by Julian Spivey
10. "Church and State" (Succession)
I think a lot of best TV episode of the year lists would have the devastating “Connor’s Wedding” as the final season episode of “Succession” on the list – and don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing with terrific performances by the three Roy kids especially – but I’m going to go with the penultimate episode of the show “Church and State,” which sees everyone joining for the funeral of family patriarch Logan Roy and the super honest eulogies from his brother Ewan, an Emmy-nominated performance from James Cromwell, the devastating breakdown of Kieran Culkin’s Roman Roy and the redemption of Kendall Roy, meanwhile everyone is working behind the scenes to either destroy the GoJo deal or make sure it goes through. It was a riveting hour of television, as so many of “Succession” episodes were.
9. "Teacher Conference" (Abbott Elementary)
I know ABC’s sitcom “Abbott Elementary” has only been on for two seasons but when we TV viewers are shipping two characters we want the show to put them together – even if we know deep down it might be a bit quick in the show’s run. There’s been no doubt since the show began that Quinta Brunson’s Janine and Tyler James Williams’s Gregory would be together but that doesn’t mean we were prepared for how darn cute things would get in “Teacher Conference.” The teachers are attending a conference – that feels like a work vacation for them – and when Janine and Gregory wind up having a few drinks together they begin to realize fully they have feelings for one another and with a little lack of inhibition engage in their first kiss – before, as is always the case in these “will-they-or-won’t-theys” realize what they’ve done and back away. Nevertheless, it’s likely the show’s cutest moment to date and proof Janine and Gregory are TV’s newest Pam and Jim.
8. "The Testi-Roastial" (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel)
Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” has been one of my favorite shows on TV over the last half decade and it wrapped up its final season this year in a mostly positive way with a few duds thrown into the mix – but the best episode of the season and one of the show’s finest during its run was “The Testi-Roastial,” a true showcase for Alex Borstein’s Susie Myerson, the manager of comedian Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan). The final season is told with flash-forwards that show us that Susie and Midge had a parting of ways later on in their career together and this episode reveals the reasons behind it – while also giving us a Friars Club roast to Susie, who went on to be one of the most successful managers/agents in the world of comedy. It’s a brilliant performance throughout by Borstein with the most touching moment showing how she was there for her old mentor Harry Drake (David Paymer) when he needed anyone in his life to do so.
7. "Elora's Dad" (Reservation Dogs)
The question of who Elora Danan’s (Devery Jacobs) father was and would we as an audience ever meet him always hung over the head of “Reservation Dogs.” It clearly wasn’t something that Elora ever seemed to be concerned about until she needed his signature on some paperwork to attend college. You don’t expect the meeting between Elora and her father, and it’s clear she just wants the signature and to bolt, to go very well but the show makes Rick, as played by guest star Ethan Hawke in terrific casting, likable from the start. He’s interested in learning about Elora and doesn’t make excuses for not seeking her out years before. His life hasn’t been easy but then again Elora grew up without a father and her mom died when she was just a baby. Still, the two seem to have an understanding and curiosity about each other, and the performances from Jacobs and Hawke, whom the entire episode focuses on, are terrific. The best thing about the episode for me is it’s written by Jacobs herself and shows just how in tune with her character she is and how many talents she also directed an episode in the final season. There aren’t enough superlatives for me to properly convey by appreciation of Jacobs and I hope we see her in some more great things and soon.
6. "Dead Man's Hand" (Poker Face)
The pilot, titled “Dead Man’s Hand,” for director Rian Johnson’s comedy mystery series “Poker Face” was the perfect way to set up this series that is both a throwback in general feel and its crime of the week “Columbo”-style procedural. Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale works at a casino and has a gift (sometimes a curse) for being able to tell when people are lying. The casino’s boss played by Adrien Brody in the episode wants to use Charlie’s talent in a scheme but when she realizes he had her best friend killed she turns on him leading to her having to go on the run for the remainder of the season. Brody is always fantastic as a skeezy baddie and Lyonne instantly makes the audience fall in love with Charlie with her unique personality.
5. "Forks" (The Bear)
The “Forks” episode coming directly after the “Fishes” episode of “The Bear” was WILD. There was so much chaos in “Fishes” and then “Forks” comes along with so much order that Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is truly a fish out of water in this new setting where he’s been sent to an upscale fine dining restaurant for some much-needed education. When Richie spends much of the week cleaning and arranging forks he views it as punishment from Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) but by the end of the episode we as an audience and Richie understand the reasoning for the assignment – it’s to gain confidence in himself. It’s to make him see he’s not just a loser but has qualities that can make him truly successful in the restaurant business. It’s such a terrific performance from Moss-Bachrach and a wonderful character-building episode for Richie, who we’ve always loved despite his flaws.
4. "it takes a psycho" (Barry)
“it takes a psycho” is such a great episode of “Barry” in that it shows how incredible the supporting cast of the HBO series is without even the titular character appearing until the final seconds of the episode. In the previous episode, Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) had escaped from prison and this sets all of the others on edge, particularly Henry Winkler’s Gene Cousineau, who believes Barry is out to kill him for setting him up and getting him arrested at the end of season three. But the main performances I marveled at in the episode were those of Sarah Goldberg as Sally Reed, whose acting career has hit the skids due to her blowing up on a subordinate and it going viral and is now attempting to resurrect her career as an acting teacher and the tragic storyline involving Anthony Carrigan’s Hank and Michael Irby’s Cristobal when they differ on how to run their criminal enterprise – with Cristobal having wanted to go clean. Goldberg and Carrigan truly put on master classes in this episode.
3. "Deer Lady" (Reservation Dogs)
It’s always discomforting when a series that’s not a horror series, especially one that has many laughs, does an episode in the vein of a horror film – but I usually find them to be among the most riveting (like the Teddy Perkins episode of “Atlanta”) of a series when they do so. “Reservation Dogs” made the brilliant decision to tell the story of the Deer Lady, whom we first saw in season, and how she became this vigilante of justice against horrible men. When Deer Lady was a young girl she was kidnapped and taken to a boarding school to essentially de-native Natives, which was brilliantly shown by showrunner and writer of the episode Sterlin Harjo with the staff of mostly nuns speaking in garbled, unintelligible language because English wasn’t understood by the Natives. The harshness of the boarding school would lead to the death of some of its inhabitants and when the young girl’s friend is killed she makes her escape attempt and comes upon a magical deer in the woods who turns her into a spirit with the mission of putting an end to unsavory men. The performance of Deer Lady as an adult who never ages, played by Kaniehtiio Horn is at times chilling and at times, especially in her dealings with Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), so warm and motherly. The “Deer Lady” episode of “Reservation Dogs” is not only one of the best episodes of television of the year because of the amazing performances and storytelling involved but also the fact that it shines a light – as the series was so adept at doing – of telling a story that’s too often untold.
2. "Long, Long Time" (The Last of Us)
When the third episode titled “Long, Long Time” of the first season of HBO’s horror drama “The Last of Us” aired early in 2023 I remember hearing and seeing raves about it being an instant classic and early candidate for TV episode of the year but not being a gamer – the show is based off a popular video game – or really a huge zombie genre viewer I didn’t know if I’d ever give the show a chance. I did in the final month of the year and, boy, am I glad I did. Not only is everything people said about this episode true but the first season of “The Last of Us” wound up No. 3 on my Best TV Shows of the Year list. “Long, Long Time” is mostly a stand-alone episode with the leads of the series only appearing at the end of the episode but the story it tells between two characters vaguely related to the story is maybe the most romantic on TV all year. Nick Offerman, known more for his comedy chops than his dramatic acting, plays Bill, a paranoid prepper whose paranoia has served him very well when a pandemic caused by fungus turns the public into zombies. But the life of a loner trying to survive the apocalypse can be a boring one, so when Murray Bartlett’s stumbles upon Bill’s compound, the typically recluse Bill eventually reveals himself as a bit of a softie and the two embark on a beautiful relationship throughout the years that’s told in an hour-long episode. It’s beautiful. It’s romantic. It’s tragic. But the script by showrunner Craig Mazin and wonderful performances by Offerman and Bartlett easily make it one of the most touching episodes of TV I’ve seen all year.
1. "Fishes" (The Bear)
The stunt casting of so many famous faces for the “Fishes” episode of “The Bear” could’ve been such a distraction that it could have made for a disastrous episode. However, thanks to the always impeccable writing of showrunner Christopher Storer and Joanna Calo and the terrific performances of everyone involved “Fishes” would up being the most riveting episode of television for me in 2023. It’s a flashback episode that explains so much about Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and Natalie (Abby Elliott) as we’ve seen them over the first season and a half. Jon Bernthal, who briefly played the eldest brother Michael in season one, returns for a beefier (wasn’t intended as a pun, but sure let’s go with it) role showing off his larger-than-life personality. Jamie Lee Curtis appears as the matriarch of the family Donna, who has some depression that seems to run within the Berzatto family, Bob Odenkirk is there as Uncle Lee, Sarah Paulson as Cousin Michelle, John Mulaney as her husband Stevie and Gillian Jacobs as Richie’s wife Tiffany. There are so many fantastic scenes throughout the episode that I can say you’ll have to watch it to really enjoy but the two that stood out to me the most and truly made for the most stressful watch (why is it the super stressful episodes of “The Bear” are the best episodes on all of television these last two years?) were the dinner table feud between Michael and Uncle Lee with absolutely seething performances by Bernthal and Odenkirk and the subsequent freak out by Donna. When Emmy season comes around for the second season of the show expect the guest categories to be littered with names from this thrilling, stress-inducing, brilliantly written and acted episode.
What was your favorite episode of television in 2023?