Warning: Although we’ve done our best to avoid spoiling anything major, please note this list does include a few specific references to several of the listed shows that some might consider spoiler-y. The segment for The Great contains major reveals, so skip it if you haven’t watched the latest season. (We’ll give you a heads-up when we get there.)
Everything was coming up mystery in 2023, judging by our picks for Ars Technica’s annual list of the best TV shows of the year. There’s just something about the basic framework that seems to lend itself to television. Showrunners and studios have clearly concluded that genre mashups with a mystery at the center is a reliable winning formula, whether it’s combined with science fiction (Silo, Bodies, Pluto), horror (Fall of the House of Usher), or comedy (Only Murders in the Building, The Afterparty). And there’s clearly still plenty of room in the market for the classic police procedural (Dark Winds, Poker Face, Justified: City Primeval). Even many shows we loved that were not overt nods to the genre still had some kind of mystery at their core (Yellowjackets, Mrs. Davis), so one could argue it’s almost a universal narrative framework.
Streaming platforms continue to lead, with Netflix, Apple TV+, and FX/Hulu dominating this year’s list. But there are signs that the never-ending feast of new fare we’ve enjoyed for several years now might be leveling off a bit, as the Hollywood strikes took their toll and the inevitable reshuffling and consolidation continues. That would be great news for budgets strained by subscribing to multiple platforms, less so for those who have savored the explosion of sheer creativity during what might be remembered as a Golden Age of narrative storytelling on TV.
As always, we’re opting for an unranked list, with the exception of our “year’s best” vote at the very end, so you might look over the variety of genres and options and possibly add surprises to your eventual watchlist. We invite you to head to the comments and add your own favorite TV shows released in 2023.
The Last Kingdom (Netflix)
I came late to the Netflix series The Last Kingdom, which is based on the historical fiction books by Bernard Cornwell and set amid the Viking invasions of Anglo-Saxon England during the time of King Alfred. The TV series was initially released in 2015 and technically wrapped up in March 2022. However, a movie to cap the series was released in April of this year, so it qualifies for our year-end list. I’m not sure why this television show has not gotten more attention because it is outstanding, both in bringing to life a fictionalized version of the turbulent late 800s and early 900s in proto-England and in its development of characters and friendships. If you liked Game of Thrones and are looking for something to watch before season 2 of House of the Dragon, The Last Kingdom should be your first choice.
The Last of Us (HBO)
Given the hit-and-miss nature of adaptations from video games to the world of TV and film (with misses more plentiful than hits), I was more than a little apprehensive about HBO’s Last of Us series. It was remarkably easy to envision the TV adaptation ruining one of my favorite character-based narratives in all of gaming in order to create some sort of lowest-common-denominator zombie-of-the-week dreck. Instead, we got a loving and authentic take on the game.
HBO’s version of The Last of Us does a great job toeing the line between faithfulness to the source material and deviations that still feel authentic to the world of the game. Many of the key scenes are literally shot-for-shot and music-cue-for-music-cue live-action recreations of original Naughty Dog cut scenes, and it’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s cinematic skill that they’re just as effective in a new “prestige TV” context. But then there are new creations like the third episode, where supporting characters from the game are given surprising and heartwarming depth. Through it all, the surrogate parent-child relationship between Joel and Ellie shines through, driving the narrative and leading to one of the most arresting final scenes in gaming (and now, in a TV season).
There were relative narrative shortcomings in The Last of Us Part II, so I feel the showrunners have a bit of an uphill battle ahead of them in adapting future seasons for TV. But the care they took with season 1 gives me some confidence they’ll be able to thread the needle and make more compelling post-apocalyptic television going forward.