The Year’s Best TV Documentaries and Dramas—It Was a Good Year for Bad Girls

From a Wall Street Journal story by John Anderson headlined “The Best TV of 2022: Facts, Fictions, and Felonies”:

It was a good year for bad girls—women who broke the law in a medium that seemed en route to breaking itself. Is anyone happy with television? I am. I don’t have to watch everything that’s on.

But that’s because no one can. It is hardly a news flash that there is an undigestible amount of content available, on too many platforms, at a cost many people simply find unreasonable—or at least more than they can guiltlessly afford for entertainment that is, always, uneven. It is not a hot tip either that the powers behind the platforms, venues and streaming services have been in an embarrassing scramble to figure out what’s going on and how not to fix it. This has made the once common territory of TV more Balkanized then ever, and perhaps is part of the reason young people are increasingly distancing themselves from what their elders have long regarded—even fondly—as a vast wasteland.

Those of us who are sticking with the old got some remarkably stellar stuff, though. Those bad girls? A few were ripped from the headlines, as “Law & Order” used to say—Sarma Melngailis, for instance, the convicted fraudster and centerpiece of the foodie’s favorite docuseries, “Bad Vegan.” Or the women of “The Janes,” who in a pre-Roe world defied the law to facilitate safe abortions.

In the world of fact-based fiction, two performances in particular stood out—Amanda Seyfried as fraudster Elizabeth Holmes in “The Dropout” and Julia Garner of “Inventing Anna.” Both series portrayed fascinatingly sociopathic creatures made even more memorable by the actors’ vocal virtuosity: Ms. Garner’s Euro-trashy impersonation of scam-artist Anna Sorokin, aka Anna Delvey, was so infectious it was caricatured on “Saturday Night Live.” And when Ms. Seyfried mimicked the affected baritone of Holmes (recently sentenced to 11-plus years in prison) it made the crashing and burning of the counterfeit Theranos all the more morbidly pleasurable to watch.

It was also fun to review. One of the virtues of there being too much stuff on television is the highly sophisticated and refined curatorial approach this critic can take to the material available—in other words, I can be a lot more selective than my predecessors. It may not seem it; it may seem to Journal readers that many, many decent shows don’t get written about, and that’s unquestionably true. But the question at this end is always: What’s really worth reviewing? It’s usually not food shows, or naked people in the wilderness, or most reality TV, or game shows.

Much network programming is made to be mediocre: It’s not bad, it just doesn’t do anything new, or innovative—intentionally—and so what’s there to critique? “Yellowstone” is clearly a favorite among many viewers, but it’s beyond predictable. Nonfiction series about serial killers have worn out their welcome and murder in general is getting to be a tired subject, mostly because of the exhausted manner in which the stories are told. When a top-notch crime documentary appears, such as Nanfu Wang’s “Mind Over Murder” (about a group of Nebraskans who confessed to a murder they didn’t commit) or Jesse Sweet and Susan Zalkind’s “The Murders Before the Marathon” (about the missed opportunity to prevent the Boston Marathon bombing), it shines all the brighter.

One of the symptoms of TV dysfunction is that people behind it don’t seem to know when they’ve got something great on their hands. I am happy I reviewed “The Bear,” easily among a handful of the year’s best shows, but its popularity probably had a lot to do with word of mouth (even if the mouth was Twitter or Instagram). Did FX or Hulu do a massive ad campaign to promote the Chicago-based restaurant drama? I must have missed it.

Likewise, “Slow Horses,” in which Gary Oldman was and is (in season 2) delightfully repellent as the head of a group of MI5 rejects who have been put on the equivalent of a spy-agency ice floe and must rise to the occasion, whatever that turns out to be. It’s a terrific series, as was “Pam & Tommy,” in which both Sebastian Stan and Lily James gave first-rate performances as Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, who inadvertently started a home-video revolution.

Pam Anderson wasn’t a bad girl, per se, just a bit injudicious. So were the characters in another of my 2022 favorites, “A League of Their Own,” which took a literally no-holds-barred approach to women’s professional baseball during the years of World War II and gave a makeover to the story pasteurized by the Penny Marshall movie. Abbi Jacobson was the protagonist in a traditional sense—she’s the one who changes over the course of the story. But it was D’Arcy Carden who provided the spark in a series that was lit from beginning to end.

Men created TV, too, this year, notably in the nonfiction category: W. Kamau Bell’s “We Need to Talk About Cosby” was the right series at the right time, made by a person who could tell it with both understanding and outrage. “Hold Your Fire” by director Stefan Forbes took an electric trip back in time, if not political atmosphere, to an infamous hostage crisis in 1973 Brooklyn. Yung Chang’s “Wuhan Wuhan” was an observational revelation about the Covid-19 crisis as it unfolded in China. And in “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues,”Sacha Jenkins took the jazz great out of cultural storage, brushed him up and reminded us why he was as important as anyone in American music.

If I had to watch any programs again? “The Offer” would be one, largely for the performances of Dan Fogler and Patrick Gallo as Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo in this often goofy account of the making of “The Godfather.” (Matthew Goode’s Robert Evans was also a delight.) Sarah Lancashire and David Hyde Pierce made the “French Chef” bio-series “Julia” close to delicious. I gushed earlier this year about Leslie Manville in “Magpie Murders,” and Florence Pugh in “The Wonder,” and Jean Smart in “Hacks” and . . . at the risk of sounding sexist, I’d put everything on hold for season 3 of “Ted Lasso.”

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