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In a tumultuous year for Hollywood, 'The Bear' and 'The Diplomat' were among TV's bright spots

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

CHICAGO — We close the book on a year that saw Hollywood weather a writers and actors strike, resulting in almost no work for nearly six months. Tough times for anyone who makes a living in TV.

But it also functioned as an overdue course correction. Streamers have been loathe to admit they’re churning out more shows than audiences can keep up with — and providing inadequate budgets to market them all — and the 2023 work stoppage was an excuse to cut back on things instead. How convenient.

The strikes hit TV networks the hardest. Broadcasters resorted to an unsatisfying mix of reruns and reality. But weekly episodic TV was already in a diminished state, and this is ironic considering older seasons of these very shows, from “NCIS“ to “Grey’s Anatomy,“ are among the most popular on streaming platforms. Only NBC managed to premiere new shows in the fall (completed before the strike and held back just in case) with “The Irrational“ and “Found.” Though mediocre, at least they were new! (The bar is low.)

There were standouts this year, which is the reason you’re reading this. But 2023 wasn’t an embarrassment of riches, not when “Suits” — which hasn’t produced new episodes since 2019 — was the show of the summer on Netflix.

That’s not a promising sign of the times, but audiences are making their preferences known: Prestige TV is great, but viewers also want lighter options that look sharp and are designed with weekly viewing habits in mind. Meaning: Self-contained episodes that don’t require the homework of serialized shows. I like to call this background TV, because it can withstand a semi-distracted viewer. The original “Law & Order“ was a master of the form. Too bad the reboot is so terrible.

If 2023 was a lackluster year, I point the finger at risk-averse executives for relying too heavily on new variations of old intellectual property. Or giving us yet another series excavating the inner lives of the ultrarich. There’s so much wealthaganda! It’s boring. And the blame lies not (entirely) with the writers, but with the studios who decide what gets made.

 

Here’s a bright spot: In recent years, I’ve lamented the weird absence of fictional storylines about labor conditions and strikes, despite these issues being ever-present in our daily lives. So a shoutout to Season 4 of “For All Mankind“ for being the one of the few series to step into the breach this year (along with a clunky attempt by “The Gilded Age” — the less said about that show the better).

With that out of the way, these are my top shows of 2023 (in alphabetical order):

“Annika“ (PBS): One of the better offerings from Masterpiece Mystery, thanks to the British actress Nicola Walker, who knows how to play self-aware discomfort for laughs. Her police detective is forever breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the camera, rambling on about literary references that often serve as a metaphor for whatever is happening in her life. There’s a ruminative, conspiratorial quality to these moments, delivered with the droll, half-distracted, straight-faced energy of: “You see this too, right? You get it.”

“The Bear“ (FX on Hulu): The show grabbed audiences by the collar in Season 1, generating all kinds of sweaty, grease-splattered, slice-of-life drama inside a Chicago Italian beef sandwich shop. But Season 2 unveiled a different plan: Turn the old joint to turn it into a fine dining establishment. What could go wrong? The show, which has been renewed for a third season, is proof that original ideas — if treated with care and skill — still have the power to draw sizable audiences. There’s nothing high concept about the show. It’s defined by its intensity and charm and warmth, despite the clashing personalities within. Anchored by a pair of salt-of-the-earth performances from Jeremy Allen White and Ayo Edebiri, “The Bear” is about the stuff of life — mundane, stressful, exhilarating — as the group struggles to figure out, yet again, how to surmount daunting odds and build something together.

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