Best TV Drama 2023

All those writers pumping out columns about the Death of the Golden Age of TV should walk away in embarrassment. 2023 was a great year for the medium. There were lots of shows I could have included here – Swarm, The Last of Us, The Crown – but these are the ones that stayed with me for different reasons.

10. THE MORNING SHOW

(Apple TV+) A step-up from the disappointing second season thanks to a cohesive and driving narrative. This season weds its usual soapiness with some sharp commentary on the state of modern media, a timely takedown of Musk and his cronies using their fortunes to degrade things the public love. Jon Hamm comes on board to add some much-needed weight with the meaty role of a tech bro who loves flying rockets and buying and breaking things. Greta Lee is a standout as the conflicted executive and there’s great work from Billy Crudup (who gave a smart speech to graduating students at NYU’s Tisch School of Film and Drama this year).

9. THE MARVELLOUS MRS MAISEL

(Amazon Prime) This show has been a delight from start to finish and it’s not often you can use that word about modern TV. Its charm is stitched into the very fabric, through the lush production values that capture 50s New York and Jewish culture of that time and through the characters all dealing with their low-stakes dramas. There’s a feminist streak to it as Midge tries to plough her own furrow as a stand-up and TV comedy writer, challenging the patriarchy in all its forms, but it’s not laboured. This season was a good sendoff and ends with a feeling of being wrapped in a warm blanket (though the flash forwards to Midge in future decades were completely unnecessary.)

8. ATLANTA

(FX) Donald Glover revealed a brilliant and mercurial mind in the way he took Atlanta from its initial premise about a rapper, Paperboy, and his manager to a show that could comment on anything large or small, with a format that twisted reality, plunged deep into the weird and unsettling, kicked over statues and smashed tradition. At times it felt like a modern version of the Twilight Zone, at others a trippy exploration of black lives everywhere. But it was always rooted in character and anchored by a superb performance from Brian Tyree Henry.

7. POKER FACE

(Peacock) “What year is this?” Agent Cooper said at the end of Twin Peaks and you could be forgiven for asking the same question here. From the get-go you’re thrown back into the 1970s through familiar typeface and stylings designed to evoke a certain feeling, even though Poker Face is set now. Yes, Knives Out’s Rian Johnson has decided to do his own version of Colombo. The same format – you get the murder up front and see who did it – and then the drama comes from how Natasha Lyonne’s on-the-run casino worker gets to solve it. Every episode is a self-contained character-driven story, which used to be an American TV tradition back in the first golden age of TV, all of it delivered with brilliant actors and lots of panache.

6. BILLIONS

(Showtime) The ending of a show is critical for its longevity. The Sopranos and Six Feet Under got it right. Dexter and House of Cards didn’t. Billions, I’m happy to say, lands perfectly. It just about survived losing its lead Damian Lewis for a season after the tragic death of his wife, but he’s back as Ax here, with a vengeance. The show’s traditional twisty-turny plot goes exactly where you expect it to, though not in the manner you thought. That works because the ending is hugely fulfilling for viewers who have followed these characters through their seven season long Shakespearean battle. Spin-offs are coming.

5. SILO

(Apple TV+) Based on Hugh Howey’s novels, Silo is set in a dystopian future where a community survives, just about, in a deep silo cut off from the rest of the world. The atmosphere of mystery is suffocating as the population is forced to accept what they’re told about the outside world by their leaders – the themes here are clear – but there’s an emotional heart to the intellectual games. Rebecca Ferguson is a tough hero, kicking against the rules, and there’s strong support from Tim Robbins, David Oyelowo and Rashida Jones.

4. SLOW HORSES

(Apple TV+) You can’t take your eyes off Gary Oldman when he’s on screen as the belching, farting, curmudgeonly but brilliant and ruthless Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, a unit for useless failed spies. The pace hasn’t slowed, the characters are maturing with each season, the humour is just as pointed. The show has done great justice to Mick Herron’s excellent novels, capturing the sly, wry tone and the sardonic view of the failings of the powerful, but it’s Oldman’s performance that holds everything together.

3. A MURDER AT THE END OF THE WORLD

(FX) This crashed into the zone just as I was preparing to write this list, a show that grabs all sorts of traditions and rams them relentlessly into the modern world. On the surface it’s a murder-mystery set in an isolated house – here a hi-tech hotel in Iceland – but as you would expect from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the creators behind Netflix’s exemplary The OA, it twists into something different entirely. Symbols, serial killers, society-changing technology, a world on the brink. Anchored by an astonishing, award-winning performance by Emma Corrin as reluctant investigator Darby who grew up around dead bodies, the series also manages to be deeply affecting in the way it sketches Darby’s relationship with Harris Dickinson’s Bill. And these TV creators really don’t like Elon Musk, do they?

2. SUCCESSION

(HBO) Everyone held their breath to see if Jesse Armstrong could pull off an ending to his biting satire about the hateful, hyper-wealthy but also loveable in their miserable, fucked-up lives Roy clan. He did. Each episode is a mini play, usually confined to a single location but which crackles with the tension of well-defined characters clawing themselves one step away from destruction. The shocks come out of left field – no spoilers – but it’s the little moments that stay with you: Kendall Roy’s excruciating public speaking, always one step away from a breakdown, Roman Roy’s unexpected tears that reveal the depth of his trauma, but mainly the numerous weaslings of Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom Wambsgans who is a potent brew of oil and desperation. The Murdochs should watch and weep.

  1. THE BEAR

(Hulu) Proof that you don’t need heavy plot to make one of the most compelling and affecting shows of the year. The first season of Christopher Storer’s comedy-drama was fantastic. This takes it to a whole new level as we dig into the lives of the hard-pressed crew working in a Chicago sandwich shop and discover the demons that drive them all. The cast is uniformly excellent – vis all the Golden Globe nominations they just landed. But it’s the big heart and the humanity that will stay with you.

Best TV Drama 2018

Time for my annual round-up of the best TV of the year.  And I’ve watched a lot for work and pleasure over the last eleven and a bit months. The flood of great shows hasn’t abated, in fact it seems to be increasing.  That’s not going to stop.  Several new streaming services are launching in 2019, including Apple’s and Disney’s.

If you watch only ten shows this year, you could make it the ones in this list. But honestly, so many only just missed the cut, and in the end it came down to margin calls.  And it’s the same at the top end of the list where I went back and forth several times, and would probably come up with a slightly different ranking tomorrow.

I’ll be counting down with one a day, so check back to see what got my viewing and screenwriting juices flowing during 2018.

10. Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina (Netflix)

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the modern generation? The big win here is the design of an immersive world that’s like being dipped in a big vat of Halloween. Sabrina’s house, the school, the forest, the pumpkin fields and lonely roads, everything here has a hyper-intense feel that pulls you into a place where the creepy is normal.  The tone is all over the place – and that’s one of the reasons I like it.  Gory, disturbing, playful, but thankfully nowhere near as over-cooked teen drama as its stablemate Riverdale.  Couple that with some great character actors playing it large – Lucy Davis, Michelle Gomez, Miranda Otto and Richard Coyle – and you’ve got a frightening funhouse of a series. Yes, some of the mid-season writing is a bit patchy, but stick with it.  The Midwinter special drops soon.

9. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)

A series with something important to say about the state of the world, and of today’s America.  As a spin-off of the well-crafted but not wave-making The Good Wife, not a lot was expected from The Good Fight.  Indeed, on the surface, this looks like a traditional legal show.

But from the very first scene of the first episode, it set out its stall that this is a critique of Trump and all he stands for, of the vulgarity and the profit-first coarseness that characterises current times.  It’s a series about the huge divide in society, and the inequalities thrown up by a 1% inured to suffering.  The credits come in halfway through the first episode with a reversal that pulls the rug out from under your feet.  And then you can see where The Good Fight is going.

And yet it’s not preachy.  It tells it’s tales with verve and a popular style, with strong characters and a light, yes, traditional, touch where necessary.

8. Homecoming (Amazon Prime)

Another massive critical hit from Prime, after The Magnificent Mrs Maisel, and deserving of all the praise heaped on it, and its star Julia Roberts.  Paranoia runs deep in this series – and paranoia is possibly the key response to the 21st century – as Roberts oversees a facility for military veterans wanting to adjust to the civilian world.  It’s told via different competing timelines, and tackles issues like memory and personality.

The relentless pace – the episodes are only 30 minutes – drag you through the labyrinth.  There’s tricksy direction and graphics, as you’d expect from the director and producer Sam Esmail who made Mr Robot such an interesting and iconoclastic creation.  But the real, emotive performances hold everything together.

7. The Deuce (HBO)

A brave series, in its unflinching attention to every grimy, seedy, brutal aspect of its milieu.  In its examination of the early years of the New York porn industry, it takes you into a world you’ve never seen before, and tells you things you never knew in the process.  As you’d expect from David Simon and George Pelecanos, the flawed characters lie at the heart, raw humanity trying to survive in a time and place determined to grind them down.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is the queen of all she surveys, as both producer, and as Candy, the former streetwalker now photo-feminist demanding agency as she shapes this new industry from behind the camera.  A class act.

6. Atlanta (FX)

The genius that is Donald Glover has achieved something of TV nirvana here – a show that can be absolutely anything it wants to be.  Slice of life, romance, comedy, gritty urban survival, social comment, and, in the episode where the main character goes to buy a second-hand piano, even horror.  Sometimes it’s all of them at the same time.  In the end, the genre here is simply Donald Glover’s worldview, mercurial, wry and witty.  Everyone in the cast gives first-rate performances, and, what makes it great for me, it never fails to surprise.

5. Maniac (Netflix)

A deliriously hallucinogenic comedy-drama miniseries that occupies its own space – post-modern, with heightened performances and a look that often echoes cheap 70s SF movies.  What keeps it from being too quirky for its own good is the big heart at the core, and ultimately it’s deeply affecting.  Emma Stone and Jonah Hill play two broken people volunteering for a new treatment that supposedly will help cure their mental health issues.  This involves flinging them into drug-induced imaginary alternate lives where they can work through their neuroses.  Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction is dreamy yet emotional, but it’s the career-best performance from Emma Stone, and Justin Theroux as a disturbed psychologist that nails this one down.

4. Billions (Showtime)

If this series maintains its trajectory, it has a good chance of being up there with The Sopranos by the end of its run.  There are similarities with the Mafioso drama – turbulent families, gangster capitalism, big egos crossing lines – but Billions ploughs its own furrow.  Its financial machinations are never dull and always subsumed beneath the character dramas, and it sparkles with an urbane wit that adds to its dynamism.  Fantastic duelling performances from Damien Lewis as hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as NY attorney Chuck Rhoades provide the visceral, Shakespearean core.  But there are two stand-out supporting turns that will keep you coming back – David Costabile as Wags, Axe’s right hand man who plays louche so well you expect him to seize his pleasure in every scene; and Asia Kate Dillon as the non-binary analyst Taylor, a performance that is all about brains and repressed vulnerability.

3. Ozark (Netflix)

Season one took a while to get going, but set out its stall with its aspiration to be the new Breaking Bad. Season two takes that mission to a completely different level.  Every dilemma, every choice made, fires the characters into a new level of hell, which requires more choices and more terrible consequences.  In the end, the tension of that grim spiral becomes almost unbearable.  This tale of a middle class family among the rednecks is a culture clash drama.  But when it asks the question, who has the capacity for the most evil – the sophisticated family, the uncomplicated, uneducated backwoods folk, the monied, the violent criminal gang, even the FBI – that’s when it comes into its own.  And the answer  demanded in every episode is usually not the one you expect.  Also in this series, Laura Linney emerges as the real star as her character edges into Walter White territory, a strong, unflinching person who will do absolutely anything to ensure survival.

2. Sharp Objects (HBO)

A near-perfect adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s chilling debut novel.  Director Jean-Marc Vallee uses the tics that made Big Little Lies such a success – flashes of images that are sometimes memories, sometimes notions, sometimes fantasies, that together create a dreamy atmosphere that echoes the languorous southern setting.  The pacing is deliberately measured, allowing the slow accretion of detail and character that brings the story to life. Which makes the ending so effective – after that oneiric approach the final scene and the post-credits sequence comes like a baseball bat to the face, smashing home the shattering horror of what has taken place.  Great performance too by Amy Adams as the alcoholic emotionally-troubled reporter returning to her disturbed family to investigate dark goings-on in the community.

1. The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)

From the outset, this remarkable drama transcends its horror roots and becomes something universal.  The scares aren’t the point here, though there are several very effective ones.  This is a story about grief, addiction, depression and the very personal psychological suffering that is part of the human condition.  If that makes it sound heavy or preachy, it’s not at all – the supernatural is used as a powerful metaphor and that keeps everything moving.  But it is possibly the saddest thing you will see on TV.  Some of the episodes, and the characters, are heartbreaking.  The creator Mike Flanagan has made something enduring because he doesn’t pander to the viewer.  Questions are left hanging until Flanagan is ready to give his answers.  Duelling timelines are rolled out and the viewer is left to piece together which character is which and what’s going on.  There’s some brilliant dexterity behind the camera, with several long, prowling takes around the haunted house(s), and excellent work in front of the camera, particularly from Victoria Pedretti, Kate Siegel and Elizabeth Reaser.  This is a complete and satisfying novel, and there doesn’t need to be another series. But there will be, and I trust Flanagan to do something equally interesting.

And that’s it.  Honourable mentions to Narcos Mexico, Killing Eve, Unreal, 13 Reasons Why, Better Call Saul and Westworld, all of which could easily have made the cut.

And a special award to House of Cards for so spectacularly losing the plot.  The denouement was the worst for any highly-rated show in this new golden age of TV, so bad in fact that it effectively destroyed all that had come before.  It outlined a few basic writing issues.  If a character has been shaped to be supporting, you can’t simply elevate them to lead.  And this was always a novel about Francis Underwood, told in chapters.  His story was left hanging, and no amount of running around and dramatic posturing can make it feel fulfilled. Should have ended it with season 5.

Finally a big vat of the sourest grapes is being hauled by Deliveroo to the home of director Steve McQueen who insisted the golden age of TV was now over…minutes after HBO turned down his pitch for a new TV series.  On the evidence of these ten shows he couldn’t be more wrong.