Table of Contents
Why I made the list: It’s now a bit of a tradition, so I felt like I had to make a year-end list of the best underrated TV from 2023.
While a great deal of these series have received critical acclaim, many have flown under the radar of general audiences. And some undoubtedly have already attracted a large audience, but still deserve to be bigger!
I haven’t included some entries from last year’s list that debuted new seasons this year, like From (2022), as I felt like their quality has declined quite a bit. Or series that had just started airing when I published the article, such as Fellow Travelers or A Murder at the End of the World.
So, let’s dig in!
The Horror of Dolores Roach
A woman out for revenge sets up shop as a masseuse beneath the premises of a morally questionable pie-maker… This series owes an obvious debt to Sweeney Todd, which it (all too briefly) acknowledges in the first episode. But it also successfully brings the ghoulish humor and sense of tragedy that often accompanies that story to a modern setting.
What’s more, it gives the talented Justina Machado (Six Feet Under) a juicy leading role that lets her flex her substantial comedic chops. Machado is incredibly entertaining to watch as a woman who’s desperately trying to keep it together while things slip wildly out of her control.
Her panicked, disastrous attempts to clean up ‘the mess’ can be incredibly funny. Plus, there’s also a hilarious supporting part for Cyndi Lauper, of all people.
One downside is that the story gets a bit too convoluted and drawn out, coasting by on filler until one of Dolores’ secrets is on the brink of being exposed. The show relies on this routine a bit too often. And, instead of providing closure, the ending hints at a season 2, the last thing this enjoyable but stretched-out story needed.
It’s also not higher on my list because of the incessant voice-over that reveals Dolores’s innermost thoughts -pretty much all of them. It simply wasn’t needed, as Machado’s nuanced performance tells us everything we need to know about what’s going on with her. If you can overlook these flaws, though, Dolores Roach is a morbidly entertaining diversion.
American Horror Stories Season 3
I’m firmly unimpressed with what I’ve seen of American Horror Story’s 12th season, the Kim Kardashian-starring Delicate, so far. The story feels like a re-hash/expansion of the antichrist pregnancy subplot from previous seasons, with not much new added. And, halfway through, I’m really not optimistic that it’ll improve when it returns for the final episodes (whenever that may be).
So I sat down to watch the latest stand-alone stories of the spinoff with trepidation. Even though it had significantly improved in quality in its second season, and even made my list last year, it was still a bit hit-and-miss, and the last episode to air was a complete dud. Plus, you never know what kind of quality you’re in for when a Ryan Murphy series returns.
But to my surprise, every one of these new installments is pretty damn strong, setting up an unsettling premise and following it through to a tense conclusion. It probably helps that there are only 4 of them this time around, and the chief writer (the late Manny Coto) seems to have taken inspiration from Black Mirror in tackling mostly technological and body-horror terrors here.
All the episodes are tight, engrossing, and yes, horrifying. The acting is strong throughout, and there are even a couple of surprise guest stars who are perfectly cast (especially one HUGE voice role which I won’t spoil). They seem to have completely abandoned the idea of connecting these stories back to the main series in any way, but on the strength of these tales, that might not be a bad thing.
I’m a Virgo
I finally got around to watching Boots Riley’s amazing Sorry to Bother You (2018) in anticipation of I’m A Virgo, his first foray into television. Despite the premise being wildly different, the 2 share quite a lot in common, although Riley’s series gets 8 episodes over which to develop its themes of social injustice, discrimination, and media manipulation.
Whether or not that’s entirely a good thing (while Sorry to Bother You is sharp and concise, this can feel a bit padded out at times), Riley’s unique vision and unbridled creativity are once again a joy to watch. Although it takes a disappointing foray into satirical superhero waters already well-covered by the likes of The Boys, this story of a gentle giant trying to make his way in a hostile world is fun, vibrant, and quite lovable.
Happy Valley Series 3
One of the surprise best UK TV series of the last decade made a triumphant comeback in this one, as Sarah Lancashire returned to her signature role as the world-weary but incredibly tough police sergeant Catherine Cawood. And it’s pretty much the perfect send-off for this smart and sorrowful crime drama.
Series creator Sally Wainwright wisely let a significant amount of time pass before this final return to the troubled Yorkshire valley of the title. This allows for the conflict between Cawood and her nemesis Tommy Lee Royce to really escalate when the jailed psychopath tries to get his hooks into his now-teenage biological son (and her grandson). The policewoman then desperately tries to steer the boy away from his influence, while having to deal with the emergence of some troubling family secrets.
When Royce escapes from prison with both revenge and kidnap on his mind, the stakes are set for an epic showdown, and Wainwright definitely delivers. The biggest strength, though, remains the exceptionally written, realistic characters and dialogue, particularly between force-of-nature Lancashire and the equally excellent Siobhan Finneran as her fragile sister Clare.
Nobody was really clamoring for a remake of David Cronenberg‘s creepy 1988 psychological thriller Dead Ringers, about identical twin gynecologists with a disturbing dependency on one another. But if you really have to tell another version of this story, you better make sure it has something fresh to say and the lead actor can match the brilliance of Jeremy Iron’s dual role in the original.
Luckily, the creators of this new series version had the wise idea to gender-swap the brilliant but unhinged surgeons and place them in a birth clinic setting, adding another layer to an already creepy tale of obsession. While AHS: Delicate tried to tackle the horrors of childbirth but has mostly stumbled so far, this Dead Ringers wrings the maximum unease and ickiness out of its premise.
The trump card of this adaptation though is the perfect casting of Rachel Weisz as both Beverely and Elliot Mantle. Weisz gives a total masterclass in playing identical twins with very different sensibilities, and it’s almost always immediately possible to tell them apart when they share the screen. One is wounded and shy, the other brash and impulsive, but they both turn out to be deliciously dangerous in the end.
Before I hit play on the first episode of this adaptation of an obscure Playstation vehicular combat video game, I never imagined it would be one of the most fun watches of the year. It’s definitely mostly dumb fun, but the sheer entertainment value of Twisted Metal is not to be underestimated, and I basically found myself binging the whole first season in one go.
The basic premise of a ‘milkman’ making dangerous delivery runs between walled cities in a post-apocalyptic hellscape promises plenty of action and carnage, and the show definitely delivers. But it’s also incredibly inventive with both its setpieces and characters, and the dialogue is zippy, colorful, and hilariously funny (maybe not that surprising as the guys behind Deadpool and Zombieland are responsible).
The show is also perfectly cast down to the smallest role. Anthony Mackie and Stephanie Beatriz have tons of chemistry as leads John Doe and Quiet, and you really root for their characters to get out of the mayhem alive. Will Arnett is an ideal pick for the voice of psychopathic clown Sweet Tooth, and Neve Campbell gets her most fun role in years as ruthless leader Raven (who we really need more of in season 2!).
Okay, so Poker Face has been almost universally acclaimed. But I feel like way too many people are still oblivious about the existence of this hilarious, offbeat detective series. Created by Knives Out mastermind Rian Johnson, the show shares an ingenious approach to setting up and unraveling a mystery and has a similarly genial yet incisive sense of humor.
Perhaps best of all, it’s a fantastic showcase for the talented Natasha Lyonne. Johnson gifts Lyonne the role of her career as the incredibly messy but undeniably well-intentioned Charlie Cale, who has the gift/curse of being able to tell whenever somebody is lying.
This ability gets her into a lot of trouble early on with a Las Vegas casino owner. And she soon finds herself fleeing across the country and taking on a series of menial jobs to survive, from care worker cleaner to merch seller for a punk band. As she hops between States, the optimistic and trusting Charlie manages to befriend pretty much everyone she meets.
Unfortunately for them, though, many of these new friends are involved in some kind of murder cover-up, which Charlie quickly susses out. The perpetrators are usually shown doing the dirty deed right at the start, so there’s no whodunit mystery. The fun comes from seeing Charlie somehow insert herself into the situation, figure out how they did it, and then bring them to some kind of justice.
The guest stars in each episode are given impressively sketched-out characters to play (the incredible roster of performers includes Adrien Brody, Hong Chau, Chloë Sevigny, Judith Light, and Nick Nolte). And the fact that Charlie often finds herself amongst mostly downtrodden and desperate people often gives the stories an extra edge of tragedy.
Make no mistake, though, the series is first and foremost hilariously funny, and absurdly inventive with its settings and crimes throughout. And it feels like it will continue to be a joy to watch as long as Johnson wants to keep giving Lyonne mysteries to solve.
Yellowjackets Season 2
A repeat offender from last year’s list, and with good reason. Although Yellowjackets’ sophomore run has gotten more attention than its first outing, this brilliant series still deserves a bigger audience.
The second season really puts its excellent cast through the wringer and brilliantly develops its characters, both teenage and adult versions of the survivors of a devastating plane crash in the Canadian wilderness. It’s equally full of tense sequences in both the past and the present day, even if it feels like some of the adult storylines drag a little this time around (hello, Shauna’s murder cover-up subplot).
Apart from the impeccable teen actors including Sophie Nelissie and Sophie Thatcher, the biggest standouts continue to be Cristina Ricci’s unhinged Misty and Juliette Lewis as the tragic Natalie. Lewis has a particularly impressive arc this season and gets plenty of spotlight moments to unleash her particular brand of wounded anger.
The show’s pitch-perfect casting also continues with the addition of Simone Kessell and Lauren Ambrose as the adult versions of Lottie and Van, respectively. And Elijah Wood is an ideal foil for adult Misty as a nerdy citizen detective who gets wrapped up in the drama. Bring on season 3!
When I first read the logline and saw the trailer for Mrs. Davis, I thought it was very likely fated to be a bizarro misfire. The story of a nun waging war on an all-powerful artificial intelligence, conceived by a bizarre mash-up of writers from both The Leftovers and The Big Bang Theory, seemed like an uncertain proposal.
Luckily, Mrs. Davis quickly blasted away any misgivings I had about this brilliantly original show, and I remained highly entertained throughout its 8-episode run. To say too much about the plot would be to give away the many delightful surprises, but the fact that it manages to successfully marry together a fairly serious subject matter with absurd comedy is nothing short of a miracle.
In short, this is a hilarious, smart, thought-provoking, and, above all else, incredibly timely story well-told. And the cast (which includes Betty Gilpin, David Arquette, Margo Martindale, and Evil‘s Katja Hebers) is fab all around. So, just go watch it already!
Amazon has certainly put out some edgy, niche content this year (see also: I’m a Virgo, Dolores Roach). But Swarm may take the cake for the strangest, most unique original show the streamer has dared to make so far.
This limited series is first and foremost a character study of a young woman called Dre (a remarkable Dominique Fishback). She’s somewhat stunted and socially awkward, heavily dependent on her loving sister, and, most crucial to her character, completely obsessed with a pop star called Ni’Jah.
To break down the plot to its simplest terms and avoid spoilers, her total devotion to this figure (clearly heavily inspired by Beyoncé) starts to get her into some serious trouble. This massively escalates as the series goes on and Dre begins taking increasingly desperate action to get closer to her idol.
Swarm has a gorgeous, stylized look and often feels like a vivid fever dream, which complements Dre’s sometimes shockingly unhinged actions and her position as an unreliable narrator. Co-created by Donald Glover, the series also takes a risky, unusual approach to its road-trip narrative, but it’s one that pays off dividends in the memorable, startling final couple of episodes
So, what did you think of my picks for the best underrated TV shows of 2023? Agree? Disagree? Any glaring omissions? Let me know in the comments!