The Best TV Shows of 2022! The Top Five!

I’m down to the wire here, so here are my top five TV shows of the year. You can see 16-25 here and 6-15 here.

5. Station Eleven Only three episodes of this miniseries aired this year, but it’s impossible not to include. Based on the book by Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven tells the story of a plague that decimates civilization in the year 2020. Yeah, I know. They had to shut down filming because of the COVID lockdown, so the timing is weird there. Episodes alternate between stories of the present and the future – we see the beginning of the end from a variety of perspectives, from a guy who went from helping a kid to get home to raising a kid in short order, to the attempts to create a workable community inside an airport while a virus rages outside. And in the future, we catch up with some of these survivors, notably Kirsten (played as an adult by Mackenzie Davis). We see her at various stages – as a child in the immediate aftermath and as an adult traveling with a theater troupe.

It maybe sounds complicated and, to be sure, trying to map out the intricate connections between present and future would be daunting. And it really does flow together beautifully as we slowly see how characters, locations, and even items we’ve come to know change over the years. The titular Station Eleven is an unpublished graphic novel and you can track where it is and what hands it passes through over the entire timeline. And watching it with that level of focus is really rewarding. It’s so thoughtful in the presentation. You’ll have plenty to love if that’s how you engage with it.

But putting that aside, and I hate to put aside obsessive continuity tracking, Station Eleven is a truly beautiful piece of work. Besides nailing a very current anxiety, including accurately portraying extreme responses on both sides, it’s a story that ultimately makes the point that all of this matters. I don’t like end-of-the-world fiction. Almost everything about apocalypse is nasty and mean-spirited and weirdly right wing. The Walking Dead is a MAGA fantasy where whatever terrible thing you do to somebody outside your tribe is completely justified because nobody else can be trusted and actually, when you think about it, we are the walking dead. It takes away all hope and leaves you wondering why these people are even bothering to prolong their suffering. It sucks and I hate it.

Station Eleven, as horrifying as the cataclysmic episodes are, is also about rebuilding. It’s about why we do any of this nonsense. And in a landscape where even the best in art is relentlessly commodified and exists only so long as it would cost its corporate owners more to delete it, it says that stories matter. Art matters. If we lose everything, we’ll start again. It’ll be hard and there are a lot of things we won’t have, but we’ll still be human beings. Art, Station Eleven says, will live because we aren’t meant to only survive. Beauty and creativity will always have a place and while there will always be monsters there will also be good people who care and who want to make the world better. Almost a year since the finale and I can’t stop thinking about it – it’s transformational. (HBO Max)

4. Peacemaker – We’re at a point when I was honestly a little bit surprised that John Cena’s name didn’t come up in the Emmy conversation. See, as much as I love DC Comics, their movie and TV initiatives have been largely terrible. While I liked James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad just fine, I wasn’t especially interested in seeing more of Cena’s Peacemaker (“He loves peace so much, he’s willing to kill for it”). It was a fun performance but the character turned out to be a monster and I didn’t need to spend more time with him. And then Peacemaker came out and it turned out to be funny and violent, more emotional than I expected, and the first DC thing that felt like part of a universe and not five blind men trying to figure out what an elephant is by touch, only three of them have their hands on a haystack.

But Gunn is the guy who made a raccoon and a tree into superstars and realized that Dave Bautista has some serious acting chops and he’s all over this show – he wrote all eight episodes and directed five of them. Right away Peacemaker establishes why you should care about a guy who was willing to kill his friends to protect a government cover-up and then revels in his off-center dirtbaggery. Teaming him with a group of misfits (including Steve Agee and Jennifer Holland reprising their Squad roles) to save the world from a threat that they won’t explain to him really makes it sing – Gunn excels at dysfunctional groups, all the way back to his Dawn of the Dead remake (the only good Zack Snyder movie, and I will die on the hill). And then you add Freddy Stroma’s Vigilante, an earnest dork with a broken moral center and a wicked case of hero worship.

Vigilante, by the way, was always a gritty and aggressively humorless character in the comics and I know there’s some super fan of ol’ Adrian Chase who probably hates this version with a passion. Sir? I see you and I’ve been there.

Peacemaker was, straight up, the most fun I had watching TV all year. From the choreographed opening titles dance number that I watch maybe once a week, to those last bittersweet moments of a low-rent superhero, an eagle, and a dying alien. The balance of action and comedy was near perfect and delivered some real poignancy along the way. I couldn’t have guessed John Cena playing piano was going to get me, but it did. I wouldn’t have counted on Agee to deliver the year’s most heartbreaking monologue, but holy smoke. Peacemaker’s childhood was upsetting and his father, the white supremacist supervillain White Dragon (Robert Patrick at his grossest) could have been the whole story but he’s the b-plot to alien butterflies taking over human bodies. I mean, this is a show that nearly made me cry because a CGI eagle got hurt. Guys, Eagly is such a good boy! And White Dragon punched him so hard!

I’m not one of those people who automatically loves “found family” stories. That’s the worst part of the Fast and Furious franchise despite what Tumblr thinks. (Also? Too many cars.) But the way the 11th Street Kids came together as a team and as friends was truly wonderful. By the time they get to the climactic finale, there are huge interpersonal stakes alongside the imminent world-threatening danger. I love these idiots.

There are so many scenes that have stuck with me all year. The butterfly attack on the police station, that moment in the big fight at the barn where the soundtrack suddenly goes wonky, Vigilante’s toe, Peacemaker ineptly jumping from balcony to balcony, Economos killing an even gorilla with a freaking chainsaw. Just amazing. I love this show so much. I only hope that Gunn’s new job being in charge of everything doesn’t prevent him from making future seasons of Peacemaker. Because honestly, and I say this as a guy who has almost no personality aside from being a Batman fan, I’d go ten years without a Batman movie if it meant more Peacemaker. (HBO Max)

3. Severance – This is something truly new and unique. It’s a wild viewing experience and it’s so unexpected that it took me most of the season to realize I was watching it wrong.

Severance is about a group of employees at Lumon Industries. The premise is that their brains are surgically divided to separate their work life from their personal life. When they go to work in the morning, they don’t know anything about who they are on the outside or remember anything that happened since they left the office. And when they leave work, they go back to who they were right when they arrived and then they live out the rest of their day with no knowledge of anything inside the building. It’s an amazing concept.

It gets even more surreal – the main characters have an ill-defined job. They are apparently isolating and removing bad numbers from… something. And everything else going on in the building is similarly wild. Some of it involves peacocks. And it’s all featureless white walls and long corridors. Ben Stiller directed seven of the ten episodes. He’s directed before but I’ve never thought of him as a guy with any kind of identifiable visual style, but this is really beautiful. Stiller will let the camera sit on Adam Scott (more on him in just a second) walking down a hallway for a full minute and a half and you won’t look away.

Scott plays Mark – we meet him when he’s incompetently prepping new hire Helly (Britt Lower) and we spend most of our time with him. On the outside, he’s mourning the death of his wife and dealing with a pushy neighbor, sometimes encountering a complete stranger who claims to be his best friend from work. At work, he’s got some new responsibilities, including mitigating Helly’s ongoing attempts to quit (or failing that, kill herself) but he also managed to get a book from the outside into the building and it’s forcing him to ask some questions. Scott has been so good in things like Party Down and Parks and Recreation for so long, and it feels like he’s finally being noticed in the way he deserves.

The cast also includes John Turturro, Patricia Arquette, and Christopher Walken, just a murderer’s row. There’s a prominent role for Zach Cherry, who at the time was best known to me as the guy who told Spider-Man to do a flip (and streamed Shang-Chi’s bus fight – I can’t tell if they’re supposed to be the same character or if this is like Gemma Chan playing two MCU roles) and he steals the show as Dylan, the guy who doesn’t question anything until he finds out he has a son on the outside. He’s unbelievable in the season finale.

And here’s where we get to where I was watching it wrong. I assumed this was a miniseries and meant to be a satire of corporate culture. It does that very well – the hilarious specificity of the waffle bar reward will be immediately recognizable to anybody with an office job. But I thought that was it. An exploration of a cool concept. So that’s how I watched it. I wasn’t LOSTing it, in other words. Late in the game, there’s the reveal that mysterious employee Ms. Casey is somebody on the outside and it changes everything we’ve seen. An actual jaw-dropping moment. Most of the time, a show that’s going to have a reveal that big, it’s a show that feels like it would at least have a surprise reveal. This is like The Good Place season finale, you know?

The finale was one of the most stressful TV experiences of the year and provided an irresistible setup for Season Two. Their work selves (“innies”) have seen things they can’t ignore and we know about all of their outies and the potential of Helly’s outie is so much fun to consider. It’s a thrill for something this new and different to be this good right out of the gate. (Apple+)

2. The Rehearsal – Nathan Fielder’s follow-up to Nathan For You is hilarious and poignant but also baffling. It’s something that sits with you and forces you to consider it further, even as it has the silliest concept imaginable. Fielder helps people prepare (“rehearse”) for possibly difficult things in their life, ranging from admitting to lying about one’s education level all the way to parenthood. He creates a simulacrum of the scenario, recreating, say, the location of a conversation in exacting detail to prepare for every eventuality. And even by the end of the first episode, we see that Nathan himself is rehearsing his interactions with the participants. It’s incredibly funny but impossible to tell how much of it is real. To what extent is anybody in on the bit? Is it even a bit? I don’t know and I don’t think I want a straight answer.

The lines were blurry enough in the pilot for a low-stakes situation. But then Fielder went to help Angela, a woman who wasn’t sure she was ready for motherhood. The idea was that every three hours, a child actor would be swapped out for a slightly older child actor, simulating the experience of raising a child from infancy to adulthood. And that’s where the show stayed for the rest of the season as Nathan got involved in fake parenting. Nathan’s loneliness was a recurring theme in his first show and, of course, I have no idea how real that is. He got a divorce during the run of Nathan For You, and on this show he hired an actor to create a diversion when the subject came up. Is any of it real? No idea. But as Angela became increasingly disinterested in the project, Nathan ended up doing more of the fake parenting, coming back to her house in between preparing other rehearsals for future episodes.

There were more wrinkles – Angela was extremely religious and had…. opinions about Jewish people, leading Nathan to take one of the actors for covert Torah education. Then one of the kids got too attached to Nathan and started calling him “daddy” even after he went home and the way Nathan dealt with that was weird and heartwarming but also maybe manipulative? It’s a comedy, but are these people being exploited for laughs? Angela’s social media indicates that she thinks she came off great on the show and, folks, she did not.

I don’t know if it’s real. I don’t know if it’s ethical. It sure seemed like he screwed up a child actor, but a later check-in showed that the kid had already forgotten about the whole thing. At one point, for an attempted rehearsal, he leads one of the participants to believe that one of the actors (who he thought was real) had died. That’s not OK, is it? And later Nathan teaches a rehearsal-themed class for actors and then brings in an actor to play him and simulate the class so he can see what it’s like to take his own class and we’re caught in some sort of infinitely recursive loop. At the end of the season, it’s impossible to tell who Nathan Fielder actually is and whether what he’s doing is OK or whether this whole thing has been staged in some kind of mega-rehearsal. You can’t watch The Rehearsal without spinning out on these questions

Nathan Fielder might be the most brilliant comedian in a generation. He might be a borderline sociopath manipulating people who reached out for help. He might be a weird guy who happened on a confusing gimmick for a TV show. Whatever the case, The Rehearsal is fascinating and hilarious and a viewing experience that nobody’s ever going to replicate. Except for probably Nathan, because that’s what he does. (HBO Max)

1. Better Call Saul – This wasn’t just the end of a show – this was the end of fourteen years of the Breaking Bad universe. Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman (nee Jimmy McGill) has been part of that world since 2009 so he’s appeared in more episodes than Walter White and Jesse Pinkman so maybe we should think of it as the Better Call Saul universe. The Saul-ar System.

I don’t know how much more there is to say about arguably the best show on TV. It had the impossible task of following up a beloved series, and it did. That series had a universally praised finale, one of the hardest tricks to pull off, so Saul had a better finale. And arguably both are about flawed men paying for their sins, but the Saul episode titled “Breaking Bad” made the distinction clear. Walter White was always a bad guy who spent years living as a good guy because he couldn’t figure out any other options. McGill was, at heart, a good guy who just wanted to make some easy money. He made mistakes. A truly staggering number of mistakes. But when you get right down to the core of who he is, he’s a guy who chose to face consequences that he could have escaped.

The year in Better Call Saul is cleanly divided, not just by the actual midseason break. The first half and a bit of the season focused primarily on the Salamancas and cartel intrigue. It never lost sight of Kim Wexler and Jimmy/Saul but Nacho’s flight and Lalo’s quest for vengeance drove the show. After that wrapped up in a pair of stunning episodes that managed to be suspenseful even when you know that certain people have to survive because they’re alive and well in Breaking Bad. (And doesn’t that knowledge make everybody who didn’t appear in Bad seem all the more fragile? The amount of time I spent worrying about Kim over the last few years is more than I spent thinking about my own well-being.) Once that’s dispensed with, the final stretch of episodes is all Jimmy and Kim. And, in fact, mostly Jimmy as we spend several episodes in the black-and-white flash forwards where he’s living in Omaha and managing a Cinnabon under the name Gene.

It’s a great trick that when we see Gene get involved in an elaborate scam it feels to us like a big comeback but it’s been, like, two weeks since we last saw him as Saul Goodman. That’s how good Odenkirk is – it feels like we’re years removed from that part of his life.

I mean, honestly I just want to walk through the genius plotting of the season and my reactions to everything that happened, but there’s no point. This was a tremendous series. Saul Goodman was not a fleshed-out character when the show began. Yeah, Odenkirk’s performance was great but the depths weren’t there yet. Remember this show was originally pitched as a case-of-the-week comedy. They found Jimmy McGill along the way and Bob was up to the task. I always point to the Mr. Show sketch “The Recruiters” as an early example of Odenkirk’s surprising dramatic talent, and this was where somebody finally figured out how to use his full potential. And none of it works without Rhea Seehorn’s Kim. I can’t describe how amazing she is without sounding like Dan Lippert’s impression of Bill Walton. One of the all-time great performances from…  You know. Just absolutely the best.

I loved Breaking Bad but when the show ended, I didn’t want to see more of those characters. I didn’t need them to continue on. But I’m truly going to miss Jimmy and Kim. I guess the only thing I can really say is that Vince Gilligan and company proved the only way to follow up one of the best TV shows of all time is with an even better show.

That’s it! Come back tomorrow or so for the things I’m looking forward to in 2023!

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