By Inkoo Kang
Chefs, comedians and a hit man-turned-wannabe actor populate the best shows of 2022, suggesting, perhaps, that our most ambitious and resonant stories stem from re-examining what work could and should look like.
For those keeping track at home (and perhaps looking to cut some cords as prices continue to rise), HBO Max remains the most reliable source of prestige programming among the streaming sites; just under half the 10 shows on the list are hosted there. In South Africa, most of the show can be found on Showmax.
But the first six months of the year also saw a resurgence of the network comedy’s relevance, as well as a channel-agnostic TV event likely to be discussed for years to come.
As a whole, the shows capture the current moment of an entertainment industry – and a country – undergoing shifts whose consequences have yet to fully reveal themselves.
Who knew there was life left in the mockumentary format? Apparently Quinta Brunson, who helped revive the network sitcom this year as the star and creator of “Abbott Elementary”, about teachers with varying levels of experience and idealism at a Philadelphia public school.
A loving tribute to educators (including Brunson’s mother) who make the most while given the least, the sharp-witted (and sharp-elbowed) series boasts one of the finest comedy ensembles on TV today, including a radiant Sheryl Lee Ralph, a poignant Tyler James Williams and an always unpredictable Janelle James.
After three seasons, I’m not entirely certain that “Barry’s” Frankensteinish patchwork of hit man existentialism, gangland thriller and Hollywood satire works.
But if the whole doesn’t cohere, its individual parts sure rivet. Bill Hader’s pitch-black comedy delivered perhaps its best season yet, with cinematic stunts, a ratcheting-up of the stakes for its guilt-plagued protagonist and an unexpectedly sweet pivot for fan favourite NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan).
The first of two food-centric shows on this list, “The Bear” sounds like no other series on TV, ably capturing the non-stop clangs, yelps and screams of a (deeply dysfunctional) restaurant kitchen.
Starring Jeremy Allen White as a fine-dining chef who moves back home to Chicago to run the sandwich shop bequeathed to him by a brother who died by suicide, the half-hour FX drama (on Hulu!) does justice to its protagonist Carmy’s grief while exploring how difficult it can be to reform a workplace culture.
Ayo Edebiri and Lionel Boyce co-star as two employees inspired by Carmy’s talent and sky-high expectations – and more than ready to ditch the abusive dynamics Carmy has trouble outrunning despite his best intentions.
“Hacks” enjoyed a near-perfect sophomore season this spring by forcing its two leads, boomer comedian and fading legend Deborah (Jean Smart) and her Gen-Z ghostwriter, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), on the road to workshop some rawer, more confessional material.
If season one was a promising first draft, its follow-up was a polished, ready-to-sell manuscript, with a bemused yet affectionate focus on the testy mother-daughter, mentor-protegée relationship between Deborah and Ava.
Travelling across the country meant neither woman was comfortable, and the show used every opportunity to show us who they used to be, who they are now and which selves they find hard to face in the mirror.
Like “Hack”, “Julia” is the rare show about women discovering their full potential after age 50. The Julia Child bio-series, about the origins of the PBS series that launched “The French Chef’s” on-air career, is a far less ambitious show than “Hacks”, but also a perfect illustration of how satisfying comfort TV can be, especially when firing on all cylinders.
Sarah Lancashire is marvellously charming as the restless housewife-turned unlikely star who practically invented the job of the TV chef, while David Hyde Pierce and Bebe Neuwirth – comprising a mini-“Frasier” reunion – delight as, respectively, Julia’s reluctantly supportive husband and avid but depressive confidante. (Streams on HBO Max)
“My Brilliant Friend”
If summer’s flight prices keep going up, it might be worth considering travelling the old-fashioned way: through television.
Set in various Italian locales, the TV adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel tetralogy about two lifelong friends is easily the most gorgeous series on the list and arguably television.
But it’s the story’s epic scope that keeps viewers returning, with competitive friends Lila (Gaia Girace) and Elena (Margherita Mazzucco) entering the 1970s – and motherhood – as women who expect more from their lives and their husbands than their mothers ever dreamt of, and keep waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
Spanning a decade in the lives of the women, the third season finds Lila and Elena increasingly inscrutable to the other, especially as they land on opposing sides of a class divide – and their envious admiration of each other hardly letting up.
After a fantastic first season that situated its characters amid economic precarity despite the confetti of cash tossed around every night at the strip club where they perform, “P-Valley” returned even stronger with a gimlet-eyed view of nightlife businesses’ struggles to stay afloat during the pandemic.
Created by award-winning playwright Katori Hall, the sexy, soapy, socially conscious drama continues to deepen the characterisations of the black women and queer folk who need their club to survive but can’t agree on how to save it.
The dancers’ dramatic, sweat-soaked manoeuvre around the pole never fall short of jaw-dropping, but this season, it’s the slow-burn romance between club co-owner Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) and his closeted paramour, the rapper Lil Murda (J Alphonse Nicholson), that makes it impossible to take your eyes off the screen.
With his third stand-up special for HBO, Jerrod Carmichael became arguably the most famous comedian to come out onstage.
But “Rothaniel”, directed by Bo Burnham, is much more than either an announcement or an hour of jokes; it’s an effort to deconstruct the artifice of stand-up to figure out what else it could be.
Heavily collaborative with the audience, the special features Carmichael taking his comedy into an introspective and purposely uncomfortable direction.
He knows how to cut the tension and which jokes would do the trick, but he wants the crowd to feel the lack of catharsis from coming out that he feels and, unexpectedly, find a communal solace in it.
In swopping time loops for time jumps, the second season of “Russian Doll” got messier – and a whole lot more emotionally engaging. For the series’s sophomore outing, star Natasha Lyonne took over show-running duties, mining dark humour from the often harrowing project of excavating one’s family history.
A meditation on inherited trauma and cycles of flawed parenting – with a dash of “Back to the Future” – it’s a decade – and continent-hopping ride through the stories Lyonne’s Nadia thought she knew about her mother and grandmother – and the women who really raised her.
“This Is Going to Hurt”
Funny and romantic aren’t the usual descriptors of a bureaucracy-minded medical drama set in a severely under-resourced state hospital, but this UK series, starring Ben Whishaw as a beyond burnt-out obstetrician, manages to be both, as well as harrowing and deeply moving.
Based on creator Adam Kay’s memoir of his years as a doctor, the fast-paced, none-too-bloody show follows the fictionalised Adam as he flounders at work, where physicians are practically set up to fail by the hospital system, and at home, where he has neither the energy nor emotional reserves to commit to his long-neglected boyfriend.
If you’re hoping to find on this list the kind of show critics can’t stop talking about and not enough people are watching, this is it.
These shows are streaming across several platforms: Showmax, Disney+ and Netflix.