From the Spectator
Jacob Heilbrunn, contributing editor:
The Cambridge 5 may have betrayed their country, but they remain a splendid cultural export. The latest offering is Alexander Cary’s nifty television drama A Spy Among Friends, which features a riveting portrayal of Kim Philby.
Alexander Larman, books editor:
Succession concluded with a bang, although I cannot be the only person who thought that its stunning third episode — perhaps the best portrayal of sudden grief I’ve ever seen on television, or anywhere else for that matter — overshadowed the remainder of the series. And Jeremy Strong’s intelligent, soulful performance as Kendall, the heir apparent who finds the rug pulled under his feet at the last, will live on for a very long time in my memory. Otherwise, it’s been an oddly disappointing year, with everything from Sex Education to Ted Lassofalling at the final hurdles, and — of course — the plethora of Marvel and Star Wars series now becoming increasingly unruly and unmanageable.
Matt McDonald, managing editor:
The two television episodes that affected me the most this year were about death. I’m sure someone else will write about Succession here, so I’ll keep my comments on the third episode of the final season brief: when you watch someone die of a heart attack, you experience time seeming to slow down. The gear change that the usually fast-paced, fast-cutting show pulled off by showing that happen in real-time is powerful; it lingers. Elsewhere in British-made shows for American audiences, the final season of Sex Education put Maeve Wiley through her paces. A sex-positive, all-inclusive, vocally progressive program set in a sixth-form college might not be the kind of thing readers of The Spectator are usually prepared to pay heed to — but Wiley, as played by Emma Mackey, is the show’s emotional core, and her performance in a funeral episode that lays bare the class differences between her character’s family and her peers offers gut-punch after tragic gut-punch. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong — short of actually dropping the coffin. Binge the series like I did and you’ll be shedding tears by its climax.
Chadwick Moore, contributing editor:
Two of 2023’s most enjoyable television shows offer a marked departure from an entertainment culture dominated by caustic egos and grasping influencers — and a rejection of TV writing that too often defaults to snark, empty banter and complacent self-absorption.
Amazon Studios’ thrice-Emmy nominated Jury Duty — a comedic reality show that details the inner workings of an American jury — follows Juror #6, Ronald Gladden, who is unaware everything unfolding around him is an elaborate hoax and all his fellow jurors are hired actors. While laugh-out-loud funny, it’s Gladden’s unusually pure-hearted nature, his complete lack of sophistication and self-consciousness, that becomes the show’s driving, and endearing, force. You leave not only wishing there were more Ronald Gladdens in the world, but with a new appreciation for just how much talent it takes to pull off a good TV show, or just a great prank.
Similarly in the theme of innocence, there’s Netflix’s Down for Love, a five-part reality show that follows several New Zealanders with Down syndrome as they navigate dating and relationships. The show — which ends too abruptly with no conclusion (and, unfortunately, features one creepy sex therapy scene) — is a lesser but still heartwarming cousin to 2019’s Love on the Spectrum, a dating show following Australians with autism. An American counterpart, Love on the Spectrum US was released in 2022 and, like Down for Love, both became instant audience favorites.
Critics might find such shows schmaltzy and pathetically optimistic. They are, delightfully so.
Theresa Mull, assistant editor:
My pick for favorite television this year is an old show I’ve only recently discovered. Newhart was a hit before I was born, and watching the show now is a therapeutic escape to a simpler time (read: pre-smartphones) I saw the tail-end of. Star Bob Newhart (who confusingly stars as Dick Loudon in the show) is still with us, aged ninety-four. I’d like him to know that his sarcastic humor, juxtaposed with Tom Poston’s awe-shucks simpleness, continues to make even this fast-forward world as quaint and pleasant as the Stratford Inn was forty years ago.