It’s early to look at the best of the year, but I always like to take stock of my choices before the deluge of awards-bait. For film awards cycles, most audiences won’t get a chance to see half the nominated movies for 2022 until months into 2023. (I’d argue that makes them 2023 films, but that’s another conversation.) Thankfully, series come out already as accessible as they’ll ever be. That means we’ve already seen (or at least had the opportunity to see) most of what’s come out this year.
When I look at the shows we’ve had in 2022, there are probably more that I like this year than in any other. I’m just not sure there are any I’ve unquestionably fallen for beyond multigenerational drama Pachinko. My top choices for 2021 – Arcane, Made for Love, Sonny Boy, Reservation Dogs, and Evil – would all vie for the top spot had those seasons come out this year. So there’s more that I like, less that I love.
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WHAT HAPPENED TO 2021’S BEST SERIES?
Of course, four of these five were renewed. Anime mind-trip Sonny Boy was designed as only one season, so what happened with the other four? Well, indigenous comedy Reservation Dogs is my #2 show this year behind Pachinko, so it hasn’t fallen off. It continues to take big risks, delivering satire alongside emotionally resonant experiential comedy, and its ensemble has only gelled more.
Evil is still in my top 10, it’s just that its second season last year was the best season of horror I’ve seen since early X-Files. It featured experimental episodes like the nearly dialogue-free “S is for Silence”, jaw-dropping social commentary like “C is for Cop” and scalding parodies like the Amazon metaphor “Z is for Zombie”. Katja Herbers was asked to deliver one of the most emotionally wide-ranging performances I can imagine. This year’s season 3 is even scarier and continues to show off just how much Aasif Mandvi has developed as an actor, but last year’s walked a nearly-impossible balance between the horrific and absurd that elevated both elements into something unnervingly new.
Made for Love is the only one of these five to get canceled after this year’s season, and I can see why. The show is still important to me and its unique blend of the comedic and disturbing is rare, but the second season’s focus shifted to characters and relationships that were not necessarily the first season’s strengths. I’d still strongly recommend it, and there are concepts that draw in beautifully even as they repulse, but the show works best when translating its ideas through the experiences of Cristin Milioti’s Hazel. The more it becomes an omnisciently-presented universe, the more it leaves her ability to emotionally anchor its most disturbing concepts.
That leaves Arcane, which I will continue to argue is one of the best seasons of anything ever made. Its experimental and exacting animation is built on years of development and production work, with exquisite writing that loops its ideas and concepts together to create interweaving metaphors and conceits. It’s an awe-inspiring amount of work conceptually and visually, and it’s been clear since its renewal that the next season may take years to develop.
So was everything better in 2021? Not necessarily. Like I said, there may not be as much that I love this year, but there’s a lot that I like. If 2022 had some rarely matched shows I’d rate as a 9 or 10 out of 10, then 2021 is overflowing with quality 7s and 8s. There’s not as much bowling me over, but I feel like there’s a lot more choice for whatever mood I’m in at a given moment.
2022 IS A BANNER YEAR FOR COMEDY
Comedies in particular have excelled. I covered Reservation Dogs, an indigenous comedy that hops between the stories of a stellar ensemble cast led by Devery Jacobs. As outlandish as it can be, it also feels incredibly real and consequential. I’ve heard it compared to the 90s golden era of indie comedies, but I think this risks diminishing the cultural origins of its comedy.
When Black comedy fought its way into the mainstream in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, there were many comparisons to earlier white comedians. The reality was that it felt fresh because these were voices that many audiences had been discouraged from listening to before. They weren’t successful because they were somehow building on the work of white comedians, though, that was a myth. They were successful because Black comedy had always been successful – white audiences just hadn’t listened to it on a large scale before then.
The same concept applies to Reservation Dogs. It’s not successful because it’s building on earlier eras of comedy that saw white creators get the biggest platforms. It’s successful because indigenous comedy has always been successful – it’s just that now other audiences are bothering to pay attention. Re-writing the root of that success not only ignores an important lesson, it removes agency from the people creating that comedy. Reservation Dogs is funny and touching because it’s built on successful Native American and First Nations comedy before it. It feels fresh not because it reminds us of something familiar (how would that even make sense), but because it platforms something already successful that many audiences just haven’t thought to open ourselves up to before.
I’m also a big fan of small-town, community-building comedy Somebody Somewhere. It deals with concepts of loss, depression, and othering in unique ways that feel particularly timely given where the U.S. is at. It also throws in the occasional hauntingly beautiful musical performance. Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller offer an off-kilter, rocky but loyal friendship.
Knife-sharp gig-satire Killing It features Claudia O’Doherty and Craig Robinson as an odd couple of snake hunters. The series is a biting class comedy that depicts how late-stage capitalism weighs on workers, with characters living out of cars, 24-hour-gyms, and fusing together odd gigs. The most memorable episode becomes a modern cyberpunk take on “Cyrano de Bergerac”, a comedy of manners both uproarious and hideous.
Abbott Elementary has become my favorite of the mockumentary sitcoms, combining the precise banter of a Modern Family with the workplace focus of The Office. It solves what I’ve always viewed as the biggest pitfall of the format: mockumentaries tend to develop comedy by making their characters awful, ignorant, and inhumane. That can work for What We Do in the Shadows, which continues to be a strong show where most of the lead characters are vampires and their inhumanity is the joke, but even there the thing that keeps us returning is the bond of their found family.
When a mockumentary is about people in an office being horribly passive-aggressive to each other, I’ve always wondered why I would spend my free time in that if I’d spent my day in it already. Modern Family might be one of the best written comedies of our time, but even there you’ve got a lot of the situational comedy arising from characters’ toxicity toward each other. Abbott Elementary finds a way to deliver a near-perfect mockumentary while doing it with characters I actually like, admire, and want to spend time with.
Komi Can’t Communicate might get overlooked by audiences who don’t watch anime, and that’s a shame. It started as an emotive slice-of-life anime with streaks of lightning-fast visual humor. Its second season has elevated it into one of the best things on TV, doubling down on its irreverent satire of some of the weirdest parts of slice-of-life anime, while filling the screen with visual gags. Yet through it all, the show also acts as a profoundly peaceful and accepting safe space for neurodivergence.
Our Flag Means Death starts slow and a bit broad in its comedy, but when it gets going it delivers an incredibly touching story without giving up its punchy pirate parody. It has some of the best improvised elements on TV, largely thanks to Taika Waititi’s performance as Blackbeard. The best episodes are directed by Bert and Bertie, and I hope they ask the duo back to helm a greater portion of the second season.
I’d also mention Angelyne, which uses its comedy to describe the appeal of those who are famous simply for being famous, and how this mirrors the rise of the con artist celebrity. Does 80s icon Angelyne fit only into that mold, or does she extend into the territory of feminist icon and pioneer of the camp aesthetic that offers marginalized people acceptance? That’s the central question of a series that offers several answers from several conflicting perspectives – all of them holding degrees of truth and untruth. It’s a complex portrayal within a series of heightened realities, none of which you can be sure are accurate, and Emmy Rossum’s performance as Angelyne is one of the best of the year.
A League of Their Own encapsulates a lot of what I want to see on TV, recounting the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s. You can criticize it for being a remake of the 1992 film starring Geena Davis, Lori Petty, and Madonna, but a film made 30 years ago couldn’t honestly tell the stories of how the league served as a space for LGBTQ+ members to be themselves at a time when they found acceptance nowhere else. It’s one of the best reasons I’ve seen for remaking something, and the remake is both funny and poignant.
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is one of the best things out of the MCU. I’ll confess, like its main character Jennifer I also hoped for more of a legal comedy than a superhero one, but She-Hulk hardly has to answer to me. What it does become is the most successful comedy in the MCU alongside Thor: Ragnarok. It’s also a drastically needed change-up for a cinematic universe that is far too often repeating its ideas and plot structures.
SCI-FI, FANTASY, AND THE MCU
The MCU as a whole has had an extremely good year, regardless of what incel tupperware parties want to whine about. Moon Knight delivered some really different elements into the MCU, crafting a supernatural archaeological adventure around a few brilliant Oscar Isaac performances.
Ms. Marvel returned the MCU to the YA space, which is dearly overdue three years after you have Spider-Man shouting “Activate instant kill” so he can somersault his blade suit to gut dozens of henchfolk. I do feel like Ms. Marvel felt a little condensed and could’ve paced itself better with two additional episodes, but that’s true of most MCU series, and wanting more is pretty favorable as criticisms go. Ms. Marvel also boasted some stellar setpieces – including what might be the single best sequence in the MCU to date: a searing and heartbreaking portrayal of the last train out during the Partition of India.
Outside the MCU, sci-fi and fantasy are also at high points, depending on what you’re looking for from the genres. Andor is the best piece of Star Wars we’ve had in years, rejoining the franchise with a 70s storytelling ethic that asks the audience to be patient with a slowly unfolding, atmospherically dense story about complicated, morally gray characters.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds stands as the best of the new Treks. They’re all pretty high quality, but Strange New Worlds features strong episodic writing and directing that cleverly foreshadows longer arcs without needing you to take notes on them. That shouldn’t seem too difficult, but given that very few other series can balance episodic writing with such a soft touch for arcs, maybe it is. Either way, SNW gets it done and its ability to swap between the storytelling approaches of different eras and styles of Trek is a treat for fans. It shifts smoothly between speculative sci-fi original Trek stories, DS9 cultural critiques, Next Generation diplomacy quandaries, DS9 and Voyager comedy, Voyager and Enterprise action, Discovery emotional connection, some good old submarine episodes, and adds in better horror than we’ve seen in the franchise previously. It manages to do everything that every other Trek was able to do, while reinforcing it all as part of a cohesive whole.
In fantasy, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power might be the single most overwrought series I’ve ever watched, but damn does it earn it. If you don’t like flowery monologues melodramatically captured in front of bazillions of dollars of set design, costuming, and CGI backdrops, you might not like it. If you want fantasy to be grim and gritty betrayal-incestatheater you can’t see half the time because apparently no one invented torches just yet, other options are available. On the other hand, if you want some achingly designed classical fantasy that actually uses its fantastical elements to world-build and argue for notions of hope, perseverance, and equality, The Rings of Power is a beautiful option.
For modern gothic fantasy, let me recommend Polish series Cracow Monsters. It’s informed by the same cultural folklore that shapes the world of The Witcher, but the contemporary series also recalls the intimate aspects of early 90s horror like Flatliners and Jacob’s Ladder. Its sumptuously gothic aesthetic continues a uniquely Eastern European view on horror that reflects and refines the Prague horror boom of the 2000s. Its shadows are deep, pops of color rich, and it’s always either raining or muddy in Cracow.
I’d also mention Turkish series Midnight at the Pera Palace. What starts out as a comedic light mystery builds out an intriguing and consequential time travel lore that intersects with a key moment of Turkish independence and leadership. While there are many Turkish series that serve partly as propaganda for its autocracy, there are several that creatively argue for racial equality, feminist values, and recognition of its full history. Midnight at the Pera Palace fits into this, perhaps not as outspokenly as something like The Club, but in a way that is unmistakable nonetheless. As someone who far prefers outright mysteries to light mysteries, I’m surprised how much I like Midnight at the Pera Palace and its ability to bridge into well-developed time travel sci-fi and some social commentary.
IS THERE STILL ROOM FOR DRAMA?
This doesn’t leave a ton of room for more traditional drama, but I don’t want to overlook that Pachinko is still my series of the year thus far. Its directed about as exactly as something can be, yet without ever feeling like it’s aesthetically suffocated. Often, highly designed and precisely planned images can reroute our emotional connection away from actors and through the director’s vision. It’s an approach that can evoke some unique things, but often introduces a certain distance from the story. We begin to observe rather than feel in the moment. Instead, the emotion of Pachinko feels released by finely honed direction that puts performances first. Its gorgeously realized and acted, and I’m endlessly impressed by how breathtakingly cinematic its direction is without ever taking away from the actors for a visual.
Under the Banner of Heaven is also in my top 10. It’s been compared to True Detective, but its focus on how fanaticism can feed on religious history for its justification – and on how organized religion can in turn aid, abet, and even participate in that fanaticism – goes beyond some of what the HBO show does. There’s a unique sense of escalation and rhythm in Under the Banner of Heaven, a surge that accelerates into pacing crescendos.
The Bear doesn’t approach things in a traditional dramatic sense – it feels very new. The story of a chef trying to save his late brother’s restaurant features one of the best ensembles of the year. I have to admit, I only watch it one episode at a time. While brilliant, it presses on some triggers that make it something I appreciate in measured doses rather than as a binge watch. In a curious way, its focus on the connection and community-building aspects of food remind me of Pig, last year’s Nicolas Cage feature. The two couldn’t be more different in terms of energy or storytelling approach, but they plumb similar territory on a subject that isn’t often portrayed with appropriate depth in drama. They make a very appropriate pairing in my mind, Pig seeing with patience and consideration what The Bear sees through frenzy and chaos.
Bel-Air also stands out as an incredibly smart re-invention of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s another remake with a point, and with a depth that seems to have gotten overlooked. In particular, the retelling of Carlton’s story delves more deeply into the internalized racism and impostor syndrome Carlton puts himself through (never being accepted as white no matter how much he rejects his Blackness). The original is one of the best sitcoms ever made, but in the 90s it could only touch on these themes briefly, and made them an easy joke as much as it ever explored them. Beyond this, Jabari Banks’ Will is as accomplished a portrayal of Will Smith’s Will as we could possibly ask for.
WHAT HAVE I MISSED?
There are a number of other shows I’d recommend this year. The animated Harley Quinn has become more focused and consistent without losing its moments of chaotic absurdity. Alien-out-of-water Resident Alien features some great comedic acting. Shows like Reacher and Heartstopper are good binge-watching choices even if I feel they could have gotten more breathing room by reaching beyond their choice aesthetics.
That’s not everything, and there’s obviously some series I haven’t mentioned. I still need to finish one or two like Severance, and I haven’t found the time to get started on Trinity of Shadows, The Essex Serpent, Irma Vep, Dark Winds, or The Peripheral. I’ve been saving The Sandman for one of the holiday breaks so I can just absorb into it without having to come back out for a time. I haven’t watched the second season of Only Murders in the Building yet.
I’m also woefully behind on this year’s anime. If Sonny Boy director Natsume Shingo’s Tatami Time Machine Blues is anything like his longing and melancholic masterpiece last year, I’ll watch it late at night when everything’s quiet and I have time to reflect and process it. It’s part of a incredibly strong, introspective universe of adapted Morimi Tomihiko novels that also include The Tatami Galaxy and the phenomenally animated The Night is Short, Walk on Girl.
I’ve heard great things about Spy x Family, and need to make time for it. While Akebi’s Sailor Uniform isn’t my kind of show, I think Komi Can’t Communicate made me open up a bit to slice-of-life stories, and its stunning animation of nature does have me wanting to see if it echoes that peacefulness. And of course, I need to finish this year’s continuation of Pacific Rim: The Black, whose first part was one of the most unexpected surprises last year.
I’m also behind on Korean shows, such as the musical The Sound of Magic, and the contemporary crime adaptation of Little Women. I’ve been holding off on All of Us Are Dead because zombie series have felt too…dire and on-the-nose for me to watch in our current political environment. Maybe if the election goes well I’ll watch it, and if it doesn’t I’ll make a Best Show I Didn’t Watch award. I’m also excited mystery Flower of Evil just finally made it stateside. One of the most qualitative television industries in the world, two Korean series made my top 10 last year: Squid Game is obvious, but I felt vengeance actioner My Name was even better.
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