The TV finales that saved 2023, and the ones that royally ruined it

By Louis Shankar

Updated Jan 5, 2024 at 03:22 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

2023 was the year of TV finales. So many that I’d be surprised if several didn’t end up defining the culture of the 2020s. Not every ending is a good one, though. In fact, some endings can be bad enough to cast a pretty large shadow over the whole series. Here’s a roundup of this year’s absolute best and worst TV finales.

‘Succession’

Succession is undoubtedly the most influential television of recent years. Created by British screenwriter Jesse Armstrong, best known for his work on the 2000s sitcom Peep Show, its four seasons aired over five years and had an average viewership of over eight million.

Brian Cox, who played patriarch Logan Roy, repeatedly stole the show but we also have to shout the insane ensemble cast which included Nicholas Braun, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen, Sarah Snook, and Jeremy Strong. These individuals provided some of the finest and most despicable performances on television. Each season brought something new, raising the stakes, while remaining true to the premise and the core of the show.

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my favorite show of all time #succession #successionhbo

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The show’s finale, titled With Open Eyes, aired in March of this year to universal acclaim. This was a masterclass on how to end a show, tying up loose ends both definitively and creatively.

Succession has been described as Shakespearean and the ending (no spoilers) was pure tragedy. Up until the very last episode, it was unclear precisely where the plot would go. But now, looking back, the ending was entirely inevitable.

‘Happy Valley’

Happy Valley is the dictionary definition of a slow burn: its three series, six episodes apiece, aired in 2014, 2016 and 2023—those are long gaps. All 18 episodes were written by series creator Sally Wainwright. The core cast stayed with us throughout, ageing and, in the case of Rhys Connah as Ryan Cawood, who was only a child in the first episodes, growing up before our eyes.

James Norton and Sarah Lancashire made wonderful adversaries. Their relationship developed and mutated in strange but evocative ways. It was the best onscreen rivalry since Killing Eve season one. The show was incredibly dark, occasionally gruesome, but always authentic to its sense of place, the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire. The season was perfectly paced, with enticing but never unnecessary cliffhangers.

Plus, it made for occasion viewing. Millions of people sat down on Sundays at 9 pm to watch the show broadcast live—an increasingly difficult feat in our streaming age. Also, I have to give credit to Wainwright for understanding that three seasons was the perfect length. Sally, you really knew what you were doing.

‘Ted Lasso’

I personally loved the first two seasons of Ted Lasso, but found myself watching the final episodes of season three more out of obligation than enjoyment. The first season aired in 2020 and was a much-needed tonic to the chaos of that year. Many of us, myself included, binged the first season during the winter lockdowns and enjoyed its refreshing mix of humour and sentiment all packaged together with careful observations.

At times, it was very American and at others, thoroughly British. It was sweet without being saccharine. And while it was about football, it was never really about football.

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Did you catch these #TedLasso callbacks? #Believe

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The final season, on the other hand, was jarring, with an unsteady plot and multiple nonsensical plot twists. Some episodes were great—Colin’s coming out story was handled brilliantly, for instance—but these were largely self-contained.

Indeed, the season served as a fond farewell to Jason Sudeikis’ titular Ted Lasso but left every other character somewhere in the lurch. Of course, it would have been odd to continue Ted Lasso as a show without Lasso himself. That being said, the door is of course ajar—wide open, even—for potential spinoffs without Sudeikis.

Hannah Waddingham has quickly become a national treasure and could easily spearhead a separate show. Brett Goldstein went from a standup comedian and regular actor across British television to starring in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Hercules (only a cameo so far but soon to be a much larger role). The real-life story of Wrexham A.F.C., as told in Welcome to Wrexham on Hulu and Disney+, gained momentum and interest in America thanks to Ted Lasso, which speaks volumes about the show’s influence.

‘Sex Education’

Sex Education had, let’s be honest, one of the most disappointing final seasons in some years. It created so much anticipation and then never delivered. A litany of new characters were introduced, but only just, while a whole new set of locations appeared, and then immediately disappeared. It was a damp squib of a season finale which felt rushed, poorly planned, and generally unsatisfying.

I loved the early seasons of Sex Education: it was youthful and fresh, weird, queer. In season three, yes there was still some of that iconic cringe-inducing humour and it was arguably queerer than ever. But it still felt hollow, an exercise in box-ticking rather than an authentic three-dimensional attempt at storytelling.

Of course, the show will have a vital and far-reaching legacy: it fundamentally changed how sex and sexuality are talked about on television, not only for young adults but also for middle-aged people. The series covered topics such as menopause and geriatric pregnancy. And the cast… Well, it’s fair to say that Netflix has quickly become a key engine for developing young British talent.

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Emma Mackey was the lead in the independent biopic of Emily Brontë, Emily in 2022. Aimee Lou Wood took over the part of Sally Bowles in Cabaret in the West End and starred opposite Bill Nighy in Living in 2022. And, of course, Ncuti Gatwa is now The Doctor in Doctor Who, after also having played a significant part in Barbie, alongside Mackey.

Not every ending is planned: 2023 saw many shows cancelled, too, often suddenly, sometimes unsurprisingly. Some of the biggest and brightest shows that now have no future include Blue Bloods, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Father (phew), The Idol (phew!!), The Other Two (no!), and The Great (again, no!).

What does 2024 hold? Unfortunately, not a lot. This year, we’ll feel the result of 2023’s myriad of strikes, with delays in production and filming coming to a head over the spring and summer. But, True Detective is back, 3 Body Problem comes to Netflix, and Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon is back for season two after a series of delays. 2024 isn’t looking so bad after all.

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