The year’s top TV featured spectacular debuts (The Bear, Severance), fantastic farewell seasons (Better Call Saul, The Good Fight), and more than a few surprises.
The best of TV in 2022 by the numbers: Seven spectacular debuts, four fascinating farewell seasons, one prescient docuseries — and two antiheroes who earned a spot on both of our critics’ lists. Below, EW’s Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich celebrate the series that moved them — and the ones that made them very, very mad.
10. jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy (Netflix)
A million years ago in February, you might’ve thought Kanye West was in a low place. Then came the ongoing storm of unfathomable anti-semitism. This involving three-part documentary by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah ends in 2020, and offers no immediate clarity about the musician’s most recent maelstroms. But Simmons was there at the beginning, and jeen-yuhs lingers in its subject’s salad days, a vintage digital camera casting a memory glow over young Kanye West breaking into the rap game. His golden age is a gaping hole — Simmons barely interacted with West from 2008 until 2016— but that absence gives Part 3 an electric shock. We smash cut from dreamy early highs to the cascading nightmares: mental health breaks, global trolling, so many yes-man platoons nodding along to their boss’ turbulent ranting. Simmons turns his camera off when Ye gets too extreme: Bad documentarian ethics, but I don’t blame him. And I won’t soon forget jeen-yuhs’ evocative portrait of youthful turn-of-the-century optimism shading into our modern moment of assaultive unhinged extremity.
9. The Bear (FX)
An old-fashioned grimy workplace sitcom shot with Safdie-worthy tension and a sumptuous foodie gloss. Jeremy Allen White became a Generation Debt sex symbol as Carmy, a beleaguered chef trying to keep his dead brother’s restaurant alive. Creator Christopher Storer’s decision to film the kitchen like a more stressful D-Day made The Bear an unconventional thriller, and the ensemble’s a stew of contrasting moods: Ayo Edebiri’s wound-up and wounded ingenue, Liza Colón-Zayas’ no-bull line cook, Lionel Boyce’s sweet-in-every-way pastry chef. No picking favorites, but consider me awed by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Girls‘ druggy hubby of yesteryear, who makes screw-up Richie a magnetic swirl of street-dumb futility and repressed grief.
8. Below Deck: Sailing Yacht (Bravo)
This year on the Parsifal III, six crewmates either kissed Gary, kissed someone who later kissed Gary, or were in fact Gary himself. Leave it to Bravo’s hysterical luxury-yacht franchise to create 2022’s funniest love sexagon. Logically, I know the Below Deck phenomenon is oversaturating itself with five ongoing shows. But I can’t deny how much I enjoyed the windiest spinoff’s third season. Chief Stew Daisy, Chief Engineer Colin, and irrepressible First Mate Gary are apex Deck personalities: sharply funny, good at their jobs. Captain Glenn is a calm, even-keeled kind of manager. Chef Marcos cooked great food despite a massive head wound. We all learned a valuable lesson about anchors dragging: They shouldn’t! One deckhand was actually named Barnaby, and one stewardess was actually named Scarlett. The Deckverse’s clockwork charms are obviously welcome: Sea, sun, hot tub, luscious vacation-getaway photography, all of it edited with a real-time tension that makes every meal or beach picnic feel like a bomb Jack Bauer is defusing. Pair it with the latest White Lotus and try to decide which is more tragic. (At least on White Lotus some of the rich people die.)
7. This Fool (Hulu)
My favorite comedic performance this year was Frankie Quiñones as ex-con Luis, the brash heart and baffled soul of this sneaky-smart, laugh-out-loud series. Away for eight years, Luis seems unfrozen from longer ago, with nostalgia for his ’90s gang-banging days and a penchant for quoting Austin Powers at the most problematic times. He’s an ideal odd-couple foil for co-creator Chris Estrada’s Julio, Luis’ cousin and an overt nice-guy progressive. They’re two flavors of fool —both living, rent-free, with Julio’s mom — and This Fool launches them into a South Los Angeles universe full of possibility. It’s a workplace sitcom about a flailing non-profit! No, it’s a multigenerational Mexican American family tale! No, it’s a You’re the Worst-y bleak romcom about the ex-girlfriend (Michelle Ortiz, congenially warped) who won’t leave Julio alone! And while Quiñones has a gift for faded-macho one-liners, he also makes Luis’ sincere attempts at atonement sweetly endearing.
6. Evil (Paramount+)
All hail Aasif Mandvi’s Ben, trusty contractor and rationalist sex machine, who spent season 3 cozying up to a cult leader, going viral as a TikTok debunker, and getting mildly depressed about all the eyeball-in-the-toilet surrealism his job requires. Co-creators Michelle and Robert King are revving every engine in this ungodly procedural, expanding the scope of the larger serialized narrative (Demonic houses! Vatican espionage!) even as they merrily run circles around the case-of-the-week format. Mysteries linger. Kristen (Katja Herbers) loses her egg into fertility bureaucracy — or is it actually some sort of Rosemary’s Baby conspiracy? Newly-minted priest David (Mike Colter) gets tempted by an infernal Kristen doppelganger — or is he just seriously struggling with the whole chastity thing? Evil‘s horror is the opposite of elevated; instead, it’s delightful and deranged in equal measure. (Full review)
5. Players (Paramount+)
Your next great discovery is this funny, moving, unbelievably exciting mockumentary about a jerk millionaire gamer, an obsessive e-sports rookie, and the team they’ll either save or tear apart. The American Vandal creators go deep into League of Legends, a global subculture about which I know zilch. Personalities this vivid require no strategy guide. Misha Brooks plays an infamous League legend facing the twilight of a championship-free career, while Da’Jour Jones is an up-and-coming teen sensation. Their clash shines a light on a couple generations of extremely-online video game celebrities, flashing back and forth from the YouTube-y pranks of the mid-2010s to today’s well-financed influencer brutes. In sports-story terms, it’s like someone made a Major League that was somehow also Bull Durham, The Natural, and Ken Burns’ Baseball, but with more grab-a-kleenex speeches about lonely magic cats. (Full review)
4. Barry (HBO)
In his hitman psycho-comedy’s third season, Bill Hader looks wrecked. Assassin-for-hire Barry is unshaven and unhinged, taking murder jobs while dodging vengeance bullets. His face seems to scream, simultaneously, Hug Me and Kill Me. Ironically, the show around him has never been purer entertainment, embracing ticking-clock tension and was-that-a-panther? violent absurdity. Full-throttle performances by Sarah Goldberg and Henry Winkler turned ego-monster showbiz archetypes (vain acting coach, star-producer narcissist) into figures of soulful corrosion. And who knew the sweetest star-crossed romance of 2022 would be a NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) and Cristobal (Michael Irby), the Chechen gangster and a Bolivian mob boss who just want to settle down in Santa Fe?
3. We Own This City (HBO)
“Impressively hopeless” is a weird way to describe a show I love, but this miniseries demands attention by refusing any easy (or even difficult) answers to the problems of our American age. Jon Bernthal plays Wayne Jenkins, a real-life cop who was the pride of the Baltimore Police Department before his stunning downfall. Wayne’s career of corruption embodies a whole generation of Drug War overreach, which City tracks across a vast ensemble of crooked cops, traumatized victims, and functionaries working for a broken system. Co-creators George Pelecanos and David Simon trod this landscape in The Wire, and City is both more and less conventional than that great (fictional) predecessor. A thread about the Department of Justice almost resembles infotainment, comprising interviews with victims of police brutality and in-depth explanations about failed policies. But City also packs an impressive amount of drama into six episodes, especially in its patient exploration of the career of decent detective Sean Suiter (Jamie Hector) and the complete moral collapse of the Gun Trace Task Force. (Full review)
2. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal (Adult Swim)
The current boom in big-budget fantasy programming is really a bust of IP management. Can we please scorch this multiverse of remade badness — no more cameos, no more spin-off teases, please no more goddamn meta — and let some original thinkers carve their own impossible paths? Helpful example: This feverishly imaginative, heart-explodingly emotional prehistoric survival tale. Legendary animator Genndy Tartakovsky turned the relentless second season into a serialized quest across new realms of high adventure and low pulp. Vikings, flying-bird duels, a city-ship conquering all in its path, some kind of devil: Delirious torment awaited caveman Spear (Aaron LaPlante) and his trusty steed Fang. Primal is more than just a raucous visual feast. Tartakovsky embraces a Darwinian strain of ambiguity, rife with gaudy massacres of hurt people hurting people. But he also finds moments of grace, suggesting even the most monstrous worlds contain redemptive wonder. Hell yes, I’m talking about those cute baby dinosaurs.
1. Better Call Saul (AMC)
Forget the billionaires, the royals, the superheroes, the true-life serial killers. This was the TV drama: Epic in scope, meticulous in its details, funny even in moments of unthinkable tragedy. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) spent half their final season on the con of all cons, life-hacking poor glorious Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) toward a reputation-ruining breakdown. That was a high point for co-creator Peter Gould’s fascination with low-key thrills: a heist on a conference call! Then came the consequences. Saul was exclusively perfect for five straight episodes, pivoting from a final showdown with Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) into gracefully doomed farewells for legacy Breaking Badsters Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). Then this famously leisurely yarn suddenly Losted across timelines, blending Bad old days into the black-and-white Omaha future. The finale put a speechy point on Saul Goodman’s moral deterioration, but I’ll always treasure the stunning central performances. Odenkirk got to play every angle of corruption: Repressed conscience, gleeful high-times vanity, hunted horror. Seehorn was another kind of marvel, delicately tracking the death (and rebirth) of one guilty human soul. (Full review)
10. Reboot (Hulu)
Too many good TV shows about TV shows are short-lived (Grosse Pointe, Sports Night, The Comeback, BH90210). As of this writing, Hulu has yet to renew Reboot, a hilarious show-within-a-show satire, for a second season, so allow me to plead for its survival. Created by Steve Levitan (Modern Family), Reboot follows the cast and creators of the cheesy 2000s comedy Step Right Up — wannabe serious actor Reed (Keegan-Michael Key), insecure Bree (Judy Greer), newly sober Clay (Johnny Knoxville) and sheltered former child star Zack (Callum Worthy) — who reunite to make an updated version for Hulu. Though the pitch came from indie filmmaker Hannah (Rachel Bloom), who wants to give the series a darker spin, the streamer pairs her with a veteran showrunner, Gordon (Paul Reiser), who happens to be her estranged father. Like most shows about the TV biz, Reboot shows no mercy to the industry it’s exploring — “You’re looking at the guy who greenlit the fifth season of The Handmaid’s Tale,” boasts one exec, when Hannah suggests her idea might be too “edgy” for him — but it also wields the tropes it lampoons to produce heartfelt, character-driven comedy. Come on, Hulu, where’s the renewal? Lock Reboot down now, and I’ll forgive you for that regrettable rehash, How I Met Your Father.
9. Severance (Apple TV+)
It began as a moody, atmospheric, borderline draggy sci-fi drama about grief and the religion of capitalism. It ended with the best season finale of the year, a thrilling, suspenseful feat of race-against-the-clock agony. In between, Severance — about a group of Lumon Industries employees who have had their personal memories surgically “severed” from their workplace memories — constructed two distinct worlds filled with characters who just want to put their shattered lives back together. The lightly comic/fully tragic underdog adventures of Mark (Adam Scott), Helly (Britt Lower), Dylan (Zach Cerry), and Irving (John Turturro) blended stylized workplace drudgery with twisty mystery, baroque art with a “waffle party” straight out of American Horror Story, and creeping menace with poignant romance. (Was there a sweeter TV couple this year than Turturro’s Irv and Christopher Walken‘s Burt?) Let us thank Keir for this freaky fable, which reminds us that even the most powerful corporations are no match for the human heart. (Full review)
8. Los Espookys (HBO)
Tati (Ana Fabrega) believes she’s a famous novelist, even though all she’s written are leaflet-length bastardizations of classic works like Don Quixote and 100 Years of Solitude. After a group of female authors explain to her the difference between writing and transcribing, it finally clicks. “I understand,” she says. “Respect is earned, not stolen.” Andrés (Julio Torres) keeps taking advantage of his friend The Moon (Roma‘s Yalitza Aparicio Martinez), asking for favors when he loses something in the dark (“Can you just go full for a second?”) and failing to introduce her to that famous comet like he promised. Seeing the hurt on The Moon’s face, he’s overcome with guilt and offers her his dangly silver earring, which she’s always admired. “I can’t keep being selfish,” he sighs. The world of Los Espookys is bizarre and fantastical, but the heart behind it is 100 percent real. The second (and final, sniff) season of this singular bilingual comedy brought another bounty of multi-layered humor and earnest emotion, plus a priceless Shakira-themed sight gag. Even at its absolute weirdest, Los Espookys was scary good.
7. Better Things (FX)
It is not an exaggeration to say that there will never be another show like Better Things. The unique vision of writer-director-star Pamela Adlon, Better Things was both the extremely specific story of Sam Fox (Adlon), a middle-aged actress/voiceover artist and single mom living in Los Angeles, and an intensely relatable exploration of modern womanhood. The fifth and final season finds Sam thinking a lot about her personal history — creeping on her childhood home, learning about her Jewish ancestors — because she’s afraid of what’s ahead. “The meanest thing that can ever happen to you is your kids grow up,” she laments. But as her children — Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Riley), and Duke (Olivia Fox) — build their own lives, and her maddening mother Phil (Celia Imrie) starts a new chapter overseas, Sam finds her way to an epiphany. Life doesn’t end when the nest is empty. “I like where I am,” she marvels. “I’m just realizing this right now!” Better Things was masterful at finding glints of beauty in the day-to-day mundane and magic in the drudgery of motherhood. We will never have another show like it, but I’m profoundly grateful that we had it at all. (Full review)
6. Hacks (HBO Max)
“Read it to me.” Those four words, delivered with chilling quietude, prefaced the most emotionally devastating scene in Hacks to date. After her impetuous writing partner, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), confesses to sending a drunken, vitriol-fueled email about her to some TV producers, famed comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) demands to hear it in full. The letter is vicious — “Deborah Vance is a bully, and the worst kind: one who thinks she’s a victim” — but the truth hurts for a reason. In its lively and touching second season, Hacks took Deborah’s show on the road while taking its central duo to gratifying new levels of introspection. Meanwhile, we were treated to more time with the magnificent ensemble, including Deborah’s tightly wound manager, Jimmy (co-creator Paul W. Downs), and his hilariously checked-out assistant, Kaila (Meg Stalter), who spin workplace toxicity into comedy gold. Though the season ended on a heartbreaking goodbye between Deborah and Ava, Hacks will be back, and it’s a delight to know these two aren’t done telling each other brutal truths.
5. The Good Fight (Paramount+)
Democracy is beginning to boil like the proverbial frog in the final season of The Good Fight, Robert and Michelle King’s wildly funny and prescient satire about These Uncertain Times. “If we’d all just drop our political buffs and talk to each other about reality shows,” muses Liz Reddick (Audra McDonald), “then maybe we’d…” But this is no time for optimism: Rioters (the Proud Boys? Antifa?) are clashing outside her Chicago law offices, and someone just threw a hand grenade into the firm’s elevator. “I used to believe in progress,” frets Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski). “But here we are. Roe v. Wade. Voting rights. Like the last 50 years never happened.” For Diane, there are only two options: Stay and keep fighting, or walk away—from the law, the country, even her Republican husband, Kurt (Gary Cole). Season 6 expanded the stellar cast (Andre Braugher as Liz’s visionary new partner, Ri’Chard Lane; John Slattery as Diane’s dreamy doctor, Lyle Bettencourt) and delivered the reality-adjacent drama we’ve come to expect. A billionaire (Jon Benjamin Hickey) tries to buy the Democratic party; a well-funded group of Black activists begins shipping white supremacists to Antarctica. In the finale, Liz gives Diane a pep talk for the ages: “Things can always get shittier.” No series has ever understood our country more.
4. Better Call Saul (AMC)
“Go ahead! Spill your guts! Put on your hair shirt. See what it gets you!” Shouting down the line at Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) thinks he can scold his estranged ex-wife into ignoring her conscience. But Kim takes his sarcastic advice, confessing to her role in the death of Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian). And what does it get her? Freedom. Not from her self-made prison of suburban Florida hell, with all its midcentury modern, Miracle Whip misery — but from years of shame and Slippin’ Jimmy-abetted ethical rot. The torment leaves her body like demons at an exorcism as she rides a city bus. Better Call Saul was already the best TV prequel ever made. In its final four episodes the series morphed into an impeccable epilogue, giving its soul-broken central couple the comeuppance and catharsis they so desperately needed.
3. Barry (HBO)
The beauty of Barry is in its contradictions. As Fuches (Stephen Root) sent a “vengeance army” of grieving families after Barry (Bill Hader), the hitman comedy became unfathomably bleak. Julie (Annabeth Gish, in a haunting turn) accidentally shoots her son, Kyle (Alex MacNicholl), as they wait to ambush the man who made her a widow. Sally (Sarah Goldberg, fierce and fantastic) loses her first taste of TV stardom and descends into a morass of resentment and rage, ultimately beating an attacker to death with a bat. An imprisoned NoHo Hank (the inimitable Anthony Carrigan) is forced to listen as his friends are devoured by a wild animal in the next cell. But somehow, season 3 of Barry was also one of the funniest shows of the year. Think of Barry’s call with customer service for a bomb app (“Uh yeah, my app isn’t syncing with the Bluetooth on the device I’m trying to detonate?”); the stoner wisdom of Mitch (Tom Allen) the beignet guy; Sally’s meeting with a TV exec (Vanessa Bayer) that mostly consists of goofy noises (“We’re looking for less ayyyyyy and more uh-ehhh!”). It’s said that comedy equals tragedy plus time, but on Barry, they coexist brilliantly.
2. Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)
The pack is in danger of splitting up in season 2 of this ingenious indigenous comedy. Oklahoma teens Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), Elora (Devery Jacobs), and Cheese (Lane Factor) are growing up, but they’re also starting to drift apart. Maybe it’s because being together without their fifth rez dog, dearly departed shitass Daniel (Dalton Cramer), just hurts too much. Or maybe that curse Willie Jack put on their rival, Jackie (Elva Guerra), boomeranged back on them. The transcendent sophomore outing featured wonderful spotlight episodes for the young leads — Cheese is sent to a dreary group home; Willie Jack communes with her ancestors while visiting Daniel’s mom (Lily Gladstone) in prison — and gave us more of the estimable ensemble. Officer Big (Zahn McClarnon) accidentally gets dosed with psychedelics and trips his way into a white supremacist sex cult. The aunties (Jana Schmieding, Natalie Standingcloud, Sarah Podemski, and Tamara Podemski) spend a bacchanalian weekend at the Indian Health Services conference. And Dallas Goldtooth drops in and out like a comedy tornado as Spirit, Bear’s glib guide from the other realm. “Listen up, little f—er. I’m trying to give you some ancestor teachings here.” Aho! You have our attention.
1. Pachinko (Apple TV+)
Every night, Mozasu (Soji Arai) “adjusts the nails” on the machines at his Pachinko arcade. “Everyone does it,” he says, tapping the pins on the game — a sort of vertical pinball machine — with a hammer, making it harder for players to guide the ball where they want it to go. “Most people think if they can flick the handle just right, they will win. But they have no control over the outcome. Not really.” The game of life is similarly rigged against the sprawling cast of Korean characters in Pachinko, Soo Hugh’s exquisite adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s bestseller, but they never stop playing to win. At the center of it all is Mozasu’s mother, Sunja (Minha Kim, in a breathtaking performance), whose life in a Korean fishing village in 1924 is upended when she becomes pregnant by the wealthy Koh Hansu (Lee Minho, almost unbearably dashing). Forced to emigrate to Osaka, where Koreans are viewed as less-than-human, Sunja (played in later years by Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung) faces poverty, racism, and oppression with steely reserve. Over eight time-hopping episodes, Pachinko follows several generations of Sunja’s family — including her grandson Solomon (Jin Ha), an ambitious banker whose Japanese colleagues still treat him as an outsider — as they build lives in countries that are not their own. Shamefully snubbed by the Emmys (psst, voters—there’s no rule against nominating two Korean dramas!) but blessedly renewed for a second season, Pachinko is the year’s biggest TV triumph, odds be damned. (Full review)
And the worst…
The First Lady (and all prestige-reenactment TV)
Look, we get it, everybody wants to win an Emmy. But this year, the industry cranked out an embarrassing number of series that existed solely as awards bait. Showtime’s tiresome anthology The First Lady had celebrated stars, meticulously crafted costumes and wigs, and precisely nothing insightful to say about its subjects — Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) — beyond “Recorded history is more interesting when an Oscar winner acts it out.” But First was not the last offender: Inventing Anna, The Dropout, WeCrashed, Joe vs. Carole, George & Tammy, and so many more — all expensive, well-made shows that had everything but a point of view. There were a few exceptions, like Angelyne, a cheeky deconstruction of celebrity myth-making, and The Thing About Pam, a campy spoof of true crime TV. But most of these true-life tales took the Madame Tussaud’s approach to storytelling — look, isn’t the resemblance uncanny? — or worse, re-traumatized their subjects without their consent (Pam & Tommy, Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story). Please let 2023 be the year that the limited series genre finds its way back to fiction. I can’t handle any more truth. —K.B.
Big dumb stupid prequels
Did you know Sauron was a babe? And did you know that young Princess Leia hung out with Obi-Wan Kenobi? And did you know that before the Halo people went to Halo, they talked about going to Halo while doing other stupid things? Absurd money flowed into pointlessly backwards franchise extensions this year. The worst results were nigh unwatchable: See Obi-Wan Kenobi‘s deplorable CGI and The Rings of Power embarrassingly transforming Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) into an immortal sap. All the dreck made dutiful mediocrity look more appealing, which I think explains the vast over-praise for Andor (he is so boring) and House of the Dragon (when did everyone in Westeros lose their sense of humor?). It’s a problem when the standout prequel of the year was Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a perfectly reasonable adventure that explicitly ignores every narrative innovation of its franchise’s past few decades. —D.F.
The Time Traveler’s Wife (HBO)
A blessing, really, to find a show where nothing works. Miscast actors say “funny” banter that is only creepy. The time travel mechanics are over-explained yet incoherent. Everything cute is disturbing, while everything disturbing is hilarious. You’ll laugh at mom’s decapitation; you’ll laugh at the amputated feet. —D.F.
Wrong to beat a dead horse, I know. But what if that dead horse spoiled all its wonderful early promise, successfully wasted Tessa Thompson and Ariana Debose, kept trying to make digital heaven happen, refused to stop the ridiculous resurrection twists, and featured multiple scenes about scaaaaaary flies? Shoot it again, pa. —D.F.
The Terminal List (Amazon Prime Video)
Okay, okay, this SEALcore revenge fantasy isn’t worse than any of the other dadly action extravaganzas certain streaming services keep producing. But I can’t think of a more complete waste of star power than Chris Pratt‘s lead role as a Navy badass carving a bloody swath across foes corporate and political. The actor himself was an executive producer, which means even he doesn’t realize how much himself he’s missing here. The old throwaway charm is completely gone, replaced by sub-Eastwood squints and unconvincing flexes of beefy sorrow. —D.F.