Sunday 31 December 2023

Shows of the Year

Best new show:

The Last of Us

As someone who watches a lot of television, my favourite moments are always the ones where connections seem to unfold between unconnected stories. The Last of Us (based on the game) feels like a companion piece to last year's Station Eleven (based on the novel), both when they're at their best investigating the old Voyager adage that survival is insufficient. Ellie and Joe are both deeply damaged, especially Joe, who has tragically lost his own daughter and is all the more reluctant at the beginning to make himself vulnerable to Ellie (who is very hard not to love). The third episode departs from our regular cast to create a love story from beginning to end, in which Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman (a man who will never play a character that is not competent, what an achievement) build a nest together in the ruins of society and find meaning in their curated, beautiful life. Long Long Time is perhaps one of the best episodes of television (not just this year). 

Poker Face

At some point after the first season of Russian Doll came out, some people on twitter commented that Natasha Lyonne could be the spiritual successor to Peter Falk's Detective Columbo - and then, somehow, through serendipity, Rian Johnson (now providing us with annual counterpoint whodunnits to Kenneth Branagh's revival of Hercule Poirot) must have come to the same conclusion. Poker Face, like Columbo, is not a whodunnit - each episode begins with the crime, so that the audience is well aware of who has committed it. Following Lyonne's Charlie Cale and her indefeatable instinct for telling lies is where the charm of this show lies. Each episode is full of stars who act like they're having the time of their life (and what other television show can boast to have John Darnielle's acting debut as well as songs written by him specifically for an episode). 

Beacon 23

It took me a few episodes to get into this show, even though it should have been the easiest sell ever (Lena Headey) - this is a science fiction show about a galactic lighthouse, outfitted with a (very emotional) AI. The show mainly focuses on Headey's Aster and Stephan James' Halan unravelling a mystery about space rocks, but there is also a deeply philosophical approach where individual episodes go back in time to show the fates of previous beacon keepers (it seems that like olden days lighthouses, beacon keeping attracts eccentrics who translate into fascinating characters on-screen), and characters discuss the fate of humanity (expansion into the stars vs focusing on community, transcending death). The result is something quite unlike anything else I've seen.

The Horror of Dolores Roach

Justina Machado, great since Six Feet Under, stars in an inspired adaptation of Sweeney Todd set in Washington Heights. The story brilliantly weaves together the effects of incarceration and gentrification with the morbid twist of the original story, with Dolores' (frequently deserving) victims ending up in empanadas instead of meat pies. 

Best one-season show:

Carol and the End of the World  
I think this may be a show that is best consumed without knowing much about it beforehand, and it is one of the few ones that I've taken a lot of time to watch slowly this year, to really let the episodes marinate before moving on to the next one. Of all things, it reminds me most of Somebody Somewhere - the idea of discovering meaning and connection as an outsider.  

Jury Duty

A deeply high-concept show that pays off amazingly, in part because somehow, this show found the perfect mark for its long con. Without Ronald's empathy and loveliness, this could have gone awfully wrong, but somehow, the experiment works out. 

The Changeling

This magnificent, beautiful adaptation of the Victor LaValle novel of the same name (LaValle taking the role of the narrator) is stunning. It's a complex tale about motherhood and fairies who steal children, the ravages of post-partum depression and the troubles of not being believed, of being unsure about reality. It contains some of the best performances of the year - and it finally, finally allows the great Adina Porter to fully shine (in episode seven, she basically performs a one-character play, holding attention for every second - until Alexis Louder joins her in a devastating performance as another lost son). LaKeith Stanfield is amazing as the father and husband, searching for an explanation, Clack Becko as mother and wife, being asked to do horrible things to get her son back.  

While the Men Are Away

This was such a surprise! Like Bomb Girls if written as a poignant comedy rather than a drama, this show focuses on the Land Army, women who help out in regional areas with male farm workers going overseas to fight in WW2. Delightfully queer, but also very much about what happens when female aspirations meet an inherently patriarchal society. One of the most moving performances is by Phoebe Grainer, who plays an Aboriginal woman who is trying to protect her brothers from the profound racism and constant threat of living in a mission - and the stakes are constantly higher for her than for her white co-workers, a fact the show never shies away from. 


I hadn't watched the 1988 film until the first few episodes of this aired, and as much as it doesn't exactly look great - the effects are awkward, Sorsha's character development from daughter of an evil woman to supporting the heroes happens through a kiss and no reasoning (and she has barely any lines), the fact that the television show managed to cast two people who capture the spirit of being Madmartigan's (it's sad Val Kilmer couldn't be in the first season for health reasons) twins so perfectly is pretty stunning. I'd say that 85% of this show thrives on the ensemble cast and how they come together, how each of them on their own is loveable but they also take the idea of a quest to heart, and change throughout it. It's a manifold heroes' journey, with a lot of heart. 

Full Circle

Best show:

The Bear

What a great second season for The Bear! The kids are trying to revamp The Beef into The Bear, including dealing with all the bureaucratic red tape that entails and the utter catastrophe that is both the building itself and Carmy's family. The most impressive thing about the show is how it oscillated between the beauty of creation and the genuine moments of caring between characters (when they bring out the best in each other) and the almost Better Call Saul like tension when things go awry, which happens often (when they bring out the worst in each other). Some favourite moments this season: Marcus being sent to Copenhagen to train with Will Poulter, Richie sent to an excellent restaurant to polish forks and learn about the meaning of service, including a magical moment with Olivia Colman (!!!) in which she provides guidance so he doesn't keep fucking up his life (very fitting full-circle moment for me since first seeing Olivia Colman dispensing useful if chaotic advice as Naomi's mum on Skins), a Christmas episode so emotionally fraught and tense that it made me want to take a nap, that also features: Sarah Paulson, John Mulaney, Bob Odenkrik, Gillian Jacobs, Jamie Lee Curtis!

Only Murders in the Building

After a slightly less successful second season, the third season of Only Murders in the Building is a revelation - Oliver's return to Broadway is marred by his Hollywood-turned-stage-actor star (played with appetite by Ryan Reynolds) being murdered on opening day. After some hesitancy (Mabel suffering the effects of an early midlife crisis and the unaffordability of living in New York without access to the free apartment at the Arconia), the three besties return to try and solve the murder. One of the greatest things about OMITB is that it always attracts great guest stars (I hope because everyone is having a ton of fun, at least that's what it looks like), and this season features Meryl Streep (what can't she do)... performing in the musical version of Oliver's musical, after he thinks his way through his dilemma. There is so much to love here, like the running joke of Steve Martin's Charles failing to get through a a patter song without going to a dark place.

The Newsreader

Somehow the second season of the ABC's show about a commercial news programme in 1980s Australia is even better than the first - Anna Torv (a joy! We are going through a Torv-eissance!) and Sam Reid (fresh off of playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, a character that could not be any more different from Dale) return to cover 1987, from election day to the obsession with the preparations for the 1988 bicentennial to the ravages of the heroin and AIDS crisis. The show's incredibly tense fifth episode is its best so far, in which Helen makes a career-changing decision (in a season that seems to be all about ethics in news, and about the ascent and failure of a Lachlan Murdoch stand-in, perfectly timed with the real-life retirement of his inspiration's dad - and for additional entertainment I suggest looking up who Anna Torv is related to) and Dale chooses the worst decade to wake up next to a stranger after getting black-out drunk. My only criticism is that the episode-by-episode themes don't carry through more - with the incidental timing of the show airing just as the referendum on the Voice is coming up, the coverage of the Aboriginal protests against the blind celebration of colonisation should have carried through the entire season, instead of relying on just one impactful appearance by Hunter Page-Lochard.


The second season of the century-spanning Foundation, which feels like an improvisational jam on the source material, adds great new characters, and showcases how the hubris of Empire will bring the downfall that Sheldon predicted. There is also a freedom to the season that is incredibly enjoyable to watch, as is the fact that the second season embraces humour a lot more than the first one did, with Lee Pace embracing the over-the-topness of his character in a highly entertaining way. 

The Lazarus Project

I only watched the first season, which originally came out in 2022, this year, and was glad not to have to wait too long for the second season. It was an interesting season to watch alongside Orphan Black: Echoes, as both shows are about the consequences of characters not processing their grief and exploiting a loophole to avoid the process. In the case of The Lazarus Project, the loophole has greater, world-encompassing consequences, and one of my favourite parts of the second season was that Sarah became central to the plot in her own right, as she came to entirely different conclusions than George about what needed to be done. 

For All Mankind

Abbott Elementary
Somebody Somewhere 

I somehow missed this show when it originally came out last year but caught up with its two seasons in 2023. This is about a woman who returned to her hometown to care for her sister, now stuck after the death of her sister in her grief and loneliness. She accidentally stumbles into a vibrant, queer community where she least expects it (choir practice) and finds a new best friend and people to help her navigate her feelings. The second seasons has many moments of deeply frustrating self-sabotage, but ends fittingly with both a funeral and a wedding.

Saddest Goodbyes:

I have previously expressed how much I love the Australian version of Masterchef, and how I feel that it all came together when the old judges left and were replaced with Andy Allen, Melissa Leong and Jock Zonfrillo. It's a magical thing when the chemistry of three people perfectly aligns, especially in a genre that can be wrought with conflict and mean-spiritedness. The loss of Jock Zonfrillo - a man who also seemed to be endlessly excited by good food, and generous in his celebration of it - feels immense. 

Star Trek: Picard

I've been on the books for a long time to want, desperately, for the stepchild of Star Trek, Deep Space Nine (a show that I feel was years ahead of its time, and broke ground for the gritty BSG remake and The Expanse), to eventually get the same nostalgia-tinged treatment that has been afforded to TNG and Voyager. It's what's kept me at a bit of a distance from Picard over its three seasons, each of which has been different. The third is exactly that: a loving tribute to a long-running show and its cast, with the addition of Seven of Nine, who has finally gotten what she always deserved (it sure wasn't the skinsuit of the late 90s/early 2000 hellyears - let's hope Jeri Ryan gets many more great gigs after this). It is hard to accept that this final season features shapeshifters but not those who originally fought the Dominion wars, that Benjamin Sisko is still off in the wormhole with no reference to his fate. That doesn't detract from the joy of seeing Deanna Troi, Geordi LaForge, Data, Beverly Crusher, William Riker and Worf (who is very much there for honour and comic relief) reunited with Picard on the original Enterprise D, even if a reference to Word never weeping hits hard at those of us still grieving Jadzia Dax 25 years later. It's a beautiful send-off.
Reservation Dogs


I wanted to get excited about the science fiction show Silo, but it never really got back to the greatness of its pilot episode, in which Rashida Jones gives the performance of a lifetime. I really loved Aotearoa show Sik Fan Lah, which combines food and history. Kristen Kish travelled to Restaurants at the End of the World for the National Geographic. Survivor Australia had one of the greatest seasons the show's ever had anywhere in the world (tragic that one of the best players once again lost out on the win), sometimes more perfectly scripted than actual scripted shows (Simon's arc! Shonee!). And talking about reality television, the first iteration of Alone Australia surprised me - the winner embraced the idea that nature shouldn't be conquered but embraced. 
My favourite episode of the sixth season of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror is the final one, Demon 79. The draw that I feel for Black Mirror has always been about something different than it's speculation about what happens at the intersection between technological advances and the dark side of humanity: it's a series written by a man who clearly watches as much television and film as I do. There's a meta- kind of draw to that pop cultural self-referentiality (it's why I enjoyed the first episode more than most reviewers, even though it was objectively not that great). But Black Mirror, at its best, creates perfect short stories. It will likely never be as good as San Junipero again, but Demon 79, and the performances by Anjana Vasan (We Are Lady Parts!) and Paapa Essiedu. 

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