With the advent of streaming services, the world has been flooded with television series—much too many for any one person to watch. These shows are mostly good but rarely great. I’ve come to realize why television tends toward mediocrity. Most people only half-watch tv in the background while doing other things like browsing social media on a second screen. They don’t have the self-discipline to not look at their phone while watching tv, so tv shows cannot be too intellectually challenging. TV shows are purposely dumbed-down so they can be half-watched while viewers are multitasking. Most people don’t have the attention span to watch artistic films—or movies that make you think. That’s why most tv shows drag on and are repetitive—so people can still understand what’s going on while scrolling Instagram. But if I’m going to watch something, I devote my full attention, which is the way cinema is meant to be seen. The other issue with television is series being canceled prematurely and never getting closure. It is for these reasons, among others, that I prefer movies to tv series. Though there were a few series worth watching this year.
1. The Rehearsal – Season 1 (2022)
Nathan Fielder is a mad genius of comedy. His previous show, Nathan For You, was the funniest show I’ve seen in years, so I was eagerly awaiting whatever he did next. The Rehearsal is in the same vein but with a different premise, though it is just as absurd, awkward, and laugh-out-loud hysterical. Essentially Nathan helps real people rehearse for upcoming important events in their lives by creating ridiculously accurate simulations for them beforehand.
Some critics say the show is exploitative of the “actors,” and perhaps it is, but I think Nathan is aware of this and is using the show to provide critical commentary on how all reality shows exploit their “actors”—except they are not transparent about it like he is. So you (the audience) don’t realize the exploitation—nor do the reality show “actors” themselves. True “reality” shows are just as fake, manipulative, and exploitative as The Rehearsal.
2. The White Lotus – Season 1 (2021) & 2 (2022)
This series of miniseries follows a group of characters on vacation at an upscale resort, with the foreshadowing that one of them will die by the end, though you don’t know who or why. White Lotus really captures the “vibes” of the current times. The writing and character development are top-notch. It’s brilliant how all the storylines interconnect, building tension and momentum toward the end. The show has characters clashing with different cultures and ideologies, but the writer/director (Mike White) never comes out and says “this is good or this is bad.” He just portrays people honestly and leaves the judgment up to the viewer, as good art should.
Season one is set in Hawaii and season two is set in Sicily—both were equally amazing. I love the format of making each season a self-contained miniseries with new characters (except for one who carried over). As a writer myself, I am amazed at the quality of writing on this show, all done by Mike White. This show features some of the best character work you will ever see.
3. Archive 81 – Season 1 (2022)
This series features my favorite type of horror: that infused with mystery and noir. The “investigator” in this series is a film restorer working on found-footage of a woman who was investigating an old apartment building in NYC inhabited by a cult that worships an ancient god/demon involved with a comet. It is very Lovecraftian as it deals with ancient cults, pagan gods, creepy statues, and interdimensional terror. I won’t say much more to avoid spoilers, but this was one of the best horror television series I’ve ever seen. I prefer miniseries, but this seemed like they were setting up for a season two. Either way, it had a fulfilling enough ending. [Update] It looks like there will not be a second season. I don’t mind because that makes for a more horrific ending.
4. Midnight Mass – Miniseries (2021)
I’ve been a fan of director Mike Flanagan for a while now, but this is his best and most ambitious work to date. It is a perfect horror miniseries, but it’s much more than merely “horror.” There is actually very little horror (visceral or cerebral) early on in the series—though the show is quite cerebral throughout. The episodes are character-based and philosophical, exploring the biggest themes possible: of faith and science, life and death, and the purpose of suffering. As for the horror element that comes in later, I won’t say what it is, as that is a spoiler. I knew nothing about Midnight Mass before watching (other than Flanagan’s involvement), and the less you know about it beforehand, the better viewing experience it will be.
5. The X-Files – Season 1 (1993)
Despite the X-Files being right up my alley, a sci-fi mystery exploring so many subjects I’m interested in (UFOs, cryptids, and conspiracy theories), I never watched this hit show, aside from a couple random episodes years ago. When it first premiered I was too young to watch, and I didn’t get into it later because, pre-streaming, it was impossible to catch up on previous seasons—or to see a current episode if you had something else to do that night (aside from taping shows on VHS). In recent years, I had been wanting to go back and watch The X-Files from the start in full, but it was a daunting task, as there are over 200 episodes. Plus I wasn’t even sure if the series would hold up after all these years. The X-Files came before “prestige TV” and serialization, so the show was more episodic, with self-contained “monsters of the week.”
Thankfully the show does hold up. Chris Carter and crew were ahead of their time with many of the ideas explored in the show, which was clearly influential on so much pop culture that came after. That was another fear—that since I’ve seen so many shows and movies influenced by the X-Files, I’d find the original redundant, but it still feels fresh and original. Many have copied the X-Files but few have done it as well. Also surprisingly, I found the self-contained episodes refreshing. I usually prefer serialized TV shows, but there are too many serialized shows these days, so I like the idea of watching a 40-minute short film, like Black Mirror, but with the same star characters, Mulder and Scully, every time. Another good thing about the episodic nature of the show is I can take my time with it without needing to remember what happened last episode. Though there are a few “core” episodes each season that progress a larger story arc. In this sense, the X-Files may have started the serialization trend. Finally, I love all the 90s nostalgia: the hair, clothes, cars, and music. It’s like stepping into a time machine.
6. Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. – Miniseries (2022)
This is a wild true-crime docuseries about a successful vegan female restaurant owner (Sarma) who gets swindled by a conman (Strangis) whom she marries. Together they defraud her friends, family, employees, and investors of $6 million. It is a great character study, showing how she was manipulated by this con man, similar to the brainwashing of a cult. The question is how did she let it get that far? And is Sarma equally responsible as Strangis, or is she more of a victim herself?
7. House of the Dragon – Season 1 (2022)
I had mild expectations for this show. Though I was a massive fan of Game of Thrones, I was a bit let down by the final season. Plus, in general, I am not a fan of prequels. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by how good this show was. It was not as epic and sprawling in scope as GoT, instead was much more narrowly focused on King’s Landing and the three main families vying for power. But the series takes place over a longer time span, following those characters and their families over decades. I thoroughly enjoyed the series but was somewhat disappointed that the finale ended on a cliffhanger. I know the story will continue in season 2, but I would rather have gotten some more closure in the finale—which is why I prefer miniseries to multi-season series.
8. The Midnight Club – Season 1 (2022)
Another great horror series from Mike Flanagan. It combines depression/sadness/drama with horror by following a group of terminally ill teenagers at a (possibly haunted) hospice, preparing to die. Despite the connection to death, it’s not a combination I’ve seen before (horror and terminal illness) but it works. Plus I like the story-within-a-story concept of the teens gathering at midnight to tell each other scary stories. And I am always fascinated by odd cults.
Flanagan has done traditional horror movies and done it well, but with these new Netflix series he is pushing the boundaries of what horror can do by exploring deep and heavy subject matter. Perhaps fans of straightforward slashers will be disappointed that there are not enough “scares,” but I am not among them. I love everything Flanagan is doing. My only disappointment with The Midnight Club was its ending—or lack thereof, as it has a cliffhanger with untied knots, setting up a second season. I would have preferred it to be a limited miniseries like Flanagan’s other Netflix shows, but I’ll be eager to watch the next season when it comes out. [Update] The Midnight Club season 2 is canceled as Flanagan moves from Netflix to Amazon. This is why I prefer miniseries. I devote my time to watching a season, become invested in the plot and characters, there’s a cliffhanger ending with threads untied, and then the show gets canceled… At least Flanagan wrote a Tumblr post to explain what would have been.
9. Raised by Wolves – Season 2 (2022)
The first season of Raised by Wolves was one of my favorite shows two years ago, and I wasn’t sure then if there would be a second season. I said I would have been satisfied if that was the end—and maybe it should have stayed that way. Don’t get me wrong, season 2 wasn’t bad, it just felt less focused and more meandering, like they weren’t sure where they wanted to go and were dragging the story out to get more episodes. That has always been my complaint with multi-season television series and why I prefer limited miniseries. Westworld and Mr. Robot ran into similar problems. With the first season of Raised by Wolves, I was so pleased to see a high-budget show featuring great action and production values covering sophisticated science fiction (like Westworld s.1). But season 2 (of both shows) didn’t bring anything new to the table. It was just more of the same, only with lesser substance. RbW s.2 felt especially slow in the first few episodes, but it ramped up toward the end. I am interested in the way they deal with religion and artificial intelligence. The ending was intriguing enough that I will hold out hope for season three. [Update] Another show bites the dust…
10. Cabinet of Curiosities – Season 1 (2022)
This horror anthology presented by Guillermo del Toro was a mixed bag. I was disappointed by the first episode, based on a protagonist you hate so much that you are happy to see him die at the end. Good horror should be the opposite: characters you like dying at the end—or narrowly avoiding death, depending on whether you want a happy or sad ending. There were two H.P. Lovecraft adaptations: “Pickman’s Model” and “Dreams in the Witch House.” They made several unnecessary deviations from the source material, but both were still decent enough. David Prior is one of my favorite current directors (see my reviews of The Empty Man and AM1200), and his episode (“The Autopsy”) did not disappoint. But the best episode by far was “The Viewing” directed by Panos Cosmatos. Despite being set in 1979, it was more Lovecraftian than the actual Lovecraft adaptations. Thankfully it did what the first couple of episodes did not: have characters you actually like and care for, then bad things happen to them. Without spoiling too much, they encounter true cosmic horror.
Honorable Mentions (alphabetical by title):
Ancient Apocalypse (2022)
I’ve been a fan of Graham Hancock since first seeing him on Joe Rogan’s podcast several years ago. His theory is fascinating: that an ancient advanced civilization was destroyed by an astronomical cataclysm 12,500 years ago (the Younger Dryas impact), resulting in massive worldwide flooding, and what we know of civilization was rebuilt by survivors of that lost civilization. It is a speculative theory, but in this series, he goes to various archeological sites throughout the world to explore physical evidence that we “are a species with amnesia.”
Futurama – multiple seasons (1999-present)
Futurama was one of my favorite shows from the past, probably the best sci-fi comedy ever (better than Rick and Morty). It is a major influence for the type of comedic futurism I try to emulate in my “Future Fake News” posts on Time Zone Weird. I had been re-watching Futurama last year before learning they would be bringing it back (again). I often re-watch episodes late at night before falling asleep. The show is so fun and endlessly re-watchable. I doubt the reboot will be as good as the original run, as the latest reboots weren’t as good either, but they were still better than most other shows of this type. Futurama is a show that should always be on the air (like The Simpsons). We need a future-based show (like The Jetsons) to inspire people to think and talk about the future.
The Future Of… (2022)
A Netflix docuseries of short 20-minute episodes exploring various facets of life and how technology will change it in the future, including dogs/pets, houseplants, dating, video games, the afterlife, skyscrapers, and health.
How to Change Your Mind (2022)
A docuseries based on the book by Michael Pollen about the positive potential of psychedelics (LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline) as medical treatments. The title has a double meaning of how to change your mind about psychedelics from the propagandized “War on Drugs” and D.A.R.E. mindset in which all drugs are viewed as dangerous and deadly. The title also refers to how psychedelics literally do “change your mind” or psychological mindframe, oftentimes for the better. Psilocybin and MDMA seem especially promising for the treatment of PTSD and trauma. Psychedelics can also help otherwise healthy people by boosting their creativity and expanding their consciousness. But psychedelics are not completely benign cure-alls either. They are powerful substances that must be used carefully and treated with respect.
Love, Death, & Robots – Season 3 (2022)
This season was a major disappointment and I almost gave up on the show entirely because every episode was so bad for different reasons, either stupid comedy, mindless action, or boring melodrama. The John Scalzi adaptation was a particularly awful wish-fulfillment fantasy set in the future where all his political opponents are dead because they were so stupid…LOL. But then the second-to-last episode (“In Vaulted Halls Entombed”) was a Lovecraftian sci-fi horror that was fantastic. (More like that please.) I still have high hopes for this series because I love the premise of adapting sci-fi short stories as short films, and there are so many great short stories ripe for adaptation. Just please choose better stories to adapt next season.
Rick and Morty – Season 6 (2022)
I don’t know if it’s me or them, but I don’t enjoy Rick and Morty as much as I used to. Either my tastes have evolved or the quality of the writing isn’t as good—probably a combination of the two. Though Rick and Morty is still enjoyable enough to avoid falling into the next category…
Stranger Things – Season 4 (2022)
Stranger Things has basically become a teenage soap opera with occasional horror. It is so drawn out and drags on and on. They use the Lost and Game of Thrones tactic of arbitrarily separating characters just to waste an entire season trying to reunite them. I would have given up on this season sooner, but it was only six episodes. Then I got to the finale and saw it was one hour and 40 minutes, so I said “eff this,” and cut the cord.
Stranger Things had a fantastic first season and should have stayed that, a miniseries. Then again, tons of people still love the show, and I wouldn’t want to take that away from them. It’s a difference in personality, I suppose. Some people see something they like and want to see more of the same thing over and over again. But if I see something I like then I want to see something completely different that I may like just as much or even more so. That’s my core issue with Stranger Things. The first season was great, but ever since then, it’s been—not bad—but just more of the same with diminishing returns.
The Book of Boba Fett – Season 1 (2021)
I almost gave up on this show mid-season, but the episodes with the Mandolorian (and deepfake Luke Skywalker) were better—until the finale which had a long drawn-out action battle that felt like an extended cut scene from a video game. I cared more about Mando (whose face you never see) and Baby Yoda (who never talks) than either of the two leads in The Book of Boba Fett. The actor who played Mando (Pedro Pascal) had more charisma and screen presence wearing a faceless helmet the entire time than the actor who played Boba Fett did without his helmet. What made Boba Fett so badass in the old movies was that he remained hidden and mysterious under his armor. The creators understood this with Mando. But then they made the mistake of trying to humanize Boba Fett in this series. The actor was too old and out of shape to be an action hero. It might have worked with a younger more charismatic actor, but instead it felt like watching Count Dooku, a graying old man, jumping around like an acrobat in Attack of the Clones. He was too old and slow, so I couldn’t buy it—it just looked silly. Not that there’s anything wrong with basing a story around an older actor. Unforgiven was fantastic, but that movie made Clint Eastwood’s age a part of the story, rather than pretending he could still do anything and take on ten men half his age at the same time.
Obi-Wan Kenobi – Season 1 (2022)
This was slightly better than The Book of Boba Fett, but nowhere near as good as The Mandalorian. It felt disjointed tonally, not to mention completely superfluous in the first place. They tried to build tension with a big lightsaber fight between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, but we already knew both would survive. Plus the violence was like a children’s cartoon where multiple people get stabbed in the chest with lightsabers yet somehow survive??? There are multiple times of false drama throughout the show because we already knew the characters “in danger” had to survive. That is the problem with prequels and why they are rarely good. Which is again what made The Mandalorian season one so refreshing—it was all new characters with a new story where anything could happen. After Obi-Wan and Boba Fett, my interest in future Star Wars shows has dropped precipitously. I was just about ready to give up on the Star Wars franchise altogether—then Andor came out with nearly unanimous positive reviews, and I am a fan of Tony Gilroy’s previous work. [Update: I started watching Andor and it is indeed amazing, despite being a prequel of a prequel. More on that show next year when I finish watching.] Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…