Roll credits. 2023 is coming to a close, and it’s been another astonishing year for small-screen entertainment with big ambitions. All kinds of shows have kept us glued to the box this year – heart-stopping finales for long-running series, stellar spin-offs, brand new must-sees, and utterly original one-offs all made it impossible not to be glued to your sofa. We’ve laughed, cried, cringed, and cheered as all manner of deaths, weddings, births, and side-swiping twists – TV once again proving that some of the greatest smarts in storytelling can be found right in your living room.
Team Empire got together to vote on the best TV series of 2023, and it’s a list of unmissable entertainment. You’ll find astonishing animation, cerebral sci-fi, thrumming crime thrillers, vital videogame adaptations, heart-stopping horrors and more – dig in, and prepare for more TV greats in 2024.
20) Gen V: Season 1
A spin-off from superhero satire series The Boys – set far away from Vought and The Seven, following an entirely new bunch of characters – did not need to be as good as Gen V turned out to be. It follows Maria (Jaz Sinclair), who can manipulate blood to devastating and violent effect; Emma (Lizze Broadway), who can shrink down or balloon up according to what she eats; the super-strong, gender-switching Jordan (London Thor and Derek Luh); mind-controlling Cate (Maddie Phillips); and Magneto-esque Andre (Chance Perdomo) as they investigate some mysterious goings-on at Godolkin University, while balancing their public reputations as the supes of tomorrow. It’s funny, it’s action-packed, it’s full of the gory bodily moments we’ve come to expect from The Boys universe, it plays with form in an endlessly interesting way, and it’s stacked with great characters that you’re thoroughly invested in. Bring on Season 2 – we can’t wait to see what happens next.
If you've ever wondered what a TV series from indie powerhouse A24 would look like, then Beef is your answer. Ostensibly the story of a chaotic road rage run-in between Steven Yeun's despondent contractor Danny and Ali Wong's conflicted entrepreneur Amy, the story spirals into something where you can't predict what'll happen next. Toilets will be defiled. Ceramics smashed. And it just gets odder — yet deeply rooted in character — from there. Yeun and Wong are supported by a deep bench of friends, relatives and hangers-on, and it's refreshing to see a story such as this told through an Asian lens.
18) Foundation: Season 2
No show exemplifies the scope of Apple's ambition (or the depth of their pockets) quite like David S. Goyer's Foundation — a brilliantly uncompromising, millennia-spanning sci-fi epic that assaults the senses as readily as it boggles the mind. While the show came out of the gate strong in 2021, it really hit its stride this year, not only managing to condense Isaac Asmiov's bamboozling, idea-packed storyline into a palatable set of ten finely-tooled episodes but somehow making it even more epic and visually arresting than ever. As Empire begins to unravel (both the he and the hegemony) and the Foundation falls into crisis, we're treated to vast space battles, political intrigue, some dazzling character work and Lee Pace fending off a cadre of elite assassins with his manhood flapping in the wind. In short, everything a great show needs! This is hands-down the most ambitious, accomplished work of sci-fi on television.
17) Doctor Who
Doctor Who’s longevity has always been attributed to its propensity for rebirth – the Doctor’s ability to regenerate offering endless potential for starting anew. And what a rebirth the latest edition of the show has already been – not only bringing the fearless Russell T Davies back at the helm, but reuniting fan-favourite Doctor-Donna combo David Tennant and Catherine Tate for three ambitious specials. But rather than looking solely to the past, it proved an emotional evolutionary leap forward – as the 14th Doctor (a distinct incarnation from Tennant’s original 10th) ruminated on the return of one of his familiar faces, and Donna got to move beyond one of the saddest companion farewells in the show’s history. With added budget courtesy of Disney+ and a trio of distinct stories (one funny, one eerily existential, one simply bonkers), the show’s hearts are undeniably beating again. A perfect launchpad for Ncuti Gatwa’s era.
16) Colin From Accounts
The title might conjure images of a The Office-style workplace comedy about starch-shirted number crunchers but don't let the name put you off – this Aussie rom-com created by real-life husband-and-wife duo Patrick Brammall and Harriet Dyer, is a true delight. With a story kick-started by an errant nipple and a wounded border terrier, this warm-hearted yet hilarious comedy comes equipped with zingy, often edgy humour, razor-sharp dialogue, and an episode so excruciatingly embarrassing it should probably come with a health warning (episode seven – thank us later!) Not to mention a cute dog on wheels. This is the sort of series that fills you with such unalloyed joy, it should be prescribed by the NHS as the blanket panacea for anything that ails you.
15) Scott Pilgrim Takes Off
When BenDavid Grabinski and Bryan Lee O'Malley casually mentioned they'd made a 'few' minor updates to the Scott Pilgrim story for this Netflix animated re-telling, they might have undersold it slightly. Almost a What If....? event in its own right, this sense-assaulting, joy-explosion of a series imagines what might have happened if one key event had ended slightly differently. The result is an absolute riot, one that not only pulls Michael Cera back into the title role, but reunites him with the entire cast of the movie, each returning to their respective characters and lending their voices to the sumptuous animation by Science Saru which, in turn, perfectly captures the vibe of O'Malley's iconic series. Regardless of whether you're a Pilgrim newbie or a veteran of film, comic and video game — you are not prepared for Scott Pilgrim Takes Off.
14) The Fall Of The House Of Usher
Mike Flanagan brought his Netflix era to an end with a darkly mischievous take on Edgar Allen Poe, spinning not just The Fall Of The House Of Usher but a handful of other poems and stories too into a wicked web of sex, death and dodgy drug dealings. Rather than go traditional gothic, Flanagan brought a subversively glossy sheen to the story of a corrupt family (here imagined as pharma pioneers) picked off one by one by a vengeful spirit; if the look was high-camp trash with lashings of Grand Guignol (the term ‘acid rave’ just got a whole new meaning), the usual Flanagan substance shone through. Boasting his usual ensemble – Bruce Greenwood, Samantha Sloyan and Carla Gugino on particularly fine form here – plus the added bonus of Mark Hamill as a formidable ‘fixer’, all were given the opportunity to chew on Flanagan-assisted Poe prose. This was a raucous wrap-up on the horror master’s astonishing decade; not quite up there with Hill House or Midnight Mass, but it’ll still have you raven. (Sorry.)
13) Fleishman Is In Trouble
Adapted from Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s book of the same name, Fleishman is a glossy, starry limited series that gets under the skin of a dissolving marriage, examining the breakdown of a once-happy relationship from the perspectives of both parties to utterly enthralling effect. Jesse Eisenberg is Toby, a doctor trying to embrace the sexual freedom divorce has provided him when his ex-wife Rachel (Claire Danes) leaves their two kids with him and goes missing. This is, as Lizzy Caplan’s narrator Libby explains, a story about everything – ambition, nostalgia, money, privilege, parenting, misogyny, patriarchy – covering an immense amount of ground in eight episodes. The writing is on point, but it’s the cast that really make it sing. Eisenberg is a compelling, sometimes-infuriating anchor; Danes gives everything (including one helluva primal scream) as the perhaps misunderstood Rachel; and Caplan just about steals the show.
Apple TV+ is becoming more and more ambitious with its output, and this adaptation of Hugh Howey's utopian/dystopian (delete as applicable depending on your view of shady authoritarian governments) sci-fi book series about a clutch of around 10,000 humans surviving a ruined planet by living in a giant subterranean silo whose provenance has been lost to time (or has it? Information is a closely guarded resource in this world) certainly counts. Rebecca Ferguson is the lynchpin here — as cynical, suspicious engineer-turned-marshal Juliette Nichols, she has to dig into a murder mystery that hits painfully close to home. Building a convincing world (both in story and set terms) is even more impressive when you consider the challenges of tone and how well this sidesteps most of the genre cliches.
11) Interview With The Vampire: Season 1
Anne Rice's 1976 novel is arguably the single most definitive work of vampire fiction outside Bram Stoker's Dracula. But it isn't until this year that her lavish gothic romance has truly made the transition to the screen. After Neil Jordan's 1994 film, while great, straight-washed the entire story, it took nearly thirty years for Rolin Jones to step in and restore the queer love affair that is the tale's bloody, beating heart. Jacob Anderson and Sam Reid are mesmerising as immortals Louis and Lestat, in an adaptation that makes core changes to the narrative (adding a new element of race to the central duo, and moving it up 200 years to the 19th century) but manages to be perfectly faithful to the spirit and intent of the original novel – with production design to die for (sometimes literally), and an abundance of awful people having their life blood leeched away. This may have come to the UK almost a full year after its US debut, but Interview With The Vampire proved more than worth the wait.
10) Blue Eye Samurai
Coming out of nowhere to carve a bloody path through the competition, Kurosawa-inspired animation Blue Eye Samurai is more than a little reminiscent of its eponymous hero. Voiced by Maya Erskine, Mizu is a mixed-race samurai on a path of vengeance during Japan's Edo period, when non-Japanese people were banned from its borders. But this is much more than just another rip-roaring rampage of revenge. Created by husband and wife team Amber Noizumi and Michael Green, this gorgeous-looking eight-part series boasts electrifying fight sequences based on precisely choreographed motion-capture brawls, and charts an engaging tale of isolationism, prejudice and female empowerment. With a voice cast including Masi Oka, Mark Dacoscos, Ming-Na Wen, George Takei, Randall Park, Stephanie Hsu and Kenneth Branagh, this is a stunningly-rendered and emotionally loaded tale that demands to be watched, even by animation sceptics.
9) Starstruck: Series 3
Rose Matafeo completes her excellent exploration of the romcom genre with the third and final season of Starstruck, which sees her Jessie attend best pal Kate’s (Emma Sidi) wedding, fall for handsome Scotsman Liam (Lorne MacFadyen), and reckon with her relationship with Hollywood star Tom (Nikesh Patel). Matafeo’s wit and extensive cinematic knowledge seeps into every minute of the show, which combines farcical comedy and a sharp script with utterly heart-wrenching dramatic moments, as Jessie and Tom continue to fall apart and be drawn back together. Not interested in neat, tied-in-a-bow endings, Starstruck is a highly relatable journey through the emotional wringer, tackling far more than just romance – it’s about evolving friendships, being accountable for your actions, and growing up.
8) Slow Horses: Season 3
That this third season of Apple's Slow Horses begins with a Bond-worthy prologue in which Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù undertakes a frantic pursuit through the backstreets (and waterways) of Istanbul, in no way indicates that this deliberately understated spy series has sold out. Quite the contrary. Despite its luxurious budget and some artfully staged action set pieces, this brilliantly subversive take on the espionage milieu revels in its disheveled, ramshackle charm. A gravy-stained Gary Oldman (legendary) once again leads his team of misfits and rejects into battle as MI5 outcast Jackson Lamb, with a more personal story that sees one of their own (Saskia Reeves) snatched off the street in broad daylight. Where else can you see a game of chicken with an oil tanker and witness a grizzled spymaster attempt to foil a foot pursuit with the help of a (double) doner kebab?
7) The Curse
When John Logie Baird invented television in 1923, it’s safe to say, for oh so many reasons, that he couldn’t have anticipated The Curse. If he had, he may well have decided against unleashing such technology altogether. Because here we are, 100 years on, with former reality TV trickster Nathan Fielder and cinematic maverick Benny Safdie forming an unholy alliance to make the most wonderfully horrible black comedy series the medium has ever known. Following a married couple (Fielder and Emma Stone) who position themselves as anti-gentrification philanthropists, seemingly unaware of their own prejudices, narcissism and hypocrisy, it’ll have you cringing until your face hurts, and quite possibly squirming yourself to death. Here, Stone increases her appetite for troubling, surrealist work with a brilliantly painful performance, while Fielder, displaying unprecedented levels of awkwardness, provides a masterclass in upsetting physical nuance. The whole thing is gloriously icky.
6) Poker Face
Rian Johnson has already proved he knows how to create great detective stories via his Knives Out films, but for TV he took a different approach. The format here is inspired by case-of-the-week "whydunnits" such as Columbo – here, we see the crime being committed before watching Natasha Lyonne's quirky sleuth Charlie figure it all out with her innate ability to suss out ‘bullshit’. The joy is in seeing how Charlie inadvertently crashes into each case, her meandering road-trip across the States seeing her stumble into situations as varied as a BBQ pit bust-up, a racecar rivalry, and stop-motion sabotage inspired by the legendary Phil Tippett. Lyonne's latest great TV work after Russian Doll, she once again proves captivating in the lead and a perfect creative partner for Johhnson, her sardonic rejoinders and 50-a-day drawl making her a joy to spend time with as she sniffs out weekly murderers. We can't wait for Season 2, and that's no bullshit.
5) Barry: Season 4
Bill Hader smartly knew precisely when to cash-out with his story about assassin/wannabe actor Barry Berkman. But even knowing that Season 4 was to be the show’s last, no one could have predicted where Hader would take the final episodes of Barry’s final run, including a shocker of a time jump that brought an entirely new perspective on some of the characters. Hader has evolved as a writer, actor and particularly director in the past few years and Barry is the gift to emerge from that. Plus, while it continued the show’s trajectory away from darkly-tinged laughs and towards more consistently dramatic territory, there’s still room for a hilarious botched assassination by NoHo Hank’s FUBK brigade, and an inspired new iteration of Stephen Root’s Fuches, complete with full-body prison tattoos. That’s so Raven!
4) Happy Valley: Series 3
Sally Wainwright’s blisteringly good story of on-the-beat policing in Halifax was already top-tier television by the end of its first two series, but this third and final chapter proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that her show is an undisputed masterpiece. Arriving seven years after the previous series — Wainwright smartly delaying the show’s return until Ryan (Rhys Connah) was old enough to carry more of the dramatic weight — this not only saw Sergeant Catherine Cawood on the verge of retirement, but also brought her long-running conflict with criminal Tommy Lee Royce (a brilliant James Norton) to a head once and for all —prying open the cracks in her relationships with both Ryan and sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) along the way. Lancashire’s performance is nothing short of awe-inspiring, but it’s the emotionally real, character-driving writing that brings these characters to life so beautifully, whether in humanising a monster as he reaches out to his son, or completely subverting finale norms with a simple, heartfelt conversation held over a kitchen table. Staggeringly good TV.
3) The Last Of Us
Following Chernobyl was never going to be an easy feat, and Craig Mazin decided to double down on the risk by adapting one of the most lauded video game stories of all time. But working alongside game creator Neil Druckmann, Mazin delivered in spades. Pedro Pascal is the careworn, violent Joel, a mercenary charged with transporting snarktastic teen Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the States. It's not a job he wants and is further complicated by the fact they live in a post-apocalyptic world where fungal spores have turned most of the population into mindless monsters. The forced family dynamic is brought wonderfully to life by the main pair and the creators understood that to adapt is to both honour and transform, pulling no punches with the game’s emotionally punishing story, while expanding small moments (such as the Bill and Frank storyline) into tear-jerking beauty amidst all the brutality.
2) Succession: Season 4
How do you land a (private) plane of a show with – spoiler alert! – a dying billionaire on board? If you're Jesse Armstrong, his writers, cast and crew, you do it with style, aplomb and all the spiky dialogue that viewers have come to love from the series. Wrapping up the story of the grasping, ambitious, uber-rich Roy children as they jockey for corporate power in the wake of their patriarch Logan's (Brian Cox) passing, the final season delivered pretty much everything we wanted: infighting, insults, double-crosses and dark laughs. Kieran Culkin emerged as the MVP, but everyone involved made this one work and assured it a place in the pantheon of all-time-greats.
1) The Bear: Season 2
It’s fitting, really. In Season 2 of The Bear, the focus is on Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) trying to turn rundown sandwich shop The Beef into a fine-dining restaurant – imbuing his years of impeccable craft into tiny forkfuls of food designed to take people’s breath away. And the result is that every episode here felt like a fresh course in a televisual tasting menu – small, perfectly-formed morsels bursting with flavour, delicately put together to stimulate your senses in just the right way.
Rightly, Christmas cardiac-arrest episode ‘Fishes’ is being hailed as an all-time-great piece of TV; as is the heart-swelling ‘Forks’, in which Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s cantankerous Richie (“Cousin!”) learns the value of dedicating your entire self to the pursuit of perfection even in simple tasks (as well as extolling the joys of singing Taylor Swift full-pelt on the drive home). But every single episode here is a stunning 30-minute mouthful: Marcus’ (Lionel Boyce) gorgeously quiet trip to Copenhagen; Tina’s (Liza Colón-Zayas) transformative time in culinary school; Syd’s (Ayo Edebiri) stroll around Chicago’s finest eateries. The recipes are simple, the execution sublime.
The Bear’s signature stress-levels from Season 1 still bubbled away in Season 2, but this time tempered by a sweetness and a soulfulness. The members of the kitchen bared their souls a little more each week – all throwing themselves into the unknown, putting their hopes and dreams out there to hopefully make something truly special together, inevitably fucking up along the way but pushing through nonetheless. And the show’s creators proved what it looks like when that teamwork succeeds – this is exceptional television, setting an almightily high bar for Season 3. Let ‘em cook.