In a year that was defined by as much drama off-screen with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes as there was on-screen, 2023 saw the era of Peak TV come to a bruised end, but not without getting a few last solid punches in.
Ted Lasso sputtered to a pretty standard end as heavyweights Succession and Reservation Dogs made their last bows with exits on HBO and FX respectively that will almost certainly stand the test of time as some of the best finales ever executed. Entering the arena, filmmaker Boots Riley made his small screen debut with the quick witted and startling creatively I’m A Virgo on Amazon Prime Video. From the other side of the Atlantic, Adjani Salmon flexed some serious star power and unconventional wisdom on Paramount+/Showtime with Dreaming Whilst Black.
As the Great Contraction brought cancellations galore, removal of titles, and subscription hikes, one thing 2023 made very clear was that streaming as a business model basically sucked, unless you’re Netflix. Yet, as creative dynamo, digital platforms were where almost all the real action was that wasn’t Taylor Swift, Logan Roy or Elora Danan generated – and not just because the long festering labor actions shut down most production for the year.
Natasha Lyonne and Rian Johnson hoisted the long-overlooked TV detective procedural to its James Garner, Angie Dickenson and Peter Falk heights from decades past with Peacock’s Poker Face. Putting all their cards on the table, Netflix’s Ali Wong and Steven Yeun starring Beef brought more joy than any road rage incident should be legally permitted.
Of course, the NFL remains the ratings big ticket for American broadcast networks, and almost everyone else who can get some gridiron action on their stations or service. Yet, as the Kansas City Chiefs loss to the Las Vegas Raiders this past week displayed, it is Monarch of all Media Taylor Swift in many lasting ways who provides the touchdowns and cultural touchstones for the game. In a very different and profound way than Swift boosting pro-football Stateside, the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup made history on and off the pitch this summer.
So, as we enter what surely looks to be a new age of austerity on many levels for the medium that once seemed to know no limits, here is my top 10 best TV picks for 2023. May the year rest in peace.
The third season of the Eric Kripke-run superhero satire from Prime Video kicked off its eight-episode run June 3 with an exploding penis and ended with America’s golden man Homelander killing a very vocal critic in broad daylight to the applause of the knuckle-dragging crowd. Along the way the most recent season of the series led by Anthony Starr, Erin Moriatry, Karl Urban and Karen Fukuhara put a piercing spotlight on our current state of the union that proved caped fiction often most skillfully revealed the decadent truths of America 2023.
Tied for the 10th spot, the Allan Hughes-directed docuseries Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur broke records for FX over its five-episode run starting April 21. In the year that finally saw a suspect arrested in Tupac’s 1996 shooting death in Las Vegas, the Nelson George-EP’d Dear Mama also judiciously weaved together the truly American tale of the hip hop icon and his Black Panther mother for a result both revolutionary and intimate.
9. Taylor Swift & the NFL
The Fearless singer literally took over all media on stage, on recordings and re-recordings and on screen in 2023. Yet, for many, Swift’s increasingly frequent appearances in stadiums across America watching new beau Travis Kelce in his day job as a tight end for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs was her true masterclass. Crowd-pleaser, topic of derision and praise, and a great marketing move for all concerned, Swift’s live and enthusiastic presence in those private boxes was a match made in marketing heaven that widened both her and the league’s already massive footprint.
After a long trek to its 2022 conclusion, TWD looked to be left to ripping the last flesh off the zombie apocalyptic horror bone to feed AMC’s franchise dreams with dwindling viewership and creative returns. Then Norman Reedus’ fan favorite Dixon ended up in France in his own spinoff and stoically found himself guardian to a child that maybe the key to saving the devastated world. Yes, with a near identical narrative, HBO’s January 15-debuting The Last of Us adaptation got way more attention and eyeballs. However, building off the heartfelt best of TWD, the September 10-premiering six-episode Daryl Dixon Season 1 proved that sometimes there is truly no school like the old school if you want the real thing.
7. FIFA Women’s World Cup
Spain’s August 20 victory over widely tipped favorites England in the very well watched Women’s World Cup final was almost immediately overshadowed by the patriarchal, demeaning and unwelcomed kiss on the lips Royal Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales gave Jenni Hermoso, as well as other boorish behavior with other players. The subsequent refusal of Spain’s all-time top scorer Hermoso and others on the first-time championship team to put up with such crap anymore saw some big changes in the way the game was managed and Rubiales’ eventual resignation.
Still, despite the often early-morning or late-night kickoffs U.S. time, the Australia and New Zealand co-hosted tournament that started July 20 was a domestic ratings hit for Fox in an America that has finally warmed up to the globe’s most popular sport. Even with two-time winner Team USA’s rather early departure after a loss to Sweden on August 6, the ninth Women’s World Cup was the sporting event of the year. The matches, the athletes, the skills and, yes, the eventual blast radius of Rubiales’ personal and institutional misconduct resulted in some truly powerful game-changers.
Artificial Intelligence was one of the obvious and major battlegrounds of the Hollywood guilds’ ultimately successful contract wars with the studios this year. Before the WGA hit the picket lines in May, Peacock’s Mrs. Davies, the limited series from Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof, gazed into the digital crystal ball and proved potentially prophetic in its view of the applications and reach the technology may have. Fueled by some of the most offbeat plot turns ever conceived, Mrs. Davis also showed how a motorbike-hauling nun played by Betty Gilpin will both save the world and lead it to anarchy, and what a wild ride than can be.
If the first season of The Gilded Age seemed like Julian Fellowes’ cynical move to gobble up some American cash with reheated Downton Abbey leftovers, the just completed second season of 1880s-set New York upper-crust drama revealed the HBO series to be the real feast. Far more nimble, acerbic and precise than its beloved British predecessor, the bonnet-topped Gilded Age starring Carrie Coon, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and Cynthia Nixon did take a bit of time to find its place. Now heading into a third season and leaving its initial hesitancies and pretensions behind, The Gilded Age certainly offers a compelling argument that it takes a member of the House of Lords to fully illustrate how modern America really was born and the sharp elbows and salon gatherings involved.
5. Poker Face
I wasn’t lying in my fulsome January 25 review of Natasha Lyonne and Rian Johnson’s Poker Face, and I’m telling the truth now: Poker Face is great.
The 10-episode road-tripping series, featuring the attempt by Lyonne’s Charlie Cale to escape some Vegas justice, has a great hook in the character’s internal BS detector. Pluck her down anywhere on America’s backroads and the Russian Doll star’s Charlie will find the guilty party with vinegar, bite and the actress’ trademark low roar. The breakout that Peacock almost doesn’t deserve, the Emmy-nominated Poker Face pivots between being a throwback to the 1970s Golden Age of the grizzled TV detective and trusting viewers to trust Lyonne, its Knives Out director and a Battle of the Network Stars worth of guests that they know how to make this thing groove. It’s the best way to tango.
Steven Yeun, Ali Wong. Shouldn’t that be enough? But we got even more. Two amazing performers portraying two truly terrible people from two ends of the economic spectrum who burn out of control faster than a California wildfire after an L.A. road rage flare-up that neither can quit. The expertise of craft and cunning that played out over the 10-episodes of the Lee Sung Jin-created limited series is not just bingeable, it’s brilliant.
3. Succession’s final season
In the end, Succession was a near total success. The much awarded and likely to be more awarded Jesse Armstrong satire was never more scathing than in its fourth season. Everyone was wounded as a media empire began to collapse, competing offspring unpeeled new layers of despicability and uselessness among the mega-rich, and an emperor with no compression socks was laid to rest.
“He looks like if Santa Claus was a hitman,” Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) festively said in the first half of Season 4 of his uncle Logan Roy (Brian Cox), in what passes the closest for a compliment in the perpetual scorched Earth of Waystar Royco. Of course, part of what made Succession such a sheer delight in the end is that it was a truly circular story of a particular gift giving. The gift was ruthless bile, rarely tarted up. Like the relentless Logan himself, the HBO show died as it lived: with all the guns pointed wonderfully inward.
2. Dreaming Whilst Black
The genius of a certain abhorrent karaoke scene with a certain Busta Rhymes tune alone should be enough to guarantee Dreaming Whilst a place on all Top 10 lists.
That is if this six-episode UK saga about a frustrated filmmaker seeking to get a foot in the door without the privileges of wealth and white skin didn’t have barbed-wire sharp scripts. That is if the web series from Doctor Who alum Salmon that became a BAFTA-winning pilot that became a BBC sitcom shown by Showtime and Paramount+ in America didn’t have such a shrewd eye and ear for the details of discrimination, aggressions — both micro and mega, passive and acute — and workplace politics. Then there is Dreaming Whilst Black’s strong but consistently varied tone, and lovely flights of fancy that moved so surefooted between the real and daydream worlds.
The karaoke scene alone would be enough for all the acclaim the series has received, if Dreaming Whilst Black wasn’t simply so very funny and pitch perfect.
1. Reservation Dogs S3/ I’m a Virgo S1 (tie)
Shock and awe. That’s what both Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s FX/Hulu series and Boots Riley’s Prime Video show inspire. If there are any rules besides the search for excellence still left in TV, Reservation Dogs and I’m a Virgo broke them into a million magnificent pieces of story, character, situation and overwhelming originality.
From the Indigenous communities of rural Oklahoma to a surreal Oakland populated by a 19-year old giant and a billionaire anti-hero superhero, Res Dogs featuring Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor and Paulina Alexisand the Jharrel Jerome-led Virgo drew from grand traditions too often outside the mainstream to be something entirely unto themselves. Whenever you are looking for something to watch, watch Reservation Dogs and I’m a Virgo – like the night sky, they are infinite.
Content Source: deadline.com