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 2022

In this ongoing Golden Age of TV, this last year has been the best. Normally the top ten choice is relatively easy. This time there were many shows vying for the top spots.

Of those not included here, honourable mentions go to House of the Dragon, Paper Girls, Billions, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, The Dropout, WeCrashed, Pistol, Borgen Power and Glory, The Umbrella Academy, The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlanta, The Crown and Russian Doll.

Biggest disappointment: Ozark which, after escalating brilliance, died in the final episode. It got exactly where it needed to go, but did it in a flat, unimaginative and unfulfilling way.

10. All Of Us Are Dead

(Netflix) This Korean zombie drama offering makes it into the list for a herculean, near-impossible sustaining of tension. If you binge it back to back, you face near-thirteen hours of nerve-shredding action. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

9. Better Call Saul

(Netflix) Years in the making, the final season of Saul Goodman’s odyssey still managed to pull some surprises as it crossed paths with the Breaking Bad timeline that spawned it and moved into an uncertain future for the character. Mature, serious and elegant in its pacing, the series cements Bob Odenkirk’s reputation as an actor of depth and style.

8. Hacks

(HBO) The second series didn’t quite reach the heights of the first, but it still managed to be both funny and tackle deep and affecting issues of the fear of losing potency and the different but connected trials that face the young. Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder made fantastic sparring partners.

7. Shining Girls

(Apple TV+) Lauren Beukes’ SF novel about a time-travelling serial killer gets a classy adaptation that digs deep into the themes. Elisabeth Moss, who seems to be everywhere, does a good job was the protagonist.

6. For All Mankind

(Apple TV+) This alternate history of the space race has improved with each season. Here in the third we’re in the 90s and on Mars. As always with these things, it’s fascinating to see the web of changes, social, political, cultural, that extends from one change to historical reality, in this case what would happen if the Soviet Union got to the moon first.

5. Slow Horses

(Apple TV+) Two six-part seasons of the masterful spy drama based on Mick Herron’s excellent novels. Witty, sardonic and characterful, it follows a team of failed spies who’ve been shipped out to ‘Slough House’ as punishment, under the mocking eye of Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb.

4. Euphoria

(HBO) The old folk-baiting drama about the ‘terrible’ things teens get up to – lashings of sex and drugs, surprise, surprise – rises to a new level in its second season. The Shock Horror is just the surface and there’s some real emotion and psychological dissection lying behind it. Top marks to Zendaya and Sydney Sweeney.

3. The Offer

Pictured: Juno Temple as Bettye McCartt, Miles Teller as Albert S. Ruddy, Matthew Goode as Robert Evans, Patrick Gallo as Mario Puzo and Dan Fogler as Francis Ford Coppola of the Paramount+ original series The Offer. Photo Cr: Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ © 2022 ViacomCBS. All Rights Reserved.

(Paramount +) A drama set around the making of The Godfather might sound dry, but this is an effervescent affair. It’s essentially the Mafia vs the sociopaths who run Hollywood – who wins? It perfectly evokes the 70s era with some remarkable casting choices to capture the real-life characters of the time. The stand-out is Matthew Goode as studio boss Robert Evans.

2. The White Lotus

(HBO) The second season of Mike White’s twisty-turns character-based drama that examines terrible people in paradise. This time the guests of the eponymous hotel chain are staying in Sicily amid a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. All the cast excel, but Jennifer Coolidge is amazing as always, and special mentions for Aubrey Plaza, Michael Imperioli, Tom Hollander and Will Sharpe.

  1. Severance

(Apple TV+) The most imaginative, offbeat and mysterious show in many a year. Severance occupies a space somewhere adjacent to Twin Peaks. A new procedure splits consciousness into two. You go into work and when you leave you forget everything you did during the day. When you return to work the next day, you forget everything you did in your private life. You have two lives, both of them uncontaminated by what you do in the other half. But there is so much more going on here. It’s quirky, intriguing, frightening, at times moving. There’s nothing like it on TV.