The best TV of 2022 so far runs several different gamuts: from returning favorites to surprising newcomers; from tear-jerking dramas to uproarious comedies; from traditional networks to tech-backed streaming services to media companies stuck somewhere in between. What unites them all is the ability to stand out from a packed crowd as shows emerge from pandemic breaks and vie for awards. The Television Academy won’t announce their picks until later this month. Until then, these are The Ringer’s.
A few years after Lee Child’s book series was turned into a pair of solid if unspectacular films, Jack Reacher is back in a big way—literally—on the small screen. With respect to short king Tom Cruise, the latest take on the source material casts a more appropriately sized leading man in Alan Ritchson. (Per the canon, Jack Reacher is a commanding 6 feet, 5 inches tall; Ritchson is only a few inches shorter and built like a linebacker.) Size isn’t the only variable that makes the Amazon Prime series Reacher click, but it’s the first step in a faithful adaptation that finds the title character caught up in a small-town conspiracy for large-scale counterfeiting.
Using his brains and brawn to get to the bottom of the sprawling mystery, Reacher is essentially a superhero whose uniform is jeans and a plain T-shirt. (Reacher is a drifter, you see, and travels only with the clothes he’s wearing.) There is never a point when you worry about the safety of one swole man going up against an international syndicate—Ritchson, in turn, brings a witty stoicism to his performance that underlines that everyone is in on the joke. Reacher won’t be mistaken for an Emmy contender, but the show is to television what Top Gun: Maverick has been for cinema: a pop culture event the dads of the world can get behind. —Miles Surrey
9. The Righteous Gemstones
Danny McBride’s latest masterpiece may be the best-looking comedy on TV. The deeds it depicts are often disgusting, whether physically (mass projectile vomiting, the birth of a “toilet baby”) or morally (a family of evangelical ministers exploiting their congregation and hoarding mass wealth in the name of the Lord). But The Righteous Gemstones looks incredible, with McBride and collaborators like David Gordon Green and Jody Hill delivering spectacle after spectacle. A team of Christian bodybuilders known as the “God Squad” tote a cement cross as a show of strength; a gang of motorcycle bandits stage an assault on a party bus. If you can focus on the visuals between bouts of hysterics, it’s wildly impressive.
As befits its megachurch milieu, The Righteous Gemstones started big. But in its second season, it’s only gotten bigger, introducing new characters like Eric Andre’s rival preacher while shading in the past of patriarch Eli, played with rumbling gravitas by a scowling John Goodman. The Righteous Gemstones has grown into a unique blend of staggering ambition and straightforward laughter, delivering delightfully silly gags even as it pulls off impressive stunts like surprise-casting Macaulay Culkin. McBride has always excelled at playing masculine depravity. But he’s rarely been surrounded by such a deep bench, nor given so many resources to realize his vision. God bless. —Herman
8. Tokyo Vice
It’s been seven years since Michael Mann’s underappreciated tech-thriller Blackhat bombed at the box office, and while there’s finally headway on the auteur’s next big-screen project—forza, Ferrari!—his brief detour to television wasn’t half bad, either. Mann directed the pilot of the HBO Max drama Tokyo Vice and served as an executive producer, and he finds an intriguing small-screen story to match his stylish sensibilities. Based on Jake Adelstein’s memoir of the same name, the series stars Ansel Elgort as a fictionalized version of the journalist starting on the crime beat at one of Japan’s biggest newspapers, where he learns the intricacies of Tokyo’s seedy underworld in the late ’90s.
As Jake builds relationships with both the yakuza and detectives trying to keep the syndicates in check, the series highlights how Tokyo was caught in a delicate balance between order and corruption at the turn of the century. At its best, Tokyo Vice shows the lengths that journalists, criminals, and law enforcement will go to uncover the truth or attain power, regardless of the personal cost. In other words, it’s right in the “dudes who should really go to therapy but are very good at their jobs and look cool while doing it” wheelhouse that Mann has made a career out of. (It also helps that the series filmed on location in Tokyo, breathing life into every neon-infused set piece.) Here’s hoping Tokyo Vice remains as thrilling and immersive in its second season, even in the event that Mann doesn’t return behind the camera. —Surrey
The first season of Hacks forged an uneasy partnership between comedian Deborah Vance and her Gen Z joke writer Ava. The second put that bond to the test, taking the two on the road and revealing a shit-talking email an intoxicated Ava sent about her boss. Ultimately, it built to a conclusion that felt earned: a seemingly definitive break between the two that was made not out of anger, but mutual respect. Deborah tells Ava early on that she’s just like her, an observation she doesn’t mean as a compliment. In the end, though, she recognizes Ava won’t achieve Deborah-level success if she’s working in her shadow. It’s harshness as love, as is the Hacks way.
In between, Hacks let Deborah and Ava explore both America and themselves. The season’s middle, best stretch takes them from a lesbian cruise to a state fair to a grubby Memphis comedy club where Deborah figures out the key to confessional performance: going after herself harder than anybody else. As Deborah perfects her tone, Hacks feels similarly dialed in: often wacky but emotionally grounded; warm and collegial without getting ooey-gooey. It’s become a comfort show that doesn’t come off like it’s pulling any punches for the sake of comfort. Some fans felt this season’s finale felt like a logical end to the series, but I much prefer it to last year’s cliffhanger. This is one story corner I can’t wait to watch the team write its way out of. —Herman
It can be tricky to maintain a healthy work-life balance, so imagine if you could “sever” your life between what you do in the office and everything outside of it. That’s the setup for the absorbing Apple TV+ drama Severance, which follows a group of workers at the mysterious Lumon Industries who volunteered for the experimental procedure. The concept wouldn’t feel out of place on an episode of Black Mirror, and like the popular sci-fi series, Severance excels because its technology feels both plausible and terrifying if it fell in the wrong hands.
And that’s the thing: What does Lumon actually want out of severing its workers? Creator Dan Erickson keeps viewers guessing throughout the first season, culminating in a cliffhanger finale that invites plenty of questions even as it answers some of them, including the real identity of the company’s newest severed employee, Helly (Britt Lower). With mystery-box shows, there’s always a danger of testing the audience’s patience and falling off the rails. But as one of the best new shows of the year, Severance has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. I might never want to work at Lumon, but I’m certainly drinking the Kool-Aid. —Surrey
Min Jin Lee’s sprawling novel Pachinko is a multigenerational epic that follows a single family’s journey from occupied Korea to postwar Japan. Its adaptation, a limited series on Apple TV+ spearheaded by The Terror’s Soo Hugh, puts its own inventive twist on Lee’s structure, reshaping the story for TV while amplifying its themes. Rather than a single, linear narrative that moves forward through time, this version of Pachinko juxtaposes two timelines: one in which a young woman named Sunja (Minha Kim) must cross an ocean to provide for her family, and another in which her grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) attempts to assimilate by working for a prestigious Japanese bank.
Pachinko makes other clever choices in its group portrait of a Korean family in Japan, members of a postcolonial wave little-known to American audiences. The show color-codes its subtitles, calling attention to how younger generations like Solomon’s intersperse Japanese words into their Korean-language conversations, while a matriarch like Sunja—played as an adult by Oscar winner Youn Yuh-Jung—clings tightly to the home she’s lost. Combined with the best opening credits sequence this side of The Sopranos, Pachinko proves itself an exceptional entry in the literary-hit-to-prestige-miniseries pipeline. The tears will flow, and every one is earned. —Herman
4. Abbott Elementary
Reports of the network sitcom’s death have been greatly exaggerated. (Yes, it’s been a while since 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks and Recreation shared a single lineup on NBC, but we’ve had Black-ish, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Superstore, The Good Place, and more in the years since.) Still, it’s been ages since a broadcast half-hour broke into the zeitgeist as definitively as Abbott Elementary. Star and executive producer Quinta Brunson is an alumna of BuzzFeed’s early efforts to institutionalize viral stardom. Abbott Elementary is not about nor especially oriented toward the internet—but it marries the structure and classical appeal of ABC prime time with an audience ready and able to boost it on social media. The show’s live ratings are solid enough, but those numbers quadrupled as younger viewers caught up on platforms like Hulu.
A workplace comedy set in a Philadelphia public school, Abbott Elementary features a slew of charming child actors as its namesake’s rambunctious student body. (One of the show’s many triumphs is how it mines the kids’ behavior for laughs without mocking them.) But its core cast are the teachers, who form a flawlessly balanced ensemble. Brunson plays Janine, a relative rookie as earnest as she is inexperienced. The part is an effective showcase, but compared to her costars, it’s clear Brunson had the savvy and lack of ego to cast herself as the straight woman. Sheryl Lee Ralph shines as Barbara, a seasoned pro intimidating in her efficacy, while Janelle James is the breakout as Ava, the deliciously incompetent principal. Abbott Elementary is neither saccharine nor cynical in its treatment of systemic issues, an impressive balancing act that’s actually earned the acclaim it deserves. —Herman
The initial premise of Barry, in which a hitman catches the acting bug during an assignment in Los Angeles, mined plenty of humor from the ways that Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) treated his lethal profession with the same apathy as someone stuck in a cubicle. (And, to a lesser extent, how show business can be as brutal as contract killing.) But as the series continued exploring the moral rot within Barry’s soul in its third season, the atrocities he’s committed have become no laughing matter.
Barry believes he can still find redemption and maintain a relationship with his acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), who’s learned that his pupil isn’t just a hired gun, but the person who killed his girlfriend Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) at the end of first season. The brilliance of Season 3 is that the show has abandoned all hope that Barry can change and is in turn putting a spotlight on the many victims who’ve been caught in his path. (Barry has ruined enough lives to fill out a purgatorial beach.) The final scene of the season—a shot lingering on a grieving father and a portrait of his daughter—underscores the humanity that exists within Barry in spite of its title character having none himself. All told, Barry’s never felt less like a comedy—and it’s all the better for it. —Surrey
2. Our Flag Means Death
Loosely based on the real-life experiences of British aristocrat Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), who traded away a life of luxury to explore the high seas as a “gentleman pirate,” the new HBO Max series Our Flag Means Death could’ve easily coasted as a fish-out-of-water comedy—no puns intended. But what makes the show so riveting is how seamlessly it pivots from wacky high jinks to swashbuckling queer romances, chief among them the growing bond between Bonnet and the infamous Blackbeard (Taika Waititi).
It’s Bonnet and Blackbeard’s relationship, along with the eccentric pirates under their wing, that gives Our Flag Means Death an unexpected depth and sincerity. The series always remembers it’s a comedy, but at the same time, the romantic underpinnings are never treated as a punch line. (It’s perhaps unsurprising that the show’s tender approach has inspired a ton of gorgeous fan art in response.) Thankfully, with the series’ recent renewal, there’s more room for Our Flag Means Death to chart the emotional journeys of its characters after Bonnet and Blackbeard’s tragic falling-out at the end of the first season. But whatever happens next, Our Flag Means Death has already proved to be a genuine treasure. —Surrey
1. The Dropout
This spring saw a slew of scripted series about the rise and highly publicized fall of would-be tech moguls who modeled themselves after an earlier generation of starry-eyed founders. All were at least entertaining, pairing charismatic actors with compelling subjects. But in its dramatization of Elizabeth Holmes, the woman who built a billion-dollar startup on fraudulent technology and an equally hollow persona, The Dropout proved by far the best.
Created by New Girl’s Liz Meriwether, bankrolled by Hulu, and centered on a jaw-dropping lead performance by Amanda Seyfried, The Dropout actually adds something substantive to the oceans of ink already spilled about Holmes and Theranos, the company she co-led with longtime boyfriend Sunny Balwani. Holmes herself is a black hole, with everything from her voice to her miraculous blood-testing device an empty affectation. Meriwether and Seyfried craft a convincing portrait of Holmes as a woman of genuine trauma, crushing insecurity, and utterly bizarre dance routines. But they never let her or her highest-profile marks, like executives at Walgreens or former Secretary of State George Schultz, off the hook—if anything, they make Holmes more terrifying in psychological context, not less. The Emmy is Seyfried’s to lose, and for good reason. —Herman