Wick franchise, but I found Chapter 4 to be an utter slog, so I was somewhat dreading The Continental, though it quickly established its own identity within this world. I think you have to admire this show for that. No, it wasn’t John Wick, but it also didn’t require that kind of anchor to make an impact.

14. Saturday Night Live (NBC) - Say what you will, but I still watch SNL every weekend — if not on Saturday night then the next morning when the episodes debut on Peacock. The show happens to have a really talented cast — James Austin Johnson and Sarah Sherman are two standouts — while Colin Jost and Michael Che continue to hold down the Weekend Update fort, and Please Don’t Destroy can always be counted on to deliver something strangely memorably, and memorably strange. I just wish the show had better musical guests, and didn’t make politics the focus of every single cold open, Mix it up, Lorne! That’s the only way to keep things fresh and the audience on their toes.

15. South Park: Joining the Panderverse (Paramount+) - South Park debuted on Comedy Central on Aug. 13, 1997 and it’s still going strong. A big reason for that is that Trey Parker and Matt Stone have balls the size of planets and don’t mind making fun of Hollywood’s sacred cows. This hour-long special takes aim at Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy and the “woke” ideology that has taken over (i.e. infected) Hollywood the past several years, and naturally, South Park finds a hilarious and rather brilliant way to satirize and comment on the situation.

16. Surviving Barstool (Barstool.tv) - This was the surprise of the year for me. I like the Barstool gang, but I’m not one of the site’s religious readers or anything. But this series really won me over in terms of the various personalities over there. You have to respect that Barstool doesn’t give a fuck and just wants to serve its readers/viewers, which is exactly what I aim to do. I should be so lucky as to have a fraction of the success of Dave Portnoy, but I never aspired to have a mansion in Nantucket. I just want to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in mid-Wilshire. I knew this show had my number when I actually shelled out $9.99 to finish watching it after Portnoy was all but forced to yank it from YouTube (for some bullshit) and start charging fans. What can I say? This hyper-competitive riff on Survivor was truly compelling.

17. John Mulaney: Baby J (Netflix) - This year’s other standout comedy special, Mulaney fearlessly confronts his addiction, intervention, recovery, and sobriety… and it’s absolutely hilarious.

18. Dave Season 3 (FX on Hulu) - Still one of the funniest shows on television thanks to star Dave Burd and his assorted friends — GaTa, Andrew Santino, Travis Bennett, and Benny Blanco. In a down year for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dave picked up the comedic slack, finding new ways to keep things fresh and creative.

19. Black Mirror Season 6 (Netflix) - It wasn’t the show’s best season, but there were some good entries, including “Beyond the Sea” starring Josh Hartnett and Aaron Paul, and “Joan Is Awful” starring Salma Hayek and Annie Murphy. This season also introduced a horror label titled Red Mirror that, while far from perfect, has a ton of potential given how that genre is thriving lately.

20. Hunters Season 2 (Prime Video) - I was worried about the second season of this show, but my fears proved to be unfounded, as it delivered on the promise of Season 1. Logan Lerman comes into his own this season, and it was nice having Al Pacino back alongside Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has two shows on this list [she’s great in Fargo, too].

21. Special Ops: Lioness (Paramount+) - An underrated series from Taylor Sheridan despite a high-wattage cast including Zoe Saldana and Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Morgan Freeman. I remember it being violent and fairly brutal, which is exactly how I like my television.

22. American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing (Netflix) - This tragic incident has been explored in a couple of different movies and TV specials now, but American Manhunt found a new way into things and taught me some stuff I hadn’t heard before while also delivering an emotional punch.

23. Murder in Boston: Roots, Rampage & Reckoning (HBO) - A powerful series that uses a true crime tale as a Trojan horse for a larger story about Boston’s racial reckoning, and how the city’s shameful history impacted a high-profile murder case. It’s not as flashy as director Jason Hehir’s last docuseries, The Last Dance, but it’s just as notable an accomplishment.

Final Tally: Netflix (5), HBO (4), Apple TV+ (3), Paramount+ (3), FX on Hulu (2), Peacock (2), Prime Video (2), Barstool (1), NBC (1)

Overall Thoughts: It was kind of a rough year for TV, though 2023 surely wsn’t helped by the strikes, which cost it sows like True Detective: Night Country, The Penguin, and likely Masters of the Air. But where was this year’s Dahmer or Black Bird or Pam and Tommy or The Dropout or Severance or We Own This City or We Need to Talk About Cosby? That’s my point… the field was thin, even with new seasons of Succession and The Bear, and the debut of The Last of Us.

When you look at the above list, do you notice which streamer isn’t represented? Disney+, which has to step up its game. It can’t just cater to Marvel and Star Wars fans. It should be making more shows like The Mighty Ducks.

Elsewhere, I watched five episodes of Gen V and then I just… didn’t finish. The same goes for Swarm. And for The Curse on Showtime. Three episodes and then… ‘Eh, I’ll get to it later.’ I guess I just don’t have great TV follow-through.

I did finish shows like The Consultant on Prime Video, You Season 4 on Netflix, and Full Circle on Max, but they weren’t quite good enough to make the cut this year, and while I’ll never miss an episode of Law & Order: SVU, I still can’t bring myself to put it on a Best of the Year list.

Of course, there were shows that I regret missing this year, such as Murder at the End of the World, but if FX and Hulu don’t want to share their screeners with me, so be it. There’s nothing I can do but take it on the chin and live the rest of my life like a screener-less schnook. 

And apparently, if you made a crime-themed docuseries set in Boston, I liked it, so keep those coming. In fact, here’s a free idea — the Great Molasses Flood that sent two million gallons of molasses flowing through the city’s North End, killing 21 people and causing extensive damage back in January 1919. Call me if you need someone to write that script.

Oscars Shortlists: Revisiting My Best Picture Predictions as International Titles Make Late Surge

Jump in, the water’s warm here in the American Fiction pool!

Best Picture

  1. Oppenheimer

  2. The Holdovers (+1)

  3. American Fiction (-1)

  4. Barbie

  5. Past Lives

  6. Poor Things (+2)

  7. Killers of the Flower Moon (-1)

  8. Maestro (-1)

  9. All of Us Strangers

  10. Society of the Snow (NEW)

  11. Anatomy of a Fall (+3)

  12. The Zone of Interest (+3)

  13. The Color Purple (-3)

  14. Air (-3)

  15. May December

Analysis: OK, so I’m throwing in the towel on Nyad and Origin as of now, as I don’t sense either one catching on with voters this season, though the guilds have yet to weigh in.

Oppenheimer is still the clear frontrunner to win Best Picture — that much cannot be denied at this point. This is the second year in a row that a Best Picture frontrunner has been established early on, prompting me to spend too much energy explaining why it doesn’t deserve to win, only to see all the fall contenders that I thought would easily displace it come up woefully short.

To that point, I loved American Fiction just as much the second time around, but I just received a text from my movie-loving aunt who said that she walked out of the film, which seems crazy to me. But I’m also not sensing the surge that I predicted there would be. Rather than inch its way up to third or fourth on pundits’ ballots, it seems to have regressed to 7-8-9 territory.

That’s a shame, as I truly think it would make a deserving winner, but I decided to flip-flop American Fiction and The Holdovers, which is gaining steam as more people discover the film on PVOD. I believe it will begin streaming on Peacock on Dec. 29. Da’Vine Joy Randolph has firmly established herself as the frontrunner to win Best Supporting Actress, and more pundits are coming around on Paul Giamatti’s Best Actor campaign.

I don’t think that Academy voters will take Barbie as seriously as critics groups have been, no matter how many nominations it winds up with, and I feel like the Maestro moment has already passed, having peaked early. A surge could come over the next week or two, as it only just began streaming on Netflix, but something tells me that it has already been relegated to also-ran status in the eyes of many.

Poor Things and Killers of the Moon remain divisive, which is why I have Past Lives - a fairly universally loved movie — ranked above both, even though I think all three are looking like safe bets for nominations.

Ben Affleck’s Air still seems like it’s struggling to break through in the Best Picture conversation, while The Color Purple is proving more divisive than I thought. I didn’t really like the film, but I can’t discount the audience response that I witnessed, so I’m putting its chances somewhere lower than Poor Things but better than Saltburn, to name two other awards movies I didn’t much care for.

I still see All of Us Strangers hanging around the fringes of the Best Picture conversation, and I do think that European voters could carry that one to a nomination, though a trio of international films are surging at just the right moment — The Zone of Interest, Anatomy of a Fall, and Society of the Snow, the latter of which was well represented on the Academy’s shortlists.

I forget where I read it, but one awards voter was quoted as saying that while they admired The Zone of Interest, it felt like it “belonged in a museum,” which is pretty much how I felt after seeing it in Toronto. I just refuse to sip the Kool-Aid on that one, sorry! But I’m fully prepared to eat crow if I’m wrong. I just think Society of the Snow offers a special story. Keep an eye on that one…

Bits and Bobs (A Daily News Roundup)

Will it be Alien vs. Predator vs. Mickey? Or Freddy vs. Jason vs. Mickey?

  • Disney’s Pubic Domain Pain - Mickey Mouse is about to enter the public domain, and Variety’s story features an interesting anecdote about the one man who is legally barred from drawing Disney’s mascot. I can’t wait to see what kind of demented Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey-esque horror movie comes out of this legal loophole.

  • Lionsgate SPAC Update - I’m so over the Lionsgate/Starz story that I can’t even bring myself to weigh in on this deal, but here’s a link in case you care…

  • Napo-Babies - Sony did a good job rolling out Apple’s Napoleon — better than Paramount did with Killers of the Flower Moon — and the studio was rewarded for its efforts with two more star-driven films that now have release dates. The Scarlett Johansson-Channing Tatum movie formerly known as Project Artemis will hit theaters on July 12, while the Brad Pitt-George Clooney fixer movie Wolfs will arrive on Sept. 20 in IMAX and other large-format screens.

The Comedy Cellar: As Aquaman 2 Drowns in Theaters, We Recall Jason Momoa in Better Times

Aquaman 2 (the actual title is too long for me to remember) is now playing in theaters, where it’s expected to take in a mere $40 million over the four-day holiday weekend — and I’ll take the under on that estimate, as Jason Momoa’s meaningless sequel feels D.O.A. even though the first film grossed $1 billion worldwide. Wild, huh?

I wouldn’t cry for Momoa — he’s going to be Lobo in James Gunn’s DCU and it sounds like he’ll also be back for Dune: Part Three or whatever they call it — but let’s remember him in better times, like this Saturday Night Live sketch in which he and my pal Beck Bennett play a unique game of hide-and-seek.

This is one of my favorite semi-recent SNL sketches, and it’s Christmas-themed, so I felt it was appropriate. Enjoy, and again, Happy Holidays!

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