In 2022 we pulled deeper into the (dark?) heart of peak TV, making these lists harder and harder to create. However, there will always be cream, usually at the top. And like an expert barista of the small screen, we’ve skimmed ten off the top to recommend.
10. The White Lotus [HBO]
For a few weeks in the fall, the far superior second series of Mike White’s hotel-chain mystery was the talk of social media. White has subverted the idea of a whodunnit by adding the dimension of hiding the body until the last episode. The reveal caught everyone off guard, managing to both anger and astound viewers—often the same ones. Jennifer Coolidge may not diverge far from her basic character, but she’s always, well, a delight. And count me among the minority who loved Portia in all her basic glory.
9. Inside Man [BBC/Netflix]
This BBC mini-series (or first season, maybe?) with a stellar UK/US cast features one of the most impressive cold opens in recent history. Dolly Wells gives you an instant reveal of the complicated character of Janice Fife as she plays a math tutor and reluctant social media vigilante facing down a subway sex pest. The plucky introvert’s day goes dreadfully south when a mixup involving her student’s priest dad—David Tenant at his jittery-est—and a parishioner’s hard drive containing materials you can probably guess leads to an irreversible crime and Fife fighting for her survival. Her only hope is a sleuth on death row for brutally murdering his wife. That’s Stanley Tucci—the Tucc—and the other reason this makes the cut.
8. Ghosts [CBS]
On its surface, this did not seem that hopeful. The British original of this show about a woman capable of seeing the wandering dead after a bonk on the head was an immediate critical success, but that was a troupe that already worked together and we all know the track record of Americanized British shows. However, this version works due to sharp, often charming, writing, and a cast led by iZombie’s excellent Rose McIver as Samantha and Utkarsh Ambudkar as her abiding husband Jay (whose t-shirt game is unparalleled). It doesn’t hurt that the supporting cast, especially Brandon Scott James as a Revolutionary War figure whose emergence from the closet this second season was handled brilliantly awkwardly. As we learn more about the apparitions, the more we realize the American version is more than just a gimmick, but a sweet, smart comedy.
7. Our Flag Means Death [HBO]
Rhys Darby has always had a knack for making clueless buffoons oddly affable, from Flight of the Conchords’ manager Murray to Wrecked’s misbegotten sociopath Steve. However, there is no precedent to Stede Bonnet, a wealthy 18th century landowner who leaves his comfy life to become a pirate, to the consternation of everyone who knows him. This includes his motley crew, who he pays handsomely to find him amusing, if tiresome, but ultimately doomed. When inevitably real villains board his ship, he finds unlikely ways to survive. Taika Waititi can do little wrong and that includes his latest unlikely role as a Blackbeard who, behind all the ruthless piracy, becomes friends with Stede, and maybe more? We’re not telling, but if you’ve heard the four word phrase some have used to humorously describe it, you have your answer.
6. Abbott Elementary [ABC]
Quinta Brunson is a force to be reckoned with. After stints making sketches at Buzzfeed and as an original Black Ladies Sketch Show cast member, she stunned the world with one of the most original sitcoms. What’s most remarkable is how readily she is able to elevate the mix of mockumentary and standard sitcom; it should be a tired format, but when a show is so well-written, it just works . Her first two seasons, produced at a breakneck pace by modern TV standards, have built a sturdy af universe within the confines of her plucky, but constantly collapsing, Philadelphia grade school. Brunson herself shines as an always sunny neophyte teacher trying to keep her enthusiasm to help children against weathered, if well-meaning, veteran teachers, and a narcissistic principal without principles played to perfection by Philly stand-up Janelle James. Tyler James Williams (the Chris in Everybody Hates Chris) is also low-key great as a slumming substitute and obvious will they or won’t they for Brunson’s Janine.
5. Only Murders in the Building [Hulu]
While some didn’t dig the second season of the Steve Martin/Martin Short/Selena Gomez dry comic mystery, I thought the more we got to know about our beleaguered Anconia amateur podcasters and murder suspects and the more layers added to the various enigmas, the better it got. And this season had Shirley Maclaine in a role as a party interested in a certain erotic painting involving Steve Martin’s Charles Haden-Savage’s dad. It also featured a Central Park glitter bomb. And a secret passageway within the building. And one of the most demented party games. And a reboot of Haden-Savage’s 1990s detective series (a show-within-a-show), Brazzos. And a surprise cameo to set up a third season’s whodunnit. This is to say it has a lot and is a whole lot of fun.
4. Rutherford Falls [Peacock]
Ed Helms has found his niche as an awkward, ultracringe-y white dude. His role as oblivious historian Nathan Rutherford might be his most cringeworthy (even worse than Andy Bernard) but also his most compelling. In the second season he picks up the pieces from being disgraced by a podcast and finding out his ancestors were not just horrible, but likely not his ancestors. RF is not about his growth, but more about Jana Schmeling’s Reagan, his best friend who tries to stand by him and support her casino boss, while holding onto her pride in her Minishonka heritage. The sweet, good-natured, but often shrinking and wishy-washy Reagan’s hero turn in this second act is beautiful and how she finally stands up to her army of haters is an exhilarating thing to behold. However, this is not to say the show does not embrace an often dark place, and like many of today’s best programs, it is a dissertation on what it means to be depressed in this world.
3. The Afterparty [AppleTV+]
Between The White Lotus, The Glass Onion, and this Rashomon-style series set at a high school reunion, 2022 has been a huge year for subverting the standard mystery form. Dave Franco plays Xavier, a nerd-turned-pop-superstar who meets his end on jagged rocks on the bottom of a cliff at a party he throws after his 10-year high school reunion. Sam Richardson gives his best performance as a fellow nerd whose life was ruined by Xavier a decade earlier as he tries to prove he’s not the killer–and he might just be. At the same time, he hopes to woo his best friend and crush Zoe, the school’s current principal, played by Zoe Chao. Each episode tells the events of the same fateful day from a different viewpoint, and, the kicker, in a different genre, from rom-com to musical to fast-paced action to goofy animation. Tiffany Haddish also shines with her own take on Columbo as she uses unlikely methods to solve the case. What’s best about this is the mystery truly works as every hint, even the red herrings, pay off in one way or another.
2. Reservation Dogs [FX/Hulu]
Taika Waititi is everywhere these days… especially my heart. In addition to Our Flag Means Death, his vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows just missed this list with an exceptional season, especially for Harvey Guillen. This atmospheric drama/comedy (dramedy? Is that still a term?) hits its stride in its second season as we are treated to thrilling episodes through the eyes of all four of our titular Dogs. Of special value is Cheese’s episodes, as his uncle gets arrested and Cheese is shuttled to a halfway house run by Marc Maron at his smarmiest. And it all builds up to an ending nobody could predict, as the quartet try to finally realize one of their fallen friend Daniel’s biggest dreams and, as they have throughout the season, try to bring some sort of reason to his young death.
1. Severance [AppleTV+]
In a year of unusual and innovative concepts, perhaps the biggest swing was this thriller starring Adam Scott produced by Ben Stiller. In this gripping drama, work/life balance is achieved by neurologically severing one’s work self from their daily self, creating an alternate human called an “innie” who is all you but with none of your memories. And it’s a home run, even if that begs questions, like, do the innies know what a home run is, and if so, how do they know that but not know if they have a partner, if they have kids, where they are from, and who raised them? The worldbuilding is as complex as the intricate system of the underground corridors our four innies in the mysterious Macrodata Refinement Department traverse. What is the secretive company/cult they work for called Lumon Industries doing? Who is Lumon’s founder Kier Eagan, and does he live on virtually (or in real life)? Is the data they are “refining” something nefarious or benevolent? What does it mean to be a human with memories? Is Miss Casey a robot or… well, I’ve probably said too much already! The best aspect of this show is that the writing has already given the viewer faith that all the little mysteries and easter eggs will pay off… after things get much merrily murkier over the course of the next few seasons.