Lately, it seems like every year has been a transformative one for television, but 2023 was especially seismic. Writers and actors went on strike, prompting an overdue reckoning with streaming models and new technology in Hollywood as well as inspiring labor actions across the country. And viewers felt the impact, as TV lineups were a little thinner — and less promoted — than usual, even in an era of supposedly endless "content." This year was a reminder that the TV shows we love are valuable to us, and that the people who make them should be treated as valuable, too.
And as strange as TV became as 2023 stretched on, the year still served up plenty of memorable series, from all-time greats that went out on top, like Succession and Reservation Dogs, to creative new stunners, like Mrs. Davis and I'm a Virgo. Cult favorites returned; cult favorites were canceled. A reality competition got everyone talking, and so did a video game adaptation. Even the superhero genre found new things to say. In short, the more things changed on television, the more they stayed the same. These are TV Guide's picks for the 20 best TV shows of 2023.
Reality competition series aren't usually in the conversation for best shows of the year, and for good reason. Most are them are dumb-as-rocks schedule fillers that can be produced on a shoestring budget. But Peacock's The Traitors became a word-of-mouth sensation in January because it earned it. The show — basically a game of Mafia in a Scottish castle with reality stars and normal people, hosted by Alan Cumming — is more concerned with how the game is played than with who wins the game, making it an especially good time for voyeurs who think they could have outwitted the people on the show. The silly challenges are easily the worst part of the series, but the base game, which sees a trio of unknown traitors silently eliminating players while the others try to sniff out the traitors, causes enough paranoia among everyone that it becomes a fascinating experiment in perception, over-confidence, and crisis management. (Who knew Below Deck's Kate Chastain was such a boss?) The format, based on the Dutch original, has proven popular; there are more than 20 different international editions around the world. -Tim Surette
Superhero fatigue is now near-fatal superhero exhaustion, and we're finding it hard to get out of bed for anything Marvel these days. Thankfully, superhero satires are still going strong, and they were given an injection of life with Hulu's awesome Extraordinary — though based on how little Hulu promoted it, we wouldn't be surprised if this is the first time you're hearing about it. The British comedy is set in a world where everyone gets superpowers when they turn 18 — well, everyone except our "hero," Jen (Máiréad Tyers), who spends the series trying to discover her power and anguishing over being "normal," in addition to dealing with the angst and confusion of being an aimless, single twentysomething. Extraordinary has even managed to carve out its own corner in the superhero satire subgenre, eschewing the nihilism of The Boys for hopefulness and the violence of Peacemaker for silliness. Would either of those shows ever center a pivotal plot point on a cat show? Absolutely not. (OK, maybe Peacemaker would.) -Tim Surette
Spin-offs are always hit-or-miss, and Gen V knocks it out of the park. From its first episode, the drama makes a statement: It will be as unflinchingly dark, dirty, and diabolical as The Boys. But the college-set series sets itself apart from its predecessor by focusing on supes who are only beginning to understand their powers. These are not the experienced fighters in The Seven; they are university students whose abilities evolve as they face the everyday pressures of transitioning into adulthood. This gives the cast, led by Jaz Sinclair, even more room to develop their characters. Gen V also cleverly uses the young supes' powers as metaphors for mental health issues that teens face today. There's a cost to every character's abilities — raising Gen V's stakes even more. -Kat Moon
For many Asian Americans, anger is the most untapped emotion. The model minority myth has exerted a pressure to focus on expressing gratitude instead of grievances and to only present our best, smiling selves. Lee Sung-jin'sBeef says f--- that. The drama brazenly digs into the roots of rage, even if it means unearthing its characters' most painful memories connected to unhealthy cultural norms. What begins as a road rage incident between Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) and Amy Lau (Ali Wong) spirals into a psychological war that harms everyone in their vicinity. Yet despite the conflict-fueled premise, Beef is cathartic because it creates space for rage. If only the show's first season weren't tainted by controversy around actor David Choe and his past comments about rape — and the disappointing statement Lee, Yeun, and Wong gave following the backlash. -Kat Moon
John Wilson approached the final season of his HBO docuseries with miraculous honesty, resulting in some of the comedy's best episodes yet. As Wilson walked the audience through irreverent, zigzagging tutorials for finding public restrooms and tracking packages, he broke open parts of himself in the process, delivering intimate confessions about adolescent sexuality and failed relationships and body image. He owned up to a shot he'd gone to great lengths to fabricate. He toyed with mortality. The finale, which puts Wilson in the middle of a convention hosted by a cryogenics company, ends with one of the most jaw-dropping interviews in the series' history. There will be imitators in the years to come, but there will only ever be one How to with John Wilson, a show with a remarkably singular vision. -Allison Picurro
Let me tell you how TV works. A new show comes out; it gets a little notoriety. People pick up on it in its second season, and it hits the height of its popularity. Then the third season come out and the inevitable backlash begins. What I'm saying is the general consensus is that Season 3 of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson is the worst of the sketch comedy's three seasons, but that opinion is just the herd following tired trends. The correct opinion is that Season 3 is just as good as Seasons 1 and 2, and if you think it's not as good because the novelty has worn off, then you've never seen Tim Robinson ziplining into a pool on a dating show over and over, or playing a computer game about eggs, or yelling about a monster crawling through a doggy door. Every sketch is great, and therefore every season is great. We shouldn't even be talking about "seasons" with this show; just blur I Think You Should Leave all together like it was meant to be seen. -Tim Surette
As soapy as it is moving, Fellow Travelers is glorious television. Beginning in the McCarthy era of the 1950s and spanning all the way to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the limited series follows the ebb and flow of a decades-long romance between two political staffers, smooth careerist Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) and wide-eyed activist Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey). Calling to mind everything from Angels in America to Mad Men, it paints a rich portrait of a volatile era for queer people in America and comes alive thanks to the searing chemistry between Bomer and Bailey. Gay period pieces can be exhausting watches that veer into trauma porn territory, but Fellow Travelers succeeds by approaching the period with complexity and making its central duo feel like living, breathing people. -Allison Picurro
After watching Mike Flanagan's gleefully gruesome The Fall of the House of Usher, one has to imagine that Edgar Allan Poe would be proud. For his final act at Netflix before heading over to Prime Video, the maestro behind The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass cleverly uses Poe's greatest works as torturous instruments to dole out justice against each member of the Usher family, a very thinly veiled take on the pharmaceutical magnate Sackler family. At times, the series feels like a murderous game of Mad Libs — death by monkey, death by acid rain, death by a sea of broken glass. But with help from brilliant performances by Carla Gugino (as a demonic form of The Raven) and Bruce Greenwood, Flanagan crafts an unforgiving and unforgettable odyssey through the weight of guilt, the blindness of greed, and the terrifying reality of just how quickly some of us are willing to sell our souls. -Hunter Ingram
How do you successfully revive a beloved cult comedy? Make all the characters desperately sad and add Jennifer Garner. Party Down's third season, over a decade in the making, had no reason to be as good as it was. Against all odds, the show proved it still had something to say as it caught up with the Party Down catering crew, all of whom were older but no wiser than the last time we saw them. A series of mishaps landed them all back under the supervision of the eternally, fruitlessly hopeful Ron (Ken Marino), which gave the show the opportunity to slide effortlessly back into its signature format of placing the ensemble at a series of ridiculous events, from a sting operation masquerading as a luau to a high school prom masquerading as a press event. Season 3 of Party Down harnessed so much of what made its original run great by providing just enough callbacks to the past while giving the present plenty of room to breathe. If the last moments of its finale are any indication, it's setting up for a promising future, as well. -Allison Picurro
Barry was a show about the stories people told themselves in order to get through the day: Bill Hader's eponymous hitman made a career of murdering his way out of his problems and convincing himself that it was the last time, that he was always on the brink of change. In Season 4, he finally made good on that promise by reinventing himself completely, with a beaten-down Sally (Sarah Goldberg) by his side. He got a new identity. He had a kid. He found God, kind of. But a handful of stunning sequences, all skillfully directed by Hader, served as violent reminders that even the most delusional person on the planet never had a hope of outrunning his past. All of Barry's distorted narratives converged on each other, amounting to a bleak, spectacular finale that ended ambiguously enough to allow the audience to tell themselves a story of their own about what Barry was ultimately trying to say. -Allison Picurro
Since its first season, Jujutsu Kaisen has pushed the boundaries of shounen anime. For the uninitiated, shounen is generally used to categorize titles targeted at teen boys and mostly features a male protagonist's action-packed adventures (think One Piece, Dragon Ball, Naruto). The story of Yuji Itadori — a jujutsu sorcerer who swallowed a cursed finger — is moodier and more melancholy than most in the genre. And Season 2, which features the Shibuya Incident arc, is even more morbid. With the show's strongest (and hottest) sorcerer, Satoru Gojo, incapacitated, this season becomes a sprawling display of its kaleidoscopic characters — good and evil. And the show isn't afraid to go tonally darker as Itadori confronts a new level of despair. Jujutsu Kaisen is also a master class in action animation. It's a shame that MAPPA, the studio that produces the series, is currently under fire for allegations around toxic work conditions and its staff being underpaid. -Kat Moon
It feels like an understatement to say that there's never been a show like I'm A Virgo before, but that may be the best way to succinctly sum up Boots Riley's incendiary, absurdist fairy tale. The seven-episode first season charts the rampant radicalization of Jharrel Jerome's Cootie, a sheltered Oakland native who also just happens to be 13 feet tall. After 19 years living hidden with his aunt and uncle, he's finally unleashed on the real world. The frivolous thrills of clubbing with new friends or meeting childhood heroes — namely an artist-turned-cop literally called The Hero (Walton Goggins) — are quickly crushed under the reality of socioeconomic oppression. Cootie gets a crash course in the crisis of capitalism, the perils of police brutality, and miscellaneous systemic vices, while Riley & Co. bounce from quaint naivete to fierce anticapitalist messaging and back. No, there has never been a show like this before — but as this is only Riley's second directorial effort, hopefully it won't be the last. -Lyvie Scott
The Other Two always teetered on the verge of insanity in its first two seasons, but in Season 3, it fully embraced surreal silliness and became the best version of itself: a deranged, sharp takedown of the entertainment industry and all the famewhores who occupy it. Though not intended to be the series' final season — Max canceled the show after reports of a hostile work environment created by showrunners Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, though they were ultimately cleared of wrongdoing — it ended at the perfect point as celebrity wannabe brother and sister duo Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke) both found themselves on the precipice of fame, rather than entirely on the outside looking in, dangling the carrot teasingly in front of their noses. Really, that's about as far into celebdom as these two deserve to be, as season highlight "Brooke Hosts a Night of Undeniable Good" showed them both at their hilarious worst (and musical best, for Cary, anyway). "Brooke Gets Her Hands Dirty" was the show fully unleashed and settling into boundary pushing, setting half of the episode in black and white to show the drudgery of broadcast legal procedurals, and "Cary & Brooke Go to an AIDS Play" is a perfect script, mashing every character's storyline together into a single setting: a marathon, multi-day, extreme deep dive stage play about AIDS that no one wants to be at but no one can leave for fear of looking bad. With Season 3, The Other Two went out poetically; it was on the brink of the big time when it was eaten alive by the Hollywood machine. Cary and Brooke can relate. -Tim Surette
It's a tall order for any adaptation to keep most fans of the original property satisfied while also keeping new viewers intrigued. The Last of Us made it seem like an easy task. The series kept the high-octane intensity of Naughty Dog's video game and introduced changes that only made the story richer. In a post-apocalyptic world characterized by death and destruction, The Last of Us zeroes in on the life-giving bond formed between the hard-boiled smuggler Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), the 14-year-old girl he's tasked with transporting across the country. Joel is transformed and softened through meeting Ellie, and she revives a part of him that was lost to grief. Pascal and Ramsey's emotionally raw portrayal of this shifting relationship makes The Last of Us one of the best shows of the year. But they're not the only ones whose performances tugged at our heartstrings. An array of impressive guest actors, including Nick Offerman, Murray Bartlett, Lamar Johnson, and Keivonn Woodard, played characters who gave the show new perspectives on what makes life worth living and transported us further into this hellish world. -Kat Moon
On the surface, Season 2 of Somebody Somewhere was a gentle cooldown at the end of HBO's Sunday night lineup: a humane small-town story following all the blood and bite of Succession and Barry. But Somebody Somewhere packed its own heavy emotional punch — not despite its simple premise, but because of it. The dramedy, which hinges on the friendship between Bridget Everett's Sam, adrift in her Kansas hometown after the death of her sister, and Jeff Hiller's Joel, her old show choir classmate, looked further inward in its second season as Sam questioned whether everyone she loves is bound to leave her. It was an intimate exploration of grief, loneliness, and self-sabotage, balanced out by the salvation of art and community, the defiance of queer joy, and the healing powers of Laura Branigan's "Gloria." Going home again isn't easy, but Somebody Somewhere dares to make it possible. -Kelly Connolly
Watching Mrs. Davis felt like running my brain through a car wash. A bonkers, intoxicating joyride through tech and religion starring the great Betty Gilpin as a nun fighting an AI algorithm, the Peacock series was this year's most fun new show by a long shot, marrying the comedic and dramatic sensibilities of its creators, Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory) and Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers), into one audacious and totally singular package. Everything about this show — its colorful filmmaking, cleverly batty writing, and totally committed cast, Gilpin in particular — worked together to sell the exact blend of silliness and sincerity required of a series that involves both mid-tier Reno magicians and a quest for the Holy Grail. Mrs. Davis was one riotous surprise after the next, and it all built up to one of the best jokes on TV in years, a finale gag so good it could make a devotee out of anyone. -Kelly Connolly
When asked to describe who Prime Video's Dead Ringers is for, star Rachel Weisz said, "I'd say it's for any human who is interested in the sort of psychosexual thriller with dark humor and a very twisted codependent relationship." She's not wrong. Throw in "fans of graphic depictions of childbirth (both natural and surgically induced), '70s Italian horror films, and disastrous dinner parties," and you're even closer. But it's not as niche as it sounds. At its crooked heart, Dead Ringers is a story about emotionally opposite twin sisters Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played by Weisz), brilliant gynecologists whose codependency on each other is unhealthy and abusive at best, and fatally dangerous at worst. Each of the six episodes of the limited series plays out like its own short psychological horror movie, deconstructing the needs of its yin and yang leads and the pressure that arises when they don't align. The thoughtful commentary on women's health issues was crafted by an all-female writers room, and the directors are let loose to play with perspective and mood, birthing an experience that's both intellectual and hedonistic, just like Beverly and Elliot. -Tim Surette
The Righteous Gemstones keeps getting better and better. Danny McBride's televangelism comedy continues to succeed because of how thoughtfully it builds out its world through its dysfunctional cast of characters. This is a show that understands that it has struck gold with a flawless, always-game ensemble and capitalizes on how uniquely well suited they all are for the material. Season 3 shines more light on patriarch Eli's (John Goodman) past by bringing his estranged sister, May-May (Kristen Johnston), into the fold and allows the Gemstone siblings to explore the source of their resentment toward each other. But it never shortchanges its existing supporting players, like the kind, patient BJ (Tim Baltz) and the loyal, soft-spoken Keefe (Tony Cavalero). In just nine episodes, Gemstones gave us a fire dance, Baby Billy's Bible Bonkers, and the best onscreen kiss of 2023. Ignore the inescapable Succession comparisons; Gemstones is its own gloriously absurd animal. -Allison Picurro
Reservation Dogs never settled. Sterlin Harjo's FX series seemed at first like an indie-style hangout comedy, the story of four restless kids on the rez scraping up the money to flee to California. But as confident as the show was from the start, it proved to be as restless as the Rez Dogs, in its own way: Why be a hangout comedy every week when it could also be a coming-of-age tale, a family drama, a groovy psychedelic trip, a girls' trip, a ghost story, and a '70s horror film? The show elevated and redefined itself by the episode; it was so boundless that by Season 3, it had an alien encounter. Powerhouse young leads D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, and Lane Factor took everything they were given and ran with it, playing the coolest teens on TV with low-key humor and deep feeling. And yet it made perfect sense that this last season expanded its scope beyond the Rez Dogs, strengthening their ties to their community, and especially to their elders, as a necessary antidote to grief. Reservation Dogs was an astonishing series, one that should be remembered in the company of TV's all-time best. It's easy to believe there will never be another show like it, but hopefully its legacy is that there will be. -Kelly Connolly
What more is there to say about Succession? I certainly said everything I needed to; everyone died, and that's all there is to it. And yet Jesse Armstrong's baroque drama inherently invites discussion — its sublime cast, caustic writing, and observational camerawork have earned so much praise over the years that it was tough to imagine Succession topping itself in its fourth and final season. But it's always a pleasure, especially in an era when shows seem to get thrown mindlessly at the wall with a vague hope that they will stick, to see a great series end on its own terms. Succession made a bold swing by killing off its lead character, the monolithic Logan Roy (Brian Cox), in the third episode of the season, his absence deepening the voids in the lives of his broken children but opening up new possibilities for the show's final episodes as he turned into a spectral figure, haunting the remainder of the season, right down to the bitter end.
What also happened was that Succession became a show about grief. The condensed timeline, pored over by fans and critics, added a sleepwalker-like haze to the episodes, heightening the characters' already raw emotions and rendering their decision-making erratic as everyone strived to be the one to figure out what, exactly, Logan would want them to do. The show nimbly threaded its grief plot with subjects it was already interested in — the cyclical nature of humanity, the lingering effects of child abuse, the state of present-day America — to morbid, funny, and morbidly funny results: an ill-fated trip to Norway, Kendall's (Jeremy Strong) Living+ presentation, that pressurized election night. Wherever the Roy siblings went, there Logan was. The question of who would take over Waystar Royco was never important; ultimately, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) being the one to place the bloodied crown on his head didn't matter. Armstrong and his collaborators were always going to end on the conclusion that insatiable greed will never allow anyone to "win." That in itself is a win for the show, which landed with such unpredictable confidence that even the most diehard viewers were unable to see where it was all headed, much like the characters themselves. -Allison Picurro