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Year In Review

The Best Things We Watched In 2023

9:10 AM EST on December 24, 2023

Cars Waiting to Enter Drive-In Theatre
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This is what the Defector staff watched and enjoyed this year.

ABBA Voyage

The only reason I am entering the following in the “best thing I watched” category is because there is no category for “the best experience” of the year. Quite simply, one June night in London I entered the bespoke ABBA Voyage arena to watch their hologram concert and left forever changed. Would I ever experience joy like this again? I wondered as I walked back to the tube alongside hordes of sequin-clad people. Only if I watch ABBA Voyage again, I realized. Am I biased, as a lifelong fan of ABBA, raised on a childhood diet of “ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits” and, once I learned how to torrent, “Arrival” and “The Visitors” and “Voulez-Vous”? In 2019, did I sign up for the mailing list of the as-yet unnamed ABBA hologram tour, designed and imagined by ABBA themselves, when I saw it announced on Facebook? Do I feel in my bones that Mamma Mia is a perfect movie? Yes. Yes. Yes.

And yet. As I sat in the vast theater next to a son and his elderly mother and a rowful of Swedish boomers with personal rosé bottles, all of us watching snow falling in an enchanted forest onstage, I felt an anticipation so fierce and deep that I did not know myself capable of such emotion. When the holograms ascended to the stage—digital avatars called “Abbatars” created by combining footage of body doubles, the real, now elderly ABBA members in motion capture suits, and animation—I screamed. When the four Abbatars burst out in song, Agnetha and Anni-Frid and their ex-husbands, I screamed. Each song felt like a different world. Frida sang “Fernando” under the alien shimmer of the northern lights. The staging of “Lay All Your Love on Me” recalled campy laser tag and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” reminded me that some of our greatest pop songs are actually ballads about divorce. Obviously not everyone who sees the ABBA hologram concert will be moved like this (although I imagine even casual ABBA-likers will have a wonderful time). But how lucky I felt to see my favorite musical artists of all time in concert when I assumed I had been born too late! At one point, I don’t remember when, ropes of light descended from the ceiling and I began to weep—the tears that come when you are experiencing a joy you know you will never forget, a joy that is ending soon but is also a joy you know you can revisit later in times of need. - Sabrina Imbler

The Time That Remains

Two days after Gazan poet Refaat Alareer and six of his family members were murdered by an Israeli airstrike, three weeks after Gazan poet Mosab Abu Toha was arrested and tortured by occupation forces, and six days before Israeli forces shot at those trying to help Al Jazeera cameraman Samer Abu Daqqa as he lay dying for five hours, I attended a small art event in San Francisco thrown by a local Palestinian organization. Amid the churning, genocidal horror being inflicted on Palestinians by the Israeli military, the event intended to celebrate the cultural legacy of the Palestinian people. The centerpiece of the event, Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's 2009 film The Time That Remains, was the best thing I watched this year.

The film is a mostly autobiographical account of Suleiman's family's life in occupied Nazareth that spans the six decades after the Nakba, a chain-smoked Bildungsroman about first a father and then his son seeking and finding the small joys of freedom under ever-increasing oppression. Suleiman, as a child, a teenager, and finally in the present day (when he plays himself), is mostly silent throughout the movie, simultaneously protagonist and witness. This stands in marked contrast to his unnervingly handsome gun-running father Fuad, who we first see accepting that his love is fleeing to Jordan with her family while he stays to unsuccessfully resist the occupation. The film's strength is in its focus, for while it tells Palestine's story, it does so largely circumscribed within the Suleiman family and their home as a series of quiet, comic vignettes.

There's a soothing recursiveness to Suleiman's filmmaking: young Elia dutifully walks home again with a plate of horrible lentils from his Aunt Olga, stares his mother down, and plops them into the trash; the alcoholic neighbor has doused himself in kerosene again and needs Fuad to come soothe him; the principal dresses down young Elia for using the word "imperialist" then the word "colonialist" a few scenes later; for the third time, the occupation soldiers shine their spotlight on the two men fishing in the sea at night. This time, they don't make any jokes.

The first act is the movie's loudest, featuring a plane chase and the capture and torture of Fuad after his friend rats him out, though even then, Suleiman remains committed to straightforwardness. Fuad is blindfolded, interrogated, and tortured in an olive grove surrounded by other prisoners, and Suleiman's camera remains focused on the trees themselves, the wind whistling through their leaves.

There's real heaviness, but mostly, The Time That Remains is funny, and Suleiman's commitment to a contemplative tone while doing Tati-style bits about the Israeli occupation produces some real magic: Two soldiers roll up to a thumping club in Ramallah in an armored tank and try in vain to disperse the revelers. Unwilling to leave their fortress, they eventually start bobbing their heads. Teenage Suleiman and his friends smoke cigarettes and hear the story of a local man who role-played a hitchhiking pickup fantasy with his wife, only for her to enjoy it enough that she starts doing it for real, which they also observe from their perch, the chastened husband rolling up too late and kicking his car like an old-timey cartoon. The elder Suleiman eyes up a woman sitting next to him on a bus, but has to keep quickly averting his eyes every time they go over a speed bump, as the bus driver's hidden pin-up girl photo keeps popping out. An ambulance rolls up to a hospital, followed by a police car, and the hospital staff and the cops engage in an extremely silly game of tug of war over the patient, one that is purely goofy until the cops point machine guns at the doctors. The camera pans out and we see teenage Suleiman has been watching the whole thing from his father's bedside.

Suleiman's ability to tell a story like this, one of epochal dispossession, while retaining both a sense of humor and a lightness was extremely affecting. Unable to look away from the U.S.-supported slaughter of thousands of children in Gaza, rooted by the horrors of the ongoing genocide, the only balm I have been able to find has been in the beautiful, inextinguishable spirit of the Palestinian people and the life-affirming displays of solidarity from around the world. Maybe none of that is enough in the face of such brutal killing power focused on Palestine, though the only choice I have is to believe it means something, that it's not worthless to find oneself inspired, by the 10-year-old leading chants at the protest, by Alareer's poetry, by Suleiman's filmmaking. - Patrick Redford

Survivor

In late July, we went to a beautiful dinner in Oakland. There was a very large tree outside, and I patted its side on the way in like a big dog. The food was incredible. We were celebrating the dwindling days of the Normal Gossip tour (there was only one stop left), and the courses were slow and the wine bottles limitless and the conversation so fast and exciting it was hard to keep up. Eating dinner is my favorite hobby, partly because of the food and mostly because of the loose lips. Tell me about your childhood, your crush, your parents, your hobby. Tell me about how you're afraid of sharks, afraid of heights, afraid of being alone.

On this night, Patrick and his partner were regaling us with stories, and we learned quickly that they shared a common interest with our associate producer Jae Towle Viera: Survivor. The conversation rapidly shifted into Survivor lore, Survivor actions, Survivor bullshit that had happened in the past. Survivor is one of those shows that I watched as a child at its peak, grew out of, and only recently found out that all of my smart, funny friends had been watching it together without me. But Survivor has almost 50 seasons. "What are you supposed to do," I quipped, "start at the beginning?" 

But no, I would not. Patrick and his partner had a strategy they had been given from a fellow Survivor sicko for how to get into the show. It involved watching one modern season (David vs. Goliath) and then going back to pivotal seasons in the past. 

Buoyed by friendship and delicious food, I began the program when I returned from tour, and immediately fell into a deep Survivor hole. Since then, I've watched probably a dozen seasons of Survivor. Maybe more. It's important that I don't know. 

What I do know is that it has been so much fun to watch television live with my friends, to have them come over and eat a pizza every week and tell me what's happening in between our rapid commentary on everyone's gameplay. All my friends were right: It's a perfect show, and I'm glad to be here, if a little late. - Kelsey McKinney

Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny

This was the only movie or TV show I watched in 2023. I liked it fine. - Barry Petchesky

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

To be clear, I’ve seen the Lord Of The Rings trilogy before, but this year on Thanksgiving I watched it along with my husband for the first time. Lines from the movies have become a permanent part of our shared language over the last eight years; lost objects are always “right here in my pocket,” and we pretend our cat shrieks “stupid, FAT hobbit” when we’ve ruined a perfectly good chicken by roasting it in the oven. But we’d never watched the movies together, so we finally rectified that and spent Thanksgiving weekend in Middle Earth. And I gotta say, it holds up! What I loved about it, to quote Harry Styles, is that “it feels like a movie.” I was struck by how visually gorgeous the films were and how ambitious they felt in scope (especially because we watched the extended versions). After 20 years of watching entertainment get taken over by cynical IP grabs, it was fascinating to watch an early version of the form executed with what feels like maximalist optimism, ignorant of the Marvelization of the movies to come. - Alex Sujong Laughlin

Telemarketers

The early returns on My Dumb Little Book are good. After not remembering basically anything I’d read or watched in the previous year, I now have a record, in my own shitty late-night handwriting, of just that. This means my problem this year is different than it was last year. Instead of having no meaningful recollection of any of the stuff I’d put into my brain, I am confronted with a record of all the stuff that I grabbed, Supermarket Sweep-style, and gave some hours of my attention. As it turned out, I saw a bunch of movies and television shows that I liked a lot. Having just read through the list of them from end to end, though, I am somehow more worried about the state of my mind. Who did all this, and what is wrong with them?

I know the answer to that. But beyond the stuff that I watched with my wife because it was something we agreed on, I have a hard time figuring out what motivated most or any of my viewing decisions. I know the answer was usually “scrolling through some streaming menu or other without anything else going on,” but the decision-making process is still opaque. I can trace some of it over short periods of time; I had a little Bob Hoskins period last spring, and I still think his performance in The Long Good Friday is maybe the best movie acting I’ve ever seen. But taken all together, this is a record of a man, crazed and apparently intoxicated, careening through a large video rental store in a way that results in both maximum property damage and seven scrawled sentences about the 1999 political thriller Arlington Road (it has its moments). I can recommend a bunch of stuff from the last year—Anatomy Of A Fall is in theaters, Oppenheimer and Barbie you probably saw, Peter Weir’s dreamy The Last Wave is on HBO Max—but I cannot really draw a line between any of them that makes sense, or makes my media diet look any less like that of a raccoon scooting around a food court after hours.

So I can’t tell you how or why we started watching the three-part documentary series Telemarketers on HBO back in November. Critics I trust had recommended it, and friends had asked me if I’d seen it because they had follow-up questions related to the particular tranche of New Jersey scuzz that is its milieu. That last bit, even more than those critical co-signs and the presence of the Safdie Brothers and the Carolina goofs behind The Righteous Gemstones as producers, was what tipped me over into watching it. But none of that really prepared me for how strange and wonderful Telemarketers was.

It’s sort of a documentary and sort of a found-footage film, absolutely and positively an act of old-timey gonzo journalism, and unlike anything else I saw this year. The found footage stuff was shot by Sam Lipman-Stern when he was a high school dropout with a job in a telemarketing concern’s chaotic boiler room, and depicts the crew of socially marginal hustlers who scratched out a living by cold-calling people and convincing them to contribute to shady police-adjacent charities. The documentary part came decades later, when Lipman-Stern and co-director Adam Bala Lough and Lipman-Stern’s old work buddy Patrick J. Pespas dug into the macro-scale scam that floated that boiler room and others, and by association supported them through those aimless years. All of it is journalism, somehow, the detail and color and characters but most fundamentally the unwillingness of Lipman-Stern and Pespas to quit wondering what was actually going on there, and who their bosses really were, and what happened to the money the callers pried out of the retirees they got paid to lie to.

That pursuit is scrappy in its particulars—Pespas, a gifted salesman and ex-addict but also a true-blue Jersey weird guy, handles many of the on-camera interviews with increasingly significant political players, not always very well—but tenacious when and where it needs to be. The result is an engaging, funny, backhandedly rigorous look at a profoundly sketchy industry (telemarketing), the fringe-y people working in it and both exploiting through and being exploited by it (they are the cast and crew, more or less), and the bigger scam that supports all of it and the people benefiting from that (various capitalist goblins and police unions, in tandem). The righteous characters do not win at the end; the powerful people who are made aware of the odious and persistent scamminess of this industry don’t commit to doing anything to stop it; none of the shitheels and sociopaths that benefit from this seem to be at risk of any consequences. But sometimes journalism works like this: It exposes bad acts and bad actors, and also the systems that allow them to function and flourish. Telemarketers does all of that, in ways that are reliably surprising and delightful both tonally and narratively. The ways in which it’s infuriating are buoyed by how humane and goofy it also always is. I found Telemarketers inspiring, but it’s also fun as hell to watch, and absolutely crucial representation for some rare and exquisite strains of New Jersey dirtbags.

I guess the most obvious comparisons would be American Movie or early Michael Moore films, but formally Telemarketers reminded me of a more staid but similarly unresolved HBO documentary called Murder on Middle Beach. In that one, the son of a woman who was killed in a still-unsolved Connecticut murder tries over the course of a couple decades to get closer to the truth, and mostly doesn’t. In both films, part of what’s compelling is seeing how the passage of time shapes and toughens the storytellers, and makes them into filmmakers. Lipman-Stern, who had the instinct to record but didn’t really know what he was recording, was just a kid; Pespas, a fuck-up and savant whose moral compass stays pretty much right on through all his personal tribulations, was just someone smart enough and curious enough to ask questions. You don’t need a license to do journalism, or to run down a complicated story and its powerful protagonists in the way that Lipman-Stern and Pespas do in Telemarketers. You just need to be ornery and interested enough to keep looking. - David Roth

Diana Nyad's Oprah Interview

The most memorable thing I watched this year was Diana Nyad lying about the Holocaust to Oprah till she cried.

Good god. I’m still stunned by what I saw from Nyad, best known as an endurance swimmer and subject of an Oscar-nominated biopic, Nyad. 

But I saw it. Diana Nyad lied … about the Holocaust … to Oprah!

Nyad retells a tale she’s been serving up different versions of for years, this time during an interview with the iconic Oprah from a 2013 episode of her chat show, Super Soul Sunday. It’s about meeting a woman in a restaurant by chance who she immediately sizes up as a Holocaust survivor because of a tattoo on her forearm. The strangers become fast friends, and the woman immediately tells Nyad about being made a sex slave for the S.S. officers at a concentration camp in Poland when she was just three years old. 

“Wow,” Oprah says, wiping tears from both eyes. “I’m so moved by that story.”

I, too, was moved hearing Nyad’s interview with Oprah. Though not in the same way Oprah was. By the time I saw the Holocaust clip, I’d already been schooled on Nyad’s unbounded phoniness by a former marathon swimmer and longtime Nyad obsessive named Daniel Slosberg. For several years, Slosberg has been chronicling Nyad’s fabulistic ways on his amazing website, nyadfactcheck.com. He had posted about her telling at least eight versions of the Holocaust story, usually with much more detail. So I’d heard Nyad name the specific Polish camp where the friend’s sex enslavement occurred (Dachau) and much more graphic descriptions of the abuse she suffered as a child. And I’d read Slosberg’s email exchanges with Holocaust experts around the world to fact-check every fact-checkable detail in Nyad’s stories. He’d confirmed with the U.S. Holocaust Museum, for example, that there was no tattooing of prisoners of any age at Dachau. And he’d been told by Dr. Barbara Distel, a former director of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, said that for all that she’d learned about man’s inhumanity to man there, she’d never heard of child sex abuse at that camp. 

Distel’s bottom line on Nyad’s Holocaust tale? 

“The way she tells it is completely fictional,” Distel wrote.

So, before seeing the Super Soul Sunday interview, I knew that most Nyad stories are further from the truth than Cuba is from Florida.

So watching that clip, I was most moved by the balls it took for Nyad to bring her phony shtick to Oprah. Who the hell would think they could get away with lying about the Holocaust to Oprah? Well, Nyad would! 

And, for all Slosberg’s tireless efforts, Nyad did get away with it. Now there’s a feature film about her, with Annette Bening nominated for an Oscar for playing Nyad as something other than the fabulist/sociopath that the person lying to Oprah about the Holocaust sure seems like. I haven’t seen the film and have no interest in seeing it. I will watch the Super Soul Sunday clip again, however. - Dave McKenna

Top of the Lake, Season 1

I came to Top of the Lake 10 years late. This is because when it first became available on Netflix in 2013, I walked into my girlfriend's apartment and found her roommate watching a particularly fraught scene in the penultimate episode. There was some weird stuff going on. "This show seems weird!" I said, before leaving the room.

Watching the show now, in 2023, with the state of television being what it is, felt like being transported to an alternate reality. You're telling me they let Jane Campion write and direct a whole season of television set in the back country of New Zealand? And Elisabeth Moss is in the lead role? And Holly Hunter just shows up for a few episodes here and there? And every single character is the weirdest person you've ever heard of, and the show isn't desperate for you to like or identify with any of them? And not one single line of dialogue sounds like it was written by four 27-year-olds who read nothing but their Twitter feeds?

I sort of forgot that they used to make television shows like this, and not that long ago. - Tom Ley

Barbenheimer

Two gigantic films famously began gracing movie screens on the same July day, and I went out and saw both, also in one day. One featured my childhood memories transformed into a celluloid whole. The other featured men unleashing a mighty power. Of course I'm talking about, in order, Oppenheimer and Barbie.

Yes, Oppenheimer—specifically, its many scientists—was the stuff of my childhood memories. There was Niels Bohr (atomic structure) eating an apple. Moments later, it was Isidor Rabi (whose research would lead to MRIs) on a train. Give it some time and Enrico Fermi (nuclear chain reactions), Edward Teller (the H-bomb), and Albert Einstein (uh, duh) all appeared. The gang was all here.

Perhaps you did not grow up with a father who trained as an analytical chemist, but, if you had, these would have been your guys. You would remember them as easily as Disney princesses or pitchers from the early 1990s or, well, Barbies. My dad's reverence did not take, in the sense that I in no way, shape, or form became a scientist. And yet still I felt a strange nostalgia seeing these people portrayed on screen. We might not pick our childhood stories but, nonetheless, they stay with us.

As for the men unleashing a mighty power in Barbie, we're talking about the patriarchy! Yes, the movie wasn't just about this; after all, it's called Barbie. Certainly, Margot Robbie did seem to become Barbie personified. Of course the script was filled with sly feminist jokes and winking film references. But in the same way Luke is the hero but Darth Vader is the engine, it's Ken who drives Barbie (the movie). Ken just wants Barbie to notice him, but after being rejected, he ends up unleashing the power of the previously unknown patriarchy on Barbie Land. And, well, wouldn't you be totally down with a system that said you were awesome, powerful, all knowing, and always to be trusted? Plus it has horses! And mojo dojo casa houses! How do well-meaning people end up making such awful moral choices? And can we be rescued from them? These are the questions Barbie dares to ask in a way unlike many we've seen on film. 

These are just two films of many this year and my interpretations are mine alone. I saw them back-to-back, Oppenheimer then Barbie, like a lot of people did, and, most importantly, I had fun. Here in Los Angeles it was one of the events of the summer, and not because an algorithm targeted all of us or because we had all been influenced by the influencers, but because the whole thing just sort of happened. The best marketing is the kind people can never buy. I enjoyed them both. Naturally. - Diana Moskovitz

The Devil's Plan

After watching the Squid Game reality show, I was craving a similar style of competition, but one that didn’t make me feel horrendous about my decisions for entertainment. In browsing the Squid Game subreddit, I saw people recommending The Devil’s Plan instead; my understanding from these comments was that the show, also a South Korean production, did away with random chance for eliminations and instead consisted of brain-meltingly difficult puzzles and games to decide a winner. 

And so, trusting random people on the internet, I decided to give The Devil’s Plan a chance. After one episode, I was fully in. Each of the main games throughout the 12-episode season felt unfair only in its difficulty; they were all complicated strategy games, full of memorization, math, politicking, alliances, the whole nine yards. The first game is a great example, and an even better decision for the producers, as it is both one of the most interesting and most straightforward of games. (It was still very complex; we had to turn on the English dubbing for the rules explanation, because the subtitles were simply going too quickly and were too convoluted to follow.) 

The game was called “The Virus Game,” and it worked like Mafia, or Among Us, if that game had some of the community-designed mods implemented from the start. Essentially, the 12 players—all of whom were picked for their intelligence and, it seemed, fame in South Korea—were assigned various roles at random, including civilians who were mostly there to be cannon fodder, researchers who had to figure out how to create a cure for the titular virus, and a fanatic whose only role in the game was to get killed on purpose. It was riveting to try to figure out who was playing which role—the show wisely only revealed a couple as the game played out, and only when the players themselves figured them out—and see which strategy worked out best.

In the end, the fanatic, Dong-jae—my personal favorite player for his aggressive gameplay and ruthless strategy—created an alliance with the two terrorists, whose goal was just to kill everyone, in order to get himself killed and secure the win for both him and his partners. It was thrilling to watch this plan come to fruition, and after just that one game, I knew I had to watch the show in full as quickly as possible.

The following games all tested these players’ skills but, because it’s a reality show competition, the strategy also involved the interpersonal relationships between each player on the quickly dwindling roster. ORBIT, a science YouTuber with a powerful if slightly obnoxious personality, created an alliance that spanned more than half of the 12 players, forcing the remaining ones to band together in hopes of surviving. The lopsided alliances created drama in every episode, pretty much to the end, which opened up space for stunning betrayals and cutthroat eliminations.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the show, because the less you know the better, but the way that The Devil’s Plan is laid out smartly keeps the momentum going all the way to the final one-on-one showdown.

The cast is also charming, impressive, and, maybe in the rarest twist of all, wholesome: Even when betrayals get thrown left and right, no one seems to actually develop a real hatred for anybody else. Instead, they eat meals together and strategize for the next game, and everyone leaves the game when eliminated with their heads held high. In comparison to Squid Game: The Challenge, the vibes were impeccable, and by the end of the 12 episodes, I felt like this was a worthwhile way to spend my time, rather than something I was watching against my better judgement.

The Devil’s Plan has already been renewed for a second season, and if the show can capture the same magic once more, this will become less of a curiosity and more of a staple of my viewing, which is something I can’t say for the similarly renewed Squid Game reality show. In a year where I watched more reality competitions than I ever had before, The Devil's Plan stands out as the best simply because it was more competition than reality show, and that's a ratio I didn't know I wanted so badly until I found it. - Luis Paez-Pumar

Madness, Memory, Mill & Discard

Fantasy books aside, I never grew up on nerd stuff. Instead I stumbled into it in high school—started reading comics, playing video games, things of that nature—which is just to say that while I’ve never played Magic: The Gathering (too expensive a hobby), I’ve consumed hours upon hours of MTG content anyway. For example: Spice8Rack.

The nuances and/or terrors of nerd culture are, uh, a lot, so “nonbinary leftist makes a two-and-a-half hour video essay about MTG mechanics that cites Foucault multiple times and mispronounces his name at the start, like we all have at least once in our lives” will elicit very different reactions from very different subgroups. But personally, there is nothing I love more than a long video about something I am tangentially interested in but don’t have that much knowledge about. Also, you know it’s going to be a good one when the essayist says, tongue-in-cheek, that they’ll go over the subject in a "detailed yet ultimately concise” way roughly 10 times before you even get to the halfway point of the video.

It’s a smart, detailed, and funny watch just on the basis of its content, but personally I find it satisfying because I’ve always thought that the popular discourse about a lot of nerd media—especially comics, MTG, and video game franchises—is frustrating for the same reason the media itself is interesting: These are often sprawling, iterative projects that pass through dozens of different creators, and end up with an uneasy relationship to canon. But Spice knows how to wrangle and make meaning from narrative and aesthetic inconsistencies, rather than letting those detract from their general argument. It’s made possible when you ask the question: What sense can you make of the real world or mental health or capitalism by trying to explain the difference between two game mechanics? Which is basically the project of literary theory, but it’s wonderful to see it applied to a card game.

Also, Spice gets bonus points for placing the usual video essay Eurostep of "let's talk about the history of madness" at the 40-minute mark of the video, after sufficient context, rather than at the 30-second mark. That’s analysis, baby. - Kathryn Xu

Jury Duty

Reality cringe comedy can be incredible, but it also often feels a little wrong. Sacha Baron Cohen, Nathan Fielder, John Wilson and others often exploit unwitting strangers in order to create comedy. Sometimes these people deserve it—Rudy Giuliani in Borat 2 comes to mind—but most are regular schmoes. That people like Wilson and Fielder cop to being assholes to strangers to make TV—by the end of The Rehearsal, it’s basically what the show is about—doesn’t make it any better. I have quite a tolerance for this kind of thing, though, in various forms. I like the work of those three. In 2020, I watched basically every Surreal Life spinoff—including Megan Wants A Millionaire, which was canceled after three episodes because one of the cast members killed someone after the show finished taping. (To note: Frank the Entertainer in A Basement Affair was actually a much worse show.) I guess I like to cringe, or I hate myself, or maybe both. But in 2023, I watched a reality cringe comedy that was uplifting. Jury Duty made me feel good about myself and the world.

The show aired on Freevee, an Amazon-owned service. It presents itself as a documentary. A crew films a trial while also following around the jury on the case during its sequestration. The show is scripted, and everyone is in on the gag except one man, Ronald Gladden, who answered an ad on Craigslist for a courtroom documentary and believes the trial is real. (It has a similar premise to the early-2000s The Joe Schmoe Show, which was on Spike.) Jury Duty does not really explain why Gladden thinks a film crew would be allowed to follow around an actual jury. But I don’t care. I loved this show, and for once I don’t feel too bad about watching something on TV.

Gladden deals with a number of ridiculous incidents on the show. A fellow juror tells him he’s going to go masturbate, then ends up injuring himself trying to climb a bookcase. There’s a giant shit in his hotel room toilet that everyone seems to blame him for. The defense attorney could not be more incompetent. He somehow wins thousands of dollars from a fellow juror playing him in yut nori, then has to deal with this man’s insistence on paying him. The judge’s car is broken into. The jurors are sequestered because one of them is the actor James Marsden, playing a jerk version of himself. He gets the whole jury sequestered while trying to get out of jury duty. At one point, he ruins a party by smashing a cake.

The end of the show is simply delightful. Gladden learns the whole thing was a prank and that he’s getting $100,000 as a result; then he learns how everything was staged, the different ways the producers managed to get him into situations and how they had to scramble when things didn’t go as expected. The final episode explains how everything went down. My favorite moment is when the bailiff is accidentally called by her real name. The producers ended up creating a character with that name in order to keep up the hoax.

The show really works not because it’s uplifting, but because it’s funny. Gladden is a trip. He is such a cool, easy-going guy. He lets himself be blamed for clogging the toilet because he doesn’t want to embarrass anyone. He doesn’t tell anyone that the one juror left to masturbate. It's incredible that the producers found someone like this. Jury Duty was created by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, the writers of The Office’s “Dinner Party” episode. That episode, a top-five half-hour of TV for me, was similarly cringeworthy. But I think the pair may have created something even more spectacular here. It was funny, it was cringey, and it was the best thing on TV this year. - Dan McQuade

The Curse

The Nathan Fielder television project is an experiment in intense awkward comedy, sure, but it is in effect a look at true human behavior: who we are in our worst moments and our most awkward situations, and how technology and the internet have enabled us to create alternative selves to combat these moments. In The Rehearsal, he used the artificial parameters of performance to try and dig into a more authentic view of people. The Curse is another version of that: a fictional series that is searching for something true and authentic about the human experience.

The Curse is a show about people who are too online; people who need to present themselves not only as good people but the right kind of “good people”; rich, white gentrifiers somehow more insufferable for how they apologize for their gentrifying. At least, that’s what it is nominally about. The Showtime (Paramount+?) series is an anxiety-laden bad drug trip full of empty space, creeping Oneohtrix Point Never synths, New Mexico glaze, micropenis insecurity, and three of the most self-centered characters on TV this year, led by Fielder, series co-creator Benny Safdie, and an MVP Emma Stone performance. There hasn’t been a show this strange and hypnotic since Twin Peaks: The Return, and it’s hard to imagine one like it happening again. - Israel Daramola

Drops of God

I have no idea how I came across Drops of God. I consider life too short to take fliers on random TV shows; I had not read the manga which it was adapted from; I did not even subscribe to the streaming service where it appeared; I am not a wine-knower. Maybe I just liked the title, and I do generally support the movement to Make TV Miniseries Again. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful to have stumbled into this eight-episode saga about a bizarre competition to inherit a massive wine collection, staged in both Japan and France. One of the things that turns me off about wine culture is that it seems to serve deep-pocketed clowns who have no introspection or sensitivity in any other domain of their life but suddenly feel compelled to perform extreme introspection and sensitivity in this narrow setting. You know, just flinging some random adjectives at the wall before you get back to your daily plunder. This show manages to depict wine-tasting in a way I actually loved, with a little manga-inflected camp and some bold technical risks. Whenever the main character takes a sip, we cut abruptly to bursts of colored mist and distorted flashbacks. Tasting becomes this psychedelic act of memory, of rummaging through a life’s repository of smells and tastes, a kind of sensory detective work with high stakes. Until we can taste TV (not ruling this out), this might be the next best thing. - Giri Nathan

Spain Winning The World Cup

Spain's women's national soccer team winning the World Cup could have been the best sports moment. Though it was pipped at the end by Connor Stalions and Florida State as the mutual faces of college football's step to hell, it had many of the same aspects, most of all the opportunity to see noble people doing noble things, being negated by awful people, and then the awful people collapsing under the weight of their own awfulness. This was an extended watch, to be sure, which I am truncating it here out of sheer laziness.

It began with months of self-sabotage, rampant sexism, and bullying by the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) to undo the original talented and precocious team—only for the team to overcome all that and steal the Cup through its own inherent brilliance over a full month. Within another 16 days brutish coach Jorge Vilda had lost his job; in another month vile federation president Luis Rubiales had resigned and been suspended for three years by both the RFEF and UEFA. It was a malignant start to a heroic tale in which the villains double down on their awfulness (a special citation here to Piers Morgan for tripling down on the double-down by imposing his particular kind of defend-the-baddies biliousness) before being finally crushed under the weight of their desperate thrashing. You couldn't make it up except during the writers' strike, but fiction is never as good as nonfiction, and this was the best nonfiction of all. - Ray Ratto

“Connor’s Wedding” (Succession, Season 4 Episode 3)

If Succession always had a log line that read flat on paper (a group of fictional Murdoch heirs, all of whom are equal parts shallow and incompetent, continually plot to overthrow their father only to fail), the tl;dr for its most consequential episode is even more likely to have you skipping past it on the menu. But let me sum it up anyway, strictly as an exercise. 

Creator Jesse Armstrong kills off the patriarch of Succession (Logan Roy, as played by Brian Cox) just three episodes into its final season. You don’t get to see Logan Roy die on camera. You don’t get to see his EKG flatline. You only see Roy’s dying body deep in the background of a few shots, and Cox wasn’t even on the set for those scenes (producers used his body double). You don’t get to see Roy’s corpse until it’s already inside a bodybag and being wheeled off of the tarmac in the waning minutes of the episode. You don’t even get to see Roy’s children have a final moment with him, because all of them are stuck on a yacht while their old man is fighting for his life aboard his own private jet. It’s enough to make you snidely wonder what you WILL get to see happen on camera.

And yet, all of that omission is the reason that this episode is a masterwork. Yes, this is yet another media person praising Succession, which is about media people. But I also happen to be a novelist, so I wasn’t held rapt by this episode because of the “Media Assholes Are Just Like Me!” element, but because all of the storytelling choices made by Armstrong for this episode (detailed here) were thought out and executed on a level that is beyond my skill set. This was a clinic in blending character with narrative technique. Armstrong avoided every last melodramatic trope when they were all there to be had. I was expecting one of these to come along at any moment, nearly to the point of demanding it. I’m conditioned to expect a story like this to hit the usual marks.

But playing “Connor’s Wedding” as Shakespeare never would have fit Succession. Logan Roy built an empire of hate, feeding disinformation to isolated viewers through a television screen. He was an engineer of societal disconnect: angry, ruthless, and ultimately contemptuous of his fellow man, including his own family. So of course he needed to die off camera. Of course his children—and you, the viewer—only learn the news of it through piecemeal updates on the fucking phone. And of course no one believes the news Logan Roy has actually died because everyone on this show is a liar, and because Cox made Roy into a character who felt more impervious than God. 

This is tragically close to how death hits in real life. You’re not always there when a loved one goes. You don’t always get to say what you always wanted to say. And you’re never certain it’s real, even when you’re told that is very much is. Even when you finally see it with your own eyes. Succession never showed you, at least in great detail, the real-world damage that Logan Roy and his family inflicted upon the world. All of that was left to the cruelty of one’s imagination. Logan’s death was destined to do likewise. - Drew Magary

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