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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Best Of Telly: 2023's Top Episodes

As is the case every year, 2023 has come and gone with no shortage of people bemoaning the end of a “Golden Age” of television, pointing fingers at the ongoing streaming wars, the increasingly desperate IP mining (Percy Jackson is back!) and definitive finales for several all-timer shows, from Succession to Ted Lasso. What they don’t tend to mention is the huge range of new and exciting stories, voices and concepts exercised on televisions across the year regardless of these points. Indeed, if 2023 demonstrated anything on the TV-front, it was the immense range of programmes out there catering to all tastes, a fact I wanted to prove, somewhat reductively, by listing my own highlights.

Rather than name shows however, I thought it might be more fun to run-through some of the standout episodes of the past year. These could be episodes that challenged formats, landed huge shocks or were just wildly entertaining. It ended up being a pretty cut-throat process, with several of my own favourite shows failing to get a mention, so if yours isn’t here then just know it probably hurts me just as much as it hurt you. Unless it was The Mandalorian. Fuck The Mandalorian.

10). “Escape From Shit Mountain” - Poker Face

Among the casualties of the binge model, straight-to-streaming era of television are a range of formats that have been with the medium since its inception. Some won’t be widely missed, like the multi-cam sitcom, while others are destined to be rediscovered in the vaults of Netflix and Disney for decades to come. Poker Face, a case of the week procedural, falls into that latter category. Created by Rian Johnson, best known for his Agatha Christie spoofs Knives Out and Glass Onion, the series uses his career-spanning interest in perspective and bias to put a prestige telly spin on the genre, and there is no better example than the premiere season’s most exciting hour, “Escape From Shit Mountain”.

None of the ideas here are particularly original; an injured Charlie (Natasha Lyonne) finds herself trapped in a motel during a snowstorm with three strangers, none of whom can be trusted with at least one having been responsible for a murder on the premises. With limited mobility, Charlie has to use her smarts and uncanny skill for catching lies to outfox an all-star guest cast including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Castañeda and Stephanie Hsu. The results are a properly exciting fusion of tropes, a tightly contained chamber-piece that pinpoints precisely why old-school telly formats are for more than just your granny.

9). “Episode 1” - Nolly

Of course, there’s no sense discussing genres of old without acknowledging the persevering pillar of terrestrial television, the soap opera. As a Gen-Z viewer, my experience of even the most mainstream of these dramas is shamefully limited, and not helped by being raised in an environment where their mere mention would turn noses to heaven. I certainly had never heard of Noelle Gordon, which is what one imagines Nolly scribe Russell T Davies might’ve been going for.

The opening act of “Episode 1” of Nolly is a tour-de-force example of the brassy, bells and whistles production behind any regular episode of Crossroads, the series for which Gordon (Helena Bonham Carter) should have been immortalised. Instead, the drama sees her fired at the height of her success in a manner spun by the press more like retirement, an outrage that to this day, Davies swears, has gone entirely unexplained. The series alludes to various possible reasons in subsequent episodes, ranging from sexism to ageism to ambition or greed, but it is this first episode which hits hardest; a confident hour of wit, shocks and kinetic madness which demonstrates for audiences old and young why, in 1981, no one dared sit in Nolly Gordon’s chair.

8). “Pride Parade” - What We Do In The Shadows

The state of modern television is a far stranger beast, literally in the case of vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine the average Crossroads viewer tuning into an episode of Shadows and not being sent into a homosexual-induced coma. Shadows is perhaps the most mainstream show currently featuring an all-LGBTQ+ ensemble without that being a built-in premise. The four vampires (plus their faithful Guillermo) at the heart of Shadows adore sex in all its forms, and are entirely unfussed about who or what gets them their bit.

“Pride Parade” then, might be the first episode - five seasons in - to explicitly use the group’s collective queerness for comedy rather than mere context. It quickly justifies the decision with a show-stopping parade ridden with, among other things, a nude man who claims to have come from space, a threesome with a two-faced vampire, and finally a chorus of “It’s Raining Men” to win over the crowds. It also gave us this image, which is a bit sacred:

7). “The Tiger” - Fargo

“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed.”

Coming into Season Five, faithful viewers are likely wise to the Fargo playbook by now. There is always a cop and a crook, with a folksy local in the middle, gradually being tempted down the path of evil and leaving a mountain of bodies in their wake. Most everyone will also be aware by now that Fargo is not in fact a true story, nor has it ever been. Coming off the back of a lacklustre fourth season then, the big question facing showrunner Noah Hawley and his team came down to what they could possibly have left to say within the show’s limited premise.

The answer is a remarkably simple thought experiment: what if this time the cop was crooked and the crook was a mother on the run, scared for her and her young child’s lives? It’s certainly the scariest season of the show, depicting a modern world beyond the likes of Marge Gunderson, where cops are boogeymen and mistakes stick forever, which is why the final, utterly human scene of Episode 5 resonates so deeply. Juno Temple’s runaway Dot finally gets to stop and clear her name to just one person, finding a moment of peace in the depths of Hell. It’s a proper Christmas miracle, even if it shouldn’t have to be.

6). “The Church on Ruby Road” - Doctor Who

On the subject of miracles, the return of Doctor Who is a resurrection story for the ages. While never technically off the air, the show had undeniably fallen out of the spotlight during the Jodie Whittaker years from 2017-2022. Whittaker’s head writer Chris Chibnall lacked the wit and consistent output needed to keep such a unique show in the zeitgeist, while also overwhelming viewers with continuity details, retcons and lengthy metaphors about things like Tecteun and the Gallifreyan Matrix. Doctor Who needed a fresh coat of paint, which has ironically come in the shape of previous showrunner Russell T Davies (his second entry on this list).

The Church on Ruby Road is a soft reset for the show, acting as a jumping on point for new viewers who might be tempted to see what Sex Education star Ncuti Gatwa has up his sleeve as the Fifteenth Doctor. The answers so far include battling goblins, scaling churches and dominating a Christmas Eve nightclub dance floor. That’s not to mention his improvised musical number versus the nefarious Goblin King, of course. The episode is a perfect demonstration of the zany, one-of-a-kind tone and rhythm of Doctor Who, bringing back the camp to 2023 and beyond, with a trumped up special effects budget to boot. 

5). “Sitzprobe” - Only Murders In The Building

Another entry from a genre of days past, Only Murders In The Building is a murder mystery sitcom which gets by far more on the chemistry of its leads - Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez - than the cases themselves. Case in point is the eighth episode of this latest season, Sitzprobe, which centres itself around an all-timer stalling set-piece wherein Martin’s Charles-Haden Savage must perform a “patter song” for the authorities to buy time for another investigation. 

The third season of Only Murders packed a surprising amount of flair after its lacklustre sophomore effort, in part due to its all-star guest cast including the likes of Paul Rudd and Meryl Streep, but also due to its incorporation of musical theatre, including several full song-and-dance numbers (though none for Selena Gomez - whether part of the joke or a contract stipulation, who is to say). “Which Of The Pickwick Triples Did It” is the most effective use of this gimmick, in no small part because of Martin’s most impressive pattering and painful lack of hand movement. Sitzprobe also makes the best use of Streep as aspiring actor Loretta, contrasting the comedy of errors around “Pickwick” with her own heartbreaking song and backstory. It doesn't get more Broadway than that.

4). “Forks” - The Bear

It might not be your typical soap opera, but The Bear is the king of kitchen sink dramas. With only the loosest of overall plots - “we have to get the restaurant ready for the finale!” - each episode is an exercise in bare melodrama, giving us between 20 and 50 minutes of some of television’s greatest trainwrecks this side of Kendall Roy as they try, and regularly fail to get their shit together. It also has no shortage of great catchphrases - I was able to squeeze in at least 8 or 9 “yes chefs” while preparing the Christmas turkey this year, though I didn’t dare throw a fork.

The best of The Bear’s titanic second season is certainly up for debate, though for me the edge must go to the solo adventures of everyone’s favourite Swiftie. From swearing off slurs in the season premiere to running a restaurant like clockwork in the finale, Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Richie has the most defined arc across the ten episodes, with much of the legwork coming from this crowd-pleasing, joyous short about life in a Michelin-star kitchen. Ritchie’s journey from a cynical bully not entirely sure how or why he’s landed into the world of high-octane kitchens into a waiter extraordinaire belting out “Love Story” in traffic is a deliciously heartening one, and the true high point of a season otherwise laden with despair.

3). “Four Minutes” - The Marvellous Mrs Maisel

How do you end a comedy? By their very nature, the average TV show is designed to be everlasting. The engine which drives its story should be easily reset, generating an infinite number of new ideas or challenges for its characters without ever hitting a finite conclusion. They aren't designed to end, which is why their finales so rarely stick the landing. In the case of Mrs Maisel, the finale was also haunted by the spectre of Gilmore Girls, the previous effort from showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino which ran for seven-seasons-plus-specials, made no fewer than three attempts at a finale, and never quite stuck the landing.

Mrs Maisel had a shorter run at just five seasons, and with a much cleaner endpoint - Midge finally makes it as a comedian - it was obvious from its opening gag that this punchline was going to land. For a show entirely about its rhythmic, screwball dialogue, oft-described as being like a talking musical, the idea of framing its finale around a titular four minutes is an inspired one. After over 40 episodes of setbacks, most being somewhat sexist in nature, Sherman-Palladino gives her heroine one last chance to shoot for the stars, hijacking the Gordon Ford Show for four minutes of stand-up to prove she’s got what it takes. And, in a moment of catharsis five seasons in the making, she abso-fruitly does. 

2). “America Decides” - Succession

I know, I know. In a Logan Roy level twist, I haven't picked Connor’s Wedding. The fourth season of Succession is not only the greatest season of television to run in 2023, but also to my mind perhaps one of the best ever. From that early, essential turn to the seismic seven episodes which followed, the experience of watching each Roy child shed their every thin layer of humanity in freefall, landing as mere husks come finale time, is among the more devastating arcs ever dramatised for the small screen. It is also, vitally, very funny throughout, and no more so than in the season’s staggering thesis episode, election night special America Decides.

The title is the episode’s first and bitterest joke; really, it could’ve been called Kendall Decides and amounted to much the same. The episode shines in its methodical distillation of an American election down from a country-wide debate to a generic board room where Kendall, Shiv and Roman cast their votes based on personal feuds and in-fighting. Shiv votes for democracy, because it gives her an edge in the upcoming board vote, while Roman votes for fascism, because he once shared a urinal with the candidate. Kendall, for his part, just wonders what his dad might’ve done if he hadn’t died on a toilet. All of this culminates in a simple, but effective grace note as minions Greg and Jess cross paths outside the board room, resigned to carrying out the judgement of their overlords, all while wondering slightly if it might just end the world. 

1). “Long Long Time” - The Last Of Us

Whether it’s a ringing endorsement or damning faint praise is for another article, but the best episode of HBO’s The Last Of Us is the one that had precious little to do with its source material. Eschewing the game’s ‘road trip’ format for a one-off, totally standalone tale about queer love in the apocalypse, Long Long Time is about as far from showrunner Craig Mazin’s previous work on Chernobyl as possible. The episode, starring Nick Offerman (Parks & Rec) and Murray Bartlett (The White Lotus), as an utterly ordinary couple living through impossible times, works for any number of reasons, not least for the ingenuity of its conceit.

It is no coincidence that Long Long Time is set in Middle-America, focusing on a gun-toting libertarian who behind closed doors taught himself to cook and to play the most tear-jerking renditions of Linda Ronstadt. In ordinary times, Bill would have remained in the closet his entire life, but in the face of armageddon he gets to transform the town symbolic of his oppression into a sanctuary. Bill and Frank can live free of judgement, harassment or threats of violence within their fenced-off palace, carving out their own LGBTQ+ paradise as everything else burns around them. It’s a fairy tale through-and-through, and perhaps the year’s most thoughtful use of a sci-fi setting to unearth deeper humanity. 

Long Long Time is also a tragedy, of course, addressing ideas of queer temporarily as it blitzes through fifteen years of romance in under an hour. In a world without children and faced with terminal illness, the climactic decision for Bill and Frank to go out on their own terms is a controversial, but breathtakingly powerful choice. Queer people so rarely get to choose their own endings, certainly not together, but in the fantasy of Long Long Time Bill gets to utter two words more awe-striking than any horde of mushroom zombies: “I’m satisfied”.


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