The 11 best TV shows from the first half of 2022

“Abbott Elementary,” “Barry” and more — plus a riveting, real-life procedural drama on Capitol Hill


Clockwise from top left: Quinta Brunson in "Abbott Elementary" (Scott Everett White/ABC); David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Lancashire in "Julia" (Seacia Pavao/HBO Max); Nicco Annan in "P-Valley" (Curtis Baker/Starz); Gaia Girace in "My Brilliant Friend" (Eduardo Castaldo/HBO).
Clockwise from top left: Quinta Brunson in "Abbott Elementary" (Scott Everett White/ABC); David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Lancashire in "Julia" (Seacia Pavao/HBO Max); Nicco Annan in "P-Valley" (Curtis Baker/Starz); Gaia Girace in "My Brilliant Friend" (Eduardo Castaldo/HBO).
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Chefs, comedians, congressional committee members and a hit man turned wannabe actor populate the best shows of 2022 — suggesting, perhaps, that our most ambitious and resonant stories stem from reexamining 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 of the 11 shows on this list are hosted there. 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, these shows capture the current moment of an entertainment industry — and a country — undergoing shifts whose consequences have yet to fully reveal themselves.

‘Abbott Elementary’

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 own 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. (Returns in the fall on ABC; streams on ABC.com and Hulu)

‘Barry’

After three seasons, I’m still not entirely certain that “Barry’s” Frankensteinish patchwork of hit man existentialism, gangland thriller and Hollywood satire quite works. But if the whole doesn’t quite 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 favorite NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan). (Aired on HBO; streams on HBO Max)

‘The Bear’

The first of two food-centric shows on this list, “The Bear” sounds like no other series on TV, ably capturing the nonstop 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. (Streams on Hulu)

‘Hacks’

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-protegee relationship between Deborah and Ava. Traveling 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 still find hard to face in the mirror. (Streams on HBO Max)

The Jan. 6 hearings

One of the year’s most gripping spectacles on television happens to be the most momentous. The Jan. 6 hearings, led by the bipartisan duo of Reps. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), has been for many the show of the summer, churning out revelation after revelation and reframing the 2021 insurrection with renewed urgency and justified alarm. Methodical yet full of surprises, with powerful stories and indelible images, an event like this reminds us of television’s political power — and what politics could look like when partisan distractions get out of the way. (Streams on a variety of sites, including YouTube)

The Jan. 6 hearings and the spectacle of competence

‘Julia’

Like “Hacks,” “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 marvelously charming as the restless housewife turned unlikely star who, in this telling, 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 traveling 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 all of 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 dreamed 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. (Aired on HBO; streams on HBO Max)

‘P-Valley’

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 characterizations 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 maneuvers 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. (Airs on Starz)

‘Rothaniel’

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. (Aired on HBO; streams on HBO Max)

‘Russian Doll’

In swapping 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 showrunning duties, mining dark humor 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. (Streams on Netflix)

‘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 U.K. series, starring Ben Whishaw as a beyond burned-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 fictionalized 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. And yes, it really is great enough to warrant finding out what the heck AMC Plus is to view it. (Streams on AMC Plus)

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