tv review

Netflix’s Westside Is an Instagram Ad Made Flesh

Caitlyn Ary and Erica Gluck look into a mirror
Caitlyn Ary and Erica Gluck in Netflix’s Westside Photo: Greg Gayne/Netflix

The new Netflix reality show Westside is an uneven, jumbled, occasionally alluring Frankenstein of a show, a mishmash of The Hills-style reality TV drama, a Behind the Music-style making-of documentary, and a classic narrative musical. That combination frequently turns into something incoherent, a skidding, lurching story that aims for both grit and gloss and ends up looking like a simulacrum of both. Yet Westside is curiously fascinating as a largely failed experiment that, very briefly, coalesces into something that suddenly really works.

The biggest issue with Westside is that its constituent pieces are fundamentally at odds with one another. As a reality show, the premise of the series is that it provides an off-the-cuff, unvarnished look at what happens in the lives of nine wannabe musicians in L.A. They are a uniformly beautiful bunch of people with names like Arika G. and Pia (Toscano) and Taz (Zavala), and they’ve been brought together by a producer, Sean Patrick Murray, who wants them to work together on staging a live show that will showcase their talents. Sean is ideally placed for peak reality drama: He’s ostensibly the boss and the decision-maker, but he’s also the group’s peer, someone who will be performing as a musician in this live show, too. His authority is crucial to helping everyone work together. It’s also tenuous and ill-defined.

The gang has exactly the kind of problems, backstories, and interpersonal spats you’d expect in a reality show about musicians that looks like an Instagram filter made flesh. After the gang plans to perform at a casual open mic night, Austin (Kolbe) shows up with his whole three-piece band. James (Byous) is furious, feeling like he’s been shown up and outgunned, and threatens to pull out of the whole thing. Later, James accuses Austin of breaking the rules during a monologue workshop. All of it is garden-variety petty insecurity, making good on the reality TV genre’s promise to turn all molehills into mountains.

But then, cut in and amongst the familiar rhythms of squabbling and tearful personal accounts of past tragedies, Westside throws in what are essentially music videos, highly produced song sequences with their own distinct designs and settings. One moment we’re watching Arika talk with her agent about not wanting to take teeny-bopper roles in CW shows (Arika, reconsider!), and the next, we’re catapulted into a music video in which Arika sings about being a beautiful woman.

From a distance, this combination seems like it should work as any musical would: We see conflict, we see character growth, and then we break for a song that extends those moments of revelation. In a typical scripted musical structure, the song pushes the story forward or gives us insight into plot; it’s a piece of the narrative just as much as the dialogue breaks. But Westside is just scripted enough to be obviously produced (à la The Hills or Kardashians), while also not being scripted enough to build the songs into its story. Instead of being illuminating or thoughtful pieces of this series, the songs end up looking like the most purely promotional pieces of a show already meant to promote its stars’ careers. The songs turn Westside into something like an elaborate ad for itself. The ad’s not especially appealing, either: The first big group musical number, “We Are the Ones,” sounds like a song written by Big Data, a piece of music aimed at a perfect algorithmic average.

It’s a shame that Westside can’t figure out how knit its songs together with its narrative in any meaningful way, because it might provide the additional attention and character development so much of the cast so desperately needs. Much of the show’s personal drama comes from James, whose dramatic descent into addiction is given the overwhelming edit as “most interesting thing happening on this series,” complete with repeated shots of him pouring beer into his throat that combine voyeurism with twisted hagiography. Other than James, though, most narratives skip through the highlights and lowlights of the cast members’ lives so rapidly and with such split-second, scene-shifting cuts that it’s hard to follow whose pain is whose. Sean’s getting married! Palm trees, dance floor, James staggering, Sean’s in love, more palm trees, lens flare, Taz’s mom frying food, Pia FaceTiming her husband, back to Sean’s wedding, 20 seconds of a song by Lexi (Alexandra Kay), and then back to James staggering — Westside promises that these nine people are worthy of our attention, but it doesn’t trust its audience to have the attention span to watch any one of them for more than 90 seconds at a time, unless they’re singing a song that has nothing to do with the “story.”

One result of Westside’s frenetic editing is that its episodes have little to no structure, and only the barest sense of an arc undergirding the whole season. At some point late in the first episode, with very little fanfare or formality, Sean introduces the idea of a “live show” that will be the capstone of this story. But the outline of that show is vague, the challenges to staging it are never made clear, and the group’s tasks from one episode to the next arrive in the amorphous form of mumbled instructions like “let’s just try to get it together” and “just tell your truth.” There’s almost no way of knowing when anything is taking place relative to anything else, or how much time is passing, or what will happen in the immediate future. If it borrows from anything, Westside most closely resembles the cohort of Netflix dramas in which stories slosh from one episode to the next with no differentiating boundaries. After watching the first two of the four episodes provided for review, I was ready to write the show off entirely.

But then, in episode three, Westside does something different. The nine musicians gather together in a songwriting workshop, with the aim of leaving that day with at least one brand-new, collectively written song. It begins as most of Westside’s exercises do, with an immediate call for them to mine all of their deepest, most upsetting experiences as musical fodder — which, fair enough. Rather than resuming its usual jittery pace through nine unevenly thoughtful stories, though, Westside actually stays with this workshop experience. It follows the group through the decision to go with a specific chord progression, the process of each person listening to those chords and taking a stab at individual verses, and then ends with an almost transcendent sequence where they all half-improv the song together, their faces suffused with the feeling of giddy glory that sometimes happens when a bunch of people making music together briefly tips over into nirvana.

Even in that sequence, though, Westside is still its drama-mining self. The chord progression comes from Austin, who is none too humble about his abilities as the most effortless songwriter of the bunch. The sequence ends with Taz burning out when it’s her turn to take the lyrical reins; she leaves in a moody and dramatic cloud, chased by camera people far enough away to make her exit seem convincingly unplanned. In this short bit of one episode, Westside proves that there’s something about its patchwork DNA that can actually cohere into something compulsively watchable.

Without having seen the whole season, there’s no way of knowing whether this bit of the series will win out, or whether it’s a short, lovely blip in an otherwise frustrating experience. But Westside gets credit for trying a new thing, for its stab at being more than a cookie-cutter replica of American Idol or MTV’s Real World. I still don’t know if the effort was worth it, but I’m not mad at it for having made the attempt.

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Netflix’s Westside Is an Instagram Ad Made Flesh