What are the best television shows of 2023? As TV’s golden age continues to extend way beyond the lifetimes of The Wire, Mad Men and Sopranos, new and exciting small screen entertainment just keeps on coming. If this is the new normal, we could not be happier.
We live in an age of multiple channels and streaming services competing for our eyeballs. So the Best TV of 2023 is as varied as it is compelling. There’s the hard-hitting drama of Happy Valley and talented folk playing music at railway stations in The Piano. There’s a startling adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Harrison Ford in ensemble TV comedy Shrinking.
Meanwhile, The Last Of Us could spark a rush to find more games to adapt for TV and Succession is going out on a high. Both hit new heights in episode three. Here is our pick of the best TV shows of 2023 so far.
Happy Valley – BBC1
The greatest British television series of the century wrapped up, forever, with a third and final set of six episodes. Six episodes of intensity and beauty, sisterhood and struggle, crime and community, wit and wisdom. Sally Wainwright’s masterpiece began in 2013, showcasing a region wracked by austerity, ignored by the government, beset with drug abuse and organised crime – but policed by one of the all-time great TV creations, Sgt Catherine Cawood and containing some of the country’s beautiful scenery.
Sarah Lancashire gives an outstanding, uncompromising, rich performance full of pain and heartache and sensitivity as Cawood, while James Norton has never been better than in this final series as Tommy Lee Royce. But every actor, every line, every moment in Happy Valley is to be cherished and celebrated. And what an ending.
The Last of Us – Sky Now
Who knew games could be so complex, emotional, enthralling? Only the millions of people for whom they have long been as popular as any movie, series or boxset. But for many, this series – based on the best-selling game developed by Naughty Dog – was a compelling introduction to the complex storytelling of modern gaming.
While it rewarded fans of the original, as editorial choices from creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann were dissected at length, The Last Of Us needed no prior knowledge.
And as for episode three? Well, it was about as heartbreaking, breathtaking, and brilliant as any single episode in television history. Bill (Nick Offerman) as a doomsday prepper with a town to himself while traveller Frank (Murray Bartlett) was wandering through the apocalypse. And they found each other. Because even after the apocalypse arrives in the form of a fungus-fueled global pandemic, love will abide. Beautiful storytelling with wonderful acting, lead by Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal.
The Power – Prime Video
Naomi Alderman’s novel was a vital and brilliant feminist science fiction story for these times. It won huge acclaim on its release in 2016 – and immediately read like a classic TV show of the future. Now that future is here. The ten-part adaptation is equally electrifying, entertaining, enlightening.
The central premise – that teenage girls develop an ability to produce electric shocks from their hands, upsetting the power balance of the entire world – is so full of promise. What if women were no longer afraid of male violence? How would the patriarchy try to retain its grip on power?
And the cast, led brilliantly by Auli’I Cravalho (aka the voice of Disney’s Moana), Ria Zmitrowicz, Halle Bush with Toni Collette, Little Simz, Eddie Marsan and Ted Lasso‘s Toheeb Jimoh, deliver on that promise – producing a story so powerful, entertaining, and provocative in the best way…
Maternal – ITV
When is a mainstream, primetime medical drama not a mainstream, primetime medical drama? When it also paints a perceptive portrait of the pressures of parenthood, the state of the National Health Service and all the heroes who work in it in the immediate aftermath – “We’re still dealing with Covid. We will be for the rest of the decade” – of the pandemic.
When it is led by the brilliance of Parminder Nagra, Lara Pulver and Lisa McGillis as three doctors returning to the NHS frontline after maternity leave, even better. All three produced powerful, nuanced, skilful performances. Like Mum and so many other dramas with comedic edges (or dramatic comedies), Maternal began with characters painted with broad brush strokes.
But stick around. Viewers were rewarded for their patience as it became increasingly detailed, forensic and finely tuned. And Cathy Tyson’s guest role in episode five, as a woman whose wife was approaching the end of her life, was a beautifully acted reminder of her skill. More please.
Shrinking – Apple TV+
Harrison Ford is such a great movie star. The greatest of modern times. So it can be easy to overlook his acting brilliance. The timing. The delivery. That face.
Shrinking is not the Harrison Ford show. It is, ostensibly, Jason Segel’s show. As grieving therapist Jimmy Laird, Segel is at the heart of the action – wonderfully supported by Lukita Maxwell as his teenage daughter Alice, Jessica Williams as his friend, colleague and confidante Gaby, Luke Tennie as his patient (and soon-to-be-house-mate) Sean, and Christa Miller as neighbour Liz. The ensemble is terrific.
But, as Jimmy’s boss, mentor and fellow therapist, Dr Paul Rhoades, Ford gradually unveils hidden depths to his first TV series regular across the ten episodes. He’s fully part of the ensemble. And behind the trademark Fordian deadpan grumpiness, quick quips, oh, and some unexpected singing in the car – a complex character full of contradiction, melancholy and love emerges. This series was pushed hard by Apple TV+. But while the trailer made it appear lightweight and inconsequential, Shrinking grows into something so much richer and more rewarding.
The Gold – BBC1
The tone was as light as the stolen gold was heavy in this brilliant drama set in the aftermath of the Brink’s-Mat gold robbery of 1983. A ragtag crew of robbers from the London underworld accidentally stumbled across the biggest bounty in British crime history when they chanced across huge amounts of gold bullion (not the £1million of pesetas they were hoping to steal) in a warehouse near Heathrow.
Much of the gold was never recovered. But the adventures in smelting, laundering and evading the police make for a wonderful crime caper. Neil Forsyth’s script fizzes off the screen, while a terrific cast lead by Dominic Cooper, Jack Lowden and Tom Cullen – and chased by Hugh Bonneville (casting off his Downton Abbey stiff upper lip to play copper Brian Boyce), Charlotte Spencer and Emun Elliot – shine brightly.
Fleishman Is In Trouble – Disney+
A smart comedy drama starring Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes and Lizzy Caplan – this is middle class, middle-aged melancholy in Manhattan (and New Jersey). And it’s exceptional. But you have to get through at least the first two episodes before its brilliance begins to become apparent. Eisenberg is superb as jittery, awkward doctor Toby Fleishman – all Woody Allen nervous tics and nervous energy, while Danes plays his successful, driven theatre agent soon-to-be-ex wife Rachel, who leaves for a yoga retreat and does not return.
But what starts off like a divorcing dad drama – dating apps, fights over childcare, re-connecting with estranged old friends – grows into so much more. Danes producing some of her best ever work (and plenty of trademark snotty crying) in the series highlight, episode seven, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s adaptation of her own bestselling novel asks smart questions about love, marriage, friendship, parenthood, careers, and growing older in a new era.
Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America – BBC1
David Harewood’s compelling trip through the US meeting icons of Black American culture was itself a triumph. Whether learning to Moonwalk with Shalamar’s Jeffrey Daniel or discussing the impact of Rootswith its star John Amos, Harewood’s enthusiasm and knowledge shone through.
Across two episodes (it could have been 10), Harewood’s bold baritone told the story of key moments in Black American Culture – punctuated by incredible clips of Sidney Poitier, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.
Nolly – ITVX
Nolly brought back soap legend Noele Gordon for one final bow. One of the most popular TV stars of her day, thanks to her long-running role as Meg Mortimer in ITV soap Crossroads, Gordon was unceremoniously sacked in 1981. After 17 as the beating heart of ITV’s low-budget Midlands drama, her sacking broke her heart.
As Nolly creator Russell T Davies told us back in January, Nolly was written to answer one key question: “Why is a woman who was powerful and strong remembered as a diva?” And it answered it in the most enlightening, entertaining and comprehensive way imaginable.
Stunning central performances from Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon and Augustus Prew as her Crossroads co-star and confidante Tony Adams, beautifully pitched guest appearance by Mark Gatiss as Larry Grayson – another TV superstar facing up to changing times – meant Nolly was as outstanding as it was original.
Daisy Jones & The Six – Prime Video
Another adaptation of a popular novel, this time by Taylor Jenkins Reid, this glossy series takes us into the Los Angeles music scene of the 1970s. Imagine a fictionalised origin story of Fleetwood Mac and you won’t be far off.
We know the band Daisy Jones & The Six will become one of the biggest acts in the world. Why? Because the main narrative is interrupted by rockumentary-style interviews with band members – aged up (not entirely convincingly), 20 years after they split up. And these hint that success comes at a very high price.
The series stars Riley Keough as Daisy Jones – a single-minded singer-songwriter who floats through life with an air of destiny about her. Meanwhile, we watch as The Six – formed by Pittsburgh brothers Billy and Graham Dunne (Sam Claflin and Will Harrison) try to make it big in the city. The ten-part series doesn’t rush.
The inevitable coming together of Jones and The Six’s songwriter and leader Billy Dunne is nicely strung out. Each character has time to grow. And though the quality of the music makes the idea of the band becoming world beaters hard to believe at times, Claflin and Keough (whose real life grandfather Elvis Presley knew a thing or two about performing) sell the songs and the drama with passion and verve.
Blue Lights – BBC1
The best new police drama of the year. Written by Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, former documentary makers for Panorama, it has a gritty authenticity in its depiction of Belfast. Sian Brooke, Katherine Devlin and Nathan Braniff play Grace, Annie and Tommy, new recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Acting heavyweight John Lynch, who plays West Belfast underworld kingpin James McIntyre, only adds to Blue Lights‘ power.
By taking us through the complex landscape of the modern city via these new recruits, it allows the programme makers to introduce community tensions and the politics of policing them to viewers unaware of how the land lies, a quarter of a century after the Good Friday Agreement.
As Sian Brooke told us: “It’s made by people who are really proud of the city that they live in. And I think it’s about time that was portrayed. It’s sort of a homage to Belfast, and all the incredible people that make up that city.”
Succession – Sky / Now
They’re back. And we couldn’t be happier. The final series of creator Jesse Armstrong’s success story began with Logan Roy (Brian Cox) still in charge. But his feuding extended family is now so damaged that, somehow, Roman (Kieron Culkin) seems like the sensible Roy sibling. And, get this, hapless Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) feels like Logan’s heir apparent.
At the Succession London premiere, actor Brian Cox declared: “I’m not sad the show is over.” But fans will disagree. Because the writing is as sharp as ever. As we watch proximity to power corrode the souls of the Roy siblings and their cohorts, the genius lines of dialogue just keep on coming. And episode three? What a revelation. At exactly the moment it felt as though the show needed something big to happen, lest it stagnate or repeat itself, well, it certainly did.
The Piano – Channel 4
Who knew those pianos we see in railway stations could be the basis of a joyous, uplifting television talent show? Claudia Winkleman, fresh from the huge success of The Traitors, was back with another fresh format show.
With judges Lang Lang and Mika for company, Winkleman sought out talented musicians with strong backstories. They performed on the street pianos at St Pancras, Leeds, Birmingham and Glasgow stations. But, there was a twist. Each player was unaware that they were even in a competition. That some of them ended up at the Royal Festival Hall – where there was not a dry eye in the house after blind and neurodivergent teenager Lucy’s astonishing performance – was as uplifting as television gets. Encore!
Unforgotten – ITV
Chris Lang’s series managed the impossible – to lose a lead actor of Nicola Walker’s skill and barely miss a beat. A new partner-in-cold-case-crime-fighting for Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) meant one of ITV’s most reliably popular dramas was in the spotlight – and new gaffer DCI Jessica “Jessie” James (Sinéad Keenan) did not immediately bond with her team. But she had just been dumped by her husband, minutes before starting a new job.
The tension between Sunny and Jessie worked a treat, meaning that when they did finally come to an understanding – over coffee and shared woes – it felt fully earned and added immediate depth to the relationship at the heart of the show. The format – cold case, disparate seemingly unconnected protagonists all linked to a long, lost dead body – and the skilful weaving of storylines is as strong as ever. And this year’s fifth series added a welcome political edge. Bring on series six.
Mayflies – BBC1
Technically, this two-part drama aired in 2022. But as Mayflies aired between Christmas and New Year, so was too late for most Best TV of 2022 lists, we are including it. Because this adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s beautiful novel exploring male friendship, mortality and our obsession with music is worth celebrating.
Tony Curran and Martin Compston are incredibly good, and fully believable, as old pals Tully and Jimmy – one of whom has a terminal diagnosis and wants help to end his life. Future Shetland star Ashley Jensen produces an astonishing performance as Tully’s heartbroken partner Anna. And while Mayflies takes no side on debates around assisted dying, it illuminates an important conversation in a drama that will make you laugh, cry and sing.
Stonehouse – ITV
Shades of Matt Hancock as hapless politician John Stonehouse leaves his wife, heads to Australia, and bids to reinvent himself. There were also, of course, major differences. Stonehouse faked his own death rather than going on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. And Stonehouse was subsequently brought to justice.
Stonehouse saw Succession superstar Matthew Macfadyen play the disgraced former Labour MP. And he played him to perfection. Whether as a vain and pompous MP who briefly looks set for high office, a rubbish double agent for the Czech secret service, or as a flawed family man. Because no one does hapless and hangdog like Macfadyen, who also adds a dash of humanity to a seemingly lost cause in John Stonehouse.
Without Sin – ITVX
What a reunion. Vicky McClure and Johnny Harris reunited on screen a decade after This Is England ’86 in a complex redemption tale set in Nottingham.
McClure plays Stella Tomlinson, the grieving mother of a murdered teenager. She meets Charles Stone (Harris), the man convicted of killing her daughter, through the Restorative Justice scheme. What follows is a twisting, turning, revelatory thriller – with themes of grief and loss and guilt. It’s powerful stuff, aided by powerhouse performances from two of the best in the business.
Rain Dogs – BBC1 / iPlayer
Daisy May Cooper stars as a wannabe writer and single mum in a brilliant, original dark comedy. Writer Cash Carraway’s TV debut begins with Costello Jones (Cooper) being evicted from her flat at a moment’s notice.
What follows is a wild, comic, rollercoaster ride through the graft and the grift as Costello tries to break through the breadline – aided, abetted and lead astray by her wider chosen family. Jack Farthing channels Richard E Grant in Withnail and I as decadent dropout Selby. Ronkę Adékoluęjo puts the fun in funeral home as Gloria. And there’s a gleeful star-turn from Adrian Edmondson as sleazy artist Lenny. Recommended.
You & Me – ITVX
Like critically acclaimed new film Rye Lane, You & Me centres on love and romance in South East London. But this romantic drama was also heavy on the sorrow and melancholy, while casting a smart eye on modern love and life in the capital.
This coming-of-age tale is winningly complex. Young, up-and-coming journalist (Harry Lawtrey) has his heart shattered and rebuilt across two timelines with fine performances from Lawtrey, Jessica Barden and Sophia Brown.
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