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Best TV of 2023

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This last summer, when the WGA and SAG strikes were at their height, some people started saying that soon we would have nothing left to watch. Even at the time, that seemed unlikely. There is so much TV out there, more than most of us will be able to get through in several years. I watch a hell of a lot of TV, and tend to keep up with new releases, and still there were some half-dozen 2023 shows that I didn’t manage to catch up on before the end of the year. But even in the midst of that glut, there was often a feeling this year of having nothing to watch. We are now firmly in the post-Peak TV era, not so much because less stuff is being produced, but because so much of what’s being made feels not worth engaging with. This was the year when the Disney+ experiment seemed to fizzle out, the promise of an endless firehose of content from two of Hollywood’s biggest entertainment franchises delivering shows that no one seemed to care enough about to even take the time to trash (in this entire longwinded post, there is only one Disney+ show that even rates a mention). The year Netflix became synonymous with cancelling shows after one or two seasons, and HBO Max (I’m sorry, “Max”) became known for yanking completed shows off its service for a tax write-off. Eventually it was hard not to wonder why, if the people making television had so little faith in the value of what they had produced, we should bother to expend any of our time or energy or attention consuming it.

All of which is to say that this post feels a little deceptive. Every one of the shows I discuss below is one that I loved watching and thinking about, whose very existence excited and delighted me. But to focus only on these shows runs the risk of underplaying the overall feeling of being mired in dross that I felt while approaching new television offerings for most of this year, one that seemed to run much deeper than the common adage that 90% of everything is crap. (That feeling is perhaps one reason why I ended up reading a lot more this year than I usually do; you can check out my favorite reads of the year over on my blog.) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in my discussion of so many of the shows I praise in this post, I highlight basic competencies in storytelling, pacing, and structure. These have become increasingly rare skills, as streamers aim at an audience who are half-watching while scrolling on their phones, and producers assume that a familiar IP, or a big star, will draw viewers without a compelling story to weave around them.

So I suppose the question, as we look forward to 2024, is: are we at a nadir, or can things get even worse? Will the concessions won by the writers and actors in their strikes help pull Hollywood out of the nosedive in quality it’s currently in? Or will executives with no sense of storytelling, for whom every show is an interchangeable item on a balance sheet, win out? Is the enshittification of the internet taking over entertainment as well? As this post shows, there will always be excellent TV to watch (if only because we can finally catch up to the stuff we’ve missed). But the state of the medium as a whole still feels very much in flux.

Best TV Show of 2023: The Bear (Hulu)

I said this in the summer, and I haven’t changed my mind. The second season of The Bear takes everything that was brilliant about its first—the intense setting, the instantly compelling characters, the tight plotting, the sharp, constantly crosscutting dialogue, the impactful direction—and turns up the heat. At its heart, the season, in which troubled fine dining chef Carmy Berzatto decides to turn his family’s sandwich shop into a Michelin-aspirant restaurant, is a simple “let’s put on a show” story. Its success is a reminder of how exciting, and full of potential for complication and conflict, this premise is. It’s also a reminder of how much good TV relies not on expensive stars or huge production budgets, but on excellent storytelling. In ten short episodes, The Bear weaves together a dizzying number of storylines: Carmy’s spiral of anxiety and depression; his creative partner Sydney (2023 breakout star Ayo Edebiri) coming into her own as a leader in the kitchen; childhood friend Richie rediscovering his love of hospitality and service; Carmy’s sister Natalie realizing that she actually loves the business whose running blighted her family for decades; the old sandwich shop employees struggling to adjust to a whole new restaurant experience; Oliver Platt’s sardonic, mobbed-up investor slowly realizing how special what Carmy wants to create actually is.

Along the way, The Bear delivers some of the most perfectly-formed episodes of the last year—a seemingly lost art, here reaching its fullest flower. Fans can argue whether they prefer the meditative “Honeydew”, in which gentle giant pastry chef Marcus travels to Denmark to hone his craft; or the nerve-wracking “Fishes”, in which a years-ago Berzatto Christmas dinner lays bare the family’s dysfunction and the roots of Carmy and Natalie’s anxieties; or the exhilarating “Forks”, in which a week’s apprenticeship at one of Chicago’s best restaurant’s reignites Richie’s ambition and zest for life. But even in its most mundane installments, and as its characters deal with the most ordinary challenges of getting a restaurant off the ground—discovering that the planned renovation will cost much more than anticipated, scouting other restaurants for menu inspirations, anxiously undergoing a fire safety inspection—the show manages to convey the joy and frustration of creative labor. In a television landscape that often seems fascinated by people who have things happen to them, who are enduring and reacting, The Bear is a rare story about people who are trying to make something. It’s honest about the challenges of that endeavor, and philosophical about the ephemerality of the ultimate result—a good meal, a fleeting memory—but there’s a joyfulness to it that hardly any other TV in 2023 came close to.

Rest of the Best:

The Big Door Prize (Apple TV+)

This undersung dramedy, based on the novel by M.O. Walsh, might as well have been designed in a lab to suit my taste. It’s about the incursion of strangeness—a vending machine that dispenses cards claiming to reveal people’s true potential—into a small, quirky community with close-knit, long-standing ties. As the residents of a picturesque small town ponder the answers they’ve received—a teenage boy whose card says “hero”, and who wonders whether it was intended for his recently-deceased brother; a priest who is sent into a tailspin by a card that says “father”, because years ago he used a similar machine and got a card that said “priest”; a man who moved out of his house after receiving a card that read “sole survivor”—they also start to shake up relationships that have become calcified, and express wishes they’d allowed to lie dormant. It’s all told in a gentle, benevolent tone, which pokes fun at the characters’ confusion and self-importance, even as it suggests that there’s a deeper truth underlying the vending machine of which we’ve seen only a few hints.

Blue Eye Samurai (Netflix)

More proof, if any were needed, that sometimes it’s not the concept that matters, but the execution. This animated series has the simplest premise imaginable—a revenge thriller set in shogunate-era Japan. But it is so impeccably well made on every level that it will make you feel as if you are watching this type of story for the first time. From the sharp writing, to the beautiful animation, to the breathtaking action scenes, to absolutely top-notch voice work, everything about this show works at the highest possible level. The story follows Mizu, a taciturn, determined young woman who has vowed revenge on the white father who abandoned her to misery and abuse. On her journey, she accumulates allies and companions—an eternally sunny noodle-maker with no hands who becomes her apprentice; an arrogant wannabe samurai who gets sucked into her drama; a wise brothel madam—and locks horns with some genuinely hissable, yet compelling, villains. The result is an utterly thrilling adventure story that also has a lot to say about gender presentation and gender roles.

Fellow Travelers (Showtime)

If I say that this limited series, about a decades-long romance between two men who meet while working for the State Department in the mid-twentieth century, is a rare example of television for adults, you might think that I’m talking about the show’s many explicit sex scenes. That’s part of it, of course, but what truly makes Fellow Travelers remarkable, and sadly rare, are the things it’s interested in. It’s a show about history, from the Red and Lavender Scares to the Vietnam protest movement to AIDS activism. A show about relationships, as the two heroes struggle with their own internalized homophobia, with the costs of staying in the closet or living openly as gay men, and with their ordinary fear of commitment and emotional honesty. And it’s about the accumulating weight of time, as both men find themselves weighing the choices they’ve made and the paths they didn’t take. Unlike other sexually frank series that have recently graced our screens, Fellow Travelers isn’t trying to be swoon-worthy. As compelling as Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey are as the two lovers, and as obvious as it is that they are the great love of each other’s lives, the show is also honest about both men’s complexities and shortcomings, and their relationship is not always healthy or fun to watch. The result is, well, grown up, and it’s only once you watch that sort of thing that you realize how much you’ve been missing it.

Ghosts UK (BBC)

We bade a sad farewell to this UK original of the CBS hit this year, which means it’s my last chance to say that although I enjoy the American remake, the original, by the Horrible Histories team and starring most of their featured players, is vastly superior. It finds sharper humor in the premise of a troupe of bored ghosts and the one human who can see them, delves deeper into all the characters’ messiness (an April’s Fools episode that gets progressively weirder and meaner; a ghost who feels abandoned when her human friend becomes pregnant), and finds interesting stories to tell without opting for standard sitcom tropes. Most of all, it isn’t afraid to sit with the sadness of its premise, of a group of people who are trapped in one place, together, for possibly all eternity, with only trivial entertainments and the hope of someone dying and sticking around to alleviate the tedium. The American remake is fun, but the original Ghosts was something special, and I hope that more people discover it in the coming years.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQy2BFwIKTU

The Lovers (Sky)

Stories about love that crosses class and wealth boundaries are fairly common, but this prickly rom-com finds some new and unexpected notes in this premise. Johnny Flynn plays a callow newscaster who, while making a current events show in Belfast, crashes into the life of a depressed supermarket cashier (Roisin Gallagher), whom he then can’t get off his mind. What follows is a mature and compelling romance that deals not just with the socioeconomic and cultural gulf between the two characters, but with the complexities of navigating an affair, and the challenges of deciding to commit to a relationship that makes so little sense on paper. In the background is Northern Ireland’s painful history, which turns out to have impacted both characters’ lives, and which ends up having a relevance to the central romance that is both entirely unexpected and deeply affecting.

Mrs. Davis (Peacock)

A nun who hallucinates a personal relationship with Jesus sets out on a quest to retrieve the holy grail, assisted by her former boyfriend, in a world where everyone has surrendered the running of their lives to AI known as Mrs. Davis. The most remarkable thing about Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez’s limited series is, first, its audacity. But second, it’s the fact that the show keeps paying these ridiculous setups off. Its signature move is to introduce some total non-sequitur of a scene—a secret society shooting a sneaker commercial; a contest to see who can keep their hands the longest on a giant sword in a stone; a castaway who refuses to be rescued from his deserted island—and then reveal that they are all part of an intricate but amazingly coherent plot. Along the way it discusses subjects like religion, faith, the role of the numinous in our lives, and the possibility that a sufficiently sophisticated, intuitive AI might fill the void that many of us feel when we search for meaning. I’m not convinced that the show has terribly interesting things to say about any of these issues (though the revelations it ultimately makes about the nature of Mrs. Davis are intriguing), but making your way to its deranged conclusion is so much fun that this doesn’t really matter.

Our Flag Means Death (Max)

In its second season, this deliberately ahistorical, queer pirate rom-com was darker, more intense, and much more romantic. Star-crossed lovers Stede Bonnet and Edward Teach made their way back to each other, came apart, and then did it all over again against a backdrop of the age of piracy, as supporting characters pursued their own compelling stories—most especially Con O’Neill in a breakout turn as an embittered man who slowly rediscovers his heart. The prevailing sense was of a show that gave no fucks. Not about historical accuracy; not about what some people might term camp or cringe; and not about whether there is an audience for a story about two damaged, fundamentally ridiculous middle aged men falling in love. The season is slightly marred by budget cuts, and by a rushed ending that probably reflects creator David Jenkins’s belief that he is not going to get a third season. But it brings its characters to a satisfying place at its end, and sends a powerful message about the value of self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

Poker Face (Peacock)

Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne team up to do a modern-day Columbo, starring a woman who is a genderbent version of The Dude. Do I need to say more? Per my comment above about the relative merits of original concepts and impeccable execution, Poker Face is proof that you can take an extremely old-fashioned concept and make it fresh and relevant, simply by taking it seriously and applying a great deal of talent to the task. As sardonic, good-hearted slacker Charlie, who has the power to tell when people are lying, Lyonne bounces from one picturesque slice of Americana to another, invariably falling into a tale of murder, which she unravels with insouciance and a deceptively powerful sense of right and wrong. The people Charlie tangles with might be a famed Texas barbecue chef suddenly stricken by vegetarian guilt, a pair of washed up actors trying to revive their careers, or a legend of old Hollywood animatronics aiming for a comeback, but they’re all vividly realized (and played by an absolutely stacked roster of guest stars). Each episode is meaty and satisfying, and together they make for a formula that will hopefully continue for years to come.

Reservation Dogs (FX)

The only criticism to be made of the third and final season of this utterly unique, groundbreaking dramedy is that it should have been three seasons. There is, quite simply, too much material here, too many branching storylines and character arcs to cover in a mere ten episodes, and as a result some key plotlines end up feeling shortchanged or completely lost in the shuffle. Even when it’s unfocused, however, Reservation Dogs never loses its powerful sense of the community at its core. Whether it’s following the core foursome of troublemaking teenagers who were its original main characters, or their parental figures, who are still struggling to make sense of their lives, or going further back in the generations, all the way to residential schools in the early 20th century, Reservation Dogs repeatedly stresses the power of community, history, and family to keep its characters going. There are some standout episodes and storylines along the way: Bear’s walkabout as he continues to search for a path to manhood without the support of his father; Elora Danan’s reconciliation with her white father; Bear’s mother being visited by the ghost of Elora’s mother as she contemplates taking a job out of state; or even a running gag about the kinky romance between Zahn McLarnon’s police chief and Jana Schmieding’s health clinic receptionist. And although it’s clear that there were many more stories to be told in this setting, and that the season as a whole would have been a more complete work if it hadn’t had to wrap up every storyline in ten episodes, what we got is rewarding enough to make me extremely grateful for its existence.

Scavengers Reign (Max)

A space freighter crash lands on an unexplored planet. The crew evacuates in lifepods which scatter across the verdant jungle landscape. A small number of survivors, separated by vast distances, scramble to return to the ship so they can make their escape. It’s a classic science fiction premise, one that television has explored on more than one occasion. In the animated series Scavengers Reign, however, the SFnal inspirations being drawn on are not the kind one tends to encounter on TV. The series recalls the rich tradition of “zone” SF, as practiced by writers from the Strugatsky Brothers to Jeff VanderMeer, as well as classic science fiction novels like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Its visual sensibility is rooted in the works of Moebius and Alejandro Jodorowsky. As the survivors make their way across the planet, they encounter increasingly strange lifeforms that straddle the divide between flora and fauna, and practice ever-more elaborate forms of symbiosis. Although there appears to be no intelligence on the planet, it nevertheless seems to be trying to make the survivors a part of itself, and as their intentionality comes into contact with its mindless instinct to expand and consume, strange and terrible things start to happen. The result is trippy, meditative, and complex, the kind of science fiction one doesn’t encounter much in any medium, and which is a genuine pleasure to see executed so well.

Honorable Mentions:

I’m a Virgo (Amazon) – Boots Riley brings his homespun, Michel-Gondry-with-Marxism visual sensibility to the superhero story, in which a young black giant contemplates how to use his powers in a way that can actually help people. Unsurprisingly from Riley, the show is prescriptive, not to say preachy, but its concept and execution are so distinctive as to make up for it.

Leverage: Redemption (Amazon) – The venerable heist show returns for a second reboot season that is even better than its first, and which continues to prove that the concept of “thieves who steal from the real thieves” is evergreen. This season cements Gina Bellman as the team’s leader, and Noah Wyle as the outsider who is slowly brought into the criminal-slash-vigilante lifestyle, both changes that have massively improved the original series’s concept.

Silo (Apple TV+) – It’s a silly, shopworn concep—a post-apocalyptic society that has lived in an underground bunker for so long that it no longer remembers or understands the outside world—and the choice to tell it with prestige drama trappings feels like it can only collapse into ridiculousness. And yet this adaptation of Hugh Howey’s novels is extremely satisfying, largely because of strong characters and performances.

Swarm (Amazon) – Donald Glover’s limited series may not have had much to say on the subject of obsessive pop star fandom, but as a story about a black, female serial killer it is deliciously dark and demented, with a stunning central performance by Dominique Fishback.

Twisted Metal (Peacock) – “Crass but with a heart” is a simple conceit, maybe even too easy. But this (extremely loose) video game adaptation, about a childlike delivery driver in the post-apocalypse and the murderous fugitive on a quest for revenge who joins him, pulls it off with verve. In a show full of gruesome murder, gross bodily functions, and prurient sexuality, what you’ll remember is the sweet friendship that develops between the main characters.

Most Welcome Trend of 2023: Adult Animation

To clarify the terms a bit, obviously there’s always been ton of animation on TV. But if you leave out the shows that are aimed at kids or at crossover audiences—this year, I enjoyed Adult Swim’s My Adventures With Superman, and continued to find the later seasons of Netflix’s The Dragon Prince disappointing—the ones that are left over tend to be comedy shows, whether that’s the Futurama reboot (a pleasant nostalgia hit but not a patch on the original), the fourth season of Harley Quinn (still a lot of fun but starting to show its age), or the high-concept Scott Pilgrim Takes Off (sorry, diehard fans, but I mostly found this kind of meh). What seemed to be changing in 2023 was the emergence of animated shows aimed at an adult audience that told stories in a wide range of dramatic genres, finally recognizing that the medium not only has tremendous versatility, but gives creators the freedom to do things that would be prohibitively expensive in live action. I’ve already mentioned Blue Eye Samurai and Scavengers Reign above, but to them I’d also add the second season of Amazon’s Invincible, which finally gets over the hump of its main character being unaware of the most important fact in his own story, and instantly becomes a hundred times more compelling, and the concluding season of AMC’s Pantheon, in which a science fiction story about uploaded intelligences extrapolates its premise to a world where humanity is split between the flesh-based and the virtual. Here’s hoping that the coming year brings more animated shows that recognize the medium’s ability to do more than make us laugh.

Most Annoying Trend of 2023: Shapeless Novel Adaptations

In theory, the novel lends itself perfectly to a limited series adaptation. Most novels have a bit too much matter in them to be squeezed into feature length, but they also have a decisive ending that doesn’t lend itself to an open-ended series. Six to ten episodes should be enough, right? Unfortunately, in the post-Peak TV era, the one thing you can never count on is good timing. Which is how we got, last year and this, adaptations of Octavia Butler’s Kindred (Hulu), William Gibson’s The Peripheral (Amazon), and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling (Apple TV+) which all tried to stretch out a fairly straightforward plot into multiple seasons, and succeeded only in rendering their stories inert and lifeless. The first two shows have already been cancelled, and after the dull thud of The Changeling‘s season finale I have faint hopes that it won’t meet the same fate. Not that a single season is a guarantee of a good adaptation: Apple TV+ got Brie Larson herself to star in an adaptation of Bonnie Garmus’s bestseller Lessons in Chemistry, and although the series got through the events of the whole novel in eight episodes, it did this so indifferently that I never felt as if the story had started. The same might be said of Amazon’s Daisy Jones and the Six, which told a behind the music story of a fictional band whose superstardom seemed to appear and disappear before I even noticed it.

There are, of course, shows that manage to do novel adaptations right. In the list above, both Fellow Travelers and The Big Door Prize are based on novels (and the latter even manages to end its season on a cliffhanger without making you feel that the episodes that came before were just marking time). Last year, Apple TV+’s Pachinko rather brilliantly remixed its original novel’s linear, multigenerational story into multiple timelines in a way that breathed new life into the story. But these all seem to be exceptions rather than the rule. The key, as I said, is timing, and until more TV writers work that out, I’m afraid we’re in for more indifferent, shapeless novel adaptations.

Most Redeemed Genre of 2023: Mystery and Crime

Mystery and crime are, of course, two of the most popular modes of TV storytelling. Practically every other network procedural is a cop show, and a lot of prestige dramas are about criminals. But for the most part, I tend to find these shows rather samey. In 2023, for once, I found myself enjoying a whole host of them. First there were the comedies: the third season of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, which after two seasons that left me a bit underwhelmed, finally seemed to hit on a mystery with zing (the key, as it turns out, was to leave the freaking building), and the second season of Apple TV+’s The Afterparty, which continued to play with movie genres while spinning a thrilling murder mystery (alas, the show was later cancelled). But, in addition to the already-mentioned Poker Face, there have also been a whole slew of straight mysteries this year that I really enjoyed: the second season of AMC’s Dark Winds continues to find crimes for 70s tribal cop Joe Leaphorn to unravel, a role that Zahn McLarnon was born to play; the fifth season of Fargo (FX) is a tremendous return to form; BBC’s The Gold told a real-life story of a heist and its aftermath in a way that made money laundering seem thrilling; even Disney+ got in on the action with The Artful Dodger, an extruded IP product in which the Oliver Twist character, now grown up and working as a surgeon in colonial Australia, is pulled back to a life of crime, and which is much better than a show with that description has any business being. And sure, there were some letdowns. The Justified reboot never really found its feet, and Brit Marling’s A Murder at the End of the World (FX) ended up feeling like a parody of prestige mystery. But it’s a rare year when even one mystery and crime show really captures my interest, let alone a whole bunch, so here’s hoping the trend will continue.

Most Overdue Showcase of 2023: Sarah Lancashire

You’ve probably seen this British actress in a bunch of different things, and she was probably excellent in whatever it was—I’ve never seen her be anything but. In 2023, however, she got two major starring roles, each so different from the other that they not only showcase her star quality, but her immense range. In the much-delayed third season of BBC’s Happy Valley—a season that very clearly exists because a critical mass of people watched HBO’s Mare of Easttown and went “hey, this is a total ripoff of Happy Valley!”—Lancashire returns to the role of hard-nosed, no-nonsense middle aged police sergeant Catherine Cawood, a grandmother raising her dead daughter’s son who has absolutely no patience for fools, but also deep reserves of kindness and decency. In the second season of HBO’s Julia, she continues to play Mastering the Art of French Cooking author Julia Child, who invents her own niche as a TV chef, fueled by patrician privilege and gustatory delight. Neither season is strictly necessary—Happy Valley still hasn’t figured out how to tell stories away from James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce, the man who raped and impregnated Catherine’s daughter; and Julia really struggles to find new storylines once The French Chef becomes a huge hit. But both characters, Catherine and Julia, are each so wonderful and distinctive—Catherine’s nihilistic despondency and how it’s nevertheless shot through with a fierce love for her family; Julia’s airy pursuit of pleasure, which conceals a core of pure steel that emerges when she or the people she cares about are threatened—that they make the shows around them a pleasure to experience. It’s Lancashire who makes that happen, and she deserves more attention for it.

Most Embarrassing Final Season of 2023: The Crown

For most of its run, The Crown managed a delicate balancing act. It told a story about a fundamentally absurd institution while conveying its members’ bone-deep conviction that what they do is actually meaningful and necessary. It passed criticism of this institution while remembering why we still find it, and its generations-old dramas and scandals, so endlessly fascinating. It acknowledged that the family at its core was practicing what is essentially child abuse, without ignoring how complicit its members were in their own, and eventually their children’s, mistreatment. And then, some time last season, that balance just collapsed. Maybe the queen’s death left Peter Morgan and his writers feeling skittish. Maybe the criticism that they’d been unfair in their depiction of Charles (unfair! to Charles!) got to them. Maybe it’s just that in these later episodes, they are dramatizing events that I lived through. Whatever the reason, the show no longer seemed able to argue for the grandeur and importance of the people it was about. They instead came off as ridiculous; their dramas soapy and tedious. In the recently-released sixth and final season (which stops in the early 2000s, apparently for no other reason than so as not to have to dramatize the Harry and Meghan chapter, despite the fact that it is the most interesting thing to happen to the royals in decades), the show spends four episodes documenting seemingly every hour of the final weeks of Diana’s life, without finding a single new or interesting thing to say about her. It then expects us to be compelled by the utterly banal romance of Wills and Kate, while portraying Harry as a gurning goblin. It continues to fawn over Charles, and then at the last minute has Elizabeth and Philip muse to each other that neither he nor any of the next generation are ever going to measure up to them. If there’s a final statement that The Crown wanted to make about the monarchy, I am at a loss to discern it from this final season, and what’s more important, it wasn’t even fun to watch.

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