Ed Martin's Top 25 Programs of 2023 (Part One)

By Ed Martin Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Ed Martin's Top 25 Programs of 2023 (Part One)

This was supposed to be the year that the television industry regained its footing after the extended interruptions brought on by the COVID crisis. But then came twin strikes by the Writers Guild of America and SAG/AFTRA, which in their own way did even more damage. Despite said challenges, though, 2023 brought us an incredible selection of new and returning programs of all kinds; more than I could comfortably fit in my annual Top 25 Programs of the Year list. I'm not designating any one of the following as the year's best, because compelling arguments can be made for so many of them. Instead, I'm singling out three individual episodes -- one that I consider the year's best, the other two my personal favorites -- as deserving of special praise. I know what you're thinking … but that holiday episode of The Bear is not among them. (Click here for Part Two. Click here for Part Three.)

Succession (HBO) -- HBO's sizzling drama (pictured at top) about a massively powerful and infinitely eff-ed up family of media titans remained gripping right to the end, even though there was no way that anyone outside of the one percent could relate to its uniformly detestable characters, who remained toxic even when their daddy surprisingly died. That's a formidable accomplishment in itself. The funeral -- as striking a showcase for this masterful ensemble of actors as any in the series -- gets my vote for Episode of the Year. Like the Ewings and the Carringtons of the '80s, the Roys caught the vibes of their times. I'll miss watching them suffer.

Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu) -- Consider this a fond farewell to an historic dramedy that broke barriers and expanded the horizons of storytelling without any major players in the mix. Even though it has been cancelled, I hope that Dogs' delightful stars -- D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor and Paulina Alexis, along with series creator Sterlin Harjo -- get to take a bow on stage during one of 2024's many award shows. I'm going to give a special shout out to "Deer Lady," the third episode of the series' final season, in which Bear (Woon-a-Tai) encounters the spirit of a woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) seeking violent justice for the horror she (and so many Native American children) endured at government-funded "boarding schools" that were disgracefully intended to help eradicate Native American culture. (I didn't know about them, did you?) "Deer Lady" may not have been the Episode of the Year (see Succession above), but it was the one that, for me, made the greatest impact.

Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) -- I wasn't blown away by the third and "final" season of Apple's shiniest show, which was weighed down by too many overlong episodes that would have benefitted from some smart editing. I didn't care for the direction that several characters went in, either. But I'm making room for it on this list because it remained more ambitious than most TV comedies, I still loved the characters, and in terms of pure feel-good entertainment, the consistently charming "Sunflowers," which was set in Amsterdam, was probably my favorite episode of any TV series this year. I wanted every other episode of Ted Lasso this season to be shorter, but this one could have gone on for another hour and kept me under its spell.

Vanderpump Rules (Bravo) -- This may be the only year-end column naming the top television programs of 2023 to include the tenth season of Vanderpump Rules, but how can I resist? In terms of widespread pop-culture impact few if any others came close, especially when its cast became caught up in what was surely the most vivid upset in modern "reality" TV history, when Tom Sandoval was found to be cheating on his long-time love Ariana Madix with her best friend Raquel Leviss. The potty-mouthed nastiness that permeated the reunion interview shows redefined the concept of trash TV. (I'm talking to you, James and Lala.) Watching host Andy Cohen and Lisa Vanderpump herself try with little success to keep the kids in line was priceless. I cannot imagine what the next season will bring. Nor can I wait for it to begin on January 30.

Poker Face (Peacock) -- Peacock's delightful Poker Face is a tremendously entertaining comedy (or, to be more accurate, dramedy) that (like Frasier on Paramount+) would be right at home on a broadcast network -- especially because each episode tells a self-contained story. So why isn't it on Peacock's big broadcast sibling NBC? Regardless, Natasha Lyonne was a marvel as Charlie, a Vegas casino worker with the ability to know when someone is lying. Forced to hit the road after her investigation into the murder of a co-worker makes her the target of some very bad people, good-hearted Charlie keeps coming upon one mysterious death after another and can't help but stick around and utilize her "gift" to set things right. Viewers know who did what right from the start, validating comparisons to the classic detective drama Columbo. It is also worth noting that no show in 2023 offered as remarkable a line-up of guest actors.

Fellow Travelers (Showtime) -- Showtime delivered an end-of-the-year winner with the powerful drama tracing the lives of several gay men from the stifling political atmosphere of the '50s through the AIDS-ravaged '80s. The fact that it sometimes played as a melodrama made clear how far our society has come, and what is at risk in our current combustible climate. As many critics have accurately noted, Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey gave the performances of their careers -- but given how much more they will both undoubtedly accomplish in the decades to come, why make that distinction now?

The Morning Show (Apple TV+) -- Apple's signature drama finally kicked into high gear during its third season, supercharging its tantalizing mix of fraught personal drama, corporate malfeasance and perilous social psychology in ways that prompted comparisons to HBO's Succession. But to me, it now more closely resembles Dallas and Dynasty. (We need our guilty pleasures, right? Especially during this maddening decade. That's something most makers of television entertainment today seem to have forgotten.) This show boasts one of the most impressive casts on television today, including (in primary, supporting and recurring roles) Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Billy Crudup, Julianna Margulies, Greta Lee, Mark Duplass, Jon Hamm, Nicole Beharie, Karen Pittman, Holland Taylor, Nestor Carbonell, Tom Irwin, Marcia Gay Harden and Tig Notaro. I wonder who will come along next?

The Bear (FX on Hulu) -- Last year I referred to The Bear as a "modest little dramedy." This year it was more like a "king-sized emotional powerhouse" out to clobber anything in its path. But I still loved it. I could have done without "Fishes," the heavily praised Christmas episode which raised the concept of stunt-casting to bizarre levels: Jamie Lee Curtis, John Mulaney, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Oliver Platt, Gillian Jacobs and Jon Bernthal, all wedged into a show already blessed by a sensational ensemble of lesser-known players including Jeremy Allen White and especially the stunning Ebon Moss Bachrach and Ayo Edebiri. I'm more "Forks" than "Fishes," but I have to admit that Curtis deserves every award available for her fearless portrayal of the ferocious Berzatto matriarch Donna. While it made sense to tell us more about Carmy's family, which was shattered by the suicide of his brother Michael, the sweet and sour center of this remarkable little show should remain the collective stories of the team at his new restaurant.

To be continued ...

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