Here we are. Tomorrow morning, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announces their nominees for the seventy-fourth Primetime Emmy Awards. Per usual, I use the occasion to fill my little corner of the digital world with my personal choice for the ten most impressive feats of television-based artists for the eligibility period determined by the awards-giving body. As is often the case, I feel the need to preface this with a mildly humiliated acknowledgement that my robust viewing habits wasn’t robust enough to catch every series that might have jostled its way onto this list. In particular, I the third season of Atlanta in weighing down my DVR, which I make particular note of because the two prior seasons were ranked notably high by yours truly. Even so, I stand by this list. There are no compromises, no reluctant additions to the list. Every one of these shows was dazzling.
#1 — Reservation Dogs, season 1 (FX on Hulu). Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, Reservation Dogs is irrefutable proof that there’s tremendous value is providing entertainment-storytelling options to communities that have previously been shunted to the side (or, worse, exploited and distorted by outsiders). Largely centered on a quartet of Indigenous teenagers hoping to depart their Oklahoma reservation for the promise of better lives in California, the series engages in precise and varied storytelling. It is funny, poignant, inventive, beautifully acted, and consistently surprising. The show looks and feels lowkey, but there’s tremendous ambition at work. Reservation Dogs does so much, and it does it all to absolute perfection.
#2 — Station Eleven (HBO Max). Station Eleven is an adaptation the Emily St. John Mandel novel of the same name that just so happens to be about the devastating effects of a global pandemic tied to a new, flu-like disease. (Mandel’s novel was published in 2014, and the television adaptation was announced about two months before the first known case of COVID-19). The Leftovers veteran Patrick Somerville oversees the miniseries, definitely carrying over some of that brilliant show‘s bleak-yet-somehow-hopeful spirit. In addition to the astounding intricacy of the chronologically scrambled narrative, Station Eleven is distinguished by tremendous acting, especially by Mackenzie Davis, Himesh Patel, and Matilda Lawler.
#3 — Betty, season 2 (HBO). There’s deft storytelling in the guide of raggedy goofing in the second — and, as it turns out, final — season of Crystal Moselle’s extension of her fine 2018 feature, Skate Kitchen. Following a crew of skateboarding young women as they endure the many tests of sliding into adulthood, urban living, and the lingering stank of toxic masculinity in their chosen cultural ecosystem, Betty is scrappy and surprisingly warm.
#4 — Better Call Saul, season 6 part 1 (AMC). This Breaking Bad spinoff continues to excel as it zings to its conclusion. The first batch of episodes in its split-season largely focused on a scheme to bring down longtime Jimmy and Kim nemesis Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian, absolutely terrific) which sound the show at it’s dark-humor best. Rhea Seehorn continues to be the show’s MVP, including a turn in the director’s chair for one of the half-season’s best episodes. Emmy voters have got to finally take notice, don’t they?
#5 — Somebody Somewhere, season 1 (HBO). Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen are the credited co-creators, but Somebody Somewhere is inspired by and jolting to authenticity by the experiences of its leading lady, Bridget Everett. Capturing small-town, Midwestern life with deep, wryly amused empathy, the show is properly approbative of the people who eke out small victories when actual opportunity is so distant that it’s practically the stuff of dreams.
#6 — Better Things, season 5 (FX). The blissful miracle presided over by Pamela Adlon concludes its run as sharp, moving, and steel-nerved as ever. Among many other pleasures, the fifth season again proves that Adlon is one of the best directors working today.
#7 — Only Murders in the Building, season 1 (Hulu). A soft-shoe charmer built on winning performances from all three leads: Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez. Just when it seems like a mere diversion, the episode “The Boy from 6B” shows it’s something more.
#8 — Pen15, season 2 part 2 (Hulu). Astoundingly funny and rich with insight, the showcase from and for the unique talents of Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle wraps up nicely. “Yuki,” written directed by Erskine, is one of the year’s very best television episodes.
#9 — Evil, season 2 (Paramount+). If this horror series from Robert King and Michelle King can be a touch uneven, that’s only because it’s so beautifully bonkers. That’s an acceptable trade-off. Katja Herbers’s delivery of the line “This is me with help, Leland” lives in my heart forever.
#10 — Barry, season 3 (HBO). Now that Better Things has closed up shop, Bill Hader is officially the best director working in episodic television. In its third season, Barry receded from its larger plot to become a work of greater daring and ambition.
My top ten lists for previous seasons can be found by clicking on the “Top Ten TV” tag.