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Best TV of 2022


2022 was a weird TV year. On the business side of things, the wheels seem to be coming off the bus of the streaming boom. Everyone is suddenly figuring out that churning out an endless stream of expensive, star-studded content just to keep people paying their subscription dollars (and now with more services than ever vying for those dollars) is not a sustainable model. First off was Netflix, posting its first official downturn early in the year, and following it up with cost-cutting measures: more shows cancelled out of the blue, fewer auteur passion projects, and perhaps a pivot to ad-funded subscription models. But the OG streamer’s troubles were soon dwarfed by its younger competitors’. The WB/Discovery saga just keeps getting more embarrassing, and more distressing for creators, with projects not only cancelled once they’re already in production or in the can, but disappeared out of existence, buried where no one will ever be able to access them. And Disney+, despite having the backing of the world’s most powerful entertainment conglomerate, despite possessing an extremely desirable content library, and despite producing a nonstop stream of work within the worlds of the two biggest entertainment franchises ever, is apparently having so much trouble recruiting new subscribers that the company’s CEO was ousted and replaced with his own predecessor, in a desperate—and, I suspect, doomed—attempt to right the ship.

It’s too soon for any of this upheaval to be reflected in the actual shows being produced, but nevertheless there was a certain centerlessness to a lot of this year’s TV, a feeling of crumbling from within. For years I and many other critics have complained about the baleful effect that the streaming model has had on the craft of writing for television. How, absent the restrictions of a timeslot and commercial breaks, and with the expectation that a ten- or twelve-episode season will be watched over a single weekend, writers seem to have forgotten how to structure an episode or a season. In 2022, these problems seemed to come to a head. A lot of this year’s shows reflect the unspoken assumption that their sins of poor structure and slack pacing will be obscured by the binge experience. And in a year with so many standalone miniseries—as multiple true crime, grifter, and techbro projects came to fruition—I repeatedly found myself having the thought that these shows barely had enough material to fill a feature film.

These problems afflicted even projects that I otherwise enjoyed, and marred ones that I had every expectation of enjoying. HBO’s new flagship series, House of the Dragon, was clearly made under the assumption that extra-length episodes are the hallmark of a prestige drama. Would I have found the show as emotionally deadened and tedious if it were not consistently delivering 60+ minute installments, usually with a lot of slack and padding? Maybe, but I’ve found myself a lot of more forgiving of shows that rarely go over 45 minutes. And there have been series this year that felt tremendously exciting at their outset, only to laboriously struggle across the finish line, having stretched their story out well past its tolerance. The Resort, a trippy time travel mystery with a top-notch cast from the creators of Palm Springs, felt like a shoe-in for this list in its early episodes, but by the time the season came to a close my interest had dispersed.

So if there’s a unifying theme among this year’s best shows, it is that they manage to buck the trend and feel like their creators have thought about things like structure, pacing, and how to deliver a story in installments. There’s a bias here towards shows with shorter episodes, but more than that, towards shows that have episodes, that respect the viewers’ time and the demands of the story. It’s hard to tell what the streaming contraction will mean for TV (besides, that is, that there will be less of it), but I’d like to believe that one effect will be to elevate those creators who don’t use the medium of streaming as an excuse not to think about the craft of storytelling.

Best Show of the Year: Andor (Disney+)

I debated about this choice. Not just because of an anti-Star Wars bias (though as I discussed in my review of the show last month, the fact that it is a Star Wars series made it hard for me to admit just how good it is), but because of a recency bias. Do I think Andor is the best TV show of 2022 because the thrill of its greatness has barely had a chance to dispel as I sit down to write this list? Maybe, but part of the reason for that excitement lingering is that Andor is a rare thing in 2022, a show that got people talking with excitement, not just urging each other to watch it but discussing it, finding hidden moments of brilliance, and reflecting on its themes and ideas. It’s been a minute since we had a show that captured the zeitgeist in this way, and that feels worth celebrating.

But of course, Andor isn’t just buzzy. It’s very very good. It’s a story about radicalization, not just of its title character, future Rebellion captain Cassian Andor, but of his community, of the other resistance operatives he meets, and of people, like the rich, elegant senator Mon Mothma, who are still capable of living comfortable, mostly-free lives even in the midst of a fascist takeover. In a setting that has always taken the division between Empire and Rebellion for granted, Andor asks what it takes to make people choose a side. It does so with tremendous skill across the board, in its performances (imagine finding a new way for Andy Serkis to wow audiences in 2022), dialogue, visuals, and music. Per my complaints above, this is not just a show with episodes, but with multi-episode mini-arcs, a structure that shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but whose effect in 2022 was almost soothing—here, finally, was a creator who had given some thought to how his story would unfold in the audience’s mind. And it’s a show that builds on nearly half a century’s worldbuilding to create a meaty, thought-provoking story about life under autocracy and the price of resisting it. Whether it’s following the middle managers of a fascist regime as they efficiently prop up a reign of terror, or depicting a thrilling escape from gamified nightmare of a factory prison, or moving you to tears with the funeral of a beloved character that doubles as a call to resistance, Andor has clearly thought deeply about its world and situation, and the story it produces is one of the most exciting and substantial I’ve seen this year.

Rest of the Best:

The Bear (Hulu) & Julia (HBO Max)

I’m grouping these two shows together because they’re both about the same thing—the intersection of cooking and commerce—and yet so different that I can’t help being amused, not just by the contrast, but the fact of their both having premiered in a single year. Julia is a lighthearted, traditionally structured drama about Julia Child’s early efforts to translate her bestselling cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, into the then almost unheard-of genre of a cooking show. The Bear follows a burned-out haute cuisine chef as he struggles to save—and perhaps transform—his late brother’s struggling Chicago sandwich shop. They approach their subject from opposite directions—cooking as an elevated hobby versus a codified artform; introducing diners to new and unfamiliar foods versus perfecting a humble, familiar dish; stumbling into a career as a privileged dilettante with money to burn versus trying to make a living in a cutthroat market; embracing imperfection versus striving to eliminate it.

Taken together, the two shows create a panoramic view of the foodie movement and how it has evolved over the last century—sometimes in extremely baleful ways, such as when Child is accused of setting yet another unachievable standard that women have to meet, or when a rapturous review of the restaurant in The Bear causes it to be inundated by hipsters who crowd out its neighborhood clientele. But even separately, these are two extremely well-made, enjoyable shows—The Bear is perhaps more formally innovative, while Julia sticks the landing a bit better—about a subject that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention in fiction as it deserves.

(If you’ve watched these two shows and still want more cooking-themed entertainment, I highly recommend Mark Mylod’s movie The Menu. It’s probably the slightest of the three works, but as I wrote in my review last month, it has some interesting things to say about how capitalism can leave both artists and audiences feeling hungry.)

Better Call Saul (AMC)

The last gasp of the antihero drama trend of the 00s was arguably the best because it learned from, and rejected, the mistakes of its predecessors—not least, its parent show, Breaking Bad. In some ways, Better Call Saul was an anti-antihero show, because it not only made us love its flawed, sometimes amoral hero, conman turned lawyer turned criminal attorney Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill, but gave us hope for his redemption. The show’s final season was a brilliant heist story, proceeding towards its conclusion of mingled triumph and calamity with a logic that felt both inevitable and exhilarating. But once that story came to an end, Better Call Saul lingered with its characters—Jimmy, but also his wife and partner-in-crime Kim Wexler, one of the best female characters on television—and showed us how they live with themselves, what they become in the wake of the things they’ve done, and how they can find a form of salvation when they, and we, least expect it. As I wrote in my review of the final season, Better Call Saul ended as a love story, and that’s not only a great ending for this show, but for a genre that had seemed to outlive its purpose.

Los Espookys (HBO)

HBO cancelled this weird little show after its second season, which is as unsurprising as it is tragic. It’s hard to believe that we got even two seasons of a surreal, mostly-Spanish-language supernatural workplace comedy that one canny reviewer described as Scooby Doo by way of Jorge Luis Borges. Los Espookys follows the titular team as they fake supernatural occurrences at the behest of such clients as a primary school teacher who wants to scare her students into paying attention to her, or an annoyed cemetery manager who wants the ghosts of his residents to assure their relatives that they don’t mind being buried in the wrong graves. But it adds the wrinkle that in the show’s world, the supernatural actually exists—one of the team’s members is a mer-person who regularly converses with (and asks annoying favors of) the moon, and a running theme throughout the series is the brainwashing of a succession of women to act as a news program’s perfectly-coiffed, personality free hostess. This is all delivered in a dry, Wes Anderson-ian tone that also conveys a lot of warmth, especially towards those who are queer or just a bit weird. Los Espookys was a gem, and though its cancellation is hardly a surprise, the two seasons it did give us deserve to be discovered by more people.

Pachinko (Apple TV+)

I didn’t have great hopes for this series, having been largely underwhelmed by its source material, Min Jin Lee’s epic historical melodrama about several generations in a family of Korean immigrants to Japan. But the adaptation makes so many smart choices. It intercuts between the story’s various time periods instead of presenting them chronologically, creating interesting resonances (once again, we see the importance of good structure). It gives heroine Sunja, who travels from colonized Korea to Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, more personality and agency than she had in the novel, where she seemed to exist mainly in order to suffer uncomplainingly. It creates a dark, star-crossed romance between Sunja and her married lover Hansu, who in the novel was merely a boring plot device. And it beefs up the story of Sunja’s grandson Solomon, who in 1980s Japan must struggle not only with Japanese prejudice but the expectations of his American bosses. The result is a gripping multigenerational saga that both captures a period and setting that American media doesn’t tend to depict, and tells utterly universal stories in a way that repeatedly tugs at the heartstrings. It also has the best opening credits in a year that delivered some stellar examples of the form.

The Patient (Hulu)

The logline for this show was “serial killer kidnaps psychiatrist so he can go to therapy”. I’m pretty burned out on the serial killer genre (that’ll happen once you realize that the real story is usually “the victims were poor/POC/women/sex workers/queer (circle all that apply) so the cops didn’t bother to work the case”) so I figured this was not the show for me. A better sales pitch might have been “what if Misery was about psychiatry instead of novel-writing, and also a lot less misogynistic?” A two-hander between Steve Carell and Domhnall Gleeson, The Patient is about the limits and capabilities of the therapeutic process. Is it possible for Gleeson’s killer to change when he’s keeping his therapist chained in a basement and threatening to kill him if his progress isn’t all that he hopes? Is it possible for Carell to treat someone he fears and is considering trying to kill? Delightful worldbuilding touches help to flesh out the characters—Gleeson’s foodie-ism, Carell’s Jewish heritage, the conflict between his Orthodox son and Reform wife. They make what could have been a cheap gimmick into a deeply felt drama that is also a tense thriller.

Reservation Dogs (FX)

The problem with delivering a first season as thrilling and perfectly formed as Reservation Dogs did is, how do you follow it up? Some shows would try to level up, but Reservation Dogs—perhaps recognizing that its world has so many stories still to be told—chose to go deeper. If there’s a thread running through the season, it is the persistence of grief—in the teenage foursome who are the show’s main characters, who are still rocked by the suicide of their friend; but also among their parents and elders, who continue to feel the absence of one of the teens’ mothers, who died in an accident more than a decade ago. But there’s so much else that happens in the season—wannabe-breadwinner Bear’s first day at work as a roofer, which becomes a meditation on absent fathers; an activity for the reservation’s teens led by a pair of influencers who are at once self-aggrandizing and entirely earnest about connecting with their Native heritage; a terrifying episode in which the sweetest member of the group ends up in a group home for juvenile delinquents, very nearly getting swallowed up by a system that clearly can’t wait to put him in jail. With each episode, Reservation Dogs continues to reveal, with its inimitable, quasi-surrealist humor, the challenges of growing up Native American, and the community that keeps these characters going.

Severance (Apple TV+)

Severance had what is perhaps the highest concept of 2022—what if your employer could mandate the surgical separation of your personality, creating a you that exists only for work, with no memory of the outside world and no distractions during work hours, while in the outside world you had no memory of work? I had some issues with how this concept was executed—for a show about labor exploitation, Severance sure seemed myopically focused on the middle class—but on the character level, there’s no denying that it was developed in interesting ways. In its first season, Severance was about its “innie” characters, people for whom the office is their whole world, and who can be easily fobbed off with trinkets and meaningless rewards, developing solidarity and class consciousness, and inching their way towards rebellion. The result was both an engrossing Lost-esque science fiction mystery, as more, and more bizarrely deranged, details about the characters’ employer were revealed, and a touching twist on the workplace drama.

Station Eleven (HBO Max)

I already mentioned this limited series in my list of the best TV of 2021, but what the hell, the last three episodes aired this year, and it hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it deserved. If Pachinko is an example of how to adapt a middling novel into a great show, Station Eleven takes a book that was already great and makes it better—more generous towards even its most flawed characters, more moving in how it draws connections between characters who in the novel never even met, and more thoughtful about its central question. The novel Station Eleven is based on was about finding beauty and art after the end of the world. The series asks a further question: what do we owe the past? What hold should we allow it to have over us? Though all the show’s characters have survived the pandemic that has depopulated the planet, they are starkly divided between those who remember the old world and are desperately trying to hold on to its remnants, and those who want to be free of the dead past’s grip. Where the novel brought this conflict to a violent head, the show tries to find a peaceful resolution, to suggest that art is a constantly renewing resource, one that can mean new things in a new world.

Honorable Mentions:

Interview With the Vampire (AMC) – The second attempt at Anne Rice’s overheated vampire tale is slyer, queerer, more diverse, and more upfront about the racial realities of its setting than either the original novel or the 1994 film adaptation. It’s also a rollicking good yarn with an all-around excellent cast and a surprising amount of laugh-out-loud moments. Even if you know the story, this take on it feel fresh and exciting.

Our Flag Means Death (HBO Max) – The internet’s darling, this queer, comedic twist on the pirate tale—improbably based on a true story—gathers some of the best comedy talent on TV and delivers a top-notch tale of high seas adventure, workplace shenanigans, and romance.

Shining Girls (Apple TV+) – Lauren Beukes’s serial killer time travel novel seems like an impossible challenge for a screen adaptation, but this take on it is masterful. Elisabeth Moss is unsurprisingly brilliant as a women coping not just with the aftermath of an assault but with a sense that the world is changing in impossible ways, and Jamie Bell is terrifying as a man whose contempt for women is evident in his every action.

Show That Everyone Loves and I Can’t See the Point Of: For All Mankind (Apple TV+)

There are a few contenders for this crown. I think Hacks is nice but wildly overpraised. I gave up on The White Lotus after two episodes. And beyond some impressive directorial flourishes, I don’t get the excitement over Barry. But for the differential between rapturous praise from everyone in my vicinity (including critics I highly respect and whose taste usually aligns with mine) and my own reaction of indifference, verging on distaste, nothing beats For All Mankind. I just don’t get what anyone sees in this turgid soap opera about a bunch of toxic people who maintain a decades-long stranglehold on the American space program, repeatedly bringing to space their tedious intergenerational drama, which inevitably ends up getting other, nicer people killed. In the third season, constipated alpha male Joel Kinnaman hires his dead best friend’s son to go to Mars with him, ignoring the fact that the younger man has a drug problem (and also that, unbeknownst to him, he once had an affair with Kinnaman’s wife, which he is constantly trying to rekindle). Through a confluence of events, this ends up with Kinnaman’s daughter pregnant on Mars, his wife dying in an explosion, and him even more constipated. Back on Earth, the first female president is a gay, closeted Republican who rises to power with the help of Lee Atwater and the Moral Majority, becomes the victim of a reverse Lewinsky-gate (because Democrats and Republicans are the same, don’t you know), and invents Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Other people keep falling over themselves to call For All Mankind a masterpiece, but I see something snide, almost cynical. It’s a show that clothes itself in the guise of inspiration, and delivers cheap irony instead.

Show That is Better Than it Has Any Business Being: Stranger Things (Netflix)

For three seasons, Stranger Things was fine. A slick nostalgia machine buoyed by a stellar cast and some top-notch moments of action and adventure, it was enjoyable without being that good. And, seeing as it continues to be one of the biggest hits of the last decade, and Netflix’s flagship show, there was no reason for it to get any better. And then, implausibly, in its fourth freaking season, it did. Suddenly, the show’s nostalgia had bite, using references to Stephen King and slasher movies to talk about its setting, a mostly-white 80s suburb, sliding towards moral panic and reactionary politics. Suddenly, it discovered a villain with a compelling story and a surprising connection to the show’s heroes. Suddenly, it figured out how to manage its increasingly unwieldy cast, while introducing some instantly iconic new characters. (Justice for Eddie Munson!) Hell, to contradict just about everything I’ve said in this post, I don’t even mind the super-sized episodes, most of which are just too much fun to feel self-indulgent. There are, to be sure, still some perennial Stranger Things problems: as the younger cast matures, the justification for the parent characters’ centrality in the story gets thinner and thinner; Eleven continues to be the most underdeveloped lead character on television; and somewhere along the line, Mike became utterly pointless. But season 4 of Stranger Things finally delivers on the promise that was unfulfilled in the previous three. And as if that were not enough, it also introduced a whole generation to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”.

Show That I Liked Better Than the Other, Similar Show That Everyone Else Raves About: The Afterparty (Apple TV+)

Look, I enjoy Only Murders in the Building. It’s a perfectly pleasant little show. But it’s nowhere near as good as the praise it’s gotten, for the simple reason that while it’s quite a good comedy, it’s a rather poor mystery and send-up of the true crime podcast genre. You know what show is a good mystery and genre parody, while also being quite hilarious? The Afterparty, which is basically the show everyone keeps telling me Only Murders in the Building is, and almost unheralded. Set in the hours after a high school reunion, each of the show’s episodes retells the events of the titular party from the point of view of a different character, in order to work out who killed the host. Each episode is told in different style matching the teller’s personality—an action movie for the former jock whose marriage is on the rocks, a musical for the wannabe rap star. It’s a clever concept, well-executed by a truly stacked cast. And, unlike a lot of other shows this year, The Afterparty doesn’t lose steam before the finish line. Each episode reveals new details about the night of the murder and the lingering high school drama that has left most of the characters with a motive for violence, and the revelation of the killer is smart and satisfying. If you enjoyed Only Murders in the Building, I think you’ll like The Afterparty even more.

Show That Remembers What an Episode Is: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (Paramount+)

It’s not that I don’t have reservations about the latest NuTrek show. After several series that crowed about (and took heat from the usual suspects for) their diversity, it feels a bit weird to go back to a show with not just a white male lead, but one as obviously cast in the Captain Kirk mold as Anson Mount’s Christopher Pike. And I’m getting increasingly tired of the revived franchise’s seeming allergy to taking Trek forward into the future, so Strange New Worlds being yet another TOS prequel makes me sigh. But one thing you have to give this show is that it’s putting all its eggs in the standalone episode basket, and mostly doing a good job of it. There are some solid science fiction hours here, some good action storytelling, and even some clever homages and twists on classic Star Trek episodes (very few science fiction shows in 2022 would spend one of only ten episodes on a body-swap sex comedy that is also a prequel to “Amok Time”, and we are all the poorer for it). And yeah, the episode that was basically a straight-up ripoff of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” was a bit embarrassing for all concerned, but I suppose even that’s a good sign in its way—if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Strange New Worlds may not be the second coming of Star Trek or The Next Generation, but it’s aimed in their direction, and that’s a very exciting thing, not just for a show in this franchise, but for any show airing in 2022.

Best UK original of a hit US show: Ghosts (BBC)

CBS’s remake of Ghosts, about a couple who inherit a house that is haunted by a troupe of quirky spirits, has been a major hit, and rightly so: it’s got a winning cast who make the most of their kooky premise, and is usually quite funny. But it only takes a few minutes of going back to the UK original, which aired its fourth season in 2022, to remember how much richer it is. The difference isn’t along the lines of the UK and US Office—the original Ghosts is just as gentle and warm-hearted as the remake (unsurprisingly, as it was created by the same team who delivered BBC children’s shows Horrible Histories and Yonderland). But the original Ghosts isn’t as hemmed in by the strictures of an American sitcom. It’s willing to let its characters be weird in specific, historically appropriate ways rather than forcing them into the tropes and comedic style of pre-set sitcom types. It’s willing to let its humor breathe rather than constantly delivering gag lines. And it’s willing to sit with moments of sadness and loss without wrapping everything up in a neat bow after 22 minutes. I enjoy both shows, but the original Ghosts is something special, and it deserves more attention in its own right.

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