Another year, another exhausting amount of television. But how to separate the wheat from the chaff, the Mad Men from the Two and a Half Men? As the nights grow longer and the year moves into its twilight phase, it’s time to think about the great shows that made it to air over the past 12 months.
As with 2022, the top positions on my list are dominated by American television. Why is this? While there were many fine shows on terrestrial here in the UK – like The Gold, about the Brink’s-Mat heist, or the fifth season of Unforgotten – they felt less distinctive than the best international shows. There are only so many cop dramas you can watch before they start to blur into one.
But if there’s one trend in this rundown – and perhaps this should be a worry, heading into 2024 – it’s that 2023 felt like the end of a televisual chapter. Three of the shows on my list are here on the strength of their final seasons, while others are limited series with no (announced) plans to return. One has even been summarily cancelled. The scheduling vacancy opened by the absences of House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power, not to mention Euphoria and The White Lotus, might have been an opportunity, but, instead, has created something of a vacuum.
More talk has been muttered at water coolers – more ink spilled in newspapers – on shows that have performed poorly than those that have done well. From the gyrating vapidity of The Idol (more on that shortly) to the post-mortem apparitions of The Crown, perhaps 2023 has been a good year for bad TV, but a bad year for good TV.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t highlights. Below are 20 (largely) excellent shows that are well worth your time – and which provide both palate cleanser and amuse bouche heading, expectantly, into another year.
20. (or 200, depending on your perspective) The Idol
I’ve copped a lot of flak on social media for my four-star review of the first episode (just the first episode, as I keep reminding people) of Sky’s The Idol. Created by Euphoria supremo Sam Levinson and Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, The Idol was like nothing else on TV in 2023 (or ever). Over its five-episode run, it went absolutely nowhere but did so quite spectacularly. Its subversive obsession with the grotesquery of sex – not to mention dialogue that sounded like ChatGPT wrote it on an Amstrad CPC – was unique, if nothing else.
19. Big Brother
After five years off our screens (following its demotion to Channel 5 in 2011), Big Brother returned this year on ITV2, profiting from the cultural moment’s present obsession with the early-00s. Complete with love triangles, destructive cliques, and the customary braying, booing crowd, Big Brother’s return felt like a welcome antidote to the increasing predominance of beach bodies, veneers, and fake tan on reality TV.
The BBC’s prison drama, Time, returned in 2023 with an entirely new cast and setting. Jodie Whittaker, Bella Ramsey and Tamara Lawrence led a superb ensemble cast, shining a light on the tribulations of life in a women’s prison. It’s easy to accuse the Beeb of a repetitious obsession with the grimmer aspects of modern British life, but Time is, all the same, a gripping and compassionate portrait of women at the margins of society, and how, time and again, the system fails them.
17. Wild Isles
At 97, and with approximately the same number of television series under his belt, it’s hard for David Attenborough to excite audiences these days. There are only so many times I can watch one animal eat another animal – or one animal shag another animal – before I think about turning the channel. Wild Isles was something different: a look at the landscapes of Britain, from the rugged Scottish islands in their semi-Arctic isolation, to the grasslands, forests, and coastlines of England. It was a reminder of the abundance of our shores, and also a relief from the usual carnage and debauchery of the animal kingdom.
16. Poker Face
Natasha Lyonne is one of the most charismatic actors on television, full stop. Russian Doll, the twisty Groundhog Day-esque dramedy that she wrote and starred in, was a reminder of her talents, as is Poker Face, a murder mystery anthology in which she stars as Charlie Cale, a waitress whose uncanny ability to discern when people are lying sees her kicked out of Las Vegas. The format is reminiscent of iconic 1970s detective show Columbo, inverting the whodunnit in order to become a satisfying portrait of a woman on a picaresque adventure sniffing out criminals.
15. Race Across the World
It’s taken four years, since it debuted in 2019, for the BBC’s Race Across the World to get its dues, but it’s now finally established in the prime time pantheon. Its 2023 season saw teams – including a very grumpy father/daughter combo, and a lovely pair of old school friends – sprinting across the vastness of Canada, from Vancouver in the west to Newfoundland in the east. Comparing the show to its American cousin, The Amazing Race, exposes what British television is brilliant at: understatement. This is the story of good people doing (broadly) well, and the beautiful places and kind folk they meet along the way.
14. A Murder at the End of the World
Murder is one of my favourite things (on TV, I hasten to add). But rather than the harrowing true crime epidemic, it’s nice to see shows that have a bit of fun with the genre. A Murder at the End of the World, which stars The Crown’s Emma Corrin as a tech-savvy detective invited to an exclusive Icelandic retreat, is the show that Knives Out 2 should’ve been. Smart, edgy and gripping. A Gen Z Lisbeth Salander, Corrin’s Darby Hart could well become a televisual fixture.
13. Best Interests
The combination of Jack Thorne, the writer behind The Virtues and the This is England series, and actors Michael Sheen and Sharon Horgan, made Best Interests a pretty sure thing when it aired in June. The tale of a family torn apart by the decisions being made on behalf of their terminally ill daughter, it managed to be emotionally gripping without becoming maudlin or didactic. When it comes to such bleak, important subject matter, that’s an impressive restraint.
12. The Bear
It feels like it was about five minutes ago that The Bear first appeared on Disney+, but, sure enough, it returned this year for a second instalment from The Original Beef of Chicagoland restaurant – now renamed “The Bear”. The transition from a show about a top chef (Jeremy Allen White) imposing discipline onto a rundown sandwich shop, to a show about a rundown sandwich shop becoming a fine dining establishment, was inspired. Muscular, stressful and with the comic intensity of farce without the yucks, The Bear has cemented its position at the top of the food chain.
11. The Great
Television took a bit of a battering in 2023, with major cancellations across the networks, but there were perhaps none that upset fans more than the brutal – almost Holstein-Gottorp-Romanovesque – axing of Hulu series The Great. Its third and final, season was another delight, seeing Elle Fanning’s Catherine consolidate power and reconcile with her feckless idiot of a husband Peter, played brilliantly by Nicholas Hoult. One of the funniest shows on TV, the fact that the market couldn’t find space to continue this story is a sad indictment of the current state of affairs.
Television, at its best, has the ability to make us imagine lives totally unlike our own, to expand our horizons and open our eyes to new ideas, possibilities and experiences. But it also has the, equally potent, power to allow us to switch off our brains for a blissful hour. Apple TV+’s Hijack, starring Idris Elba as an expert negotiator who just happens to be stuck on a hijacked airliner, is exactly that sort of show. Keeping its nose just the right side of stupid, Hijack glides through seven episodes that unfold in real-time. Elba brings movie-star charisma to a gossamer thin role, but really it’s all about the tension, which is cranked to a fever pitch by the time the landing strip emerges through the haze.
9. Happy Valley
The first of three final series to appear on this list, I’m giving Happy Valley’s 2023 run this relatively low ranking because I think it is the least satisfying of the show’s three outings. Sarah Lancashire is, once again, on inimitable form as Sgt Catherine Cawood, one of television’s best characters (full stop), and the writing from Sally Wainwright is as brisk and resonant as ever. Compared to almost all TV that’s ever been produced, this third series of Happy Valley is exceptional – but compared to its previous two instalments, it doesn’t quite match their virtuosic quality. The B-plot, involving a struggling pharmacist who accidentally kills a local addict, feels slight, and the scene in which James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce climbs, like Spider-Man, out of a witness stand comes dangerously close to jumping the shark. But, in the end, Wainwright and Co do a tremendous job of bringing this Calder Valley saga to a fitting close, one that satisfies the emotional demands of its characters and audience expectations.
8. University Challenge
Jeremy Paxman, who hosted the BBC’s pre-eminent team quiz show for almost 30 years, left big shoes to fill with this, the first series of University Challenge since his retirement. Enter Amol Rajan, a polarising figure who gads about the Beeb, co-hosting Radio 4’s Today along with an eccentric variety of interview specials. But Rajan has taken to the show like an anas platyrhynchos to H2O. He brings a more tactile, almost friendly, energy to proceedings, which have also benefited from the alleviation of Covid-era measures like Plexiglass screens. With an increasing focus on diverse fields of knowledge – and diversity within those fields of knowledge – this new era of University Challenge is one to be savoured.
7. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson
Sketch comedy is an art that’s easy to try but hard to master. For American comedian Tim Robinson (who was briefly an ill-fitting performer on Saturday Night Live, before being relegated to a writing-only brief), the key is to avoid getting too drawn into character work. With the third series of I Think You Should Leave, his Netflix series, Robinson proves himself a genius in creating one basic archetype – a socially off-putting man who always tries way too hard – and then putting that character through endlessly strange scenarios. Like Canadian writer-performer Nathan Fielder, Robinson proves himself capable of cringe that flirts with resonance – and, in doing so, has created one of the most memeable, viral hits of recent years.
6. The Last of Us
In a year that felt – after the dramatic 2022 launches of House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power – like no new shows were vying for that “biggest programme on earth” crown, it was left to HBO’s The Last of Us to represent for blockbuster commissioning. This adaptation of the acclaimed video game saw Game of Thrones alumni Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey play survivors heading across America’s post-viral wasteland. The show includes a much-heralded bottle episode, which showcased a rare, late-in-life love blossoming amid the world’s end, but the overall sweep of the series was exceptional. Beautiful production design, a richly moving score, and terrific performances made The Last of Us the best video game adaptation in television history.
5. I’m a Virgo
I was fully prepared to find I’m a Virgo, the TV debut of Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You, cloying or self-conscious. After all, the Clifford the Big Red Dog-inflected story of a Black teenager growing up, and growing enormous, in left-wing Oakland, California, sounds hard to swallow. But what Riley creates is a mannered yet moving vision of modern America, complete with some of the most eclectic (and electric) visuals committed to the small screen. Jharrel Jerome is fantastic as the show’s 13-ft-tall lead, but really this is an ensemble piece of allegorical absurdism, anchored by political urgency and featuring one of the weirdest, but most endearing, sex scenes of all time.
4. Jury Duty
I watched Amazon Freevee’s Jury Duty in one sitting, so slack-jawed on my settee that I dribbled Tom Kha all over myself. The premise is simple: a documentary crew will follow the jury assigned to a court case from start to finish, looking at the interplay between 12 flawed humans and the American justice system. There’s just one twist: 11 of the jurors – and everyone else, from lawyers and judge to bailiffs and witnesses – are actors, and only one man, Ronald, thinks he’s on a real jury. What could’ve been a morally bankrupt piece of big-budget torture turns into something extremely funny but also sweet and earnest. Jury Duty has the distinction of being not only one of the funniest shows of the year, but also one of the most affecting.
3. Colin from Accounts
On the surface, Colin from Accounts is an unassuming Australian romcom. But beneath that, the show is a, well, it’s an unassuming Australian romcom. But why would that be a bad thing? This eight-episode story is a tale of boy almost runs over girl, girl flashes boy, boy hits dog, boy and girl co-parent that dog and call it Colin – which, all in all, is a vast improvement on “boy meets girl”. Given the turbulence of the world right now, this gentle but charming romance is the perfect tonic. The leads, played by real-life couple Harriet Dyer and Patrick Brammall, are both superbly likeable, their scripts (they also wrote the show) packed with zingers, and the whole thing just joyfully watchable. It is a comedy that I could recommend to almost anyone in the near-certain confidence that they will find something to love about it, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay.
2. The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
Amy Sherman-Palladino – alongside her collaborator/husband Daniel Palladino – is one of the true auteurs of modern television. The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which came to its conclusion this year with a barnstorming, format-breaking fifth series, is one of the most underrated shows on TV. Anchored by superb performances from Rachel Brosnahan, in the title role, and Alex Borstein as her acerbic manager Susie, Maisel felt both idiosyncratic and hugely crowd-pleasing. Its 47-episode run featured some of the most lavish production design that Amazon Prime has ever bankrolled, but unlike so many blockbusters of recent years, the depth of the scenery was matched by the clarity of the vision. Sherman-Palladino’s spectacle of Fifties and Sixties New York, from smoke-filled folk nights at the Gaslight to the glitz and glamour of Carnegie Hall, was bold, brassy TV at its beautiful best. The fact that all this was in service of, not a fantasy world or a zombie nightmare, nor stuffy rooms full of besuited men wanging on about serious stuff, but a female comedian on a rampage towards fame, fortune and freedom made it all the more remarkable.
Sometimes, as I’m falling asleep at night, Nicholas Britell’s score for Succession starts playing in my head. Try it now: close your eyes and let the opening credits play. Such was the cultural permeation of Succession in 2023 that those simple notes can inspire an almost Pavlovian response in a generation of TV viewers. The final series of Jesse Armstrong’s dynastic saga began with the sucker punch of a major character’s death before whipping itself into a boardroom frenzy. At times, the show’s fourth series was so bleak, its characters so irredeemably awful, that it became a hard watch – but perseverance was rewarded. The writing, throughout, was impeccable, as were the performances, and the finale felt like the send-off the Roy family truly deserved.