Saturday, December 30, 2023

Money Talks: 2023 in review

My write-up of 2023, following 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022.

I feel like the year in television somehow passed me by. And I know that’s demonstrably untrue: I keep a list of all the TV series I watch, and this year, I sat through nearly 100 of them. I sat through shows that were brisk but undistinguished (Night Agent), irritating (High Desert), exasperating (For All Mankind), preposterous (Hijack), tedious (Picard) and almost proudly derivative (Fall of the House of Usher). I waded through series that sent out mixed messages only I seemed annoyed by (The Diplomat, Time). I endured so many post-apocalyptic dramas that by this point I can barely distinguish between The Silo and The Last of Us, and I weathered so many British crime thrillers (Six Four, The Hunt for Raoul Moat, Wolf) that I’ve come to believe the UK is the most dangerous country in the world. I should have a lot to say, right?

But still: I feel like I spent more time focused on the writers’ strike than on the work of the writers themselves. Let’s review: the strike lasted from May 2 to September 27: just five days shy of becoming the longest work stoppage in WGA history. (And the concurrent actors’ strike continued for another five weeks.) And although streaming services had plenty of new product to unveil during that time — and although British TV was, of course, unaffected — the issues at stake felt far more involving and important than anything that was playing out on the small screen. And such an amazing cast of characters: the writers and actors who had each other’s backs, nourishing each other online while feeding each other on the picket lines; the myopic celebrities who decided to pretend the rules didn’t apply to them — and nearly cost themselves their careers; and the evil studio heads who engaged in petty acts (e.g., cutting down trees that provided shade for the picketers), preposterous bluffs (“this is our best and final offer”) and transparently inaccurate narratives planted in trade magazines owned by the same parent companies as the studios themselves. The double strike — the first since 1960 — turned out to be the year’s best drama, and not only did it have a happy ending, but there was a memorable sting in the tail, as the extras and under-fivers found themselves unconvinced — at the eleventh hour — that they hadn’t been thrown under the bus by their own union. It was months of edge-of-your-seat suspense; scripted television didn’t stand a chance.

As for myself, I got so involved in the fate of the writers whose work I’ve spent a decade celebrating (as this has always been a writer-driven site) that I couldn’t seem to focus on the TV shows I was enjoying. So assembling my “best of 2023” seems harder than in previous years, when I’d been reviewing favorite shows as they came and went. I haven’t written about a TV series since June. How do I make sense of it all now? So instead of doing a “best of” list, I’m going to revert to a old format and do an overview of the year in television — or more specifically, the shows I managed to watch: the disappointments I lamented, the triumphs I cheered and the trends I spotted. In great part, I want to talk about shows that went astray in 2023 — because man, there were a lot of them. So let’s start by dredging up that term we all hate:

Sophomore slumps. Yes, I know, it’s a dreadful, overused generalization, and should be avoided at all costs. But still: what the hell happened to so many shows in their second seasons? I hailed Minx as the best new comedy of 2022. Despite its move from HBO Max to Starz (made after the second season had nearly completed filming), I had no reason to think the show wouldn’t continue its winning ways. But the only Season 2 episode that felt recognizably daring, focused and funny was the second, the sole episode credited to creator/showrunner Ellen Rapoport. Elsewhere, her largely new writing team floundered. There was little in the way of forward motion or character development; at times, even character consistency seemed elusive. (New cast member Elizabeth Perkins, there to keep the core characters off-balance, had the unfortunate effect of diluting the relationship we cared most about, the one between Ophelia Lovibond and Jake Johnson’s characters. These two were so busy being beholden to Perkins — a lumbering plot device masquerading as a neophyte publisher — that they barely had a chance to interact. And it was those interactions that gave Season 1 much of its drive.) And if the new writers couldn’t manage to shape their episodes properly, there’s no way they knew how to button them. Those wonderful last-minute epiphanies that Rapoport was so adept at, that jolted you like a double shot of espresso? Gone. (Remember Joyce in Season 1 coming up with the perfect slogan to sell dildos — “Watch out world, here she comes!” — after sampling the merchandise?) Minx turned into the strangest of self-fulfilling prophecies: a season about a creative team that, having achieved success, couldn’t regain their passion or focus, or chart a path forward — and that’s precisely what transpired behind the scenes, too.

Other shows I’ve praised that lost ground in their sophomore seasons? Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens was a victim of that new-ish trend where a miniseries gains such traction that some greedy network head insists, “Let’s do another season” — even through the story was never designed to continue. The series remained highly watchable because of David Tennant and Michael Sheen’s verve and rapport — but it became a string of running gags and clever lines (the hand of new co-writer John Finnemore was everywhere evident) without a solid narrative to link them. The fourth episode — a zombie flashback set during World War II — seemed particularly pointless, but then, I’m not sure what purpose any of the flashbacks served, except to highlight the acting range of the two leads. And as a showcase for Tennant and Sheen, the show was beyond reproach, but you know — a good plot would’ve been nice too.

The second season of Dark Winds, meanwhile, suffered from too much plot. I had loved (and hailed) its debut season as much for what it wasn’t as for what it was; although technically a procedural, it was equally concerned with exploring the Navajo Nation’s sense of community: the shared history and traditions, the alliances and discords forged over time. It was a taut drama that was unafraid of quiet, almost ruminative detours. Under new showrunner John Wirth, Season 2 upped the energy, the pacing and the machismo. (It began with its two leads trapped in a trailer being sprayed by an assault weapon, then flashed back six days to show “how they got there.” It might as well have been an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles — they loved those in media res openings.) The results felt like much more like a traditional procedural with Native American trappings. (Plus you lose a certain amount of good will when you waste Jeri Ryan, who received the lion’s share of the pre-season publicity, then proved criminally underused.) Among other sophomore series, Reacher became a tamer show by transforming its hero from a loner to a team leader, while Afterparty betrayed the limitations of its premise, as its story-telling conceit — expanded from eight episodes in Season 1 to ten in Season 2 — became as much wearying as ingratiating.

Not that shows floundered only in their sophomore outings. I had fallen hard for the first two seasons of The Other Two, but Season 3 managed the unusual feat of becoming at once too silly and too serious. The once-biting satire rarely landed, growing far too preposterous (one episode postured that folks who aren’t in show business are literally invisible to those who are — that’s not parody, that’s fantasy), and characters I’d formerly praised as “fresh, frenzied and gleefully chaotic” became contemptible: dismissive of — or willfully cruel to — the people who loved them the most. (I haven’t seen an ingratiating series take such a dark, off-putting turn since the final season of Rude Awakening back in 2000.) Ted Lasso, meanwhile, had lost its way after its freshman season, but it went even further afield in Season 3, as it fully morphed from quirky comedy to feel-good infomercial. In Season 1, AFC Richmond’s struggle for promotion provided the framework for — and counterpoint to — a set of colorful characters with life lessons to learn. It was that framework that gave the show its pulse: a sense of urgency that let the more personal story-lines find their own, gentler rhythms. Take the emphasis off the team and place it on the characters, unfocused — and you’re left with nothing but uplift. You’re left with a show that takes its mission so seriously, it thinks it needs an hour to tell stories that could be wrapped up in half that time. Saints preserve us from comedy writers who decide that every scene is a teachable moment. (Points deducted for yet another misuse of Juno Temple, who — after two seasons where her character was largely defined by her relationships with two men — got to be largely defined by her relationship with a woman. Giving her her own agency was nice, but giving her agency would’ve been better.)

But the season wasn’t all second- and third-year slumps. Let’s also discuss:

Creative comebacks. There were awfully nice surprises in 2023: resurgent shows that I had lost faith in, or given up on. Guilt welcomed Jamie Sives back into the fold and instantly returned to form. As good as Mark Bonnar is — and he’s one of my favorite current actors — watching his character in Guilt take on the world only gets you so far; watching him join forces with — and potentially fleece — his own brother gets you the rest of the way. Breeders took its second time leap in four years and got speedily, deliriously back on track. No longer placing Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard at the mercy of their adolescent children, headwriter Simon Blackwell allowed them to regain their rightful places at the head of the family table. And from there, they were free again to ponder and plot and panic about every crisis, imagined or otherwise.

Guilt and Breeders snapped back into place after disappointing seasons; Shetland, on the other hand, practically clawed its way back from the dead. This is a show that had peaked in Series 3, way back in 2016. But as the years went by, headwriter David Krane’s mysteries grew increasingly convoluted; the only way he knew to fashion a whodunnit was to flood the screen with suspects, so that each episode could end with the police arresting a new one (then releasing them in the first few moments of the following episode). The most recent series — 6 and 7 — were so overpopulated as to be unwatchable. So imagine my surprise when a new writing team (led by Paul Logue) and the substitution of Ashley Jensen for star Doug Henshall rejuvenated the show. Logue managed to forge a solid mystery with both the homegrown sense of dread the series thrives on and a guest cast you could actually keep track of. (As the miscreant matriarch of a dysfunctional family, Phyllis Logan was a raucous delight — just as she was as the head of a crime syndicate in Guilt. You could sense her relief that the industry hasn’t typecast her as Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey.) And freed from having to play second banana to Henshall, Alison O’Donnell was able to temper her character’s idiosyncrasies, and her parity and camaraderie (and occasional clashes) with Jensen proved invigorating and addictive. Shetland became a quietly defiant feminist statement — a Cagney & Lacey for the new millennium.

But no show rose from the ashes quite like Doctor Who. Returning showrunner Russell T. Davies restored both the gravitas and the joy that had been missing since Steven Moffat’s departure in 2017. Chris Chibnall’s recent stint as showrunner had been nothing short of disastrous, and I found myself wondering if I’d ever be interested in investing in the series again. But bringing back perhaps the show’s most popular pairing, David Tennant and Catherine Tate, for a trio of episodes was a stroke of genius that reenergized the proceedings. (It was doubly nice that her character got to regain the memories she lost in 2008, while his was allowed to set aside the tortured persona he’d assumed when his home planet was destroyed. They were niggling plot points begging to be readdressed.) By the time Christmas Day rolled around, I found myself eagerly awaiting the debut adventure of the Fifteenth Doctor. For what it’s worth, I thought the episode itself, “The Church on Ruby Road,” was charming at its best, and lopsided and lacking at its worst — but new lead Ncuti Gatwa is already a wonder, so I’m once again optimistic and engaged. (Davies — of whom I am no particular fan, having proven equally immune to A Very English Scandal, Years and Years and It’s a Sin — had a notably good year, also producing a winner in Nolly, his imagined recounting of the firing of Noelle Gordon from ITV’s Crossroads in 1981. Buoyed by an arresting star turn by Helena Bonham Carter, Nolly didn’t require a working knowledge of British soap opera to inform your viewing pleasure; that said, if you’ve ever been privy to the inner workings of the industry — witnessed the cavalier way that those deemed “talent“ are treated, or seen just how suddenly success can fade — the series was particularly poignant.)

The Year's Best

So let's dive into my favorites of 2023, with some fairly random categories.

Best Actor: James Norton, Happy Valley. I was never as much of a fan of Happy Valley as the rest of the known universe. Decades ago, writer/creator Sally Wainwright asserted in an interview that she found women "braver and more complex than men" and admitted, "I am just not as excited by men" — and that’s been borne out by everything of hers I’ve seen. The men seem forever condescended to or short-changed. It was certainly true of the second season of Happy Valley, which seemed to have little regard for its male characters, but then, it’s been true of the series from the get-go, and the brutal, sometimes bloody battle between its two leading characters, Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine Cowood and the man who assaulted her daughter, Tommy Lee Royce. In comments about the finale of Season 3 — the series’ conclusion — Wainwright reiterated her disdain for Royce, stressing that he was — to her mind — an irredeemable character. Although Catherine cautioned that “all love means to [Tommy Lee Royce] is a weakness in other people that he can use to exploit them” — an assertion clearly shared by the show’s creator — that’s not the character that James Norton chose to portray. Norton insisted in interviews that he felt Royce underwent a critical journey over the course of three seasons, finding if not redemption, then at least a humanity he long feared he’d lacked. And as hard as Wainwright struggled to keep our feelings for Royce crystal clear — to keep us unforgiving of the hurt and harm he’d caused — Norton’s acting was mightier than her pen. You couldn’t help but get swept up in Royce’s desire to get closer to his son, and you were touched by his realization that his son had grown into the young man he hoped he’d be, and that his mission as a father was done. The final confrontation between Catherine and Tommy — rightfully acclaimed — was all the more gripping not because of the way Wainwright wrote it, which was a showdown between good and evil, but because of the way Norton interpreted it: as a stalemate between two shrewd, proud and self-destructive people, each incapable of seeing themselves through the other’s eyes. For me, the final series of Happy Valley gained its complexities from Norton’s refusal to play what was on the page. I won’t claim that I “rooted” for Tommy Lee Royce, but I understood his journey, whereas I frequently found Catherine’s actions objectionable and cruel — particularly when she was belittling her sister’s “idiotic and dependent personality” for episodes on end. But then, I never found Sarah Lancashire’s character as admirable or complex as her creator seemed certain she was. Who knows? Perhaps I’m just not as excited by Wainwright’s women.

Best Actress: Daisy Haggard, Boat Story. Jack Williams and Harry Williams’ previous TV effort, The Tourist, was a high-wire act grounded by a shrewd premise. It was a series about the lies we tell ourselves to get through the day, so we can live with the terrible decisions we’ve made — and it was about the lies we tell ourselves as viewers: the way we respond the mechanics of a plot and the wattage of a star like Jamie Dornan. That duality gave the series its kick and its complexity. The Williamses’ Boat Story, an energetic and amusing romp about stolen drugs and their impact on a quintet of characters, had nothing to give it particular depth — except Daisy Haggard’s portrayal of Janet Campbell. The fingers of her left hand crushed in an industrial accident (for which her manager had cheated her out of compensation), her relationship with the boy she helped raise severed when his good-for-nothing father discovered a yen for younger women and religion, Janet was scared and tough and funny — a fighter and a loser. Her life took a potential turn for the better when she was walking the beach and discovered a washed-up boat full of cocaine. It was, on the surface, a rare bit of good luck. But is “luck” part of Janet’s makeup, or is she just setting herself up for more trouble? Janet’s got her head on straight, and she’s properly terrified when it’s reasonable to be, but still: there’s some combination of bravery and foolhardiness in her that can’t be stilled. She charms her would-be son with a Baltic accent she trots out from time to time, and when she adopts it to sell the drugs to a group of low-rent mobsters, you’re amused and delighted by the ruse — and by the gumption it took to carry it off. And crucially, you never roll your eyes at the unlikelihood of it all. Haggard makes you believe Janet would take that kind of risk. She doesn’t think about how preposterous it is; she’s simply aware of how little she’s got left to lose, and she’ll go to extreme measures to hold onto it. Life has forced her to be fearless. Haggard’s acting choices are so sharp and surprising — at times deeply funny and at other times painfully poignant — that she gives the series a gravitas that’s not on the page. It’s hard to say what the theme of Boat Story is; the BBC postured that it’s a variation on “how far will you go to get what you want?” But I’m not so sure. With Haggard steering our responses, the theme becomes something much more upbeat. It makes you believe that even in a random universe — where bad things happen, suddenly and inexplicably — there are forces at play that seek to set things right: to give decent, devoted people the happy ending they‘ve given up expecting. If the Williamses intended Boat Story as a funny-scary cautionary tale, Haggard turned this late-season entry into something else entirely: the most hopeful of holiday messages.

Best Sci-Fi Series: 2023 was littered with time-travel series. Apple had one (Shining Girls); Netflix had one (Bodies). I love me some time travel, but The Lazarus Project, from writer Joe Barton, was the only one I managed to get through. The Lazarus Project didn’t depend on being convoluted to be absorbing; it stemmed from the simplest of premises. What if a group of people (“a top-secret, multinational organization,” as they called themselves) were forced to save the Earth — by rebooting time back to the previous July 1 — whenever nuclear forces doomed it? It boasted a smashing cast — Paapa Essiedu, Anjli Mohindra, Rudi Dharmalingam and Vinette Robinson, for starters — and used them well, never allowing the expansiveness of the concept to dwarf the personal stories — because it was those stories that propelled the narrative. The focus was never on how the world might end, but rather on how these self-appointed saviors reacted to — and came to resist — the inevitable and frequent rebooting of time, and all the days and lives and relationships lost in the process.

But as good as the first season of The Lazarus Project was, it remained a runner-up to the second season of Strange New Worlds, which continued its run as the most effervescent and beguiling of all the Star Trek series. Once again, Strange New Worlds broke all the ongoing franchise rules, first and foremost by seemingly eschewing a season-long arc. It was even more deceptively standalone than Season 1 had been, almost defying the viewer to spot the continuing threads. The season began by splitting the crew across two episodes: embroiling half in a Klingon espionage mission, setting the others down in a heated courtroom drama. By episode 3, you presumed the crew members would reunite, but instead, the focus went to the one stranded (with a recurring guest star) in an alternate universe set hundreds of years in Earth’s past. After that, half the crew had their minds wiped, then came a “my DNA has been altered, no one must find out” dinner party caper. Season 2 proudly trotted out plots we’ve seen dozens of times in Star Trek history, but laying them end to end — and reimagining them for this supremely likable and distinctive ensemble — gave them specificity and force and freshness. In my review of Season 1, I declared Strange New Worlds the first character- rather than plot-driven series in the Star Trek universe, and that distinction was never more clear than in the season’s penultimate episode, the franchise’s first musical effort, “Subspace Rhapsody.” With regard to “Rhapsody,” the songs were rarely more than serviceable, the direction and choreography were lacking — but the impulse was sound. The writers defaulted to that maxim from the Golden Age of Broadway: in musicals, people sing to express emotions so strong that they can't be conveyed in spoken word alone. It hasn’t been true for about half a century, but nonetheless, it’s an easy concept for audiences to grasp, and most viewers probably heard it at some point from a parent or grandparent. Accordingly, Strange New Worlds let all of its personal subplots take center stage when a tear in the space-time continuum prompted everyone on the ship to convey their innermost thoughts in song. Hidden yearnings were expressed, secret romances exposed, future plans secured and one human-Vulcan heart got broken. And you came away realizing that the season had, in fact, had an overriding arc, merely one that played out in character beats rather than plot points. (And then just as Season 1 had done so well, the most daring episode was followed by the deadliest.) I truly had no major complaints where Season 2 was concerned; my two-year-old cavapoo missed his interstellar doppelgänger (last seen in Season 1’s “Elysian Kingdom”), but that’s pretty much it.

Best Procedural: In Black Snow, a gripping and moody Australian import, writer/creator Lucas Taylor flipped the script on the standard cold case. Instead of relegating the victim’s life to the memories of friends and family — instead of establishing a fixed present tense and unveiling the murder in flashback — Taylor alternated between two timelines: the events of 25 years ago that led up to the victim’s death, and the efforts of the detective charged with re-opening the case. And in doing so, he not only transformed the cold-case structure, but prompted us to reassess the very validity of its premise. But then Chris Lang has been upending the cold case format for years with Unforgotten. Season 5 was a bravura and daring piece of work. Charged with the unenviable task of replacing lead Nicola Walker, Lang set himself an impressive challenge. Instead of determining the ways in which new DCI Jess James (Sinéad Keenan) could ingratiate herself with the viewer, he made her as abrasive a character as any I’ve seen leap into the leading role of a long-running series. Not a spoiler, but when we meet Jess — a mere 45 minutes before she’s due to start her new job — she’s just discovered that her husband has been cheating on her. And naturally, it darkens her demeanor, making her suspicious of everyone — even the team she’s been hired to head up. And although we know the cause of her angst, we spend three episodes quite loathing her, as characters we’ve grown to love (above all, an ever-impressive Sanjeev Bhaskat, as DI Sunil “Sunny” Khan) struggle with an oppressive, obstructive boss. But the rising tensions just make the showdown between Sunny and Jess — which comes in the fourth episode — all the more powerful, and her ensuing catharsis and confessional — during which he realizes his preconceptions about her were wrong, and that his mistrust has been misplaced — cement the bond between them. Keenan is as diverting as Lang is diabolical; by series’ end, I didn’t miss Nicola Walker at all.

And besides, what’s to miss when Walker was still starring in the year’s best procedural: the second series of Annika. It’s Walker chatting with and confiding in the viewer for six weeks — who could ask for more? Now that the novelty of the show has become familiar — that Walker’s character, DI Annika Strandhed, speaks directly to us at times, as if we were a guest in her living room, or accompanying her on one of her cases — we’re free to appreciate the series’ other felicities: the ease with which it balances its cases of the week and its continuing story-lines; Walker’s gift for tempering the neurotic, frazzled and obsessive aspects of her character with charm and determination; the impressive consistency of tone, which never allows the humor (frequent, and always character driven) to undermine the urgency of the investigations; and the way creator/headwriter Nick Walker (no relation) resists letting Annika turn into a star vehicle, keeping the ensemble well defined and tight knit. Annika faced a slew of challenges in its sophomore season: Katie Leung showed up pregnant, which Walker chose to write into the series, but it limited her time in the field; Ukweli Roach left to do BBC’s Wolf, and had to be written off midway through. But the show had good ideas to spare, including the re-introduction of Annika’s ex-boyfriend (Paul McGann, with his ruffled appearance and unruffled demeanor) — and the arrival of her father near the end of the season was a story-telling marvel: a plot point disguised as a character beat. For a series that seems limited by its premise — the workings of the Marine Homicide Unit in Glasgow — the cases nonetheless feel varied and satisfying. You could never argue that the mysteries were complex — but that’s not why you’re there. You’re there for the interplay. And you’re there for one of our most versatile actors to offer you the chance at an intimate exchange — as she shares her passion for literature and occasionally makes you feel that, in this complicated world, you are in fact her only true confidant. Walker manages to convey as much with a look as with a line. There may have been nothing funnier in all of Series 2 than all the times she turned to us, about to say something, but was called away. So she grimaced and made a muffled noise that told us everything we needed to know, then hurried off. Those moments felt hilarious, novel and dear. Is there a more inviting series on television?

Best Comedy Series: Ghosts remained as spirited as ever (and CBS’s decision to air the BBC original during the fall months, when the aftereffects of the strike were still preempting programming, only increased my admiration for Joe Port and Joe Wiseman’s adaptation, because I had no idea what a tonal overhaul they’d managed). Our Flag Means Death had a few scrappy episodes up front (it’s always tricky for a show to rebuild when the writers have spent the end of the previous season blowing up the world you’d come to love), but then it found its footing, triumphantly — and the reinvention of Con O’Neill’s Izzy was a particular triumph. (In Season 1, I hated every moment he was on the screen; in Season 2, I grew rather fond of him.) In a similar fashion, Somebody Somewhere benefitted mightily from the promotion of Mary Catherine Garrison — as the lead character’s sister — from antagonist to confidante; it’s a show that soars not just on the progressiveness of its storylines, but on the chemistry between its characters, and Garrison and lead Bridget Everett — real-life friends for decades — have it in spades. The Big Door Prize was a lovely addition to 2023, the rare sitcom that dared to be funny without feeling a need to be enlightened or inspiring, while The Righteous Gemstones — as hit or miss as its previous season — regained its comic mojo with a moment that was both enlightened and inspiring (yet firmly rooted in character), as youngest brother Kelvin finally came out, and — rather than reacting in quasi-religious horror — his televangelist siblings cheered it as a sign of strength, because they’d come to realize that family loyalty and personal integrity were the secret to their success. American Auto provided a good example of a sturdy workplace sitcom powered by a satirical hook — so of course it was cancelled — while Party Down was resuscitated after a 13-year absence and emerged — if not better than ever — less problematic than ever. Lizzie Caplan’s inability to return freed us from the horrible abuse her character had forever subjected Adam Scott’s to, which the writers mystifyingly mistook for a “will they/won’t they?” romance. Instead, we were treated to a buoyant season where the premise — a group of wannabe writers and actors making due as caterers, tending to a new party each week — remained blissfully intact, where Megan Mullally was finally handed a consistent characterization, and where Jane Lynch was given a sound reason to return — plus we got a game Jennifer Garner to boot.

Yet with all of these comic highlights in 2023, nothing tickled me quite like the first two seasons of the Australian import Fisk (newly available on Netflix and ITV), with writer/actor Kitty Flanagan as a corporate lawyer forced to take a lowly job at a suburban wills and probate firm after her career and marriage in Sydney fall apart. (The brother and sister who run Gruber & Associates hire her because a “mature lady” is seen as a comfort to clients who are grieving.) Flanagan’s Helen Fisk, a study in brown (the only color she’s comfortable in — and a pant suit, no less: one about two sizes too large for her frame), is the furthest thing from a people person. But although the firm informs her that her function is to secure clients and collect fees, Helen throws herself into her job, feeling a responsibility — as she puts it — “to give people actual advice and try to help them.” By sheer force of will, she comes up with smart solutions to thorny legal issues; it’s the social interactions that continue to daunt and derail her. When informed at a morning meeting that the firm is going to be joined on a case by “Fun Peggy,” a former clerk whom her office mates describe as “the funniest woman ever” (“Remember the time Peggy came in wearing the eyepatch,” one of them enthuses), Helen’s at a loss for words — and when Fun Peggy arrives and asks her, “Are you ready to board the fun train?”, Helen’s response drips with the deadpan wit that no one appreciates, and the practicality that she wields like a shield: “Bit busy this morning, but if there’s a fun bus later…” But even as she grow increasingly comfortable with her role in the firm and the eccentrics she’s forced to coddle and commandeer, Helen never loses her sense of self. As such, Fisk becomes a series about the right to live an unconventional life unapologetically. It’s about making the best of a bad situation, and it’s about survival. It suggests that there are solutions to both the thorniest and most mundane of problems, and it’s about a universe with both a wicked and a benign sense of humor. Fisk manages to be dry, sunny and breezy — like a perfect day in Melbourne — and it manages it without ever wallowing in the sort of uplift that’s proven the downfall of more celebrated sitcoms.

Best Drama Series: Lupin’s latest season was perhaps its strongest, as it finally found a use for the title character’s wife and son — and the former, in her deductive reasoning and striking ability to bluff on cue, became nearly as formidable a figure as her husband. Blue Lights, a police drama from two Belfast ex-journalists, Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn, proved a master class in character-driven plotting. In its depiction of cops as heroes, it felt conventional — even a bit ordinary — but in its further delineation of cops as doomed heroes, it felt subversive and potent and at times genuinely painful. (Hallelujah, it proved so popular, it was quickly renewed for a second series.) And writer Neil Forsyth had a banner year, with both a resurgent Guilt and the six-part series The Gold, his take on the famed Brink’s-Mat robbery of 1983, and the ensuing disposal of £26m of gold bullion that led to the birth of international money laundering. I had thought The Gold was intended as a limited series, and was surprised by its renewal this past fall; I trust Forsyth to have a game plan, but let’s hope it’s not another case of a meaty miniseries turned into an undernourished continuing drama merely because a network is too greedy to let it stop.

But nothing in 2023 had me anxiously awaiting each episode like So Help Me Todd. Part legal drama, part screwball comedy, part family therapy, it’s the kind of show you pray for: the kind where you truly don’t know what’s coming next. Through its first season, it fashioned and furthered so many story-lines — both on the work and family fronts — that you couldn’t imagine how it would keep up the pace, but somehow it managed it effortlessly. (It even found time for a case of the week.) It multitasked with impressive brio and assurance. Marcia Gay Harden is Margaret Wright, a lawyer, a perfectionist and an unforgiving parent; Skylar Astin is Todd, her youngest: a professional screwup who has not only lost his PI license, but almost gone to jail because of his boss’s dirty dealings — until his mother interceded on his behalf. There are a whole lot of issues between them, but when she hires him on as a private investigator at her law firm, they get a chance to work through them weekly. The mother/son bond at the heart of So Help Me Todd feels honest; it speaks both to the relationship we have with our parents and to the one we wish we had. It acknowledges how much we love them and how deeply connected to them we feel — and how much that very connection drives us crazy. How much we hate our need for their approval, and our suspicion and fear that they see us better than anyone else. And So Help Me Todd understands, too, how much our children — whom we may love dearly — disappoint us (especially when we hold them up to impossible standards). It recognizes how hard it is not to judge them — and to judge ourselves by extension. And how much we hate ourselves for being so unforgiving. This is tricky territory, and creator Scott Prendergast and his writing team navigate it beautifully. Harden is doing some of the most formidable, facile work of her career, while Astin makes Todd seem utterly charming and persuasive even when — or perhaps especially when — he’s at his least focused. It’s been nearly a decade since I last anticipated new episodes of a network TV series with this much giddiness and good will; it’s a nice feeling that I hope will continue for years to come. Todd willing.

Best Miniseries: You & Me, a three-part limited series from Jamie Davis (making his screenwriting debut), was one of the year’s biggest surprises. A romantic comedy-drama about two Twentysomethings who learn to love again after tragedy, its flaws and failings were all too apparent, but still, something about it rang disturbingly true. If you’re on social media these days, you’re likely to be haunted by the occasional post from a Twentysomething afflicted with Long Covid: a person with such promise who found themselves incapacitated. In You & Me, Harry Lawtey is an up-and-coming journalist and Jessica Barden a budding actress. Their lives have been torn apart by tragedy — not the kind of adolescent angst that’s come to pass for tragedy on TV in the last 20 years, but genuine loss and grief. The miniseries refused to stoop to the clichéd question “are their hearts capable of healing,” and wondered instead if anyone could truly understand the pain and loneliness and abandonment that they were feeling. It felt terribly apt for this particular period in history, when young people are seeing their futures fade away, and no one is listening. The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart was a masterful adaptation of the novel by Australian author Holly Ringland, adapted for the screen by showrunner Sarah Lambert. In what well might be a career-best performance, Sigourney Weaver — as June Hart, who has cultivated a secluded wildflower farm by the sea, where she shelters battered women — conveyed fully the terror in being brave, and the risks of being true to oneself. As her granddaughter Alice, who comes to live with her when her parents perish in a fire, young Alyla Browne absorbed with equal fascination the more wondrous and more onerous aspects of the farm, as if fate had set her down in her private Wonderland. The casting of teenaged Alice, when the narrative engaged in a midseries time jump, proved more problematic. Alycia Jasmin Debnam-Carey lacked the skill to pull off a tricky conceit – that Alice, raised by an abusive father, was unable to spot those same qualities in her first boyfriend. Her blind acceptance of his emotional manipulations grew wearying. It gave a few episodes an awkward undercurrent — as you were left hoping her boyfriend would do something so horrible, she’d get wise and get gone — but in the end, it did little damage. The series was as artful as it was invigorating.

But no limited series of 2023 was infused with the creative genius and originality of BBC’s The Gallows Pole. (Its opening credits — a kaleidoscope of blood: the industrial revolution reimagined as apocalypse — set the scene for everything to come.) Ben Myers’ 2017 novel of the same name won the Walter Scott Prize, the world’s largest award for historical fiction, for its true-life tale of “King” David Hartley, whose 18th-century gang of coin clippers came to dominate West Yorkshire. What writer-director Shane Meadows imagined here was a prequel to Myers’ story, in which Hartley returns home — after a seven-year absence, just in time for his father’s funeral — to find a once-thriving textile center reduced to rubble. He shows family and friends what he stole off a man he murdered in Brum: a guinea stamp. Clip a bit of gold from 10 coins, he suggests, melt the trimmings and create an 11th — and they just might restore the valley to its former glory. But can he convince the more conservative and respectable townsfolk necessary to bring his plan to fruition? Meadows takes the stable of players that he favors (led by Michael Socha, at once tormented and exalted) — plus quite a few first-time actors — and sets them loose on a bit of British history. If you’re familiar with Meadows’ work, you’re likely to wonder how his semi-improvised style is going to adapt to a period piece, and the answer is “thrillingly.” Near the end of the first episode, Michael and the woman he abandoned, Grace (Sophie McShera: Daisy from Downton Abbey, and a revelation), find themselves alone in an alleyway outside the hall where his father’s wake is being held. She presumes he’s there to see her and to talk about the two of them, but he’s just out for some air. Her defenses rise, and she makes petulant demands: that he not walk past her to sit where he wants — and when he does, that he breathe more quietly, so she can ignore his presence. Abruptly she switches gears, from not wanting to speak to berating him for running off. And soon enough she's questioning him — or is it more like an interrogation? (When she inquires if he's married, and he responds no, she's suspicious: “Why did you pause before you answered?”) And isn’t there anything about her he’d like to know, she demands — and it’s clear she’s counting on him to be curious. Seated as they are, twenty feet apart, they’re left to shout confessions that would normally be conducted in private. (Him: “Have you been with loads of lads?” Her: “How many’s loads?”) She’s wounded and suspicious, he’s tired and defenseless — but they fall all too easily into old rhythms, and the familiarity is comforting. Eventually she insists, “We’re not friends again just because we had a little chat,” but you intuit that she’s both right and wrong. They’re not friends again; they’re already much more than that. As you watch this ten-minute scene unfold, it’s impossible to tell — as with the rest of the series — how much is scripted, and how much is an improvisation between actors who have thoroughly absorbed their characters. You only know that you're witness to some of the finest work — scripting, acting, staging — that the small screen has to offer. More than anything I saw this year, The Gallows Pole was a vivid reminder of the way that creative artists plunder their souls to nourish our own. In terms of future negotiations with actors, writers and the like, my advice to the studios is: give ’em whatever they want — even if you have to clip coins to make it happen.

Want more? Check out an essay called "Negotations", in praise of three series that brightened my 2022: Minx, The Ipcress File and Inside Man; an essay called "Men in the Middle," highlighting four recent series that owe much of their success to the onscreen personas of their leading men: The Tourist, This Is Going to Hurt, The Responder and Around the World in 80 Days; an essay entitled "Rough Edges," in praise of two addictive comedies that I discovered in 2021, Back to Life and The Other Two; another entitled "Private Faces," highlighting two spectacular series that emerged in the fall of 2020, Roadkill and Life; and a fifth called "Unwilling Victims," taking a look at three recent series by and about women: The Trial of Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood. I offer up The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching, Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss, and my most personal essay, inspired by the death of my puppy Czerny in June of 2021, The 10 Most Comforting TV Episodes About Death.

If you like in-depth looks at hit shows, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, Newhart Season 7, One Day at a Time Season 7, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Designing Women, WKRP in Cincinnati, Everybody Loves Raymond and Kate & Allie; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you prefer dramas, check out my write-ups of of Criminal Minds Season 8, Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Doctor Who Series 8, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries: not (necessarily) the best episodes, but the best whodunnits.


  1. Yeah, having Tennant back as the Doctor was the breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed. As you say, it fixed Donna’s miserable departure back in 2008 (was it really that long ago?), and gave the tenth Doctor a less fearful retirement, although I’ve lost count of how many times he’s regenerated now. There was his hand, that fake regeneration, his actual regeneration…. I haven’t even begun to think about what this all means for when he ‘dies’ again.

    One thing I think the specials did achieve was (a) they made me love the show again, and (b) the return of Tennant and Tate felt right. It didn’t feel like a shameless cash-in (although it most likely was), both actors slipped back into their roles perfectly, and although undeniably nostalgic, it didn’t feel only that. It felt relevant, revitalised, and although stories have never been one of RTD’s strong suits, this batch was head and shoulders above the utter shite we had to endure under Chibnall. When the characterisation is good, and the scripts funny and bubbling with purpose, a weak story doesn’t feel quite as calamitous.

    And I’m really excited for the Ncuti Gatwa era. The man is bubbling with energy, I like the new companion, and the show feels well and truly back on track. I’m also kind of curious about the proposed spin-offs. I don’t think the show will ever reach the heights it did back when the BBC was flooded with DW related shows, but it would be nice to have a spin-off or two on the boil, and a return to regular main show scheduling.

    1. Amen to all that, my friend. So nice to be optimistic and excited about the show again.

  2. It’s not letting me sign in under my account so I’ll comment this way.

    First of all, where in God’s name is season 5 of WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS?!?! ;-)

    1. Blogger is driving me crazy. It won’t let *me* sign in half the time.

      I will confess, I was waiting for you to write, “where the hell is What We Do in the Shadows,” because I knew how fond you were of this latest season — and of course, for the last few years, it’s been among my top 10 shows. And I was fond of Season 5 too. I liked how they restored it to its roots: getting back to that fish-out-of-water concept of vampires on Staten Island. Here’s the thing, though: I just didn’t find it as funny as previous seasons. And maybe the last few seasons had set my expectations too high, in terms of the volume of belly laughs I had come to expect – and indeed, maybe sitcoms shouldn’t be judged by “how much they make you laugh” in the first place. But this seems to be a show that’s *designed* to make you laugh – where one of the writers’ goals is “being laugh-out-loud funny.“ And I was entertained through a lot of the season, and had a smile on my face for much of it, but rarely laughed. I can’t remember one scene that had me in stitches, the way so much of the previous season did. So, although I appreciated and enjoyed the series, it didn’t engage me the way previous few had, and as I was devoting a sentence or two to the various comedies I enjoyed in 2023, this one just got left off the list.

    2. I didn't realize you had commented back to this!

      While I sort of agree that it might not have made me laugh as hard as other seasons, I took to the season far more than any of the others. I found that it had a certain whimsical charm and adored how they truly established that these are vampires living on Staten Island...which is something I truly felt other seasons often ignored and knowing NY so well, the idea of this all happening on that island just makes it all the more hilarious.

      I think if I wasn't laughing hard, I was marveling at a lot of what they were doing. It was always a series where I would enjoy an episode or two and then it would immediately be followed by a borderline dud; I don't think I found any of the episodes to be that way in season 5.

      I would be curious to start doing a rewatch of the other seasons...especially since we now know season 6 will be the see how well it has held up.

      It has been a show that I always talk about and champion to others, but for some reason, season 5 had me anxiously awaiting each week for a new outing.

    3. You know, I’ll freely admit that perhaps I was too hard on the season – or that it simply didn’t impress me as much as it should have – because I went in expecting to laugh more. And as I said, that shouldn’t be requirement of a comedy – that it yields genuine belly laughs — but I had gotten so used to What We Do sending me into fits of laughter – and rescuing me from the dreariness of my days – I sort of missed it terribly. But I will not argue that it wasn’t a solid season. You mentioned when we were texting that you had one quibble about the season. Do you remember what it was?

    4. I guess I’ll give this a SPOILER WARNING in case someone hasn’t seen it and doesn’t want it spoiled.

      It sort of felt like a whimper to have Guillermo not end up being a vampire in the end…but as time has passed, I’ve grown to be okay with it. I do think it’s good they are ending it after this next season.

  3. Hey Tommy -- As always, another great read.

    Agree with your assessment of Annika and Unforgotten. Two great series that leave me wanting more.

    I'll need to give Fisk a go. It's popped up on my Netflix recommendations but I just haven't gotten to it yet.

    As for Doctor Who...I am not as sanguine about Tennant's return as some. Very glad that RTD fixed his terrible choice to wipe Donna's memories. But there was a lot of RTD self-indulgence as well.

    I am looking forward to Ncuti's run as The Doctor. The Church on Ruby Road did get rather silly, but I enjoyed watching Ncuti and Millie working together so much I didn't mind.

    1. So great to "see" you back here, Bob, and thanks for the kind words. Real life kept getting in the way of me doing any new posting, and once I *had* posted this new essay, since I'm no longer on that social-media-site-that-shan't-be-named, I had no way of getting word out about it! LOL

      I’m not sure our feelings about the Russell specials were all that different. I thought Tennant and Tate were splendid, but I found the scripts self-indulgent at times (as I mentioned elsewhere in the essay, I am not particularly a Russell fan) and the production values sometimes felt overblown, as if Disney had chipped in a good chunk of change, and everyone involved was determined to see that it was seen on the screen. I simply had been no fan of the Chibnall era whatsoever, and was so happy to feel optimistic about the show again.

  4. Really enjoyed the revamped Dr Who too. Ncuti is going to be awesome going forward. However, Strange New Worlds was my most enjoyable watch of last year. What a cast and what a spirit of fun and adventure. I couldn't wait for a new one to come along and it made me so nostalgic that I ended up bingeing all three seasons of the original. I'm curious if you saw the second run of The Tourist. For me, it proved again your sophomore slump but I'd be keen to know your thoughts. The new season of True Detective, with female showrunner and leads is also very good, if you like your crime grim with a dash of the supernatural.

    1. I’m so delighted to see you “show up” here, Terry. It’s so funny: as I mentioned to Bob above, now that I’m no longer on that horrifying site-that-will-not-be-named, I don’t have the chance to interact regularly with so many old friends like you – and I have no chance to inform folks about new posts that I hope might interest them. I’m so glad you found your way here. And I’m doubly delighted that you agree about Strange New Worlds. I watched so much sci-fi and sci-fantasy in 2023, but as you said, nothing came close to Strange New Worlds. Just a beautiful and brilliant piece of television.

      By the way, if you haven’t checked out Lazarus Project, I highly recommend it. I think it might be up your alley.

      FYI, we are halfway through the second series of The Tourist, and so far, I am very much in agreement with you. I will shoot you a note when I’m done, and we can compare notes. There was one surprising character beat in the last episode I saw that I’m hoping the writers will follow through on, and which — to my mind — might bring a little more emotional complexity to the series. But I have no idea whether it’s something the writers are intended to focus on, or something I’m just latching onto in the hopes that the second series will have a little more meat on its bones than I’ve seen so far.