To say that the last few years have been an especially challenging time to be a human being living on earth is a pretty massive understatement. We’ve dealt with war, ecological disasters and political upheaval all while still reeling from a pandemic that killed millions and remains a very real threat to this day. (Do I currently have three cough drops, one for each branch of the COVID/flu/RSV “tripledemic” that’s currently going around, in my mouth as I type this? I’ll never tell.) But hey, at least we’re living through Peak TV.
As anyone who’s ever struggled to remember how many streaming services they’re currently subscribed to can tell you, the era has brought us an embarrassment of riches. (Although whether or not we’ve reached peak “Peak TV” is a debate for another day.) There are simply not enough hours in the day to keep up with the seemingly endless glut of new content, try as we might.
With that in mind, we’re rounding up our favorite shows of 2022 below. As we mentioned in our round-up of our favorite movies of the year, we don’t believe in ranked year-end lists — especially when it means splitting hairs between “great” and “greatest.” Below, you’ll find our personal favorites, in no particular order. These are the shows that managed to stand out from the rest of the (absurdly crowded) field, and they’re all equally worthy of your next binge-watch.
The White Lotus, HBO
As of this writing, we’re less than a week away from the season 2 finale of The White Lotus, and I still have absolutely no idea which characters will end up dead. (If it’s Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya, we riot.) That’s a testament to Mike White’s ability to keep us guessing, obscuring the whodunit at the core of the show with other equally compelling questions like “Will Aubrey Plaza’s character finally sleep with that annoying finance bro?” and “Those British guys aren’t really blood related, right?” Following the success of season 1 — which took home a whopping 10 Emmys — with a completely new setting and an almost entirely new cast was a tall order, but White delivered. This year’s installment, set in Sicily, is just as funny and full of stunning cinematography and sharp commentary about class as its predecessor. Best of all? It’s already been renewed for a third season, so we get to do it all again — presumably with another new star-studded cast of obnoxiously wealthy characters in another exotic locale — next year. — Bonnie Stiernberg
All Creatures Great and Small, PBS
This steaming hot toddy of a show is not set up to succeed on year-end lists like these. This second season of All Creatures Great and Small, which continues to follow rural veterinarian James Herriot in 1930s England, premiered in the U.K. in September of 2021 (which would seem to qualify it for last year’s list) but didn’t hit U.S. airwaves until January 2022 (which is even worse, as most people forget what they watched that long ago). But it’s worth remembering and including because it’s an anomaly in today’s TV world: a show that revels in simplicity and sweetness, instead of grasping for virality like just about everything else. Based on the semi-autobiographical books of James Alfred Wight (a veterinarian whose pen name was Herriot), this Masterpiece production places small-town human drama alongside a zoological medical puzzle for Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) and crew to solve every episode — for a cow, a horse, maybe even a parrot. But unlike plenty of other shows in the “comfort watch” category, this one offers poignant acting from the entire cast and some welcome emotional depth. — Alex Lauer
The Bear, FX on Hulu
As we’ve discussed at great length, the era of prestige television may or may not be over — but clearly, no one has told that to big TV. And while most of the aforementioned content churn leaves much to be desired, a few projects with some serious backing hit the mark this year: just so, with FX’s The Bear. Lauded as some of the best professional chef representation since Kitchen Confidential (a sentiment that we’re inclined to agree with), collective internet boyfriend Jeremy Allen White (of Shameless fame) anchors a food-forward, Chicago Beef-based series that’s gripping, erratic and anxious, much like what we imagine working in close quarters with open flame and very sharp knives might be. The show gets a few things wrong — we have a bone to pick with Carmy’s juiced frame, as no obsessed chef could possibly have time for those bulging biceps, and the phrase “yes, chef”, charming at first, is now verbal warrant for a swift punch to the nose — but thanks to some stellar performances from Allen White (as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto), Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Ayo Edibiri and a compelling portrait of grief, loss and toiling in a (less-than) professional kitchen, the watch is worth every stress-inducing second. — Paolo Sandoval
While no current episode of Bill Hader’s pitch-black comedy about a killer-turned-actor quite reached the brilliance of season two’s “ronny/lily” (although the chase sequence in “710N” came damn close), the 2022 run of Barry was one of the most daring and occasionally difficult-to-watch shows of the century. To start? It’s admittedly weird to say this about a hired assassin, but Barry himself proved to be an unsympathetic lead, primarily due to his verbal abuse toward his girlfriend Sally … played brilliantly by Sarah Goldberg, who had her own excellent show-within-a-show detailing the suffering of her work at an algorithm-obsessed streaming platform. — Kirk Miller
Full disclosure: I’m the type of guy who still gets a shiver from the sound of Darth Vader breathing or a lightsaber whipping through the air. And the fact that neither of these aural pleasures are found in Andor, the latest Star Wars television show to come to Disney+, is exactly what makes it such a triumph. Andor — set in the years before the criminally underrated Rogue One and following the early days of that film’s protagonist Cassian Andor (played again by Diego Luna) — is like nothing us Star Wars nerds have ever seen. It’s a thrilling story about the fomenting of a revolution and regular people rising up against tyranny, which happens to be set in the same universe as those magical space knights with laser swords. The creation of Tony Gillroy (Michael Clayton, the Jason Bourne movies), Andor has reinvented Star Wars storytelling in an age when The Book of Boba Fett and Ob-Wan Kenobi, let’s face it, kind of sucked. There is a heist, a prison break and all sorts of genre storytelling that propel a narrative that will appeal to viewers who don’t know the difference between Greedo and a Speedo. But rest assured when a lone TIE fighter does finally come screaming over the horizon, the shivers are tenfold. — Greg Emmanuel
Severance, Apple TV+
The concept of this sci-fi thriller is simple enough: Mark (Adam Scott) and his coworkers at Lumon Industries have elected to undergo a medical procedure in which their personal, non-work memories are separated from their work memories, giving them each two distinct personalities. Their “innies” toil away all day at their mysterious job, unencumbered — in theory, at least — by distractions like family or romantic entanglements, while their “outies” hang out at home, blissfully unaware of what they do for a living. But it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t the work-life balance we’re all dreaming of. Human beings are social creatures, and the “innies” form deep bonds with one another because they’re all they know; when one of them retires or gets fired, it’s as if they died because their fellow innies will never see them again. And, as it turns out, that’s the least of their worries. Without spoiling any of the show’s many twists and turns, we’ll just say things are not what they seem at Lumon, and we can’t wait for season 2 to drop so we can finally get some resolution to that big cliff-hanger of a season finale. — Bonnie Stiernberg
Standing Up, Netflix
Shame on you, Netflix! You canceled the greatest show that you released this year two months after it debuted even though you knew it was going to be a slow burn! I didn’t even find it on your dumb streaming service until it was already given the axe, so it’s clear that it’s not Standing Up’s fault, it’s yours for not putting the show in front of eyeballs. This French comedy (titled Drôle in its original language) is the brainchild of Fanny Herrero, the brilliant comedic mind behind Call My Agent, which hit Netflix in 2016 but didn’t take off until years later during the pandemic (see, slow burn!). While Call My Agent followed a group of Parisian talent agents representing actors, Standing Up follows a group of up-and-coming standup comics in the same city (watch it with subtitles on, it’s much funnier that way than with dubbing). If you’ve been underwhelmed by American comedies in recent years, I do believe Herrero’s French sensibilities will get you laughing out loud in your living room again. And the entire troupe of unknown actors — from the dynamic Mariama Gueye and the endearing Younes Boucif to the unpredictable Elsa Guedj and the hate-him-till-you-love-him Jean Siuen — are perfectly cast. — Alex Lauer
We Own This City, HBO
Few things in all of pop culture get the same widespread critical acclaim as The Wire. Anecdotally I would estimate nine out of 10 prestige TV viewers namecheck the seminal David Simon series when asked about their all-time favorite shows. And while I see you and I hear you Breaking Bad fans, I think it’s tough to argue otherwise. So even being tangentially related, We Own This City has a mountain to climb to measure up. This “sequel” of sorts is from the same creative team, set in Baltimore, features cops and drug dealers, but is still very different. We Own This City chronicles the real-life story of the Gun Trace Task Force that haunted the citizens of the already-troubled city by planting drugs and stealing money with the same gusto of the supposed bad guys. Like The Wire, it dives headfirst into a complicated web of race, policing, politics and corruption and somehow even winds up being more bleak than its predecessor — and nearly as riveting. The storytelling is a complex tapestry of real-life testimony and abrupt time shifts that make it demand your attention, in a good way. But what really earns this a place in the same conversation as that all-time great is the performance of Jon Bernthal, who portrays one of the most captivating antiheroes I’ve ever seen on screen. You just can’t take your eyes off this low-life POS — and you won’t want to. — Greg Emmanuel
For my money, one of the marks of a great TV comedy is how funny its throwaway lines are. Sure, the big, showy punchlines are fun, but the one-liners that are muttered offhandedly or tossed off so quickly that those with a habit of watching TV while scrolling through social media on their phones risk missing them — when those are hilarious, you know you’re watching something special. Season 2 of HBO’s excellent Hacks had too many of those tiny moments to count (although none made me laugh harder than Meg Stalter’s Kayla lamenting the fact that she forgot to grab the container of hard-boiled eggs she was saving for lunch off her desk before she quit her job before shrugging it off with “Plenty of eggs in the sea”). But just like in its first season, those laughs are balanced with hard truths about the entertainment industry and what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. If we live in a just world, Jean Smart should have another Emmy for her work as Deborah Vance. — Bonnie Stiernberg
House of the Dragon, HBO
Ever since Game of Thrones ended with a groan in 2019, it seems like every TV network and streaming service has been trying to produce a fantasy hit to take its place. We’ve now had The Wheel of Time, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, The Witcher and His Dark Materials (and plenty of others, even including a new reboot of Willow). None of these efforts have been able to grip the viewing public in its metal-plated gauntlet like House of the Dragon, the prequel to Game of Thrones based on George R.R. Martin’s book Fire & Blood, a history of the dragon-owning House Targaryen. What does the House of the Dragon team know that everyone else seems to be missing? That good writing trumps any amount of CGI, and careful casting trumps any amount of monsters, wizards and other fantasy creations. Much of the other fantasy fare available to stream today feels like filmed versions of mass-market paperbacks, while House of the Dragon has the gravity, nuance and believable human drama of prestige TV. Yes, there are plenty of dragons, which reportedly cost boatloads of money to animate, but it’s the performances by Paddy Considine (as Viserys Targaryen), Emma D’Arcy (Rhaenyra Targaryen) and Olivia Cooke (Alicent Hightower) that have us all constantly Googling when season two is coming out. (FYI, not soon.) — Alex Lauer
The Rehearsal, HBO
No television show was more fiercely debated this year than The Rehearsal. Some people found it to be exploitative (we beg to differ), while others raised questions about its use of young child actors. (Host Nathan Fielder, of course, devoted the entire season finale to addressing those questions the way only he can, bringing in a series of older child actors to play the traumatized kid thespian in question in a series of simulations.) But at the end of the day, all the controversy surrounding the show likely stems from the fact that those watching it — even the diehard fans who now flock to the Brooklyn dive bar meticulously replicated as a set piece on the show — often had absolutely no idea what the hell they were watching. The premise starts out simple enough: Fielder helps real people rehearse for important moments in their lives with the help of paid actors and the most detailed sets HBO can buy. But when he decides to enter the experiment himself, acting as a pseudo-partner for Angela, a woman rehearsing what her life would be like if she had a child, the whole thing spins out into an insanely meta, layered Synecdoche, New York-esque situation unlike anything we’ve seen on TV before. Is it reality? Is it completely scripted? We’ll likely never know for certain, thanks to the strict NDAs that participants were made to sign, but whatever it was, it was fascinating, funny and surprisingly poignant. — Bonnie Stiernberg
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