WIt’s a weird, transitional year for TV! So far, we’ve seen Netflix falter and CNN+ flop. A lot of fantastic old shows have recently returned from extended pandemic hiatuses—but, for me, the pleasures of getting reacquainted with Atlanta, Saul is better, et al. were temperated by an awareness about how poor we are at fantastic New shows. Particularly those that are like Barry And More Good ThingsThe first television screen to show the concept of “The Small Screen” was in fact on the small screen. If this spring’s barrage of mostly mediocre docudramas is any indication of what’s to come, we may well be months, rather than years, away from glimpsing the creative limits of intellectual-property-based storytelling on TV. And if that’s the case, the great streaming reckoning can’t come soon enough.
Abbott Elementary (ABC)
You thought that the sitcom network was gone, but the latest example shows the form is still relevant. The Good Place arrives fully formed on ABC’s Tuesday-night lineup. Quinta Brunson is an Alum of the program. Sketches by Black Lady Who got her started making hilarious Instagram videos? Abbott Elementary Follow the carefree, but deeply committed teachers at a Philadelphia primary school with low resources. Shows often feature teachers facing a scammer principal Janelle James who will try to take any remaining funds. The mockumentary format allows for a clever balance between warm scenes in classrooms and sharp humor. This is a rare broadcast prime time episode that’s easy to watch, cheap, and 21 minutes long.
Read More: Quinta Brunson on Using Comedy to Address America’s Education Problems in Abbott Elementary
There has been some complaining, since it returned in March from a four-year hiatus, that Donald Glover’s rule-breaking experimental comedy isn’t funny anymore. That’s what I understand. You probably didn’t get the Florida Man or another invisible car gag from any episode of season 3. Its creator evidently anticipated a backlash as well, if official episode descriptions written in the voice of a frustrated fan (“I think everybody knows blackface ain’t cool anymore, we get it. They be trying too hard to go viral”) are any indication.
The best part about it? Atlanta The way that it challenges and surprises its audience has been its trademark. So it was inevitable that Glover would respond to its success by frustrating viewers’ appetite for easy entertainment. (See also: his Childish Gambino video “This Is America.”) Ambitious, uneven and sometimes downright unrecognizable, season 3 finds a show grounded in the Black experience interrogating whiteness. Set amid freshly ascended headliner Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) European tour, but also incorporating whole episodes that sideline the regular characters in favor of parable-like vignettes populated by unfamiliar faces, it offers an outsider’s closeup view of an in-group whose relationships, consciences and worldviews have been shaped by privilege. Even though the end result can sometimes be messy, Glover still offers new insight on race and identity as well as white supremacy in a medium that often rehashes the old.
Continue reading: Atlanta‘s Unsparing Season 3 Premiere Is Worth the 4-Year Wait
A show about a hitman who catches the acting bug could’ve been the broadest of fish-out-of-water comedies. Instead, three seasons in, Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s far-fetched premise has transformed Gene Cousineau’s (Henry Winkler, still great) acting class into a lens through which to view life trajectories of all sorts. When you’re a preternaturally talented assassin who yearns to be a nice, normal guy, which role reflects the person you really are? As the story keeps expanding to dissect more of the characters that surround Hader’s Barry, from thoughtful, mild-mannered Chechen gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) to Barry’s girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), a domestic violence survivor who has unwittingly chosen another partner with a dark side, we see how everyone strikes some kind of compromise between their interests, instincts, abilities, and circumstances. Season 3 offers TV viewers the opportunity to see a brutal story about streaming economies.
Saul is better (AMC)
Less than midway through the final season of what has long been TV’s best crime drama—but also so much more—the connections between Breaking Bad Both the somehow superior prequel to it and their slowly solidifying. Meanwhile, Saul is better has given us more beautifully shot action scenes, noble deaths, wild schemes, and even the origin story of Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) strip-mall headquarters. On an even more impressive, thematic level, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have used five seasons’—or, in the case of characters like Saul and Jonathan Banks’ Mike, two discrete series’—worth of patient, subtle character development to craft some of the most compelling moral dilemmas ever seen on TV. As the second season’s conclusion approaches, there will be plenty more. It doesn’t matter what it finishes, Saul It has earned its place among the top shows of all time.
More Good Things (FX)
When the credits rolled on this spring’s series finale of Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical quasi-comedy about an actor who also happens to be a single mom, all I could feel was gratitude. Thank you for the meditative tone. Gratitude because it embraces chaos, flux and uncertainty. Gratitude is for its willingness to let themes and relationships evolve, instead of trying to make them more complicated in the name of plot advancement. Gratitude for its representation of cool women over 40—an inspiration to those of us who are fast approaching that milestone. Gratitude for its empathetic portrayal of young people in all stages of growing up, from childhood bullying to wrestling with gender identity as a teen to dropping out of college when what you’re looking for can’t be found in any Ivory Tower. Gratitude for Adlon’s interest in life’s big, philosophical questions, even if she would never be so presumptuous as to pretend she had all the answers.
More Good Things emerged from the downfall of its since-departed co-creator, Louis CK, during the hiatus between its second and third seasons, not just a morally cleansed show, but also a stronger one, fueled solely by Adlon’s auteurist vision. By the time it wrapped, it had been her project—with help from an excellent young cast and a rotating group of talented writers—for longer than it had been their shared one. Even before this, Adlon was fully committed to the look and feel of every episode. It seems appropriate that Adlon left Sam Fox as her main character just when Sam was beginning to move behind the camera. The best endings are both a promise of new beginnings and a way to end the story. More Good Things left us with the thrill of imagining the Fox family’s limitless future.
Learn More: Season Finale of More Good Things Is Pamela Adlon’s Masterpiece
Conversations with Friends (Hulu)
Many viewers adored Normal peopleThe first Hulu adaptation by Sally Rooney, a millennial novelist. I wasn’t one of them. Happily, Conversations with Friends—another 12-episode, half-hour Rooney drama from the same team that made People—is both a better book and a better show. This story is told languidly in the brief time frame of a Dublin Summer. It pairs two college-aged women, Alison Oliver (played as Sasha Lane) with a married couple (Joe Alwyn & Jemima Kirke) that are enjoying successful careers in the arts. Infidelity ensues, between Oliver’s naive Frances and Alwyn’s depressive Nick. However, its heart is sensuous. ConversationsThe story is about a growing-up tale that teaches you how to solve problems, rather than avoid them, and how to have healthy adult relationships. It’s a page-turner for the eyes, and a beach read for the screen.
Learn More: Sally Rooney appears on the TIME100 list for 2022
Plainville’s Girl (Hulu)
If I never have to see another true-crime docudrama, it’ll be too soon. That said, they aren’t all as broad, pointless, and trashy as your CandyYou and I Joe vs. CaroleYou and I The Pam is the Best Things. A few are actually quite good—and none more so than this muted account of the tragic Michelle Carter “texting suicide” case. What could easily have been a Lifetime melodrama about an evil girl who bullies her boyfriend into killing himself becomes, thanks to creators Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus, a heartbreaking case study in which two teens’ brain chemistry, hormones, and the everyday stresses of smartphone-era adolescence collide, with disastrous results. The sense that the circumstances leading to Conrad Roy’s death were not, in fact, so distant from the lives of regular teens gives the show haunting subtext that’s reinforced by understated performances from Elle Fanning as Michelle and Chloë Sevigny, in the role of Conrad’s mother Lynn.
Read More: The True Story Behind Hulu’s Plainville’s Girl
Made for Love (HBO Max)
It’s been a hard few months for shows unveiling their second seasons. Russian doll, Starstruck, Unfinished, Girls5eva—they’ve all returned recently, with solid follow ups to promising-to-excellent debut seasons, and struggled to gain traction in a streaming news cycle dominated by the many new titles platforms rushed out to meet this year’s Emmy deadline. It’s especially sad in the case of Made for Love, which built on a fun but watered-down first season with new episodes that truly do justice to author and series creator Alissa Nutting’s hilarious and subversive novel.
This dark comedy follows Hazel (Cristin Millioti), the wife to control-freak tech mogul Byron Gogol, (Billy Magnussen), as she flees his secret headquarters at the Hub. Made for Love spent most of its early episodes developing the relationship between a heroine who’s been sequestered away from the real world and her cancer-stricken dad (Ray Romano). While she was reestablishing herself in her home town, the theme of consent played in the background. She also struggled with surveillance from Ray Romano, her husband, who unbeknownstto Hazel had implanted an intruding chip into her brain. With that groundwork laid, season 2—which is set mostly at the Hub—has launched wholeheartedly into the questions of love, technology and personal agency that animate the book. Nutting engages with complex characters and intelligent humor to explore the timely ideas of Nutting’s research.
Search Party (HBO Max)
Starting at LostYou can find more information here Game of ThronesShows that take viewers on ever deeper rabbit holes of plot, world building, and strangeness are more likely to struggle with endings. This is not the case with Search Party. What premiered in 2016 as a mumblecore dramedy about an aimless millennial, Alia Shawkat’s Dory, who seeks purpose through investigating the disappearance of an acquaintance, wrapped this winter with one of the most gloriously bonkers TV seasons ever made. Cultists, zombies, influencers, miracle drugs, a psychopathic little boy offered up for adoption by John Waters, a Willy-Wonka-meets-Elon-Musk entrepreneur played by Jeff Goldblum—these episodes truly had it all. Yet the show’s embrace of absurdity made perfect sense as the real world that Search Party The absurdity of the comedy kept falling, especially for its central audience, young people who had high educations and were underemployed.
Severance (Apple TV+)
Severance is the best new show of the year—and it’s not even close. Set at the mysterious megacorp Lumon Industries, this dark sci-fi drama imagines a workplace where employees undergo a procedure that “severs” the person they are at the office (a.k.a. their “innie”) from the person they’ve always been and will continue to be whenever they’re off the clock (their “outie”). Aside from the many thorny ethical and existential quandaries implicit in the act of subcontracting out a newly created self who happens to share one’s body, the question is: what are Adam Scott’s Mark and his team of desk jockeys actually Doing that’s sensitive enough to require such extreme information-security measures? Chillingly, even their innies, and viewers, have no idea as to the real-world impact of the rote, computerized tasks they’ve been assigned.
The execution of a complex premise like this is crucial. Severance’s near-perfect debut season is a credit to first-time creator Dan Erickson, whose tightly focused scripts establish a compelling and eerily plausible alternate universe; to director Ben Stiller, who perfectly calibrates the pace and mood of each scene; and to a stellar cast that also features Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, Christopher Walken and, in an especially haunting performance as a new hire at Lumon, rising talent Britt Lower. Season 2 can’t come soon enough.
Honourable Mentions: Andy Warhol Diaries (Netflix), The Dropout (Hulu), Ptolemy Grey in the Last Days (Apple TV+), It’s time to talk about the Cosby (Showtime), This City is Ours (HBO)
Here are more must-read stories from TIME