The 50 best TV shows of 2023 – 50 to 41

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

David Beckham in 1996.
Before the death threats … David Beckham in 1996. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

(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

Bridget Christie as Linda in The Change.
Refreshing … Bridget Christie as Linda in The Change. Photograph: Channel 4

(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

Bel Powley as Miep Gies in A Small Light.
Heart-wrenching … Bel Powley as Miep Gies in A Small Light. Photograph: Dusan Martincek/AP

(Disney+) This lovely second world war drama explored a side of the Anne Frank story that had long gone untold. Bel Powley shined 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

Amiss Tori sitting at the piano with Claudia Winkleman.
Unsung talent … Amiss Tori sitting at the piano with Claudia Winkleman. Photograph: Mark Bourdillon / Love Productions

(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

Ray BLK as Honey in Champion.
An R&B legend … Ray BLK as Honey in Champion. Photograph: Ben Gregory-Ring/BBC/New Pictures Ltd

(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

The Guardian