The Best TV Shows of 2022 So Far
This crop of standout series brings us tech dystopias, culture clashes, sarcastic superheroes, adorable schoolkids, twisted time travel, and much more
The year in television so far has clearly been defined by high-concept science fiction. After all, the best shows of the last six months have involved time travel, body-swapping, alien invasion, speculative futures, and a world where people can have their personalities split between their work and home selves.
Then again, maybe the year in television so far has been defined by down-to-earth realism. After all, some of the other best shows of the last six months have involved resource-strapped elementary schools, single parenting, and cultural conflicts.
Or maybe, just maybe, the lesson of the year in TV so far is that great television can come from both outlandish concepts and simple ones, so long as the shows are made as well as the 15 listed alphabetically here.
‘Abbott Elementary’ (ABC)
Photo : Ser Baffo/ABC
Everything else on this list debuted on a cable channel or streaming service. But the traditional broadcast networks still have a few creative tricks up their sleeves, particularly on the comedy front. A cynic might suggest Abbott Elementary is just “The Office, but in a public school,” with its mockumentary format, obliviously unqualified boss (Janelle James as side-hustling principal Ava), and will-they-or-won’t-they romance brewing between the optimistic teacher Janine (Quinta Brunson, who created the show) and her new colleague Gregory (Tyler James Williams, doing John Krasinski-level takes to camera). Anyone watching more than five minutes of the series, though, would be helpless to resist the enormous charms of the cast, the world built by Brunson and the other writers, and the ways this now-familiar format feels brand-new when it plays out in front of dozens of small, enthusiastic children.
Photo : Oliver Upton/FX
The long-awaited third season of Donald Glover’s masterpiece was essentially two seasons in one. The majority of the time was spent following Al, Earn, Darius, and Van through various misadventures during Paper Boi’s second European tour. Every few weeks, though, the action headed back to America for an anthology episode featuring new characters and a variation on the series’ larger themes about being Black in America. The ones with the core cast tended to be stronger — particularly Al’s psychedelic day in Amsterdam (including an unexpected conversation with Liam Neeson) and Van’s violent Parisian odyssey — but the ambition of the series as a whole remains at a level few of its peers can match.
Photo : Merrick Morton/HBO
The comedy about a hitman-turned-actor-turned-hitman should have no business still being on television after three seasons, because its premise seems like such a tightrope walk. It sure has no business being better than ever — and with as good a claim to the top spot in a ranked version of this list as anything else — in that third season. Yet somehow, Bill Hader and friends have pulled it off. Barry Season Three was a tonal marvel as well as a technical one, weaving in between abject horror and absurd comedy as deftly as Barry had to maneuver through traffic on a stolen dirt bike while being shot at by would-be assassins. These new episodes featured career-best dramatic work from Henry Winkler as Gene grappled with the knowledge of who Barry really is. Sarah Goldberg went to some incredibly raw and strange places as Sally’s Hollywood star abruptly rose and fell. And in the incredible finale, Anthony Carrigan’s NoHo Hank got terrorized by a panther. None of this should work. All of it does.
‘Better Call Saul’ (AMC)
Photo : Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
The Breaking Bad prequel split its final season in two, which meant the part we’ve already seen was mostly setup for whatever the series’ endgame will be. But few franchises in television history have come close to this one’s ability to make the setups almost as entertaining as the payoffs. And it’s not like this batch of episodes lacked closure, with the deaths of multiple prominent characters and the long-awaited first meeting between Kim Wexler and Mike Ehrmantraut. Odds are, the episodes that begin airing in July will be even more exciting, funny, and/or tragic, but what we’ve gotten so far hasn’t been too shabby.
‘Better Things’ (FX)
Photo : Suzanne Tenner/FX
Pamela Adlon’s family dramedy concluded with her and the rest of the ensemble singing along to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” a relentlessly upbeat tune originally performed (in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) by a group of men being crucified by the Romans. That mix of hope and disappointment was palpable throughout this lovely final season, which included big family and career developments for Adlon’s Sam Fox, but mainly the same sense of intimacy and warmth that was palpable throughout the five-season run of this special, special show.
‘The Dropout’ (Hulu)
Photo : Beth Dubber/Hulu
Late winter and early spring saw the rise of TV Scammer Season, as one prestige miniseries after another attempted to explain the behavior of an infamous real-life con artist, including fake socialite Anna Delvey (Inventing Anna) and the founders of WeWork (WeCrashed) and Uber (Super Pumped). By far the best one — and, not coincidentally, the only one that attempted to understand what motivated its central grifter — was The Dropout, starring Amanda Seyfried as Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Seyfried got Holmes’ notoriously weird deep voice right, but more importantly — and with a lot of help from Dropout showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether — dug deep to present a dramatically interesting take on the would-be tech mogul, in which she first conned herself before doing the same to so many rich and powerful people. A great performance, and easily the best in class of this recent television trend.
‘Hacks’ (HBO Max)
Photo : Karen Ballard/HBO Max
The comedy about comedians put leads Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder on a bus together for most of the second season, as Smart’s Deborah Vance took the new, more personal act she had written with Einbinder’s Ava on tour. The two women had interacted plenty in the first season of Hacks, but giving them no real break from one another took the show to new levels in terms of both laughs and pathos. They didn’t really split up until a season finale that felt very much like a series-ender — but HBO Max recently announced a renewal. Hopefully, Deborah and Ava won’t be apart for too long whenever they return.
‘Pachinko’ (Apple TV+)
Photo : Juhan Noh/Apple TV+
Min Jin Lee’s historical-fiction epic, about a Korean woman named Sunja’s life during and after the Japanese occupation of her home country, got a sumptuous, moving television adaptation. Pachinko deftly bounces between both eras — primarily with Minha Kim as the young-adult Sunja in the throes of the occupation and Youn Yuh-jung as the elderly Sunja now living in Japan in the late Eighties — and cultures, giving emotional, deeply personal weight to all the tragic intertwining of these two nations. A knockout from the first shot to the last (and then beyond, with glimpses of all the real-life Sunjas).
‘Peacemaker’ (HBO Max)
Photo : HBO Max
Like Pachinko, this spinoff of John Cena’s lunkheaded vigilante character from The Suicide Squad has a tremendous dance number in its opening credits every week. The similarities end there, though. Created by James Gunn, Peacemaker is almost as proud of its own stupidity as its title character seems to be of his. But somehow, Peacemaker and his new colleagues — including a vigilante whose own code name is, um, Vigilante — are granted (some) depth and shading as they try to prevent an alien invasion involving butterflies, cows, Peacemaker’s pet eagle, and violent reminders of our stupid hero’s past as the son of a vicious white supremacist (Robert Patrick). The Marvel shows on Disney+ soak up so much attention, but Peacemaker was easily the year’s most entertaining comic-book show.
‘Russian Doll’ (Netflix)
Photo : NETFLIX
Like Barry, Russian Doll was the kind of show that seemed perfectly designed to last for one season and ride gloriously into the sunset. Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia kept dying again and again on her 36th birthday, figured out why, and got to live another day. What more was there to say? Yet the second season, while messier than the first, still more than justified the show’s ongoing existence, with a surreal, funny, and ultimately poignant series of trips back in time as Nadia and Charlie Barnett’s Alan got up-close-and-personal looks at what life was like for previous generations of their respective families. We can’t wait to see what rule of physics Nadia manages to break next.
‘Severance’ (Apple TV+)
Photo : Atsushi Nishijima
In one way, the timing of this sci-fi thriller couldn’t have been worse. Its plot involves corporate employees undergoing a procedure in which their memories of what they do at the office and what they do at home are completely separate, and it premiered at a point when the pandemic had gotten so many of us used to working from home. On the other hand, our own lack of separation between our work and home lives — and the increasingly large percentage of the time we are all expected to devote to our jobs — made Severance feel incredibly timely. An innovative premise executed at a very high level, with engrossing direction by Ben Stiller and a bevy of fantastic performances (particularly by relative unknown Tramell Tillman, who was a real breakout as an un-severed employee tasked with keeping Adam Scott and friends in line).
‘Shining Girls’ (Apple TV+)
Photo : Apple TV+
Television didn’t really need another serial-killer show. And Elisabeth Moss didn’t really need another role that would see her seethe over being victimized by men — despite how fantastic she is at playing that particular kind of rage. Yet when the two were combined, along with the time-travel twist of Shining Girls, it all felt new and exciting enough to work. A surprisingly gripping thriller.
‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ (Paramount+)
Photo : Marni Grossman/Paramount+
Let Star Trek be Star Trek! The idea seems harder than it sounds, given all the stumbles that the other recent live-action Trek shows have made. Strange New Worlds — part Discovery spinoff, part prequel to the original Shatner/Nimoy series — manages to be both old-school and new-school at once. In each episode, Captain Pike (Anson Mount, almost superhumanly charming), Mr. Spock (Ethan Peck), and the rest of the Enterprise crew enjoy some kind of self-contained adventure involving a new alien culture, and then they jet off to a new location the week after that. Crazy, right? But Gene Roddenberry’s Sixties formula still works, especially paired with more modern characterization that has breathed new life into one-note old Trek characters like Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) and Spock’s fiancée T’Pring (Gia Sandhu). Strange New Worlds travels where many have gone before, but it does it incredibly well.
‘Starstruck’ (HBO Max)
Photo : Mark Johnson/HBO Max
When the second season of this British rom-com — about an irresponsible, directionless woman (played by the show’s co-creator, Rose Matafeo) falling for an uptight action-movie star (Nikesh Patel) — debuted in late March, it included an early front-runner for the year’s single funniest scene. That sequence — involving Matafeo’s Jessie and a pregnancy test — remains the clubhouse leader for 2022, but the rest of the season was pretty nifty as well, as Jessie and Patel’s Tom settled into an actual relationship and found that happily ever after isn’t quite as simple as it seems.
‘Station Eleven’ (HBO Max)
Photo : Ian Watson/HBO Max
The majority of this “postapocalyptic show about joy” (to quote its showrunner) debuted in late 2021, but the three 2022 episodes were extraordinary enough to qualify for this list. (The equal number of hanging-chad installments of Showtime’s Yellowjackets weren’t quite that great, so it misses the cut; we’ll see where or whether For All Mankind and Only Murders in the Building rank in our best-of list in December, since their seasons have only just begun airing.) The concluding chapters of the adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel — which takes place two decades after a virus has wiped out 99 percent of the world’s population — were just flooded with emotion, including the births of the first post-pandemic babies all on the same night in an abandoned department store; a fraught Shakespeare performance; and the reunions everyone on the show, and in the audience, needed. One of the great shows of the last several years, even in its relatively small 2022 portion.
From Rolling Stone US.