However much binge-watching may have warped our sense of time when it comes to watching them, great TV shows make their way one step, or episode, at a time. Sometimes, they come in roaring like a lion, with a pilot that announces to the world the arrival of something special. A detour episode can often be its own reward, and a single hour can be the payoff to a monthslong arc. Individual TV episodes can establish a show’s identity or break from it (even if only momentarily). And, whether or not it’s a standalone, an episode of TV is always the combined work of talented writers, actors, directors, and crews.
There can be no discussion of the best TV without discussion of the best episodes — the ones that kept us watching and guessing, that helped us understand something about ourselves through their storytelling. We’re pleased to say that this year, there was an abundance of such standouts, episodes that drew you into worlds as varied as a public school in Philadelphia and a spaceship on the outer reaches of the galaxy. We had so many favorites, in fact, that we thought it best to leave our list of the best TV episodes of 2023 unranked. Not only did that prevent fighting among our staff, but it also means that you can watch them for yourself at any pace.
Compared to the manic, star-studded hour that precedes it ("Fishes"), Christopher Storer-directed "Forks" feels like taking a warm bath, but that doesn't mean it's without conflict. For so much of The Bear, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) has been his own worst enemy, but under the bright lights of one of Chicago's best restaurants, he finally gets out of his own way (with the help of a few kind employees and a famed chef, played by Olivia Colman).
While Richie's journey isn't flashy — his breakthrough comes only after many days of polishing forks and peeling mushrooms — Moss-Bachrach digs into Alex Russell's script, turning in his best performance of the season as Richie stares down his insecurities and comes out the other side a better man. His arc is the clearest distillation of Season 2's overarching themes about service (to each other, and to ourselves), and it offers a rare moment of peace in a show that loves to raise viewers’ blood pressure. — Claire Spellberg Lustig
It might seem a bit of a cheat to single out Jesse Armstrong’s final word on his enthralling series as a high-water mark for TV storytelling in 2023, especially when it so brutally and methodically settles all lingering matters of business and family. “Church and State” and “Connor’s Wedding” are just as worthy of contenders, but “With Open Eyes” is basically Succession in microcosm. The sibling rivalry, the sibling bonding, Logan’s (Brian Cox) looming presence, even in death, the breakneck pace and emotional disclosures that stop it in its tracks — they’re all here, twisting your gut and wringing your heart. Unlike so many series finales, the goal isn't resolution via closure but through crushing defeat. No one's left unscathed, just varying distances from the epicenter of power, which is newly Wambsgans-shaped. It's a goodbye and a rebuke, crafted by Armstrong and series director Mark Mylod, who know this world better than anyone else. — Danette Chavez
There's always been an artistry to a great TV pilot, but it's even more important in today’s hyper-crowded landscape. Rian Johnson is a writer-director who is mostly a feature film guy, and you can see where "Dead Man's Hand" has a cinematic flair. The sinister lighting in the casino, the way that Charlie (Natasha Lyonne) sinks into the dread of what's happened to her friend. But "Dead Man's Hand" is great television for the ways in which it sets a template for the season — the double-back structure of the episode, the way clues get dropped like breadcrumbs — and sets Lyonne loose inside that template like a hamster in a maze. Poker Face was an ideal match of actress and writer-director, and it was evident from minute one. — Joe Reid
The Jury Duty finale functions as more of a coda to this story than its climax. As director Jake Szymanski, various executive producers, and the cast explain their weeks-long prank to hero Ronald Gladden, the scope of the show comes into full view for both Gladden and the audience. It's astounding that the Jury Duty team was able to keep up the ruse for so long, but perhaps even more impressive that they were able to mine such great comedy from situations that changed by the second — and deliver a feel-good ending on top of it. While no one would have blamed Gladden for reacting negatively to the reveal, his overwhelming empathy and the obvious bonds he formed with his fellow "jury members" reinforced the sense that the Freevee comedy was good-natured fun, rather than a mean-spirited production that sought to mock one gullible, ignorant man. —CSL
There were moments when The Other Two would work with such precision within an episode that its stories would come together like Seinfeld plots. Other times, Cary (Drew Tarver), Brooke (Heléne Yorke) and Pat (Molly Shannon) were in their own separate shows, which was the case in "Brooke Gets Her Hands Dirty," where we get three great TV episodes in one. Brooke's brunette phase is a lunatic spiral of uselessly performative altruism, while Pat's old-lady drag just so she can have a normal day is funny and sad at once. But it's Cary's gig on the ambition-free network procedural Emily Overruled, which turns into a spot-on Pleasantville parody, that takes this episode above and beyond. — JR
Season 2 of Swagger leaped forward four years to look further into the futures of teens like Jace Carson (Isaiah Hill). Their lives were about to be changed for the better, or derailed by a system designed to do just that. "Are We Free?" takes Team Swagger (as they were known in their youth circuit days) to a juvenile detention center, where they meet and play against teens just like them — talented athletes who once had big dreams. The smash cuts between the players' college announcements and daily life at the detention center capture just how quickly those dreams were deferred. Like Ava DuVernay's When They See Us, Swagger interrogates the cruelty and capriciousness of the criminal legal system. But it works just as quickly to demonstrate the hope that these Black teens, in and out of the center, still feel in the face of systematic inequalities. — DC
Even in a show as confident and complex as Reservation Dogs, "Deer Lady" (written by series creator Sterlin Harjo and directed by Danis Goulet) stands out. It accomplishes so much, and does it so well, in just 30 minutes, offering an origin story for an enigmatic figure in Native mythology (Kaniehtiio Horn's hooved spirit), a horror-tinged revenge arc that culminates in a graphic murder, and a blessing for Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), whom the Deer Lady assures won't turn out like his father. But while this episode reflects the simmering anger of Indigenous people, whose children and communities have been devastated by "human wolves," it also speaks to the series's commitment to finding moments of happiness amid the pain. As Harjo and Goulet so elegantly articulate, when going up against forces determined to silence the voices of Indigenous people, continuing to smile is an act of resistance in and of itself. — CSL
The detour episode has grown increasingly popular as a way to spotlight a supporting character or to pause the narrative briefly. For a while, "Long, Long Time" seems to be doing both, introducing disaster-prepper Bill (Nick Offerman) and his partner Frank (Murray Bartlett), who seem like they're going to be integral allies to our main characters, who are mostly absent from this episode. Instead, we get a love story for Bill and Frank that begins, flourishes, and ends, all in the span of one episode. They're here, they find something miraculous at the end of civilization, and they make their exit together. The Last of Us took on the ways in which we fight to keep our connections to each other when everything breaks down, and Bill and Frank's story was a lovely, closed-ended chapter in that long, difficult book. — JR
Any list of the best episodes of the year should include an entry from Abbott Elementary, which continues to demonstrate the joys of episodic storytelling on broadcast TV. A more serialized comedy would probably have had to deliver on the slow-burn romance between Janine (Quinta Brunson) and Gregory (Tyler James Williams) by the end of its second season. But Brunson and her writers know how to make the wait for that payoff, well, pay off. Director Randall Einhorn captures the inherent chaos of any kind of overnight trip involving children, but it can’t compare to the emotional maelstrom of Janine and Gregory admitting to their feelings for each other, then, just as quickly, acknowledging why they can’t act on them just yet. Parting (for the season) is indeed sweet sorrow, but Abbott knows how to soften the blow. — DC
Daisy Jones & the Six is not without its problems, but "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" is the closest the limited series gets to recapturing the magic of the book. Written by Harris Danow, the hour-long finale brings the season's many storylines to a bombastic conclusion without tipping over into histrionics. Stars Riley Keough and Sam Claflin deserve much of the credit for walking that fine line, even as their characters spend the episode fighting about their feelings for each other, as does director Nzingha Stewart, who lets the dam of chaos burst as the Six prepare for their final show. What Daisy Jones shows of that concert, which includes a killer version of "The River" featuring Nabiyah Be's Simone, is a thing of beauty — it's a celebration of music and mess that even Fleetwood Mac would be proud of. — CSL
TV's scariest hour in 2023 took the form of an overnight trip to Long Island to secure venture capitalist funding for a birthing center. That's the prompt director Sean Durkin was given, and from there, he turned the moneyed Parker estate into a house haunted by predatory capitalism, amoral masters of the universe, and bored trust-funders whose most terrifying attribute is how thoroughly it bores them to hew to any kind of ethics. Twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliott (Rachel Weisz) have their own share of dysfunction on display, but it's Rebecca (Jennifer Ehle) who reigns over this episode like the queen of One-Percenter hell. — JR
Bill Hader’s comedy went from black to bleak during its four-season run, and no character captured that journey quite like NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan). He was almost naive when the show began, but Barry's betrayal(s) hardened him and Crístobal's love (Michael Irby) gave him the strength to go from low-level gangster to underworld boss.
But Barry established long ago that every one of these characters was operating under some self-serving delusion, and things would not end well for any of them. Carrigan is devastating in "it takes a psycho," his voice brightly laying out the plan while his face registers Hank's inner turmoil. He knows he's not convincing Crístobal that killing their newly hired associates was the right move. The episode's third act shares a lovely, heartbreaking symmetry with that of "limonada," only this time, Hank is the one who lets go. — DC
Over the course of its two seasons, HBO's pirate comedy has been praised for featuring one of television's most unexpected queer love stories. Indeed, Ed (Taika Waititi) and Stede’s (Rhys Darby) evolving love and attraction is featured in "Calypso's Birthday," the couple crossing the Rubicon when Stede murders marauding pirate Ned Low (a brilliantly slimy Bronson Pinchot). But it's everything that's happening in the margins of that plot that make the Season 2 episode so special. There's a kind of dionysian spell that falls over the ship here, with Wee John (Kristian Nairn) dressing in full mermaid drag, and the mercurial Izzy (Con O'Neill) serenading the Revenge with a gorgeous rendition of "La Vie en Rose" (in English and French). This is the episode where it really hits home that Our Flag Means Death is liberating the cultural iconography of the pirate yarn and opening these stories up to the kinds of people who were once ignored. It's a queer cabaret on the high seas, and one of the most fun TV episodes of 2023. — JR
As Party Down episodes go, "KSGY-95 Prizewinner's Luau" is the full package. It offers callbacks to previous seasons in the form of the catering crew's magic mushroom trip and Roman's (Martin Starr) return to his sci-fi screenplay, wedged alongside a fresh storyline about the luau being a cover for the police to apprehend deadbeat dads who haven't paid child support. (Writer Dayo Adesokan takes full advantage of the punny possibilities by establishing the luau as a pregame for a Sting concert.) But the real star of the Ken Marino-directed episode is Jennifer Garner, who makes the perfect foil for the apathetic and cynical Henry (Adam Scott). With her bubbly energy and boundless optimism, Garner's Evie is a welcome addition to the season, and she's never funnier than when she's contemplating her life choices (and encouraging Henry to do the same) while deep in the throes of her psychedelic adventure. — CSL
Obviously, any episode that features an extended fight scene with a naked Lee Pace deserves a spot on a best of list, if not an Emmy. And “Seldon’s Shadow” was an exciting reintroduction to this adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series; kinetic (and sexy) enough to convince viewers to take another look. But it was just a sign of things to come for Season 2 of this sci-fi drama, which grew more compelling and convincing with each new episode.
That newfound momentum culminates in “Long Ago, Not Far Away,” a gripping episode that shows just how dark it can get before dawn. Directed by Star Trek: Voyager alum Roxann Dawson, Season 2’s penultimate chapter is massive in just about every sense of the word. The fate of the universe is in the balance, a great emotional toll is about to be exacted, and the 6’5” Pace strides about in what looks like a mithril crop top. Every dollar in the budget is on the screen — this is one of the most gorgeous shows on TV right now – but Dawson never loses sight of the human element of the story. — DC
TOPICS: Succession, Abbott Elementary, Barry, The Bear, Daisy Jones & The Six, Dead Ringers, Foundation, Jury Duty, The Last of Us, The Other Two, Our Flag Means Death, Poker Face, Reservation Dogs, Swagger