While the writers strike may have crippled late-night TV in 2023, scripted television—at least for the first half of the year—was in full swing, and at a distinct high point. If the only series to air all year had been Succession, it still would have been a phenomenal year for small-screen fare. But between returning series like The Bear, final send-offs for Succession, Barry, and Reservation Dogs, and unexpected new hits like Jury Duty, the past 12 months produced some truly compelling television in every genre. But which shows were the ultimate highlights? Here are our picks for the best of the best—our favorite shows of 2023.
The Last of Us
Few people would have predicted that a video game adaptation would end up being one of the best shows of any year. But The Last of Us, cocreated by Neil Druckmann, who cocreated the game, and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), proves that anything is possible. Pedro Pascal and Game of Thrones breakout star Bella Ramsey are perfectly matched as unlikely traveling partners who are trying to survive in a world of mushroom monsters. Ellie (Ramsey) is a precocious, pun-loving teen who is confirmed to be immune to the infection that is decimating the world and turning people into fungi zombies, meaning she could hold the genetic key to defeating the pandemic. Joel (Pascal), bitter after losing his family, is tasked with smuggling Ellie out of the quarantine zone and traveling across the country to bring her to safety. Along the way, the two slowly form a familial bond that throws Joel’s original task into upheaval. The series ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, and has already been renewed, with both Pascal and Ramsey confirmed to return.
If you haven’t already watched The Bear, you’ve undoubtedly been told to watch it by a minimum of five people. The FX on Hulu series—about Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), a young chef who begrudgingly leaves his job in a Michelin Star restaurant to move back to Chicago and save his family’s Italian beef sandwich shop—was basically the only thing anyone wanted to talk about when it first premiered in 2022. While the intensity of the kitchen scenes proved anxiety-triggering for some viewers, for others that’s part of what makes the dramedy so unique. And The Bear quickly amassed a ton of A-list fans, many of whom make cameos in the second season (see: Olivia Colman). But it’s one season 2 episode in particular, “Fishes,” that raised the already impossibly high bar on the series even higher. It’s a flashback episode that plays out over one Christmas dinner and features Jamie Lee Curtis as Carmy’s mom, Donna; Bob Odenkirk as Donna’s sometime-boyfriend; Sarah Paulson as Carmy’s cousin Michelle; and John Mulaney as Michelle’s boyfriend Stevie. In many ways, the episode is a bit of an outlier, as it has little to do with the events of the series (Carmy attempting to fast-track the reopening of the sandwich shop as a family-style dining experience). But in the span of 66 minutes, it manages to fully immerse viewers in the Life of Carmy and explain many of the quirks that make him who he is.
Barry is one of the rare series that began its life as an excellent show, then managed to outdo itself with each new season. While the premise of a gun-for-hire looking to go straight has been done plenty of times before, everything about Barry was different: The comedy was darker (and funnier as a result), the violence was more brutal, and the drama felt more authentic. Co-creators Alec Berg and Bill Hader never put any limitations on the show or its characters, and weren’t afraid to experiment with the form. So while audiences tuned into the show’s fourth (and final) season expecting to see hitman turned actor Barry Birkman (Hader) get his comeuppance for all his misdeeds, what they got was something else entirely—including the time jump no one saw coming.
Cunk on Earth
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker took a break from terrifying us with depictions of technology gone awry to delight us with this painfully awkward mockumentary series. Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan) is the host of a history series titled Cunk on Earth, for which she travels the world to share—and learn—about history and some of the planet’s most fascinating places from real-life experts. It’s there, in those interviews, where the show really shines. Morgan’s deadpan delivery and gobsmacked reactions, coupled with her absolutely unhinged questions (“When you teach a kid Shakespeare, do their heads grow physically bigger?”), observations (“Most banknotes don’t have women on them—apart from the Queen, who’s on all of them”), and stated facts (“It’s comforting to realize we don’t have nuclear weapons these days”) make for nonstop laughs. In one episode, when a professor of Egyptology explains the process of mummification to her, Cunk swears that this is the same spa routine that Gwyneth Paltrow uses. There are only five episodes, so this is one show to savor.
Between Nathan for You and The Rehearsal, there’s no question that Nathan Fielder is one of Hollywood’s most unique voices. Even if you think you know what you’re going to get from Fielder, he has a way of quickly upending everything you thought you knew about what you were watching. For The Curse, he teams up with writer-director-actor Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems), who cocreated the series and stars in it with Fielder, alongside Oscar-winner Emma Stone. Whitney (Stone) and Asher (Fielder) are a recently married couple and the stars of their own HGTV house-flipping show, Flipanthropy. They’re also trying to start a family, so stress abounds—even more so when a young girl supposedly puts a curse on them. Where it goes from there is something you just have to experience for yourself.
After an agonizing seven-year wait, the third season of Happy Valley finally arrived, and for once the series’ title didn’t seem all that ironic (at least not initially). Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) is still chasing down criminals in her tiny West Yorkshire town, but the chaos that surrounded her in the previous two seasons—including the grief following her daughter’s death by suicide, the challenges of raising her young grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah), her not-quite-finished affair with her ex-husband Richard (Derek Riddell), and her strained relationship with her son Daniel (Karl Davies)—seem to have settled down. Until Catherine learns that her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) has been driving Ryan to see his father, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), in prison, which reopens the trauma of her daughter’s rape (by Tommy Lee) and Catherine’s own violent interactions with him. Meanwhile, she’s also tasked with solving a murder and the disappearance of a young woman with her eyes on the future, hopping in her new Land Rover and heading to the Himalayas. The show’s long-awaited final season is just as compelling as its previous two, yet also manages to wrap up the story in a way that doesn’t feel forced or hurried, while Lancashire (who can currently be seen starring in Max’s Julia) delivers yet another amazing performance.
I Think You Should Leave
Ever since its 2019 debut, there’s been an ongoing dialog about the degree to which many men have connected to I Think You Should Leave, and how that annoys the women in their lives. But the polarizing nature of Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s sketch comedy series has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with an appreciation for totally unhinged absurdist comedy. If the name “Bart Harley Jarvis” means anything to you, you’re clearly a fan of the series, which, in its third season, continues to deliver a stream of bizarre, loud, and endlessly quotable sketches about everything from banana breath to cocktail-party small talk gone terribly wrong.
Part mockumentary and part Truman Show, the surprise hit Jury Duty places regular guy Ronald Gladden in the middle of a fake trial where everyone but him is in on the joke. Among those pranking him is James Marsden, who plays a not-quite-real version of himself and buddies up to Gladden as the two of them are chosen to serve on a jury. Marsden’s turn as both a slick Hollywood type who isn’t afraid to boast about his CV and someone as down-to-earth as the next guy has earned him high praise, as well as his first Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. But it’s the earnest and sincere Gladden who keeps the show from turning into a total farce and, dare we say, heartwarming.
There’s something both brave and refreshing about a TV show going out on a high note, and leaving fans wanting more, which is exactly what Reservation Dogs did during its third and final season. The show, cocreated by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, began with a group of Indigenous teens dreaming of moving away from their Oklahoma Native American reservation and committing petty crimes in an attempt to save up enough money to make that happen. At the start of season 3, the kids are in California, but things don’t go exactly as planned, beginning with their car being stolen with all their belongings inside. Ultimately, the Rez Dogs come full circle and learn to appreciate the comforts of home and the sanctuary of community.
From its very first episode, Succession proved that it wasn’t afraid to defy expectations. Yet while it started out as an interesting show, it quickly morphed into an excellent one—the kind of series that will forever be mentioned alongside The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men as some of the most prestigious “prestige TV” of the 21st century. While fans were devastated to learn that its fourth season would be its last, hopes were high that we’d finally learn who media titan Logan Roy (Brian Cox) would name as heir to the Waystar Royco conglomerate. But nothing ever plays out the easy way on Succession, and the power exchange was no different. Backs were stabbed, relationships were forever altered, important words were never said, and, ultimately, time was lost. Yet even in its tensest moments, Succession managed to maintain its jet-black sense of humor. TV series come and go and start and end. But even in a world where we have literally hundreds of shows to choose to watch, Succession stood out as something unique, powerful, and important. “Connor’s Wedding,” the third episode of its final season, is 62 minutes of the finest television ever produced, with some people instantly declaring it the greatest TV episode of all time.