Though I’ve done better this year at keeping up with television, notably absent from this list are some of the shows that tend to dominate the cultural conversation like Succession, Abbott Elementary, The Staircase, Hacks, Euphoria, Our Flag Means Death, Better Call Saul, and more. Nevertheless, here are some of the best series of the first half of the year.
Is Atlanta television? Is it an ongoing mini-series? Is it some sort of surrealist art experiment? Is it a drama or a comedy? Series creator and star Donald Glover probably delights in the uncertainty. Returning almost four years after its (fantastic) second season, the show established on a weekly basis that it could be anything that its creative team could think of, whether it included the main characters at all or not. In fact, almost half of season three’s episodes took place on a different continent, if not in a different universe entirely. When you have A-List talent like Brian Tyree Henry, LaKeith Stanfield, and Zazie Beetz, that’s a bold decision no matter what your show is about. Regardless, this season saw Glover and team’s razor-sharp and hilarious social commentary taken to new, insane heights during Paper Boi’s European tour. Only one season now remains of Atlanta, and television won’t be the same without it.
First, an apology. I had set out to recap each episode of Barry’s third season and wasn’t able to keep up after the fifth episode. I always try my best to follow-through when I set a goal for myself, and I hate that I fell short. Especially with such a captivating season of television, from beginning to end. Perhaps it’s the recency bias talking, but I truly couldn’t think of a weak element or storyline or character beat from the beginning of the season to the end. The finale had me staring agape throughout its entire runtime, in awe of the creative team’s ability to weave everything together in such a satisfying yet shocking manner. Hader is at the top of his game both in front of and behind the camera, directing some incredible sequences like the motorcycle chase in episode 6 and, well, pretty much everything in the finale. Not to mention Sarah Goldberg stepping her game up to another level and making Sally essentially the show’s co-lead, delivering some of the season’s best dramatic moments. Barry may have debuted in 2018 after the end of the Golden Age of Television, but it belongs in the conversation with the best of those shows that cemented the era.
Maybe something was in the air in the early part of 2022, but there was a massive influx of limited series’ based on true-life events that were centered around high-profile grifters. WeCrashed, Inventing Anna, Pam and Tommy, and The Dropout (plus surely many more that I’m currently forgetting) were all about the American Dream of scamming your way to the top. But despite being the most recent and most familiar subject, The Dropout stands above the rest because it refuses to simply coast on our familiarity with the characters at play. Based on the podcast of the same name, the series saw the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, the tech visionary who became the youngest female billionaire through sheer force of will, rather than actual accomplishments. Brilliantly portrayed by Amanda Seyfreid, Holmes is shown as a fragile child masquerading as someone who people could trust with their money and resources. Seyfreid could win an Emmy for her performance, but Naveen Andrews is equally great, showcasing a smarmy menace to often bully his way ahead on behalf of Holmes and the company. There are sure to be more series to come about successful Americans who failed upwards and the lives they destroyed in the process, but The Dropout is a shining example of how to do it right.
Sure, the season is just barely halfway done at this point, but if the rest is anything like the beginning, we may have a new high-point of MCU shows on our hands. It will be hard to top the creative ingenuity of WandaVision or Loki, but Ms. Marvel announces itself as a visual delight early and often throughout each episode. The MCU formula has gotten complacent recently (don’t get me started on Moon Knight) and its newest series is a refreshing change of pace, partially due to the enthusiasm of its lead, newcomer Iman Vellani. Vellani brings just the right amount of wide-eyed enthusiasm as Kamala Khan, who spends the bulk of the early episodes just figuring out exactly what her powers entail. Superhero origin stories are an inherent allegory for puberty, so framing Ms. Marvel around a wayward teen who still crushes on boys and conflicts with her parents is a breath of fresh air when compared to the generic MCU schtick about Saving The World (looking at you again, Moon Knight).
It’s always a tricky question when trying to figure out if you should spend your precious time with a new show with a high-concept premise that’s not already based on some pre-existing IP. Do I want to invest several hours of my life in something that could just turn out to be another Lost imitator? Thankfully, while there are some valid comparisons to Lost, Severance stands rightfully on its own as a great first season of television. The show, created by Dan Erickson, is not only dramatically – and comedically – compelling, but extremely topical given America’s relationship with workers and corporate culture. I can’t remember the last time a season finale had me on the edge of my seat, almost yelling at the screen, because of the stakes it had so masterfully brought together from the first episode to the end. There are so many mysteries at play in the world of Severance, and if subsequent seasons are anything like the first, the show could be one of the greats. Each episode brings forth newer, weirder pieces of Lumon’s mythology that raises more questions than answers, and I found myself riveted to discover more. Beyond its stellar performances from Adam Scott, Britt Lower, Zach Cherry, John Turturro, Christopher Walken, Tramell Tillman, and more, the show looks fantastic as well, evoking a pointedly sterile production design and solid direction from Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle. This is a series firing on all cylinders. Praise Kier.
David Simon and George Pelecanos’ newest limited series is better than an updated follow-up to The Wire. For one, the show boasts career-best work from Jon Bernthal as a slimy corrupt cop in charge of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force. Throw in solid performances from Wire alums like Jamie Hector, Delaney Williams, and Darrell Britt-Gibson and you have a deep bench to pull from. Simon and Pelecanos weave through Maryland’s biggest city, going back and forth in time and using the FBI’s real-life investigation of the Task Force as a narrative backbone. At times, it can be overwhelming to keep track of who’s done what and where they fit in, but the show always finds its focus. That the show grounds its characters with Simon’s trademark three-dimensionality – despite so many outsized personalities – makes the show one of the best works of an already formidable career.