I’ve been making annual lists of 50 Wonderful Pop Culture Things since 2010. They include big and small things, inspirational and silly things, things that were very popular and things that it seemed like nobody cared about except me. Sometimes, a theme emerges, and this year — particularly when it comes to TV and film — it’s that a lot of what I loved came as part of projects I was, on the whole, ambivalent about. Elements sometimes work inside larger projects that only partly work, and that’s part of the lovely thing about art.
The usual caveats apply: These are not objectively the best things; they are just wonderful things. There were far more than 50 wonderful things to admire this year, and there is far (far) more that I never saw or read or heard at all. But it never hurts to look back on the year and realize that in fact, delight was upon you over and over.
1. Apple’s series The Afterparty, a murder mystery that presented each character’s version of the evening as a separate episode made in a different style, had a big and stellar cast including Sam Richardson, Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz. But the musical episode told from the POV of Ben Schwartz’s Yasper was both a believable spin on that guy’s view of the world and a terrific one-off extravaganza of song and dance.
2. John Darnielle’s novel Devil House was one of the most fascinating books I read this year, in part because Darnielle — an expansive and creative thinker — shifts its format and its tone as he unspools the story of the aftermath of a brutal crime. In fact, you can find similarities between Devil House and The Afterparty, if you look for them, in that part of the charm and challenge comes from existing in multiple genres at the same time.
3. How to be Perfect, Mike Schur’s book about ethics that grew out of his work as the creator of The Good Place, is informative and funny, but also an example of pop culture’s capacity to be a gateway to things beyond itself.
4. The Gilded Age on HBO certainly didn’t have the impact that Julian Fellowes’ other series Downton Abbey did, but it was buoyed by the stellar performance of Carrie Coon as a new-money wife whose social and personal brutality is matched only by her inescapable desire to be accepted and liked.
5. I take nothing away from Amanda Seyfried’s exceptional performance in The Dropout, where she played Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes with great skill and restraint. But what has stuck with me most — what seemed most unlikely — is the section of dark comedy in the middle that includes Rich Sommer and Alan Ruck as part of the Walgreens contingent that visited the company before making a deal with Holmes and could have, but didn’t, figure out that they were being had.
6. This one is for the home team: PCHH contributor Ronald Young, Jr. showed up on the third episode of Peacock’s True Story With Ed & Randall, telling the tale of his prom to hosts Ed Helms and Randall Park. We already knew what a charmer he was, but the story is fabulous and surprising to the end.
7. I loved reading Antoine Wilson’s Mouth to Mouth, a novel in which you learn the story of a man, and of another man, and of a time they spend together in an airport lounge while one tells the other his story. It’s a delicious read down to the last sentence, which potentially turns the whole thing on its head — or at least tilts it on an angle.
8. Stephanie Foo’s memoir What My Bones Know is about her experience with complex PTSD, but one of my very favorite elements is its surprisingly funny (at times) description of what it feels like to find the right therapist. (Disclosure: Stephanie and I share an editor at Ballantine Books.)
9. The absolutely unpretentious foolishness of Netflix’s Is It Cake? — a show that is exactly what it claims to be, no more, no less — is the kind of thing I do not always want, but I certainly sometimes want.
10. There is so much about the unsettling, emotional Apple series Severance to admire, but the production design by Jeremy Hindle deserves special mention for how it captured a corporate environment that is clean, sterile, and devoid of all hope.
11. Even though there was a George Clooney/Julia Roberts romantic comedy this year (called Ticket to Paradise), my vote for the most successful and classic example of the form is The Lost City, with Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. They have spectacular chemistry, and an oddball performance from Daniel Radcliffe as the villain adds just the right amount of mustard. It’s a genuinely terrific film that burbles with star power and uses its cast perfectly.
12. Showtime’s Desus & Mero is already deeply missed, but fortunately, you can still watch clips like their engaging, very funny, and in its own way intimate interview with Denzel Washington.
13. I got around to exploring Ozark this year, and while I can’t say I particularly liked it, it’s always an opportunity — as it was when I talked to the great Tressie McMillan Cottom about Yellowstone — to participate in new conversations about things that other people really like. If nothing else, it gives me the opportunity to enjoy more of other people’s criticism — in this case, Dan Fienberg’s mixed review at The Hollywood Reporter that said: “Ozark dies doing what it loved: taking itself way too seriously.”
14. It can be tough to write a really interesting and engaging interview piece with an actor who’s been around for many years. So I tip my hat to this Esquire discussion between Dave Holmes and Josh Charles.
15. Sharon Stone’s appearance in the strong second season of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, playing the mother of Kaley Cuoco’s troubled character, turned out to be perfect casting. Their chemistry was brutally genuine, and not for nothing, it was a poignant moment in which one actress people once tried to force into a narrow definition of her career mothered another.
16. I loved Grant Ginder’s novel Let’s Not Do That Again, which is part political thriller, part family yarn and part dark comedy. To be frank, it would be worth the whole thing just to read about the idea of a musical adaptation of Joan Didion.
17. Food writer, recipe developer, and AI experimenter (and friend of PCHH) Priya Krishna has a YouTube series at The New York Times called “On The Job.” It explores the work that goes into making the food economy of New York run, from operating a hot dog cart or selling tamales to running a school cafeteria or washing restaurant laundry. It’s an indispensable, funny, generous, perfectly timed piece of work, and she’s an impeccable host.
18. I feel like everyone talked this year about the power of Isaac Fitzgerald’s memoir Dirtbag, Massachusetts. But for me, it really was an example of bracing honesty, beauty and just straight-up terrific tale-spinning. The best memoirs, like this one, acknowledge that they are not stories of a journey that’s over; they are updates from a road the author is still walking. They resist the urge to wrap up lives — particularly when they likely have decades to go — as finished projects with lessons learned, and acknowledge that we are all building the path in front of us as we go.
19. Susan Rigetti’s tense, often cutting novel Cover Story, about a young woman who signs on as a ghostwriter to a mysterious heiress who may remind you of Anna Delvey, kept me guessing until the very very end. And putting together the pieces when the story was over gave me that “Oh, you book! You got me, book!” feeling that is so hard to come by and so delicious to experience.
20. WCCO, a local news station in Minneapolis, found footage of Prince as a kid, talking about supporting his teachers when they were on strike in 1970. Not only is the footage itself a fabulously entertaining discovery and a great example of the importance of local news and its deep historical archives, but seeing one of his friends recognize him is as immensely satisfying as any clip the internet showed me in 2022.
21. Not everything in the latest season of Stranger Things was successful. But the work of Joe Keery and Maya Hawke as dear pals Steve and Robin became the very best reason to watch, even though originally, that relationship wasn’t even a twinkle in anybody’s eye.
22. The second season of Peacock’s Girls5Eva led up to an absurd physical confrontation between Paula Pell’s Gloria and one of the most mellow-seeming people on television, and however that bit of genius came together, it was one of the few things I saw this year that made me howl, and truly, honestly, no-lie made me say, “I cannot believe I am watching this right now.”
23. Ed Yong’s fascinating book An Immense World is about the sensory capabilities and experiences of animals. In addition to being a great and educational science book, it made me better understand my dog, plus it gave me lessons in empathy in general — the subjectivity of experience — that have had surprising applications throughout my life. (Note: This is a Penguin Random House book; my publisher is also under the PRH umbrella.)
24. There was much to love about Fire Island, a take on Pride & Prejudice written by and starring Joel Kim Booster. But its sense of camaraderie among the friends who go to the beach together made it one of my favorite friend stories of 2022 — right from the group singalong of the Fox Searchlight music.
25. I heard no podcast this year that tickled my pop-culture brain like the “Erotic ’80s” series on You Must Remember This. Host Karina Longworth is great at mixing dishy stories with killer analysis, and her ability to draw lines across films from Dirty Dancing to 9 1/2 Weeks never fails.
26. There were a lot of little jokes in Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion that I enormously admired, including one related to timekeeping and one involving Jeremy Renner, and while I am far too well-mannered to spoil them, you should know that they are delightful.
27. The opening shot of the AMC+ series This Is Going To Hurt, featuring Ben Whishaw as an exhausted NHS doctor, is disorienting, fascinating and perfectly chosen for the themes of the story. Probably the best and most inventive first shot I saw on TV.
28. The sincerity of the HBO Max documentary series The Last Movie Stars could be overwhelming, but when it works, it really works. The vision of its subjects, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, as driven, almost selfish, in their complete devotion to their relationship with each other is a sticky thing to think about. But what has stuck with me even more is the examination of what it means to have heroes, for actors — beginning with the series’ creator, Ethan Hawke — who want to be artists but are not immune to the awesome power of stardom.
29. It would have been enough just to see Joni Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival, singing. But the way Brandi Carlile arranged the appearance as an opportunity for Mitchell to be surrounded by people who supported and admired and wanted to celebrate her elevated it to something rapturous and magical.
30. There are a lot of unsavory people in Patrick Radden Keefe’s book Rogues, which collects 12 of his New Yorker stories about everybody from gnarly criminals to Survivor/The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett. He’s a marvelous storyteller, and the book kicks off with a story about potential wine fraud. And as anyone who knows me knows very well, I love a story about ripping off rich people. (Another PRH book.)
31. It is so very common for things on the internet not to be as they appear, for them to look wonderful and then collapse as stunts or fakes. But the single best tweet I saw this year, I think, was the one that brought to my attention the fact that at the height of the chaos around the British government this summer, a tweet from Hugh Grant led to Sky News trying its best to complete a serious report while the Benny Hill music went wild in the background. And as far as I know, it’s still as simple as that.
33. What a delight it was to see Steve Carell have such a successful dramatic turn in Hulu’s The Patient. As the show, about a therapist held hostage by a killer, winds toward a conclusion that feels increasingly ominous and inevitable, Carell’s character continues to fight for both his survival and his family. And the opening sequence is genuinely frightening in a way that feels new.
34. In the messy but ambitious Don’t Worry Darling, what works best are not the specifics of the mystery, which goes a bit wonky, but the moments when the aesthetic of uncannily symmetrical perfection swells, as when a group of cars pull out of driveways at the same time.
35. The Bear certainly got most of its attention for making the expression “Yes, chef” a meme. But my favorite scene took place late in the season between Sydney (the glorious Ayo Edebiri) and Marcus (Lionel Boyce), and it was just the two of them getting better acquainted, outside the hectic kitchen environment, in part by talking about the work that they both love doing. Not only is it an example of Edebiri’s command of Sydney’s particular blend of passion and calm, but it feels casual but important, the way the best conversations between friends often do.
36. The Netflix series Mo had a lot to recommend it. But perhaps nothing was more poignant and simple than its attention to the story of Mo’s mother, who makes her own olive oil.
37. Jennifer Coolidge has been around a long time, and she knows how to turn just about anything that happens to her own advantage. That’s why during her Emmy acceptance speech, when she was played off (to “Hit the Road, Jack,” which is really rude!), she began … dancing.
38. The Edgar Gomez book High-Risk Homosexual is a riveting story about a queer Latinx journey through lots of different kinds of spaces. Apparently this was the year I appreciated a lot of memoirs, but this one stood out. (Also PRH.)
39. I don’t necessarily think I needed a documentary about Barney the dinosaur, but Steve Burns from Blue’s Clues had a lot of lovely things to say about television and kids in I Love You, You Hate Me, and seeing him re-emerge this year and speak more in public again has been a profound pleasure.
40. The journey of Ke Huy Quan, who so many of us adored as a child actor, has been a sign — one hopes — of the expansion of voices and stories in cinema. But seeing him in Everything Everywhere All At Once also drove home how lovely it would have been to have seen him in more things all along, and his story as it actually unfolded is full of adventures and good work anyway. Here’s to never losing touch again.
41. Without spoiling Jordan Peele’s intriguing Nope, I will just say that some of its visuals — its most baffling, imaginative visuals — shift in such intriguing ways from hard to soft and from mechanical to biological, that things that seem like they cannot be fresh again are suddenly fresh indeed.
42. Nicôle Lecky’s performance in the BBC America series Mood, about an aspiring rapper pulled into the world of a cam girl (and based on Lecky’s theater piece Superhoe), is reminiscent in some ways of the highly personal half-hours that television has seen in recent years, but the way she plays with music and musical numbers feels entirely new.
43. The comic whodunit See How They Run sort of came and went, but a particularly winning performance from Saoirse Ronan deserves attention. As a rookie police investigator assisting a gruff boss (Sam Rockwell), she grounds the piece with charm, even as its genre elements get bigger and broader.
44. The end of Better Call Saul was never at risk of receiving too little praise. But what an accomplishment for Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn, in particular, to take that love story through the finale without doing anything that felt untrue to the characters. For me, it was a more successful ending than Breaking Bad, more fair to what had come before, and without those central performances, that might not have been so.
45. I didn’t love everything about the drama Tár, but I did love the performance of Cate Blanchett as the central genius composer who is haunted by the damage she’s done to people who cared about and looked up to her. Lydia Tár is monstrous and self-involved, but she’s also frightened of what will catch up to her and undone by it. Even though the story wasn’t completely satisfying, just watching Blanchett was enough.
46. What a pleasure to see the success of Heartstopper, a Netflix series about young queer love that had all the swoony romance and foundational sweetness that anyone could want. More seasons are coming, and little hearts will flutter over my head every time.
47. Deep Water, starring Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck, is candidly a weird movie — another thing I loved talking about even though I didn’t love the thing itself. But some late scenes featuring a completely committed performance by Tracy Letts, while they might not fit with the rest of the project, most certainly do not suffer from a lack of energy.
48. The finale of Showtime’s Yellowjackets capped a season that brought new attention to both experienced actors like Melanie Lynskey and Juliette Lewis and young ones who were far less familiar. Its rumination on what can and cannot be survived was never less than heartbreaking, as when it explained the death that had been hanging over the whole season.
49. It often feels like hardly anybody watched Windfall, a thriller on Netflix that starred Lily Collins and Jesse Plemons as a rich couple menaced by an intruder played by Jason Segel. It’s understandable that it got lost in the shuffle, given a lot of middling reviews. But I thought its exploration of the dynamics involved — who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy, who are we rooting for? — were quite interesting, and there’s an early scene involving the mechanics of a home invasion, in which Plemons and Segel debate whether Segel is competent enough for what he’s trying to do, that’s pretty funny. Sure, it’s trying too hard to be Hitchcock, right from the opening titles. But I didn’t entirely know where it was going until it arrived, and that’s saying something.
50. I often allow myself one spot on this list for something that wasn’t actually new this year, but was new to me. And so, I grant that spot to the K-drama Crash Landing on You, beloved by so very many but not watched by me until recently. There is so much I could praise — how romantic it is, how exciting it is, how I gobbled it up in three days even though it is really long. But I want to single out something different: the supporting performances, which are tremendous, and particularly Yang Kyung-won as Pyo Chi-soo. That character, like many others, gives shape and emotion to the central romance. He’s part of the stories of friendship, and it was often the friendships that made me cry.