Best TV Episodes of 2023

Best TV Episodes of 2023

Great TV series can run for dozens or hundreds of hours, but we still experience them a piece at a time. This list is dedicated to those pieces: a handful of the best episodes that Mike Hale, Margaret Lyons and I saw in a year of professional viewership.

As usual, this list isn’t comprehensive — it wouldn’t be if it were 10 times as long. And as usual, I avoided repeating shows that were on my Best of 2023 list. So I could have, but didn’t, include standout installments from “The Last of Us” (“Long, Long Time”), “Succession” (“Connor’s Wedding”) and “The Bear” (for me, “Forks” not “Fishes,” nothing against the latter). Consider it a starting point, and feel free to add your own. JAMES PONIEWOZIK

“Australian Survivor” has been outplaying the U.S. version for a while now, and nowhere was that more evident than in this jaw-dropping episode from the “Heroes vs. Villains” season. The episode’s final tribal council featured a masterstroke of psychological manipulation by George Mladenov, or “King George,” who emerged as one of the most telegenic antagonists of any version of the show. American “Survivor” is still a delight, but this iteration currently wears the crown. (Streaming on 10play.) PONIEWOZIK

It’s a rare comedy that can maintain quality, and even improve, going into its 14th season. It’s an even rarer one that, this long into its run, can pull off a striking and effective departure from form like this side-character spotlight. Shunting the Belcher family to the wings for most of the episode, this half-hour dove into the family history of the anxious grade-schooler Regular-Sized Rudy (voiced by Brian Huskey) as he searched for a magic trick that could save an awkward dinner with his divorced parents. Funny, poignant and ultimately uplifting, “The Amazing Rudy” showed that this burger joint can pull off a distinctive special of the week. (Streaming on Hulu.) PONIEWOZIK

You could fill this list with episodes of “Bob’s Burgers”; from the past 12 months, “The Plight Before Christmas” and “These Boots Are Made for Stalking” also come to mind. The Season 13 finale typified the Fox comedy’s embrace of eccentricity, individuality and generosity of spirit, as the compulsively competitive fourth-grader Louise (Kristen Schaal) agonized over a multimedia report on her hastily chosen hero, Amelia Earhart. Her eventual triumph was a satisfying and gently comic victory for all ambitious, difficult, undervalued girls and women. (Streaming on Hulu.) MIKE HALE

To the burgeoning genre of big-hearted apocalypse stories (“Station Eleven,” “The Last of Us”) add this adult animated series, set in the months before a looming planetary collision, which arrived too late for my annual best-TV list. Through a series of home-video snippets, this episode follows the introverted Carol (Martha Kelly) on a hiking trip with her exuberant sister, Elena (Bridget Everett), as the mismatched siblings try to bond before doomsday. (Streaming on Netflix.) PONIEWOZIK

I could probably have picked any of the five ridiculous episodes of this history mockumentary, but I’m partial to the Renaissance installment. In it, Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan) walks us through some of the major events between 1440 and 1830 or so, with her dopey and bizarre questions. She and a da Vinci expert look at “The Vitruvian Man,” and she asks, “What’s it for?” In praising the artist’s Last Supper, she marvels, “You almost feel like you could crawl inside it and betray Jesus yourself.” As for the French Revolution, she explains that “The guillotine was specifically designed to be the most humane way to decapitate someone in front of a jeering crowd.” “Cunk” is dorky buffoonery at its best. (Streaming on Netflix.) MARGARET LYONS

The fictional-autobiographical FXX comedy about the rapper Lil Dicky (Dave Burd) can be raunchy and scatological and outrageous. This third-season episode, however — well, it was still all that but also insightful and sweet. As the title character returns home to shoot a video about a childhood romance — cast with a slew of child-actor versions of himself as well as his actual young love, now grown up — the ensuing chaos becomes a reflection on celebrity, memory and the responsibilities of memoir. (Streaming on Hulu.) PONIEWOZIK

In “Extraordinary,” everyone on earth gets a superpower on their 18th birthday; Jen (Máiréad Tyers) is 25 and hasn’t gotten hers yet. While the humiliation and confusion she feels about this drives some of the show, it is secondary to the loving but bickering friendship with her roommate and bestie, her tense relationship with her mother and her budding romance with a shape-shifter who entered her life as a stray cat. This all comes to a head in the season finale, when a big, messy party pulls together all the show’s quirky characters and plot lines — and then just when things are feeling happy and resolved, it ends with a perfect record-scratch twist. Ah, the best kind of hurts so good. (Streaming on Hulu.) LYONS

This unaffectedly brutal documentary, filmed by the Associated Press video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, belongs on every list of the year’s best movies; through the good offices of “Frontline,” which was involved in its production, it can be included here. In backyards, on debris-strewn streets and in the ruins of a bombed-out maternity hospital, Chernov records the anger, despair and utter bewilderment of Ukrainian civilians during the early days of the Russian invasion. And as he and his team sprint across open areas and hunker down in flimsy stairwells, he narrates their desperate efforts to get the news to the world. (Streaming on PBS.org.) HALE

Claudia O’Doherty gave one of 2023’s best comedic performances in Peacock’s capitalism satire, as Jillian Glopp, a gig worker turned partner in a struggling saw palmetto farm. In the second season’s second episode, the theft of her beloved car — a budget Kia she’s named “Mallory” — cracks her sweet disposition, turning her into a raging vengeance seeker and unleashing the frustration of years scraping by in a dog-eat-dog economy. O’Doherty filters her character’s crackup through a blazing beam of Aussie sunshine. (Streaming on Peacock.) PONIEWOZIK

Alexander Cary’s miniseries dramatizing the last days of friendship between the traitorous British spy Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) and his fellow agent Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis) emphasized subtle, complex psychology over spy craft (though it had that too). This may be why it didn’t receive the notice it should have. The penultimate episode, in which the full dimensions of Philby’s downfall became apparent, was — like the entire series — a clinic in naturalistic acting by Lewis, Pearce and their co-star Anna Maxwell Martin. (Streaming on MGM+.) HALE

Everything about the case of the middle-aged dad Lawrence V. Ray and the group of bright young college students he drew into a cultlike miasma of mind control, sexual exploitation and indentured servitude is hard to fathom. Zachary Heinzerling’s thorough, judicious documentary series made the events both more comprehensible and, in its attempts to understand some of the victims, more opaque and mysterious. The final episode, which came out during Ray’s trial (he is serving a 60-year sentence for sex trafficking and other crimes), was a heartbreaking, mesmerizing summation of the case’s contradictions. (Streaming on Hulu.) HALE

From its opening moments, HBO’s “Telemarketers” is all about shaggy veracity: When we meet our protagonists, Sam Lipman-Stern (also one of the show’s directors) is shirtless in bed, and Patrick J. Pespas is high in the front seat of a car. The two worked together at a telemarketing company, small cogs in a despicable grift, but the office itself is home to real camaraderie — and real chaos, thanks in part to pervasive drug use. Lipman-Stern’s grainy footage from his teenage years captures the outrageousness of his workplace but also Pespas’s intense, charismatic vitality. While the subsequent episodes expose more of the telemarketing industry’s shadiest work, the first installment is an instant, startling immersion into its subjects’ perspectives. (Streaming on Max.) LYONS

There are dozens of poignant, personal moments in “Wrestlers,” a documentary series about a low-level professional wrestling league. Humor, passion, ambition — plenty of all of those, too. But one episode is a genuine jaw-dropper, and its climax is a death match between a mother and daughter. Marie was a young mom and went to jail while her daughter, Haley, was a child. They never really reconciled, but now they’re in the same wrestling league, where Marie is a doting veteran and Haley, now also a young mother herself, a fast-rising star. Marie says Haley is a “carbon copy” of her; Haley does not see it that way. But they both like turning one kind of pain into another kind of pain, and they bring all their anger and grief into the ring. They also bring folding chairs, a trash-can lid and thousands of thumbtacks, and by the end of the match, they’re both battered, and Marie’s face is covered in blood. It is perhaps the most visceral catharsis I have ever seen. (Streaming on Netflix.) LYONS

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