'Westside': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
No stars are born.
11/9/2018

Netflix aims for its own version of 'The Hills' with this heavily contrived look at making it in the music industry in Los Angeles.

The Law of Diminishing Returns takes literal televisual form in Netflix's new unscripted series Westside.

The music-infused drama begins with a 57-minute premiere and then each of the three subsequent episodes made available to critics is shorter than the one before, down to only 40 minutes by the fourth installment. Each passing episode strays further and further from the originally presented premise. Each passing episode becomes less structured, less coherent, less invested in its main characters. And with each episode I watched, I became less and less convinced of the talent, star power and vitality of the show's aspiring musicians. The diffusion and diminishment of Westside as it progresses is so clear it would almost seem calculated except that there's no reason for it to be — unless the last of the eight episodes turns out to just be one of the producers standing in front of the camera shrugging for exactly one minute before a fade to black.

Netflix says that Westside "follows the lives of nine young musicians in Los Angeles as they pursue their dreams in the competitive music industry," an already bland synopsis that still makes the show sound looser and more potentially entertaining than it is.

Directed by James Carroll and produced by Love Productions, the series actually begins with musician and producer Sean Patrick Murray rounding up a group of artists for what he says will be a showcase event at a Los Angeles nightclub. He starts with friends James, a grouchy, alcoholic rocker, and Caitlin, who isn't exciting until she starts gabbing nonstop about her polyamorous relationship, and recruits seven others including former girl group veteran Taz; pot-smoking boy band alum Leo; former child actor Erica (press notes call her "Arika"); and Pia Toscano, who finished ninth on one of the last seasons of American Idol that anybody really watched. What starts out sounding a little bit like a concert evolves quickly into something closer to a night of musical theater or cabaret, not that there's anything wrong with either of those things. The event that Sean is planning gives the show its entire shape and structure, so don't be thinking this is any fly-on-the-wall verite examination of these people, their process and progress in the industry, or any sort of semi-scripted soap opera in the vein of The Hills or Fox's short-lived Nashville. It's more a "Let's put on a show and pretend this would be happening at all if not for the TV cameras circling us at all times!"

There are a lot of contrivances that Westside doesn't much feel like acknowledging or admitting to. Talent showcases like this happen literally nightly in Los Angeles, though most don't have the participation of Grammy-winning music producers and acclaimed music directors or the assistance of industry icons like Diane Warren and Ryan Tedder as songwriters. Westside doesn't want to explain how this ragtag group of singers gets to be holding meetings at the Capital Records building or at the recording facilities at Henson Studios, or how Sean came to assemble this particular group in the first place.

Once the preparations for the showcase get going, the fabrications are unavoidable, or else the producers haven't figured out a narrative way of avoiding them. The show alternates between group scenes in which tension is instigated by some prima donna behavior or another, usually stemming from James' alcoholism or pansexual Austin's ongoing sense that he's the most gifted person in the group and therefore gets to play by his own rules, followed by an utterly staged sequence the next day in which one star or another has to be prodded into pausing their "spontaneous" brunch or trip to a batting cage to say, "So what did you think of what happened last night? Crazy, right?!?" It's got all the smoothness of roller-skating down a cobblestone street.

Through four episodes, none of the relationships between any of the singers develops into anything of note, positively or negatively, and the producers introduce and then drop storylines involving the artists' parents or significant others at will, never letting anything build up. The result is that you're never really getting to know any of them, which is ironic since the name of the showcase is "Naked" and the endlessly repeated theme is people speaking their truths and exposing themselves.

The exposure has to be done in those songs, presented generally in the form of interchangeable music videos interspersed with the documentary footage. Nobody bothers explaining which of the songs were completely original, which were co-written with folks like Warren and Tedder, who are, at least thus far, not seen onscreen. No matter how much behind-the-scenes star power there is, the songs themselves also rapidly become interchangeable odes to overcoming adversity, finding one's voice and owning one's identity. There are a lot of them, as many as four or five per episode, and they've mostly become so smoothed out and overproduced that even when they're fitfully catchy, and some absolutely are, no individual song can cut through the sameness of the show's soundtrack, much less the outside pop landscape. You come to relish a song like James' "Bad Motherfucker" because even if it, too, is unacceptably polished given its lyrics and subject matter, it's at least a single that couldn't have been an American Idol coronation ditty.

All of the singers are good. Westside isn't, in any way, a show designed to make me think that any of the singers are great. The show's prepackaged and the singers become prepackaged even if they weren't when the cameras started rolling. Normally with a show like this, you can tell if the producers are able to recognize if the series has an uber-star, the breakout who needs and deserves to be showcased above all the others. Westside offers no such sense, though whether that's egalitarianism or increased production disinterest is unclear. From James' substance abuse to Caitlin's miscarriages to Erica's mommy issues, Westside sands down anything distinctive and dangerous. Again, they're making a showcase about the singers exposing themselves and living their truths, in a show that boils those truths down to platitudes that are generally much the same. I hope nobody within the show was hoping this would be their moment to shine as an individual.

This carries over into the show's style, which is full of pretty depictions of Los Angeles that you could see in similar heavy-filtered form on countless Instagram accounts. Title aside, you'd never get any taste of Los Angeles geography or specificity, the lives these singers are living when they aren't participating in reality pablum.

The only reason this show couldn't air on The CW or MTV, where I probably wouldn't have bothered to review it, is James' love of profanity. Westside stands out more on Netflix, where it presents as something more out of the norm, when what it really is is a reminder that Netflix sometimes just likes to make sure it's participating in every imaginable genre, while not necessarily elevating those genres.

Premieres: Friday (Netflix)