At the close of 2021, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker about our new era of hyper-partisan identity. Not even television was spared. “By now, party, race, faith and even TV viewing habits are all correlated,” she wrote, explaining how one United States study found the top 20 television shows among Republicans were completely different from those favoured by Democrats.
How that translates to Oz is an open question, but 2023, like its immediate predecessors, gave us too many signs that depolarisation remains a dream in an era that so profitably sells rigid group identities. As in politics, there’s nothing new, or interesting, in oversimplified television where the “other” is the only threat. So while minds will differ on the best of 2023, the following series sustained complexity, contained multitudes and delivered something enduringly edifying in ways that felt effortless and entertaining.
Another year, another triumph for The Bear. It seemed season one couldn’t be bettered, but season two levelled up in ways that drilled deeper into the central characters’ love-starved pasts, the self-nourishing possibilities of nourishing others and the emotional roller-coaster of collaborative work. Ayo Edebiri continued her virtuosic performance as sous chef Sydney, less as a circuit breaker for the unbearable tension generated by the dysfunctional male leads and more as a worthy character in her own right.
Season three of Reservation Dogs gave us another Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), another triumph. The final season finds him, with friends Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor), stranded far from home – but this show has consistently found the closest connections in cosmic distances. It’s also successfully sustained an assured, polyphonic approach to tone, perspective and narrative arc. Like all perfect endings, it felt too soon to say goodbye.
Likewise for the swan song of the astonishingly brilliant, sui generis docuseries, How To with John Wilson. With help from writers such as journalist and bestselling author Susan Orlean, Wilson’s obsessive collection and resonant collaging of the minutiae of daily life has gorgeously shown that, in the end, it is the tiny things that are the most significant, and the feelings they evoke are universal.
Scraping ourselves towards the end of this year, the Succession finale feels like it occurred back in the Cretaceous period. It was mere months ago that its majestic four seasons closed with each Roy realising their father’s death was not some magical release but the dawn of the next cycle of intergenerational abuse.
Speaking of cannibalistic zombies, The Last of Us represented the hidden hopefulness of all things post-apocalyptic. The rage-driven, the fear-driven and the slow-dying stalking its blasted landscapes were recurrence personified: the traumatic past ripping through the present. But Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and little Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard) gave pause to consider where we’re headed and what might yet be done. The displacement of pain, alienation and vulnerability into anger was also fertile material for Beef. Using the fulcrum of a road-rage unpleasantness between Amy Lau (the mighty Ali Wong) and Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), the writers lifted the lid off that protective emotion to movingly explore family, community and class conflicts.
The brutal mytho-poetic fairytale The Changeling reminded us that while the repertoire of human stories is limited, there are infinite ways to spin them. This is also illustrated in less elevated ways by that jolly form, the Christmas movie. At their best, they re-enact Dickens’ framing of the season as the only time we think of others “as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys”. Even ironically, however, I cannot recommend Netflix’s Best. Christmas. Ever! I’m embarrassed I watched it. But it led me to Variety’s review: “Its absurdist lunacy acts as a Trojan Horse containing genuinely meaningful sentiments on forgiveness, happiness and bittersweet sorrows.” The same could be said of 2023.
Whatever 2024 holds, it’s unlikely to be weirder than the forthcoming episodes of Nathan Fielder’s The Curse. And nothing to come will be truly new in terms of the emotions it evokes in us individually, and in our various collectives. Which is why end-of-year wraps are important. The fiction of finality is the friend of second chances.
EXHIBITION A Blueprint for Ruins
White Rabbit Gallery, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until May 12
CULTURE sis: Pacific Art 1980-2023
Gallery of Modern Art, Meanjin/Brisbane, until September 8
PHOTOGRAPHY Photography: Real and Imagined
Ian Potter Centre, Naarm/Melbourne, until February 4
MUSIC Field Trip Festival
Bonython Park, Kaurna Yarta/Adelaide, December 31–January 1
TEXTILE International Art Textile Biennale
Moonah Arts Centre, nipaluna/Hobart, until January 20
MULTIMEDIA The Antipodean Manifesto
Art Gallery of WA, Whadjuk and Noongar Country/Perth, until February 18
EXHIBITION Bethan Laura Wood Kaleidoscope-o-rama
NGV International, Naarm/Melbourne, until April 7
TEXTILE Chantal Henley, Gulayí [Woven Vessel]
The Mill, Kaurna Yarta/Adelaide, until January 19
MULTIMEDIA Mare Amoris | Sea of Love
The University of Queensland Art Museum, Meanjin/Brisbane, until January 20
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Television".
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