Well, friends, we have survived to (almost) the end of another year of television. TV is great, and also often terrible. But given how much of it there is, simple math tells us that there’s still more worth watching than anyone not actually able to insert extra hours into the day can manage.
As is my custom, only shows new this year are included on this annual list of faves, or there would be mention of “Reservation Dogs,” “Russian Doll” and “Atlanta.” (These are not the Emmys; we believe in turnover.) And once again I have thematically paired some shows in the service of fitting in as many as possible into what is traditionally a 10-item list. (OK, I went to 11, like a Spinal Tap amplifier.) Even so, tough decisions had to be made, and so “Bad Sisters,” “The Sandman,” “Tokyo Vice,” “Wednesday,” “Bee and Puppycat” and “Dead End: Paranormal Park” remain semifinalists — which I have nevertheless managed to mention.
The world may be in a mess, but these shows tend to be optimistic and humanistic, even the ones with superheroes, space travelers, time travelers and pirates. Some were relatively little seen (and, not incidentally, poorly promoted), and a couple have already been canceled. But this is not a popularity contest.
‘The Bear’ (FX on Hulu)
Life inside a Chicago diner, with Jeremy Allen White as a gourmet chef out to elevate and regulate the sandwich shop his late brother left him. A close-quarters, life-sized human comedy, and sometimes a drama, about the possibility and difficulty of change that conjures a world between the counter and the walk-in refrigerator. (Read our full review)
‘Paper Girls’ (Prime Video)
In which a quartet of 12-year-old girls, caught in a time war, are transported from the 1980s into the not-so-distant future, where they confront their older selves and destinies. The writing is deft, the performances marvelous; it’s short on monsters, full of feeling — and canceled on a cliffhanger, so someone please pick this up while the actors are still young. (Read our full review)
‘She-Hulk: Attorney at Law’ / ‘Ms. Marvel’ (Disney+)
Marvel movies rake in the cash, but its television series are light-years more inventive. Superheroics are nearly beside the point in the metafictional “She-Hulk,” one of the funniest shows going, with star Tatiana Maslany as winning out of green skin as in. With its teenage Pakistani American heroine (Iman Vellani) and Muslim supporting characters, “Ms. Marvel” feels radical just by existing, but it’s a fun, suspenseful, surprisingly deep adventure that mixes history lessons with extradimensional mutants and coming-of-age tropes.
‘High School’ (Freevee)
Canadian twin singing sisters Tegan and Sara, working with Clea Duvall, convert their memoir of growing up queer in ’90s Calgary into a quietly electric comedy-drama that expertly captures adolescent reality in all its radiance and confusion — plus, it’s unusually acute about the way music sneaks into a life and takes it over.
‘The Afterparty’ (Apple TV+)
Great comic actors having a ball inside a twisty murder mystery that feels both classic and contemporary. Each suspect’s testimony — overlapping, conflicting — is couched in a different film genre. Not a completely original idea, perhaps, but never better executed. (Read our full review)
‘Pachinko’ (Apple TV+)
A moving, trilingual, multigenerational historical melodrama, set among a Korean family living in Japan, with gorgeous, centered, central performances by Minha Kim and Emmy winner Yuh-Jung Youn as the same woman, young and old. Rich in character and event, (mostly) eschewing cheap effects, it’s thoughtful and political and human and makes room for stillness among the set pieces. (Read our full review)
‘Nothing Special’ (Netflix) / ‘Rothaniel’ (HBO)
Formally unusual, intimate, sit-down comedy specials from comics at a crossroads. Recorded on the eve of a crucial medical procedure, Norm MacDonald’s posthumously released “Nothing Special” is no less funny for being delivered to a silent audience of one. It’s not the testament of a dying man but of a smart goofball with a taste for life, whom pie charts make hungry for pie. Jerrod Carmichael famously used “Rothaniel” as the instrument of his coming out; director Bo Burnham keeps the camera close, as Carmichael discourses on the subject of secrets, from his father’s other families to his sexuality to his given name — a title and a punchline.
‘This Fool’ (Hulu) / ‘The Gordita Chronicles’ (HBO Max)
Latinx sitcoms. Set in South L.A., portrayed with affectionate but incisive detail, Chris Estrada’s “This Fool,” which tracks the progress of slow-to-mature Julio (Estrada), his ex-con cousin (Frankie Quiñones) and blithely manipulative former girlfriend (Michelle Ortiz), is a knockabout comedy on the attitude of doing right. The sadly canceled “Gordita Chronicles” is a sunny memory piece about a Dominican family transplanted to Miami in the 1980s, with a charming Olivia Goncalves as the sweet, indomitable 12-year-old of the title, making America live up to its rhetoric of possibility. (Read our full review of “The Gordita Chronicles”)
‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ (Paramount+)
A gaily canonical return to the anthological form, swashbuckling spirit, social commentary and puckish humor of what is now referred to as “The Original Series,” with technological upgrades and built-out characters. Set on the Enterprise, it finds young Spock (Ethan Peck) and Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) already aboard, with Anson Mount’s Capt. Pike a most appealing blend of hero and comedian, like a nontoxic Shatner. (Read our full review)
‘Our Flag Means Death’ (HBO Max)
Based on the historical intersection of “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby, bumbling) and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (Taika Waititi, elegant), this comic tale of eccentric, somewhat lovable pirates, hapless yet not harmless, is a nexus of love stories, sweet, a little sad, hilarious. (Read our full review)
‘Standing Up’ (Netflix)
Fanny Herrero, who created the French series “Call My Agent,” followed it up with this vibrant series about stand-up comics in Paris, on the way up and on the way down. Memorable, convincing characters, mostly people of color, struggle with life and their routines; in either case, the secret is timing.