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’s arrow 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.
Party Down season 3
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. —Matt Patches
Party Down season 3 is available to watch on Starz.
Abbott Elementary season 2
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. —Zosha Millman
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
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.
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? —Pete Volk
Physical 100 is available to watch on Netflix.
Game Changer season 5
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.
The Legend of Vox Machina season 2
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
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
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
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.
Genre: Ensemble fantasy adventure comedy
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 is available to watch on Disney Plus.