Best Of 2023

Sean T. Collins’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2023

Television can show you things you’ve never seen before. How wild is that? It may even be within your living memory that television was regarded as a more-of-the-same factory, a place you went to get served the same slop you liked last time. And even as various algorithms and executives team up to reproduce those bad old days, I’m happy to report the adventurousness that kicked off the New Golden Age of Television nearly 25 years ago is still going strong in 2023.

Excitingly, a new wave of vivid, violent, dirty-minded, absolutely gorgeous shows appears to point a way forward for the medium that involves something other than hour-long dramas that are actually funny comedies or half-hour-long comedies that are actually serious dramas.

Read on, tune in, and help keep the small screen surreal.

  1. Silo‘ (Apple TV+)

    Photo: Apple TV+

    Most of the shows on this list are sprawling maximalist spectacles. Silo is not. Adapting the series of novels by Hugh Howey, showrunner Graham Yost eschews the approaches usually taken to science fiction on television: either massive, Star Trek–style galaxy-spanning adventures or mystery-box madness derived from the still-influential Lost. Instead, he takes two simple questions — Why are the few thousand survivors of an unspecified apocalypse stuck in this underground silo, and how can they get out? — and drills down on them for episode after episode. He’s helped immensely by lead actor Rebecca Ferguson, hugely charismatic because of rather than despite her glowering, dogged demeanor, as the sheriff who takes it upon herself to investigate this dystopia, and by Tim Robbins as her towering but mild-mannered frenemy. None of it would work without the remarkable set, which manages to be both sprawling and claustrophobic in its brutalist construction.

  2. Perry Mason (2020)‘ (HBO/Max)

    Perry Mason
    Photo: HBO

    Los Angeles’s killers, cops, robber barons, and ambitious prosecutors all wish they could do to the hangdog defense attorney of television legend what David Zaslav just did. With a swing of the WBD axe, Perry Mason fell victim to Netflix Creep, the alarming new phenomenon in which other networks and streamers besides the Big Red One (which pioneered the practice) strangle shows in their crib after two insufficient seasons. This humane, bleak, brilliant reimagining of Erle Stanley Gardner’s legal eagle boasted a suite of warm performances from Matthew Rhys as the disheveled but unimpeachably righteous lawyer and Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, and Shea Whigham as his associates. Taking over for exiting showrunners Rolin Jones (who departed for the also excellent Interview with the Vampire) and Ron Fitzgerald, The Knick’s Jack Amiel and Michael Begler proved the show’s one-case-per-season structure had legs, just before it got cut off at the knees. It deserved better. We deserve better, dammit.

  3. The Wheel Of Time‘ (Prime Video)

    Shieldmaidens and Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) in 'The Wheel of Time' Season 2
    Photo: Prime Video

    Can you believe how good this massive adaptation of a landmark series in the history of SFF got this season? Please write down your answer, as you’ll need it when this question gets asked again later in this list. For now, marvel at what showrunner Rafe Judkins was able to do with what even Amazon itself seemed to regard as secondary to its lamentable Lord of the Rings adaptation. With two of the most unsparing and artistically successful storylines of the year— Nynaeve’s (Zoë Robins) traumatic rite of passage during her magical training and Egwene’s (Madelaine Madden) enslavement by the colonial invader Renna (Xelia Mendes-Jones) — Wheel separated itself from the fantasy pack. Special points to Fares Fares and Natasha O’Keeffe as the season’s sophisticated and sexually magnetic demigod villains, too. The show does all this while largely creating a vibe all its own, instead of following in the earthy medieval footsteps of Jackson/Tolkien and Benioff/Weiss/Martin. It’s a path forward for epic fantasy.

  4. The Fall of the House of Usher‘ (Netflix)

    Photo: Netflix

    Can you believe how good this gory, sumptuous adaptation of a landmark work in the history of psychological horror that doubles as a searing attack on Big Pharma’s authorship of the opioid crisis was this year? Please write down your answer, as you’ll need it when this question gets asked again later in this list too, believe it or not! In the meantime, sit back and relax as Netflix’s one-man horror machine Mike Flanagan churns out his nastiest, angriest, horniest, prettiest, most repulsive project yet. Mary McDonnell and Bruce Greenwood, both sexy and arrogant and excellent, lead a splendid cast of beautiful sickos through a series of Final Destination deaths thematically tied to different Edgar Allan Poe masterpieces. Its violence, eroticism, cinematography (by Michael Fimognari, really going hard here), and political fury consistently surprise and delight. 

  5. Fargo‘ (FX/Hulu)

    Photo: FX

    Is this the best Fargo since Season 3? Season 2? Season 1? Ever? I’m not being Minnesota Nice when I say any one of these answers is acceptable. After its underrated but admittedly off-model fourth outing, which relocated from the snowy Upper Midwest to the streets of Kansas City and employed mob bosses as leads instead of weird killers and quirky cops, the type of Fargo many viewers seem to prefer is back with a goddamn vengeance. Creator Noah Hawley continues playing from the Coen Brothers’ songbook as he sets up three forces of nature — a ferocious housewife, Dot Lyon (Juno Temple); her estranged husband, right-wing martinet Sheriff Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm); and a mysterious, possibly immortal hitman, Ole Munch (Sam Spruell) — and lets them loose at each other, with a host of LEOs, henchmen, and husbands caught in the crossfire. Underneath both the black comedy and the peerless suspense sequences, the message — that fascist politicians like Roy want to do to everyone what they’ve done to their battered wives — is an urgent one.

  6. Billions‘ (Showtime/Paramount+)

    Billions Season 7
    Photo: Everett Collection

    In the context of the series for which it served as a capstone, this was the most satisfying finale imaginable. For the seventh and final (not counting the forthcoming spinoffs) season of their gonzo financial thriller-slash-love letter to New York City, showrunners David Levien and Brian Koppelman set up a battle for the ages. On one side: Mike Prince (Corey Stoll), a do-gooding billionaire so convinced of his own wisdom, morality, and invincibility that he plans to…well, rule the world, as our nukes-wielding President. On the other side: pretty much everyone in the cast. Oscar favorite Paul Giamatti does yeoman’s work making his often shady prosecutor Chuck Rhoades’s change of heart and tactics feel real and rooted in his experiences throughout the show; if his team-up with the returning Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod didn’t have you cheering at your screen, we are simply not the same. A feel-good conclusion that felt truly earned, truly consistent with everything that had come before? This season is what the phrase “sticking the landing” was invented for.

  7. Foundation‘ (Apple TV+)

    Lee Pace covered in water in 'Foundation'
    Photo: Apple TV+

    It’s a Sophomore Surprise for the ages. In the grand fashion of Halt and Catch Fire, The Leftovers, Billions, and now The Wheel of Time, Foundation went from a shaky first season with glimmers of promise to a second outing that kicks twelve kinds of ass. To take their gigantic, expensive-looking adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s fascinating but pretty dry science-fiction classics beyond light speed, showrunner David S. Goyer and his team of writers, designers, actors, and effects wizards formulated a plan so simple that it’d be stupid if it hadn’t been so successful: Figure out all the stuff in Season 1 that did well, then do more of it. 

    But while they did exactly this — providing supernova talents Lee Pace and Jared Harris with even more to do, rolling out even more astonishing spaceship designs and space-travel effects, digging deep into the decadence of Empire  — they did so much more as well. An entirely new supporting cast was brought on board, giving us rich and varied work from Ella-Rae Smith as a glamorous space queen in danger, Isabella Laughland as an earthy young science-nun, Kulvinder Ghir as her drunken true-believer boss, Ben Daniels as an honorable general in love with his right-hand man, and Dmitri Leonidas as Hober Mallow, an interstellar con man who’s the most convincingly roguish and lovable Han Solo character since Han Solo himself. Atop it all sits Laura Birn as Demerzel, an android servant with dark secrets who turns out to be the beating heart of the season. This show can be as good as Game of Thrones if Apple lets it, and judging by the season renewal the streamer just announced, they plan to.

  8. Copenhagen Cowboy‘ (Netflix)

    Photo: Netflix

    There is only one Nicolas Winding Refn. Given his reputation, a few too many cinephiles believe that’s one too many. But I simply don’t understand how you dismiss Refn after you watch Copenhagen Cowboy, Refn’s explosion-at-the-neon-factory noir. The title refers to Miu, a trafficked and track-suited Eastern European immigrant (Angela Bundalovic) with psychic powers who becomes a lynchpin in the war for Copenhagen’s criminal underground. (The look and vibe is like if Kill Bill starred Renée Jeanne Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc.)

    A far cry from the nihilism of Too Old to Die Young, his Prime Video collaboration with crime comics writer Ed Brubaker, Copenhagen is the first Refn project in a good long while with a hero who’s actually heroic. This simple change instantly transforms his nightmare world of hypersaturated color and seemingly infinite pans and zooms into something approaching a dream, or a fairy tale. All of this happens at a speed so slow it’s like watching the world’s most beautiful paint dry. Hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it! I’ve said before and I’ll say it again that what Refn is doing here is the dictionary definition of good television: an artist secure in his aesthetic and obsessions, intent on transmitting them to the audience. 

  9. The Idol‘ (HBO/Max)

    The Weeknd and Lily-Rose Depp in 'The Idol' Finale
    Photo: Max

    Fuck what you heard. The Idol, 2023’s most hated show, is far and away the TV I’ve thought, and argued, about the most this year. Hype and backlash cycles notwithstanding, Sam Levinson and Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye created a sleazy, lurid, funny, fucked-up, incredibly straightforward satire of the starlet factory à la Paul Verhoeven. Unlike, say, Succession, which spoofs the ultra-wealthy without simultaneously trying to feel like Dallas or Empire, The Idol sends up the sex-and-drugs world of pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp in the year’s most underappreciated performance) and her grifter svengali Tedros Tedros (Tesfaye in the year’s second most underappreciated performance) while also embodying it. 

    The two leads act out their intense and at times humiliating material without a net, but they’re buoyed by a Greek chorus of comedic performances by the likes of Hank Azaria, Rachel Sennott, Eli Roth, Jane Adams, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph (who turns on a dime to deliver genuinely affecting material whenever called for). All of these terrific actors perform in front of a backdrop of lush retro synths and strings courtesy of Tesfaye, Levinson, and composer and super-producer Mike Dean, appearing as himself. In a sane world this would have just been Pop Starship Troopers — gnarly, nasty, sexy, fun, appreciated by those who get it and basically ignored by everyone else. It couldn’t sustain the discourse around it, and shouldn’t have had to, when its meaning was so plain to see, and enjoy.

  10. Dead Ringers‘ (Prime Video)

    Photo: Prime Video

    Vince Gilligan made a great show in Breaking Bad, then made an even better show about Breaking Bad’s comic-relief character played by the guy from Mr. Show. Toho rebooted Godzilla a few years back with Shin Godzilla and made a horror masterpiece, then rebooted Godzilla again this month with Godzilla Minus One and, somehow, made a second horror masterpiece. David Cronenberg and Jeremy Irons worked together to create the perfect erotic psychological horror film in Dead Ringers, then Alice Birch and Rachel Weisz gender-flipped it to create the perfect erotic psychological horror television show decades later. Sometimes, lightning does strike twice.

    Dead Ringers is a success on every conceivable level, starting with the lead performances of Rachel Weisz as the eccentric twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliott Mantle — performances so distinctive and convincing I found myself talking about them to people as if they’d been done by two different actors. The scripts, by the best writing team on TV this year, respectfully but not slavishly incorporate elements from Cronenberg’s original while expanding into sensitive themes the film didn’t and maybe couldn’t touch. They also feature the most lacerating dialogue since Mad Men.

    The ne plus ultra of the project is its second episode, an hour-long trip into hell via a dinner party held by the ghoulish pharmaceutical heir Rebecca Parker (Jennifer Ehle in the performance of her career) and her family and entourage of dead-souled sociopaths. (Observant readers will note they’re this list’s second batch of Sackler family stand-ins.) This isn’t just the best hour of TV made this year. It’s one of the best hours of TV made any year. Dead Ringers did that.

    This is the show you’ve got to try. Clear time this holiday. Make an appointment. The doctors will see you now.