Another year, another flood of noteworthy shows to try to sum up in one finite list. (Plus some honorable mentions—what can we say, there’s a lot to celebrate!) 2022 saw strong debuts and long-anticipated endings, IP exercises with surprising soul, and intimate stories with emotional scale. Across streaming services and the conglomerates that back them, the best television still felt personal: Native American teens grappling with grief; a crooked lawyer whose sins finally catch up to him; one man’s quest to anticipate life by rehearsing it. These are The Ringer’s best TV shows of 2022.
One side effect of the rise in truly global streaming services has been an erosion of the strict borders that have historically defined TV’s distribution. Netflix became the poster child for this international exchange with hits like Dark, Money Heist, and more recently, Squid Game, but this year, Apple TV+ delivered the kind of project that’s impossible to imagine in any other era of media: an adaptation of a novel by a Korean American author that spans one family’s decades-long journey from occupied Korea to Japan to the United States. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is an absorbing epic of assimilation and survival. The limited series does it justice while tailoring the story to its new medium, a process that unlocks new depths.
Led by The Terror’s Soo Hugh, Pachinko’s writers break a linear story into two halves: a flashback to a young woman’s decision to leave home for the sake of her unborn child, and her grandson’s struggle to prove himself at a Japanese bank. (Directors Justin Chon and Kogonada, both executive producers, lend equal richness to rugged coastal Korea and busy modern Tokyo.) Both stories speak to the experience of Korean immigrants in Japan, also known as Zainichi—a history that’s not widely known in the United States, but that Pachinko refuses to water down for the sake of a broader audience. Not that viewers primed by a steady diet of cultural imports, or even their own lives, need to be spoonfed. —Alison Herman
A woman passed out in a conference room. A dance party with maracas, mood lighting, and “defiant jazz.” Goats wandering a fluorescent-lit hallway. These are the indelible images that made Severance lodge deep in our brains, like the chips that split some employees at Lumon Industries into on- and off-duty selves. The concept, from creator Dan Erickson, blends the cold sterility of corporate life with surreal fantasia. The visuals, captained by director and executive producer Ben Stiller, riff on that core combination.
Severance is, on the page, a classic mystery box, packed to the brim with questions big (what does Lumon Industries even do?) and small (what’s the deal with those floating numbers?). But it also avoids the genre’s primary pitfalls. We’re never watching just to find out what’s going on, nor does the audience ever feel like Severance is dragging itself out to string us along. Instead, we’re entertained by inventive setups like Lumon’s “break room,” and invested in the plight of Britt Lower’s Helly R., the freshly “severed” employee we first meet in that fateful conference room. The final episode revealing Helly’s “outie,” or real-world identity, is among the most thrilling hours of TV aired this year, cementing Severance as 2022’s first big breakout. —AH
8. The White Lotus
Mike White has it all figured out. After almost a decade away from HBO, the writer, director, and Survivor MVP turned a pandemic stopgap into a blank check. By shooting at the Four Seasons Maui, the first season of The White Lotus gave itself a quarantine-friendly HQ. But it also established a playbook to copy when the six-episode series became a smash success. Now that The White Lotus is an anthology, with a second season on air and a third in the works, its creator has realized the Hollywood dream: an all-expenses-paid trip anywhere in the world at a luxury resort of his choosing, all on Warner Bros. Discovery’s dime.
His current stop is Sicily, a change in scenery that comes with a change in theme. The White Lotus is still a show about what the wealthy want from their vacations. (Even those who have everything are still in search of something.) In Hawai’i, it was a sense of security and control at the expense of the service staff; in Italy, it’s the potential for power that comes with sex, whether sold for money or freely exchanged. White has once again recruited an all-star ensemble in pursuit of expertly choreographed chaos, featuring standout turns from Aubrey Plaza, F. Murray Abraham, Meghann Fahy, and more. The star wattage may be similar, but this second season of The White Lotus is distinct enough to prove the first was no fluke, and the follow-up is no empty cash grab. This concept has legs, and we’ll follow White wherever he wants to go. —AH
7. Our Flag Means Death
In the new HBO Max comedy Our Flag Means Death, inspired by the stranger-than-fiction account of British aristocrat Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), who leaves his cushy life behind to become a “gentleman pirate,” the jokes write themselves. Like the early seasons of Parks and Recreation that juxtaposed Leslie Knope’s earnest admiration of government work alongside her cynical colleagues, Bonnet is hilariously adrift as a cheery, eccentric leader of outlaws. But what transforms Our Flag Means Death from a good series into a great one is how it quickly abandons treating Bonnet like a punch line and embraces genuinely heartfelt queer romances throughout the ensemble.
Led by Bonnet and the fearsome Blackbeard (Taika Waititi), who find comfort in each other amid their respective midlife crises, Our Flag Means Death brushes aside any concerns over queerbaiting by allowing its relationships to materialize on screen. (The romantic fan art the show’s inspired has been equally delightful.) The fact that this even needs to be commended is an indictment of a television landscape that repeatedly lets LGBTQ viewers down. In any case, Our Flag Means Death has already charted a promising course as both a workplace comedy and a stirring love story on the high seas. —Miles Surrey
6. The English
Don’t let its title fool you: The English, the six-part Amazon Prime miniseries, is more concerned about the ideals upon which the United States was formed. Set in 1890, the show follows English aristocrat Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), who travels to the American West in search of the man responsible for killing her son. Along the way, she crosses paths with Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout looking to settle on the land he’s earned for his servitude, even if he knows it won’t come easy. It goes without saying that the West wasn’t kind to women or Native Americans, but as Cornelia and Eli ride off together, The English imagines a world where people of fundamental decency were able to forge their own destinies in the land of opportunity.
Of course, the West is still brutal and lawless, characteristics the series suggests are intrinsic to the U.S.’s DNA. The show doesn’t spare any of its characters, however well-meaning, from the harsh realities of its setting. In the best possible way, The English feels like a spiritual cousin to George Miller’s Mad Max movies, where acts of unspeakable cruelty are set against backdrops of bleak, rugged beauty. (The show’s memorable array of side characters, including an elderly female outlaw without eyelids, add to the nightmarish vibes.) There’s never been a Western on television quite like The English: a revisionist take on the American frontier that remains faithful to the landscape’s capacity to overwhelm, terrify, and most of all, captivate. —MS
5. Reservation Dogs
After bursting onto the scene as one of the best shows of 2021, Reservation Dogs returned this year with a funnier, more poignant, and even more assured sophomore effort. After introducing the titular Rez Dogs—as well as memorable supporting characters within their Native American community—the second season sees our plucky protagonists come of age: Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) picks up after-school work as a roofer, while Elora (Devery Jacobs) gives more thought to leaving the reservation for seemingly greener pastures.
Combining the universal anxiety of teenagers trying to figure out what to do with their lives alongside challenges specific to the Native American experience, Reservation Dogs is still like nothing else on television. To that end, while the Rez Dogs remain the emotional anchor of the series, perhaps the best episode of the season centered on the show’s aunties letting loose at an Indian Health Service conference—their version of a Cancun-like getaway—which also revealed that the women are still reeling from the loss of their childhood friend Cookie (Elora’s mom). No other series can veer so wildly from moments of slapstick comedy to tear-jerking pathos and always stick the landing: a promising indication that Reservation Dogs will be a mainstay of these rankings for many years to come. —MS
4. The Dropout
Imagine giving a performance so good it gets an A-lister like Jennifer Lawrence to tip her hat and back off. Such is the power of Emmy winner Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, the sine qua non of Hulu’s take on the rise and fall of Theranos. The Dropout, created by New Girl’s Liz Meriwether, arrived this spring as part of a pack: shows like Super Pumped and WeCrashed offered analogous portraits of tech founders gone rogue, while Inventing Anna chronicled another charismatic young woman who conned the rich into giving her money she didn’t deserve. All this competition could’ve been a handicap. Instead, it just emphasized how hard it is to combine social commentary, true crime, and character study—and how well The Dropout did so, despite the odds.
As channeled by Seyfried, Holmes is a fraud, but also a savant: first at science, then at exploiting a system that values hype over hard facts. Flanked by Naveen Andrews as Sunny Balwani, Holmes’s mentor, accomplice, and paramour, Seyfried finds authentic insecurity in a persona that’s all artifice, from the promise of a medical miracle to that infamous voice. It all builds to a perfect, haunting final scene: a disgraced Elizabeth lets out a pure, primal scream—then introduces herself, all smiles, to an Uber driver as “Lizzie.” Before the real Holmes was sentenced to over a decade in federal prison last month, oceans of ink were spilled on the Theranos implosion. As Lawrence was smart enough to note, The Dropout is so definitive it may well be the last word. —AH
Star Wars has had a rough go of it lately: Disney has yet to put a new movie on the release calendar after the failure of 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker, while the slate of Disney+ series have started to lose their luster. (The less said about The Book of Boba Fett, the better.) Given the franchise’s recent string of disappointments, the optimistic read on Andor—a spinoff series to the spinoff film about the Rebels snatching up the Death Star plans—is that it arrived with relatively modest expectations and minimal fanfare. Naturally, Andor is not just the best Star Wars series to date: It might be the franchise’s greatest achievement since the original trilogy.
With the pedigree of writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, apparently miraculous Rogue One reshoots), Andor feels like the first Star Wars project explicitly aimed at adults—one where the heroes frequently make morally compromising decisions, and the full extent of the Empire’s cruel authoritarian tactics are laid bare. From Imperial officers dealing with shady office politics in between torturing innocent civilians to upstanding senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) realizing that insurgencies must get their hands dirty, there’s a real sense of purpose and urgency driving every scene. After years of mediocrity and nostalgia-baiting, Andor is a new hope for Star Wars, and what IP extensions should strive to be. —MS
2. Better Call Saul
The only thing harder than creating a prestige drama that cuts through the noise is finding a satisfying way to end it. That was just one of the challenges presented to Better Call Saul’s final season, which not only had to wrap up the saga of one Saul Goodman (né Jimmy McGill), but also provide a worthy bookend to the larger Breaking Bad universe. For a creative team that relishes writing themselves out of narrative corners, Better Call Saul’s sixth season was an especially tricky beast: The 13 episodes jumped all across the timeline, including moments that coincided with Breaking Bad proper and provided old scenes with thrilling new context. (After learning the fates of Lalo Salamanca and Howard Hamlin, we’ll never look at Gus Fring’s underground meth lab the same way again.)
But for all its propulsive thrills, Better Call Saul was still never better than when it homed in on Jimmy and Kim Wexler, and how their relationship might be doing themselves more harm than good no matter how much they care for each other. (It also didn’t hurt that Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn delivered career-best performances on a weekly basis.) That sentiment held true all the way through to the moving and understated finale, which underlined what Better Call Saul was all along: a love story about star-crossed lawyers. With an excellent ending in the books, Better Call Saul didn’t just cement its status as an all-time-great prequel, but one of the very best shows ever made. —MS
1. The Rehearsal
What is The Rehearsal, exactly? A documentary? A social experiment? A pitch-black comedy? A gripping human drama? Whatever Nathan Fielder’s latest project is, it’s unlike anything else on TV. But novelty alone doesn’t make The Rehearsal the show of the year. Over six episodes, an already intricate idea—helping regular people prepare for big events by “rehearsing” them down to the smallest detail—escalates into a futile search for the line that separates reality and performance, theory and practice, the inside of your head and the substance of others’ lives.
Fielder’s previous show, Nathan for You, thrived on discomfort—mostly for the viewer, and sometimes the guests. The Rehearsal turns that anxiety inward. Fielder’s on-screen persona has long shown an inability to engage in easy human interaction, instead fixating on increasingly elaborate schemes. At first, The Rehearsal simply offers a new kind of overcomplicated gimmick. But after just one well-executed plan to help a Brooklyn trivia player come clean to a friend, The Rehearsal forces Fielder to question his own hypothesis. What if you can’t anticipate life’s every turn? What if you shouldn’t try? Who could you hurt by trying to control life’s inevitable chaos?
The Rehearsal works as a metaphor on multiple levels. It’s about filmmaking; it’s about parenting; it’s about marginalized people (in this case, Jewish Fielder in deeply goyish Oregon) trying to understand their oppressors. But it’s also about the deep narcissism of the anxious mind—the way obsessing over your own neuroses blinds you to the fact that everyone’s the center of their own universe. That The Rehearsal combines this psychological insight with such jaw-dropping feats as rebuilding a Brooklyn bar on a soundstage only cements its status. I’m as excited for Season 2 as I am afraid of what it might reveal. —AH
Honorable mentions: This Is Going to Hurt, Somebody Somewhere, Dark Winds, Slow Horses, Abbott Elementary, Los Espookys, Hacks, Atlanta, For All Mankind, Barry, The Patient, The Boys