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In a year of great TV, 'Succession' went out on top, as the best series of 2023

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli is going to take a look back at the year in television. It's a year so full of good television, he says that he's still catching up with it. And he has a list of suggestions so you might use the holidays to do some catching up of your own.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: For years, the end of each December was the time for me to trot out my picks for my best of the year list, saluting the finest shows television presented over that 12-month period. No more. I've given up. Can't do it. Oh, I can, and I will in just a few seconds, present a list of the best TV shows I've seen this year. But I can't even pretend that my list is all inclusive or reflects the pinnacle of television produced in 2023. There's simply too much TV out there. So it's the best I've seen, period. And some of it slipped by me when it first premiered, so I get a chance now to praise it and maybe to steer you in that direction in case you miss some of these too.

Take "Beckham," for instance. This Netflix documentary series about the British football star, or the soccer star if you prefer, was directed by actor Fisher Stevens with an unexpected amount of access, intimacy and honesty. Here, for example, is his wife, Victoria Beckham, formerly known as Posh Spice of the Spice Girls, talking about a rough patch in their marriage. She was very pregnant and scheduling a caesarean section in Madrid while her husband was planning a photo op for his endorsement deals with Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BECKHAM")

VICTORIA BECKHAM: Are you kidding me? You've got a damn photo shoot with Jennifer Lopez, who is gorgeous and not about to have a baby. So I had my C-section. And I remember lying there - don't feel at my most gorgeous, let's just say. And I remember someone showing me the front page of the newspaper, which was a gorgeous picture of David between Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce. And the headline was "What Would Posh Say?" Let me tell you what Posh would say. Posh was pissed off.

BIANCULLI: Another nonfiction series that snuck up on me was the recently released three-part documentary on Apple TV+ called "John Lennon: Murder Without A Trial." Its attributes included samples such as this from the final interview recorded with Lennon before he was shot and killed in 1980. It was with RKO radio producer Laurie Kay, who asked him about emerging after years away from the spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JOHN LENNON: MURDER WITHOUT A TRIAL")

LAURIE KAY: How do you feel about after five years of silence, baring yourselves to people?

JOHN LENNON: I'm saying, here I am now. How are you? How's your relationship going? Did you get through it all? Wasn't the '70s a drag, you know? Here we are. Well, let's try and make the '80s good, you know?

BIANCULLI: That documentary also included a relatively rare audio clip - an off-air discussion between Monday Night Football announcers Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford about whether or not to break the news of Lennon's death during their live football coverage on ABC. Narrator Kiefer Sutherland explains.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JOHN LENNON: MURDER WITHOUT A TRIAL")

KIEFER SUTHERLAND: The news of Lennon's death is impossible to contain, and it's the commentators of "Monday Night Football" who find themselves deliberating off air whether they should tell the nation.

HOWARD COSELL: I can't see this game situation allowing for that news flash. Can you?

FRANK GIFFORD: Absolutely. I can see it.

COSELL: You can?

GIFFORD: You betcha. You've got to.

COSELL: All right.

GIFFORD: If we know it, we've got to do it.

COSELL: All right.

GIFFORD: I - don't hang on this. It's a tragic moment and...

COSELL: All right.

GIFFORD: This is going to shake up the whole world.

COSELL: All right. Well, we'll get it in. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon shot outside of his apartment building and rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that newsflash.

GIFFORD: Indeed it is.

BIANCULLI: Documentaries weren't the only source of TV excellence in 2023. The resurgence of anthology series continued in a big way. The quartet of Wes Anderson adaptations of stories by Roald Dahl on Netflix was a singular delight. The return of "Black Mirror," also on Netflix, was a joy - a dark and twisted joy, but lots of fun, regardless. And I consider Noah Hawley's recurring, constantly reinvented "Fargo" series on FX to be an anthology series, too, and an amazingly entertaining one. This new season, which we're halfway through, stars Juno Temple, Jon Hamm and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and it's marvelous.

In 2023, there were some noteworthy revivals of old series. "Frasier," brought back by Paramount+, was good, and "Justified: City Primeval," a miniseries sequel by FX, was even better. And there were some unforgettable finales, too. "The Crown" on Netflix just ended, focusing on the period after Princess Diana's death in a way that was a bit too obvious, yet still interesting. HBO's "Barry" ended with a bang - lots of them - with one of the most violent yet appropriate TV finales ever. And another HBO series, "Succession," went out on top as the best series of 2023 - well, the best I managed to see, anyway. And it delivered a quote from the ill-fated patriarch aimed at his grown children that I expect to outlive the series for a long, long time. Here's Brian Cox as Logan Roy, berating his own grown children for their latest business move.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

BRIAN COX: (As Logan Roy) I love you, but you are not serious people.

BIANCULLI: Another great piece of television was an episode of HBO's "The Last Of Us" called "Long, Long Time." It stunned me with its quality and subtlety and caught me by surprise because "The Last Of Us" is based on a video game and is about zombie vegetables or something. But I expect next month it'll end up winning quite a few Emmys. Also surprising and immensely well-made were the Netflix documentary spoof series "Cunk On Earth" - make sure to find and sample that - and Showtime's "The Curse," which is on right now. It stars Nathan Fielder and Emma Stone and is getting stranger every week.

And finally, the continuing show I'm most excited about recommending from 2023 - "The Bear," which, this year, presented its second season on Hulu. There were three different episodes in this batch I thought were astounding, starting with that Christmas dinner crammed with all those guest stars. But if you're a latecomer to "The Bear," which is about Jeremy Allen White as a talented chef with family troubles, don't feel bad, I was, too. But bingeing over the holidays is a good thing, at least when it comes to television. And it may be the only way to catch up because 2024 is right around the corner.

GROSS: David Bianculli is professor of television studies at Rowan University. If you want a second chance to write down his suggestions you can listen again or read the transcript of David's review on our website, freshair.npr.org. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be actor Nicolas Cage. He starred in "Moonstruck," "Raising Arizona," "Leaving Las Vegas," "Adaptation" and countless action films. In the new movie "Dream Scenario," he plays a college professor who becomes a star on the internet after he mysteriously appears in the dreams of millions of people. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN")

GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.