year in review

The Best TV Shows of 2023

From The Bear to Survivor, these are VF critics’ picks for 2023’s best TV shows.
The Best TV Shows of 2023
Courtesy of Networks.

The best TV shows of 2023 are funny, and serious, and emotional, and transporting, and focused on securing an immunity idol at all costs—sometimes all at the same time. And they can be found in all sorts of different places, from Netflix to more nascent streaming services to even (gasp!) regular, old-fashioned television. (Remember linear television? It still exists!) So what should you watch to catch up on the best TV the year’s had to offer? Four VF critics name their picks below, from prestige dramedies to unexpected international reality competitions to emotionally resonant sci-fi epics—and everything in between.


Courtesy of HBO 

Barry (Bill Hader, who cocreated the series, frequently wrote episodes, and directed every episode of its final season) has generally had one go-to move for evading his problems: He’s killed his way out of them. But thanks to a significant time jump, the show’s final season challenges Barry not just to start his entire life over—he also has to be responsible for another. Wanted for one murder in particular (which represents a tiny fraction of the many he’s committed in Los Angeles), Barry takes his girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), to a trailer home in a very flat, very dusty state, where they live under assumed names with their son, John (Zachary Golinger). Though Sally doesn’t seem fulfilled by full-time Method acting as diner server “Emily,” Barry is committed to homeschooling John and preventing any encroachment into the world Barry has created. But a story like Barry’s wouldn’t resist a true-crime adaptation forever, and the show’s endgame finds Barry returning to the only work he was ever really good at. —Tara Ariano

The Bear

By Chuck Hodes/FX.

The Bear is a feast of a show, an addictive mix of sweet and salty. Although it initially revolved around grief-struck chef Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), season two fully embraces its amazing ensemble cast. Head chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) eats her way across Chicago in search of creative and practical inspiration for the soon-to-open new restaurant, while aspiring pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) and stubborn screwup Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) undergo their own separate conversion experiences in radiant episodes that raise the show to a new level. Alternating between manic and heartwarming, The Bear packs an incredible amount of life into each half hour, as we watch a kitchen full of wounded characters find solace in collective creativity. —Joy Press

Blue Eye Samurai

Courtesy of Netflix.

Blue Eye Samurai is the most gorgeous new show of the year, no question. The composition of each image in this animated Netflix program is meticulous without ever feeling labored. The show displays a percolating energy as it weaves together strands of action, romance, courtly drama, and picaresque adventure in 17th-century Japan. Blue Eye Samurai quickly sketches compelling portraits of the revenge-driven warrior Mizu, the sheltered but headstrong princess Akemi, and the retainers, mentors, and companions around them. As the debut season of this animated saga for adults unfolds, Blue Eye Samurai tells an increasingly complex and thoughtful story about the uses and limits of anger, ambition, compassion, and companionship. And as it deftly does so, it looks spectacular. —Maureen Ryan

Cunk on Earth

Courtesy of Netflix.

The concept of being ashamed of one’s blind spots and idiocies has apparently died out. What’s more, too many people these days love to loudly advertise how proud they are of their ignorance and dubious assumptions. It’s not great! But somehow, Cunk on Earth makes comedic hay of these distressing tendencies. The premise is that Philomena Cunk is the presenter of a documentary series about the evolution of civilization. You know the type: She strides across historic ruins and majestic landscapes wearing sober earth tones, and says things that almost sound intelligent. In reality, though, she is so, so wrong about almost everything. Thanks to a pitch-perfect, nimble performance by Diane Morgan, and scripts by Charlie Brooker and his writing staff that are by turns silly, sarcastic, and insightful, *Cunk on Earth—*and this is an actual, verifiable fact—is laugh-out-loud funny. —M.R.

The Curse

Courtesy of Showtime Network.

The Curse gets under your skin, just as cocreators Nathan Fielder (The Rehearsal) and Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) intended. Excruciating and magnetic in equal measure, this scripted tragicomedy of cringe revolves around married couple Whitney and Asher (Emma Stone and Fielder), who are struggling to make an unscripted HGTV series with show producer Dougie (Safdie). Called Flipanthrophy, it’s designed to show how Whitney’s eco-friendly “passive houses” can uplift the mostly Latino and Native American community of Española, New Mexico. The Curse is a ruthless satire that takes aim at everything from reality TV and the art world to gentrification and white privilege, but it wouldn’t be particularly interesting if it stopped there. Instead, it metastasizes into something eerie and surreal, held aloft by Stone’s mesmerizing performance of self-delusion. —J.P.

Dead Ringers

Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

If you like to be unsettled by your television viewing, Dead Ringers is for you. This limited series starring Rachel Weisz as twisted twin obstetricians pulls off the miraculous feat of erasing from our minds the original David Cronenberg movie (itself a brilliant imaginative feat). In its place is a version that graphically expands the way television portrays and conceives of women’s bodies. As envisioned by first-time showrunner Alice Birch, a playwright and Succession alum, Dead Ringers is a wickedly funny, visceral horror show about psychological codependence, the fertility industry, and the surreality of reproduction. Weisz is spectacular, as is Jennifer Ehle in her role as a Sackler-style billionaire eager to fund the doctors’ mad science. The series brings a whole new meaning to a catchphrase from another Cronenberg film: Long live the new flesh. —J.P.

The Devil’s Plan

Courtesy of Netflix.

Watching The Amazing Race is a perfectly fine way to pass the time. But when the hurdles contestants must clear are on the level of unscrambling the phrase “City of Angels,” as in the current season’s premiere, the viewer may feel players aren’t exactly being pushed to their intellectual limits. Enter The Devil’s Plan, from Jung Jong-yeon, producer of the hit Korean reality competition The Genius. The series assembles a cast of extraordinary contestants, including a professional Go player, an astronomer, and an orthopedic surgeon. It then puts them through a series of logic, strategy, and card games, most of which also involve a social component. Think Big Brother, if all the houseguests were highly accomplished in their chosen professional fields and extremely skilled at math and puzzles. The Devil’s Plan may deny you the pleasure of playing along (unless you, unlike me, continued taking algebra classes after satisfying the bare minimum required to get your high school diploma). But the intricacy of its construction and the brilliance of its players make it one of the year’s most thrilling and unpredictable seasons of unscripted TV. —T.A.

For All Mankind

Courtesy of Apple TV+.

For many reasons, it’s a delight that For All Mankind—now quite established as one of TV’s best dramas—is in its fourth season. The shit, on both Earth and Mars, is really hitting the fan, and in the hands of these writers, directors, and actors, that is great news. FAM is also one of the few shows to take on timely issues of class, income disparity, and exploitation, as working stiffs on the Red Planet realize that even in space, you can get shafted while the rich get richer. But this is a show that tempers that kind of gritty realism with humor, as well as earnest optimism and genuine excitement (if you love competence porn and science-driven space adventures, is this ever the show for you). It’s especially gratifying to see years of character-driven groundwork pay off handsomely in season four, which rewards longtime cast members Coral Peña, Wrenn Schmidt, Cynthy Wu, and Krys Marshall with a range of outstanding material. —M.R.


Courtesy of Apple TV+.

Foundation has always had its good qualities, not least Lee Pace, Jared Harris, Leah Harvey, and Laura Birn giving an array of standout performances. But the Isaac Asimov–derived drama has also been afflicted with streaming-itis, admittedly not a rare condition among shows based on complicated existing IP. In its first season, there was often so much meandering setup and dry exposition that it could be hard to buy into the character journeys playing out against the story of a wide-ranging space empire under threat. The great news, especially for fans of intelligent sci-fi, is that the second season ably built on the first—and in the second half of its 2023 episodes, Foundation kicked into a transfixing new gear as its far-flung story threads came together in tantalizing ways. Please, streaming gods, don’t let this show be another short-run cautionary tale, especially now that it has laid the, er, foundation (sorry!) for even more compelling space opera. —M.R.

Happy Valley

Courtesy of BBC/AMC.

There has perhaps been no better television performance this century than Sarah Lancashire’s on Happy Valley, a dark but never hopeless crime drama from creator Sally Wainwright. Playing a small-city police sergeant laden with grief and anger (this show was clearly a heavy influence for Mare of Easttown—and I may be using “influence” generously), Lancashire is so nuanced, so utterly persuasive that any line between actor and character becomes nearly invisible. I felt wary of returning to Happy Valley this winter, seven years after the end of its second season. Was there more story to tell here? And how much more do we really want to put this poor woman through? But Wainwright found a way to make the long-delayed return compelling, anchored, and ennobled by Lancashire’s ferocious work. —Richard Lawson

The Other Two

From Greg Endries/HBO Max

The Other Two has always been about the Dubek family climbing on the coattails of their youngest member, teen pop star ChaseDreams (Case Walker). In the show’s final season, they’ve hit levels they previously wouldn’t have dared imagine: Mother Pat (Molly Shannon) has given up her daily talk show to run a whole cable network. Son Cary (Drew Tarver) has moved way beyond hosting Age Net Worth Feet to star in a real movie and multiple scripted TV shows. And daughter Brooke (Heléne Yorke) has become a power player in The Industry by managing Chase and Pat. But success is a relentless, dehumanizing grind, ravaging the Dubeks with increasingly absurd and psychically tortuous demands. This very funny show is never funnier than it is in its loony third season; even a curiously toothless series finale doesn’t spoil the buzz, though an eleventh hour report about series creators Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider’s allegedly toxic management practices certainly does. (According to The Hollywood Reporter, Kelly and Schneider were formally cleared of wrongdoing after an investigation into the behavior.) —T.A.

Party Down

Courtesy of Starz Entertainment.

When the first two seasons of Party Down ran on Starz, its crew of cater-waiters were actually aspiring artists in various fields, plus a couple of over-the-hill actors who hadn’t quite given up hope that they might still break out. Thirteen years later, it’s harder for both us and them to believe any of these characters will have the showbiz careers they ever dreamed of. So for this season, Party Down’s stories instead seemed to be ripped from 12-hour-old headlines: how right-wing provocateurs fake their viral outrage videos; that fine dining “artists” might have forgotten their food is meant to be eaten; what remains of the film industry in the superhero IP era. We only got six episodes this time, probably because Party Down’s cast is a lot more successful than the characters they play, but the finale’s last moments do suggest where a fourth season could go; let’s be hopeful about that possibility. —T.A.

Perry Mason

Courtesy of HBO.

The second season of HBO’s revival series, sadly to be its last, is moody, clever entertainment. It’s a fascinating survey of Depression-ravaged but somehow still burgeoning 1930s Los Angeles—its bright riches and seedy underbelly, its criminal enterprise, and its political machinations—and an intimate character drama. Perry Mason is the kind of literate series that may have fared better in a slightly earlier era, when there wasn’t so much clogging up the airwaves. (Or, I guess, the streaming-waves.) Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, and the rest of the sprawling ensemble cast effectively capture the cadence and attitudes of a particular time, with just enough modern wrinkle to make the series fresh, rather than a stale throwback. —R.L.

Poker Face

Courtesy of Peacock.

This delightful series breaks so many streaming-age drama rules. It takes its storytelling, characters, and themes seriously without taking itself seriously (i.e., it’s a fun diversion, not an unstructured or grim slog). Plus, though there’s a running strand of plot-stretching through the first season, each episode functions as its own self-contained story. Who knew any of this was still allowed? With an incredibly stacked roster of guest stars (Nick Nolte, Benjamin Bratt, Ellen Barkin, Ron Perlman) and a detective premise anchored by the brilliant and irresistible Natasha Lyonne, this smart Columbo homage came out of the gate strong and just kept building on what it does well. When season two rolls around, I want—no, demand—that Hong Chau comes back as the canny, slightly unhinged trucker she played to perfection. —M.R.


Courtesy of Amazon Freevee.

Rafa (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) is a San Antonio high school student being raised by his single mother, Drea (Christina Vidal). His father has never been in the picture, but he has plentiful male role models to fill the vacuum: Drea’s five brothers. There’s Mike (Henri Esteve), who derives a lot of his identity from having served in the military without having actually learned the tactical skills he thinks he has. There’s Rollie (Johnny Rey Diaz), who’s named himself “The Brown Knight” for his role as neighborhood avenger. There’s Mondo (Efrain Villa), who, when an urgent care doctor asks, can’t rule out having “been intimate” with a shark. There’s Ryan (Carlos Santos), whose white-collar job in a bank branch has convinced him he’s the biggest intellect in a family of know-it-alls. And finally, there’s Jay (Jonathan Medina), who lets Mike trap him on the roof in retaliation for Jay having done the same thing to Mike years earlier. Series creator Shea Serrano based Primo on his own youth—and not particularly loosely, judging by photos he recently posted of the show’s characters and their real-life inspirations. The result is one the funniest and truest family comedies to hit TV in years. —T.A.

Reservation Dogs

In the first scene of Reservation Dogs, four Indigenous teenagers hijack a Flaming Flamers chip truck, driving it straight past an oblivious tribal police officer to a local scrap yard, where they sell it for cash. The titular Reservation Dogs—Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor)—style themselves a gang, but they’re pulling heists for a reason: They’re raising money so that they can move from their hometown of Okern, Oklahoma, to California. But the more time we spend with them, the better we understand the complexity of what “home” means to each of them—and why, or even whether, they actually want to leave. Over its run, Dogs has explored each of its characters, their families of origin, and the families they’ve chosen. As delicate and lovely as these stories have been, however, the characters have fundamentally remained the little shit-ass delinquents of that series premiere, roasting each other as mercilessly as Bear gets roasted by his intermittently helpful spirit guide, William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth). Cocreator Sterlin Harjo has made a true masterpiece about loss, love, and snacks; I can’t wait to see what he brings us next. —T.A.

Somebody Somewhere

Courtesy of HBO.

Somebody Somewhere is a poetic ode to small-town American life, with a queer twist. “A quiet gem” is what critics tend to call this kind of dramedy, so easily overlooked in the streaming crush, but so enchanting once you’ve adjusted to its gentle rhythms. Alt-cabaret performer Bridget Everett is charmingly cantankerous as Sam, a middle-aged woman who’s returned to her hometown of Manhattan, Kansas, to help out her family. Over the course of two seasons, a chosen family in the LGBTQ+ community—including best friend Joel (Jeff Hiller) and college professor Fred Rococo (Murray Hill)—helps Sam find her voice, in the most literal sense, as she rediscovers her love of singing. The loosely autobiographical series grows darker but also funnier in its second season. Each episode brims with interpersonal skirmishes and mundane epiphanies that glow with empathy and tenderness. —J.P.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Courtesy of CBS Studios/Paramount+.

You want to see Anson Mount as insanely charismatic Space Daddy Captain Christopher Pike, a silver fox with a delightful swoop of hair and a chill yet compassionate can-do attitude. You want to hang with an ensemble cast that is deftly able to take on romance, adventure, earnest allegories, and the usual Trek-ian moral and cultural dilemmas. If you don’t, I feel sorry for you! Among other delights, Strange New Worlds has a running subplot that puts various Vulcan characters in what amounts to a Jane Austen drawing room comedy. “Charades,” a season two installment that arrives this week, is one of the best installments of any show this year, and more proof that Ethan Peck as Spock, Jess Bush as Christine Chapel, and Gia Sandhu as T’Pring are the star-crossed love triangle this universe desperately needed. —M.R.

Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence

Courtesy of Hulu.

As we wade through today’s thick morass of true-crime content, it’s rare to find a documentary series that unearths something unexpected and resonant in its rehashing of terrible events. Stolen Youth, about the emergence and terrible effects of a micro-cult that began on the campus of Sarah Lawrence College, deftly moves past its frustrating setup—how could these kids be ensnared by this creepy older guy so thoroughly?—and thoughtfully delves into the wreckage of their experience. Bitterly sad and deeply moving, Stolen Youth is one of the most humane examples of its form, sensitively listening to its brave and wounded subjects as they reflect on the destabilizing madness of their collective delusion. —R.L.


Courtesy of HBO.

Figuring out a suitable ending is hard for any series. But for one as culturally dominant (if not ratings dominant) as Succession, it seemed just about impossible. How could creator Jesse Armstrong land the private jet in a way that would satisfy a majority of audiences? Yet Armstrong threaded the needle, delivering a chilling, sad, mordant final run of episodes that closed his dynastic family drama—which doubles as a grim diagnostic assessment of present-tense America—on just the right notes of catharsis and unease. Much has already been written about the show’s crackling, operatic writing and flinty performances, so we won’t belabor those points here. Praising Succession would be like bringing coal to Newcastle at this point, but it’s still worth highlighting a rare example of a show making its exit in the best possible way: on its own confident terms. —R.L.


From Robert Voets/CBS.

A staggering 45 seasons into the American version of the greatest reality-TV game of all time, the show is no longer for the purists in the audience. The timeline has been condensed to a brisk 26 days on an island in Fiji, and there are a gazillion idols and booby-trapped advantages for players to scramble over. It’s almost a different show, and plenty of onetime fans have abandoned the series in its so-called new era. It’s now the contestants who are the die-hard, longest-standing obsessives. The current season is wall-to-wall Survivor geeks, many of them ill-equipped to handle the physical challenges but excitingly eager to get into the weeds of social gameplay. Alliances have yawed this way and that; big moves have been made (not all of them smart). It’s been a rollicking and slightly rickety ride, a ruthless kind of nerd fest. If you’ve been checked out on Survivor in recent years, this season might reel you back in. 

But if you want a Survivor season that is even longer and meaner than that of the classic American varietal, you could do no better than the 2023 installment of Australian Survivor, a heroes-vs.-villains brawl of returning players and ambitious newbies that features, among many other memorable moments, probably the most astonishing tribal council in the history of the show. Heroes V. Villains is chock-full of wonderfully conniving characters, grinding away over a luxurious 24 episodes. It’s the game at perhaps peak form, thrilling and agonizing at once. —R.L.