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In August, FX chief John Landgraf told reporters that Peak TV — a handy piece of vernacular that he’s been credited with creating — would finally actually peak this year, a threshold that seems plausible given the condensing and consolidating in the media landscape.
The sense of contraction, rather than endless expansion, is reflected in my annual Top 10 list, which includes a trio of my best-of regulars that reached satisfying endings in 2022 (and I still couldn’t find space for concluding favorites like Paramount+’s The Good Fight and Netflix’s Derry Girls).
Many of the series on my list capture TV’s evolving anything-can-happen ethos, according to which even ongoing shows can take a nearly anthological approach to episodic storytelling. And while I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) include all the big IP-driven shows that dominated the discourse of the early fall, I’ve got one show plucked from a franchise vine, plus two dramas from high-profile literary sources.
It was a fun and eclectic year; my list of favorites could go 40 or 50 deep. But here are 10, plus another 10 honorable mentions.
1. Reservation Dogs (Hulu)
Sterlin Harjo’s FX-produced Hulu comedy had a perfect second season — 10 episodes, every one a contained but expansive gem that could only have come out of this corner of Oklahoma, from this team of Indigenous writers and directors, built around this impeccable ensemble.
Like several of the FX shows on my list, Reservation Dogs thrives on being unpredictable, on never telling the same story twice, on shifting focal characters with such ease that you could have a different favorite every episode. The show’s boundless empathy allowed episodes to swing from a study of grief driven by Devery Jacobs’ Elora to a rollicking half-hour built around the show’s “Aunties” at an Indian Health Services convention; from a winking look at Native social media influencers and “decolonativization” (with the great Amber Midthunder guesting on the show cast by her mother Angelique) to an affecting visit to prison for Paulina Alexis’ Willie Jack or to a foster home for Lane Factor’s Cheese.
The finale, bringing the show’s main quartet together after a season of estrangement for a road trip to Los Angeles, could have functioned as a sublime series closer. Thankfully, a third season is on its way, so there’s still time for viewers to discover this critical darling.
2. Better Call Saul (AMC)
Creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan have faced challenges before — namely, following up one of the most acclaimed shows of the Peak TV era with a seemingly funnier, quirkier series based around a seemingly third-tier character. This year presented a bigger challenge, since Breaking Bad had what is considered one of the best conclusions for a show of its generation. Once again, the lesson is: Do not doubt Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan.
Maybe the two-part, 13-episode final season of Better Call Saul didn’t quite reach an “Ozymandias”-level apex, but it achieved a richness, melancholy and an ironic romanticism all its own. This run of episodes included shocking deaths — most in an ultra-condensed midseason rush — but it was smart enough to recognize that what viewers wanted and needed above all was more of a sentimental roller-coaster tied to the relationship between Saul/Jimmy/Gene (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn).
The climax, boosted by redoubtable guest star Carol Burnett, was sorrowful and striking and wholly organic to the 60+ episodes that came before. Was Better Call Saul ultimately superior to Breaking Bad? Maybe, maybe not, but the fact that it’s even a conversation is special enough.
3. My Brilliant Friend (HBO)
Saverio Costanzo’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is perhaps TV’s most consequential show, in the most literal sense. It’s heavy with the weight of choices, the decisions and mistakes that fork and reunite the lives of Lenu and Lila (the remarkable and remarkably underrated Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace). Every incident, every word, every glimpse, every touch in My Brilliant Friend is potent and character-defining and, as a result, our investment makes even the minutiae of their lives into the stuff of almost breathless suspense.
The third season of this Italian-language drama, infused with period authenticity and homages to the country’s cinematic heritage, moves our characters into the tumultuous late 1960s, with Marxist protests, stirrings of global feminism and an organized-crime turf war amping up the stakes beyond the infidelities, family upheavals and evolutions of identity that already made the series such a literate treasure.
4. The U.S. and the Holocaust (PBS)
Arriving at a moment when public platforming of antisemitism has been reaching a distressing nadir and certain political advocates are fighting to restrict teaching any historical deviations from a narrative of American exceptionalism, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein’s three-part documentary feels dishearteningly immediate. A cautionary tale about the gap between American aspirations and American actions, the doc tears into inaction and active negligence on both sides of the aisle in the lead-up to World War II. With cogent analysis and gripping personal stories, it argues that scapegoating and racial other-ing are baked into our collective DNA, as are bursts of heroism and selflessness, even if those are sometimes harder to spot. This is perhaps the angriest and saddest PBS production to bear Burns’ name, and surely the most righteous.
5. Better Things (FX)
Damn you, Pamela Adlon, for guaranteeing that I will henceforth get misty every time I hear Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” the writer-director-star’s canny selection for a series-closing singalong. The song, sung by most of the show’s core cast, plus countless guests from earlier seasons, captures the bittersweet, but thoroughly optimistic theme of Better Things: family, friends and a cosmic hodgepodge of ephemera — cooking, art, baseball cards, Yiddish — helping us push through life’s chaos and misery.
The Fox family — Adlon, TV daughters Mikey Madison, Hannah Riley and Olivia Edward and TV mum Celia Imrie — became our family over the show’s five years and, with a grasp of delicate tone that became the show’s hallmark, Adlon knew just where to steer the story in these last 10 episodes. I’m here for a family reunion any time Adlon has more stories to tell, or I can just continue to champ at the bit for the next TV world she wants to create.
6. Barry (HBO)
Is Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s HBO half-hour a side-splitting parody of Hollywood superficiality or a painfully bleak exploration of abuse and mental instability? Yes! Is it broad comedy directed with a sense of zany physicality that would do Looney Tunes proud or is it deeply felt drama carried by intense and heartbreaking performances from Hader, Sarah Goldberg and Henry Winkler? Yes, again!
With the Hader-directed “710N” as possibly a series peak — Vanessa Bayer’s BanShe executive was a hilarious high point, setting up the goofy adrenaline rush of a freeway dirt-bike chase — the third season of Barry continued to bravely prove that whatever you expect this hitman saga to be, it’ll probably be something else by the next week. Better to enjoy the audacious ride than get hung up on definitions.
7. Atlanta (FX)
After going nearly four years without a new episode, Donald Glover’s comedy rewarded and perhaps overwhelmed audiences with two full new seasons, a 20-episode conclusion to one of the most daring and unpredictable shows in television history.
The episodes — first revolving around Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) European tour and then returning to Georgia — often didn’t fit together in a conventional narrative, and the moments featuring the entire core cast together were confoundingly rare. But episode-for-episode, no show this year came close to delivering as many highlights. From week to week, you never knew whether Atlanta would be a perfectly composed short story meditating on recent headlines; an evisceration of the Tyler Perry media empire; an incredulous glimpse into European racial dynamics; a scholarly deconstruction of A Goofy Movie; a magical realist journey into Atlanta’s hidden passageways and underground parking garages; or a poignant mini-indie-film about a precariously strained family unit on a camping trip.
It wasn’t always cumulative in the way you sometimes want an ending series to be, but Atlanta finished on its own provocative, silly and sincere terms.
8. Pachinko (Apple TV+)
Soo Hugh’s adaptation takes structural liberties aplenty with Min Jin Lee’s epic novel, but the story of multi-generational trauma and triumph set against decades-spanning tensions between Korea and Japan is, on its own terms, fantastic television for grown-ups.
Weaving narrative pieces together in a variety of languages and dialects — the show’s use of subtitles is dazzling — and supported by an international cast led by Minha Kim and Yuh-Jung Youn as the story’s protagonist at different ages, Pachinko is a risk-taking drama that pulls viewers into a likely-unfamiliar world, combining cultural specificity and big swings of universal emotion. It’s lustrously shot, exquisitely costumed and directed with incredible confidence by Kogonada and Justin Chon.
Plus, Pachinko features the best title sequence in a year — Severance, Peacemaker, etc. — of great title sequences: a joyful full-cast dance number set to “Let’s Live For Today,” underlining many of the show’s themes at the top of every episode.
9. We Need To Talk About Cosby (Showtime)
One of our stickiest contemporary discourses involves the need or desire to separate art we want to validate from flawed artists we don’t want to condone. W. Kamau Bell’s four-part Showtime docuseries eschews that call for separation by examining Bill Cosby’s career and the harrowing accusations of sexual misconduct leveled by more than 50 women in intentionally uncomfortable tandem.
We Need To Talk About Cosby is fiercely pragmatic without ever feeling ambivalent or apologetic, assembling academics, critics, co-stars, acolytes and accusers for what is a defining text on both Cosby’s destroyed legacy and the ongoing need to have these conversations and confrontations. It’s unflinching and, at times, messily raw, and all you have to do is watch any of the countless documentaries that fail in similar tasks to marvel at the urgency and clarity of Bell’s approach.
10. Andor (Disney+)
Previous Disney+ shows in the Star Wars universe were fueled primarily by nostalgia — pandering and otherwise — and spectacle-filled escapism, so it has been shocking to tune into Tony Gilroy’s Andor for a weekly critique of creeping authoritarianism, the economic desperation that fuels rebellion and the consequences of a privatized prison industrial complex. Sure, Andor is a prequel to a prequel within a familiar world. But instead of leaning into eye-popping effects or adorably merchandisable creatures, Gilroy leans into big ideas and intriguing, very human characterizations — whether it’s Diego Luna’s reluctant eponymous revolutionary, Kyle Soller’s obsequiously menacing interstellar Javert or Andy Serkis, guesting magnificently as a prisoner recovering a long lost sense of decency.
Not every Star Wars show going forward needs to be Andor. But it was entertaining and enriching to see a franchise that has largely cultivated slack-jawed responses of “I can’t believe they did that!” force us to temporarily shift gears to “I can’t believe they were able to get away with doing that within a Star Wars show!”
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Evil (Paramount+), For All Mankind (Apple TV+), High School (Freevee), Mo (Netflix), The Rehearsal (HBO), Severance (Apple TV+), Sherwood (BritBox), Somebody Feed Phil (Netflix), This Is Going to Hurt (AMC+), The White Lotus (HBO)
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