2023 To be Read & To be Watched List

I wrote a TBR / TBW last year, and then never followed up on it. Turns out, I didn’t end up getting to about half of the things on my list in 2022. That’s not really a negative — I just ended up focusing my reading and TV/movie energies elsewhere. So, why not provide an update?

To Be Read in 2023

I’m going to take a mulligan on the first… four entries on this list, since these were all on my 2022 list.

The Wheel of Time

I’ve been slowly but steadily making my way through the final book in this series. I’ve mentioned it a few times before, but I’m not really in a rush to finish this series. First of all, the final trilogy of the series has been intense and incredibly satisfying. The final book, A Memory of Light, has been exponentially more intense, in a good way, than any of the thirteen books that precede it. But it means that I’ll read a couple sections, then stop to process a bit. I’m basically savoring this read, and not regretting it in the slightest.

The Saxon Stories, or The Last Kingdom series

I’ve read the first seven books in this series now, and while the last couple installments haven’t been as exciting to me, I still intend to continue the series. These books are great ways for me to pad the Read list on GoodReads, since I tend to get through them pretty quickly. So, I always look for the next one when I need an easy, action-packed read.

An Encyclopedia of Tolkien

…which my wife got me for Christmas two years ago and keeps tempting me from the shelf. After the joy of watching Rings of Power last autumn, I’ve been burning to get into this deep-dive of Tolkien lore.

The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, by Dave Grohl

Dave Grohl’s memoir, which my wife got me for Christmas last year. I’m generally not a memoir type of reader, but I love Dave Grohl, and I don’t want this book to sit unloved on my shelf for years at a time. I need to check this one off my list.

Some new fantasy series

I legitimately don’t know where I will turn next for epic high fantasy series after I finish Wheel of Time, and the opportunity is honestly exciting. There are several candidates on my Want to Read list on GoodReads, such as Rachel Caine’s The Great Library series, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, Patrick Rothfuss, or a Brandon Sanderson series. I am open to recommendations, so leave a comment!

Social science-y type books

I will, of course, continue to read some history, politics, anthropology, or linguistics books as I go, just to mix it up, but those are usually decisions of the moment.

To be Watched in 2023

Honestly, this one is a little more difficult this year. In early 2022, I was excited about all of the shows and films in the MCU, Star Wars, and other IP universes. A lot of those properties were mediocre, at best, and I will definitely be more skeptical of them going forward. I think I need to pay closer attention to more “prestige” TV shows this year.

The Bear

I’m already halfway through this eight-episode show on Hulu, but I’m really enjoying it. I like Jeremy Allen White, and the restaurant setting pulls at a few of my memories from my years in the service industry. This one has me focused for now, but I know it will go quickly.

The Last of Us

This is on the list exclusively because a friend of mine asked if I wanted to watch it with him. This is the same friend with whom I’ve watched The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Ballers, and House of the Dragon, so this show will be our next shared viewing experience. I never played the video game this series is based on, and I don’t know much about it other than zombies. Big fan of Pedro Pascal, though, so I don’t need any more convincing.

More Movies

I’d like to go to the movies more this year, but I’m not sure how I’ll swing that, just based on my schedule. I feel like I only went to the movies once or twice all of last year, though, so I can probably do better than that.

I really just want to watch more movies that I’ve never seen before. There are likely tons of movies I could list out that many would consider classics, or must-see, which I have not seen. Listening to The Big Picture podcast on The Ringer is entertaining in its own right, but also a constant reminder of how little I’ve scratched the surface of movie lore from the last few decades.

I have no idea where I’m going to start. I just want to make it a point to watch more movies. Maybe one per week? That seems ambitious, but I will try.

Recommendations?

Is there any book, movie, TV show, or documentary that I am blatantly missing from this list? Anything you feel like you’ve been screaming at people to get on board with? Please tell me about it! I love sharing reading and watching experiences with people.

Steve D

ANDOR takes the title for Best STAR WARS

I’ve recently caught up with and finished watching Andor, the latest show in the Star Wars universe on Disney+. Coming in a few weeks late to this show, I had heard good things about it, even if it wasn’t getting a ton of buzz. I came into this show with an open mind. The Mandalorian has been great. Boba Fett and Obi-Wan were decent, but flawed in their own ways. I felt like Andor had potential as a show that didn’t have to try to build around characters we already knew from the original trilogy, and I was excited by the show’s premise of focusing on the rebellion leading up to A New Hope.

With season one in the books, and a few days for me to think about it: Andor is the best that Star Wars has been to this point, from the storytelling, the writing, the world-building, and the meaning. I’ve watched it once through and am already watching it again with a friend who has yet to see it. I can barely contain my excitement to watch this show a second time, mere days after I’ve finished my first watch-through.

Spoilers ahead for Andor and for the movie it leads to, Rogue One.

Tony Gilroy, the writer/director behind the first three Bourne films and a ton of other action-thrillers, is the creative director and head writer for Andor. The 12-episode season is structured into four three-episode arcs, which presents an interesting ebb and flow of tension as the season progresses.

Let’s pause for one moment to appreciate that this show is a full 12 episodes, making it a legitimate season of television — not a 6-8-episode “limited series event” that feels like three C-average movies stuffed in a trench coat

I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of summarizing the entire season. Just go watch it and be amazed. Instead, let’s talk about some key themes.

Cassian Andor, as the titular character played by Diego Luna, is ostensibly the protagonist, but when we meet him at the start of the season — five years before the events of Rogue One — he is a scavenger and thief who seems to have burned a lot of bridges and eroded the trust of those whom he cares about most. He argues with his adoptive mother, Maarva, and his ex-girlfriend and partner-in-smuggling, Bix, does not seem to trust him. How did this guy become an intelligence officer within the Rebel Alliance and a hero who sacrificed himself for the rebel cause?

The beauty of Andor, and its writing in particular, is that we see this arc develop for Cassian over the course of the season. He becomes a critical role-player in a heist on an imperial vault that he had only learned about days prior; he helps 5,000 fellow prisoners escape an inescapable prison; and he returns to his home planet, Ferrix, to help the people he had left behind. He’s not an expert rebel spy yet, but his character shows us a lot of grit and heart over 12 episodes.

Stellen Skarsgard is also stellar in his role as Luthen, a rare artifacts dealer in Coruscant-turned rebel ring-leader. It’s not quite clear how Luthen became involved in his own rebellious network against the Empire, but his connection to Saw Gerrera, played by Forrest Whitaker reprising his unique role from Rogue One, and knowledge of the various factions fighting the Empire indicate that Luthen has been in this war for a long time. That history is what has been missing from Star Wars, at least from the live-action movies and shows.

What Andor really demonstrates is the cost of a nascent rebellion. The Rebel Alliance doesn’t even exist yet. There are just a bunch of tiny factions fighting the Empire in their own ways, with no common goal yet identified. So why are they fighting? Luthen, along with Cassian, and another character, Kino Loy, played by the incomparable Andy Serkis, each take their turn delivering the thesis statement for this show, and for the rebellion at large — no one can fight fascism without sacrifice, without pulling together for the people next to you, and that sacrifice is worth it, even if the players themselves never get to see the dawn of a galaxy without the Empire in power.

The Best of Star Wars

I will not be able to do this show justice in a single post, and I may need to follow-up with a ranking of my favorite Star Wars stories.

All I know is that I’ve never heard dialogue in Star Wars like I have in Andor. I’ve never seen a Star Wars property as well-written and deliberate as this show. I’ve never felt like a story in this universe was this important, or this of-the-moment in our current culture.

A lot of Star Wars properties have reminded us of what we loved about the original trilogy, or tried to upend our expectations entirely. Andor manages to do both. It is an affirmation that these stories, in this universe, can say something meaningful about sacrifice, hope, suffering, love, light, and darkness. And it’s a challenge to every new series or film in this universe to be great, not just for a Star Wars story, but for a story of any genre. This show demonstrates the universality of Star Wars in a way I’ve never seen before.

I can’t stop thinking about it, and I can’t wait for season two.

Steve D

THE RINGS OF POWER reignites Middle Earth

Season one of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is in the books, and I, for one, am mostly pleased with how this season went. Here is my review of this show, where I will talk freely about everything that happened.

Spoilers ahoy!

Overall, I really enjoyed this show. The car was incredible, each of the storylines was fulfilling and had something to offer. Morfydd Clark’s portrayal of Galadriel is among my favorite performances in recent memory. Clark’s smoldering rage, steadfast determination, sword and riding skills, and empathetic story perfectly encapsulated such an iconic literary character.

The Harfoot plot was endearing and ultimately paid off with our very own Gandalf-like figure. In fascinated by the power this Istar may wield in future seasons.

The friendship between Elrond and Durin was heartfelt and funny. I just wish they hadn’t discovered the massive vein of mithril or woken the Balrog so quickly.

The Numenorean plot was intriguing, but I honestly expected a little more politicking there. Elendil feels like a strong character going forward.

Arondir, Bronwyn, Theo, and the Southlanders had some cool encounters with the Orks. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of Adar, who was somehow a sympathetic character despite wanting to block out the sun.

And Halbrand. I didn’t want him to be Sauron, but it became too obvious not to be true. His confrontation with Galadriel in the finale was legitimately unsettling.

My main gripe with this show is the pacing. I think they could have really benefited from at least two more episodes to draw out Halbrand’s trickery with Celebrimbor. My understanding is the production schedule was disrupted by the pandemic, so here’s hoping season two can be produced and released on time.

The Rings of Power was entertaining and recaptured the magic of Peter Jackson’s trilogy while adding new characters and new lore. I think this show’s biggest achievement is how much it feels like Tolkien, like Middle Earth. That’s a testament to all the details of dialog, set design, and story that the showrunners pieced together.

I’m already looking forward to a rewatch in preparation for season two.

How did you feel about The Rings of Power?

Steve D

Way-Too-Early Reactions to THE RINGS OF POWER

Another week, another multi-hundred million dollar budgeted TV show based on an iconic fantasy author’s universe.

The Rings of Power is the primary show I have been awaiting all year. Of all the MCU, Star Wars, and other mega-IP content to debut this year, I have had the highest hopes and most weighty expectations for Amazon’s foray into Tolkien’s universe.

Part of that is due to history. The massive narrative history of Middle Earth, and the surrounding historiography of it, is an obvious choice for “spin-offs”. Christopher Tolkien himself published stories based on unfinished drafts in his father’s notes.

Another part of my weighty expectations for this show come from a much more recent benchmark. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is epic filmmaking at its finest, a wondrous cinematic adaptation that is just as affecting twenty years later as it was when I sat in the theater at thirteen for Fellowship.

The showrunners for The Rings of Power made a pretty big gamble when they decided to set their series in the Second Age of Middle Earth, thousands of years before most of the characters whom casual fans would know were alive. Middle Earth itself is quite different at this time.

Through two episodes (which is all I’ve seen so far) I’m already getting nostalgia-driven chills when I watch this show. The costumes, the music, the dialog, the settings all feel like Tolkien, and crucially, like the Tolkien we were introduced to in Jackson’s trilogy.

The Rings of Power, wisely, is speaking the same visual and emotional language as it’s cinematic predecessor. When I see characters in thematic clothes, I don’t just see generic fantasy brings. I know them as Noldor Elves, dwarfs of the line of Durin, and yes, even Harfoots, who feel just enough like their descendant hobbits to be recognizable, without feeling copied.

So, this show has already fixed itself squarely within the look and feel of Middle Earth.

I also find the beginning of the story and the characters driving it to be quite compelling.

As usual, I will not get into an episode recap, so I’ll just say that I already feel attached to and invested in Galadriel, Nori, and Arondir as they traverse differing plot lines that seem to be pointing in the same direction: the rise of the shadow after centuries of relative peace.

I don’t know how much more I can say without getting too deep into the details and ending up with 5,000 words for this post.

The showrunners took a big gamble with this show, especially with Amazon beating down their necks looking for a smash hit. Two episodes in, I feel like it’s already paying off.

I’m so excited to continue watching.

Steve D

Way-Too-Early Reactions to HOUSE OF THE DRAGON

It’s official. We’re back in Westeros after a 6-year hiatus from decent storytelling in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy universe.

As the first spin-off show we’re getting in the wake of Game of Thrones, I’ve been cautiously optimistic about this House of the Dragon.

With director Miguel Sapochnik, who directed several of Thrones‘s most harrowing and exciting episodes (see “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards”), Martin himself more closely involved once again, and a star-studded cast, I felt like House of the Dragon had legitimate potential to be great.

After the debut episode, “Heirs of the Dragon”, all I can say is… I think I was right.

This premier introduced a set of characters who are poised to clash politically — or otherwise — and laid the groundwork for the rest of the season in an interesting way. They even managed to introduce a bit of lore that even the most ardent of book-readers could not have guessed.

I will not go into detail about the plot of the episode except to say that there is a jousting tournament with phenomenal cinematography and some pretty brutal violence. (The jousting show at the Maryland Renaissance Faire is one of my favorite events of the year, so I was thrilled to see such an exhilarating sequence in this show.)

I had honestly forgotten how unforgiving the early seasons of Game of Thrones could be, so to see it again in this premier was a bit of a shock.

While I have read part of The World of Ice and Fire, and Fire and Blood sits on my unread shelf, I’ve decided not to follow along with Martin’s writings while watching this show. I want to experience the show for its own merits, and then read the stories again.

Between the intriguing cast of characters, the tight-knit plot, the broader narrative it introduced, and the incredible looking dragons (more than one!), it’s apparent that the showrunners have set out to prove that the expanding Thrones-verse is still a force to be reckoned within the IP-as-content wars.

All in all, the showrunners have set the stage for what I anticipate will be an enjoyable, suspenseful, and action-packed season of television.

And of course, there are the dragons.

Share your thoughts or way-too-early reactions about this first episode of House of the Dragon in the comments below.

Steve D

THE LAST KINGDOM Finale: Epic TV storytelling

The Last Kingdom TV series recently debuted its fifth and final season, which I caught on Netflix.

The show follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon lordling captured and raised by Danes who rises to become an important warrior and warlord during the reigns of Kings Alfred and Edward of Wessex. This show is the reason I’ve started reading the book series by Bernard Cornwell that it’s based on.

Having now finished season 5 and gotten confirmation that it is, indeed, the last of the series, I find myself reflecting on what, to me, has been a truly great show.

While much of the story of Uhtred himself is fictionalized, the show is realized with impeccable detail in the settings, the sets, and the costumes. Individual fight scenes are well choreographed and the battle scenes are mostly good if not great.

I’ve watched this show from the beginning, and had eagerly anticipated each of the last three seasons in particular as the show really hit its stride. Alexander Dreymon’s portrayal of Uhtred evolved from that of an arrogant, if skilled, young warrior into a admirable, honorable, and relentless lord who manages to fight both for what is right and for what he is owed.

The rest of the cast is stellar to the point that you might as well read through the cast list on IMDB, because I don’t think there is a poor actor in the entire series. This is the type of show where I recognized basically none of the actors when I first saw them, and now I can only think many of them will go on to do incredible things in television and film.

Alright, that’s enough reflecting. The main element of this show I wanted to call out is the storytelling.

Beware spoilers for season 5, including the season and series finale.

The Last Kingdom’s Epic Storytelling

The main arc of the story centers on Uhtred in his quest to reclaim his ancestral seat as the lord of Bebbanburg. Throughout the first four seasons of the show, Uhtred is desperate to retake his homeland, but is always called by duty, by oath, by extortion, or by his heart to fight different battles. These are so often at the behest of King Alfred of Wessex that by season four, it is almost laughable, except the relationship between Alfred and Uhtred has grown into the dearest of friendships, and you can’t really blame Uhtred for being loyal to one of his biggest patrons.

Season 5 presents a key opportunity for Uhtred to attack Bebbanburg – held by his estranged cousin – at the head of the armies of Wessex and Mercia, now joined under King Edward (Alfred’s son and Uhtred’s liege lord).

In the season and series finale, Uhtred fights to take Bebbanburg, Edward’s armies are nearly thrown over a cliff into the sea, and the enemy they fight tries to burn Bebbanburg to the ground.

This is the moment that any long-time watcher of this show has been waiting for, and recognizes what the show is doing. They literally and figuratively bring Uhtred to his knees, so close to achieving his lifelong destiny, within the walls of his home, and it burns to ashes in front of him.

And then the show takes another predictable turn that is just perfect. They show a montage of previous scenes from the show, focusing on Uhtred’s friends, allies, family, all lost in the turmoil of the previous five seasons (and some 20 years) of Uhtred’s life.

Going into this episode, I was not aware that season five was to be the final chapter of this show. But this montage was so perfectly executed and attuned to the emotional weight of the moment that I immediately knew that this was the end of the series.

After the montage, the sky breaks open into rain, drowning out the flames that would engulf Uhtred’s home, and in a last desperate act, Uhtred and King Edward’s forces emerge victorious. Uhtred claims Bebbanburg and becomes Lord of Northumbria.

This moment would have been meaningless – or perhaps cheap – if the show had not had the patience to lead the viewer through five seasons of loss, failure, and shortcomings with Uhtred. Or if they had tried to drag the show out to extra seasons for no reason. They chose their moment to end the story, and they stuck the landing, something that more than a few shows in recent memory have failed to accomplish.

Finale Thoughts

I did not go into season 5 of this show expecting to write a review on it. I think I’ve only mentioned it in passing before on this site. That finale hit home to me, to the point that I’d like to rewatch the entire show at some point.

I’m also even more stoked to continue my read of the book series.

Please watch this show, if for nothing else, to give me someone to talk about it with!

Steve D

Midway Checkpoint: The Wheel of Time Show’s Jam-Packed Ambitions

Back in September, I allowed myself to get a little pre-hyped for Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time series, and I promised that I would check back in after the first couple episodes. The Wheel of Time show currently has six episodes released, and I have watched the first five, so I am definitely overdue for this post.

Spoiler warning: I will be discussing events in the TV show only, through episode 5–which maybe means this isn’t really spoiler-y. Anyway, anything that has happened in the first five episodes is fair game for this post. Although I am a current book reader I will not bring up any events from the books that have not yet been depicted on the show.

Honestly, I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot to spoil at this point in the series, which is maybe part of the problem I have with it so far. These first five episodes feel so packed with plot-building, and world-building, and characters, and movement that I have to imagine it’s difficult for casual viewers to keep track of everything and everyone that’s happened so far.

In five short episodes we’ve seen seven primary characters–Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve, Moiraine, Lan–come together, split apart, and (almost) reunite in Tar Valon, while also meeting half a dozen other characters who appear to have some part to play this season. Stepin, Liandrin, Alanna, Logain, Eamon Valda, and Aram all seemed poised to round out a pretty full cast of characters and factions with whom that party-of-seven would have to contend. Stepin has already off’ed himself, and Aram seems to have exited the story for now, but this is still a list of characters I would…

a) never have expected to meet or be asked to care about in the first place,

b) never have expected to meet this quickly,

and c) don’t think quite fit together in an 8-episode season that is now more than halfway over with no clear central conflict having yet emerged.

The one through-line of all of this is that no one knows who the Dragon Reborn is yet, which, fine, that’s a mystery for people who haven’t read the books. But it doesn’t feel like a conflict to me.

I think my point here is that this show, so far, feels like an oversized plot that does not take the necessary steps to make me care about these people. I care, at the moment, because I’m reading the books, but that’s not enough when viewing this show in isolation.

Onto more positive notes…

Okay, I don’t want to be all cynical about this show, because I am enjoying it for what it is. The acting is great overall, the landscapes and set pieces are stellar, and the story has a compelling pace.

Listening to a podcast interview of showrunner Rafe Judkins has me confident that the man behind the curtain knows what he’s doing in trying to adapt a massive story to the small screen, where we do not have the luxury of 400 pages to tell the first part.

The first three episodes, which were dropped all at once on Prime, are heavy on lore and trying to get the viewer to even understand what the hell the Dragon Reborn is supposed to be. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Prime decided to present the first three episodes all at once. I think episode one on its own would have been too jarring for most people; it moves at a break-neck pace, introducing a host of characters and tons of lore, has a thrilling climax, and then ends with barely a moment to breathe.

Episode 4, in which Nynaeve discovers her ability to touch the One Power in stunning fashion, is when I decided I liked this show. I can see past the overloaded plot if we get moments as powerful as that a couple times per season.

Three more to go

Looking ahead, it’s hard to believe that this season is only going to be eight episodes. I really have no idea what sort of “ending” this first season could possibly have, unless they decide that season one is just a prologue.

All in all, I’m enjoying watching this show, but I have lingering concerns that the showrunners have tried to pack too much into so short a season for it to have much meaning. I hope to be proven wrong.

Steve D

Wheel of Time TV Series Pre-Hype Thoughts

I have not been paying attention to the developments and under-current of hype surrounding Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time series. I sort of forgot that it was coming out this year until I saw the below trailer. I haven’t looked at casting choices (although I recognize a few faces), I haven’t read any theory-blogs about how they’re going to tell this massive, sweeping story on-screen, and I have no idea if it will be any good.

And I’m slowly getting more and more excited for this series to debut.

I think that’s largely because I know so little about The Wheel of Time show. I’ve read exactly one piece about this show over on MLS Weech’s blog, which got me excited and inspired me to write this post. I have no pre-conceived notions of what this show should be. I just want it to be good.

I also don’t want them to speed-run to the series finale in 20 hours. This is the type of series that deserves several seasons of earnest plot- and character-building before they streamline the ending. However, unless Amazon is planning to do this for 25 seasons, this series just feels too massive to be done faithfully on TV. (If any streamer could commit to a 25-year plan for a series, it’s probably Amazon.) I’m honestly excited to see how they fit that much plot into a television format. I’m currently on book 11 out of 14 in the book series, so as long as I can finish the series before the show ends, I’d be satisfied.

To me, the story is pretty straightforward through book three, The Dragon Reborn, but once the two primary groups of main characters splinter into their own individual narratives, the storylines become more complicated, so many more characters are introduced, and the sub-plots-within-sub-plots become more convoluted.

Somehow, Brandon Sanderson was able to corral all of that narrative bloat into a three-book finale really well, so I’m hoping the showrunners for the TV show take a few pages from his book on telling a sprawling story in a concise form, without losing the flavor.

The one other thing I’d like to see with this show is a serialized release. Rather than dropping X episodes on their platform at once, I’d like to see Amazon release the show one episode at a time, similar to what Disney+ has done with its Star Wars and Marvel shows. The Wheel of Time deserves to be “event TV”, and releasing it per episode will help make each new installment feel like an event.

Two of my cousins-in-law are also eager to watch the show, so I’m hoping we can all experience it together — at least virtually.

Okay, now I’m getting a little hyped. Let’s check back after the first couple episodes, shall we?

Steve D

10 Stories to Experience with My Kid

My son is eighteen months old now, and he loves listening to stories, turning the pages of books, listening to music, and watching cartoons. I’m not sure how much of any of it he understands, but it’s exciting to watch him experience those things.

A colleague recently told me how he was watching through all of the Star Wars movies with his eight-year-old daughters, hoping to bring them to the theater to see The Rise of Skywalker. He managed to catch it with them just last week, and he said their reactions and excitement in the theater was well worth it.

That got me thinking about the types of stories — movies, books, TV — I’m looking forward to sharing with my son. So here’s my top 10. Continue reading “10 Stories to Experience with My Kid”