The best TV shows of 2023 so far

We’re going to put this really simply for you: TV whips. Long-form serialized storytelling — what a concept. What a gift! Even in an ongoing time where there’s just so much TV to wade through, it’s hard to be mad about so much beauty in the world.

At this point in the year, it’s possible that people are still working through the things they missed from 2022, let alone catching up on every single thing they could from 2023. Still, time marches on, and brings with it new, fabulous TV offerings — including some early contenders for the best of the year.

While this is a rolling list, the series here will be listed in reverse chronological order, by season finale. That means that the show with most recent finale will be listed first, and then the next most recent, all the way down to the earliest finale of 2023. At the end of the year, the Polygon staff will get together and vote on our favorites for a final, ranked list.

Our latest update added What We Do in the Shadows and The Great.


How To with John Wilson season 3

Photo: Tomas Wilson/HBO

Genre: Weird little guy diary
Episodes: 6
Creator: John Wilson
Cast: New York City and beyond

Every episode of How To with John Wilson feels like it’s setting up a joke, only the punchline never comes. That’s not to say it isn’t funny — each episode of the off-kilter HBO sorta-documentary is full of great documentary comedy, from visual puns to the dramatic irony of interviews with subjects who believe they’d survive the apocalypse when it’s pretty clear their odds are only marginally better than yours, at best.

Perhaps it’s because the format of How To simply is a joke. In its third season, the show continued its trend of being creator John Wilson’s documentary diary. He begins with a how-to prompt, and then abandons it as quickly as possible once he meets someone in his journey worth following. And most everyone is worth following.

The most striking thing about watching How To is seeing how many people invite Wilson in when he asks: to their homes, their party buses, their conventions, their Burning Man trips. These people all accept Wilson — a weirdo with a camera — as he is, and How To returns the favor. There’s never any judgment, only curiosity, no matter how outlandish his subjects may be. This made each of How To’s previous too-brief seasons a delight, but in this third and final season, Wilson continually makes time to interrogate himself and his compulsion to make his films.

The result is a bittersweet meditation on memory via the mundanely odd lives of the people Wilson meets, where we learn that the questions he asks himself are also being asked in some form by a man who wants to live in a missile silo or the people who nurse petty grudges in a West Virginia “radio silence zone” where they live off the grid. How To is funny, because life is funny, in all the compromises we make in order to coexist and indulgences we allow ourselves in order to cope when feeling adrift. But there’s never a punchline. There’s too much wonder in all of us for that. —Joshua Rivera

How To with John Wilson season 3 is available to watch on Max.

What We Do in the Shadows season 5

Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), Laszlo (Matt Berry) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou)  sit at tables on a dias while Nandor (Kayvan Novak) stands at a podium in a still from What We Do in the Shadows season 5

Photo: Russ Martin/FX

Genre: Vampire/Staten Island mockuseries
Episodes: 10
Showrunner: Paul Simms
Cast: Harvey Guillén, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou

Hanging out with vampires in Staten Island is more fun than it ought to be. Not just because your mileage may vary on that pitch; What We Do in the Shadows remains one of the best comedies, with some of the best-drawn characters who drive situations to their logical, eternally perverse ends. This season, the details are paramount — Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) tries to rid herself of a hex, Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) is running for political office; Nandor (Kayvan Novak) is unaware that Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) has been turned, while Laszlo (Matt Berry) attempts to help uncover why he’s not a full vampire already. Along the way they get a visit from the Baron (Doug Jones), some freaky little Guillermo animal clones, their lively New Jersey neighbors, and the Guide (Kristen Schaal), who desperately wants to be one of the gals.

But ultimately, this could be anything. That’s the beauty of What We Do in the Shadows: the specificity of the characters, their situations, and their reactions, and the fact that you could plop them in any scenario and they’d be hysterical. More TV shows should be like What We Do in the Shadows season 5: consistently funny, with a solid cast that can ping off each other. Oh, and plenty of gross Guillermos. —Zosha Millman

What We Do in the Shadows season 5 is available to watch on Hulu.

Warrior season 3

Jason Tobin, sitting, and Andrew Koji, standing with his arms crossed, wear black suits with red handkerchiefs in the pocket in front of a wooden wall in Warrior.

Photo: David Bloomer/Cinemax

Genre: Martial arts drama
Episodes: 10
Showrunners: Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard
Cast: Andrew Koji, Jason Tobin, Olivia Cheng

New alliances forged and old ones were tested in the dramatic and eventful third season of Warrior. The show delivered great fights as always, with even bigger set-pieces after the move to Max, and Andrew Koji continues to develop into one of the brightest action stars working today.

Warrior didn’t just add a new network for its third season; it also added some stellar new characters to its ensemble cast. Martial arts legend Mark Dacascos joined as the soft-spoken Kong Pak, adding a new wrinkle to the Long Zii tong’s dynamics. New antagonists joined the show’s long-standing ones and spiced things up, particularly the oil baron Strickland and Secret Service agent Edmund Moseley.

But the heart of the show remains Koji’s Ah Sahm and his ever-changing relationships with Mai Ling, Young Jun, and his newfound community. Warrior season 3 brought these into sharp focus, effectively contrasting Ah Sahm’s status as a folk hero with his duties to his tong and his loved ones.

The best action show on TV had its best season yet, and all we can do now is pray for a season 4. —Pete Volk

Warrior is available to watch on Max.

Hijack

Neil Maskell as an airplane hijacker in Hijack standing in a sweatshirt and looking toward the camera

Image: Apple TV Plus

Genre: Hijacking thriller
Episodes: 7
Creators: George Kay and Jim Field Smith
Cast: Idris Elba, Neil Maskell, Archie Panjabi

Hijack is a rare show in that it has both a perfect premise and execution that lives up to an idea that good. From takeoff to landing, the Apple TV Plus show is one of the best thrillers of the year, and one of its most entertaining and watchable TV shows.

Idris Elba plays a business negotiator named Sam Nelson who’s on a plane that gets hijacked. Beyond its simple log line, the series expands its cast and setting to encompass a few different factions on the ground. There are police and political forces that we follow as they discover the hijacking has occurred and weigh the many ramifications of taking action, as well as Nelson’s ex-wife and son, who slowly start to figure into the show’s action and mystery. It’s exactly the right number of characters to expand Hijack’s simple setup, but not so many that it ever threatens to lose its focus.

Among the most impressive elements of Hijack is its careful pacing. Episodic excellence is an almost completely lost art on television these days, especially in serialized shows. The streaming era has given rise to shows that take three or more episodes to get into their action, or have episodes that go on for 15 or 20 minutes after their logical endpoint, just to fill time. Hijack, in this way, is a bright spot in the TV landscape. Across its seven nearly real-time episodes, Hijack manages to maintain its delicate balance between suspense and action and giving plenty of cliffhangers that always leave you excited to see what’s next.

The series also manages to nail the elusive art of stringing the audience along and making them feel just as informed as its characters… but not quite as smart, something only the best thrillers really achieve. As a viewer, you’ve almost always got the same information that Elba’s character does, but it still feels like he’s always one step ahead of you and the hijackers.

Thrillers used to be the exclusive domain of movies, but Hijack is so good that it makes a compelling case that TV and streaming is the genre’s new home. —Austen Goslin

Hijack is available to watch on Apple TV Plus.

The Righteous Gemstones season 3

Walton Goggins wears a bright blue outfit with a fabric shell behind him as he sings by the pool in The Righteous Gemstones.

Photo: Jake Giles Netter/HBO

Genre: Nepotism comedy
Episodes: 9
Creator: Danny McBride
Cast: Danny McBride, Edi Patterson, Adam DeVine, John Goodman

TV’s best show about the dysfunctional children of a mega-rich American family continued with an excellent third season, putting the Gemstones through the wringer and seeing them come out the other side just a little more self-aware.

This season truly had it all. A throne room to rival Game of Thrones! A giant (bespoke) monster truck! An actual factual locust swarm! Steve Zahn, Shea Whigham, and Stephen Dorff! Extended nude fight scenes!

But, of course, it all culminates where it had to: Baby Billy’s Bible Bonkers. It’s the four words on everyone’s minds right now. [Walton Goggins voice] Say it with me now: Baby. Billy’s. Bible. Bonkers.

Gemstones continues to somehow be one of TV’s funniest and most incisive shows. Underneath the ridiculous goofs and ostentatiously detailed set design is a sincere show with a heart of gold, and it all works because of how damn funny, entertaining, and delightfully surprising it is. When you queue up an episode of Gemstones, expect anything. Praise the Gemstones, may they reign for eternity. And one more time, with gusto: Baby Billy’s Bible Bonkers. —PV

The Righteous Gemstones is available to watch on Max.

Full Circle

Derek (Timothy Olyphant) sitting on a park bench at night looking dejected while Sam (Claire Danes)  comforting him. Nearby is two dufflebags (which are full of money, though you can’t see it)

Photo: Sarah Shatz/Max

Genre: Thriller
Episodes: 6
Creator: Ed Solomon and Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Claire Danes, Timothy Olyphant, CCH Pounder, Zazie Beetz, Jim Gaffigan, and more

No one in Full Circle has the full picture. On the one hand we have Sam (Claire Danes) and Derek (Timothy Olyphant), wealthy parents thrown into a panic when they learn their son has been kidnapped. On the other, we have Savvy (CCH Pounder), a Guyanese power player organizing the whole thing and looking to remove a curse on her family. An USPIS inspector (Zazie Beetz) is there too, already hot on the trail of some insurance scams by Savvy’s crew. In between them all are the kids: Sam and Derek’s and Savvy’s lowest-level employees, all foot soldiers and pawns in a game far bigger than they know.

The show is constantly balancing out those competing interests and their respective perspectives, with the kids looking to save themselves, and the adults slowly unraveling the mess that got them all there to begin with. In many ways, Full Circle is a show that could only exist at this moment: heady and intricate, directed by Steven Soderbergh with a calculated, low-key frantic eye. From the jump it’s the sort of writing and world that is completely immersive, finding small but crucial beats that clue viewers into relationships or plot developments. Full Circle is a story that feels big and expansive even as it never tips its hand, or even tips outside of the circle it’s drawn for itself. Soderbergh and writer Ed Solomon keep everything tight and focused.

As each domino falls, it’s clear no one can see the forces pushing them to begin with. And as the six-episode series ticks away, it’s clear that the viewer is, delightfully, no better off. When the final mic drop of the series comes, it’s a thud far away from the frenzy of the main show — after all, no one in Full Circle has the full picture. —ZM

Full Circle is available to watch on Max.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia season 16

Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Mac (Rob McElhenney) look scared at a phone in Dennis’ hand, while Uncle Jack looks somewhere else

Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FX

Genre: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Episodes: 8
Creators: Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton
Cast: Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito

There’s really no reason a show should still be great 16 seasons into its run. Nonetheless, it’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is one of the funniest shows of the year so far, and almost as funny as some of the show’s best seasons — which aired more than a decade ago at this point.

It’s remarkable the gang are still finding new jokes to tell. Whether it’s Frank becoming a chess champion using anal beads, finding out that Dee used to be a great bowler but Dennis makes her choke, or discovering that those weird extra doors in Charlie and Frank’s apartment actually go somewhere, the show keeps finding great and new ways to be funny.

But the even greater joy is that Mac, Dennis, Dee, Frank, and Charlie now feel like finely honed characters. Each is a chaotically refined chemical compound ready to explode the minute they’re combined with anyone else on the show. It’s a tremendously fun dynamic that let’s the show feel loose and exciting without ever threatening a dull episode if the wrong two members of the gang get paired up — there are no boring pairings in It’s Always Sunny. And the season 16 finale, where Dennis goes on a hellish odyssey to take a mental health day, makes a compelling case that the characters can prop up their own story by themselves.

It’s not impossible for a show to still be good after 16 seasons, but what makes the latest season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia so impressive is that it also manages to still bring surprises after 16 years, and all without sacrificing its laughs. There’s nothing like It’s Always Sunny. Long may it reign. —Austen Goslin

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia season 16 is available to watch on Hulu.

The Other Two season 3

Brandon Scott Jones, Drew Tarver, Heléne Yorke, Josh Segarra, and Molly Shannon crowd in a doorway in The Other Two. Tarver and Yorke wear matching light blue suit jackets with no shirts under.

Photo: Greg Endries/Max

Genre: Toxic workplace ouroboros
Episodes: 10
Creators: Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider
Cast: Heléne York, Drew Tarver, Molly Shannon, Josh Segarra

A case study in art imitating life, The Other Two went out on a real-life note that feels like an epilogue to the ending that aired this spring on Max. A damning report alleged creators Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider ran a hostile work environment on their critically acclaimed show about the commonplace toxicity in Hollywood.

The news arriving at the conclusion of The Other Two’s final season — in which fame-hungry siblings Cary and Brooke Dubek reach personal nadirs in their search for Hollywood success — highlighted the series’ themes about the destructive cycles of ambition and ego that fuel stardom and celebrity, and how cruel, debasing behavior is a vital part of those cycles.

It’s heavy stuff for what was consistently a breezy series packed with killer jokes taking the piss out of Hollywood. In its final season, The Other Two became both narratively ambitious, pushing the Dubek siblings to their most unlikable depths, and formally so, experimenting with surreal tonal departures like a Pleasantville parody or an episode where no one can physically see Brooke because she stops working in “The Industry.”

The Other Two’s final season walked a tightrope, running the risk of becoming too ridiculous or too unlikable at every turn, and it pulled it off for 10 hilarious episodes. But the jokes are only part of why the show is one of the year’s best. What elevates it are the questions those jokes leave us with, both on camera and behind the scenes — questions about how integral ambition and self-loathing are to art, and if the successful few must always climb to the top on the backs of others. —JR

The Other Two season 3 is available to watch on Max.

The Bear season 2

Carmy stands in the foreground of his gutted restaurant as Richie holds a broom and looks to the ceiling and a man in a hard hat stands behind a stepladder in season 2 of The Bear

Photo: Chuck Hodes/FX

Genre: Kitchen drama
Episodes: 10
Creator: Christopher Storer
Cast: Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri, Ebon Moss-Bachrach

The Bear has been one of the best-written and best-performed shows on TV since it opened up shop on Hulu last summer. But the perspective of the series in season 1 felt mostly limited to Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), keeping most of the other characters locked inside the four walls of The Beef. Even still, each character felt lived-in and developed, even if we only got the briefest glimpses of their lives outside of the food industry. Thankfully, the show’s second season recognizes the strengths of its cast and swivels the spotlight to them, letting Carmy play the supporting role he excels at both in the kitchen and in The Bear.

A weaker show would break its characters apart for the second season, sending them to the wind and losing everything that makes it special, but distance only amplifies The Bear’s many strengths. The individual episodes for Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Marcus (Lionel Boyce), and Syd (Ayo Edebiri) are all standouts for the show, replacing the ensemble dynamics of The Beef’s chaotic kitchen with a coterie of excellent guest stars, like Will Poulter and Olivia Colman, who each bring an entire lifetime of culinary history to characters who only appear for a few scenes.

Even more impressive is the season’s sixth episode, “Fishes,” a huge Berzatto family Christmas dinner that features a barrage of perfectly cast guest stars that feel like well-worn members of the cast rather than flashy one-time additions. The entire episode feels at once like a dizzying stress nightmare, an endearing portrait of a tight-knit family (with a few branches hanging lower than people think), and a perfect microcosm of how every Berzatto ended up the way they did.

In that way, The Bear’s second season manages to do the hardest thing any show can: find ways to grow outward and inward at the same time. Whether it’s Marcus making his way to Copenhagen and finding out why he wants to be a chef, Syd taking an impromptu food tour of real Chicago restaurants, or Carmy quietly gifting Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) his knife, The Bear constantly finds new ways to show us who its characters are and how they’re growing, all while reinforcing its central premise that food and cooking are acts of service that bring people together. In other words, The Bear season 2 is excellent at everything that makes TV special. —AG

The Bear season 2 is available to watch on Hulu.

The Great season 3

Catherine (Elle Fanning) sits cross-legged on the floor with a giant map behind her, wearing a ivory corset and a green skirt in The Great.

Photo: Christopher Raphael/Hulu

Genre: Alternate history
Episodes: 10
Creator: Tony McNamara
Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox

Whenever a show gets canceled, it’s tempting to say it fell at either end of an extreme: It’s “gone too soon” or some version of “well, yeah, that figures.” Such was the case of The Great, which Hulu announced it was canceling in late August. The case for any narrative seemed clear: The stars were too big to hold down to a TV show! The show had run out of places to go! The Great could’ve gone forever! There was more to say! I want it back!

But The Great was something of a rarity these days: a show that earned its run time every time. That means it occupied all of these extremes and none of them; it could’ve gone on, and I would’ve been confident in a high degree of quality, or the creative team could’ve known that was the end, and dayenu. Season 3 had a ponderous ending for Empress Catherine (Elle Fanning) and her deposed husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult), one that many shows would be eager to earn. And yet, the show could easily have run for a couple more seasons and I would’ve shown up all the same. The Great was always smarter than it had to be, turning the quandaries and questions about the nature of a “good ruler” over and over, anchoring them in characters so strong there was seldom a weak note.

The Great may have been outkicking its coverage with stars like Hoult and Fanning, but they were also revelations. Each was sharp and funny, grounded and nuanced, whether they were playing for crass laughs or a punch in the gut. They were surrounded by a cast just as acerbic but with other varied charms, so while the show felt cohesive, it never felt limited. Season 3 proved the show was never going to settle. There was always a new risk to take, and The Great never let its players shy away from conflict when it’d make for good TV. And boy, did it make for good TV.

When a show gets canceled like this, it can be easy to mourn it too lightly or too heavily, for people to wonder if it’s worth catching up on. But The Great was a miracle, a show that was funny and thoughtful in equal measure. It found the right ending, and it could’ve gone on forever. I want it back. —ZM

The Great season 3 is available to watch on Hulu.

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story

King George, a tall dark-haired young man, holds a hand out to Queen Charlotte, a young woman with an impressive afro

Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix

Genre: Historical romance
Episodes: 6
Creators: Shonda Rhimes
Cast: India Amarteifio, Corey Mylchreest, Arsema Thomas

Even as a fan of the main Bridgerton series, I did not have high hopes for this weird prequel spinoff. Yet somehow, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story defied all my expectations and left me craving more of the tragically doomed Charlotte and George.

Is it basically just historical real person fanfiction? Yes, yes it is. Does it open up a writhing can of worms with how it treats race, not addressing any of those concerns in any meaningful way? Absolutely. But it’s also just damn good television, with better pacing than the mainline Bridgerton series and more balance when it comes to the internal and external tensions that face the main couple. With Rhimes spearheading the show, Queen Charlotte deftly handles multiple characters across two different timelines with surprising elegance. Never does it feel stuffed or overpacked in the way that Bridgerton proper often does.

The chemistry between India Amarteifio’s Charlotte and Corey Mylchreest’s George is palpable, and their unwilling-marriage-of-convenience-to-genuine-lovers arc is so fulfilling. But the standout character is Arsema Thomas as young Lady Danbury, a recently widowed woman seeking to make her way in the world (and finding a forbidden spark of love along the way). —Petrana Radulovic

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story is available to watch on Netflix.

Jury Duty

The cast of Jury Duty sitting at a table looking bored and frustrated

Image: Amazon Freevee

Genre: Mockuseries/extended prank
Episodes: 8 episodes
Creators: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky
Cast: Ronald Gladden, James Marsden, Alan Barinholtz

Who expected the best new sitcom of 2023 to air on Freevee, the free-with-ads streaming service formerly known as IMDbTV that now lives within Amazon Prime Video? Neither did we, but Jury Duty, created by The Office vets Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky and directed by Jake Szymanski (7 Days in Hell), is the real deal: hilarious, sweet, and enough of a concept to bring the unexpected with each half-hour episode.

The idea of a jury-duty-themed mockumentary might have worked on its own, but the writing duo’s show goes the extra mile to create spontaneity. At the center of the series is Ronald Gladden, a non-actor who doesn’t realize he is in a sitcom and just wants to be the best damn juror he can possibly be. And by god, the genial gig worker is exactly that. Across the eight episodes, Ronald winds up sitting on a ludicrous civil trial involving a disgruntled worker at a Goop-like company, sequestering at a hotel with his fellow jury members (all of whom are secretly comedians), and spending an inordinate amount of time with James Marsden, who plays a fame-crazed version of himself. As foreperson, it’s up to Ronald to make sure his fellow juror’s “chair pants,” a homemade invention that attaches chair legs to pants, don’t disrupt the trial, and figure out a way for his group’s religious member to have sexual intercourse without breaking his premarital vows (it involves a loophole called “soaking,” which we will not attempt to describe). Eisenberg, Stupnitsky, Szymanski, and their team of on-the-fly writers constantly bring Jury Duty to that edge of zaniness without tipping off Ronald and blowing their cover. The pressure of the judicial system is enough to keep the unknowing target focused on serving his civil duty, much to our delight.

Slight spoilers: The judge reaches a verdict in episode 8 that brought me to tears in more ways than one. Jury Duty tells a real story, follows a real set of characters, and delivers a genuine payoff. And more than that, the final episodes pull back the curtain to explain the unfathomable lengths the production went to go to pull off the trick. It’s miracle work. —Matt Patches

Jury Duty is available to stream for free with ads on Freevee.

Perry Mason season 2

Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) stands at a trial with the gallery looking behind him. On his right, Juliet Rylance sits at the defense’s table, while on his left, Mark O’Brien sits at the prosecution’s table.

Photo: Merrick Morton/HBO

Genre: Legal drama
Episodes: 8 episodes
Showrunners: Jack Amiel and Michael Begler
Cast: Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk

First, a quick confession: I skipped the first season of Perry Mason, HBO’s adaptation of the famed literary criminal defense attorney, perhaps best known for the long-running CBS series in the 1950s and 1960s. I watched the first episode, found it overly dark and dour, and wasn’t much interested in an origin story about Perry’s time before his days as a defense lawyer.

When The Knick showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler came in to run Perry Mason’s second season, I was intrigued. And when I started hearing more and more people talk about how good the show’s new season was, I dove right in.

Good news: Not only is the second season of Perry Mason very good, you can absolutely skip the first season without issue if you want to. I operated purely on a “if it’s important, they’ll remind me” point-of-view, and it served me perfectly.

In Perry Mason, Matthew Rhys continues to excel as the saddest man on TV, picking up where he left off in The Americans (as well as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). He’s broken down, disillusioned with the system, and finds himself struggling with basic motivation at the beginning of the season. When a massive case falls on his lap, Perry and his partners find themselves thrust into a case that’s impossible to win, stacked against a massive conspiracy that could involve all the power players in Los Angeles.

Early on, the second season makes one crucial and bold diversion from nearly every piece of defense attorney media. I won’t spoil what it is, but the decision opens up Perry Mason to be a richer examination of the justice system and the people caught up in it.

It’s also just a fun watch. An immersive period piece with detailed production design (I love Perry’s motorcycle so much), Perry Mason delights in bringing 1930s Los Angeles to life, and Rhys’ supporting cast (especially Juliet Rylance as his brilliant legal partner Della, Chris Chalk as their dedicated investigator, Paul Raci as a terrifying gangster, Hope Davis as a wealthy socialite, and the always excellent Shea Whigham as Perry’s adversarial frenemy) help make it one of the best watches on TV. —Pete Volk

Perry Mason is available to watch on HBO Max.

Game Changer season 5

Katie Marovitch, blindfolded, is up against a board while a professional knife thrower holds a knife 10 feet away. Sam Reich stands next to Katie, holding the board, while Brennan Lee Mulligan and Carolyn Page watch on from their podiums in Game Changer.

Image: CH Media

Genre: Competition/reality
Episodes: 8
Showrunner: Sam Reich
Cast: Sam Reich, Brennan Lee Mulligan, Grant O’Brien

Dropout, CollegeHumor’s quietly excellent streaming service, changed the game show game with Game Changer. On the show, contestants (usually) arrive without knowing what game they are about to play — the gimmick relies on the players figuring it out as they go, often putting them delightfully at odds with Sam Reich (operating as the show’s host/antagonist).

Some examples of games from this season: a game where contestants wear a heart rate monitor and compete in a variety of mental tasks designed to elevate it; a game of improvised Shakespeare starring the Improvised Shakespeare Company (my favorite episode of the season, a remarkable display of skill and flexibility that is also laugh-out-loud funny); a parody of The Bachelor. Some of the best games are laser-targeted at one contestant, like in an earlier season, where the only rule was that [contestant redacted for spoilers] couldn’t win, much to their frustration and our delight.

Game Changer has been so successful that multiple other Dropout game shows have spun out from it: Make Some Noise, where contestants recreate sound-related improv prompts, and Play It By Ear, a musical theater improv show.

But it all comes back to Game Changer, the best game show on a streaming service that now has plenty of good ones. I’ve gotta come clean: Typically, I really do not like improv comedy, so the fact that Game Changer works so well for me should tell even the most skeptical of readers that it’s worth a shot. —PV

Game Changer is available to watch on Dropout.

Love Is Blind season 4

Vanessa Lachey shrugs with a smile in front of a rack of wedding dresses in season 4 of Netflix’s Love Is Blind, which pretty much sums up the vibe of the show.

Image: Netflix

Genre: “Reality” love
Episodes: 13
Created by: Chris Coelen
Cast: A hot mess of single people

Love Is Blind is supremely messy. There’s no way around that.

The concept of the show — that love is blind, and couples should test this concept for reality TV audiences by seeing who they connect with in “pods” where they can only talk to each other and then propose sight-unseen — is a whole thing. The resulting courtship is people chaotically trying to decide if they’re actually going to go through it. Even the live reunion special, a reality show tradition since time immemorial, started several hours late, for those who even got it to work. And according to some recent reports, production on the show was “emotional warfare” where producers severely mistreated contestants. In that light, messy doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Love Is Blind season 4 was no different. It was still the same bizarre medley of heterosexuality and practicalism, as couples told each other they were all in and then kept saying shit like “If we do this…” But from the jump, season 4 also had wild twists and turns: legitimate villains, mismatches so obvious they broke up before they were home, fresh engagements, more broken engagements, and entanglements that felt juicy even when they were dealing with mundane problems.

It was a refreshing peak and a return to the promise of the show as a whole. There is no reason to pretend this is a real courtship. And as friends, family, and the contestants themselves started to doubt the legitimacy of the whole operation, season 4 was all the richer for it. If season 3 was a cupcake of drama, then season 4 was three-tier sheet cake: easy, cheap, and surprisingly ornate in its construction for some fucking reason. And, like a sheet cake, it’s the sort of thing that makes you realize that it’s time to slow down and pace yourself. If this is the first, last, or only season of Love Is Blind, that’s more than enough. The show has given us all it can. And there’s still the After the Altar special to boot. —Zosha Millman

Love Is Blind is available to watch on Netflix.

Party Down season 3

Martin Starr, Adam Scott, and Ken Marino wear their Party Down uniforms in Party Down.

Image: Starz

Genre: Comedy
Episodes: 6
Showrunner: John Enbom
Cast: Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch, Ryan Hansen, Martin Starr

Though Starz’s cult comedy Party Down only lasted for two seasons, fans spent most of the last decade hoping the much-bigger-than-they-were-when-they-were-on-Party-Down cast would reunite eventually, knowing full well that a revival can be a bit of a monkey’s paw wish. (Had they seen Arrested Development seasons 4 and 5?) What a relief, then, that the resuscitated Party Down, which brings the core cast (minus Lizzy Caplan) back in their pink bowties for another round of hijinks-filled catering, is side-splittingly funny. Clever as all hell. Cheeky and wacky. A miracle.

Party Down season 3 picks back up with the group of aspiring actors, who have gone their separate ways since the show’s original run, but find themselves in a post-pandemic 2023 needing a few extra bucks. Describing the ups and downs of their comedic hors d’oeuvres serving would deflate the balloon, so let us serve up some general accolades: Scott’s Henry remains a multidimensional, emotional core for a show that would be just fine without one; Marino remains a king of timing and physical gags, with a poop joke that immediately enters the canon; Hansen, Starr, and Lynch pick up their old cadences with the new social standards of 2023 pulling the rug out from under them at every turn; and newcomers Zoë Chao, as a wannabe Michelin-star chef overthinking the appetizers, and Tyrel Jackson Williams, checking the box of a Gen Z TikTok influencer in the mix, fit right in with the mainstays. Funny. Funny. Funny. Funny. Funny. —MP

Party Down season 3 is available to watch on Starz.

Abbott Elementary season 2

Sheryl Lee Ralph, Lisa Ann Walter, Chris Perfetti, and Quinta Brunson stand in front of an open school door with a fundraiser thermometer on it in Abbott Elementary.

Photo: Bonnie Osborne/ABC

Genre: Comedy
Episodes: 22 episodes
Showrunner: Quinta Brunson
Cast: Quinta Brunson, Tyler James Williams, Janelle James, Lisa Ann Walter, Chris Perfetti, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and William Stanford Davis

It’s easy to fall in love with Abbott Elementary. It’s heartfelt and charming as it follows a group of teachers at the titular Philadelphia elementary school.

But even as workplace comedies go — a reliable staple in any TV rotation — Abbott goes to the head of the class. For starters, it’s consistently funny and creative as it approaches life in the public school system, whether it’s tackling broken water pipes or students fighting. But it’s also just smart as hell in the ways it keeps its stories feeling fresh and fun.

With a cast as strong as this, Abbott could probably get away with coasting on the same dynamics. But in its second season, it’s not afraid to challenge itself: The teachers are starting to loosen up and connect outside of school hours, whether that’s through misguided attempts to learn to make pasta sauce or a tension-filled Christmas trip to the club. (In the latter, Abbott is playing with us; it’s past “will they won’t they” and more into a very whiny “why won’t they already!!!” from me.) Pairings get tossed together, bringing out new flavors and facets to each of the players. We get to see new elements of the characters: their goofs and their passions, their foibles and their food preferences.

Remarkably, Abbott manages to keep all of those feeling true. Too often, sitcoms sell their characters out in favor of the punchline. But with Abbott Elementary, it feels instead like people are finding deeper roots to the characters, or new situations that they would naturally find themselves in. It’s nice to have a sophomore season where we don’t have to grade on a curve. —ZM

Abbott Elementary airs on ABC and is available to watch on Hulu. The first season is also available on HBO Max.

Poker Face

Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale, wearing a trucker hat and big sunglasses, leans in as Sara (Megan Suri) nibbles on her vape and looks at her phone in Poker Face

Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock

Genre: Mystery
Episodes: 10
Showrunners: Nora Zuckerman and Lilla Zuckerman
Cast: Natasha Lyonne and Benjamin Bratt

In the pilot of Poker Face, Charlie (Natasha Lyonne) and her bullshit detector get compared to a litany of TV detectives — including, hilariously and in a bit of corporate synergy for a Peacock show, Burn Notice’s Michael Westen. He’s actually a spy, but whatever. The point stands: Charlie and her preternatural ability to know when people are lying is a trick straight from the annals of television history.

It’s a dynamic that Poker Face is well aware of. The show, created by Rian Johnson of Knives Out fame, is built in the vein of stone-cold TV classics. Pointedly, that Poker Face pilot doesn’t name Columbo, but that’s the obvious antecedent, starting with the who and how and making a puzzle of how Charlie will fit in and figure out the what and whodunit. The fun here is how the show manages to hum along even when it’s a familiar formula. Lyonne has the pull of a celestial body, all bright star power effortlessly pulling those around her into her orbit. Though the show’s mechanisms can get a tad worn across the 10-episode first season, each new chapter is its own delight, its own small and careful twist of the blueprint.

Of course, Poker Face isn’t all old school. Charlie’s particular brand of justice doesn’t (always) include a tidy Law & Order ending, where just desserts is the justice system. Heck, unlike Lieutenant Columbo, she hasn’t even figured out how to get paid for all this detective work. And so, the mysteries take on a special charm of their own, a bit of personality among the laundry list of procedurals on TV at any point in time. Charlie and Poker Face aren’t exactly one of a kind, but they’re something even better: appointment television. —ZM

Poker Face is available to watch on Peacock.

Drive to Survive season 5

Lewis Hamilton, Danny Ricciardo, and Sergio Perez stand on the track while a national anthem plays in Drive to Survive.

Image: Netflix

Genre: Docuseries
Episodes: 10
Showrunner: Sophie Todd
Cast: F1 drivers and team principals

Drive to Survive is back for its fifth season, and it’s starting to really carve out a place for itself in the Formula paddock. While this season is far from the first time that team principals and drivers have acknowledged the Netflix cameras, it does feel like the season where the series, and the publicity it brings, are demonstrating the biggest impact on the sport. Which like most things in Formula 1, makes for excellent drama.

For the Formula One fans in Drive to Survive’s audience, the ones that watch every race, there could be a bit of trepidation heading into this year’s season, considering there wasn’t really much of a title fight. But the show, always aware of its narratives, recognized that there was plenty of juicy off-the-track nonsense to keep the season exciting. From budget controversies to porpoising cars to seat-changing drama, there’s always something exciting happening in the season, even if Max Verstappen is taking home race after race on his way to the championship.

The one big point in Netflix’s favor for this season’s championship is that the winner himself isn’t keeping quiet anymore. After a full season away from the show — reportedly over frustrations with the way he was treated — Verstappen is back in the Drive to Survive hot seat, and he seems to be having a wonderful time talking about his ridiculous number of victories.

Most importantly, this is the season that both the show and the rest of F1 as a sport seem to have fully embraced Guenther Steiner as the protagonist of both. Which on its own is reason enough for this to be a great season of TV. —Austen Goslin

Drive to Survive is available to watch on Netflix.

Physical 100

a woman standing behind a headless plaster torso in Physical 100

Jang Eun-sil, a wrestler from the Korean national team, in Physical 100.
Photo: Zooyoung/Netflix

Genre: Competition/reality
Episodes: 9
Showrunner: Jang Ho-gi
Cast: 100 of the most fit people in South Korea

There’s nothing on TV quite like Physical 100. One hundred of the most fit people in South Korea, ranging from quiet world-champion athletes to larger-than-life fitness influencers, compete in a series of grueling physical challenges until only one remains. It’s riveting television due to the caliber of contestants and the quality of the contests, pitting wildly different disciplines against each other in a variety of compelling ways. Gathering a bunch of people who have devoted their lives to their bodies, and putting that devotion to the test in a series of cleverly designed contests? That’s television gold.

But what makes Physical 100 special are the interactions between the contestants. There is no visible host on the show, and all the support staff are dressed head to toe in anonymizing clothing. That means that the only people the contestants (and the audience) see and hear are each other, as they become each other’s cheerleaders, rivals, and support groups.

The camaraderie and mutual respect between the contestants is one of Physical 100’s highlights, and this is clear from the very start: Much of the first episode is spent following each of the contestants filing in, one by one, and showing us the reactions of the other people in the room when they arrive. Most of them know at least one other person in the contest — one of them remarks, “Everyone who works out in Korea is here” — which adds a further emotional depth to many of the competitions, like when wrestlers on Korea’s national team have to square off in an elimination battle. What starts as a contest of individual skill quickly turns into a matchup of teams like something out of Survivor, with loyalties forming and then being put to the test.

Bodybuilding husband-and-wife duo Kim Kang-min and Song A-reum often steal the show — they’re both unbelievable athletes, and she’s often remarking on how cute he is (she’s right and right to say it). But the show is filled to the brim with charisma and talent, including national team wrestler Jang Eun-sil (seen in the photo above), as well as former UFC fighter Choo Sung-Hoon and gold medalist skeleton racer Yun Sung-bin, both of whom are treated as celebrities among this group of extraordinary people. You’ve got drama, excitement, and good-looking, talented people all in one place performing tasks so challenging they will break your brain thinking about them. What more could you want from a competition show? —PV

Physical 100 is available to watch on Netflix.

Ganglands season 2

Sami Bouajila, wearing a balaclava, and Tracy Gotoas look at the camera in a narrow passageway in Ganglands.

Image: Netflix

Genre: Crime thriller
Episodes: 6
Creators: Julien Leclercq, Hamid Hlioua
Cast: Sami Bouajila, Tracy Gotoas, Salim Kechiouche

The second season of the French crime series Ganglands builds on the thrills of the first season, deepening the relationships between the returning characters and adding a sinister new adversary in ambitious cartel lackey Joaquim de Almeida. Sami Bouajila remains tremendous as the quiet and capable Mehdi, while Tracy Gotoas is given an even bigger role as his partner in crime/newfound family Liana. The reliably handsome and dangerous Saber Djebli (Salim Kechiouche, who stands out even in a cast of ridiculously attractive people) keeps everyone on their toes.

The second season of Ganglands feels even more tightly contained than the first; the stakes continue to rise but the number of people involved continues to fall, as bodies drop left and right. Mehdi and Liana are now not only looking for their next big score, but a way out of this life, as danger closes in at every turn.

Julien Leclercq and Hamid Hlioua have built an evocative world of organized crime, and augment it with their dialogue-light, tension-filled brand of storytelling that perfectly support Ganglands’ story about criminals that are so good at crime they keep getting hired by everyone, including the people they steal from. If you haven’t watched the first season, catch up with that (and seek out the original movie Braqueurs, if you can find it), and then dive into one of the best seasons of television this year, and one of the best thriller shows on Netflix. —PV

Ganglands is available to watch on Netflix.

The Legend of Vox Machina season 2

a pale haired aloof human; a redheaded half-elf; a tiny gnome man; a tall, strong goliath with a small gnome woman perched on his shoulders; a grinning half-elf woman; a smirking half-elf man; and a smiling dark-haired human stand in a large crowd

Image: Amazon Video

Genre: Fantasy
Episodes: 12
Showrunner: Brandon Auman
Cast: Matthew Mercer, Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson

There are far too few animated shows that walk the line between Avatar: The Last Airbender and Rick and Morty. The Legend of Vox Machina is a show that is unapologetic about being an earnest fantasy adventure for adults built on the deep friendships between the main cast, and showing the power of hope in the face of defeat — while also packing in a whole lotta butt-stuff jokes and hard drinking.

Based on the first campaign of the hit Dungeons & Dragons webseries Critical Role, The Legend of Vox Machina distills hours and hours of lore and gameplay into sharp and stunning 30-minute episodes. The combat scenes vividly come to life in animation, and the fearsome dragons that the ragtag crew of mercenaries faces this season are terrifyingly rendered. The D&D roots are more evident than ever in this season, and that’s not a bad thing. If anything, it really makes you appreciate just how tight the storytelling is, giving each of the party members a main-character moment and a fulfilling emotional arc, as they conquer their own personal demons before banding together and saving the world.

What makes The Legend of Vox Machina so compelling is just how full of heart it is. While there may be a ton of raunchy and crude jokes, it’s never cynical, purposefully edgy, or cruel — pitfalls that surround a lot of comedic adult animation. These characters find strength in their friends. They stand together when the world crumbles around them. And they just have a damn good time together doing so. —Petrana Radulovic

The Legend of Vox Machina is available to watch on Prime Video.

Cunk on Earth

Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk wears a brown tweed jacket and leans on a cannon.

Photo: Jonathan Browning/BBC

Genre: Mockumentary
Episodes: 5
Showrunner: Charlie Brooker
Cast: Diane Morgan

Cunk on Earth is a faux-documentary in which host Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan) chronicles the rise of modern civilization by asking some of the smartest people in the world some of the dumbest questions imaginable. This would be insufferable if not for two crucial creative decisions. One, the experts have clearly been invited in on the joke, treating Cunk and the audience like a great teacher interacting with a precocious child. And just as important: Cunk’s questions occasionally travel the philosophical loop from illogical to profound. Produced in collaboration between Netflix and BBC Two, the show merges both influences into something that could chart anywhere and everywhere in the highbrow/lowbrow matrix.

Still unsure? Would it help if I told you that the show was created by Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror? What if I told you that every episode featured the 1989 Technotronic song “Pump Up the Jam,” or that once you’ve watched all of Cunk on Earth, you’ll be primed to mine YouTube for all Philomena Cunk media?

Diane Morgan’s Cunk first appeared roughly 10 years ago in Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, and has since had a Christmas special, a book, and a couple of miniseries. Diving into these old clips, I expected Morgan to gradually be finding this character, that Cunk on Earth would be the product of a decade of refinement. But no. Philomena Cunk appears to have been born into this world fully formed as her brilliant, buffoonish self. We Americans are just late to the party. —Chris Plante

Cunk on Earth is available to watch on Netflix.

Paul T. Goldman

Paul Finkelman, wearing a sweater, stands next to Frank Grillo outdoors in Paul T. Goldman.

Image: Peacock

Genre: Comedy/documentary
Episodes: 6
Showrunner: Jason Woliner
Cast: Paul T. Goldman, Frank Grillo, Dennis Haysbert, Dee Wallace, Melinda McGraw, Josh Pais

Paul T. Goldman is the kind of happy accident that only occurs when a storyteller opens their heart and keeps their ear to the ground. Or, in the case of Jason Woliner (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), an eye on the tweets: More than a decade ago, wannabe author/actor/entrepreneur Paul T. Goldman spammed Woliner’s mentions (and those of every other working director online) begging him to produce a script based on Goldman’s loopy life. Everyone brushed the spammer off except Woliner, who fell down the social-media rabbit hole to discover a jovial man living out a QAnon-esque fantasy in the world of self-published crime fiction.

Functioning as both a skewering and a fascinating iteration of the true-crime genre, Woliner’s pursuit of the truth manifests in two ways: a documentary interrogating Goldman’s real-life story — involving a con-artist wife, psychic Floridians, and a potential child-trafficking ring — and a narrative film adapting key scenes from Goldman’s screenplay.

As in his Borat sequel, the blend of mediums swings the tone from grave to laugh-out-loud funny. Interviews with Goldman get to the bottom of his full-life implosion — he’s kind of a weird guy, and few of his impulses make sense. Scenes where he’s performing alongside the likes of Frank Grillo, Dennis Haysbert, and Dee Wallace achieve that so-bad-it’s-good movie quality, mostly because Goldman is such a pure presence. The man truly believes he has an Oscar winner on his hands, and by playing himself, Woliner allows his dimensional self to bleed across the page. Despite being a larger-than-life comedic TV experiment, Paul T. Goldman is ultimately a triumph of human character study. —MP

Paul T. Goldman is available to watch on Peacock.

The Owl House season 3

camila hugs luz and amity while gus blasts illusions around in animated show The Owl House.

Image: Disney

Genre: Fantasy
Episodes: 3
Showrunner: Dana Terrace
Cast: Sarah-Nicole Robles, Wendie Malick, Alex Hirsch

Disney Channel’s The Owl House won’t be getting the full third season that it so rightfully deserves, but creator Dana Terrace and the rest of the people behind the show have managed to pull off the impossible. In just three 45-minute episodes, they are giving The Owl House an incredibly satisfying ending, one where the intricate world-building, nuanced character moments, creepy yet child-friendly horror, and funky humor all come together into something wonderful.

The second episode of the season aired in January, and saw plucky protagonist Luz return to the demon realm of the Boiling Isles with her witchy friends and her mother. Much has changed since the chaotic Collector took over the Boiling Isles, turning everyone who doesn’t please them into puppets for their own amusement. As Luz and her friends try to reunite with the people they left behind, they grapple with their own insecurities and doubts.

From the very beginning, The Owl House was about misfits trying to find a place where they belong. Over the course of two seasons, Luz found the people who get her — and that manifests in her own personal epiphany in the third season’s penultimate episode, a moment that results in the cutest little snake creature ever, but also some real tears from anyone who can relate to being a weirdo teenager struggling to make friends. The Owl House celebrates the weird — and that may not have been Disney’s cup of tea, but it’s also their loss, because this show is brilliantly weird and weirdly brilliant. —PR

The Owl House is available to watch on Disney Plus.

Willow

Warwick Davis grins, holding a staff, as Willow Ufgood in Willow.

Image: Lucasfilm

Genre: Ensemble fantasy adventure comedy
Episodes: 8
Showrunner: Jonathan Kasdan
Cast: Warwick Davis, Tony Revolori, Erin Kellyman, Ruby Cruz, Ellie Bamber, Amar Chadha-Patel

Willow, the TV series that’s a sequel to the 1988 movie of the same name, is what you get if you roll up the spirit of every oddball 1980s fantasy movie with the vibe of the modern explosion of queer-inclusive live-play D&D media, and add just a dash of YA adventure. Warwick Davis reprises his role as the title character, the halfling nelwyn wizard, shepherding a batch of deliciously dramatic fantasy standbys through a new quest to turn back the forces of darkness and rescue a kidnapped prince (Dempsey Bryk, The Birch).

Our adventuring party is the prince’s twin sister, a tomboy princess who doesn’t want to get married (Ruby Cruz, Mare of Easttown); her betrothed prince, who doesn’t much want to get married, either (Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel); her best friend, the first girl knight in the kingdom (Erin Kellyman, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier); an untrustworthy thief who will earn his freedom by helping them (Amar Chadha-Patel, The Third Day); and the kitchen maid who insisted on coming along for the sake of true love (Ellie Bamber, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

The series has everything: comedy, drama, actors saying phrases like “cross the Shattered Sea to the Immemorial City” with a straight face, fantastic costuming, spooky castles, queer subtext that becomes text, riddle solving, romance, a monster that’s a big ol’ puppet, and sword fighting while a rock song plays in the background. And its final episode teases two more seasons to come. —Susana Polo

Willow was available to watch on Disney Plus. Disney removed it from the service in May.