The Best of TV 2022: Series, Actors and Trends I Approve Of
Part 1: Top Ten, 10–6
I have no doubt that many who watched television this year thought that 2022 was the end of an era. Several of the greatest and most important series of the past decade — among the ones I will list black-ish and This is Us — aired their final episodes this year. Much of the world of television is considered to be in flux, with broadcast networks beginning to cut back on original programming as a whole and possible cuts into their schedule. Netflix, considered the gold standard for streaming for the past decade, has spent much of the last year involved in a financial, creative, and cultural collapse. HBO Max, a promising entry into original programming, is in the midst of an ownership change which is taking on the context of a purge when it comes to programming. Others fear that given the current trends in so many programming buys throughout television general, that television as we have known in the past twenty years may be undergoing a creative shift it will never recover from.
All of this may very well be true. But that said, I came away from watching TV this year with a sense of optimism that pervades much of my top ten list and beyond. There have been signs that both the network drama and comedy may have true creative potential for the first time in years. The hiatus that led many of the series I spent years waiting for many of these series ending with some of the most incredible television in all of 2022. And while it is true that some of the greatest shows of all time are ending, there have been enough new series premiering in the last year and a half in unexpected places to make me believe that Peak TV may never truly come to an end.
Before I begin my list of the ten best series of the past year, I should make the addendum that this list only includes series that watched every episode of the current season in the calendar year. This will lead to the exclusion of the current season of The Crown and The White Lotus among others. In addition, I occasionally will forego some of the more obvious choices for the best of the year list to put it in some series that might very well have been overlooked by so many of the critics this year.
10. Alaska Daily (ABC)
I debated which brand new broadcast drama I would put in this slot the longest — it was either going to be this series or the equally imaginative and engaging So Help Me Todd, which puts the best spin of the legal drama since The Good Wife did thirteen years ago. Ultimately though, Alaska Daily won out because it took on a format at its center that few, if any TV series have tried in decades, and did so in broadcast television.
At the center of the series is Hilary Swank as Eileen Fitzgerald, who plays a character so complicated and hard-to-like that you don’t see outside the world of Shondaland. Unlike so many of those characters, however, Eileen is driven fundamentally to try and make a difference at the most fundamental level and is working in a job that is in more jeopardy that lawyer and political fixer — print journalism. The story at the center of the series is a superb one, too, as Eileen and native Ros Friendly (Grace Dove) try to figure out the fate of missing Alaskan native that is part of a larger pattern of how the world views the fate of anyone who isn’t a white person. This couldn’t have been driven home clearer in the fall finale when the paper examined how much time, energy and money was being expended to find a white twenty-ish girl who drunkenly fell of a cruise ship and how little was being spent to find a native woman. It was brilliantly illustrated and the kind of story we need to be telling anywhere. The series is superbly cast all the way through, including Jeff Perry, finally getting to play someone admirable as the editor of this troubled paper.
Created by Thomas McCarthy, one of the great writer-directors of the 21st Century, this series would have been just as sensational had it premiered on cable or streaming and much more likely to have a future if it did. That said, I think Alaska Daily’s exactly where it needs to be. Like the profession at its center, the quality broadcast drama is in danger of extinction as budget cuts loom and network are driven towards the safest possibilities. We need series like this to remind us what they are for. With Swank taking a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress earlier this month, there’s a chance critics realize this. I hope that ABC does too.
9. The Gilded Age (HBO)
Those of you who read my columns on this show last year know the ecstasies that I went into about it when it debuted way back in January. I called this extraordinary period piece the best new drama of the decade and the first truly great drama to debut on since This is Us. While I was wrong in some regard (I’ll get to why in a moment) its hard not to come away from a series so creative remarkable as The Gilded Age and not look away in wonder. This is even more remarkable considering that Julian Fellowes, the wizard behind it, was the force behind Downton Abbey a series that I outright dismissed when it was on the air. For all I know, Gilded Age is just an earlier American version of that same series. But even so, you have to marvel at just what you are seeing.
Here is a show airing on a network known for pushing every single boundary you can imagine and it looks like it would be just as at home on Masterpiece Theater. There has been no violence, no real nudity or sex and if there’s been a use of any obscenity stronger than ‘goddamn’ I don’t recall it. But the dialogue is just quotable and often as witty and anything one would hear on Deadwood. There’s a cast nearly as large as that series, too, but not one of them seems wasted. And the women are at the absolute of this series, with three of the greatest actresses in television history Christine Baranski, Carrie Coon, and Cynthia Nixon — at the center of it all doing work that rivals their best ever. The entire cast is equally able all the way down, from Morgan Spector as one of the most dynamic millionaires you’ll ever meet, Louise Jacobson, demonstrating that Meryl’s brilliance has seeped down to yet another daughter and all the smaller roles involving such brilliant character actresses as Debra Monk, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Audra McDonald.
This series is, in my opinion, infinitely superior to Succession when it comes to discussing the lives of the very wealthy, in that demonstrates the level of conservatism between ‘society’ and new money. It’s also infinitely more optimistic as the world of the Roys shows the end of all of this climbing. The Gilded Age represents the beginning of the Progressive Era and the changes that would unfold, also showing how utterly resistant the old guard was to it all the way through.
Appropriately, The Gilded Age is symbolic of the new wave of great television that has begun since the decade began. The previous year we were graced with the presence of the incredible Yellowjackets and the astounding Cruel Summer. (The former will return next year; I wait in breathless anticipation for the latter.) These series, combined with The White Lotus, The Old Man and some of the other series that will appear on this list make as strong an argument for those of us who cling hard to the idea that the Golden Age has passed that progress never stops even for Peak TV. ‘We are witnessing history,” is said at one point in The Gilded Age. And change never stops.
8. Zahn McClarnon — Dark Winds (AMC)/ Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)
Yes, I’m violating one of my own rules by putting two shows here but trust me I’ve seen TV Guides list and their worse offenders by far. Besides, the link between these series is far clearer than some of the ones they tried.
Zahn McClarnon has been one of the great Native American actors of our time who, like so many, rarely gets work worthy of him. This year, he finally managed to land the lead role in a new recurring series that is the kind of show both the network, actors like him and the genre it represents, needed.
For years television’s idea of the mystery series has either been locked in the procedural or relocated to Britain, despite the literally dozens of American set mystery series that climb the best-seller list. With Dark Winds AMC has adapted to the screen Tony Hillerman’s legendary Leaphorn and Chee mystery novels, set on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico in the 1970s. McClarnon takes the role of Leaphorn in a complicated series of murders that ultimately involve a high-stakes bank robbery, corruption among the FBI and the desire for independence against a world of oppression against Native Americans. Featuring exceptional acting (Noah Emmerich and Rainn Wilson are cast memorably against type) the series starts in an ethically grey area and ends in even murkier territory. By the end of the first season, the law had triumphed over the criminal element, but not even the characters who survived are clear whether good has triumphed over evil. Then again, given the world most of them live in, evil managed to win a long time ago. Dark Winds was deservedly renewed for a second season and considering how many novels Hillerman wrote they will have no shortage of material for a long time.
McClarnon, because of being lead in Dark Winds, had less time to appear in his semi-regular role as another reservation lawman, Big on Reservation Dogs. (Though the writers did go out of their way to give his character a memorable acid-trip conspiracy based episode that was perfectly true to him.) But the series was just as fine with his diminished presence. The already rollicking series became slightly more serious as the gang of four split when Elora went with archrival Jackie to California on a trip that was a disaster. She and Bear spent most of the season vehemently opposed to each other, with not even deaths and reconciliations working. Only a move by Cheese near the end of the season brought them back together and to California at last. The series also expanded its world by looking at the parents and families of the children — and showed that some of the troubles they have are deep — but they don’t stop trying to live.
Both series are written and directed by Aboriginals and considering how much their voices have been suppressed, its incredible to hear them speaking out in two completely different series with completely different tones. Both series have been renewed for another season and I look forward to seeing what stories they will tell.
7. Gaslit (Starz)
There are days I am prouder of my chosen profession than others. They include the days that the Hollywood Critics Association and The Critics Choice Awards give their nominations for TV, and almost inevitable both groups make better selections than the Emmys. (Many of the shows on this blog benefited a lot from them.) I was particularly grateful when the HCA gifted Gaslit with five nominations in the Limited Series and, after the Emmys had shafted it, the Critics Choice gave it four. The only reason I can think that the Emmys decided to nominate such infinitely more juvenile series than Inventing Anna and Pam and Tommy over it was because they appeared on streaming platforms that the Emmys recognize, whereas Gaslit airs on Starz, a cable network the Emmys have decided doesn’t exist. It certainly had nothing to do with quality or historical or cultural relevance.
Half a century after the break-in at the Watergate, some might think there’s nothing left to say about what we once called the greatest scandal in political history. Creators Rob Pickering and Sam Esmail proved us wrong. By centering the story around Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts in a triumph) once simply considered Attorney General John Mitchell’s ‘crazy’ wife (an unrecognizable Sean Penn), a human element was put upon just how a man utterly devoted to the President will do to protect the chain of command — even if that means utterly destroying the woman he once loved.
Nixon only appeared in the series in stock footage and recordings, but at this point what’s left to be said about Nixon. Gaslit told a more compelling narrative — that the President’s men were loyal to a man who didn’t respect him (most of the names were played by comic actors) that the Plumbers who organized the break-in were incompetent buffoons who had no business being near the White House and that the only reason the truth came out is that the man who came out the hero (Dan Stevens as John Dean) only came around to doing the right thing when there was no other choice.
They also point out that we may very well have learned the wrong lessons from Watergate — that it was a story where the system worked, the corrupt forces were brought to bear and good triumphed over evil. Did it really? The good guys — Frank Willis and the FBI agents who did the ground work — never got the credit they deserved. Most of the bad guys ended up serving reduced sentences or no time at all. Nixon spent the rest of his life traveling the world as an elder statesman. And as for whether the nation got the message — there’s a reason one of the last shots of the series is of a campaign poster for Reagan with a very familiar slogan. Gaslit puts a human face on what we consider a victory for truth and justice and makes it very clear that there wasn’t much of either. Maybe that’s one of the reasons the Emmys basically ignored it.
6. Atlanta (FX)
The world spent better part of four years waiting to see what happened to Earn and Paperboi on the European tour when the second season of Atlanta ended in 2018. In the last eight months, we got the last two seasons of the series. In my opinion, it was well worth the wait.
The third season of Atlanta was a stirring and remarkable achievement, yet many fans of the show had a mixed reaction to it. I have little doubt that it had less to do with the quality of the episodes and more to do with the fact that they had left the familiar world. I don’t just mean that nearly half the season Donald Glover and Hiro Murai seemed to set the show in an alternate universe that seemed like David Lynch and Jordan Peele were collaborating; I mean that the rest of that season was in the confines of Europe and somehow made the rest of the weirdness of the show seem out of place. I don’t think the quality diminished one bit: ‘New Jazz’ was a wonderful episode and the season 3 finale featured some of the best work Zazie Beetz ever did for the series, but I can understand why the fans wouldn’t accept this world, even if they could handle ‘Teddy Perkins’ just fine. We got the barest hint that their might be some connection between the worlds in the season finale, but it was never followed up on. I think that was for the best; would any explanation have sufficed?
Season 4 returned to Atlanta, and the surrealism continued to a new hype. Trips to the malls became sites for riots, we saw just how ugly the world of Mr. Chocolate could be and it turns out ‘crumping’ could get you killed. Nor did we completely abandon the alternate universe of Season 3; in one of the last episodes of the series, we got a B.A.N. documentary of the only African-American head of Disney and learned just why A Goofy Movie was the blackest movie Disney ever made. Even the episodes that might have been considered heartwarming — Earn and Van finally committing to a relationship and agreeing to move to LA together — were undercut by the increasing oddness of their daughter, who for some reason doesn’t like her birthday. (If Glover ever tried to do an Atlanta follow-up, I’d like to see how their daughter turns out ten or so years down the line; that kid’s gonna be messed up somehow.)
The series ending on a perfectly surreal note in which the viewer, like Darius, is utterly unconvinced as to the reality of the world around him. Some might feel cheated one way or another, but having watched the series for four entire seasons, how convinced are you that any episode of the show took place in anything resembling reality? Glover and Murai have spent four season showing you just how utterly bizarre the world that Earn and his friends live in. A St. Elsewhere type ending might actually be too normal for the show we’ve watched.
Donald Glover has spent the last decade proving that he is one of the greatest creative forces in any form of media he chooses to inhabit. I have little doubt he will return to TV in some form at some point. But he’ll never create another Atlanta. There was only one series ever like it, and we should be grateful we got to inhabit this weird world.
Tomorrow, I deal with the top five shows of 2022.