First, a disclaimer: As usual, this list is missing some of the bigger television releases of the year because I simply haven’t watched them yet. Though I did better in my TV viewing this year, I still haven’t gotten around to shows like Succession, House of the Dragon, Better Call Saul, Abbott Elementary, The Boys, or Hacks. Judge the following list accordingly.
Runners-Up (in Alphabetical Order):
- The Afterparty
- Ms. Marvel
- Mythic Quest
- Stranger Things
- The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
- We Own This City
10. Irma Vep
The intersection of art and entertainment may not make for the most water-cooler friendly television, but Irma Vep stands out as an artistic achievement nonetheless. Olivier Assayas remaking-but-also-kinda-sequelizing his 1996 breakout hit proved fruitful enough as the limited series found engaging drama and insight throughout each of its 8 episodes. Assayas was able to delve deeper into the minds of those who create art and the mental toll it often takes, while simultaneously making statements about himself and how Irma Vep the film was received. It’s a dance that isn’t often seen on television but Assayas makes the most of it, with wonderful performances from Alicia Vikander, Vincent Macaigne, and Lars Eidinger, among others. And the commentary about the changing entertainment industry and its evolution – or lack thereof – in the past 100+ years provided a lot to chew on. In the hands of anyone else, Irma Vep could have easily been a naked cash grab, a way to cash in on nostalgia for the film in the way too many projects did this year. But Assayas had grander designs in mind, and I’m incredibly thankful he got to see them through.
You only need to watch one episode of Bluey to understand why it’s the best family show on TV today. That episode is the third season’s seventeenth, Rain. (Though the season 2 episode Sleepytime left me a sobbing puddle for incredibly specific but personal reasons.) In just seven silent(!) minutes, the show tells a complete story about who Bluey is, what she finds enjoyment in, and the lengths one of her parents will go to to nurture it. Most children’s entertainment is either all flash and noise or homework masquerading as entertainment and, while most of it is enjoyable enough, it’s largely disposable and doesn’t resonate with a kid or a parent once it’s over. When Bluey sets out to preach any existential life lessons, it does so in an effortlessly sneaky way, by making it centered around play. Nobody gets hurt and nobody gets scared. Whether it’s something as deceptively simple yet emotionally complex as moving bedroom furniture, or making a birthday omelet, Bluey manages to be both fun and engaging without resorting to the cheap tricks that are all too common in the TV landscape today.
I remember rolling my eyes at the post-credits stinger for The Suicide Squad when it was revealed that John Cena’s Peacemaker was not, in fact, dead. It felt like a cheap way to keep an unnecessary bit of IP alive, purely for the purpose of keeping IP alive. Thankfully James Gunn stayed on board and had more funny, violent stories to tell that ultimately felt like a rewarding experience. Beyond being decidedly anti-MCU in its very adult content, the show functions as a unique character study in heroics, from Peacemaker’s skewed version of right and wrong to Vigilante’s (Freddie Stroma) borderline psychopathic tendencies, Peacemaker brought the laughs, the action, and the heart throughout 8 fantastic episodes. A mostly standard-issue alien invasion storyline was always embedded with Gunn’s trademark irreverent sensibilities (he wrote each episode and directed most of them), helping the show to stand out from the pack. The MCU trotted out its fair share of enjoyable shows in 2022, but Peacemaker was the only superhero show that felt like it was trying something different by approaching it in a unique manner – and yes, that includes the instantly iconic opening credits sequence as well.
7. The White Lotus
How would writer and director Mike White capture lightning in a bottle again after the success of the first season of his Emmy juggernaut? Turns out he didn’t need to do anything too different from what worked so well already. The second season of The White Lotus leaned slightly away from class inequality to subjects like love and desire, gender and power dynamics, the transactional nature of sex, and, yes, class inequality. With a powerhouse performance from Aubrey Plaza and sneakily strong turns from Meghann Fahy, Theo James, Tom Hollander, Adam DiMarco, Haley Lu Richardson, Jennifer Coolidge, and many more, the show had no weak links despite its sprawling cast. But the real star of the show continued to be White’s pitch-perfect writing, a razor-sharp blend of humor, character-based intrigue, and observances about the world at large. Yes, the mystery of the body bag teased in the beginning of the season was enough to create intrigue from week to week, but what earns it a spot on this list was all the juicy details in between.
6. Harley Quinn
My inherent love of animation melded perfectly with the DC spinoff following the exploits of one Harley Quinn and her merry band of weirdos. Not only is Harley Quinn a welcome jolt of queer representation in the superhero genre, it’s a vulgar, violent, hilariously good time with some great character beats thrown in. Despite an unfortunate scarcity of Kite Man, season three saw Harley (voiced with a perfect blend of insanity and sweetness by Kaley Cuoco) and Poison Ivy’s (Lake Bell) romantic relationship blossom, while both were given room to grow in their own ways. Even Bruce Wayne was given his own unique arc as the show explored his continued grief over his parents. Of course, it never hurts to have one of the best voice casts on TV today, with the likes of Ron Funches, Tony Hale, JB Smoove, Alan Tudyk, plus plenty of amazing guest stars to fill out this bonkers version of Gotham. At times it felt like the writers would make any excuse to write in James Adomian’s inspired Bane just to add even more laughs, and god bless them for doing so. Perhaps no animated DC show will ever top Batman: The Animated Series, but Harley Quinn is certainly gunning (batting?) for its crown.
5. The Bear
I was led to believe that The Bear was like Uncut Gems stretched out over the course of eight stressful episodes. I don’t know if I fully buy into that elevator pitch, though I won’t dispute it, but creator Christopher Storer’s drama injects the show with equal measures of high stakes, heart and hilarity. That’s not to say the show isn’t without its stress-inducing sequences; the virtuosic one-take seventh episode provided enough stress to make me think twice about ordering online from any restaurants in the near future. What makes The Bear really magical is how it depicts the terrible burden of going after our dreams, whether we’re stuck in a grimy sandwich shop in Chicago or one of the top-rated restaurants in the world. The show mined breakthrough performances from Jeremy Allen White, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Ayo Edibiri, Lionel Boyce, and virtually everyone that crowded The Beef’s cramped quarters. And the show’s dialogue is delivered so naturally that sometimes you forget you’re watching a scripted show. Much like the restaurant’s signature sandwiches, The Bear is a show to savor one bite at a time, and one worth coming back for over and over again.
4. The Rehearsal
Try to explain the concept behind The Rehearsal to someone that’s not familiar with Nathan Fielder without making your head explode. Simultaneously a deconstruction of reality television and a vehicle for creator/director/star/madman Fielder, the show continued to evolve from week to week and go down increasingly ludicrous (and hilarious) paths. Fielder used the simple concept – what if we could rehearse some of our bigger life decisions before actually implementing them and saving us some future embarrassment? – to explore his cold relationship with pretty much everyone. The result is pure cringe entertainment at its finest. The later episodes fascinatingly delve into Fielder’s obsessive need for control as he experiments with fatherhood along with the show’s breakout star, Angela. Though the show has plenty of funny staged moments like Fielder’s voiceover narration, The Rehearsal was at its best when its subjects broke from the format and Fielder’s tightly-spun web of insanity came down. I have no idea what season two of the show will look like, or how many “innocent” bystanders Nathan Fielder will leave in his wake, but I’ll be more than ready to have my mind blown once again.
3. Welcome to Wrexham
Welcome to Wrexham came along at the perfect time, when I had all but given up on professional sports. FX’s documentary series focuses on the titular football club in Wales, perpetual losers who perpetually dream of being promoted to the next league, which just happens to have been purchased by Hollywood stars Rob McElhenny and Ryan Reynolds. But Reynolds and McElhenny are essentially relegated to supporting roles throughout the series, and instead, the show focuses on the players, employees, and supporters whose livelihoods are tied to the club’s success. It’s easy to summarize the experiment as a real-life Ted Lasso, with Americans crossing the pond to take over a struggling club, but unlike the AppleTV+ show, Welcome to Wrexham almost always works best when the Americans aren’t present at all. What follows in the show’s season is a heartwarming and honest portrayal of the hardships involved in professional sports. One longtime fan who’s suffering from cancer opines “I can’t go yet, I’ve gotta see Wrexham get promoted.” Whereas I would roll my eyes at such a statement if it was directed at an American professional sports team, Welcome to Wrexham shows that, in a small town in North Wales, fandom isn’t just a personality trait, it’s a lifestyle.
Severance is the best show on Apple TV+, and it’s not even close. In just one season, creator Dan Erickson unboxed an entire world full of rich mythology, perplexing morals, and endless possibilities. The question at the heart of the show – would you literally separate your work life from your personal life if you had the opportunity – seems like an easy one at first, but the more you unpack it, and the more permutations you release, the more difficult the answer becomes. Any minute plot detail or character development for the severed Lumon employees could be studied and debated in the same way that Lost was, at its best. And much like Lost, it was a joy to see more and more people discover the show, which led to some of the best conversations around television in some time.
The TV fan in me always wanted to know how far Paper Boi & Co. had progressed in the rap game since the beginning of season one, but series creator Donald Glover made it clear from the start that Atlanta was never a show that charted one musician’s success. Rather, it’s a show about success on a grander scale, the success of any artist, and how our world reacts to it. The show’s four year break since season two allowed it to get weirder and more experimental in seasons three and four (both of which aired in full in 2022), leading to greats like season three’s Three Slaps and The Big Payback and season four’s Work Ethic!, while producing solid character episodes like Snipe Hunt and The Homeliest Little Horse. All of the shows on this list had some degree of comedy or drama or something intangible that made them stand out above the pack, but no show was as daring or inventive as Atlanta. Even with the show stumbling (a relative term) in the final few episodes, it delivered a pitch-perfect series finale, foregoing sentimentality and showing that, whether there’s actually a TV show called Atlanta or not, these characters will always exist.