Media Diet: Best TV, Movies, Podcasts, Games, and Music of the Year
Phil Schneider in Hamlet
My best cultural experience of the year was watching my little brother star in a full production of Hamlet in his final semester at Yale. He was very, very good.
Even more impressive to me was his performance in Hand to God, where he was possessed by a southern Christian ministry puppet.
After over a decade of our entire family pushing him to literally anything else with his life, he’s committed to making acting a career. If you have any perspective on the industry, leads on a new agent, or can just provide some solace to him on what he’s getting into, I’d love to put you in touch. Just respond to this email to connect.
Wave Makers 人選之人—造浪者 (2023): Taiwanese election drama loses momentum after episode 4 or so, but I still teared up just getting engrossed in what democracy in Chinese looks and sounds like. 7.9.
The Long Season 漫长的季节 (2023): Another just brutal year for mainland dramas, but this was well-acted enough to hold my interest though six episodes. 6.9.
The Knockout 狂飙 (2023): Through the first five episodes, iQIYI’s The Knockout was the best Chinese modern drama of the 2020s. It’s a Breaking Bad–esque tale of a fishmonger who, bullied by street toughs and frustrated at his lack of prospects, ends up pursuing a life of crime. The antihero is deliciously written and acted, and the initial portrayals of corruption are pretty unflinching. The language is naturalistic, and all the actors feel comfortable in their roles. I’ve particularly been enjoying the sound design, an aspect of TV many contemporary Chinese dramas fail to deliver in.
Having never lived in China in the “bad old days” of the go-go 2000s, getting a little glimpse into that world through this dramatized account was really entertaining. Some of the characters, from the street hoods to the clean cop and corrupt businessmen, seem a little archetypal — but I trust these writers to continue to layer on depth as the drama unfolds. If you haven’t watched a ton of Chinese TV, these archetypes will feel fresh to you! Do consider checking out the first few episodes of the show on YouTube — iQIYI has invested in serviceable English subtitles for those less comfortable with Chinese.
Episodes 5-10: After five more, the weight of censorship began to hold down the writing. The entire creative team, from writers and actors down to the cinematographers and sound designer, have the capability to add nuance and complexity to every character. The good guy, however, is a little too good, and the bad guys a little too bad for the plot to really resonate. Only the lead remains as all that interesting a character. Unfortunately, we’re just not going to get The Wire out of China in the late Xi era.
I’m still obsessed with this Don. He has so many teapots!
Become a Farmer 种地吧 (2023) is a reality TV show taking cute twenty-something guys and making them farm. It’s relaxing and kind of silly: there’s definitely an undercurrent of “struggle poor” and idealizing the lives of poor farmers who probably really would rather have the comfortable urban lives these kids are giving up. The most interesting moments are when the guys do something manually, get frustrated, ask a farmer how do to something better (ie. seed), then rent some machine (a drone that seeds for you) and get blown away by how much more productive the technology makes them. It’s also a little wild watching a show idealizing urban youth going to the countryside as a wholesome anecdote to modern life only fifty years after the horrific “Down to the Countryside” 上山下乡运动 movement of the Maoist era — where educated youth were sent to farm in an attempt to tone down the risks that the Cultural Revolution posed to Mao’s grip on power. I discuss Shan Weijian’s 單偉建 experience in the Gobi in the podcast below.
Chinese Bizarreries 中国奇谭 (2023): Fantastically creative animated series by Bilibili. Discussed in the podcast below. 8.9.
Succession Season 4 (2023): Two of the most transcendent moments of television I’ve ever seen (episode three and the Shiv and Tom balcony fight) left me screaming in delight at the privilege of getting to watch such superlative art. 9.9.
The Pacific (2010): hit a professional setback and rewatched this to not feel bad about myself. A few truly standout performances, and zero weak actors. Barely any scene dragged across ten episodes. 9.7.
Atlanta Season 4 (2022): I have so much respect for Donald Glover and his extended creative universe of collaborators. They put so much care into every shot and story beat. 9.6.
The Bear Season 1 (2022): Love me some distilled television! Is there one limiting factor stopping more shows from being this great? 9.3.
Mrs. Davis (2023): Smart and funny exploration of AI and faith through the lens of a nun doing battle with a superintelligence. Another example of Tyler Cowen’s point that the people who will do the most interesting thinking about AI’s interaction with society are not the engineers who design the models themselves, but rather, “Experts from other fields often turn out to be more correct than experts in the ‘relevant’ (quotes intentional) field.” 8.6.
The Last of Us (2023): Breathtaking third episode — the rest of it forgettable. 7.0.
Tengoku Daimakyou 天国大魔境 (Heavenly Delusion): Every year I try to give some of the consensus best animes a shot … had a good concept but annoyingly horny. Is anime ostensibly for adults like 1990s HBO shows, where they feel obligated to stick in sex scenes? 6.0
Hijack (2023): If a TV show gives me a reason not to like it in the first 30 minutes, I should just stop watching. 5.2.
F1 Season 5 (2023): At least I cranked through it on 3x and skipped the really poorly done racing segments. 4.3.
Playback.tv NBA Streams. I’ve been watching the NBA playoffs this year, alternating between two livestreams, The Dunker Spot and Dunc’d on Prime. Each offers live commentary over basketball feeds to an audience of around 150 viewers. Despite their popularity in China, I never appreciated the appeal of livestreams until now. With a small, sophisticated audience, these commentators can indulge professional-grade analysis more fit for an NBA film room than a TNT broadcast, and do real time Q&A. Not beholden to corporate sponsors, these streams could also be funnier than what you’d get on national television. I hope these micro-communities of real nerds on sports become more of a thing.
I adored this Tyler Cowen radio hour with Rick Rubin. After listening, I felt convinced I was wasting my life listening to RapCaviar and pop charts. There’s so much better stuff out there!
My second favorite episode of the year was Sam Hammond, who led a profound discussion on how institutions will be forced to reshape themselves in an age of broadly capable AI.
War on the Rocks’s The Russia Contingency, hosted by Michael Kofman, is a national treasure. Over the course of this war, he has been able to bring a unique perspective through his repeated trips out to the field. Though deeply invested in the fight, he has stood as a model of analytical rigor, able to consistently deliver thoughtful critiques on Ukrainian and allied approaches to the war. I also enjoy his detours into Napoleonic-era and Soviet military history.
I stumbled on Too Niche! after encountering Erewhon for the first time and needing an explanation. The show is two LA women in their late thirties discussing their hauls of random items (“adderall alternatives”) or themes (“peaks of aging”). Some people need years of meditation to notice and appreciate the little things in life, but what it took for me was a two-hour review of sparkling waters.
Sold a Story: fantastic reporting on how it took decades for proven research to overcome entrenched interests, what “felt right,” and teachers unable to psychologically own up to past mistakes. It’s also a parable of how money (via phonics tutors) allowed richer parents to save their kids from the overreaches of more “liberal” governance. I cannot wait for AI instructors to raise the overall quality of education, particularly among the under-fifteen set, across the world.
Foretold, an LA Times–produced story about young Romani mother who leaves her community but still feels culturally connected. Echoes of Chinese nationals who leave the mainland partially due to politics.
The Retort: Two die-hard AI open-sourcers that casually reference Albert Hirschman. I’m slain.
I was also happy to see Dwarkesh start to range more into politics, history, and even some China!
It was a joy cheering for Ding Liren 丁立人 in his World Chess Championship arc. For the uninitiated, here’s a great summary of his inspirational path to victory. (If anyone’s connected to him, I’d love to have him on ChinaTalk!) I liked watching Levy’s recaps for the hype and then Nakamura’s for actual analysis and perspective of what it’s like to play competitive classical chess. Chef Wang Gang 王刚 getting taught by his teacher was adorable. People Make Games continued to put out fantastic documentary coverage of the gaming world, though their video this year on excel tournaments was triggering. VideoGameDunkey’s reviews are comedic jewels. English language YouTube coverage of China has improved over the past year, while Chinese language stalwarts like 王志安 continue to inform and entertain. I loved this video of him getting gently chided by his old teacher. In general though, YouTube continues its pattern of losing my interest over time.
My favorite video of the year was this series of this British fishmonger going around the world to other food markets. There were some great lessons in markets for an econ course to riff off, as well as humanizing global blue-collar work.
Songs: Four Tet’s Bad Liar remix. Chinese rapper YOUNG’s Taylor Swift “Love Story” remix. Conducta’s Whippet. Julie London’s Cry Me a River. Blossom Dearie Tea For Two. Avnu Jain’s Alag Assmaan. Mura Masa’s 2gether. Cheef Keef Bitch Where. Peter Watchorn’s Toccata in D Minor, BWV 913: I. (Presto). Mura Masa Slomo. Ryo Fukui’s Scenery. Emilia’s no-se-ve.mp3. Bela Fleck’s B Tune.
Elden Ring last year was a transcendent experience, but I primarily use video game time to socialize and catch up with friends, so for years I’ve shied away from single-player games. To that end, I think there’s really something to the exchange below.
A friend was considering applying for a job at Roblox, so we decided to spend a few hours trying out the platform. The games that were dumbed-down versions of classic genres like an MMO or platformer that were uniformly terrible. But my best gaming experience of the year was playing “Fashion Contest.” You and ten other people are given a prompt (“halloween”) and have five minutes to run around a mall with hundreds of different clothes and hairstyles, and then do a “runway show” where you vote on all the other folks’ outfits.
I got my wife to play Baldur’s Gate 3 with me for about five hours. Her take: “This is fun, but can’t you just go outside and start talking to people about stuff?” 9.2/10. This and Elden Ring feel like some collective peak for “artisanal” games from studios who have invested a decade in perfecting a particular engine and design language. Excited for the next generation of games that leverage AI and VR to evolve the form in new directions.
Diablo IV: Speaking of AI games, this felt as though it was made with GPT 3. Difficulty was tuned way too easy, and having mobs level with you made you lose the power fantasy. 5.7.
Outriders: a dumb co-op shooter, also could’ve been made by an AI, but it had a boss fight with a giant spider. Perfect Xbox Game Pass fodder for the boys. 6.7.
Battlebit Remastered: a remarkable accomplishment that three devs delivered more joy to Battlefield fans than the past seven years and $500m of AAA studio work. This documentary of Battlebit is a case study folks in business and policy should learn from about how a small team that can stay focused on what really matters can outcompete giants. 8.4.
NYC Chinese Restaurants
Hao Noodle: Ate more from this restaurant than anywhere else this year. The best food in NYC where you never need a reservation. 9.0.
Tengri Tagh Uyghur Cuisine: 烤包子 to die for, also a big fan of the stir-fried lamb noodle. 9.2.
Lubian Chinese Grilled Fish: Well-executed treys of grilled fish you can put all the goodies in. I’m still hunting for sourkraut fish. 7.8.
HeyTea has a limited menu relative to all the crazy monthly colabs that are available in China (小白兔 bubble tea please…) but after four years of waiting I’ll take what I can get! Very reasonably priced at $7 per bubble tea. 9.4.
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