By Daniel Fienbeg, Angie Han
December 14, 2023
Daniel Fienberg’s Top 10
When we look back on television in 2023, it’s almost certain to stand out as a year of transition.
The cyclical conclusion of what we’ve come to know as Peak TV intersected with an unprecedented, production-halting strike by two key industry guilds wanting proper compensation and protections against whatever is coming next.
None of this meant there was a lack of new programming, mind you, but it led to unusually staggered release windows and more high-profile unscripted and international offerings than ever before. Plus, there was a run of series finales for some of the more acclaimed shows of the past decade, climaxing in that wild week in which Succession, Barry and Ted Lasso all ended.
It’s too soon to necessarily know what TV will look like in 2024 or 2025, but I’m confident the basic answer will be “different,” and not just because so many of the shows that have anchored my recent Top 10 lists — Succession, Reservation Dogs, Better Call Saul, Better Things, Atlanta, among other Best of the 21st Century (So Far) offerings — are done.
No, there definitely was not a lack of programming this year, much less a lack of top-notch programming. But as I settled in to make my Top 10 (with 10 honorable mentions), what quickly materialized was really more of a Top 3 and then a Next 17. Or, more accurately, a Top 2, then a gap, followed by my third favorite show, then a HUGE gap, and then somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 shows in contention to round out my Top 20. For me, the quality difference between my third and fourth favorite shows of the year was greater than the quality difference between my fourth and 25th favorite shows of the year. So if you want to tell me that you like many of my honorable mentions more than many of the shows in my Top 10? So do I, some days — just not the day I made this list.
Or, to put it yet another different way, I think there was more very good TV in 2023 than perhaps ever before, but there may have been less great TV than in some recent years. Aberration or trend? Who knows? Let’s get down to business! — DANIEL FIENBERG
1. Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu)
Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s FX-produced Hulu series completed its elegant three-season evolution from a raucous comedy about four Indigenous teens desperate to leave their rural Oklahoma reservation into TV’s most soulful half-hour about the value of community and intergenerational connection. Reservation Dogs became a show with no boundaries and no limitations, an ensemble vision capable of shifting gears from a ’70s-set flashback to a mental hospital heist to a silly fishing trip teaching masculine rituals to an emotionally rich reunion between a daughter and the father she never knew. D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs (writer of one standout episode and director of another), Lane Factor and Paulina Alexis remained the show’s key young core, but the world of Reservation Dogs, TV’s most vibrant, came to find essential places for dozens of top-notch and generally underserved Native actors including (but definitely not limited to): Zahn McClarnon, Dallas Goldtooth, Gary Farmer, Elva Guerra, Lil Mike, Funny Bone, Wes Studi, Graham Greene, Sarah (and Jennifer and Tamara) Podemski, Jana Schmieding and Lily Gladstone. I’ll miss Reservation Dogs so much, but Harjo ended the show completely on his own terms.
2. Succession (HBO)
Jesse Armstrong’s scathing satire of family dynamics and corporate dysfunction stuck the landing with a finale filled with unexpectedly sweet moments, expertly undercut by Armstrong’s trademark bleak venality. There was indeed a lot of bleakness in the fourth Succession season, which started a little slowly, but found its traumatizing momentum starting with “Connor’s Wedding,” TV’s most perceptive depiction of the rollercoaster of grief until the emotionally wrenching, distressingly funny funeral in “Church and State.” All the usual acting suspects shined (special notice for James Cromwell’s monologue in that funeral episode), with the Meal Fit for a King kitchen scene in the finale delivering a series peak for the great Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook — and a reminder that one of the show’s core messages has always been that nobody knows how to hurt you like your family. Succession, like Reservation Dogs, offered no indication that it was running out of stories to tell. But given the precarious tonal dance that Armstrong and the writing partners, plus the directing team led by Mark Mylod, had to choreograph on a weekly basis, I’m grateful that it ended too soon rather than too late.
3. Beef (Netflix)
Are you angry all the time? Are you angry without always knowing why you’re angry or whom you’re angry at or how to vent your rage? If so, no show captured 2023’s undercurrent of unfocused discontent with the intensity, empathy and underlying humor of Lee Sung Jin’s eight-episode Beef. It’s a show of escalating discomfort, as a road rage incident between Steven Yeun’s Danny and Ali Wong’s Amy goes to darker and darker depths, while at the same time prompting probing questions about who gets to be angry in contemporary America. Wong’s dramatic range is a revelation, and as good as you already knew Yeun could be, nothing on his acclaimed resumé prepared us for his cathartic scene in a music-filled Korean church. Beef journeys to places that are sad and surreal and ultimately profound, securing its position as perhaps the year’s defining cultural snapshot.
4. Wrestlers (Netflix)
Greg Whiteley isn’t on the radar of most TV critics, but he has developed and refined one of TV’s most reliable formulas through Cheer and the Last Chance U franchise. It’s a documentary structure that blends underdog sports tropes with complex portraits of real people clinging to sports as their last chance at the American Dream. With the Ohio Valley Wrestling promotion, Whiteley found perhaps the perfect vehicle for his formula, focusing on a troupe of play-acting pugilists blurring the lines between the people they dream of being and the people they pretend to be when they step into the ring. With astonishing access and subjects as outsized in their candor as in their theatricality, Wrestlers makes you laugh and then cry; you start from a position of “Of course it’s all fake!” and then uncover seven episodes of painful truths about our aspirations and the extremes we’ll go to in order to earn a place in the spotlight.
5. I’m a Virgo (Amazon)
If Beef isn’t 2023’s most 2023 show, Boots Riley’s blending of bizarre urban fairy tale, superhero origin story and straight-up Marxist critique — delivered via Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, of all places — surely is. In a performance of heartbreaking innocence, Jharrel Jerome plays a sheltered young man realizing that modern Oakland is no place for a 13-foot-tall Black teenager, a magical conceit that Riley achieves through puppetry, miniatures and other instruments of technical whimsy. It’s all grounded in righteous anger directed at income inequality and systemic racial injustice. Or else it’s just a fun show with Walton Goggins as a billionaire supervillain, star-making turns from Kara Young and Olivia Washington, and some of the loopiest sex scenes you’ll ever see. But nah. It’s angry.
6. Dark Winds (AMC)
After dedicating its first season to exposition and establishing the Leaphorn and Chee characters from Tony Hillerman’s novels, AMC’s Dark Winds came into its own with a layered and strikingly efficient six-episode season. The mystery was tighter and more resonant, the Southwestern locations captured with iconic relish and, more than ever, Dark Winds made this clear: Zahn McClarnon is a STAR, all-caps required. It’s not that he isn’t surrounded by a capable ensemble — Kiowa Gordon and especially Jessica Matten keep improving — but McClarnon’s screen presence is limitless. He’s funny when required, tormented as needed and, in a show driven by its main character’s inquisitiveness, a marvel when it comes to being still yet intellectually curious. Get ready for a few months of this from me — the 2024 lead actor in a drama Emmy category is going to have a bunch of empty slots, and if voters don’t latch on to what McClarnon is doing here, it’ll be disgraceful. Between Dark Winds, Reservation Dogs and his amusing History of the World, Part II guest turn, McClarnon is my TV performer of the year.
7. Blue Eye Samurai (Netflix)
Bold, bloody and breathtakingly beautiful, Michael Green and Amber Noizumi’s Netflix animated thriller wears its influences on its silk kimono sleeve — the soul and gender politics of Yentl, the historical shadings of Shogun, all fueled by Kill Bill‘s insatiable appetite for revenge. Visually, overseen by supervising director Jane Wu, it’s a dash of Noh theater here, notes of Bunraku puppetry there, all wrapped up with a flair mined equally from the films of Suzuki and Kurosawa and the Shaw Brothers. Indisputably Westernized yet respectful, Blue Eye Samurai was one of the year’s most surprising and viscerally exciting TV experiences.
8. The Bear (FX/Hulu)
When the second season of Christopher Storer’s high-tension culinary pseudo-comedy dropped, much of the buzz focused on “Fishes,” with its onslaught of A-list guest stars and distressingly accurate depiction of being trapped around a holiday dinner table with a combustible family. That “Fishes” was probably my fourth or fifth favorite The Bear episode of the season — certainly behind the Ebon Moss-Bachrach-centric “Forks,” Ayo Edebiri’s Chicago restaurant crawl in “Sundae” and the Copenhagen-set showcase for Lionel Boyce — is a testament to how good the show has gotten. Oh, and don’t get me wrong. Jeremy Allen White is still great on The Bear, but credit to the creative team for realizing that this is a show that works best as a true ensemble and not as a star vehicle with some meaty supporting roles.
9. Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi (Hulu)
Someday perhaps it won’t feel significant to have a series dedicated to the crucial place of immigrants and food traditions in our national tapestry. Until that day comes, treasure Padma Lakshmi’s loving and lively journey through America’s diasporic communities. An impossibly personable host, Lakshmi provokes poignant moments, detonates teasing double entendres and learns to make pasteles in Puerto Rico, fufu in Houston and borscht in the East Village. The show is a decisive and welcome “F**k you” to the America First crowd, but Lakshmi sets a tone that’s so warm and inquisitive that the political messaging, sentimental memories and nourishing and nurturing cooking all come together in one big narrative pot. A melting pot, if you will. What a potent metaphor. Somebody should use it!
10. The Last of Us (HBO)
Before this year, calling something “good for a video game adaptation” wasn’t even faint praise. Then Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann’s adaptation of Druckmann’s Naughty Dog classic proved you can have a show that’s about gross and scary mushroom zombies, while foregrounding a relatable, complex surrogate father-daughter relationship (Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are both superb); that you can make a show that’s terrifying and fast-moving, and also pause for a full hour dedicated to a post-apocalyptic love story. Heck, if it weren’t for The Last of Us, I might be talking about Peacock’s Twisted Metal as one of the best video game adaptations ever and it wouldn’t exactly be wrong. It would just be meaningless. Fortunately, The Last of Us is great by video game adaptation standards, great by zombie series standards and just pretty terrific in general.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Bupkis (Peacock), Cunk on Earth (Netflix), Dave (FXX), Dead Ringers (Amazon), Deadloch (Amazon), Fargo (FX), Happy Valley (AMC+, Acorn TV, BBC America), How To With John Wilson (HBO), Telemarketers (HBO), Welcome to Wrexham (FX)
Angie Han’s Top 10
Does it feel like we’ve had an awful lot of years lately where we start these best-of lists talking about what a weird year for TV it’s been?
Well, regardless, this was another one, what with a double strike upending summer and fall to such a degree that the release schedule still hasn’t normalized — and maybe never will, if we’re really past the peak of Peak TV.
Certainly, this year’s lineup felt in some respects like the end of a chapter: Of the 20 favorite series I’ve listed below, five were in their final seasons, and several more seem unlikely to return. But perhaps that just means we’ve turned the page to a new one. More than once in 2023, I found myself awed by some bold and confident new vision that felt like nothing I’d ever imagined, let alone seen. As long as television is capable of doing that, I don’t think there can ever be any such a thing as a truly “bad” TV year — whether it’s a weird one or not. — ANGIE HAN
1. Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu)
In its masterful final season, the already ambitious Reservation Dogs grew even fuller and richer in every direction, nudging its young leads into the future while simultaneously digging into histories both personal and communal. Along the way, it reflected on what it means to belong to a community. “We are just echoes of the things that came before,” an elder (Graham Greene) advises Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) early on. May the trailblazing impact of Sterlin Harjo’s dramedy reverberate for generations to come.
2. Succession (HBO)
Succession didn’t just keep its audience on the knife’s edge between repulsion and sympathy. It made that balancing act its very foundation, all the way through a thunderous ending that felt at once shocking and inevitable. To the last, the Roys were vile, unserious people — the sort who might, say, manipulate national elections to their advantage or throw temper tantrums about being “the eldest boy” during a board meeting. And to the end, our hearts kept on breaking for these warped and wretched souls.
3. Beef (Netflix)
Beef surely would have been worth watching for its deliciously unhinged revenge plot alone, anchored as it was by a pair of crackling performances from Ali Wong and Steven Yeun. But it’s the show’s understanding of the existential anguish propelling its characters — and the clear-eyed tenderness with which creator Lee Sung Jin excavates the experiences and sources of that pain — that made this drama-comedy-thriller not just one of the most purely entertaining watches of this year, but possibly also the most cathartic.
4. The Other Two (Max)
In its final season, The Other Two delivered a feast of savagery, surreality and hilarity on par with 30 Rock. No bit was too silly to double down on, no ’90s reference too random to lean into. No one and nothing were safe from its satirical barbs, least of all the egomaniacal Cary (Drew Traver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke). Yet even as the Dubeks threatened to lose themselves, the series never did — it maintained a surprising sense of heart to the very end.
5. Mrs. Davis (Peacock)
So, a nun, a cowboy and the personification of Jesus Christ walk into a falafel joint … and this is somehow not the start of a joke but the actual plot of Mrs. Davis, which also braids in a quest for the Holy Grail and the world’s most elaborate sneaker ad en route to a surprisingly earnest rumination on faith, motherhood and meaning. As generative AI finally went mainstream IRL, Mrs. Davis stood as a reminder of what humans can do that computers still can’t: namely, deliver something this delightfully, deliriously bonkers.
6. Last Call (HBO)
Amid the usual glut of true crime docuseries, Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York was a rarity that prioritized the beauty of the lives at its center over the ugliness of their ends. Shot through with sorrow, anger and abiding love, the series takes the time to get to know not just the late victims but the communities they left behind and the histories they represented — and in doing so, expands our ideas of what such a project can or should accomplish.
7. The Bear (FX/Hulu)
“Yo, you ever think about purpose?” That question, posed by Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), is the one driving so much of the superb second season. As the Original Beef gang prepare to relaunch as a fine-dining destination, they reckon with practical challenges but also the deeper questions of why they do what they do, how they got here, where they want to go next and why. In searching for answers, they dish out a second course even tastier and more thrilling than the first.
8. Scavengers Reign (Max)
Scavengers Reign was one of 2023’s most stunningly original works of sci-fi, a survival drama less about battling the elements than reflecting on how we engage with them. The animated series introduces not just new flora and fauna but entire alien ecosystems, with an eye for both the beauty and the brutality of the natural world. In showing how its human characters are transformed by the experience of living in foreign environments, it encourages us here on Earth to look at our surroundings a bit differently too.
9. Killing It (Peacock)
Killing It was a gut punch of a show, one that takes no prisoners in its scathing analysis of the miseries and absurdities of existing in a capitalistic hellscape. It’s just that its gut punch tended to land in the form of side-splitting hilarity. Few shows this year were more astute about how the system grinds some people down while insulating others from any and all forms of discomfort — and few shows, minute to minute, made me laugh out loud more.
10. Somebody Somewhere (HBO)
In a TV landscape teeming with dark and dramatic tales, Somebody Somewhere was a balm — a comedy whose sweetness seemed rooted not in the artificiality of Hollywood, but in the richness and depth of reality. What a delight it was to giggle with its BFFs, what an honor to sit with them in their fear or sadness — and what a rare blessing to savor a season so bursting with love that its emotional climax could only be powered by the strength of Bridget Everett’s voice.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Barry (HBO), Blue Eye Samurai (Netflix), The Curse (Showtime), Dreaming Whilst Black (Showtime), How To With John Wilson (HBO), I’m a Virgo (Prime Video), The Last of Us (HBO), The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House (Netflix), Poker Face (Peacock), Slip (The Roku Channel).