Valeria Golino, right, and Giordana Marengo in <i>The Lying Life of Adults</i> Credit - Eduardo Castaldo—Netflix
January tends to be a fallow month at the cinema, as a smattering of the previous year’s remainders join Oscar movies seeking an awards-season bump at the box office. (What would we have done without M3gan?) Thankfully, this time around, television has rushed in to fill the entertainment void. From a surprisingly hilarious superhero comedy to a politically minded history of hip hop to Natasha Lyonne, amateur detective, 2023 has already delivered a veritable glut of quality TV. In fact, so many new shows have impressed me over the past few weeks that this list includes not one, not two, but three honorable mentions. If you’re truly hunkering down for the winter and need even more recommendations, here are the 10 shows I enjoyed most in 2022.
Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches (AMC)
Critical consensus has not been kind to the second title (after last year’s acclaimed Interview with the Vampire) in AMC’s ambitious Anne Rice Immortal Universe franchise. In all honesty, that response has kind of baffled me—and if it sounds like the kind of show you might enjoy, I recommend giving it a chance. Adapted from Rice’s Lives of the Mayfair Witches trilogy, Esta Spalding and Michelle Ashford’s gothic thriller pares down the author’s dense, century-spanning tomes about a dynasty of witches to zero in on the most fascinating character: Rowan Mayfair (Alexandra Daddario), a brilliant young neurosurgeon in San Francisco who discovers after the death of her adoptive mother that she’s the heir to an unfathomable fortune, as well as a dangerous legacy, in New Orleans. Also, she has the power to kill people with her brain.
Lush, smart, and occasionally quite juicy, Mayfair Witches capitalizes on Daddario’s deer-in-headlights intensity, along with perfectly creepy supporting performances from Harry Hamlin and Beth Grant as the family’s warring elders. New Orleans is a telegenic city, but it’s rarely been captured in such a vivid, ghostly light. Yet there’s plenty of substance behind the gorgeous veneer. As Rowan wrestles with her unique capacity to both save lives and end them, the series becomes more than just the hero’s journey of a generic Strong Female Character. Torn between a righteous calling and a seductive new realm, she can’t assume her role in the battle of good vs. evil until she learns to distinguish between them—and figures out which side she’s on.
Remember the name Emma Moran, for she has achieved what once seemed impossible: She’s created a superhero comedy that’s actually funny. The premise of her debut series, Extraordinary, is not revolutionary. Like Disney’s Encanto and, to a lesser extent, the recently canceled Peacock teen drama Vampire Academy, it’s set in an alternate reality where every young person, upon reaching a certain age, develops a superpower—except for the unfortunate protagonist. The failure-to-launch metaphor is so obvious, it even resonates with toddlers. What makes Moran’s show, well, extraordinary is the irreverent panache with which it’s executed. [Read the full review.]
Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World (PBS)
Sometime in the not-so-recent past, the idea of a PBS documentary about hip hop might’ve raised eyebrows. But the subculture that rose from the Bronx half a century ago has now been a fixture in mainstream pop culture for decades; if anything, Fight the Power is overdue. At least it was worth the wait. With Public Enemy‘s Chuck D and his longtime collaborator Lorrie Boula as executive producers, the four-part series wisely eschews a comprehensive history of the art form in order to focus on hip hop’s political impact. The result is a thoughtful dialectic between music and society, weaving together the so-called “benign neglect” of impoverished Black communities in 1970s New York with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5’s wake-up call “The Message” and a militarized early-’90s Los Angeles police force with the anti-cop anthems of NWA. Incidents seemingly lost to history, like Bill Clinton’s campaign-trail scapegoating of hip-hop generation activist Sister Souljah, come roaring back into the conversation. An overarching emphasis on racism doesn’t prevent the series from taking on vital controversies within the Black community, from the backlash over sexist lyrics to the legacy of Barack Obama. Scholars and journalists add essential analysis to the firsthand recollections of rappers including KRS-One, Ice-T, MC Lyte, and Killer Mike.
A final episode that strains to cram in the events of the 21st century—from 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to Obama, Trump, and the Black Lives Matter movement—is markedly weaker than its predecessors. Was Black Eyed Peas‘ “Where Is the Love?” really hip hop’s most salient response to the war in Iraq? Should Eminem‘s principled stand against racist, Trump-aligned white fans excuse his history of misogyny and homophobia, which goes unmentioned? Can you really make a documentary about hip hop and politics without having to weigh in on the rise and fall of Kanye West? These omissions are frustrating. But the series is worth watching on the strength of the first three episodes alone. Particularly for those in the PBS audience who’ve yet to realize how important hip hop has been in shaping political discourse and action for two generations, it’s essential viewing.
The Lying Life of Adults (Netflix)
If you’re starting to suspect that the most exciting new shows on Netflix come with subtitles—and premiere with frustratingly little publicity in the U.S.—rest assured you’re not alone. This past month saw the service unveil two series from A-list international auteurs: Drive provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Danish thriller Copenhagen Cowboy and The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House, a charming peek into geisha culture from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Broker, Shoplifters). But the real highlight was The Lying Life of Adults, an Italian adaptation of the 2019 novel by Elena Ferrante.
A coming-of-age drama set in 1990s Naples, Life traces the quietly cataclysmic fallout of one apparently trivial moment in the life of a middle-class family. One day, teenage Giovanna (Giordana Marengo) overhears her beloved father (Alessandro Preziosi) compare her appearance to that of his estranged sister, Vittoria (Valeria Golino), whom he hates. The incident compels the girl to meet her aunt, a vivacious, bitter, working-class spitfire who opens up Giovanna to a less intellectual, more emotional way of being in the world—while also manipulating her to shake up the family’s bourgeois-socialist existence. Sumptuously shot and beautifully acted (Marengo and Golino are especially great), this heightened account of the universal adolescent struggle to forge an identity distinct from one’s parents doesn’t quite measure up to My Brilliant Friend, HBO’s immaculate adaptation of Ferrante’s instant-classic Neapolitan Novels. But if you love those philosophical, psychologically rich meditations on friendship, intellectual ambition, and growing up female, then you’re sure to delight in Life as well.
Poker Face (Peacock)
As anyone who’s seen so much as a trailer already knows, the real amateur detective at the center of Knives Out and Glass Onion mastermind Rian Johnson’s wonderful Poker Face is played by Natasha Lyonne. And the show is an unapologetic tribute to classic mystery-of-the-week television—namely, ’70s touchstone Columbo, which kicked off each episode by walking viewers through the murder. First we met the victim and the perpetrator; some time later, Peter Falk’s eponymous scruffy detective would arrive on the scene. Instead of playing along from home, fans got to watch an odd, unassuming, yet brilliant sleuth conduct interviews, interpret clues, and sniff out motives. [Read the full review.]
The 1619 Project (Hulu)
Anyone who follows the news will be familiar with many issues the series addresses, which makes some episodes feel a bit remedial. But at its best, The 1619 Project makes astute—and highly personal—connections between the antebellum and pre-civil-rights past, and a present in which Black Americans still disproportionately face police violence, workplace exploitation, and other forms of inequality. [Read the full review.]
The Last of Us (HBO)
Based on the acclaimed video game franchise and created by the game’s mastermind, Neil Druckmann, and Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, the show is by turns gorgeous and harrowing, brutal and warm. From the performances to the storytelling to the aesthetic elements, it’s an exquisitely made adaptation. But it also asks viewers to absorb a whole lot of human misery without saying much that we haven’t already heard in similar shows. [Read the full review.]
The Watchful Eye (Freeform)
Less an earnest critique or satire of wealth and nepotism than a self-aware product of ambient eat the rich sentiment, The Watchful Eye has no highbrow aspirations. It’s just a solidly built thriller, with a smartly assembled cast of characters and well-executed plot beats, whose brisk pace guarantees a consistently exhilarating watch. At a time when so many shows reach for prestige signifiers that exceed their grasp, that lack of pretense is as refreshing as it is fun. [Read the full review.]