What a strange, transitional year for television! So far, we’ve seen Netflix stumble and CNN+ fail. Many fantastic old shows have recently returned from long pandemic hiatuses—but for me, the pleasures of reacquainting myself with Atlanta, Better Call Saul, and others have been tempered by an awareness of how lacking we are in fantastic new shows.
Especially ones that originated on television, such as Barry and Better Things. If this spring’s slew of mostly mediocre docudramas is any indication of what’s to come, we could be months, rather than years, away from seeing the creative limits of intellectual property-based storytelling on television. If this is the case, the great streaming reckoning can’t come soon enough.
Abbott Elementary School (ABC)
Just when you thought the network sitcom was dead, ABC’s Tuesday-night lineup gets the best new example of the format since A Good Place. Abbott Elementary is a show created and starred by Quinta Brunson, an alum of A Black Lady Sketch Show who got her to start making funny Instagram videos.
It follows the eccentric but sincerely committed faculty of an under-resourced primary school in Philadelphia. The show uses the mockumentary format to strike a deft balance between warmhearted classroom scenes and gallows humor that satirizes the injustices of public education in the United States, frequently pitting the teachers against a scammer principal (Janelle James) determined to skim off any funds Abbott does manage to secure.
Best of all, it does it in the kind of breezy, economical 21-minute broadcast prime-time episodes that have become increasingly scarce since the advent of streaming.
Quinta Brunson on Using Comedy to Address America’s Education Issues in Abbott Elementary School
Some have complained that Donald Glover’s rule-breaking experimental comedy, which returned in March after a four-year hiatus, is no longer funny. I understand; if you tuned in to any season 3 episode hoping for another invisible car gag or Florida Man riff, you were likely disappointed.
Official episode descriptions written in the voice of a frustrated fan (“I think everybody knows blackface ain’t cool anymore, we get it.”) indicate that its creator anticipated a backlash as well. If the headlines (“They’re trying too hard to go viral”) are any indication, they’re succeeding.
The best part of Atlanta, however, has always been the way it surprises and challenges its audience. As a result, it was unavoidable that Glover would respond to its success by frustrating viewers’ desire for simple entertainment. (See also his “This Is America” video by Childish Gambino.)
Season 3 finds a show grounded in the Black experience interrogating whiteness, which is ambitious, uneven, and sometimes downright unrecognizable.
It offers an outsider’s closeup view of an in-group whose relationships, consciences, and worldviews have been shaped by privilege, set amid newly ascended headliner Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) European tour, but also incorporating whole episodes that sideline the regular characters in favor of parable-like vignettes populated by unfamiliar faces.
Even if the results are messy, Glover is still bringing new perspectives on race, identity, and white supremacy to a medium that all too often recycles old ones.
A show about a hitman who develops an interest in acting could have been the broadest of fish-out-of-water comedies. Instead, three seasons in, Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s fantastic premise has transformed Gene Cousineau’s (Henry Winkler, still fantastic) acting class into a lens through which to view various life trajectories.
Which role best represents you as a preternaturally talented assassin who aspires to be a nice, normal guy?
We see how everyone strikes some kind of compromise between their interests, instincts, abilities, and circumstances as the story expands to dissect more of the characters that surround Hader’s Barry, from thoughtful, mild-mannered Chechen gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) to Barry’s girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), a domestic violence survivor who has unwittingly chosen another partner with a dark side.
Meanwhile, Season 3 has the added bonus of an absolutely savage storyline about the streaming economy for TV fans.
Call Saul instead (AMC)
Less than halfway through the final season of what has long been TV’s best crime drama—but also so much more—the links between Breaking Bad and its somehow superior prequel are gradually becoming clear.
Meanwhile, Better Call Saul has provided us with more beautifully shot action scenes, noble deaths, wild schemes, and even the backstory of Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) strip-mall headquarters.
On a more impressive thematic level, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have used five seasons’ (or, in the case of characters like Saul and Jonathan Banks’ Mike, two separate series’) worth of patient, subtle character development to craft some of the most compelling moral quandaries ever seen on television.
There will undoubtedly be more to say as the two-part season comes to a close this summer. But, regardless of how it ends, Saul has already established itself as one of the greatest shows of all time.
Things That Are Better (FX)
When the credits rolled on Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical quasi-comedy about an actor who also happens to be a single mom this spring, all I could feel was gratitude. Thank you for the meditative tone.
Gratitude for its acceptance of chaos, flux, and uncertainty. Gratitude for its patience in allowing themes and relationships to develop rather than over-explaining them to move a plot forward. Thank you for your representation of cool women over 40—an inspiration to those of us who are rapidly approaching that age.
Thank you for your empathetic portrayal of young people at all stages of development, from childhood bullying to wrestling with gender identity as a teen to dropping out of college when you can’t find what you’re looking for in an Ivory Tower. Adlon’s interest in life’s big, philosophical questions is appreciated, even if she would never be so arrogant as to claim to have all the answers.
During the hiatus between its second and third seasons, Better Things emerged not only morally cleansed but also stronger, fueled solely by Adlon’s auteurist vision. By the time it was finished, it had been her project for longer than it had been theirs, thanks to an excellent young cast and a rotating group of talented writers.
But even before that, she was dedicated to every aspect of the show’s appearance and feel; beginning with season 2, Adlon directed every single episode. And it seems appropriate that she abandoned her character, Sam Fox, just as Sam was making her first moves behind the camera.
Great finales often hint at new beginnings while also providing closure, and Better Things ended with the thrill of imagining the Fox family’s limitless future.
Friendship Conversations (Hulu)
Normal People, the first Hulu adaptation of millennial novelist laureate Sally Rooney, was a hit with viewers. I was not among them. Conversations With Friends, a 12-episode, half-hour Rooney drama from the same team that created People, is a better book as well as a better show.
It’s a languid summer drama that pairs two precocious college women (Alison Oliver and Sasha Lane) who used to date but are now best friends with a 30-something married couple (Joe Alwyn and Jemima Kirke) who have enviable careers in the arts. There is infidelity between Oliver’s naive Frances and Alwyn’s depressive Nick.
Conversations, at its sensual core, is a coming-of-age story about learning to address rather than avoid problems and discovering how adult relationships, in all their complexities, function. It’s a visual page-turner and a beach read for the screen.
Plainville’s Daughter (Hulu)
It will be too soon if I never have to watch another true-crime docudrama. However, they aren’t all as broad, pointless, or trashy as your Candys, Joe vs. Caroles, and The Thing About Pams. A few are actually quite good, none more so than this understated account of Michelle Carter’s tragic “texting suicide” case.
What could have been a Lifetime melodrama about an evil girl who bullies her boyfriend into killing himself becomes a heartbreaking case study in which two teens’ brain chemistry, hormones, and the everyday stresses of smartphone-era adolescence collide, with disastrous results, thanks to creators Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus.
The sense that the circumstances surrounding Conrad Roy’s death were not so far removed from the lives of ordinary teenagers lends the show a haunting undercurrent, which is bolstered by understated performances from Elle Fanning as Michelle and Chloe Sevigny as Conrad’s mother Lynn.
Designed for Love (HBO Max)
It’s been a difficult few months for shows releasing second seasons. Russian Doll, Starstruck, Undone, and Girls5eva have all recently returned with solid follow-ups to promising-to-excellent debut seasons, but they’ve struggled to gain traction in a streaming news cycle dominated by the many new titles platforms rushed out to meet this year’s Emmy deadline.
This is especially unfortunate in the case of Made for Love, which followed up on the fun but underwhelming first season with new episodes that truly do justice to author and series creator Alissa Nutting’s hilarious and subversive novel.
Made for Love is a dark comedy that follows Hazel (Cristin Milioti), the wife of control-freak tech mogul Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen) after she escapes from his top-secret headquarters the Hub (Ray Romano).
As she re-established herself in her hometown and struggled to avoid surveillance by a husband who, unbeknownst to Hazel, implanted an invasive chip in her brain, themes of consent burbled in the background.
With that foundation in place, season 2—which is mostly set at the Hub—has dived headfirst into the book’s themes of love, technology, and personal agency. Nutting explores the kind of difficult, timely ideas that are usually relegated to high-level academic papers in an engaging way, using complex characters and smart humor.
Search and Rescue Team (HBO Max)
From Lost to Game of Thrones, shows that take viewers down ever-deeper rabbit holes of plot, world-building, and weirdness has a hard time coming to an end. Not the case with Search Party.
What began in 2016 as a mumblecore dramedy about an aimless millennial, Alia Shawkat‘s Dory, who seeks purpose by investigating the disappearance of a friend, concluded this winter with one of the most gloriously bonkers TV seasons ever made.
Cultists, zombies, influencers, miracle drugs, a psychopathic child offered up for adoption by John Waters, a Willy-Wonka-meets-Elon Musk entrepreneur played by Jeff Goldblum—these episodes had it all.
However, the show’s embrace of absurdity made perfect sense as the real world that Search Party satirized continued to descend further into the absurd, especially for the overeducated, underemployed young adults who served as both its main characters and its core audience.
(Apple TV+) Severance
Severance is without a doubt the best new show of the year. This dark sci-fi drama, set at the mysterious megacorp Lumon Industries, imagines a workplace where employees go through a procedure that “severs” the person they are at work (a.k.a. their “innie”) from the person they’ve always been and will continue to be when they’re not working (their “outie”).
Aside from the many thorny ethical and existential quandaries inherent in subcontracting out a newly created self who happens to share one’s body, the question is: what are Adam Scott’s Mark and his team of desk jockeys actually doing that is sensitive enough to necessitate such stringent information-security measures?
Even their innies and viewers have no idea about the real-world consequences of the rote, computerized tasks they’ve been assigned.
For a premise this complex, execution is what separates a classic from a flop. Severance’s near-perfect first season is a credit to first-time creator Dan Erickson, whose tightly focused scripts establish a compelling and eerily plausible alternate universe; director Ben Stiller, who perfectly calibrates the pace and mood of each scene; and a stellar cast that includes Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, Christopher Walken, and rising talent Britt Lower, who gives an especially haunting performance as a new hire at Lumon. Season 2 cannot come quickly enough.
The Andy Warhol Diaries (Netflix), The Dropout (Hulu), The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Apple TV+), We Need to Talk About Cosby (Showtime), and We Own This City are among the honorable mentions (HBO)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the most popular TV show of 2022?
The top five are comprised of FBI (10.29 million, 1.0), Chicago Fire (9.84 million, 1.3), Blue Bloods (9.78 million, 0.8), and The Equalizer (9.42 million, 0.9). Chicago Fire is the only Top 5 program broadcast by NBC. The remaining four air on CBS. The Good Doctor was ABC’s most-watched drama (7.05 million, 0.8).
What television program should I watch in 2022?
Marvel and several other properties make their debut, while Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, The Boys, Westworld, and Bridgerton return. In addition, the final seasons of Better Call Saul, Killing Eve, Ozark, and The Walking Dead have concluded. View the gallery for release dates and other information.
What new dramas will the BBC air in 2022?
A number of supernatural and sci-fi series will premiere in 2022, including the Neil Gaiman adaptation Anansi Boys, Joe Barton’s sci-fi action-thriller The Lazarus Project, BBC Three’s teen horror Red Rose, Sky’s dark comedy The Baby, Netflix’s superhero series Supacell, and a new adaptation of John Wyndham’s spooky children’s classic The…
What a weird year for TV! Netflix and CNN+ have stumbled. Many great old shows have recently returned from pandemic hiatuses, but I’m saddened by the lack of great new ones. Shows like Barry and Better Things.
If this spring’s mostly mediocre docudramas are any indication, we could be months, not years, away from seeing the creative limits of IP-based TV storytelling. Streaming’s reckoning can’t come soon enough if this is true.