TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer picks the 15 best TV shows from a crowded, exciting year in television.
This article is part of our 2022 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we assemble the best TV shows of 2022.
For the past few years, our coverage of the best TV of the year has started with a similar observation: this may not have been the year with the best TV of all time, but it’s certainly the year with the most TV of all time. That statement may hold true this year as well, but with major shakeups in the world of television – from the Warner Bros Discovery merger that has led to the steady paring down of HBO Max to Netflix’s similarly game-changing subscriber loss to several smaller streamers’ failure to thrive – it could be the last year we say it for a while.
Have we finally reached the top of Peak TV? Is the market as saturated as it can possibly be? That remains to be seen, but for now, let’s enjoy the view. The year in television brought an end to many beloved shows (Atlanta, Better Things, and Derry Girls, among them) and a beginning to fantastically unique others, like Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities and Soo Hugh’s Pachinko. The TV landscape is also still so robust and competitive that despite each of their considerable strengths, none of those aforementioned shows quite made the cut for this year’s list of the best of the best. So what did? Read on for our list of the 15 best TV shows of 2022:
15. Paper Girls
What would you tell your teenage self? On social media, it’s a popular thought exercise, but in Stephany Folsom’s adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ comic Paper Girls, it’s much more than that. The series, which was unceremoniously cut short after one season on Prime Video, follows a group of pre-teen girls from the 1980s who accidentally time travel to the future, where they try to save the world and meet their older selves in the process.
Despite its partial ‘80s setting, Paper Girls is the opposite of nostalgic: it takes a refreshingly clear-eyed approach to growing up, one that understands that the past is often a lot more fucked-up than we might want to admit. With just eight episodes to build out its world, Paper Girls is able to craft a story that values the interior lives of its young girl protagonists, treating them as individual people in a way that makes it clear just how many other shows underdevelop their girl characters. Paper Girls left too soon, but we’ll always have its great first season to look back on, led by a talented young cast including Sofia Rosinsky, Camryn Jones, Riley Lai Nelet, and Fina Strazza.
The best Star Wars series to date is the one that feels the least like Star Wars. From its bold opening scene to its wry last one, the first season of Andor injects fresh blood into a series that often thrives on playing the hits. It also delivers a story that’s part futuristic noir, part inspirational (and bleakly realistic) moral tale, and wholly excellent regardless of its place within an existing franchise. Diego Luna’s doomed rebel Cassian Andor is only one piece of the impressive political tableau here, with other chess pieces played with stoic talent by Stellan Skarsgård, Genevieve O’Reilly, Fiona Shaw, and others.
The series shows its hand from the start with a first season that follows the formation of the Rebel Alliance, but it reaches its creative peak with a brilliant prison break episode led by guest star Andy Serkis. When Serkis’ prisoner leads a group of oppressed inmates to escape by sea, only to admit that he himself can’t swim, it’s a concise and brilliant summary of the sacrifices that come with seeking true justice and equity. Skarsgård’s Luthen puts it just as emphatically a few scenes later when he describes the thankless toil of rebellion, saying, “I burn my life to make a sunrise I know I’ll never see.” All of Andor is stylish and compelling, but the show gets even better when it lets its ferociously anti-fascist ideals show.
13. Black Bird
2022 saw the true crime market become both oversaturated and baldly exploitative, but if one series managed to side-step the ethical minefield to deliver a brilliantly told story, it’s Black Bird. The Apple TV+ limited series couples the masterful writing of Mystic River and Shutter Island scribe Dennis Lehane with a trio of powerful performances. Taron Egerton stars as Jimmy Keene Jr, a hotshot football star turned criminal who takes a desperate deal when a ten-year sentence threatens his remaining time with his ailing father (Ray Liotta, in one of his last roles).
Paul Walter Hauser completes the trifecta of fine performances as Larry Hall, the disturbed inmate and suspected serial killer who Jimmy’s tasked with sidling up to in an FBI mission. The hope is that Larry will confess to Jimmy, earning the latter a reduced sentence, but it’s not quite that simple. In the same vein as Mindhunter, Black Bird opts not to show any violence on screen, instead focusing on the sublimated horror of eerie conversations between the two inmates. The show never shies away from the moral complexities of its story – it’s humanizing and raw at every turn, and as concerned with its heroes’ guilt as its villains.
This is the year that Barry went pitch-black dark. Sure, Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s series about a mercenary trying to go legit as an amateur actor has had morbid overtones from its very first episode. But in its third season, the show confidently severs its protagonist’s ties to humanity, turning Barry from an antihero to a full-fledged villain before nearly killing him off entirely. The character Barry Berkman loves platitudes about second chances and fresh starts, but the world he lives in sure doesn’t, and watching him figure that out in real-time is as grim as it is entertaining.
While Barry the man spirals, Barry the show gets sharper than ever. The new season elevates Sarah Goldberg’s Sally to center stage, and Goldberg perfectly portrays the abuse survivor turned actor’s complicated relationship to the spotlight. Meanwhile, Anthony Carrigan’s always-hilarious NoHo Hank finds love, while Henry Winkler gives a showstopping performance as Barry’s acting teacher Gene. Hader’s talent behind the camera has also quickly become unparalleled, and this season he shoots everything from an LA motorcycle chase to a surreal near-death experience with impressive precision. Barry may not feel much like a comedy anymore, but it’s still one of the best shows on TV.
11. Our Flag Means Death
A sweet found-family rom-com disguised as a swashbuckling adventure, Our Flag Means Death started its first season run as one of the most unassuming comedies of the year and ended it as one of the most beloved. The HBO Max series stars inimitable comedian Rhys Darby as a fictionalized version of the Gentleman Pirate, Stede Bonnet, a rich guy who left his wife and kids for a life of piracy during the high seas crime’s golden age.
Stede’s bumbling, nice-guy pirate persona would’ve probably been enough to carry a series, especially when supported by a crew full of softies, goofballs, and queer heroes like Vico Ortiz’s non-binary fighter Jim. But the show really kicks into high gear when Taika Waititi shows up in a full beard and leather getup, playing the dread pirate Blackbeard with a surprising amount of emotional nuance. Before we know what’s hit us, the show has transformed into a compelling and delicately told comedic romance – about two middle-aged men finding happiness in one another against the odds.
10. Reservation Dogs
Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s Reservation Dogs is a little more narratively loosey-goosey in its second season than in its goal-driven first, but its characters’ side quests and spiritual detours in search of meaning are as incredible as ever. The Indigenous-made series picks up where it left off, with Elora (Devery Jacobs) and her on-and-off friend Jackie (Elva Guerra) headed to California while friends Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) end up staying on the reservation. The foursome doesn’t reunite right away, instead spending the season enduring often-isolating growing pains while continuing to feel the painful absence of their late friend Daniel.
The second season of Reservation Dogs includes several fantastic one-off episodes, from “Mabel,” in which Elora mourns her grandmother, to “Wide Net,” which sees the aunties take a load off – and eventually unpack their own baggage – during a party-filled weekend away. Guest stars like Amber Midthunder and Lily Gladstone have some of the most memorable turns of the season, and the young core cast continues to give stellar performances that ground every moment of the often-surreal series in genuine emotion.
9. Abbott Elementary
Abbott Elementary may be an effortlessly hilarious comfort watch, but it’s clear that series creator and star Quinta Brunson put her all into the show. The mockumentary about a group of teachers working at an underfunded Philadelphia public school is perfectly designed to bring warm and fuzzy feelings, from its peppy theme song to its perfectly timed punchlines and glances to the camera (Tyler James Williams is John Krasinski’s heir apparent when it comes to comedic side-eyes).
An inherently optimistic series that cleverly couches its social commentary in playful sitcom plotlines, Abbott Elementary is a spiritual successor to Parks and Recreation in a lot of ways. But across its first two seasons, its characters have proven themselves totally unique – and uproariously funny. The latest episodes have seen enthusiastic and naive young teacher Janine grow closer to Williams’ Gregory in a delightful slow-burn romance. Together with Sheryl Lee Ralph’s traditional teacher Barbara, Lisa Ann Walter’s mob-connected Melissa, Chris Perfetti’s performatively progressive Jacob, and Janelle James’ scam-happy principal Ava, they’ve also grown into the most watchable ensemble on prime-time.
8. The Bear
The restaurant industry came screaming onto the small screen this year in The Bear, the tautly constructed FX and Hulu series about losing your mind trying to make a beef sandwich. The Chicago-set series is, of course, also about a lot more than that, including grief, depression, teamwork, discipline, camaraderie, and the many ways we all try to wrest a little bit of control from this big, mean world.
Jeremy Allen White gives a searingly great performance as Carmy, the highly decorated chef who takes himself down a few notches to run the beef joint his brother left him after committing suicide. He has his hothead “cousin” Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and his precocious new sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) by his side, but that doesn’t stop the titular bear of anxiety from coming for him as pressures and debts mount at The Original Beef of Chicagoland. Come for the kinetic, exhilarating portrayal of a high-stress kitchen environment (that oner episode is still a stunner!), and stay for the dysfunctional yet satisfying team bonding as Carmy’s crew starts to become a well-oiled machine – before falling to bits again.
7. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Like the universe itself, Paramount’s Star Trek universe seems to be ever-expanding. Some shows are good, some less so, but none capture the original series’ spirit of discovery and hope quite like Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. The prequel series to The Original Series sounds blasphemous on paper but works remarkably well on screen thanks to a dynamic cast, a playful, episodic structure, and an ethos grounded in curiosity and care.
A few years before Captain Kirk took over the Enterprise, charming Captain Pike (Anson Mount) leads a crew that includes younger, greener versions of Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), Spock (Ethan Peck), and Chapel (Jess Bush), plus newbies and deep cut crew members including Rebecca Romijn’s Number One and Christina Chong’s La’an Noonien-Singh. Together, the team is savvy and electric, brimming with an energy that alternates between flirtatious and familiar.
The crew’s instant likeability makes the series a standout, but its reverence for the original series’ sense of fun – and for its bleeding heart – makes it an all-time-great Trek show in the making. Detractors have asked when Star Trek got so “woke,” and it’s a question that’s always had the same answer: in 1966. The new series takes up the mantle of the original in an admirable and entertaining way, imagining morally complex, real-world-adjacent missions that the crew rises to meet with tremendous empathy and consideration. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is brainy and thoughtful storytelling at its best.
6. The White Lotus
In its second season, The White Lotus trades Hawaii for Sicily and material wealth for something more intangible – desire. Of course, the patrons of the titular resort are still loaded, and the casual ignorance with which they wear their wealth is a driving force in a season whose murders end up having everything to do with money. But for the most part, series creator Mike White now turns his eye to the varied and sometimes transactional nature of sex and love, with tremendously entertaining results.
The White Lotus is a character study disguised as a murder mystery disguised as event television, and it succeeds on all three fronts. There’s something thrilling about trading in the watercooler theorizing that comes with high fantasy shows and superhero movies for a discourse that focuses on things like Portia’s (Haley Lu Richardson) ugly knit sweaters and Daphne’s (Meghann Fahy) cell phone photos. A cast with a half-dozen or more standouts and a series of scripts that treat characters a shade more gently than the previous season make The White Lotus season 2 the kind of trip we wished would never end. When it did, though, it was with an appropriately absurd bang.
5. Search Party
Search Party went through a lot of changes across its five-season run, but nothing in the show’s history could’ve prepared us for its final season. The series that transformed from a satire about a missing person to a courtroom drama to a Misery-esque kidnapping thriller pulled off not just one but two or three more glow-ups in its last batch of episodes. This time around, Dory (Alia Shawkat) is a cult leader who ends up embroiled in Jeff Goldblum’s tech guru character’s attempt to bottle enlightenment.
This ill-fated experiment leads to some of the series’ most comedically bold and wacky territory and results in a season that’s the best the excellent show has ever been. There are color-coded influencers. There’s an apocalypse. There’s John Early, in the funniest performance on TV, going undercover as a scientist and trying to avoid his homicidal adoptive son. The final season of Search Party bears almost no resemblance to its first, and that wild and reckless sort of storytelling progression – the mind-boggling antithesis of the traditional static sitcom – is exactly why it rocks.
4. Interview with The Vampire
Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles series seems nearly impossible to adapt: aside from the novels’ deeply problematic cadre of characters, there’s also the fact that the classics are, in many ways, the blueprint for the modern vamp story. In a meta-heavy, post-True Blood and What We Do in the Shadows world, there’s almost no way to make this material feel anything but outdated. Don’t tell that to the cast and crew of the new AMC series Interview with the Vampire, though, because they’ve been making a sumptuous, sexy, and cleverly complex adaptation of the books look easy.
It’s ironic that Lestat de Lioncourt (Sam Reid) and Louis de Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson) have little use for their hearts because Interview with the Vampire thrums with a strong, bloody heartbeat from the moment it begins. The new take on the gothic classic is heady and gross and vicious and beautiful, in conversation with a small club of baroque-inspired series that also includes Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. It also smartly adjusts the source material for a stronger point-of-view, setting the saga in 1910s New Orleans and initially focusing on Louis’ experiences as a Black businessman.
Louis, Lestat, and their vampire child Claudia (Bailey Bass) are aesthetes through and through, distracted from the depths of their dysfunction by their own beauty and cleverness and the wonders of the world around them. Their drama walks the fine line of campiness but always remains perfectly balanced thanks to star-making performances by all three leads, plus Eric Bogosian’s skeptical human journalist, Daniel. The highwire act of Interview with The Vampire’s first season is no small feat: it’s at once visceral, elegant, and frequently hilarious.
3. The Rehearsal
Five months on from The Rehearsal, it’s hard not to look back at Nathan Fielder’s grand docu-fiction experiment and still think, “What the fuck just happened?!” There has never been anything like Fielder’s trippy, funny, introspective quasi-reality show before, and until the show’s second season, there won’t be again.
The Rehearsal starts with a premise that’s simple but mind-blowing: Fielder, or some fictionalized version of him, will help a stranger “rehearse” for a real-life moment through means as varied and strange as building to-scale sets of public places and sending actors undercover to memorize the mannerisms of the subjects’ friends. It’s a bizarre experiment, but also one that speaks to many neurodivergent peoples’ real experiences, turning the social insecurities or feelings of disconnect in our minds into a full-scale television production.
That’s just the first episode, though. The Rehearsal continues to evolve across its six installments, becoming a nervous exploratory meditation on parenthood and family, an ingenious look at human idiosyncrasy, and a cutting commentary on performance art. Fielder takes the Brechtian idea of the theatre of alienation and cranks it up beyond all recognition, creating a work of art that toys with our understanding of artifice and leans away from catharsis when we need it most. The result is a challenging, funny, deeply weird work that we’ll be parsing for years to come.
2. Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul dabbled in plenty of different genres across its six seasons. Often, it was a cheeky courtroom drama with a dash of dark comedy thrown in for good measure. Sometimes it was a family drama, a noir-tinged romance, or a crime epic like its predecessor. But by the end, the story of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) felt nearly Shakespearean in its scale and vision, leaving viewers to anxiously wonder: are Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould ultimately writing a comedy or a tragedy?
We needn’t have worried. The ending of Better Call Saul turned out to be one of the most subtly optimistic and confidently romantic heel-turns of all time, a sudden yet somehow perfect detour into Dickensian redemption story territory that left us tear-stained and beaming. Along the way, the sixth season delivered many brilliant moments, as when its mid-season finale delivered a potent, world-changing shock by way of a single flickering candle or when a gutting montage showed the long-awaited rise of Saul Goodman.
But as the show veered full-tilt towards what seemed poised to be a devastating ending, it was anchored all along by Seehorn and Odenkirk’s deeply human performances. In the end, we saw Jimmy’s transformation not just into Saul, but beyond the huckster lawyer, into someone entirely new. Better Call Saul will stand the test of time as one of the best prequels ever put to screen because it never once feels limited by the parameters of its flagship series. Instead, it grows beyond them, delivering something original, masterful, and more satisfying than any of us could’ve dared expect.
Shocking, funny, mind-blowing, and stylish, Severance is TV at its sharpest and most distinctive. The Apple TV+ series is about a group of workers at a shady near-future company that “severs” its workers’ consciousness into two parts, turning them into one person in the workplace and another entirely on the other side of the company time clock. Severance is both a devastatingly timely critique of late capitalism and a stunningly timeless philosophical exercise, one that asks big questions about the human condition – and actually offers incisive answers.
The show is also a whole lot of fun. Adam Scott leads the cast as Mark, a Lumon employee whose by-the-book lifestyle quickly gives way to a profound personal awakening. Together with Zach Cherry’s slyly funny Dylan, John Turturro’s soulful worker bee Irving, and Britt Lower’s tenacious new hire Helly, Mark embarks on a journey towards understanding that’s riddled with mysterious and eerie developments both within and without the brutalist halls of Lumon. Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle direct the endeavor with an eye for gorgeous alienation.
It would’ve been enough for a show this good to simply tell a story about what it means to give up your waking hours to work that is divorced from all meaning and ethics, but the show goes so much further than that, building a brilliantly strange and endlessly interesting world. By the time the slow-burn thriller reaches its heart-pounding, all-time-great first season finale, Severance has more than earned the title of the most riveting small-screen story of the year.
Related Topics: 2022 Rewind