The best TV shows of 2022 – and the worst
It was the best of telly, it was the worst of telly. There’s no doubting that the television industry has recovered from Covid, with 2022 providing a gluttonous feast of what we now must call “content”. This has resulted in 12 months of often quite sensational television, mixed with a seemingly endless slurry pit of dross.
To look at things positively, the top 10 here were extremely hard to decide on, with shows such as The Bear, The Responder, Chivalry and Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared unlucky not to be on it. On the other hand, whittling the worst TV down to only five was an even more difficult task. TV’s challenge for 2023: sort the wheat from the chaff.
10. House of the Dragon
It certainly had its critics, but bravo to HBO for so deftly sucking us back into the internecine – and very scaly – indulgences of Westeros. Prequels are never easy, but HotD took a leaf out of Game of Thrones series one’s book and centred the whole thing around one family, the Targaryens. Emma D’Arcy has become a global star with a mesmerising, often intense performance as the wronged Princess Rhaenyra, while Matt Smith and Paddy Considine brought alpha male charisma by the bucket-load. Star of the show, however? A downbeat, holding-midfielder turn from Rhys Ifans, anchoring the scenery-chewing and occasional campness.
9. The White Lotus
Series one, set in Hawaii, was such a perfect little thing that a second series – let alone the greenlit third – seemed an irrelevance. And yet Mike White pulled it off by not only moving the action to Sicily but by reinventing the whole atmosphere of the piece. Out went white colonial guilt; in came sexual inadequacy and marital nausea (although thankfully Jennifer Coolidge remained). Who would have guessed that The White Lotus, of all things, would turn out to be the watercooler whodunit of the year?
Novelist Min Jin Lee’s time-hopping, 100-year family saga surrounding the Japanese annexation of South Korea became the jewel in Apple TV+’s ever shinier crown this year (and beats the socks off the streamer’s good but overrated Severance). Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung (Minari) is wonderful as the protagonist Kim Sunja, but this is a sensational, sweeping ensemble piece that deserves a far wider audience. And those opening credits set in a Japanese arcade – the titular pachinko – are majestic.
Answering the question “Is there anything James Graham can’t do?” with a resounding “No”, Sherwood saw the pre-eminent dramatist of our times turn his hand to a primetime crime drama. This being Graham, however, it was no standard police procedural, with a double murder in a former Nottinghamshire mining town soaking up decades of anxiety about strikes, scabs, Thatcherism, North v South, Right v Left and Us v Them. Graham took the framework of a crime series and created a scintillating state-of-the-nation portrait.
6. Big Boys
Jack Rooke’s sitcom ticks all the boxes for modern-day TV comedies. First-person, semi-autobiographical, heavy themes (grief, coming out), and a preoccupation with mental health. But it makes it onto this list by dint of being funny – and not just wryly amusing once or twice an episode, but consistently, gut-bustingly hilarious from minute to minute. Dylan Llewellyn (James in Derry Girls) is perfect as Rooke, struggling at university following the death of his beloved father, but the show belongs to the sorely underrated Jon Pointing as crumbling jack-the-lad Danny.
5. Better Call Saul
In modern parlance: it stuck the landing. Better Call Saul, the law-themed prequel to legendary drama Breaking Bad, didn’t just have to wrap up six series of searing Saul Goodman brilliance, but also had to put the lid on the story of drug baron Walter White. As ever, the show took its sweet time, leisurely – though always thrillingly – taking us to the beginning, middle and end of Goodman’s story. Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn will scoop the awards, but the show is impeccably cast from top to bottom – a shoutout to Tony Dalton, who turned Lalo Salamanca into one of the most memorable TV baddies ever.
4. A Spy Among Friends
In one sense this real-life espionage story, based on Ben MacIntyre’s book about Kim Philby’s defection to the Soviet Union, is extraordinarily complicated, comprised as it is of layer upon layer of truth, mistruth, misdirection, imagination and storytelling wizardry – throughout we are shown several people’s version of events, all mixed up into one narrative. But its success is wonderfully simple: stick three brilliant actors in a room together (though not all always at the same time) – Guy Pearce, Damian Lewis, Anna Maxwell Martin – and allow them to psychologically unravel each other.
No one is more surprised than me to see a Star Wars spinoff series so high on this list – I almost refused to watch it after the mind-numbing irrelevances that were Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Book of Boba Fett. But writer Tony Gilroy pulled off an amazing trick: he took this prequel, set in the years before the events of the first Star Wars film, and infused it with pallid, humdrum 1970s dread (from the grey imperial uniforms to the coterie of little-known British character actors – an Emmy for the casting team, please). Gilroy asked a simple, brilliant question: what if Star Wars was real?
2. This is Going to Hurt
Adam Kay’s black-comic “Confession of an Obs-and-Gynae Doctor” found its perfect outlet in Ben Whishaw, whose fourth-wall-breaking performance as Kay was by turns compelling, loathsome and heartbreaking as we saw his psyche – and the NHS – collapse around his ears, following a catastrophic misjudgment with a pregnant patient. It was both a love letter and poison pen letter to the NHS, showing up its brilliance and its dreadful shortcomings, and made a star of Whishaw’s unknown co-star, Ambika Mod, whose storyline as a tragic junior doctor will live long in the memory.
1. The English
It was the sound of a machine gun that made me realise that Hugo Blick’s revisionist, surrealist Spaghetti Western was TV drama of the highest order. Previous to that moment, in episode four, The English was shaping up to be a mesmerising, beautifully stylised and very odd Wild West odyssey/homage, as Emily Blunt’s prim Englishwoman dragged herself through the frontier on a revenge mission. And then, off-screen, a village of Cheyenne was massacred, to the echoing, blood-freezing thud-thud-thud of the machine gun, and The English pulled off its mask and revealed itself to be a horror. Did every single moment of every single scene work? No, but when it did work, it sang to the heavens.
11. The Bear
13. I Hate Suzie Too
14. The Dropout
15. The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe
16. The Rehearsal
19. The Responder
20. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared
5. This England
Kenneth Branagh's Boris Johnson drama evaporated in a cloud of its own pointlessness
4. Inside Man
Steven Moffat's crime drama was a stupid person’s idea of a clever TV drama
3. The Crown
Has any show suffered a bigger fall from grace? Gratuitous and dull
2. Our House
TV's property porn reached its nadir with this utterly dumb domestic thriller
1. The Pentaverate
Mike Myers defecated – quite literally – on his comic legacy