Best TV of 2023: Every Second Counts in Two of The Year’s Greatest Episodes

The episodes of 'Succession' and 'The Bear' that still resonate months later are both meditations on time, something which television demands a great deal of in exchange for occasional moments of emotional depth.

HBO/Hulu

It’s hard to measure the year in television. The deluge of content makes it difficult for any one moment to stick in our cultural memory as in years past. (Consider the power the phrase “Not Penny’s Boat” still has, 15 years later.) So, it’s remarkable that there are not one but two transcendent episodes of television drama from this year that still resonate months after broadcast. Both are meditations on time, something which television demands a great deal of in exchange for occasional moments of profound emotional depth. Let’s celebrate television’s unique power over our hearts by looking back at “Connor’s Wedding” from Succession and “Forks” from The Bear.

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Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong defied convention by dispensing with the show’s primary antagonist, cantankerous media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox), just three episodes into its final season. The stage was set for Season 4 to pit Logan against the unified front of jilted would-be heirs Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Siobhan (Sarah Snook) as they vie for control of the family’s empire, and a number of conflicts had already been teed up to test the new generation’s solidarity. In short, business as usual.

Jeremy Strong as Kendall and Sarah Snook as Shiv in Succession. Macall B. Polay/HBO

“Connor’s Wedding” does not immediately shatter that sense of normalcy. For the first 16 minutes, there’s every indication that this episode will be a typical Roy family shitshow. Logan is skipping out on neglected eldest son Connor’s (Alan Ruck) big day to fly to Sweden and hammer out details for the sale of Waystar to tech giant Lukas Madsen (Alexander Skarsgård, who does not end up appearing in this episode at all), leaving Roman with the chore of firing Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron). Connor is flipping out about the wedding cake, which reminds him of a deep-seated childhood trauma. This, by all indications, is what the episode will be about. The audience doesn’t learn that anything’s wrong until Tom Wambsgans (Matthew McFadyen) finally gets a phone call through to Roman to tell him that his father is “very sick.” By now, Logan Roy is likely already dead.

Nearly the next half hour plays out in real time, as the Roy children attempt to process their shock as Tom gives them the play-by-play of their father’s demise. The flight crew is doing chest compressions. He’s not breathing, but no one will say if he’s gone. We cut to the airplane, but we’re stuck with Tom; Logan lies on the floor in the background, rarely in focus, his head obscured by a row of seating. With the exception of a single shot eight minutes later, we do not see Logan’s face for the remainder of the episode. Like the Roy kids, we are kept at a distance from Logan’s death, but we’re crowding them in their vulnerable moment. In the episode’s behind the scenes postscript, director Mark Mylod calls his filming style for the episode “sadistically voyeuristic.” We’re locked in with the characters and their shock, panic, and grief, and their frustration at receiving some of the most urgent, terrifying news of their lives second-hand over a tinny cell phone speaker. (Try listening to this scene with headphones on — it’s agony.) To preserve this sense of immersion, Mylod and the cast performed these 28 script pages in a continuous take, much of which is used in the final cut. The comfortable artifice of musical score is withheld for 12 minutes, only fading in once Kendall accepts that his father is gone.

Matthew Macfadyen as Tom and Dagmara Dominczyk as Karolina in Succession Macall B. Polay/HBO

“Connor’s Wedding” is the opposite of escapist media—it’s a trap. The Roys are stuck on a boat, thousands of miles from where their father lays dying. The wealth and social capital that often makes them immune to meaningful consequences is completely useless. Kendall can bark orders about assembling the best doctors in the world, but this is an impotent flex of power. Siobhan, who’s informed of Logan’s collapse only after Kendall and Roman have said their piece, futility transmits her goodbyes into a dead man’s ear. There is absolutely nothing to be done, and all these emotionally stunted adult children have are their feelings. They’re stuck, and so are we, and since we are also denied the means to escape, we have no choice but to feel with them. The feelings themselves are overwhelmingly complicated, as each of the Roys attempts to express their love for their father without absolving his many, terrible betrayals. They were so close to finally defeating him, to proving their worth, and now he’s gone.

Ebon Moss- Bachrach as Richard “Richie” Jerimovich in The Bear. Courtesy of FX/Hulu

Speaking of proving one’s worth, the year’s other TV masterpiece centers around the pitiful Richie Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bacharach), quasi-cousin to The Bear’s Chef Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White). Of all of the staff that remains from The Original Beef of Chicagoland, Richie is the one who has been most resistant to Carmy’s efforts to remake the humble sandwich shop he inherited into a fine dining destination. Richie is a working class guy whose blustering masculine bravado is a flimsy tarp over an above-ground pool of self-loathing. He’s 45, he’s a part-time father to his daughter, he’s still in love with his ex-wife, and he’s in danger of becoming obsolete at work. When Carmy lands him a one-week internship at Ever, Chicago’s most prestigious restaurant, Richie assumes he’s being punished for, in his words, “being ancillary.” Sending him off to polish forks for the elite will show him how little he belongs in Carmy’s world, or at the very least, get him out of the way for a few days while the rest of the team works on a renovation that seems to have no place for him.

This episode, “Forks,” is the story of a different renovation, the reconstruction of Richie himself. Though initially dismissive of the menial task he’s been assigned, Richie gets a lesson in humility from his young supervisor Garrett (Andrew Lopez), to whom restaurant hospitality is a sacred calling. Garrett introduces Richie—and by extension, the audience—to the intense and intricate clockwork of a fine dining establishment, which is as much a bespoke theme park experience as it is an eatery. For most of the diners, an evening at a three Michelin Star restaurant is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the service staff is obsessed with making that experience magical, paying careful attention to each guest and making their wishes—even unspoken ones—come true. A waiter overhears a guest lamenting that she’ll be leaving Chicago without trying deep dish pizza, and before the meal is over, the chef has sliced a pie from a local pizza shop into a custom intermezzo, which Richie gets the honor of serving to the customer. For Garrett, this dedication to others is part of his recovery from a destructive alcohol addiction. Wordlessly, Richie realizes that he, too, needs to put effort into recovery, not from addiction, from despair.

FX/Hulu

We experience Richie’s week at Ever in a whirlwind 35 minutes, during which we see him learn and apply a dozen little lessons for turning his life around. Where “Connor’s Wedding” is about languishing in every tick, every blink of a painful moment, “Forks” is about artful efficiency, both textually and metatextually. “Every Second Counts” reads the sign underneath every clock in the restaurant, and it’s as much a mantra for writer Alex Russell and creator/director Christopher Storer as it is for the chefs and waitstaff. There is no single lightbulb moment for Richie, no breakthrough monologue. Instead, we watch him chip his way out of his carapace of misery a piece at a time. Each of these incremental improvements to his attitude, his performance, and his self-respect are essential in convincing the viewer that a man who’s spent the past season and a half slamming his fingers in a door jamb would give himself a manicure. By the time we reach the climax of the episode, in which he belts Taylor Swift in his car in celebration of a great night of work, Cousin Richie is a new man.

On the last day of the internship, Richie has a chance meeting with the oft-mentioned, never-before-seen Chef Terry (Olivia Colman) that underlines so much of Richie’s journey. Richie, who felt demeaned by the job of methodically polishing forks, finds his boss’s boss’s boss carefully peeling mushrooms by hand, because “It makes the customer feel like a lot of time went into making their dish.” In cuisine, as in any kind of service industry, the product you’re really selling is your time. There’s something special about being the recipient of someone’s time, but for that gift to mean something, you have to value it. Richie has been living as if his time is already up, but it isn’t. It goes fast, but the time he has left is as valuable as the time he’s used up. His tale is, in its own way, a celebration of mortality, a reminder that life is about the things you can change just as much as those you can’t.

Every second counts. Just ask Shiv Roy.

Best TV of 2023: Every Second Counts in Two of The Year’s Greatest Episodes