The streaming gold rush couldn’t last forever. From a business perspective, TV has had a pretty rough year, from Netflix’s financial woes to Warner Bros. Discovery’s post-merger growing pains to this month’s shocking news that former Disney CEO Bob Iger had replaced his successor Bob Chapek at the company’s helm, following the revelation that Disney+ was gaining a lot of subscribers but losing a lot of money. Like many other tech-driven niches, from digital media to rideshare apps, streaming seems to be seeing the price tag of rapid expansion exceed the revenue generated by even the most auspicious uptick in users. The dilemma of how to cut costs without hemorrhaging subscribers remains unsolved, and may indeed be unsolvable.
Of course, for those of us who care more about TV as an art form than we do about its revolving door of executives and growth strategies, the most urgent question at the end of 2022 is: What’s going to happen to the shows I love? The short answer is that it could take years before what we see on our screens fully reflects the fallout of the past several months’ streaming shakeups. But it’s also true that platforms were preparing for a wholly predictable contraction in an overcrowded streaming landscape long before Netflix released its Q2 report. In that sense, this year’s unprecedented glut of expensive genre spectacles and prestige-branded docudramas might well herald an era when every greenlit project must justify its existence with blockbuster viewership numbers or the potential for multiple Emmy nominations. So much for the long tail.
You won’t find much from either dominant category among my favorite series of 2022. It probably isn’t a coincidence that what you will find are more shows that ended their runs than shows that debuted this year. While that doesn’t make me especially optimistic going into 2023, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that great, idiosyncratic, sui generis television is still getting made—and that, in fact, two of the year’s three best shows turned out to be new titles based on original ideas. As long as fresh concepts are being pitched and writers’ rooms are being assembled, there will be hope for TV, no matter who’s sitting on any corporation’s Iron Throne.
10. Rap Sh!t (HBO Max)
Since soaring to the entertainment-industry stratosphere with Insecure, Issa Rae has become one of TV’s most in-demand creators. Her new, Miami-set hip-hop comedy Rap Sh!t proves she doesn’t have to be on screen to make something great. Relative newcomers Aida Osman and KaMillion shine as high school friends whose mismatched lives become intertwined again after a late-night freestyle propels them to fame as a rap duo. The influence of Miami rappers City Girls, who are among the series’ executive producers, is palpable in its regional details, realistic portrait of the contemporary music business, and radio-ready original songs. And the show brings art and nuance to thorny subjects from social media to sex work. Like Insecure, it’s smart, sexy, attuned to the vicissitudes of friendship and the struggles of the ambitious yet broke. But it’s also entirely its own thing—a comedy as fresh, sharp, and inspired as its heroines’ rhymes.
9. Made for Love (HBO Max)
In this, the year crypto crashed, stocks burned, and the richest man in the world gave new meaning to the phrase “tweeting through it,” no satire of an industry torched by its own hubris hit as hard as Made for Love. Enjoyable but a tad timid in its first season, co-creator Alissa Nutting’s adaptation of her own taboo-busting 2017 novel got smarter, weirder, and many shades darker in a second season set mostly within the invisible cage of multibillionaire Gogol Industries CEO Byron Gogol’s (Billy Magnussen) corporate-HQ-slash-dream-home-slash-prison, the Hub. Antiheroine Hazel (Cristin Milioti) has returned to Byron, the ex-husband she fled in season 1 after he planted spyware in her brain, in exchange for a potentially life-saving cancer treatment for her father Herbert (Ray Romano), whom she has to actively trick into receiving it. The setup escalated into a witty, trenchant, and depressingly timely allegory for the tech sphere’s dangerous conflation of connection and control that was, sadly, canceled before it could offer a third season’s worth of commentary. Here’s looking at you, looking at us, Elon.
8. Derry Girls (Netflix)
A gloriously lifelike 30-foot mural of Derry Girls‘ teen protagonists presides over the Northern Irish city, where Bloody Sunday unfolded in 1972 and the Troubles dominated the 20th century. It’s not even a paid advertisement. Such is the affection the local community—and the world—developed for these four Catholic school girls (and one girl’s tag-along male cousin) over the course of three ’90s-set seasons inspired by creator Lisa McGee’s own Derry adolescence. You can see why. While the political context, glimpsed in TV news footage and alluded to in casual conversation, is wrenching, the juxtaposition of a world-historical conflict with the bubbly self-involvement of high schoolers makes for one of the funniest comedies you’ll ever see. Spanning just 19 episodes, the show had precisely zero weak moments. But this year’s final season was a particular stunner, filled with road-trip misadventures and A-list guest stars and first love. It all led up to the fateful Good Friday Agreement referendum, in a perfect series finale that had me doubled over with laughter one second and reaching for the Kleenex the next.
7. Atlanta Season 4 (FX)
It’s been a strange 2022 for Atlanta, which took a four-year, COVID-extended hiatus after its second season and then returned to close out its run with two full seasons that aired this spring and fall. Because half of the already-legendary series’ total episodes were squished into nine months, the unevenness of season 3’s European hijinks and standalone parables featuring zero regular cast members might’ve made some viewers less eager to dig into its fourth and final season. But I’m telling you: don’t miss it. Season 4 brought creator and star Donald Glover’s Earn, his rapper cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), his daughter’s mom Van (Zazie Beetz), and their stoner buddy Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) back to their hometown with money to burn. In episodes that ranged from an acerbic mockumentary about a fictional Black Disney CEO to a camping-trip romance that could make you tear up, Atlanta took its wild ride to the intersection of Blackness, wealth, fame, and art making. Along with Glover’s typical keen social commentary and surreal humor, the season did right by the show’s central characters, yielding precisely the thoughtful and moving, if not necessarily happily-ever-after, resolutions they deserved.
6. Better Things (FX)
An auteur’s magnum opus. A first-time TV creator’s laboratory. A very funny comedy. An art film for the small screen. An unflinching portrait of the artist, or one version of her, as a middle-aged woman. A sharp commentary on Hollywood misogyny and ageism. The best show ever made about single motherhood. Pamela Adlon’s Better Things was all of this, sometimes all at once, throughout its five seasons (which might explain its conspicuously vague title). Just as her alter ego Sam Fox was always juggling work, parenting three kids, and intermittent attempts at post-divorce romance, Adlon juggled her characters’ internal lives, holding space for each perspective in every scene. That convergence gave the show its own surprising sense of balance; half an hour with the Foxes could feel as refreshing as meditation. In streaming’s era of peak redundancy, it’s a shame as well as a compliment that there’s nothing else like it on TV.
5. This Is Going to Hurt (AMC+)
True to its title, this British import starring the great Ben Whishaw as an overworked OB-GYN in a public hospital lands several punches to the gut. But its unvarnished depiction of economic inequality in healthcare, for providers and patients alike, brings rare honesty to a cliché-ridden medical-drama genre that celebrates individual doctors’ extraordinary feats at the expense of telling the truth about their exhausted real-life counterparts’ often-dangerous working conditions. This Is Going to Hurt isn’t all misery; it preserves the biting humor of its source material, a memoir by physician turned author Adam Kay, and Whishaw’s disappearance into the role of a brash, prickly, young gay man with one foot out of the closet is a pleasure to behold. When the show does ultimately break our hearts, the pain is well worth the epiphanies that come with it.
4. Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)
Sterling Harjo and Taika Waititi’s groundbreaking dramedy about teens growing up on an Oklahoma reservation in the wake of their lifelong friend’s suicide couldn’t have gotten off to a stronger start last year. Even so, the show improved by leaps and bounds in its sophomore season, using viewers’ familiarity with the Rez Dogs, their families, and other local characters to expand its funny, poignant portrait of the community. Showrunner Harjo and his writers spend one episode following Zahn McClarnon’s beleaguered cop on a psychedelic misadventure and another with a cohort of middle-aged women known as “the Aunties” as they cut loose (or try to) at the annual Indian Health Services conference. Yet the show never loses sight of its central characters, four young people on the verge of adulthood whose hopes, fears, frustrations, and mourning converged in a stunning season finale written by the Kumeyaay poet Tommy Pico.
3. Severance (Apple TV+)
Between the recent proliferation of superhero spinoffs, fantasy epics, and space operas and the streaming-era renaissance of the miniseries and various anthology formats, the future of grounded, original, multi-season TV drama has begun to look pretty bleak. Severance, conceived by first-time creator Dan Erickson and directed, marvelously, by Ben Stiller, isn’t just the year’s best new narrative show; it’s also the year’s best argument that it’s still possible to make a serious, serialized drama that is populated by authentic characters, addresses real social issues, and isn’t adapted from pre-existing intellectual property. So what if that show—which follows employees at a dystopian megacorp who agree to have their consciousnesses surgically bifurcated, “severing” the people they are at the office from the people they are outside of it—also happens to have a chilling sci-fi premise?
Instead of relying on elaborate virtual-production setups and other trendy tech, Severance is a triumph of good old-fashioned writing, directing, and acting. From icons like Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, and Christopher Walken to comedy pros like Adam Scott and Zak Cherry to breakout Britt Lower, who’s riveting as a new recruit who can’t forgive her “outie” self for consigning her to a life of indentured labor, the performances are essentially flawless. Stiller’s direction sets a tone that’s equal parts absurdist and tragic. It’s all tied together, and tethered to work-life realities as many of us know them, by writing that resonates on the level of individual lines of dialogue but soars thanks to the intricate plot architecture Erickson put in place.
2. The Rehearsal (HBO)
Watch the first episode of Nathan Fielder’s follow up to Nathan for You, the Comedy Central series that deployed the creator as a deranged consultant to struggling small businesses, and you’ll find a kinder variation on that predecessor. Fielder explains that his social-engineering comedy had led him to rehearse a wide range of uncomfortable interactions so that he’d be prepared for every possible response to his bonkers marketing ideas. In The Rehearsal, he sets out to use that technique for good, helping regular people rehearse tough confessions and big life decisions. The relatively self-contained premiere finds him training a teacher to confess to a friend that he deceived their whole bar-trivia crew into believing he had a master’s degree.
Then things get messy, in a way that simultaneously calls into question the extent of Fielder’s behind-the-scenes manipulations, how acclimated viewers have become to the routine deceptions of reality TV, and whether it’s possible to game out the risks of your own life without harming the people you enlist in that project. The experiment grows more philosophically convoluted and introspective with each episode. Meanwhile, The Rehearsal captures difficult truths about American life in 2022, from pandemic-era loneliness to unapologetic antisemitism.
Much of the chatter around the show has centered around attempts to classify Fielder as either “cruel and arrogant” or an intrepid explorer of the human psyche. While I’m firmly in the latter camp, I also think his personality is beside the point. Like all television, the show establishes a rapport with the viewer—but instead of immersing us in a fantasy, it’s designed to make us hyper-aware of our responses to the images it presents. Not since Twin Peaks: The Return has the medium so insightfully mirrored our fraught relationships to the entertainment we consume.
1. Better Call Saul (AMC)
One of TV’s greatest sagas came to an end (for now, at least) this past summer, when creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould wrapped up Better Call Saul after six unforgettable seasons. Way back in the winter of 2008, just months after Mad Men premiered as its first original drama series, AMC rolled out Gilligan’s cinematic crime drama Breaking Bad, about a milquetoast chemistry teacher whose terminal cancer diagnosis unlocked a limitless potential for cruelty and violence. More than a decade later, that series’ unlikely conscience, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), returned in El Camino, a feature film that gave him the action-hero ending he deserved.
But in the final accounting, Saul—a spin-off that most Breaking Bad fans, myself included, feared would be terrible—is the epochal masterpiece of the bunch. A prequel and a sequel, it literally bookends the saga, offsetting Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) morally black-and-white descent into evil with the more ambiguous tale of two characters trying to be good people who can’t find a way to be good together. Initially a flailing public defender, Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill is a supposedly rehabilitated delinquent who slowly devolves into a walking mockery of the justice system named Saul Goodman. The love of his life, Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, has an internal sense of justice too keen to abide either the legally sanctioned cruelty of corporate law or the violence and malice of Saul’s work in Albuquerque’s criminal demimonde.
Gilligan and Gould never missed an opportunity to give their lawyer show about the inevitable perversion of justice another layer of meaning. At the same time, they made one of the most visually gorgeous, carefully plotted, and emotionally involving shows in the history of TV. Their vision came to life thanks to tremendous performances by Odenkirk and Seehorn, along with co-stars Michael Mando, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael McKean, and too many other cast members to list. Intelligent to the core, Better Call Saul was also, for all its blood and death, the most fundamentally humanistic drama of its time. Months later, I’m still marveling at how it found a way, in the end, to celebrate Kim and Jimmy without letting Saul off the hook.
Honorable mentions: Abbott Elementary (ABC), Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (AMC), Barry (HBO), Conversations With Friends (Hulu), The Girl From Plainville (Hulu), Irma Vep (HBO Max), Search Party (HBO Max), Sort Of (HBO Max), What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
Promising shows whose new seasons I couldn’t screen in full: Kindred (FX), The White Lotus (HBO)