From Netflix to HBO to everywhere else, here are (some of) Polygon’s favorite TV shows of the year so far
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If channel surfing was once a casual pastime, then it has become an Olympic undertaking. Not only are channels now siloed across different streaming platforms, each with their own catalog and subscription fees, but there’s more TV than ever before.
You wouldn’t be alone if you felt like riding the deluge was a Herculean feat; at this rate no one could be expected to fully keep up with even the year’s top-billed releases, let alone the whole horizon of television at the moment. As such, we’ve got a list of the best of the year so far. Take the “so far” as both a promise and a challenge; this is a list we’ll be updating several times throughout the rest of 2022 as new shows drop, older shows settle in our minds, and we (like everyone else) continue to catch up with unsung gems of the year. And if you like lists, we’ve got more lists — specifically lists of the best movies, games, anime, and books of the year so far.
We’re organizing this list with the most recent additions at the top, with older things floating down as we move through the year. With any show that ends in 2022 eligible for consideration, scroll on and see what your next TV watershed moment is. Our last update added For All Mankind, The Sandman, Players, and Ms. Marvel.
Others will credit WandaVision for bringing back appointment television, but For All Mankind fans — or “FAM fam,” as I like to think we call ourselves — know that the Apple TV Plus space drama has done more to reinvigorate the weekly TV release model than any superhero show could. Series creators Ronald D. Moore, Ben Nedivi, and Matt Wolpert understand the distinctive rhythms of episodic and more serialized storytelling, delivering both thrilling stand-alone stories and season-long payoffs. Seeds that were planted in season 1, including Danielle Poole’s ascension at NASA, have borne lasting fruit. I’ve even come around to Danny Stevens’ storyline (somewhat). Season 3’s relay race to Mars is about to cap off with yet another spectacular finale — a FAM special — but even with its dazzling special effects, which can render space both foreboding and alluring, For All Mankind continues to put characters first, because that’s how you make a show last. — Danette Chavez
For All Mankind is available to watch on Apple TV Plus.
Like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman was once thought to be one of the great “unfilmable” masterworks of comic book storytelling. And for good reason: The original 75-issue series is an odyssey of sprawling scope and scale, telling the story of Morpheus, the immortal Lord of Dreams, who undergoes an unprecedented journey of transformation and redemption after being imprisoned on Earth for a human lifetime. It is also, at its core, a story about the power and nature of stories: how they take shape, how they can assume a life of their own, and how they live on long after the minds and hearts of those who conceived them have passed.
After more than a quarter century in production hell, The Sandman has finally manifested on screen thanks to Gaiman and executive producers David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, and the result is nothing short of fantastic. Tom Sturridge’s performance as Morpheus is impressive, as brooding, world-weary, and regal as his comic forebear. Netflix’s live-action adaptation is as bold and ambitious as any big-screen theatrical event, skillfully pulling together the comic’s first two volumes into a 10-episode season while training its sights on major events intended to be explored in further seasons to come. The Sandman isn’t just an excellent dark fantasy series. It’s a dream come true. —Toussaint Egan
The Sandman is available to watch on Netflix.
The creators of one of the funniest television shows of the past decade (American Vandal) return with a hilarious and surprisingly moving mockumentary esports series following a North American League of Legends team through the conflict between two players: a cocky veteran who co-founded the team and an upcoming superstar who’s poised to be the new face of the sport. The showrunners themselves call it an “esports love story,” and the surprising emotional resonance at the core of Players elevates it from hilarious mockuseries to one of the best new shows of 2022.
Veteran Creamcheese, a lovably overconfident idiot, is one of the co-founders of Fugitive Gaming. As the pressure to win his first-ever title continues to mount, the veteran drifts from the team he helped start, especially as Fugitive’s owner asserts control. Creamcheese clutches at straws in a last attempt for legacy, which is played equally for humor and emotion in the Vandal guys’ capable hands.
Rookie Organizm, a hotshot prospect from Philadelphia, is a confident, quiet kid. He’s got a ton of talent but a lot to learn about being one part in a successful team. When he’s thrust into the spotlight early by people who see him as a potential payday, Organizm must sort out his own priorities in the face of mounting pressure by everyone around him.
In addition to those two central figures, Players delivers an array of memorable side characters. There’s coach Braxton, who cares very deeply about Fugitive and even more about the people that comprise it. There’s April, Braxton’s partner in life and work, and the person who actually keeps the organization running. There’s Guru, an ex-player who theatrically retired to start a lifestyle brand as a streamer. The documentary-style approach inspired by sports series like The Last Dance mixed with the show’s fealty to the hyper-specific setting of professional League of Legends is simply a match made in heaven.
Players is a bit of a miracle, managing to be both an effective sports drama and a hilarious mockumentary series (it’s consistently funny, too, not just filled with quippy one-liners). The attention to detail is staggering, and longtime fans of the game and esport will be pleased at how accurate everything looks and sounds. The cast is made up of a mix of actors, real esports personalities playing themselves, and real esports players playing fictional characters — the creators wanted the room filled with experts so that every single moment felt and sounded authentic. It’s a perfect mix for one of the most impressive shows of the year. —Pete Volk
Players is available to watch on Paramount Plus.
For the first time since the early days of Phase One, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a true origin story, albeit a retconned one (honestly, for the better). It’s one of the many reasons Ms. Marvel is the best Marvel show to come out of the Disney Plus era.
Ms. Marvel balances everyday life with the perils of being a superhero. It ties in Kamala Khan’s powers with her past, dives into Pakistan’s history, and explores generational divides. As Kamala, star Iman Vellani is absolutely charming — a first-generation American who struggles to please her parents and now has to navigate her newfound powers with the turmoil of her already stressful day-to-day life. The side characters are also similarly magnetic. If there is one criticism of Ms. Marvel, it’s that it should’ve been longer — a full 12 episodes to really allow everything to breathe.
We’ll see Kamala again, though this time she’ll be fighting alongside the Avengers. Hopefully the smaller stakes and day-to-day life that made Ms. Marvel stand out don’t get lost when she returns. —Petrana Radulovic
Ms. Marvel is available to watch on Disney Plus.
There was a time when the future of Star Trek was a film franchise, all bold action and J.J. Abrams lens flare. But unsurprisingly, the final frontier is right where we have traditionally found it: back on TV. And in a time where we’re more inundated with new Trek TV than ever (at least, assuming you have a Paramount Plus hookup), Strange New Worlds stands head and shoulders above as the best.
The cast is dynamic and hot, but that’s not the only reason SNW has earned its place on the list. Rather, it’s in the way it inventively imagines a new universe out of a world we’re intimately familiar with, using the Star Trek blueprint as a way to boldly go into new formats, questions, and forehead prosthetics. They aren’t all winners, but Strange New Worlds’ episodic format makes it easy to place your trust in those being the exception, not the rule. —Zosha Millman
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is available to watch on Paramount Plus.
The third season of Barry was uneven and divisive, a messy story about characters making desperate and messy choices. As a whole, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of essential television the way the previous two seasons did, but its sixth episode, “710N,” is worth watching on its own, a spectacular half-hour that builds to a car chase that’s going to be an action benchmark for years to come. A masterpiece of restrained yet thrilling filmmaking, “710N” also functions as a sort of climax for the entire series up to this point, as Barry Berkman’s sins are all catching up to him and would like to see him dead. —Joshua Rivera
Barry is available to watch on HBO Max.
If you are not already watching Girls5eva — a show about a group of former girl-group members who decide to reunite at 40, with the manic joke-per-minute ratio of 30 Rock and the comedic earworms by the same guy who wrote joke songs for 30 Rock — then it might be because you don’t have Peacock. Or maybe you don’t want to! All I’ll say is that seems bizarre to me. Not only was Girls5eva season 2 a little knottier and more ambitious than its freshman outing, but it’s the only show I know of where there’s a joke about the Property Brothers secretly longing to make a show where they just flat-out fight people. And it’s definitely the only show I know where the Property Brothers show up as themselves to carry out (and fully commit to) the bit. Don’t you want to be the person gasping for air as you plead with your friends to watch this show?? —ZM
Girls5eva is available to watch on Peacock.
The third season of Atlanta is a difficult one to summarize. As my colleague Joshua Rivera so succinctly put in his review of the premiere, the crux of the show is not so much in a place as it is in a mindset, one which calls attention to the strangeness of race, as well as the peculiarities and dangers of inhabiting a world that warps in response to it.
The latest season of Donald Glover’s dark comedy-drama dabbles in a new format, dividing its run time between tragicomic episodes focused on Earn and co.’s misadventures across Europe and stand-alone anthology episodes, exploring themes like restorative justice, American racial identity, and the perils of white allyship. Not every episode hits the mark, but the willingness of the show’s creators to reinvent the series offers some of the most insightful and incendiary moments Atlanta has yet offered. In short, Atlanta continues to be like nothing else on television right now, and continues to earn its reputation as must-watch TV. —TE
Atlanta is available to watch on Hulu.
Prime Video’s eerie ranch drama comes by way of a writers room filled with playwrights, led by showrunner Brian Watkins. The theatricality of Outer Range is essential: While on its surface it is a science fiction story set on a Wyoming ranch, it is also a story of a family in crisis that draws on many elements of the “kitchen sink” drama.
Outer Range follows the Abbott family — patriarch Royal (Josh Brolin), matriarch Cecilia (Lili Taylor), their sons, Perry (Tom Pelphrey) and Rhett (Lewis Pullman), and Perry’s daughter, Amy (Olive Abercrombie). Their ranch has been in the family for generations, but is under threat as a wealthier, rival family looks to exert their influence to gain control of it. Meanwhile, Royal finds a mysterious hole in the ground, and a mysterious girl (Imogen Poots) on his land. Much of the mystery in Outer Range is about this hole, whose properties and origins bewilder and enthrall all who encounter it.
A contemplative mystery stuffed with shocking moments and visuals, Outer Range is for viewers who like to ponder with their television. It is also a terrific showcase for Brolin’s talents. He shines in the show, given the space to play into moments both quiet and loud. —PV
Outer Range is available to watch on Prime Video.
Apple TV’s brisk six-episode spy thriller is adapted from the 2010 novel of the same name and brings the kind of layered mystery and effectively twist-y plot you’d expect from the genre. Slow Horses follows a group of lovable losers from the world of espionage who have all been punished for past failures or transgressions by being sent to “Slough House,” a dead-end assignment filled with boring paperwork and a general sense of uselessness. They are led by Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), their cantankerous boss whose only moments of joy seem to come with farting. When a kidnapping plot captivates the whole nation, the rejects of Slough House take it upon themselves to save the day.
Slow Horses comes from an effective and unconventional combination of creatives: veteran action and drama directors James Hawes and Jeremy Lovering are paired with a group of writers that have largely worked on comedies (including Paddington 2 and Veep). The result is a spy thriller that nails all the notes you’d want from the genre, while also delivering sitcom-style laughs and characters. —PV
Slow Horses is available to watch on Apple TV Plus.
Pamela Adlon reimagined the coming-of-age story with Better Things, which moved effortlessly through teen angst, middle age and menopause, and the twilight years of one’s life — often in the same episode. The series remained incisive and big-hearted as it explored the various stages of adolescence from the perspectives of Sam Fox’s (Adlon) three children and the travails of working motherhood. The Fox family’s last hurrah was as glorious as it was pensive, as Sam found new, gratifying ways to define this latest chapter of her life. She defied the framing of loss imposed by a patriarchal society and instead chose to focus on all she stood to gain, even as her eldest moved away, her youngest no longer cleaved to her, and her mother rekindled an old flame. As a storyteller, Adlon’s often eschewed closure, but the final 10 episodes of her dreamy FX series certainly cemented her place as one of TV’s auteurs. —DC
Better Things is available to watch on Hulu.
2022 is the year of peak tech scam TV. Coming from the same article-podcast-TV pipeline as other shows like WeCrashed and Super Pumped, The Dropout easily rises above its peers by being less about scandal and more about drama. A chronicle of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, the woman who led the fraudulent blood testing company Theranos to startup superstardom, The Dropout leverages the stellar performance of Amanda Seyfried to craft a portrait of Holmes that’s as humanizing as it is damning. In what could have easily been parody or caricature of one of the startup world’s strangest villains, The Dropout succeeds because of its star, and the work her performance does toward taking a strange true story and turning it into art. —JR
The Dropout is available to watch on Hulu.
Viewers who tune into David Jenkins’ pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death because they’ve heard so much about Thor: Ragnarok and Hunt for the Wilderpeople director Taika Waititi in the show, or about its tender bromance-turned-romance, may be surprised to learn that neither of those elements really kicks in until episode 4 of a 10-episode run. Jenkins explained to Polygon why that had to happen to make the story work, but the result is that viewers who want the series’ full emotional impact have to stick with it through some light early comedy that recalls the early episodes of What We Do In the Shadows.
That comedy has its own charms, and sets a lot of important gears in motion, but it also only teases at Our Flag’s full powerful impact, as Waititi and his longtime partner-in-movies Rhys Darby, playing comic versions of real-life pirates Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, both endure personal identity crises and find the answers in each other. Our Flag never stops being tongue-in-cheek for long, and the parade of comedy ringers pulling cameos — including Leslie Jones, Fred Armisen, Will Arnett, Nick Kroll, and Kristen Schaal — keeps the action lively. But by the end of the first season, it’s also a sweet, smart invitation for viewers to run off and become pirates themselves — or at least examine their assumptions about their own lives and loves. —Tasha Robinson
Our Flag Means Death is available to watch on HBO Max.
The sitcom mockumentary format has been done to death at this point, but against all odds, Abbott Elementary manages to refresh that formula and breathe new life into it. It just makes sense that a school would be the subject of a documentary.
The best part of Abbott Elementary is that each of the teachers just feels real, like a teacher you probably had at one point or another in your life. Sheryl Lee Ralph and Janelle James command the cast as wise kindergarten teacher Barbara and work-allergic, self-absorbed principal Ava, but from eager and sometimes naïve Janine (Quinta Brunson, also series creator) to street smart Philadelphia native Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter), all the characters are vivid, messy, and relatable in their own ways. And they all learn from each other, so no one person is the butt of all the jokes and instead they have their own separate strengths and weaknesses — and separate quirks about them that make them hilarious. Also, the added bonus of the kids being absolutely adorable makes Abbot Elementary particularly special. —PR
Abbott Elementary is available to watch on Hulu.
Severance doesn’t seem like it should work as well as it does. Every bit of the sci-fi thriller — from its tightly tuned performances to the evocatively low-key score, even to the concept of the show itself — feels like a high-wire act, a series of plates spinning atop sticks and staying perfectly balanced. The world where Lumon Industries has allowed (or, more disquietingly, required) workers to sever their work and home identities is trippy and methodic, like an Escher painting come to life.
After all, what do your work and personal self have in common beyond just happening to be the same person? As Severance unpacks just how different those interests are, the result gets more and more chilling as it expertly reminds us of what is actually lost even in the cleanest of work-life balances. —ZM
Severance is available to watch on Apple TV Plus.
Danny McBride’s raunchy story of American failchildren reached new heights and excesses in season 2, adding Jason Schwartzman and Eric Andre to a cast already stuffed to the brim with comedic talent. As my esteemed colleague Joshua Rivera put it, “a single Danny McBride episode will often say more about America than an entire season of one of your little rich people dramas AND have a great fart joke.”
The second season of Gemstones builds on the foundation of the first season, and continues to hold its place as can’t-miss television (especially if you’re okay with the occasional vomit-based gag). It introduces new context for the upbringing and background of family patriarch Eli (John Goodman), linking the showmanship of pro wrestling directly to the theatricality of evangelical megachurch shows, all while methodically cataloging the repeated failures of his (hilariously inept) children to build their own legacy. McBride and co. highlight the absurdity of our current moment with comedy that is at once astutely observant and uproariously vulgar. —PV
The Righteous Gemstones is available to watch on HBO Max.
In a television world stuffed to the brim with police procedurals and 10-hour movies cut into one-hour increments, All Creatures Great & Small stands apart as a charming veterinary serial set in the lush Yorkshire Dales countryside. The second season of All Creatures retains and builds on the appeal of the first season, with top production design, beautiful cinematography, and complicated characters filled with life.
Our central characters branch out from their established molds from the first season, too. James (Nicholas Ralph) is prioritizing what he wants in life and where “home” is, Siegfried (Samuel West) is figuring out how to show his brother he cares about him, Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) is (mostly) growing up and becoming an adult, and Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) is recapturing her identity as her own person. All of the actors are phenomenal, led by Woodhouse and Madeley, who are each given significantly richer material to work with this season.
With World War II looming on the horizon, the second season of All Creatures brings into focus one of the main themes of the show: the little but significant ways in which we can make a difference in the lives of those around us, animals and human alike. (As the characters often remind us, being a good veterinarian is not just about the animals — it’s the people that’s the difficult part.) A loving ode to the original series and books with one of the most charming opening credits sequences on TV, All Creatures is about the difficult, worthwhile pursuit of caring for all living things around us, as best we can. —PV
All Creatures Great & Small is available to watch on PBS Masterpiece.
If Guardians of the Galaxy showed how James Gunn could paint within the lines to form one of the better MCU scripts, then Peacemaker shows what he can accomplish when given relatively free rein. The C-string hero Peacemaker was best known for inspiring Watchmen’s Comedian or being the consummate asshole of The Suicide Squad.
Post-Peacemaker, Gunn showed him in all his human glory: flawed, intense, wounded, caring, an impeccable dancer, bisexual, Vigilante’s best friend. Throughout it all, John Cena as Peacemaker manages to fine-tune some genuine pathos, while also anchoring a rock-solid cast adept at Gunn’s tonal swings. At this point, it’s one of the few superhero projects that feels easy to root for the next chapter of. Here’s to many more eagle hugs. —ZM
Peacemaker is available to watch on HBO Max.
No one is more game than Marshawn Lynch when they come to Murderville. The former NFL running back may get high marks just because his seamless transition into comedy king is something of a surprise, but he earns this episode’s place on this list with every fired-off quip.
What’s great about Lynch’s performance is that he is totally down to clown around when it comes to the scenarios (who knew he’d make such a good mirror to Rob Huebel?), but also makes the whole thing feel like a buddy cop comedy. Whether he’s backing up Seattle’s doll DNA suggestions or defending the time-honored procedural cross-talk — “Then act like you can’t!” he yells at the witness who says he can hear everything they’re saying — Lynch puts the team on his back and just runs with it. —ZM
The Marshawn Lynch episode and the rest of Murderville is available to watch on Netflix.
No show arrived with as much pizzazz in late 2021 as Yellowjackets did. With a pilot directed by Karyn Kusama, the show jumps between a group of teen girls in the 1990s, stranded in the wilderness after their plane crashed en route to a soccer tournament, and their older counterparts, each still coping with the traumatic experience — and also being mysteriously blackmailed by someone about their time in the woods.
Yellowjackets is creatively confident from the jump, deftly balancing its highwire act and slowly unfurling its grand designs, even when you have no idea what to make of them. Even with a slightly mellow (by their standards) finale, Yellowjackets season 2 will have my full attention. Whether it’s handling messy characters, woodsy abortions, or supernatural cultism, Yellowjackets is clearly top of the class. —ZM
Yellowjackets is available to watch on Showtime Anytime.
There is perhaps no show easier and harder to recommend to people this year. Station Eleven, based on the novel of the same name, traces a handful of characters as they live through a deadly pandemic and figure out what life “after” looks like. Its pilot is immediately gripping, thanks to careful writing and images that sear themselves into your mind; it is also, of course, horribly timed, given the on-going pandemic and the waves of unresolved grief that wash around our ankles every minute of the day.
And yet Station Eleven is one of the most beautiful things, start to finish, TV has gotten this year. As Nicole Clark put it in her look back at the season:
Station Eleven is that rare piece of pandemic media that dwells less on the heroism of a solution, or the thrill of a core cause, and more on the idea of the persistence of community and the creation of art. Even as the show forges numerous circuitous connections between its characters, much of its plot is left open-ended. The show’s vignettes work out more like a collage that convey emotional tones. “Survival is insufficient” is more than a mantra painted on the side of the troupe’s wagon. It’s a thread that binds episodes together; it’s a reason to stay alive at all.
It might not always be the easiest of watches, but it’s among the most rewarding. —ZM
Station Eleven is available to watch on HBO Max.
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The best TV shows of 2022, so far – Polygon