Due to the ever-increasing number of streaming services and platforms, not to mention the seemingly arbitrary nature of renewals, it can feel difficult to stay on top of all of the great TV that comes out these days. (And here we thought that streaming would save us from the balkanization of cable TV.) Nevertheless, a lot of great TV did arrive on the small screen—and, in the case of mobile devices, even smaller screen— in 2023.
Below is our favorite TV of 2023, including some heartwarming academic comedy, post-apocalyptic zombie horror, the exploits of trickster gods, and new iterations of the final frontier.
Abbott Elementary, Season Two (ABC)
Perhaps the highest praise that I can give Abbott Elementary is that it reminds me of Parks and Recreation. First of all, both series use the mockumentary approach; we see the series’ events unfold through the eyes of a documentary crew, with the characters conveying their thoughts and impressions through “interviews.” And of course, both series are hilarious thanks to a cast of colorful characters who find themselves in often ridiculous situations. In Parks and Recreation’s case, such situations arise from navigating the twists and turns of small town government while Abbott Elementary finds humor in the trials and tribulations of an under-funded public school. But most importantly, Abbott Elementary, like Parks and Recreation, is delightfully free of cynicism; even as the teachers and staff butt heads with red tape, corporate greed, and their principal’s shenanigans, they never give into anger and despair. And they never give up on their students.
All Creatures Great and Small, Season Three (PBS)
In the rolling hills of 1939 England, the third season of the PBS Masterpiece series All Creatures Great and Small sees its main character, James Herriot, and his friends and family testing the limits of their courage, bravery, and love as they prepare for the looming threat of World War II. The theme of duty runs through all the character arcs of the denizens of Darrowby and sets the stage for their self-sacrificial actions over the course of the season. If we wish to cultivate men and women “with chests,” to borrow C.S. Lewis’s description of strong character from The Abolition of Man, we would do well to imitate their example: the deep dedication to community of James, the fiery devotion of his wife, Helen, the steadfast love between the brothers Farnon, and the unwavering dependability of Mrs. Hall. In our increasingly atomized and atheistic age, these lessons in virtue have much wisdom to impart as we seek to rekindle commitment to God, family, and neighbor.
Black Mirror, Season Six (Netflix)
The latest season of the dystopian sci-fi series narrowly focuses on horrors that edge too close to our reality. In the stunning first episode, for instance, Joan discovers that her life has been chopped into plot points for a streaming series where she’s played by the AI-generated likeness of Salma Hayek. Both Joan and Salma have inadvertently agreed to the “Terms & Conditions” of a streaming company that claims its subscribers’ lives as fodder for its hyper-targeted, AI-driven streaming series creation engine, and to use the likeness of any actor to portray them on screen however they wish. Unfortunately, there’s nothing either Joan or Salma can do: they may not have read those T&Cs, but they certainly clicked “agree.”
Black Mirror’s latest outing highlights the invasion of major tech, content, and communications corporations into our private lives. With social media content and internet viewing preferences stored up, big tech has most of the data they need to craft a believable reality series about many of us. Other episodes depict a creeping psychological dystopia in which characters’ likenesses, words, thoughts, feelings, and deeds are continuously submitted to the machines of consumerism, media, and technology. The characters themselves participate as well, manipulating their personal experiences for public viewing, for glory, and for infamy. Even worse, some characters join the machine, selling their souls to sell out the stories of their fellow mortals. I enjoyed this season but was left feeling wary as it reflects our embrace of simulacrum as the primary mode of interaction. As we sacrifice our stories on the altar of technology, progress, and constant connectivity, we eat ourselves. Black Mirror is a timely offering for an untimely hour. May God help us have ears to hear and eyes to see before it’s too late.
—Daniel Whyte IV
The Last of Us (HBO)
As someone who never played The Last of Us video game, the show blew me away on its own merits. The Lone Wolf and Cub dynamic speaks to our basic human desire of being protected while asserting independence. Redemptive themes like allegiance, guilt, and compassion are a credit to the writers, but it’s the actors—specifically Bella Ramsey, Pedro Pascal, and Nick Offerman—who simultaneously bring vulnerability and strength to life.
Choices by the showrunners like a willingness to bounce around the timeline engage the viewer while allowing for a greater emotional depth. Interestingly, those choices enable the audience to become invested in the characters while increasing the believability of the demanding decisions they’re forced to make. Even production design and a budget to shoot in 180 locations enhance the affectivity. I’ve rarely (if ever) seen a better mix of settings that amplify emotion, everything from claustrophobic confinement to nature’s sprawling reclamation.
It was this beautiful menagerie from every available facet that compelled me to write an article concerning Episode 4’s pivotal thread on Joel’s acceptance of Ellie’s bid for adulthood. My friends who love the game also love the show and having attracted other newbies like me, making The Last of Us our “water cooler” event of 2023. So between friends and internet love like Rotten Tomatoes’ 96% and IMDb’s 8.8, it appears I’m not the last of us who loved the show.
Lockwood & Co., Season One (Netflix)
I was initially tempted to dismiss Lockwood & Co. as some YA tripe, but then I saw it was created by Joe Cornish, who directed 2011’s Attack the Block. Based on Jonathan Stroud’s novels, Lockwood & Co. is set in an alternate version of England where ghosts are a very real threat to humanity. The only ones who can fight them, however, are teenagers, who are pressed into service at the risk of their sanity, if not their lives. This gives Lockwood & Co. a dystopic edge reminiscent of Kinji Fukasaku’s controversial Battle Royale; the series clearly has more on its mind than just ghostbusting. Adding to the series’ appeal is a definite sense of style and a wonderfully gothic soundtrack including The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and This Mortal Coil. Although it garnered widespread critical acclaim, Netflix sadly canceled Lockwood & Co. after just one season, all but ensuring its cult status.
Loki, Season Two (Disney+)
“We die with the dying. We are born with the dead,” says Loki quoting the poet, T.S. Eliot in season two’s finale. Marvel Studios has brought back Loki, the god of mischief, to face what he and Sylvie (another Loki variant) brought back from the End of Time in season one. Season two plays with themes found in Eliot’s poem, “Little Gidding” as the perpetual trickster now finds his glorious purpose as servant and helper to not only his friend but all. Time itself will not stop the lonely god as he takes this burden upon himself. This new season brings depth to Marvel’s storytelling and a compelling arc to the character of Loki. Even if superhero fatigue is spreading, this series still gives the viewer a worthy story and experience.
One Piece (Netflix)
America has a loneliness epidemic, one serious enough that the US Surgeon General has raised the alarm more than once. This existential and relational void explains part of the emotive pull of Eiichiro Oda’s massive manga/anime hit, and now live action show, One Piece. Netflix’s One Piece tells the fantastic story of Monkey D. Luffy—an earnest boy with uncanny powers who dreams of becoming king of the pirates—and the ragtag group of friends he assembles along the seas. If one judges purely by plot-points, One Piece is simply a wild, high-seas adventure with over-the-top fantastical villains and body-bending combat. But at its heart, One Piece is centered on true belonging, finding your people, and redemption. Because pirates, like all of us, need friends, too.
Netflix’s live action One Piece is, by all metrics, a massive success despite numerous challenges: Devoted fans have ruthlessly high standards, and translating a fantastical world of pirates, dramatic battles, and beloved characters from the canvas of endless possibility that is animation to the CGI-limited, budget-bound realm of live action is no cheap or small feat. While capturing Luffy’s powers is a CGI accomplishment and most set pieces are imaginatively created, it’s the performance of the Straw Hat crew that anchors the show.
Luffy, played with exuberant earnestness by Iñaki Godoy, carries the show. What makes One Piece so special is Luffy’s dogmatic optimism. He’s a character who believes deeply, a high seas man of faith who believes in people: their hopes, dreams, and abilities to overcome on the path to achieving something meaningful. One Piece reminds us, stuck in epidemics or loneliness and despair, that redemption and community are indeed possible. In One Piece, friendship blooms when a charismatic soul wanders from city to city, calling outcasts and outsiders to join his crew, assembling a group of misfits who turn the world right side up. For Christians, this story rings with familiarity, reminding us of the power and possibility of redemptive community.
Poker Face, Season One (Peacock)
What would life be like if you could immediately discern whether someone was telling the truth or not? This is the reality for Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), whose talents have landed her in a city where bluffing is a currency: Las Vegas. The pilot of the aptly named Poker Face sends Charlie on the run in her Plymouth Barracuda trailed by mob hitman Cliff (Benjamin Bratt). The nine episodes that follow present as a mystery-of-the-week, each set in a new location.
Rather than draw the viewers along a classic “whodunit” narrative arc, however, the episodes begin with a murder, showing all of the events sans Charlie. The events then play out a second time, this time including Charlie’s perspective, with the mystery lying in how she will piece together and solve the case. Each episode contains richly developed characters and a deep sense of place, immersing the audience quickly into a new story.
Throughout it all, Charlie anchors each episode with her quirky Cagney-esque delivery, unflappable likability, and effortless vintage fashion, an aesthetic that is reflected throughout the show’s entirety. While the finale brings the frame narrative to a climax, the conclusion leaves open the possibility for a second season.
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story (Netflix)
Although Netflix’s Bridgerton did not get a new season in 2023, it did produce a prequel that added yet another feather to Shonda Rimes’s gorgeously decorated hat: Queen Charlotte. Ideal for a spring/summer release (where it debuted at number one in the United States as well as 91 other countries), this historical period drama is quite based on the eighteenth-century reign of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III. And in my opinion, it was the best Bridgerton title to date. Favorites from previous seasons, like Lady Danbury and Lady Bridgerton, returned, but we got to see them expanding their roles. Despite its lightness, what the Bridgerton series does best, and this prequel especially, is reveal truths about friendship, family, and the sacrifices one makes when loving someone else fully.
The last few moments of the drama, as Queen Charlotte reveals to her husband that they have a new grandchild on the way, were some of the most poignant of any I have ever seen on screen. At seventeen, Queen Charlotte vows to stand by her mentally ill husband, even though she realizes he will only recognize her half of their time together. At fifty-two, she climbs underneath the bed where he usually hides, his illness growing worse by the day, where he recognizes her momentarily. The scene flips from her looking into his eyes in the present day with love to the same scene of the two of them as young adults, their eyes locked with love then, as well.
Queen Charlotte ends not merely with the promise of an easy, love-filled future, as we find concluding most fictional romantic stories, but rather, with the fulfillment of a difficult, love-filled past, as we only find in some real-life romantic stories. It is this type of fairy tale experience that I hope I have at the end of my own marriage, and the one I often feel I’m enjoying now.
Shrinking (Apple TV+)
Too many of us face sleepless nights or distracted days when past regrets and future worries leave us crying out along with the hook of Tom Howe and Ben Gibbard’s theme song for Shrinking: “I want to hear myself think again!” Shrinking is a full-throated call to honestly share with others for all our sakes instead of letting the cacophony win out through avoidance and reluctance. While other shows and movies save strong interpersonal honesty for an important climax, Shrinking’s use of varied examples throughout the entirety of its debut season more richly displays both the pain and hope found in opening up—and lets its characters stumble toward the kind of messy, nonlinear growth we experience when moving forward.
I’ve often fallen into our culture’s tendency to use “How are you?” more as a polite greeting than as a means to carry out the biblical mandate to share one another’s burdens (Galations 6:2), but I can’t watch Shrinking without hearing myself think a little more clearly as I consider how to more fully engage with myself and others.
Star Trek (Paramount+)
Hardcore purists may resist, but for the rest of us Star Trek lovers, 2023 was one of the best years in living memory. Three of Paramount+’s established shows aired seasons, each one notable in its own way. Adult animated Star Trek: Lower Decks continued to work through its own defined niche, quick-quipping fannish dialogue and plot lines layered over real character development. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds took even bigger swings in its sophomore season, returning to Trek’s episodic roots while giving each episode its own idiosyncratic flair. Star Trek: Picard, meanwhile, presented perhaps the best serialized season of Trek since Deep Space Nine in the ’90s, telling a story that did true justice to beloved old characters while making space for intriguing newcomers.
The three shows’ seasons differ markedly, by design and in a way that ensures their freshness. Yet what they all share is an ability to balance out genuine love for this revered franchise’s best qualities while taking it in new directions in theme and genre. Star Trek has long had an uneasy relationship to religion and tradition, but not an intrinsically combative one—and at its best, it’s remained rooted in a commitment to applying generations of philosophy and art to the challenges posed by new scientific concepts. The new shows don’t always accomplish this perfectly, but they often succeed, and in the process, provide food for thought alongside the popcorn. And in doing so, they also provide hope for the future: the future of Trek, the future of television, and the future of humanity.
Succession, Season Four (Max)
It’s been four seasons since Logan Roy (Brian Cox) collapsed in a helicopter near death leaving no definite plan of succession for his media empire, Waystar RoyCo. Hours earlier, son and heir apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong) believed an announcement would be made handing the company to him; instead, Logan announced his intentions to remain on as CEO. The scrambling and tension that ensured his near death and recovery raises a question of succession, not ultimately answered until the final moments of the series finale.
Succession has taken viewers on an intense journey along the intersection of business and family dysfunction, showing alliances ebb and flow and sometimes explode between the siblings, their father, board members, and dark horse son-in-law Tom Wambsgans (Matthew MacFadyen), who ultimately triumphs. The final season began with the siblings pitted against their father in an effort to disrupt a merger that would see them cut out of the possible line of succession. “You are not serious people,” he tells them after a failed attempt at peacemaking, an insult that proves surprisingly profound as the subsequent episodes unfold.
Its characters are richly developed and flawed, despicable one moment and endearing the next. Composer Nicholas Britell’s gripping soundtrack is itself a main character, narrating and bolstering the storyline with its aching beauty and power. At its core, Succession’s potency is fueled by its deeply truthful portrayal of human nature and the emptiness behind the siren of power and wealth; call it Shakespearean tragedy meets the book of Ecclesiastes.