The seven best TV shows of 2023 reviewed by our experts

This year has been a memorable one for television. From the scintillating Succession finale to animated AI dramas, these are the seven shows that had our academic experts glued to the small screen in 2023.

1. Happy Valley season three, BBC iPlayer

First hitting screens nine years ago, the final episode of Happy Valley – the BBC crime drama created and written by Sally Wainwright – aired to an audience of over 7.5 million live viewers back in February.

The trailer for season one of Happy Valley.

Featuring a much-anticipated showdown between Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) and escaped criminal Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) – who Cawood holds responsible for her daughter’s rape and subsequent suicide – the final scenes eschewed guns, instead moving carefully toward catharsis.

What made this such a powerful ending to the show, was the quality of Wainwright’s plotting and dialogue, her choice of performers and her refusal to take the easy road.

By Beth Johnson, professor of television and media studies and Kristyn Gorton, professor of film and television.

Read our full review: Happy Valley and the art of Sally Wainwright’s perfect TV ending.

2. Pluto, Netflix

There have been many TV shows and films inspired by the dual fear and excitement surrounding advances in artificial intelligence. But not many exhibit such masterful craft and profound humanity as Netflix’s anime miniseries, Pluto.

Trailer for Pluto.

Pluto follows German robot detective Gesicht as he traces the mysterious killings of robots and humans. While the show draws on many familiar sci-fi concepts, it distinguishes itself through its meticulous character development and the depth of its micro-stories. Every character is complex, and the audience is able to get to know them and become invested in their fates.

The anime’s unhurried pace also allows viewers ample time to contemplate its philosophical questions about consciousness evolution and the powerful impacts of emotions.

By Thi Gammon, researcher in culture, media and creative industries.

Read our full review: Netflix’s anime masterpiece Pluto explores how robots ‘feel’ when humans exploit them

3. Succession season four, Now TV

Succession, HBO’s searing indictment of late capitalism, finally ended for good this year. And what an ending.

Succession season four trailer.

It is testament to the quality of the writing that many reviewers made comparisons between Succession and Shakespearean and Greek tragedies. These are justified because the characters are finely drawn, each distinctive and compelling.

But arguably Succession’s greatest triumph was that, throughout, the audience rooted for the deeply unlikable Roy siblings, despite their flaws. An incredible dramatic sleight of hand.

By Gill Jamieson, senior lecturer in film, television and cultural studies

Read our full review: HBO’s epic family drama Succession comes to an end

4. Life on Our Planet, Netflix

Netflix’s beautifully realised historical biography of life certainly has ambition. Perhaps 4 billion species have existed in as many years of Earth’s history.

Life on Our Planet trailer.

To make sense of this embarrassment of riches, Life on Our Planet focuses on the big evolutionary turning points. The origins of photosynthesis, multi-cellular animals, skeletons, legs and big brains were all innovations that created opportunities for life to diversify and modify its environment in radically new ways.

Life on Our Planet highlights the richness of Earth’s biodiversity, as well as the achingly long geological timescales it needed to evolve. It’s also hugely entertaining, with all the prehistoric stand-offs you could wish for, irresistibly narrated by the Christmas-pudding-rich tones of Morgan Freeman.

By Tim Rock, PhD candidate in biology and Matthew Wills, professor of evolutionary palaeobiology.

Read our full review: Evolution experts review Life on Our Planet

5. Swarm, Amazon Prime

Swarm exposed the very real dangers of obsessive fandoms. A horror-comedy, the show depicts a young black woman, Andrea “Dre” Greene (Dominique Fishback), as a superfan of fictional pop star Ni’Jah (blatantly based on Beyoncé) and obsessive member of her online fandom, the Swarm (Beyoncé’s is called the BeyHive).

Swarm trailer.

Dre falls deeper into her obsession after the death of her foster sister and roommate, Marissa (Chloe Bailey), which sends Dre on a two-year murderous rampage to “defend” Ni’Jah. Shows about obsessive fans aren’t new, but Swarm is the first to take this concept and centre black womanhood and contemporary black popular fan culture.

By Kadian Pow, lecturer in sociology and black studies.

Read our full review: Donald Glover’s new show Swarm is a dark meditation on fan culture from a decidedly black female perspective

6. The Last of Us, Now TV

Set in a post-apocalyptic 2023, The Last of Us presented viewers with a world that’s been ravaged by a pandemic caused by a fungus called “cordyceps” (terrifyingly, a real fungus), which turns its hosts into violent zombie-like creatures whose only goal is to spread the infection.

The story follows Joel, a smuggler, and Ellie, a feisty teenager who is immune, as they travel across the country to a militant group of revolutionaries called the Fireflies who hope to synthesise a vaccine.

The Last of Us trailer.

Over its nine episodes, the first season of The Last of Us managed to dash a lot of the expectations of both fans of the game and newcomers. The writers achieved this through clever adaptation that deftly mixed fidelity to the original with thoughtful and unexpected additions to the story.

By Matthew Higgins, lecturer in digital and creative technologies.

Read our full review: The Last of Us surprised and challenged audiences, even those who had played the game

7. The Woman in the Wall, BBC iPlayer

Set in the fictional town of Kilkinure in 20th-century Ireland, the show captures the story of Lorna Brady (Ruth Wilson), an unmarried mother who was formerly detained in a Magdalene laundry. Established in the 18th century, the laundries housed so-called “fallen women” who had engaged in sex work or had a child outside of wedlock and who were forced to carry out unpaid labour.

The Woman in the Wall trailer.

The Woman in the Wall is not the first cultural representation of a Magdalene laundry. Films such as The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and Philomena (2013) have also explored this powerful subject matter.

But the BBC show’s creator and writer Joe Murtagh is the first to use the medium of a “gothic thriller” to explore the laundries’ painful nature and legacies – and the effect is unnerving. It does not make for comfortable viewing and nor should it. But it is essential viewing in every sense.

By Ciara Molloy, lecturer in criminology.

Read our full review: BBC drama The Woman in the Wall is essential viewing

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