One episode can be enough to make or break a TV show. An incredible pilot has the power to instantly hook a viewer; a disappointing finale can sour a great show's legacy. The importance of a strong hour, or half-hour, of TV cannot be overstated. That's why we couldn't let our celebration of the best shows of 2023 go by without spotlighting the episodes that stuck with us.
New series like Mrs. Davis and Dead Ringers took us by surprise with their ingenuity, while It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia proved that even the longest running series can still find a way to reinvent the wheel. Second-season shows like The Bear and Yellowjackets gave us memorable episodes that proved they weren't just one-hit wonders, while outgoing series like Reservation Dogs and Succession ensured they went out with a bang.
From the episodes we've been thinking about all year to the ones that caught us by surprise late in the game, these are TV Guide's picks for the best TV episodes of 2023.
Physical: 100 is a supersized show in every sense of the word. The new reality competition series from South Korea is a quest to find the "perfect physique" among 100 contestants with extraordinary bodies, and every episode features herculean challenges. But as entertaining as this first season was, it's hard to deny that most tasks favored contestants with the greatest physical strength. That's why "The Uninvited Guests" was the show's most promising episode and should be used as a blueprint for future seasons. The challenge "Moving Sand" required physical strength but also balance, endurance, and speed. Every team tackled the course with a different strategy, which produced joyous moments like Kim Da-young — the lone woman in one group — being celebrated for building a sturdy bridge for her teammates. The episode also contained the most satisfying scene in the entire show: when the unanimously agreed-upon underdogs led by Jang Eun-shil were announced the winners against their competitors. Physical: 100 aims to challenge our perceptions of strength, and "The Uninvited Guests" accomplishes that goal. -Kat Moon
We knew from the early moments of The Wheel of Time Season 2 that the Seanchan were going to be the show's most terrifying villains. But "Eyes Without Pity" displays the extent of their evil. Up until this point, the series has only shown from afar the Damane — women who channel the One Power but are enslaved — and the Sul'dam who control them. After Egwene (Madeleine Madden) is captured, the Seanchan's subjugation horrifyingly takes center stage. It's the most horrendous watch of the season, as Sul'dam Renna (Xelia Mendes-Jones) torments Egwene for grasping onto her agency. Madden delivers a rousing performance as someone painfully battling between resisting and relenting, and her Egwene is a declaration that freedom and power come from within. -Kat Moon
Mike Flanagan may nevermore produce a horror miniseries for Netflix (he's now signed with Prime Video), but the finale of his last one for the streamer, The Fall of the House of Usher, is the perfect punctuation mark on a series that paced itself with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. As the series progressed, Flanagan's hands got intentionally heavier each episode; the structure became obvious and more connected, the Edgar Allan Poe references were more pronounced and intentional, and, most effectively, the tension — even if you knew what was coming — thickened until you were left paralyzed by the walls closing in on Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), the cursed patriarch who traded his lineage for profits. Poe's most famous poem is used profusely and reverberates through the soul in the final chapter, building to a crescendo that's as much a farewell salute to the gothic poet as it is the chilling cap to a story of greed and capitalism at the cost of love and family. "The Raven" never tries to trick or manipulate its audience as it barrels towards its inevitable conclusion; it simply underlines, in heavy black ink, what came before. -Tim Surette
Greg Whiteley's sports docuseries about a third-tier professional wrestling league in Kentucky is a royal rumble of fascinating real-life stories grappling for supremacy, but the series' best gets highlighted in the bloody, moving fifth episode, "Mother." Having built up the hostility in and out of the ring between mother and daughter duo Maria James, the hardworking veteran, and HollyHood Haley J, the firecracker prodigy who can't be tamed, for several episodes, Wrestlers goes deep into their backstory to reveal Maria's absence in Haley's life following a stint in jail and the pursuit of her wrestling career, sending a teenage Haley on a path that mirrored Maria's own troubled youth. Whiteley lets it all blow up when art imitates life in a death match between the two; years of resentment erupt in an adrenaline- and anger-fueled therapy session involving thumb tacks, bats, folding chairs, and a whole lot of blood, and it's hard for us to differentiate between what's scripted and what's long overdue. "I want my daughter to succeed, because I didn't," Maria says. "And anything I can do to help her on her path ... I'm all about it." Even if it means taking a tack-wrapped bat to the side of the head. After the match, the two feel closer than ever and the pressure valve is finally released. A tale of breaking familial cycles and accepting healing, "Mother" is Wrestlers at its most raw and truthful. -Tim Surette
Tensions have been simmering across the first eight episodes of Beef, but they reach a boiling point in "The Great Fabricator." In the show's most explosive episode, Danny (Steven Yeun) and Amy's (Ali Wong) strife causes deadly consequences far beyond their imagination — and that of the audience. Danny's accidental kidnapping of June (Remy Holt), Amy and George's (Joseph Lee) daughter, is the catalyst for the blistering events that follow. With a young girl's life at stake, the characters release emotions they've been reining in with all their might. Danny and Amy's beef might be recent, but "The Great Fabricator" is a culmination of years of buried rage. -Kat Moon
No one else in FX's long-running (and, let's hope, never-ending) comedy It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia gets frustrated quite like its resident charming creep Dennis Reynolds (Glenn Howerton), and an increasingly exasperated Dennis is the centerpiece of this episode that shows a comedy in its sixteenth season can still produce a gem. In this case, what makes "Dennis Takes a Mental Health Day" subversively funny is that seemingly for once one of the gang is honestly trying to do something good for themselves, and it backfires in their face like one of Rickety Cricket's farts. While Dennis wants to relax at the beach after a doctor warns him of having high blood pressure, overdue karma conspires against him, giving him a taste of mental freedom before snatching it away and crushing his soul through a complicated electric rental vehicle and a tea shop with rigid sales transaction rules. The apparent break from the show's normal formula, which relies on the gang never learning their lessons, seems to say that there's no escape from what's coming to our favorite horrible people, even when they have the best intentions. But the Usual Suspects-like twist ending reveals the mental health day was all in Dennis' mind, and his violent exit from the daydream was just an elaborate scheme to lower his blood pressure and prove his doctor wrong. Never change, Dennis. -Tim Surette
Each episode of Dead Ringers feels like its own unique chapter, and all are influenced by varying genres of horror. "Two" is a statement on the kind of twisted psychological horror games that only the uber-rich can play, and "Three" borrows from surreal '70s Italian murder mysteries, for example. But "Five" is the most terrifying — or at least the creepiest — as it lifts from the most underrated genre of scary films, folk horror. Whisked off via private jet to Alabama to personally deliver an impossibly wealthy doctor's (Michael McKean) daughter's quadruplets, the Mantle twins (Rachel Weisz) once again feel like prisoners to the affluent. "Five" also captures another repeated motif that Dead Ringers embraces so well: the horrifying dinner party. As McKean's Dr. Marion discusses his breakthroughs in women's health while sneaking disturbing glances at his multiple sets of identical twin daughters — seriously, WTF? — director Karyn Kusama repeatedly cuts to the dissection of the Cornish game hens on the dinner table, for an appetite-destroying allegory about how this man built his wealth. Meanwhile, much of the episode is told through the eyes of new character Silas (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), a writer paid to pen a fluff piece about the Mantles, and he offers a bird's-eye view into the dissolution of Beverly and Elliot's bond. And then we see a quadruplets C-section delivery! With its multiple angles of attack, "Five" is an episode that creeps in on you until it takes you over. -Tim Surette
So far, the second season ofInvincible is all about Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) doing everything he can to not become like his father. It's a noble mission, considering that Nolan, or Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), murdered thousands in cold blood not too long ago. But "It's Been a While" puts Mark's very objective into question as the episode probes into Omni-Man's humanity. For the first time, we see how the superhero plunged into despair after the massacre. Omni-Man himself is appalled: This new capacity to feel is more daunting than any enemy he's faced. And while Invincible's most powerful character rethinks his beliefs about the value of a life, Mark confronts the question he's most afraid of: Can he justify ending one? -Kat Moon
It's not the one where they eat Jackie — but it is the one where Misty (Christina Ricci) hallucinates John Cameron Mitchell singing a jazzy show tune as the human personification of her African grey parrot, Caligula. In a season that veered between Yellowjackets' sickening highs — suffocating female friendships, mob violence, cannibalism — and dragged-out lows, "Burial" hit pay dirt by finding a way to marry the weird, sad comedy of the present-day storyline with the brutality of the wilderness era. As the teens are left reeling in the aftermath of Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) losing her baby, the adults do pseudo-therapy at Lottie's (Simone Kessell) cult, with each timeline revealing something about how the survivors are carrying everything they've repressed. The episode builds to a striking juxtaposition: The adults dance together in the snow, while in the past, the teens circle up to watch Shauna beat Lottie (Courtney Eaton) nearly to death. Then, in a truly killer beat, Shauna rolls her eyes as Lottie chokes on her own blood. When Yellowjackets is loopy, it's a lark; when it's vicious, it's even better. -Kelly Connolly
At some point the Gemstone kids had to start working together, right? OK — maybe there wasn't always much evidence to support that happening, but it does happen in the penultimate episode of Season 3. After escaping Peter's (Steve Zahn) compound after Eli (John Goodman) refuses to pay the ransom, the Gemstone kids discover not only that they share a true bond, but also that it's important to cherish the people closest to you. What's perhaps more surprising than the Gemstones getting on the same page is the fact that, for a show that's as crass as they come, "I Will Take You by the Hand and Keep You" is so tender, managing to find genuine warmth and emotion in the reunions of BJ (Tim Baltz) and Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam Devine) and Keefe (Tony Cavalero). In a remarkable season of The Righteous Gemstones that seemed to constantly hit new highs, this episode stood above the rest. -Kyle Fowle
At the start of "Sitzprobe," Meryl Streep's Loretta shares the definition of the theatrical term that gives the episode its title: "when the actors first perform with an orchestra, and you learn if all your choices have produced something harmonious or horrific." But the sitzprobe for Death Rattle Dazzle is only a small fraction of the story. Besides uniting the actors and orchestra in Oliver Putnam's (Martin Short) musical, the episode brings together Loretta and her manager, Dickie (Jeremy Shamos) — and unveils their relationship as mother and son to a shocked Charles (Steve Martin) and Mabel (Selena Gomez). Streep's addition to the cast is without contest the highlight of Only Murders in the Building's third season, and "Sitzprobe" offers an opportunity to feast on her performance. Her rendition of the song "For the Sake of a Child" is spellbinding, and its lyrics capture Loretta's worst fear: that the decisions she has made as a mother led to outcomes more horrific than harmonious. -Kat Moon
While one could make a case for spotlighting just about any episode from The Other Two's phenomenally funny third and final season, this is the Max comedy at its peak. The episode bounces between three stories, as Brooke (Heléne Yorke), Cary (Drew Tarver), and Pat (Molly Shannon) all toy with the idea of changing themselves. For Brooke, this involves producing a "mental health awareness" telethon. For Cary and Pat, it involves heading back to Ohio to measure their new lives in showbiz against their old ones. All are plagued by difficulties: Brooke goes to zany lengths to stop performer Ben Platt from getting on stage, Pat learns she actually can't stand her former self, and Cary ends up face down in a wet diaper. Throw in some pop culture references ("Thank you, John Krasinski, for that beautiful poem while flexing"), a grandiose musical number, and a poignant end monologue, and you have an episode that hits the sweet spot between high-concept comedy and sincerity that The Other Two was always so good at. -Allison Picurro
All the warm comforts of Somebody Somewhere are in "To Ed," its second season finale. Something more melancholy and difficult is in there, too. The episode begins with a funeral and ends with a wedding; the funeral gives Sam (Bridget Everett) and Joel (Jeff Hiller) the push they needed to heal their deep friendship, while the wedding doubles as a real-life eulogy for the late actor Mike Hagerty, who played Sam's father, Ed, and who passed away shortly before filming began on Season 2. This kind of delicate emotional balance is what makes the series so hard to shake — joy is mined from grief, and vice versa. Even Sam's reunion with Joel can't fix all her problems. But "To Ed" is still a celebration above all, a tribute to acceptance and community that takes its title from Fred's (Murray Hill) wedding toast to an absent Ed, who's immortalized on a happy vacation. And what else on TV this year felt half as jubilant as Sam's performance of Laura Branigan's "Gloria" at the reception? It's the look on Joel's face when the music kicks in that takes the scene from great to ecstatic. The wonder of that moment, like the wonder of the show, is in the fact that it's shared. -Kelly Connolly
Three words: Darmine Doggy Door. Two more words: Feed Eggs. Episode 2 of I Think You Should Leave's third season contains a couple of the season's most memorable sketches, each of which highlights two of the comedy's favorite topics: mundane conflict and hating work. What's funnier than watching Tim Robinson's manic eyes go black as he interrupts his own doggy door infomercial to loudly express his fear of the monstrous creature his neighbor let loose in his home? Watching Tim Robinson grow increasingly confused while playing an absurd computer game at his office job, that's what. Bolstered by guest appearances from Ayo Edebiri and Will Forte, and a madcap sketch about the woes of dating, "I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT" packs in enough series highs to earn itself a spot on the list of ITYSL's best episodes. -Allison Picurro
It's easy to view The Last of Us as a story of loss. In HBO's adaptation of the video game of the same name, there's hardly a respite from death for Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey). But The Last of Us is, more than anything, about the will to live. In this post-apocalyptic hell, brothers Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard) have leaned on each other to, like the episode title suggests, endure and survive. Their bond is palpable, made stronger by the sacrifices Henry made to keep his younger sibling healthy and alive. In a change from the video game, Sam is deaf, which adds new depth to their relationship — and casting Woodard, who is deaf, to play the character was a welcome step in representation. And though "Endure and Survive" is also remembered for introducing the macabre Bloater, it's the brothers' tragic ending that wounds us more. -Kat Moon
A sting operation using a fake Sting concert is already a perfect gag. Party Down is so good that it uses that gag as a setup for an even better one: The gang trips on mushrooms. While working a luau before the nonexistent Sting concert, the cater waiters "cleave their psyches in twain" courtesy of Henry's (Adam Scott) producer girlfriend, Evie (Jennifer Garner), who supplies the goods. Technically, this mushroom trip pushes the characters to confront their career disappointments, as they always must. But "Prizewinner's Luau" is so ridiculously funny — Lucy (Zoë Chao) baffles Ron (Ken Marino) with an appetizer that isn't food; Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams) live-streams his psychedelic odyssey; Roman (Martin Starr) gets pulled into the cops' scheme to bust a deadbeat dad named Jeff Daniels — that it chews up their existential crises. Sure, creative aspirations are a trap, but have you heard the way Roman pronounces "Hyundai"? -Kelly Connolly
Coming after the sprawling, cameo-packed holiday episode "Fishes," "Forks" is The Bear's exercise in recalibration. It's Richie Jerimovich's (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) long-deserved very special episode, and it's the triumph of the show's second season. Richie — who has spent much of the season in a directionless, transitional state — is sent off on his own to train at an upscale restaurant, where he's put in charge of drying the forks. He sees the job as demoralizing and retaliates by clashing with his supervisor, but he gradually begins to understand the value in taking pride in one's work. Moss-Bachrach has always been a wonder as the show's trickiest character, embodying the bone-deep exhaustion of a man who has suffered excruciating loss and is painfully aware of how many people consider him a failure, and he's on fire in this ruminative half-hour. "Forks" puts Richie in a suit and gives him his hero moment, soundtracked by a Taylor Swift song. The Bear rarely slows down, but when it dares to, the result is marvelous. -Allison Picurro
Have you heard the one about the nun whose quest for the Holy Grail involves the most expensive Super Bowl commercial never made? An algorithm wrote the title of the rollicking fifth episode of Mrs. Davis, "A Great Place to Drink to Gain Control of Your Drink," but it could never have written the plot. As told by shipwrecked professor Arthur Schrodinger (Ben Chaplin) to his rapt audience, Simone (Betty Gilpin) and Wiley (Jake McDorman), the episode is a campfire story about the making of a '90s commercial for British Knights sneakers, an ambitious ad dreamed up by the pantsuit-clad Mathilde (Katja Herbers) as a way to show off the Grail to the masses. What starts as a silly spoof of the entertainment biz turns surprisingly moving as Arthur reveals that Mathilde's daughter, Clara (Mathilde Ollivier), who was also his daughter, stole the Grail from the set and spent years working with him to destroy it, until it destroyed her. After that, a whale was involved. Over the course of an hour, the episode moves from foolishness to family tragedy, ending on a French disco pop-backed rallying cry for Simone to take up Clara's mission. Heads explode in a cartoonish way. Heads explode in a sad way. This is what television should be. -Kelly Connolly
It's hard to overstate just how impressive "Connor's Wedding" is as a technical achievement. The deceptively titled third episode of Succession's fourth and final season, better known as the death episode, was a beast of an hour that found director Mark Mylod setting up multiple cameras to capture the centerpiece of the season: a 28-minute-long continuous take wherein the Roy children learn over the phone that their father has died. Killing off Logan (Brian Cox), and doing so mostly off screen, was always going to be the event that defined the end of the show. But it's the distinctiveness of the characters' reactions that will stick with me, as this Shakespearean drama elegantly morphed into a portrait of loss: Shiv's (Sarah Snook) crumpled face and shaking hands, Roman's (Kieran Culkin) vehement denial, Connor's (Alan Ruck) initial response to the news: "He never even liked me." On an unremarkable airport runway in New Jersey, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv, and Roman collapse into a hug as Logan's body is removed from his private jet. In that moment, they're nothing more than lost children without a parent, their humanity blooming thanks to the universal severity of grief. -Allison Picurro
It's a testament to Reservation Dogs' impressive range that any number of episodes from the show's final season could have taken this spot, but "Deer Lady" packs an unforgettable punch. Filmed in the style of a '70s horror movie, the episode traces Deer Lady's (Kaniehtiio Horn) history back to a Native boarding school, where, as a girl (played by Georgeanne Growingthunder), she was imprisoned and brutally stripped of her culture. The boarding school sequences are nightmarish; writer Sterlin Harjo and director Danis Goulet incorporate unsettling touches, like garbling the English language so it's unintelligible to the audience. In one shot, seen through the eyes of a young boy, Koda (Michael Podemski), who's being dragged to his death, the room flips upside down. It's as though the whole world has done the same.
In its third and final season, Reservation Dogs was more focused than ever on its elders; it looked to the future by looking to the past, making the point that each generation lives on in the next. Deer Lady, a spirit, is a part of this big picture, too, carrying her pain from the boarding school into the present. This episode grants her a way to release some of that pain. In a diner, she crosses paths with Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), who got lost on his trip back from California. When Deer Lady offers him a ride, saying he reminds her of Koda, she's giving him — and, by extension, his generation — what her childhood friend never had: a way home. "They can't stop you from smiling," she tells Bear, passing along what Koda taught her.
The night Koda was killed and young Deer Lady escaped into the woods, the spirit of a deer offered her a choice, exchanging her mortality for a long life and a vendetta against bad men. Reservation Dogs is matter-of-fact about this trade-off; there was no other way to leave that place alive. "Deer Lady" is a grim departure from the show's usual tone, but it still fits within it, expanding Reservation Dogs' rambling indie sweetness to make room for the darker side of survival. On her drive home with Bear, Deer Lady stops to kill the now-elderly man (John Getz) who originally kidnapped her, stabbing him in the back with an antler while he sits at his table. He lived by turning his back on strangers, and he dies by it. As she leaves his house with his blood on her coat, Deer Lady almost smiles. -Kelly Connolly