Narrowing down a list of the best TV shows of 2022 is a task that’s at once easy and impossible.
I could probably name 50 series that I loved this year, 30 that I adored and 15 that knocked me out. “Severance,” “Derry Girls,” “Barry,” “Our Flag Means Death,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” “This Is Going to Hurt”: these are all exquisite, but didn’t quite make my top 10 lists.
Yes, writing, acting, pacing and editing are key. But what makes TV great is more than adding all the little bits together to make something entertaining. I look for something a bit more emotional, visceral. So when I sit down as a TV critic, what shows did I do want to watch in 2022?
It’s this list of the 10 best TV shows of the year, for their form and function, their aesthetics and themes and everything in between. They are the kind of TV shows that just feel right when you click play.
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I’ll admit I came to “Bluey,” an Australian animated preschool show about a family of anthropomorphic dogs, because I’m a new parent. But when I click over to Disney+ to watch it, it’s not really for my 1-year-old. “Bluey” is the remarkable preschool show that is watchable for those over 5, but it’s actually more than that: It captures the spirit of play, the reality of parenting and the beauty of childhood all in crisp, seven-minute episodes that experiment with form as much as a complex series like “Atlanta.” The themes are easy enough for kids to understand and deep enough to move parents to tears. No small feat for a little blue heeler dog.
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This delightful romantic comedy from New Zealand comedian Rose Matafeo follows 29-year-old Jessie (Matafeo), who’s working dead-end jobs and flitting through life when she starts dating a movie star (Nikesh Patel). Season 1 featured a strong story of meeting and finding love, but Season 2 is an even better chapter about trying to keep love when you come from different worlds and carry baggage from failed relationships. Matafeo is a comedic delight, a master of both physical high jinks and witty repartee.
8. ‘The Bear’
The show of last summer wasn’t a sparkly sci-fi epic or an A-list period piece, but a tiny half-hour drama about a struggling Chicago sandwich shop and the gourmet chef who’s trying to fix it. Starring Jeremy Allen White (Shameless”) as that chef and Ayo Edebiri as his talented yet underappreciated mentee, “Bear” stormed onto Hulu this summer with knives flying and F-bombs dropping. In a brilliant use of form-follows-function, the frenetic, chaotic atmosphere of the series mimics the intensity of a restaurant kitchen, making it among the most transportive series of the year. It takes you to a tiny, dirty, stressful kitchen, but you’re swept away nonetheless.
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Perhaps the most ambitious new series this year, “Pachinko” is Apple’s first trilingual TV show, with dialogue in English, Japanese and Korean. It tells a time-jumping and continent-spanning story about members of one Korean family. Set in 1920s Japanese-occupied Korea and 1980s America and Japan, the series examines generational trauma and ambition. “Pachinko” never keeps its audience at arm’s length; the intimacy of the story is deeply felt. Stunning and impeccably acted, “Pachinko” speaks three languages but never falters in telling an affecting, achingly beautiful story.
Elation is the best way to describe how you’ll feel after watching Netflix’s young-adult romance about two teen British boys who fall head over heels for each other. Based on the graphic novels by Alice Oseman (and adapted by the author), “Heartstopper” brilliantly portrays the struggles of being a queer teenager, opting not for a theme of despair but one of jubilant hope. It uses animated imagery from the comics that adds to the feeling that “Heartstopper” is part reality, part fantasy; so deeply are these teens in love that their emotions are literally animated. Its positive take on the story of coming out and falling in love feels essential during a year when violence against LGBTQ people made for dark headlines.
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5. ‘Abbott Elementary’
Emmy-winning creator and star Quinta Brunson did more than just make a successful network sitcom in the age of streaming. She crafted beloved characters, specific settings and hilarious jokes with “Abbott” (Wednesdays, 9 EST/PST). Brunson plays Janine Teagues, an idealistic and energetic second grade teacher at a Philadelphia elementary school, who is often hilariously and harshly confronted by the realities of low budgets and terrible bureaucrats. There are more TV shows than ever, but there aren’t a lot of genuinely funny sitcoms with perfect casts and instantly classic bits. “Abbott” has it all, even a cameo from Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty in Season 2. What else could we ask for from Brunson?
4. ‘For All Mankind’
Apple’s alternate history of the space race, which posits what might have happened had the Soviet Union beaten the US to the moon and the competition for the final frontier never ended, has rocketed to a spot on a list of TV’s all-time great dramas. Season 3, set in a version of the 1990s where NASA, the USSR and a private company are in a three-way race to set foot on Mars, is just as smartly written, with riveting action set pieces. No show but “Mankind” has quite the same talent for setup and payoff, wringing tension and drama out of every moment.
3. ‘The White Lotus’
Few TV shows are both a fountain of internet memes and packed with references to classical cinema, literature and history. But contradiction works for “Lotus,” which traveled to Sicily for its second wealth-skewering season set at a resort. This year was all about gender, sex, lies and murder, the stuff of soap operas, but not for one moment did “Lotus” venture into melodrama. Creator Mike White crafted scripts that asked big questions and purposefully gave no answers. That may sound like the series is too withholding, but instead it was tantalizing, seductive and addictive. “Lotus,” recently renewed for a third season, is the kind of series you can’t stop watching. And you don’t want to, not even for a second.
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2. ‘Reservation Dogs’
The comedy about teens living on a Native American reservation is so singular in its perspective and tone, and its writers and actors are so skilled at crafting near-flawless television, that it deserves a category all its own. In Season 2 our friends Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) are confronted head-on with the uncertainty of adolescence, capturing a universal experience with the specificity of our Rez Dogs’ lives. Each episode can be wildly different from the next, but an immensely satisfying step in the overall journey. Making it to California after two seasons of scrimping, scraping and hoping sets up “Dogs” for a fantastic Season 3.
“Andor” shouldn’t have been as good as it was. The Disney+ “Star Wars” series that came before it have ranged from fine to bad, each a somewhat soulless extension of Disney’s franchise from a galaxy far, far away. So why should “Andor,” a prequel series to a prequel movie (2016’s “Rogue One”) be any different? But it was. The series was adult, complicated and so very unconcerned about all the silly bits of “Star Wars” that generate toy sales and angry internet debates. “Andor” just told a good story, more rousing, better written and more visually stunning than any other “Star Wars” series or film since “The Empire Strikes Back.” Without lightsabers or Jedis, “Andor” made the Empire terrifying again, brought emotional stakes to the rebellion, made galactic politics interesting and managed to comment on the real world: the encroachment of authoritarianism, the prison-industrial complex and the wealth gap. Too many TV shows try to do too much and fail, so it was genuinely uplifting to see something big and bombastic knock it out of the park.
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