'Westside': Netflix's latest music-themed reality TV experiment is a smart gamble by the streaming giant

The latest 'unscripted' offering from Netflix is a brave attempt by the platform to capitalize on the largely untapped reality TV genre


                            'Westside': Netflix's latest music-themed reality TV experiment is a smart gamble by the streaming giant

Come Friday, Netflix will premiere its new music-themed, reality series 'Westside'. Dubbed an "unscripted and deeply personal glimpse into the journeys of nine young L.A.-based musicians", the show takes us through the young musicians' creative processes and personal struggles.

The show is part of a big push by the streaming giant to conquer the wide world of unscripted TV, one of the few genres of television Netflix is yet to gain a strong foothold in. Netflix has already tested the waters of this new frontier with talk shows from Michelle Wolf and David Letterman, which garnered quite favorable reception. This was followed by comedic cooking competitions like 'Nailed It!', 'Cooking On High' (a show centered around cooking with marijuana) and most noticeably, the highly successful revival of 'Queer Eye'.  

Netflix is planning to dramatically scale up its unscripted affair, with up to 50 reality and talk shows slated to launch this year and more in the works for 2019. 'Westside' is one of the most colorful offerings, thus far.

Poster for Netflix's musical reality TV drama 'Westside' (Photo Credit: Netflix)
Poster for Netflix's musical reality TV drama 'Westside' (Photo Credit: Netflix)

'Westside' has a wholly unique style of presentation. While still sticking to the broader strokes of reality TV, the "unscripted" does feature concocted drama played out in an authentic manner. “It’s a really never-done before approach to a docu-soap,” said Producer Jenn Levy of the show.

“There’s character development and plotlines you find in some of our best scripted series. But it’s all done in a really raw and authentic way.” But here's the strange and wonderful twist to the tale. Through the series, the cast often break into elaborate song and dance sequences, merging a couple of film styles to present a completely new twist on the genre. “Think 'The Hills' meets 'La La Land' or 'Glee' with a whole lot more edge,” Levy aptly described the show.

American Idol season 10 finalist Pia Toscano in 'Westside' (Photo Credit: Netflix)
American Idol season 10 finalist Pia Toscano in 'Westside' (Photo Credit: Netflix)

Through the eight episodes of the first season and the 20-odd full-produced music videos, 'Westside' is interspersed with the gritty, real-life struggles and aspirations of its young nine-member cast, most of whom are in their late 20s. Each member of the eclectic cast comes with their own backstory and baggage - their own inner demons to fight. And these provide insight into what it really means to dedicate yourself to your artistic process, and there is where the "unscripted" tag really sticks.

There's Pia Toscano, a finalist from season 10 of 'American Idol', whose anxieties and insecurities loom over her as she tries to breakthrough in a cut-throat industry. There's Leo Gallo, the oldest member of the cast (at 32 years of age), who was once with a ’90s boy band called Youth Asylum and is now a chronic pot smoker to numb out the pain.

There's James Byous, who while not busking on the streets of Hollywood, works in construction and battles drug and alcohol dependence. And then, of course, there's the arrogant, androgynous and narcissistic Austin Kolbe, who is the token rebel, unabashedly flaunting his high heels while trying to make a name for himself in the industry.

They're all brought together by producer and series co-creator Sean Patrick Murray, who brings all our musically gifted friends together as the show documents their journey towards the cast’s debut show, “Naked,” at 1 Oak on the Sunset Strip. The entire run-up to the cast's show is covered in documentary style, and it presents us with a unique opportunity to feel the palpable tension and excitement that goes into bringing a live show together from scratch.

What brings the originality to 'Westside' is the clever juxtaposition of the reality TV angle with the musical aesthetics. One moment, we're deeply lost in the everyday struggles of the artistes, like the all-too-real shot of Byous doing lines of cocaine in a dark alley. The next, we're looking at the talent whittle away around songs that were carefully written for them with their backstories kept in mind.

The show draws upon the talents of many acclaimed songwriters to hit the perfect note when it comes to this - including Diane Warren (Aerosmith’s 'I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing'), Johan Carlsson (Ariana Grande’s 'Dangerous Woman'), Philip Lawrence (Bruno Mars’ 'Uptown Funk') and Ryan Tedder (Paul McCartney, U2).

An interesting approach the show uses are creative “workshops”, which show each member of the cast open up about their lives and how it influenced them to their journey today. The audience is invited to take an in-depth look at each member as they work on developing their voices, explore their personal demons, and write songs based on these experiences.

Of course, like most compelling reality TV shows, there are quite a few moments when 'Westside' lays it a little too thick, with many of the cast members almost going out of their way to stick to their scripted character trope, but that only adds to the strange new sheen of this offbeat show.

Behind the scenes: Cast members Erica Gluck, Caitlyn Ary, Leo Gallo, Sean Patrick Murray, James Byous on the sets of 'Westside' (Photo Credit: Netflix)
Behind the scenes: Cast members Erica Gluck, Caitlyn Ary, Leo Gallo, Sean Patrick Murray, James Byous on the sets of 'Westside' (Photo Credit: Netflix)

It might sound like a strange combination - reality TV and a musical. But that's exactly what Netflix is going for with 'Westside'. The show might not be the kind that aims for big awards or critical praise, but as Netflix continues to infringe into unexplored territories of reality TV, they could very well have a compelling tale to tell here, in a wholly unique and new approach that is engineered to pique the interest of its large millennial viewership.

'Westside' premieres November 9 on Netflix. Check out the trailer for the first season below.