The best TV of 2023
Plus, 'Percy Jackson,' Jonathan Majors, an incredible 'For All Mankind' cliffhanger, and more
This week’s What’s Alan Watching? newsletter coming up just as soon as I yell at the boulder for being a rock…
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Best of the best
It’s late December, which means it’s time to start with the year-end superlatives, right?
I’m doing four lists this year, the first of which published on Monday: a ranked list of the 10 best shows of 2023. This weekend, you can check my Rolling Stone author page for my contributions to a combined list of the year’s best performances in film and television, and for my picks for the year’s best episodes. And then sometime next week, there will also be a list of 10 new shows I loved, but that didn’t make the main top 10 list. You will find some overlap between the various lists — spoiler: a particular Succession episode will keep coming up — but I tried to share the wealth where I could.
This is, to my mind, a really strong top 10 of shows. And the top 3 in particular gave us all-timer seasons, where each had a good argument for the number 1 spot. At the same time, several shows on the list — and some that didn’t quite make the cut — concluded this year, and other great ones may be going soon. (FX just announced that the sixth season of What We Do in the Shadows will be its last.) The era when most successful series ran for years and years and years seems largely at an end. Animation remains an exception, and there are anomalies from earlier eras like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Grey’s Anatomy, and SVU. But more and more, I’m surprised when a show I love makes it even to a fourth season. So in some ways, that renders this list bittersweet. But half this list is comprised of series that were brand-new in 2023 (well, Cunk on Earth is semi-new, and definitely new to Americans), and I loved the new shows that are in that list coming next week. There may be a lot more churn than we’re used to, but TV’s still got lots of quality.
Next week’s newsletter will likely be very short, but I’ll link to the remaining best-of pieces then.
Lightning strikes Percy Jackson, again
Rick Riordan is a big deal in our house. The Percy Jackson books, the various spin-off series (I’m a big fan of the Heroes of Olympus novels), all of it. We even saw — and loved — the short-lived Broadway musical version of The Lightning Thief. But then there are the two movies, with Logan Lerman as Percy, and those are pretty terrible, whether you care deeply about the source material or not.
Now, though, the original book — about a summer camp for the half-blood children of the Greek gods, and the many troubles that demigods Percy (Walker Scobell) and Annabeth (Leah Jeffries), and their satyr friend, Grover (Aryan Simhadri), get into — is getting the TV treatment, with a new Disney+ series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, where Riordan had hands-on involvement.
I’ve seen the first four episodes, and they’re… not bad? The three main kids are good, as are the adult ringers in the cast, like Glynn Turman and Megan Mullally. And it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of Lightning Thief so far. I have two main concerns. One is that, even at the length of a streaming TV season, it feels as if the show is racing to hit every key plot point, and in the process is skimping a lot on characterization. I found myself doing a lot of filling in the blanks based on what I know of Percy and Annabeth from the books, versus anything Scobell or Jeffries are given to do. The second is that it seems to have been very cheaply-made, and most of the action sequences are over practically before they’ve begun. Of the two, the characterization issue is the bigger deal. But part of the fun of the books is that Percy and friends are constantly caught up in these huge spectacles involving literal deities, and that sense of scale is all but entirely absent here.
That said, the biggest Riordan fan I know was hugely enthusiastic about these episodes, so the target demo may be perfectly happy. I’m in more of a wait-and-see mode.
Odds and/or ends
On Monday, Jonathan Majors was convicted on two of the charges in his domestic abuse trial. Almost immediately after the verdict came in, Marvel announced that it was severing ties with the actor, whose Kang was meant to be the big bad for the next couple of phases of MCU films. (Presumably, they had to wait for a guilty verdict or risk getting into a breach of contract suit.) I wrote about what Marvel’s options are, now that they at least have clarity on Majors’ (lack of) future with the franchise.
After a couple of episodes that felt like wheel-spinning — deeply unpleasant wheel-spinning, at that — this week’s The Curse was fairly eventful, and extremely fraught in what’s going on with Whitney and Asher’s marriage.
I won’t put spoilers for the A Murder at the End of the World finale here, though feel free to discuss it in the comments. Two things I will say: 1)There are at least three prominent actors in the ensemble whose presence in hindsight is baffling, because they barely even got treated as red herrings, and 2)I didn’t love the choice of whodunnit, but I’m also not sure there were other options by that point that would have felt any more satisfying or surprising. Still liked the show a lot overall, but it’s the rare mystery series where the journey matters more to me than the destination.
I imagine everyone’s holiday shopping was completed long before now, so I’ll spare you the weekly Welcome to The O.C. plug. (Well, mostly.) But Salon did a fun piece on Chrismukkah that quoted me, and I was once again on the Poscast’s annual holiday draft, where the book came up in an unexpected way. I was extremely under the weather when we recorded that, so apologies that I wasn’t quite my usual trolling self. Maybe next year I can drive Mike to drink again. (The episode hasn’t been released at the time I’m writing this, but I’m told it’s coming soon. UPDATE: And now it’s finally here.)
Fargo recaplet: “The Tender Trap”
While Fargo has at times in the past done episodes without major characters, those usually come in more ensemble-y years. Dot, on the other hand, is the unquestioned protagonist of this season, so it feels notable when she’s missing for an entire week.
In her absence, though, “The Tender Trap” does some good work with the ensemble. Lorraine once again gets to dismantle a troublesome man, this time utterly ruining the career and life of the banker who wouldn’t sell to her because Roy threatened him. More interesting is the final scene, where her usual platitudes about how victimhood is a pox on society are completely silenced by the photos of Dot after all the abuse she suffered at Roy’s hands. We’re unfortunately at a place in society where some people are only capable of empathy when a problem impacts someone they know personally — and sometimes only then when they are presented with incontrovertible evidence of the problem. But for all that Lorraine and Danish talk about enjoying their own reality, Lorraine seems finally shocked into feeling something other than disdain for her daughter-in-law.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty more on this season’s theme of entitled man babies. Indira’s useless husband Lars delivers a pathetic screed demanding that she be more of a “wife” to him, never once understanding that she does everything for him. And Ole Munch calls out Gator in much the way Lorraine did his father last week, saying, “A boy complains. Because he thinks the world is unfair, he cries to his mother when the toy breaks and his knee is skinned.”
This is where the original batch of screeners ran out. I now have the rest of the season, and am not sure if I’ll be able to resist the temptation to binge the rest. If I do, I’ll do my best not to let what I know is coming later influence what I write here each week.
For All Mankind recaplet: “Crossing the Line”
Once upon a blog, when I wrote about an episode of television overflowing with wonderful things, I would cite “Dayenu,” a Passover song in which all of God’s miracles from the story of the Exodus are recited one by one, followed by the titular word, which means, more or less, “It would have been enough just by itself.”
“Crossing the Line” isn’t a traditional Dayenu kind of episode. It’s not bad at all, and the focus on the Helios workers strike gives it a unity that FAM doesn’t always have. But the bulk of the hour didn’t exactly have me jumping out of my chair to smash the Dayenu button.
But then Dev said the magical phrase, “Do you want to help me steal an asteroid?” And as Ed pondered this incredible request, “X Gon' Give It To Ya” came in hard on the soundtrack, and in my notes I immediately wondered whether this was the single greatest moment in the history of the medium. If nothing else, it is the Dayenu moment to end all Dayenu moments. As in, if the rest of the episode was just flashbacks of Danny Stevens stalking Karen Baldwin, but it still ended with Dev, Ed, and DMX, it would have been more than enough.
That’s it for this week! Merry Chrismukkah, everybody!