A new year brings exciting new media. While The White Lotus, House of the Dragon and Wednesday took 2022 by storm, it’s time for a new slate of TV shows to dominate our conversations and weekend binges. Speaking from personal experience, the presence of a good show can motivate you like nothing else. So here comes a slew of currently on-air or available-to-stream shows to recharge your study-weary heart. Just in case you suffer from an incapacity to wait, I also included five extra recommended shows in the meantime.
Read on to find a show that will occupy your mind.
1. The Last of Us (HBO)
Wait a second, another zombie show? Before you dismiss HBO’s latest prestige game-to-show adaptation because of (valid) zombie fatigue, listen to its unique premise and science. The story sets itself 20 years after a global outbreak of cordyceps brain infection, a fungal infection that takes control of human hosts in order to spread its population. Joel, played by internet-favorite Pedro Pascal, smuggles 14-year-old Ellie cross-country to bring deliverance to humanity. Aside from the outstanding use of prosthetics in creating its intricately terrifying fungal zombies, the show’s less-is-more approach with subtle camerawork and subtext builds tension like no other.
“I watched 2 episodes so far and I am enjoying it. The world-building is great, the zombie scenes are scary, and the characters are relatable,” said UC Berkeley graduate Curtis Wong. “Essentially the world feels real and viewers can be emotionally invested. They showed the interactions between the protagonist and his daughter, which makes you care about them.”
The show’s not just elements of horror and thrill though. Even with only three episodes aired, you can already sense the underlying depth and themes of the story. The post-fungal apocalyptic world breaks people and hardens those who survive—do we lose because an infection overtakes us or because we shutter our hearts? Equally interested in developing its characters and investigating humanity in a devastated world, The Last of Us marries Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with inventively scary mushrooms. Anyone hoping for a show to hook them this season should definitely not skip this one.
2. Based on The Last of Us: The Mandalorian Season 3 (Disney+)
Because just one show featuring Pedro Pascal and a child travel companion can’t satisfy the appetite of the masses. In case you live under a rock—or perhaps the Seeing Stone—The Mandalorian features intergalactic bounty hunter “the Mandalorian” in his quest to protect his bounty, the child (also known as “Baby Yoda”). Fully optimizing the narrative room of the television format, The Mandalorian sticks to simple storylines and persistent character development to bring respite from the grand, universe-implicating spectacles of the Star Wars movies. In doing so, the show proves that if you craft nuanced characters that endear themselves to your audience, your audience will follow them wherever they go. The charm of watching the undeniably cute Baby Yoda worms its way into the flawed Mandalorian’s heart beats a wild plot twist any day.
3. Undone (Amazon Prime)
Not exactly newly airing, but I’ll break my own rules for a criminally under-watched show. From the creators of Bojack Horseman, Undone similarly takes advantage of the possibilities the medium of animation and an extraordinary setting provide to depict the hard-to-describe complexities of mental illness and personhood. The show follows Alma, a woman who gains time travel abilities after an almost fatal car crash, as she uses her newfound ability to unravel the mystery of her father’s murder. Unlike most animated shows, Undone makes use of rotoscoping to create its eerie yet life-like characters and images, viscerally bringing forth the blurriness and surrealness of the realities Alma perceives. As you shift back and forth in time with Alma, the story won’t just disorient you but hit you—blow by blow—with all the emotions. Not a very concrete way to introduce a show, I know, but one can’t just explain Undone’s magic. Like life, it requires a bit of a leap of faith.
4. Based on Undone: The Midnight Gospel (Netflix)
Another animated show, another kind of surreal reality traveling. Though many recent examples prove otherwise, animation carries the impression of being for children or lacking in depth. This show again breaks this mold. The Midnight Gospel addresses existential questions regarding reality, life and death, all in a dizzying explosion of color. You follow Clancy, a space podcaster, who travels to multiple simulated universes in the form of an avatar and interviews other-universal beings on existential questions.
“I like the art style of the show—quirky and dreamy—feels like the director made it after they got high on drugs. I loved it because it’s really philosophical and made me think,” said Northwestern University junior Cheryl Chen. “The story was about a person visiting simulated worlds, when I first started watching it, it was spring of 2020 when Covid just started and I was quarantined at home for months, so the trips to imaginary worlds felt relatable.”
The animation style reminds one of Adventure Time (as it comes from the same creators) and features a baffling weirdness not unlike that of Rick and Morty. These comparisons fit perfectly though, because the show combines the best of both worlds. It dives deep into dense and sometimes morbid philosophical concepts the way Rick and Morty does while maintaining a bright, dreamy positivity synonymous with Adventure Time. The asynchronicity between the podcast narrative and the ongoing animation generates an off-beat humor that relieves the severity surrounding topics like drug use and regret. The show creates a space in which the exploration of normally unapproachable subjects becomes accessible, encouraging you to find your own way through these questions in an affecting manner.
5. Poker Face (Peacock)
Though the crime procedural persists to stay on the small screen, their hold on the public imagination faded a long time ago. Poker Face dares to put a twist on this established and well-worn format and does it marvelously. Revealing the entire mystery of the murder from the get-go, the show centers its storytelling on the character of Charlie Cale and her uncanny ability to spot any lie, which eventually sets her on the journey to becoming a private eye. The step away from the sensational shocks of the typical mystery paves way for a somewhat unmoored character who lives by her own rules without casting people aside and genuinely desires justice for others. Combine this with a smooth retro 70s aesthetic and clever humor and you get a charmingly and understatedly quirky show.
6. Based on Poker Face: Psych (NBC)
Based on the similarities in premise, you can’t help but wonder if Poker Face took inspiration from Psych. The son of a former detective who relentlessly fostered investigative skills, Shawn Spencer’s preternatural sense of observation and memory allows him to solve cases with limited official information. His skills work so precisely, in fact, that he drew the police’s suspicion as a suspect and needed to convince them he possesses psychic abilities to get himself off the hook. Judging from this, you can bet the show revels in ridiculousness. While Shawn stays within the framework of law enforcement as a consultant, the show never fails to poke fun at itself and the genre. It doesn’t require mental gymnastics to track the mystery and certainly doesn’t demand seriousness. So, sit back and relax, the combo of silly humor and zany fights appeal to people for a reason.
7. Peripheral (Amazon Prime)
On the other side of the plot complexity spectrum, Peripheral can confound if you don’t pay close attention to all its threads. Set in a future where advanced technology can alter and enhance bodies and realities yet people remain impoverished, Peripheral’s smooth visuals builds a fascinating cyberpunk world that steals your attention. The protagonist Flynne Fisher attaches herself to a virtual reality game to help her brother only to stumble upon a secret with dangerous implications. While it does take some patience for the story direction to cohere, Flynne immediately endears herself to the audience with her earnest competence; you just can’t help but root for her. Still, the show follows typical mystery box pacing—you gain answers every episode, but the questions either increase or change entirely. If you hate mysteries, maybe skip this one. Otherwise, hop on thrill-seekers and clue-finders, join in on the ride to help the show secure its second season.
8. Based on Peripheral: Westworld (HBO)
How can we talk about virtual reality and amusement without mentioning Westworld? Imagine an amusement park, an amusement world really, containing android hosts who can satisfy your every whim. Sounds cool right? Not until they realize their identities and decide they want things differently. Like many sci-fi dramas, Westworld’s plot weaves so many threads together that you’ll definitely miss something if you turn to look at your phone. Constant time jumps and shifting perspectives cleverly keep the audience in a state of ignorance, which makes twists and the discovery of a missing puzzle piece all the more exciting.
“I enjoy Westworld because I enjoy thinking about the beneficial capabilities and the sinister capabilities that AI and technology have on our society. Some of those either beneficial or sinister capabilities of advanced technology can either make or break a society pretty quickly,” said UC San Diego junior Lok Wing Ho. “It makes me skeptical about new inventions and encourages me to generate all different positive and negative impacts that new inventions have on humans.”
Though HBO cancelled Westworld after its season 4 release, the show leaves plenty of philosophical food for thought in its legacy. That could mean reflecting on the pitfalls of human society’s relationship with artificial intelligence or complicating the very nature of humanity; the show simply never ceases to raise question after question. Whether that comes as a good or tedious thing, I’ll leave you to answer. In any case, now that it ended, you won’t need to worry about losing track of threads before a new season premiere. Now, it’s time to sit back and appreciate all of the show’s brilliance.
9. Gen V (Amazon Prime)
The trend of dark and gruesome TV shows finally reaches the realm of young adult stories. Before you argue that gritty teen shows exist, I don’t just mean tonally abrasive and edgy, because no teen show can possibly come close to the gore a The Boys’ spin-off will offer. Set within the same Vought-run world of The Boys, Gen V depicts the lives of college student Supes at the Godolkin University School of Crimefighting. If you know how insane and ruthless the adult Supes can get, then imagine the absolute havoc mentally immature Supes will wreak. Drunk at a frat party and dared to set something on fire? Boom, a whole building torn down with laser eyes. One thing about young adults though: they aspire for change. If our original Vought superheroes submit to the holds of unlimited power and rampant capitalism, maybe hope lies in our younger heroes.
10. Based on Gen V: The Boys (Amazon Prime)
Can’t talk about the child without its parent. A welcomed innovative take on the superhero genre when it first premiered in 2019, The Boys flips the righteous Marvel heroes on their heads and shows a world where superheroes corrupt and absolute superheroes corrupt absolutely. The show’s visceral nature, while off-putting to some, effectively visualizes how absolute power in the hands of any person or institution can lead to devastating results. Despite its more than obvious message, the show constructs way more nuance than “power equals bad” ever encompasses. Intricately connecting the murky ties between corporate interests, political power, individual ambition and public image, The Boys reminds us that not one person (or few people) alone perpetuates systems of greed and corruption. Though some characters may start off with good intentions, there doesn’t seem to exist one clear way for them to defeat the system and keep their hands clean, not to mention the temptation of keeping power to oneself when the opportunity arises. Hopefully, the show can serve as a reflection, if not a warning, to society and its depravity.