Platitudes such as “golden” or “peak” TV aside, 2023 was another fantastic year for television, the best in a long while. In early January already, a spectacular, pitch-black first installment of The Last of Us shocked and awed us for a minute at least, before the remarkable final seasons of Succession, Barry and (fake finalé of) Ted Lasso swept us away in a Spring avalanche.
There was that rare perfect sophomore season of The Bear, the many daring and moving one-offs like Beef, Lessons in Chemistry, or The Fall of the House of Usher. We’ve also been treated to massive sci-fi revival projects like Silo, massive budget crowd darlings like the final season of The Crown, or simply massive flops like The Idol. The likes of The Curse I don’t even know how to classify.
But you’ve heard of these shows already, the big headlines for the big gorging and streaming minutes. Yet, underneath this storm-pile of hits lie countless intriguing releases you might have missed amid news of industry strikes and threats of artificial intelligence (one of the shows is about that). Now that we’re deep into winter, it is time to remind ourselves of some worthy and fun 2023 releases that might have slipped under our radar. Cue something for every taste, and, as always, snuggle up and check your streaming service subscriptions – nothing good in this life is free.
The Gold – BBC One (US streaming on Paramount+)
Talk about a real-life heist to blow your mind. On 26 November 1983, a stupefying £26 million (equivalent to £110 million in 2024) worth of gold and diamonds disappeared from the Heathrow International Trading Estate in London, operated by US security company Brink’s, and UK’s MAT transport. The Brink’s-Mat robbery, one of the largest in history, rippled so far that it’s believed most gold in the UK today contains traces of the stolen (and melted) goods, which have never been recovered. To clarify the scale of the job, we’re talking 6,800 bars of gold plus other valuables.
Co-written by TV veteran Neil Forsyth, The Gold far transcends the conventions of a heist tale or a by-the-numbers thriller, knuckling down to shifts in class dynamics in postcolonial, (neo)liberal Britain. Jack Lowden and Dominic Cooper shine brighter than loot as operation’s fence Kenneth Noye and the gang’s attorney, Edwyn Cooper, sparring against a superb Hugh Bonneville starring DCI Brian Boyce and his investigative team (Charlotte Spencer and Emun Elliott). The two Freemason buddies, united in their greed and a pathological desire to squeeze their way into the high society, will move mountains (6,800 bars of gold, that is) to stay ahead of the coppers and prove themselves worthy of a “good life”. While the true crime aspects of this bonkers story will pull you in, the deep dive into the notions of morality and societal tension’ll have you coming back for more.
Comfortably resting on stunning ’80s throwback cinematography, Forsyth’s journalistic experience in crafting a taut procedural, and marvelous performance of the entire ensemble, The Gold is an ambitious and devilishly magnetic true account that must be seen to be believed.
Mrs. Davis – Peacock
A nun squabbling with an omniscient and universally worshipped artificial intelligence makes a pact to destroy the long-lost Holy Grail in exchange for the AI deleting itself would sound like an AI-generated plot of a Rick and Morty episode, were it not co-created by Damon Lindelof (with Tara Hernandez). Lindelof had made even weirder stuff – just remember any plot points of Lost or Watchmen.
Strange beyond a blurb description but disarmingly charming and with a heart of gold, Mrs. Davis is a hilarious, surrealist story of keeping one’s faith in the age of experience by technological proxy. Betty Gilpin is effortlessly brilliant as Sister Simone, a magician-debunking nun who embarks on an insane, perilous mission after the world-controlling AI, Mrs. Davis, reaches out to her. On the way to finding the Holy Grail, Simone is joined by ex-boyfriend Wiley (an equally charming Jake McDorman), a member of a rebel group fighting Mrs. Davis. This summary, however, does not even begin to scratch the surface of this utterly outlandish release. You just have to see Mrs. Davis for yourself and decide whether it’s your cup of tea.
While Lindelof’s fans are likely to enjoy the sheer oddness and bizarre fun of Mrs. Davis, the rest might be drawn to the show’s potent emotional appeal and compelling dissection of human relationships, including those with God and technology. Gilpin’s stupefying, relatable turn alone imbues this absurdist, over-the-top experience with such loving humanity that the chances are good you will be intimately moved rather than just shocked by the show’s gimmicks.
Best Interests – BBC One
As far removed from a cozy watch as can be, the four-part British drama about a bitter battle between parents facing an impossible decision is something to behold and contemplate. Expertly penned by veteran writer Jack Thorne (Enola Holmes, Skins, His Dark Materials), Best Interests is an agonizing, god-mode exercise in ethics and familial tragedy: Nicci’s (Sharon Horgan) and Andrew’s (Martin Sheen) teenage daughter, Marnie (Niamh Moriarity), barely surviving with a life-threatening condition, is about to become a body of dispute.
One seizure and excruciating experience too many will send Nicci and Andrew into a spiral of fear and resentment, ending in court. The two people who love Marnie most will destroy themselves, their marriage, and their elder daughter, Katie (Alison Oliver), by having a judge decide whether it is in Marnie’s best interest to die.
Sheen, and especially the usually comedic Horgan, give some of the greatest performances of their careers in Best Interests as parents broken beyond repair. Oliver and newcomer Moriarty also shine as their troubled daughters, each clinging on to dear life in her private way. There is little hope for a family in such disarray, but the series’ deeply important topics are absolutely something to explore on a social level, rather than just chuck away to the nebulous domain of “personal tragedy”. Special praise ought to be given to Thorne for taking on two of contemporary society’s greatest taboos – death and children – with ample humanity devoid of sentimentality. Best Interests will not bring you joy, but it will move you with its honest questions about the nature of love and life itself.
Scavengers Reign (streaming on Max)
Speaking of strange, fans of animation, science fiction, or cerebral meditations on what it means to exist in an indifferent universe will love Max’s latest 12-part drama, Scavengers Reign. Based on Joseph Bennett’s and Charles Huettner’s 2016 short film Scavengers, the animated series follows three groups of survivors of interstellar ship Demeter 227, who end up stranded and separated on Vesta Minor, an infinitely fascinating and equally threatening alien planet.
Proudly inspired by the aesthetics of Mœbius and the Franco-Belgian comics with more than a pinch of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Scavengers Reign combines narrative elements of Alex Garland’s excellent Annihilation with a straightforward survival story to chilling effect. As the five survivors (including one robot) navigate Vesta, the most profoundly alien terrain seen on film in a long while, the very concept of existence is redesigned, remixed, and rethought by the surrounding flora and fauna, some of which can “merge” with the wandering humans.
Metaphysically and ecologically meditative, Scavengers Reign is also fascinating in its world-building and a wonderfully accomplished genre piece that intelligently raises pertinent questions regarding the Self and its relationship to Others. Even if animation or sci-fi aren’t your niches of choice, try this one.
One Night – Paramount+ in the UK, Ireland, and Australia
One Night is another difficult viewing on this list, raising difficult questions. Taking its time with unfurling over six episodes, One Night is a mystery drama about the consequences of trauma and, perhaps even more grippingly, the nature of storytelling and competing versions of “truth”. It is 2002 on the Australian coast, a BC (Before Consent) era. Tess, Simone, and Hat, three young local friends, go to a party that will end in Tess being raped by a “friendly” guy. Unsurprisingly, no justice is done to the perpetrator.
Two decades have passed, and Tess (a heartbreaking Jodie Whittaker) has come back from England. Old wounds have never fully healed anyway, but the scars are cut wide open when Simone (an explosive Nicole da Silva) publishes a book titled One Night, her own incendiary account of the events from 20 years prior. Heartbreak, intrigue, and lawsuits follow.
Featuring a predominantly white affluent caste, much in the vein of Big Little Lies, the first project to be fully realized by the Australian-American poet Emily Ballou (Taboo, Humans) is a complex reflection on human relationships as such, and the way people are brought together – or divided – by their secrets and impressions. Some of One Night’s tropes might feel a bit too generic, but the overall takeaways are poignant, and its many complexities are well worth pondering.
Poker Face (Peacock)
Rian Johnson doing a murder mystery series with the singular Natasha Lyonne starring sounds almost too fun to be true, but rest assured, it’s real – and it’s just as bananas as you think. Poker Face, an off-kilter case of the week dramedy, features Lyonne as Charlie Cale, a woman with an astonishing ability to detect a liar and land in the most ludicrous of situations. Banned from card games due to her uncanny ability, Cale hustles as a cocktail waitress at a – you know it – casino bar.
This benevolent plan to keep it on the straight and narrow is blown to pieces when Cale’s best friend Nat (Dasha Polanco) is found dead under strange circumstances. As Cale embarks on a quest for the truth, she will traverse America’s morally grey underbelly (think Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter on amphetamines), bumping into (and butting heads with) an array of characters so colorfully odd even the indomitably cuckoo Knives Out can’t compare. The abundant guest roster boasts heavyweights like Adrien Brody, Charles Melton, Hong Chau, Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Nolte, and many more, though it’s the acerbically charming Lyonne you will keep coming back for.
PopMatters published an essay on Poker Face’s authentically vegan sensibility (I told you a lot is going on, here), just in case you need any more convincing to dive into this oddball, endearing show. Either way, Poker Face‘s second season has been announced. It’s high time you got on the bandwagon.
The Traitors (Peacock)
Speaking of Rian Johnson’s murder mystery aesthetics, while I’m not a fan of reality shows (a topic for a different kind of article), Peacock’s The Traitors has plenty of markings of genuinely entertaining reality spectacle: it is mysterious, cinematic, mostly good-natured, and unintrusive. Like a board game gone awry for bickering or a company team-building whodunnit with too many tipsy people involved, this ten-episode competition series about 20 contestants walled-off in a Scottish castle, is a hoot not unlike an Agatha Christie novel, were it set in a funhouse.
The Traitors‘ basic premise is simple. Of the 20 participants, three are “traitors”. The viewers and the traitors themselves know which three, but the rest of the competitors don’t. Two rounds of eliminations mark the end of each round: when the traitors “kill” someone by slipping a note under their door when everyone (traitors included) sits at a roundtable to vote someone out. Of course, for purposes of daily comms, everyone insists they are “faithful”.
To earn a pot of money, the “faithful” must banish all three traitors by the end of the series. Should they fail, the traitors split the pot. You guessed it – things get out of hand quickly. As we slither toward the end of the uproariously engaging season, the tension reaches a boiling point before another twist is revealed.
The diabolically hilarious Alan Cumming as host and half of the cast being seasoned reality TV stars (a cunning maneuver) are just bonus reasons to tune in. For fans of mystery shows and in-game intrigue, The Traitors will be ten hours well spent during the dead of winter.
Stonehouse – ITV (US streaming Apple TV+, Prime Video)
For fans of Matthew Macfadyen (who just swept the awards circuit for his turn as Tom Wambsgans in Succession’s final season) but also real-life scandals and the general embarrassment of being a politician, Stonehouse will be another sleazily delightful experience.
Based on the life of disgraced Labour politician and former Postmaster General, John Stonehouse, the three-part comedy-ish is a sly satire of (political) ambition and the lengths unkind folk will go to just to get their way. The problem with Stonehouse, however, is that he’s incapable of anything, really, much less sophisticated skulduggery or… spying.
It’s November 1974, and MP John Stonehouse disappears toward the ocean from a luxury resort in Miami, leaving nothing but his folded clothes behind on the beach. A serial cheater who neglects his family and a suspected spy for the Eastern Bloc, Stonehouse would, in his degenerate mind, do well to disappear.
Plenty more happens to this buffoon trickster, but it’s best if you learn about Stonehouse’s many mishaps yourself. Anchored by a light-hearted, thoroughly farcical turn by Macfadyen and more solemn work by the supporting cast, especially the standout Keely Hawes (Macfadyen’s real-life wife) and Kevin McNally as Prime Minister Harold Wilson, this is one twisty cautionary tale gone too far. It is fair to say that Stonehouse, at times, looks too wacky to seem real, which makes it all the more pertinent a watch. After all, this is (mostly) a true and, in any case, hugely revealing story regarding the personalities in charge of our lives. As disturbing as the afterthought may be, it’s good to remind ourselves that political scandals have existed long before the countless clown officials of the present and that many of those on top are just Petty McPettiness manchildren.
Fellow Travelers – Showtime
One of those shows so richly layered and emotionally heavy that no simple praise will do it justice, Fellow Travelers has won the Rotten Tomatoes’ Golden Tomato award for best-reviewed miniseries of 2023, for a good reason.
Created for television by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, Ray Donovan, Homeland) from a novel by Thomas Mallon, Showtime’s latest is a decade-spanning romance, a historical and political drama with elements of thriller. We begin in the 1950s with Hawkins Fuller (a flawless Matt Bomer), a war veteran and a rising star in the State Department. Charming but reticent and abstruse, with more than a pinch of sadism in him, “Hawk” flirts with women but is, in fact, a gay man avoiding emotional attachment. One day he accidentally meets Tim Laughlin (an equally magnificent Jonathan Bailey), a pious, idealistic congressional staffer.
The two fall madly in love, but their complicated, uneven relationship will be tested against rampant McCarthyism, the purging of homosexuals from public life, the Vietnam War protests, the social movements of the ’70s, and, ultimately, the AIDS crisis of the ’80s.
It cannot be overstated how ambitious this multifaceted story is, but Fellow Travelers is that rare beast that pulls everything off and keeps the threads firmly together without compromising the breadth and depth of each of its many smithereens. Faithful to history, it unflinchingly serves the many travesties of the US regimes after WWII matter-of-factly. Beware of feelings of anger, helplessness, and heartbreak. The last scene of the series, especially, is a triumph of emotion and quiet heartache seldom seen on screen.