Advertisement

The 50 best TV shows of 2023

<span>Illustration: Guardian Design/FX</span>
Illustration: Guardian Design/FX

50

Rain Dogs

(BBC One/iPlayer) Created by Skint Estate memoirist Cash Carraway, this dark drama about a single mum and her daughter trying to get by in modern broken Britain felt incredibly original and authentic. Daisy May Cooper was superb as straight-talking Costello Jones, a sex worker trying to write a book after being evicted with her daughter Irish (Fleur Tashjian). It wasn’t always an easy watch, but with a sharp script, compelling performances (Jack Farthing was also brilliant as Costello’s troubled posh friend Selby) and pitch-black comedy, it was a bold series from a new voice in TV with a lot to say.

What we said: “Rain Dogs is not really a comedy at all. It’s a bleak and beautiful drama in which the rare laughs are a matter of survival, like holes punched through the dark.” Read more

49

Beckham

(Netflix) Not only did this documentary have the juiciest, starriest cameos of the year – the astounding talking heads just kept coming – but we also got a riveting look behind closed doors as David and Victoria ribbed each other mercilessly (her reveal about her “working-class” dad driving her to school in a car that turned out to be a … Rolls-Royce was worth the price of admission alone.) As well as showing David’s life today – all beekeeping, barbecuing and candlewick snipping – it was an evisceration of the 90s/00s culture that could have broken him (especially after he lashed out in that World Cup and the death threats started), plus proof of the pain he and Victoria have endured as a couple (Rebecca Loos could have broken them, too.) Still, Posh and Becks got through it – and they end up here doing the electric slide to Dolly Parton. What a wild ride.

What we said: “There are loads of gossipy nuggets: about the sarong, the many haircuts, the decision to wear purple at his wedding. It’s a lot of fun, and each episode flies by. Brand Beckham will be relieved.” Read more

48

The Lying Lives of Adults

(Netflix) It was easy to miss Elena Ferrante’s vibrant coming-of-age story when it quietly dropped on Netflix at the start of the year. Set in 1990s Naples, the drama follows middle-class liberal teenager Giovanna, whose life is turned upside-down when she meets her chain-smoking, straight-talking estranged aunt Vittoria from the rundown part of the city. It is a must-see for fans of the author’s stunning preceding adaptation, My Brilliant Friend, with similar themes of relationships, loyalties, sex, politics and class divides.

What we said: “As always, Ferrante has impeccable insight into the complex psychology of teenage girls, and Giovanna’s attempts at self-discovery, as she tries on and discards various identities, are painfully familiar and universal.” Read more

47

Lessons in Chemistry

(Apple TV+) This charmingly styled, 50s-set tale of a prodigious female chemist using a TV cooking show to battle the patriarchy took a bestselling novel and turned it into zippy, emotive and wry television. There was killer knitwear, Brie Larson’s enjoyably comic turn as a lead who is low on emotional intelligence, plus a romance that veered between charming and utterly heartbreaking. Even better, it absolutely one-upped the original book – by only featuring one episode narrated by a dog.

What we said: “Imagine Mad Men set in academia instead of Madison Avenue and you will have a fair idea of Lessons in Chemistry.” Read more

46

The Change

(Channel 4) Bridget Christie put the menopause at the heart of this refreshing comedy, both scrutinising and celebrating an inevitable experience that has so rarely been explored on screen. She played Linda, a 50-year-old who, after learning she is going through the menopause, got on her motorbike and left her family to go and find herself in a forest. There, she had a weird and wonderful time, meeting new people and attending an eel festival – which made for the most profound finale of the year.

What we said: “It’s The Vicar of Dibley in biker leathers, essentially; this story of a lone middle-aged woman shaking things up in a tight-knit rural community, but further enhanced by the folky feminism that runs through Gloucester-born Christie’s comedy like the River Severn.” Read more

45

Boat Story

(BBC One/iPlayer) From the Williams brothers (who are also behind hit series The Tourist), this was a stylish, sinister but always fun genre-bending thriller – an acquired taste for some, but a jaw-dropping treat for others. It followed Janet (Daisy Haggard) and Samuel (Paterson Joseph), who meet on a beach when they find a boat with two dead bodies and big bags of cocaine in it. Within minutes, they decide to swipe the drugs and deal with the consequences. After all, when it feels like you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

What we said: “The drama evokes Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson (particularly in the script, which describes Janet in voiceover as ‘a woman with blue hair, driving towards a Thursday’) and the Coen brothers in its ability to mash genres together. It does so with a confidence that avoids gimmickry and makes the show far greater than the sum of its parts.” Read more

44

A Small Light

(Disney+) This lovely second world war drama explored a side of the Anne Frank story that had long gone untold. Bel Powley shone as Miep Gies, the caring young woman who, with her husband Jan (Joe Cole), helped the Franks go into hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. It managed to strike a tricky balance of witty, heart-wrenching and somehow hopeful – even though we know how tragically it ends.

What we said: “The story’s point is not to despair, but to illuminate courage. It ends with a note telling us that Miep, who lived to be 100, gave talks throughout her life, saying: ‘Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, in their own way, turn on a small light in a dark room.’” Read more

43

Dear Mama

(Disney+) This attempt to document the life of Tupac Shakur in the context of his relationship with his ex-Black Panther mother, Afeni, was insightful and incredibly detailed. The archive footage of the rapper as a teen was particularly moving, and the juxtaposition of his family members’ reminiscences alongside those of megastars like Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg gave the wild tale a truly intimate feel. It was all the more remarkable given its maker – Allen Hughes, an ex-collaborator of Tupac’s, who ended up getting Tupac sent to jail.

What we said: “Far more thorough and far more sweeping than many other music documentaries, and especially those about stars as culturally significant as Tupac.” Read more

42

The Piano

(Channel 4) Never before had so much joy been had on a train station concourse. This Claudia Winkleman-hosted showcase of unsung musical talent performing on railway pianos was relentlessly affecting. From charming pensioners bashing out jazz to kids playing rave classics, almost every performance sizzled with personality. And when blind, neurodiverse pianist Lucy took to the keys for a soaring, inspirational performance? Not a viewer in the world could have dry eyes after that. Astonishingly powerful TV.

What we said: “As well as serving as a tribute to the talents of the players, The Piano shows off the wonder of the instrument, sitting there full of all possibilities, with every semitone on view.” Read more

41

Champion

(BBC One/iPlayer) It’s no wonder the music scenes in Queenie author Candice Carty-Williams’s grime/garage drama thrummed with authenticity. They were written by legends including Shola Ama, Ghetts and R&B star Ray BLK, meaning that every time a character took to the microphone, you knew you were going to hum the results for days. This slick hip-hop family drama also featured the very welcome return of Malcolm Kamulete, who’d been missing from our screens since he played one of Top Boy’s brilliant leads while still at school.

What we said: “If you have seen the hip-hop saga Empire or even caught an episode of Nashville, you should be more than ready for a satisfyingly soapy show that celebrates homegrown music.” Read more

40

The Fall of the House of Usher

(Netflix) Released during spooky season, this modern take on Edgar Allan Poe was a gothic treat for horror fans. It opened with wealthy patriarch Roderick Usher at the funeral of his children, where we learn that his entire bloodline is now wiped out due to “freak accidents”. Cue a gruesome backstory to what the hell happened. With spookmaster Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, The Midnight Club) at the helm, it was always going to be scarily good.

What we said: “Flanagan finishes his Netflix contract on a high, gleefully capturing Poe’s magic, eerie romance and sense of dread.” Read more

39

Russell Brand: In Plain Sight

(Channel 4) Ahead of its broadcast on a Saturday night in September, Twitter (and much of Britain) was ablaze with rumours about the mystery subject of this exposé on sexual abuse allegations. In the ensuing documentary, made by Dispatches, women very bravely told of their experiences with Brand in horrifying detail. As part of a years-long investigation conducted with the Sunday Times, it was a damning documentary carried by the power of the testimony and no stone being left unturned. A police investigation has since started, and more women have spoken out. This could well be comedy’s overdue #MeToo moment.

What we said: “The allegations themselves are disturbing enough. Being able to see and hear the words spoken, even by anonymised interviewees filmed in silhouette or, in one case, replaced by an actor, lends every awful detail alleged a piercing immediacy.” Read more

38

Black Ops

(BBC One/iPlayer) This joke-dense sitcom from Famalam duo Akemnji Ndifornyen and Gbemisola Ikumelo was definitely 2023’s funniest show to shine a light on institutional racism in the police force. It was packed with astonishing comic timing as it followed two definitely “not street” community support officers forced to go undercover in a drug gang due to a lack of Black coppers. Was there a more fantastic farce this year? It’s hard to think of one.

What we said: “It’s the sort of comedy that lives or dies by its delivery, and the two leads are pitch-perfect. Some scenes might sound hackneyed on paper, but the delivery is so fresh it feels like the first time anyone has made the joke.” Read more

37

The Gold

(BBC One/iPlayer) One of the largest robberies in UK history got the period-crime treatment in Neil Forsyth’s consistently entertaining drama about the Brink’s-Mat gold bullion heist. It had phenomenal ensemble cast including Hugh Bonneville as a determined DCI, tons of twisty storytelling – and more 80s shoulder pads than a Dynasty episode.

What we said: “The Gold is an ever-enjoyable ride. There are pleasures aplenty to be found in the production design – the cars! The collars! The carpet swirls! – and an almost overstuffed ensemble cast.” Read more

36

Dave

(Disney+) Stalkers, near-death experiences, creepily realistic sex dolls – the third outing of this rap comedy had it all. Dave Burd’s semi-autobiographical tale of gangly MC Lil Dicky’s rise to fame finally hit the big time, as did the calibre of its guest stars, including brilliant cameos from Rick Ross, Drake and Rachel McAdams. And Brad Pitt’s extended portrayal of himself as a charismatic oddball in the finale has got to be one of the finest performances of the year.

What we said: “Dave’s pursuit of self-examination at any cost makes this one of the most nuanced, not to mention one of the funniest, shows around. At times, it touches perfection.” Read more

35

Dead Ringers

(Prime Video) In this sex-swapped reimagining of David Cronenberg’s 1988 film, Rachel Weisz had a lot of fun playing identical – but very different – gynaecologist twins Elliot (the naughty one) and Beverly (the sensible one) Mantle. As they plan to open a new birthing centre, the show became a dark but witty examination of modern fertility and childbirth.

What we said: “It is intimate and only as horrifying as an ordinarily bad birth might be. Imagine an unexpurgated and more stylishly shot One Born Every Minute. This aspect of Dead Ringers does feel invigoratingly new and, to use that horrible word Beverly loves so much, empowering – at least to me in the UK.” Read more

34

The Long Shadow

(ITV1/ITVX) This sensitive take on the murders of the Yorkshire Ripper was a poignant attempt to tell the tale in a far broader sense than a chronicle of an evil man’s deeds. There were extended insights into the lives of the women who died, and an urgent sense of the deprivation that so gripped 1970s Yorkshire that sex work felt like the only remaining option for these mothers, wives and friends. Peter Sutcliffe himself was a bit part in a drama stuffed with stellar talent, from Toby Jones as a well-meaning workaholic detective to Katherine Kelly as a desperate and astonishingly strong matriarch risking her life for family. A welcome reframing of the narrative around these much-documented deaths.

What we said: “More than any rendering of a notorious case that I can remember, the attention is on the women. Specifically, the living women. And, when they are gone, the people they leave behind.” Read more

33

Starstruck

(BBC Three/iPlayer) Rose Matafeo sealed the perfect modern romcom with a third and final series that continued to have a lot of fun with the “will they won’t they” trope. But there were also plenty of awkward, frustrating and tear-jerking moments, too – which, with the characters now in their mid-30s, felt like a more mature, nuanced examination of love. “Even though we love each other so much,” Jessie told Tom, as they discussed what’s next for them in the last scene, “I think we’d be pretty stupid to think it can’t happen with someone else.” The perfect new beginning to end with.

What we said: “Starstruck has become a better – more interesting, more relatable, more affecting – show, one that no longer revolves around its original premise, but instead deals in distinctly un-gimmicky reflections on life’s trajectory.” Read more

32

The Gallows Pole

(BBC Two/iPlayer) For Shane Meadows’s first period drama, he told the prequel story to Benjamin Myers’ novel about the 18th-century coin clippers of Calderdale. In typical Meadows style, he let the excellent cast (which included regular collaborators Michael Socha and Thomas Turgoose) improvise northern banter as they put together the foundations of a criminal organisation that would line the pockets of their money-strapped community. Funny, bold and original.

What we said: “The roughcast look, feel and performances combine to make this a drama of rare quality in every sense. It is funny, moving, enraging, shocking by turns and always compelling. Not to be missed.” Read more

31

Silo

(Apple TV+) In a year of gritty sci-fi epics that promised lots and delivered little (hello Bodies), this bestselling novel adaptation was a rare treat. Moody, tense, gripping, this 10-part tale of a post-apocalyptic underground community was so watchable it even managed to kill off its lead character in the first couple of episodes and keep you hooked. Of course, it helped that Hollywood star Rebecca Ferguson was waiting in the wings …

What we said: “Silo can be read as a lot of things. It works as a critique of the class system and as a study in who gets to write, and rewrite, history. It’s also about the advantages and disadvantages of truth and of living in denial. But before all of that, it is a fantastically made story. Dig in.” Read more

30

Black Mirror

(Netflix) Paapa Essiedu as a disco-singing demon. Salma Hayek Pinault as a hilariously awful version of herself. Josh Hartnett as a creepy, wife-stealing astronaut. All the big names came out for the sixth run of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series – causing many an existential crisis with its dark themes of humanity and technology. We also had a model-turned-werewolf and kinky Scottish “true” crime. But it was Beyond the Sea – in which Hartnett starred opposite Aaron Paul – that lingered in the mind the most, as we saw two astronauts deal with family, grief and the tech that could create holograms of them back on Earth …

What we said: “It is, overall, a fine collection of new episodes.” Read more

29

Hijack

(Apple TV+) Idris Elba’s thriller about a hijacked flight was incredibly silly. It was hard to believe these muppets had it in them to take a trolley drinks order, never mind take control of a plane. And Ben Miles as an adulterous captain was, for reasons unknown, very laughable indeed. But there’s no denying that it was mega binge-worthy, with irresistible cliffhangers that compelled us to hit the “play next” button right through to the end. Such good fun.

What we said: “I binged all seven episodes in one sitting, and I bet you will too – impeccable. Perfect nonsense, to be enjoyed wholeheartedly – though probably, for anxious passengers, on terra firma.” Read more

28

Deadloch

(Prime Video) This idiosyncratic Australian murder mystery cocks a snook at the well-worn tradition of small towns being packed with murder, and serves up a true-crime satire that’s packed with inventive laughs. It’s dark, dramatic, propulsive – and very addictive.

What we said: “It might sound a little cliche to say you’ll be guessing all the way to the end, but you really will, with unpredictable pace-propelling twists rolled out from go to whoa.” Read more

27

Only Murders in the Building

(Disney+) Meryl Streep! Paul Rudd! The most charming trio of leads on TV! As Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin returned for the gloriously daft third series of this comic crime caper, the ante was very much upped for the calibre of guest star. Streep stole every scene she was in, Rudd’s supremely game turn as an excruciatingly awful Hollywood star was a riotous pleasure and Tina Fey’s evil true-crime podcast host was as brilliant as ever. A consistent delight.

What we said: “In the third season, the show is more committed to fun, taking every opportunity to slip in a witty retort or a Bob Fosse-style musical number. The central trio are at their finest and one can only hope there are many more years of good old-fashioned, murderous fun ahead to keep these three occupied.” Read more

26

Squid Game: The Challenge

(Netflix) Hailed as the most epic reality show in history, with 456 players and the biggest prize ever offered up (that gleaming piggy bank hung on high, bulging with millions of dollars), cynics may have said that Squid Game: The Challenge could never live up to the Netflix K-drama that broke viewing records two years ago, or that it would empty it of its anti-capitalist sentiment. But within moments of watching, they’d be transfixed. The contestants started by playing the games from the show, before being forced into far more juicy and bitchy territory (minus the deaths of course.) Battleships! The glass bridge! The constant backstabbing! The nimbleness with which it switched between characters, made us care about the fates of 400 people and remained utterly compelling was a true feat of editing. A remarkable piece of television.

What we said: “The most gripping reality TV since The Traitors.” Read more

25

The Curse

(Paramount+) Spectacularly and singularly cringeworthy from start to finish, The Curse starred Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder (also known for The Rehearsal, a stone-cold classic of odd, awkward TV) as a couple trying to make over a town in New Mexico as an eco-dreamscape – though mainly for the purposes of their reality TV show Flipanthropy. What begins as a painful look at the white saviour complex broadens into a send-up of architecture that makes claims to save the planet, the exploitative world of reality TV, the pretentious art scene, gentrification and many other things that should make white people squirm. You may have found it too uncomfortable to stick with, but those who did were rewarded with a bananas and audacious final episode that took the show stratospheric, literally.

What we said: “To say that I enjoyed it, as an entertainment experience, would be a lie. It is horrible and excruciating. Yet it is also inventive, provocative, oddly mesmerising and quite unlike anything else you will see on television this year. It is almost guaranteed to be loved and loathed in equal measure. I must be a TV masochist, because I love it.” Read more

24

Boiling Point

(BBC One/iPlayer) The incredibly tense 2021 movie based in a restaurant bubbled over into this nailbiting, state-of-the-nation four-parter. Putting Stephen Graham’s Andy on the back burner, it focused on chef Carly’s (Vinette Robinson) new restaurant inspired by northern cuisine, Point North. We watched the camaraderie and creativity in the kitchen, plus the hell of trying to keep a business afloat (not to mention survive in a cost-of-living crisis, as kitchen porter Jake heartbreakingly stowed away scraps of haute cuisine to eat at home). Tempers frayed near-constantly, and the high-stress environment simmered over into one of the most tragic TV moments of the year. Casual viewing this was not.

What we said: “It is remarkable how quickly Boiling Point drags you into its world and demands that you care about the people there. I wouldn’t watch it after a strong coffee, though.” Read more

23

Time

(BBC One/iPlayer) When Jimmy McGovern wrote his deeply affecting and stressful prison drama starring Stephen Graham and Sean Bean as a guard and an unlikely inmate, it was hard to imagine it could be repeated. But he and co-writer Helen Black found new ways to bring us impressive, propulsive drama – and show how the penal system fails so many – by transporting us to a women’s prison this year. From Bella Ramsey’s teenage addict Kelsey to Jodie Whittaker’s Orla, who went to prison for fiddling her leccy meter, then ended up on the streets living in a tent the prison provided for her, it was a vision of how deep the rot has set in that left you both weeping and cursing.

What we said: “Like the first series, it brings attention to a terrible problem and demands a search for answers.” Read more

22

Ghosts

(BBC One/iPlayer) From headless Humphrey to Robin the caveman, mardy Lady Button to Kitty the divine, Pat the chipper scout leader with an arrow eternally through the neck and Julian the lascivious MP caught with his trousers down in perpetuity, Ghosts gave us a roster of classic characters that we have by now long adored. As the hilarious sitcom bowed out with its fifth and last season, it did so in a gloriously poignant way, with the “livings” Mike and Alison needing more cash ahead of their impending baby’s arrival … and threatening to leave the ghost gang. Cue multiple desperate attempts by the spooks to make Alison love and never leave them. Roll on the Christmas special!

What we said: “Ghosts is the ultimate in comfort television.” Read more

21

Planet Earth III

(BBC One/iPlayer) Frolicking seals! Baby killer whales with their mums! A female frog kicking randy males off a tree! The third incarnation of David Attenborough’s flagship series was as full of stunning footage as ever, while also plunging into the dire consequences of the climate crisis for the natural world – from perishing baby flamingos to the death rattles of dying turtles. This wasn’t just a visual spectacle, it was an important environmental warning call.

What we said: “The footage, gathered over five years across 43 countries, is astonishing and awe-inspiring. The first episode alone, dedicated to coasts, travels from Kent to Australia, through South Africa, Canada, Indonesia and more. The scale and scope are spectacular.” Read more

20

Reservation Dogs

(Disney+) The most criminally underrated comedy on TV came to a brilliant end with its third series. The first-ever show created entirely with Native American talent has long been a masterclass in how to pinwheel between hilarious comedy and poignant meditations on grief, and its final season was no exception. Before it came along, there had never been a show with such a distinct and impeccably written and performed look at life on a US reservation. Hopefully, this piece of landmark TV is just the start of the floodgates opening.

What we said: “Reservation Dogs can be the goofiest comedy, especially when it plays with psychedelic genre influences in episodes about stoners happening upon demonic cults and space aliens. But that humour shares space with a remarkably mature and soulful approach to mourning, and an honest representation of how its characters must learn to carry loss and absence.” Read more

19

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

(Prime Video) “I want a big life,” said Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) in her career-breaking standup routine on The Gordon Ford Show. And finally – after five hilarious seasons – that big life was about to start for our favourite 50s housewife turned comic. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when she shared a look of pride with her long-suffering agent, Susie (Alex Borstein). And the flash-forward scenes showing just how marvellous Midge’s world became were the cherry on the cake.

What we said: “It’s not my place to feel proud of Midge and Susie, and yet I do. I want to grab a bar stool and cheers a martini with them. This isn’t the best season, but it is absolutely the right one. It is ending at exactly the appropriate moment, and these last episodes are the finest ode to what’s been a fabulously funny and exquisitely produced series.” Read more

18

Dreaming Whilst Black

(BBC Three/iPlayer) Fresh, funny and unlike any other comedy on TV – this full series was created after it won a Bafta based on its pilot alone, and it was the year’s most unique sitcom debut. The tale of an aspiring film-maker Kwabena’s (Adjani Salmon, who also created the show) who struggles to be taken seriously by the rich, white denizens of the movie industry was packed with razor-sharp observational humour about casual racism, health inequality and the difficulties of succeeding while staying true to your community. There were white office workers making weird confessions about penis size, excruciating Busta Rhymes karaoke sessions involving the N-word and a bartender who assumes that all customers of colour must know each other (“Are you paying together?” “No, we’re just … Black”). A triumph.

What we said: “What Dreaming Whilst Black has done is write its own formula. I hope there’s another series, and soon.” Read more

17

Somebody Somewhere

(Sky Comedy/Now) Touching, poignant, full of diarrhoea-related laughs: the second series of this smalltown US comedy went where few shows dare. The adorable, up-and-down BFF-ship between lead characters Joel and Sam continued to be one of TV’s sweetest friendships – not least during a riotous final-episode performance of 80s power ballad Gloria.

What we said: “There aren’t many series that bring on tears as often as this one, particularly not when they are also highly proficient comedies, but Somebody Somewhere has a knack for spiky sentimentality that goes for the jugular. Even in its quietest moments, it is dazzling stuff.” Read more

16

I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson

(Netflix) There is nothing else on TV like this absurd 15-minute sketch show. Its skits are delightfully disorienting – careening off in wild directions until laughter mingles with shock. In its third season, it served up just as many moments of hysteria, guest stars including Jason Schwartzman, Fred Armisen and The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri, and something totally new: the odd moment where things actually work out OK for Robinson’s OTT characters. One of TV’s funniest shows, bar none.

What we said: “Its opening pair of sketches alone offer four separate heaving, helpless belly laughs; the sort of laugh that forces you to pause and rewind the episode because your laughter blew through a handful of other jokes. I’ve sat through entire seasons of television that haven’t made me laugh as much as I Think You Should Leave manages in three minutes. It is an incredible, extraordinary achievement.” Read more

15

Jury Duty

(Freevee) Would this reality TV experiment have been so endearingly gripping if it hadn’t cast such an unbelievable sweetie as its main contestant? Luckily, we had no need to find out. Every participant in this supposed documentary about jury service in the US was an actor, apart from central participant Ronald Gladden, who was unwittingly put into super-elaborate situations designed to test his moral compass. From taking the blame for James Marsden’s toilet-blocking poo to proudly stepping up as the foreperson, Gladden proved himself to be a TV hero time and again – selflessly doing the right thing, no matter how excruciating the setup. At times, it was heart-meltingly lovely television – as long as you could stand the awkwardness.

What we said: “I am on my third re-watch of Jury Duty now, and each time I notice new, beautiful little details that make me gasp at the sheer logistical thrill of them pulling this off.” Read more

14

Colin from Accounts

(BBC Two/iPlayer) Imelda Staunton, David Tennant and Jason Isaacs were among the celebrities who lavished praise on the real-life husband-and-wife duo who wrote and starred in this joyful Australian sitcom. From the cute, injured dog on wheels and absurdly novel way of introducing the romantic leads (nipple-based car accident, anyone?) to its infectious dry humour, this series was hugely charming. No wonder it ended up becoming the sleeper hit of the summer.

What we said: “It is ordinary life with all the good lines jammed closer together.” Read more

13

Barry

(Sky Atlantic/Now) “Oh wow,” were Bill Hader’s last words as hitman turned amateur actor Barry Berkman in this bleakly brilliant final season. Oh wow indeed! The show had become so dark it was almost unbearable at times – but the treacle-black comedy always flowed. With Sarah Goldberg as Barry’s morally questionable girlfriend Sally Reed, Henry Winkler as delusional, washed-up actor Gene Cousineau, and Anthony Carrigan as hard-to-hate bad guy NoHo Hank, it was a cast of total weirdos. But part bloody shootout, part Hollywood satire, the last half hour of this story was a perfectly awful finish.

What we said: “Barry deserves to go down as one of the best of all time.” Read more

12

I’m a Virgo

(Prime Video) Anti-capitalist rabble rouser, satirical take on pop culture, a diatribe against caped crusaders: Boots Riley’s tale about a 13ft teenager wasn’t your average superhero series. Instead it was an inventive, lo-fi take on a genre it seemed to want to destroy from within. Given what an original and hyper-intelligent piece of storytelling it was, if it gets another season, it might just manage it.

What we said: “I’m a Virgo is as fresh and invigorating as a cold shower. It wakes you up.” Read more

11

Fleishman Is in Trouble

(Disney+) The big question with this TV adaptation of the hit novel was whether it would hold viewers’ attention until it repeated the book’s big trick – really hitting its stride in the final stretch. The answer was yes: the opening episodes were unquestionably hooky, as we plunged into the tale of recently separated New York doctor Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), who wakes one day to find his wife Rachel (Claire Danes) has disappeared. Is she at a yoga retreat, or has she abandoned their family for keeps? But when the show hit its real crux, it was a giddy, disorienting delight: a harrowing look at the tedium of middle age and lives unfulfilled, thanks to a stunning performance by Lizzy Caplan. A rare treat that will very much hit home with those of a certain age.

What we said: “I demolished it in as close to one sitting as life these days allows, because it is as addictive as it is perceptive.” Read more

10

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland

(BBC Two/iPlayer) In a year of hotly anticipated landmark TV franchises returning to our screens, no one expected one of the finest pieces of television to be a little-heralded documentary about the Troubles. Yet that’s exactly what Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland managed: a personal, soul-baring take on life in the country from 1969 to 1998 that is one of the most staggering achievements of the year. As paramilitaries on both sides shared their truths, it was a journey into trauma, regret, redemption, the terrifying ease with which civil war can spring up, and how there is always hope for peace – even when it seems impossible.

What we said: “This was the most important TV series of the year: a road map of how conflict begins and, crucially, how it can end. Parts of it will lodge in your brain like shrapnel.” Read more

9

The Sixth Commandment

(BBC One/iPlayer) This devastating four-part drama told the real story of Peter Farquhar and Ann Moore-Martin, and the man who conned them both into fake relationships with him before he murdered Peter and attempted to murder Ann. It could so easily have been another gauche dramatisation of a true crime. But with Sarah Phelps at the helm, it was beautifully and thoughtfully crafted, with the victims and their families always at the heart of it. The performances were outstanding, with Timothy Spall putting in what many viewers lauded as a career best.

What we said: “Once in a while a drama gets under the skin so deeply it stays with you. No, in you. Frame after searing frame. The Sixth Commandment, written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Saul Dibb, was the most gut-wrenching example of the year. Perhaps the decade. In four harrowing, nigh-on unbearable episodes it took a genre often prurient, insensitive and morally dubious, and gracefully upended it. The Sixth Commandment was true crime that focused on the victims, though even to use that word feels like a thoughtless reduction. What it gave was a dignity rarely afforded to people whose lives are destroyed by crime.” Read more

8

Top Boy

(Netflix) After five TV-changing, fiercely innovative series, this Drake-backed drama bowed out with its greatest-ever season. There were shootouts, broken hearts, moments of achingly poignant tragedy and a timely reminder of the human costs of Rishi Sunak’s “batshit” Rwanda policy. The bar has been set for inner-city British gangster dramas – not least by a final scene whose brilliance was nothing short of heart-in-mouth astonishing.

What we said: “Rather than waiting until its quality slipped, it ended on unquestionably its finest series yet, with a climactic scene that is shocking, bewildering and so compelling that it demanded rewatching again and again. In a year that’s seen fantastic finales from landmark dramas including Succession, Happy Valley and Barry, Top Boy’s arguably trumps them all.” Read more

7

Blue Lights

(BBC One/iPlayer) On paper, this Belfast police drama provided a fresh twist on the genre by following three new recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, with a couple of months of probation still to go. In practice, it breathed new life into a much-done type of TV by taking a bird’s-eye view of a city still coming to terms with the legacy of the Troubles – and the problematic nature of policing it. Impeccably written characters, charmingly blossoming relationships between colleagues, and one of the most tragic TV deaths of the year made this gripping procedural feel like a Belfast version of The Wire.

What we said: “When did you last watch a whole show with bated breath? Blue Lights was six hours of raw, relentless TV – a thrilling examination of everyday courage and rebellion that showed how easily the overly hopeful can be crushed.” Read more

6

The Last of Us

(Sky Atlantic/Now) Too poignant to please zombie-loving viewers, too full of murderous fungus monsters for your average prestige drama, The Last of Us was a totally idiosyncratic creation. That it managed to find a huge worldwide audience is testament to what an incredible piece of TV it was (not to mention the best video game adaptation ever). The tale of ex-construction worker Joel escorting medical miracle Ellie across a pandemic-ravaged US was so heart-in-the-mouth tense that at times it was almost too much to watch. And yet watch people did. You know it’s an excellent apocalypse show when the most impressive achievements are the relationships at its heart: from the understated beauty of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) burgeoning father/daughter-esque relationship to Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett’s poignant episode about love in the end times. Gorgeous, soul-stirring television.

What we said: If The Last of Us was just nine episodes of Joel and Ellie trudging through crumbling cityscapes (and yes, that did make up a lot of the show), it would have made for pretty great TV. But the show had bigger ideas. Its third and best episode abandoned the larger plot altogether for a standalone story about the blossoming romance between a gruff survivalist and a man who fell into one of his traps (what a meet-cute!) If you were a particularly cynical exec, this was the episode you’d chop. But its existence was part of what made The Last of Us a richer, deeper show than anyone could ever have expected. Read more

5

Poker Face

(Sky Max/Now) It’s hard to think of many more exciting prospects than Knives Out’s Rian Johnson doing a murder-mystery series that’s a homage to case-of-the-week detective shows like Columbo – and which stars the wondrous Natasha Lyonne. Judging by this daftly enjoyable show, there’s a very good reason for that. From its masterly feature-length opener to ludicrously watchable episodes about murderous retirement-home pensioners, it was a riot packed with stellar guest star performances from the likes of Adrien Brody, Rhea Perlman and Chloë Sevigny. Bring on season two.

What we said: “If Lyonne doesn’t win the outstanding lead actress Emmy in January, I’ll file the lawsuit myself.” Read more

4

Beef

(Netflix) There were car chases, shootouts, deaths and kidnaps in this tale of two Los Angeles residents whose lives become consumed by a spiralling feud triggered by a road rage incident. But for all its high-octane, anger-fuelled action, there was humour, tenderness and – in Ali Wong and Steven Yeun’s outstanding performances – a tale of the ways deep, existential sadness can be overcome by the most unlikely of allies.

What we said: “Taken as a whole, the 10 episodes of Beef felt satisfyingly complete, but the hunger of the modern television industry – not to mention the eagerness of Netflix to capitalise on a hit – means that we should never say never … But Beef is such a miraculous show, so inventive and daring and propulsive, that the worst thing in the world would be for it to take another grab at the apple and miss. Perfection like this doesn’t happen very often. Let’s keep it perfect.” Read more

3

Happy Valley

(BBC One/iPlayer) Fans waited seven years for Sally Wainwright to give us the third and final instalment of one of the best British TV shows of all time, and it didn’t disappoint. Sarah Lancashire returned on flawless form as weathered police officer Catherine Cawood, about to retire but still living under the threat of an incarcerated Tommy Lee Royce (the excellent James Norton) as she brings up his son/her grandchild Ryan. The strength of the show was, as always, in the finer details. From talk of Todmorden aliens to that confrontation in a Sheffield cafe, we were treated to highlights including a meme-worthy comment about having stew for tea and a final showdown in which Catherine tells Tommy: “That boy is a prince.” Once again, Wainwright delivered a writing masterclass.

What we said: “Who would have thought that ‘Hiya’ would be a contender for one of the greatest lines in modern TV history? That’s Sally Wainwright for you.” Read more

2

Succession

(HBO/Sky Atlantic) Was the final season of Jesse Armstrong’s astonishing dynastic saga its finest from start to finish? Possibly not. But even an eight-out-of-10 performance from this show beats most dramas at their best. Logan Roy’s shock death was one of the year’s most talked-about moments (prompting the Daily Mail to put a bizarre obituary of him on the front page, as if he had been a real person). Really, though, this season was all about the finale. After nine episodes of zinger-packed scheming set up the showdown of the year, it did not disappoint. The terrifying moment Kendall hugged Roman until his stitches popped! The Roy siblings’ cackling about “nobbies”! “I’m the eldest boy!” Ultimately, it bowed out with a revelation that was surprising, depressing and all too realistic – the exact ending this all-time great needed.

What we said: “The ruthless drama binned Logan Roy after just three episodes of the final season. Of course, showrunner Jesse Armstrong knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that his finest creations were Logan’s grownup kids: Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook). Taking them out of Logan’s shadow meant Armstrong and his writers could slowly take them apart – and the siblings’ downfall had almost too many bravura character beats to count.” Read more

1

The Bear

(Disney+) It’s done it again! For the second year running, this bravura drama about a high-end chef’s attempt to turn his deceased brother’s grotty Chicago restaurant into a success has topped our list of the finest TV shows around. And no wonder: it didn’t just create a second season with every bit as much heart as its first – it surpassed it. From the fist-in-the-air joy of seeing Richie’s transformation into a slick maitre d’ via the claustrophobic wonder that was the Berzattos’ fork-throwing Christmas Eve feast, it was such emotional, vital TV that it was impossible to tear yourself away from. There were Boursin omelettes so delicious they became viral sensations, a hitherto-unexpected talent for tender romance, and Jamie Lee Curtis putting in such a temple-throbbingly tense performance as the family matriarch that it’s remarkable she didn’t bust a blood vessel. When it hit that glorious, cathartic finale, it only just felt like this show was really starting to motor. Do we expect season three to top this list for a third time? Yes Jeff!

What we said: “It kept everything that made it great the first time round. The intensity. The wit. The flawless direction. The perfectly naturalistic dialogue that never wastes a moment or misses a beat ... The Bear, in short, remains a banquet.” Read more

• This article was amended on 19 December 2023 because the character of Joel in The Last of Us worked as a contractor in construction before the outbreak, he was not an ex-marine as an earlier version said. His brother, Tommy, had been in the military.