It feels like more than a year has passed since Sarah Lancashire’s Sargeant Catherine Cawood returned to television, but our third and final visit to Happy Valley really did happen at the very beginning of 2023. However devastating it was to know it would be the last series of the best British police procedural of all time (sorry Line of Duty), the series was a belter and finally saw James Norton’s evil Tommy Lee Royce get his comeuppance.
But another final season of a long-time favourite has pipped Happy Valley to the post in my best TV of 2023. Succession was outstanding, and daring to kill off one of its big players in the early episodes paid off immensely. The result was pleasingly frantic, typically sweary and ultimately devastating.
The rest of my top 10 are a mix of genres, from hit American dramas (The Last of Us and The Bear) to the best reality competition on television (Race Across the World) to illuminating documentaries (Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland – a must watch for anyone whose knowledge of The Troubles is lacking).
One left-field inclusion is Swarm, a severely underrated satire of fandom culture from Donald Glover, the man behind Atlanta, and playwright Janine Nabers. If you find yourself looking for something to binge over the no-man’s-land period between Christmas and New Year, I can’t recommend it enough (though perhaps steer clear if you can’t hack the sight of blood).
10. Poker Face, Sky Max
If you told me at the start of the year that a murder-of-the-week detective series would make it into my top 10 TV shows of 2023, I would have laughed in your face. But this is no Midsomer Murders, mostly down to the fact that the investigator is played by the magnetic Natasha Lyonne of Orange is the New Black and Russian Doll fame.
She plays Charlie Cale, a dodgy casino worker who realises she has an innate ability to tell when someone is lying – a skill that comes in handy when she turns her hand to amateur sleuthing. Ambitious yet with a recognisable enough formula to be comforting, Poker Face is proof that old-school TV formats have life in them yet.
9. Beef, Netflix
I’m one of those annoying people who’ll give anything a go if it’s made by indie darling production company A24 – not a failsafe way to discover the best television, I’ll admit. But in the case of Netflix’s Beef, an off-piste revenge fantasy turned tense relationship drama, it really paid off.
Steven Yeun and Ali Wong are exceptional as warring strangers Danny and Amy, who come to blows after a near-miss car accident. It’s nominated for an impressive seven Emmys (and expected to pick up a few when the delayed awards finally take place in January).
8. Nolly, ITVX
Nolly flew under the radar, but it was a charming and extremely British reframing of a key moment in television history. Anyone who remembers watching the endearingly naff soap Crossroads in the 1970s probably wrote off star Noele “Nolly” Gordon (who played Meg Mortimer) as a bit of a diva. But Helena Bonham Carter’s nuanced portrayal – spurred on by Russell T Davies’ lovingly crafted writing – told an entirely different story of a forthright woman who butted heads with the men (and they were all men) in charge.
7. Swarm, Prime Video
As a diehard member of the Beyhive, I found Swarm – Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’ sharp, violent critique of excessive stan culture – a hard pill to swallow. There’s no doubt the series is based on Beyoncé and her, well, swarm of dedicated fans. That pop stars Chloe Bailey and Billie Eilish both make appearances speaks to just how on the nose Swarm is when it comes to its scathing evaluation of the relationship between musicians and their followers.
The real star, though, is Dominique Fishback, whose unsettling performance as Dre – a young woman who will stop at nothing, including murder, to meet her idol – proves she is an acting force of nature.
6. Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, BBC Two
I’m the first to admit that my understanding of the Northern Ireland Troubles is insufficient, given that I’ve learned everything I know from Derry Girls.
From the director of the equally excellent Once Upon a Time in Iraq, James Bluemel, this five-part documentary is both informative and devastatingly emotive, hearing directly from those who experienced the horrors from both sides. Particularly powerful is the unfiltered testimony from those who were just children when the British Army, and Catholic and Protestant communities violently clashed.
5. Race Across the World, BBC One
Race Across the World helped restore my faith in humanity – and Lord knows we all needed a bit of that throughout 2023.
Watching a group of strangers make lifelong friends as they made their way across the breadth of Canada on a relatively small budget and with no internet connection felt like a privileged experience, only enhanced by the kindness of the locals who helped them along the way. That combined with the inherent tension that comes with any race (particularly one I reckon I could have a good go at myself) made Race Across the World the best reality show on TV this year.
4. The Bear, Disney+
It was always going to be difficult for the most intense kitchen drama since Boiling Point (the film, not the TV series, which was a bit of a flop) to follow up its impeccable first season. But while The Bear season two feels like a completely different series – chefs Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) and Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) are now running a proper restaurant as opposed to a parochial sandwich shop – it still maintained the taut, brusque pacing that made the first crop of episodes such a hit.
3. The Last of Us, Sky Atlantic
Probably the only good video game adaptation ever, zombie adventure thriller The Last of Us was the first big international hit of the year. It made a star (and “internet daddy”) of its lead Pedro Pascal as miser smuggler Joel, but it was Bella Ramsey’s subtle and emotional role as Ellie, a teenager who might hold the key to a cure, that really stole the show.
The world-building, too, was second to none and in our post-pandemic world, the deserted cities held a certain credibility. It was the parent-child relationship between Joel and Ellie that held the series together, giving The Last of Us the beating heart its zombies were missing.
2. Happy Valley, BBC One
It was a long seven years of television without Sergeant Catherine Cawood muttering and swearing her way through Halifax, but the third and final series of Happy Valley was more than worth the wait.
The most watched drama of 2023 (turns out the Great British public do have taste after all) saw the lives of Catherine and her enemy Tommy Lee Royce once again become intertwined when his son – her grandson – decided to visit him in prison. It culminated in one of the most anxiety-inducing and ultimately satisfying episodes of television I’ve ever seen, even if it did put an end to any hopes of a fourth series.
1. Succession, Sky Atlantic
People who haven’t seen Succession are sick of TV critics going on about Succession, I know… but it really is as good as we say. And the final season might have been the best yet, thanks to an unexpected and game-changing death in the early episodes.
Jesse Armstrong and his team of writers’ ability to turn something as dull as a boardroom meeting into a visceral, breathtaking battle of wits is unmatched and the entire cast is unwaveringly remarkable. Indefinite, astute and staunchly uncompromising to the very end, Succession isn’t just one of the best series of 2023, it’s the best TV series ever made.