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“Bear”, “Diplomat” and others in a difficult year

We close the book with a year in Hollywood when writers and actors went on strike and almost no work was done for nearly six months. These are tough times for anyone who makes a living from television.

But it also served as an overdue course correction. Broadcasters were loathe to admit that they were airing more shows than viewers could keep up with and insufficient budget to market them all, and the 2023 business cut was an excuse to cut back instead. How convenient.

The strikes hit TV networks the hardest. Broadcasters have resorted to an unsatisfactory mix of reruns and reality. But weekly episodic TV was already in decline, which is ironic considering that past seasons of those shows, from “NCIS” to “Grey’s Anatomy,” were among the most popular on streaming platforms. Only NBC managed to premiere new programs in the fall (completed before the strike and postponed just in case). “Illogical” and “Found”. Even though it was mediocre, at least they were new! (The bar is low.)

There were some highlights this year, which is why you’re reading this. However, while “Suits”, which has not released a new episode since 2019, was the series of the summer on Netflix, 2023 was not an embarrassing year in terms of riches.

It’s not a promising sign of the times, but viewers are making their preferences known: Prestige TV is great, but viewers also want lighter options that look sharp and are designed with their weekly viewing habits in mind. Meaning: Standalone episodes that don’t require the homework of serialized shows. I like to call it background televisionbecause it can withstand a half-distracted audience. He was a master of the original “Law and Order” format. Too bad the reboot was so bad.

If 2023 were a lackluster year, I’d point to risk-averse managers relying too heavily on new variants of old intellectual property. Or maybe it gives us yet another series exploring the inner lives of the ultra-rich. There is so much wealth! This is boring. And the blame doesn’t lie (entirely) with the writers, but with the studios who decide what gets made.

Here’s a bright spot: In recent years, I’ve been lamenting the lack of weird fictional stories about working conditions and strikes, even though these problems are ever-present in our daily lives. So a note to Season 4 “For all humanity” for being one of the few series to step into the breach this year (and also for “Gilded Age” – the less said about this show the better).

That aside, these are my top shows of 2023 (in alphabetical order):

“Annika” (PBS): It’s one of Masterpiece Mystery’s best offerings, thanks to British actress Nicola Walker, who knows how to play self-aware discomfort for laughs. The police detective constantly breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the camera, chattering about literary references that often serve as a metaphor for what’s going on in his life. There’s a contemplative, conspiratorial quality to these moments, delivered with a comical, semi-distracted, straight-faced energy: “You see that too, don’t you? You understand.”

From left to right: Jeremy Allen White and Ayo Edebiri "Bear."

“Bear” (FX on Hulu): The show grabbed viewers by the collar in Season 1, creating all kinds of sweaty, grease-splattered, slice-of-life drama at an Italian steak sandwich shop in Chicago. But Season 2 revealed a different plan: turning the old diner into a fine dining destination. What could go wrong? The series, which has been renewed for a third season, is proof that original ideas – if handled carefully and skillfully – still have the power to draw huge audiences. The show doesn’t have high concept. It is defined by its intensity, charm and warmth, despite the conflicting personalities within it. Backed by a pair of stellar performances from Jeremy Allen White and Ayo Edebiri, “The Bear” deals with the mundane, stressful, exciting events of life as the band tries to figure out how they are once again. overcoming daunting challenges and building things together.

Keri Russell "Diplomat."

“Diplomat” (Netflix): Keri Russell stars as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, and it’s worth looking at creator Debora Cahn’s previous works, “Homeland” and “The West Wing,” to understand the show’s tonal sensibility. Cahn takes both the best parts of the shows and jettisons all the stuff that doesn’t work — namely “Homeland’s” panicked Islamophobia and “The West Wing’s” smug self-satisfaction — but retains the understated wit and juicy political strategies. The writing has real flavor, and if you’re experiencing “West Wing” withdrawal, longing for the sharp banter between high achievers, Cahn takes a less showy but much more entertaining stylistic approach than Aaron Sorkin ever did. The second season is on the way.

From left to right: Tomohisa Yamashita and Fleur Geffrier compete for inheritance "Drops of God.”

“Drops of God” (AppleTV+): No one watched this because Apple couldn’t be bothered to promote it. But the story of two young oenologists fighting for a major inheritance is unexpectedly riveting and satisfying. The names of a French woman and a Japanese man are included in the will of a world-famous wine enthusiast. The first was the man’s daughter, the second was his star pupil. The two face off to test their wine expertise. Loosely adapted from the Japanese manga of the same name, “Drops of God” isn’t a title that rolls off the tongue. And tone-wise, the series is a bit cramped at first, which reflects the personalities of the two main characters. But in the end, a feeling of relief and euphoria washes over everything. Director Oded Ruskin captures a world that is high-level but also livable, leaving room for small moments of humor. It’s gorgeously cinematic (shot by Rotem Yaron), from the warm, sunny landscapes of French vineyards, the glass and concrete of luxurious Tokyo, to the winding roads of a quaint Italian village.

    Martin Kısa walked in "Just Murders in the Building."

“Just Murders in the Building” (Hulu): Surprise! Another murder to solve! The warmly petulant friendship between Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez remains the show’s draw, but the heart of Season 3 belongs to Short, who can embody a lifetime’s accumulated sadness and then deliver a hilarious, perfectly judged response. He was shot after a while.

at Natasha Lyonne "Poker face."

“Poker face” (Peacock): Bringing back memories of “Columbo” but with a 21st century sensibility, Natasha Lyonne plays a woman on the run who also has an uncanny ability to detect when people are lying. This is an ability that comes in handy, as corpses appear in every town he stops in. The series has its own raucous and sharp sense of humor and is packed with guest stars.

From left to right:

“Night Agent” (Netflix): I debated whether this should make the list. This isn’t a show I predict people will be talking about 10 years from now. But he is repulsive and smart. And it’s a kind of storytelling that’s becoming increasingly rare: solidly made television that doesn’t rely on reboots or gimmicks. A young, square-jawed FBI agent who finds his personal and professional life turned upside down when a woman needs his help. The series vaguely resembles “Three Days of the Condor,” a 1975 Robert Redford political thriller about a man who doesn’t know who he can trust, even within the government agency where he works.

From left to right: Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong "Schmigadoon!"

“Schmigadoon!” (Hulu): Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key found themselves in Schmicago for Season 2; this season was a winking homage to Broadway musicals of the ’60s and ’70s, including some of Bob Fosse’s biggest hits as well as hippie-inspired shows like “Hair.” Somehow the comedic madness of this unexpected mash-up works. The show is like a Naming game, and if you have a good familiarity with musicals from this era, it’s a lot of fun.

Isaiah Hill "Feint.

“Feint” (AppleTV+): It’s the spiritual cousin of “Friday Night Lights” but focuses on basketball. (It is loosely inspired by the childhood of NBA player Kevin Durant.) The pressures can be especially harsh for young phenoms who live up to every expectation, and the series looks at what it means to be a kid who has the potential to live up to every expectation. the path to the pros. Originally about a group of elite 14-year-old basketball players, the series’ second season follows high school senior boys whose hopes of getting into college are in jeopardy. Orlando Jones joined the staff this season as the school’s athletic director; He was a man who fully believed in the politics of respectability. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance, one of the best of Jones’ career.

A scene from the animated series "Young Love."

“Young Love” (Max): The animated series by Chicago native Matthew A. Cherry (based on his Oscar-winning short film “Hair Love”) is charming but not particularly pleasant. It’s about a little girl and her parents living on Chicago’s West Side. You can clearly see the care taken to capture the city. Courtesy of the show’s artistic director Ed Li, the visuals are unmistakably Chicago, from views of the downtown river to the converging letter “L” to the recognizable wooden back porches on three brick apartments.

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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