To say that 2023 has been a tumultuous year for the entertainment industry would be an understatement. Even before writers and actors struck for months in a largely successful effort to raise wages, secure residuals from streaming platforms, and place safeguards on such existential threats to their livelihoods as A.I., the streaming wars entered a chaotic new era characterized by cash-strapped studios’ scramble to turn a profit—or at least cut their losses. Industry giants like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery, which had invested heavily in building proprietary streaming services, reversed course by licensing titles to other streamers. Shows with fervent fan bases didn’t just get canceled after a season or two; some disappeared from streaming libraries entirely. (A recent New York Times profile likened the strategy of WBD’s CEO, David Zaslav, to that of the Broadway impresarios who made Springtime for Hitler in The Producers.) The dreaded password-sharing crackdown finally happened. Subscription prices skyrocketed.
As the Hollywood machine lurches back into production mode, the long-term outlook for television as an art form remains uncertain. But if it’s easy to be pessimistic about the future, that’s all the more reason to celebrate the best of a bad year. Looking back at the highlights of 2023 in TV, I’m struck by how many first-time creators—from I’m a Virgo culture jammer Boots Riley and author turned Rain Dogs auteur Cash Carraway to Dead Ringers phenom Alice Birch and BEEF breakthrough Lee Sung Jin—emerged with bold, new visions. Like so many on this list, their shows harnessed the subversive potential of an inherently commercial medium, in stories that spoke to an industry in crisis, a society divided, and a world at war.
10. Poker Face (Peacock)
Natasha Lyonne stars as a rumpled citizen detective in an homage to Columbo created by Knives Out mastermind Rian Johnson. It’s an idea so irresistible, the show could’ve been made on autopilot and still charmed its target audience. Instead, we got 10 episodes of case-of-the-week magic that sent Lyonne’s human polygraph Charlie Cale on a road trip through the contemporary American landscape, pausing to solve murders at barbecue joints, retirement communities, and race-car tracks. Each stop is its own vividly rendered social world, populated by such delightful guest stars as Chlo? Sevigny, Nick Nolte, Hong Chau, Judith Light, and Tim Meadows. And before Charlie’s mysteries start to feel too cozy, Johnson not only ups the dramatic stakes, but also challenges viewers prone to worshiping Lyonne’s wabi-sabi sage persona, setting up a second season that’s bound to surprise.
9. The Other Two (Max)
The Other Two premiered, in 2019, with a narrow premise: An adorable teen finds overnight fame as a Gen Z Justin Bieber, and his underachieving adult siblings try to ride his coattails to success. But over the course of three seasons, the series evolved into a sharp satire of the entertainment industry at large—and ended its run this year as one of the funniest comedies on TV. While the rise of young ChaseDreams (Case Walker) sent up the teen-idol-industrial complex, his mom Pat (Molly Shannon) became a window into the cult of the “relatable” daytime talk-show queen. Brother Cary (Drew Tarver) exemplified the humiliations of the struggling actor and would-be gay icon. And sister Brooke (Heléne Yorke) apprenticed with Chase’s bumbling manager, played by the hilarious Ken Marino, learning to swim in shark-infested boardrooms. The show’s final season was the biggest and smartest of all, capturing the demented ambition, streaming fatigue, and fickle politics that define contemporary Hollywood.
8. Dead Ringers (Amazon)
The year’s most unlikely reboot was also its most inspired. In repurposing David Cronenberg’s 1988 cult-classic horror movie about twin ob-gyns torn asunder when one of them falls for a glamorous patient, Alice Birch entrusted the brilliant Rachel Weisz with the dual role originated by Jeremy Irons. No shallow gender flip, the adjustment endowed the bloody allegory of siblings desperate to be back in the womb together with new layers of meaning. This Dead Ringers meets a moment when women’s bodies are once again a battleground, a humane birth experience has become a luxury item, and the ghosts of brutal reproductive research past cast dark shadows over the cutting-edge gynecological technology of the present. It also announces Birch, who was able to flesh out such ambitious themes without sacrificing the style or humor audiences cherish in the original, as one of the most exciting new showrunners out there.
7. Telemarketers (HBO)
Documentary series, particularly of the true-crime variety, have exploded in popularity during the streaming era. The problem is, few of the dozens of new titles released in the genre each year are actually good. Some are trashy. Others are just unimaginative, in style and subject matter; do we really need more insight into the psychology of serial killers? Telemarketers couldn’t be more different. Drawing on wild footage he shot in the early 2000s of fellow employees cutting up and nodding out at the anything-goes offices of telemarketing company Civic Development Group, co-director Sam Lipman-Stern embarks on a quest to expose a shady industry that pretends to raise money for good causes but mostly just lines the bosses’ pockets. While the mood of the series is pretty light (think Roger and Me meets American Movie), the investigation couldn’t be more serious. With his former co-worker Patrick J. Pespas in the role of citizen journalist and moral beacon, Lipman-Stern unravels a web of amoral entrepreneurs, corrupt police organizations, and government cowardice in the face of powerful law-enforcement forces.
6. The Curse (Showtime)
How do you follow a revelation like The Rehearsal, which premiered last year as a sort of high-concept makeover show but ended up questioning our most fundamental assumptions about who we are, what we want out of life, and how those identities and aspirations are portrayed on screen? If you’re Nathan Fielder, you team up with two Hollywood luminaries, Benny Safdie and Emma Stone, for a scripted series that burrows even deeper into the fraught relationships between reality TV and reality, how we see ourselves and how others perceive us. The word most often used to describe The Curse, which won’t air its finale until January, is uncomfortable. That’s putting it lightly. In dissecting the interactions of a couple shooting an eco-conscious real estate series for HGTV, Fielder and co-creator Safdie touch third-rail issues like gentrification, cultural appropriation, and colonialism. The precision with which each episode provokes and unsettles echoes such masters of productive discomfort as Hitchcock and Kafka.
5. BEEF (Netflix)
What could be more timely than a show about anger? First-time creator Lee Sung Jin casts Ali Wong and Steven Yeun as two L.A. drivers whose random road-rage encounter escalates into a series of increasingly destructive pranks that threaten to ruin both of their lives. Each party’s fury is rooted in years, if not decades, of repression. Wong’s Amy has a talentless artist husband (Joseph Lee) and a successful houseplant business that she’s desperate to sell to a mercurial billionaire (Maria Bello). Yeun’s Danny is a hapless contractor hustling to bring his parents back from Korea. While the show isn’t about Asian-American identities per se, it’s grounded in the discrete ethnic communities to which the characters belong and feels specific to protagonists grappling with inequality, stereotyping, and the elevated expectations of immigrant parents. Darkly hilarious but also profoundly observant, BEEF pairs “minor feelings” with major stakes.
4. Rain Dogs (HBO)
Streamers are going broke scrambling to scale up television to fit genre-franchise-multiverse specs, but often the most effective small-screen stories are also the most intimate. Rain Dogs is this year’s most compelling case in point, a portrait of a fascinatingly unconventional family. Daisy May Cooper’s Costello is a peep-show dancer and aspiring writer struggling to support her wise-beyond-her-years tween daughter (Fleur Tashjian) with dubious help from her recently incarcerated gay best friend, Florian (Jack Farthing). He comes from a rich family; she can rarely make rent. He’s a gleeful sadist; she has masochistic tendencies. They’re toxic together, and they know it, but that doesn’t mean they can stand to be apart—or make them stop caring about each other. Creator Cash Carraway, an author making her first foray into showrunning, strikes the perfect balance of darkness, warmth, grit, and scathing British humor, ensuring that this emotional dramedy neither trivializes its characters’ pain nor devolves into a pity party.
3. I'm a Virgo (Amazon)
Less than two months after the WGA went on strike and just a few weeks before SAG-AFTRA joined them on the picket line to protest their employers’ greed, the streaming arm of a megacorporation led by one of the world’s richest people unveiled a flagrantly anti-capitalist comedy series devised by radical rapper and Sorry to Bother You filmmaker Boots Riley. It’s a complicated partnership to parse, politically speaking. But from an artistic standpoint, Riley’s surreal allegory about a 13-foot-tall Black teenager (the great Jharrel Jerome) in Oakland is among the year’s boldest and most imaginative statements. Jerome’s Cootie is a folk hero for our times—a gentle giant whose sheltered upbringing makes him slow to realize that powerful forces within American society, chief among them a vigilante billionaire played by Walton Goggins, will always interpret a powerful Black man as a thug and a threat. Riley’s secret weapons are humor and humanism. His message may be militant, but he delivers it in a package cushioned by laughs, love, and a lively vision of liberation. Your move, Jeff Bezos.
1. Succession (HBO) and Reservation Dogs (FX)
Ranking art is a fool’s errand, but I appreciate the annual list-making ritual just the same. If you abandon any pretense that it’s possible to pick an objective “best” show, what you’re left with is a record of the ones that made the most profound impact on you specifically. Well, for the first time in my career, I just couldn’t decide which of two series—both of which wrapped up nearly flawless runs this year—most brilliantly fulfilled the potential of the TV medium in the year 2023.
Succession was the obvious choice, an Emmy-winning, hour-long drama that aired on a platform synonymous with prestige TV and drove water-cooler conversation for practically its entire four-season run. Creator Jesse Armstrong and his virtuosic cast didn’t waste a second of the show’s final arc, which unfolded largely in the aftermath of Murdoch-like media mogul Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) ingeniously choreographed midair death. Every episode earned the fanfare with which it was greeted: Connor’s (Alan Ruck) miserable wedding! Swedish tech edgelord Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsg?rd) waging psychological warfare on the Roy kids in Norway! Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) hosting an election-eve party that damn near ends their marriage! That white-knuckle election episode! That tour de force funeral episode! The bangers just kept coming. And the finale made the biggest bang of all, culminating in a race to the bottom that everyone, but especially the irreparably broken Roy siblings, won.
Reservation Dogs, by contrast, never chased the mainstream zeitgeist. Instead of homing in on the 1% of the 1%, Sterlin Harjo’s half-hour dramedy chronicled the hijinks of disenfranchised outsiders: four Native American teens on an Oklahoma reservation mourning a friend who died by suicide. Profane, poignant, and sometimes psychedelic, the series moved fluidly between coming-of-age awkwardness, small-town character comedy, and the spiritual immediacy that comes with growing up with ancient traditions in a place that has seen so many untimely deaths. While the teenage Rez Dogs remained at the show’s center, learning how to become adults from the elders around them, its circle never stopped expanding until it encompassed the entire fictional community of Okern—young and old, present and absent, living and spectral. In its final season, you never knew, going in, what kind of journey an episode was going to take you on. One rode a time machine to the 1970s; another reunited college-bound Elora (Devery Jacobs) with a long-lost father played by Ethan Hawke. A cast blessed with veterans like Zahn McClarnon and Gary Farmer but anchored by newcomers breathed vitality into every frame.
Yet the two shows had more in common than might be apparent. Both were irreverent. Both mixed comedy and tragedy, and each invented a poetically foulmouthed language of its own; where Logan had “f-ck off,” Rez Dogs has an endless supply of “sh-tasses.” Both shows had profound things to say about the sociopolitical realities of our time. And each accessed those insights through finely wrought characters that felt unique to their respective worlds—lonely masters of the universe in one case, members of a disadvantaged but fiercely loving community in the other. Together, they capture the polarized extremes of American life in the year that was.
A Small Light (Nat Geo), Barry (HBO), The Bear (FX), Extraordinary (Hulu), Fellow Travelers (Showtime), Party Down (Starz), Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story (Netflix), This Fool (Hulu), Wrestlers (Netflix), Yellowjackets (Showtime)
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