While much of our TV viewing this past week was glued, once again, to a horrifying cable news cycle, we were able to find some comfort in scripted television along the way. January 2020 has kicked off with a slew of premieres, although only a few made our Power Ranking this week. The highly-anticipated Nic Cage-hosted History of Swear Words left us cold, while a new season of American Gods on Starz proved the show has lost its magic. NBC’s Mr. Mayor has promise, but it’s timing is very off—especially regarding one fatal error: the decision to lean into COVID rather than ignore it for the sake of giving us a comedy that is *a break from the horrifying news cycle.* Please.
There was also a little confusion with TV/movie crossovers this week. We pretended Netflix’s niche homage Pretend It’s a City was a movie but—surprise!—it’s a series, while the heartbreaking Elizabeth Is Missing on PBS was not a series but a movie. But who could keep anything straight over the last week?
The rules for the Power Rankings are simple: Any current series on TV qualifies, whether it’s a comedy, drama, news program, animated series, variety show or sports event. It can be on a network, basic cable, premium channel, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube or whatever you can stream on your smart TV, as long as a new episode was made available the previous week (ending Sunday) —or, in the case of shows released all at once, it has to have been released within the previous four weeks. The voting panel is composed of Paste Editors and TV writers with a pretty broad range of tastes.
A Discovery of Witches (Sundance Now), The Expanse (Amazon Prime), Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access)
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: This cozy series is just what the doctor ordered.
As has been written about many times in this space, book-to-television adaptations can be a tricky beast to wrangle. But I can joyously report that the same warmth, humor, and gentle stories that fill my own well-worn copies (and much-played audiobooks) of James Herriot’s autobiographical novels comes through beautifully in this new television version of All Creatures Great and Small.
Throughout the six episodes (and a Christmas Special), airing in the U.S. on PBS Masterpiece, we follow the daily life at Skeldale House, a veterinary practice that young James (Nicholas Ralph) joins as he graduates from school. Run by a good-hearted but difficult-to-please taskmaster, Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West)—who has fired every other assistant he has ever had—James must prove himself not only to his new boss, but also to the local farmers suspicious of newcomers and more modern methods of treatment.
Spiritually reminiscent of some of the best series to recently feature on Masterpiece, including The Durrells in Corfu, Victoria, and Downton Abbey, All Creatures Great and Small is the sort of show that is built upon a tender kindness. It is never saccharine, but wears its wholesomeness on its sleeve as we travel across the Yorkshire dales and experience the ups and downs of rural life. The show doesn’t shy away from difficult decisions James and the others must make, and one episode in particular is absolutely heartbreaking. But the series is always balanced by a plucky confidence in its storytelling and its tone, which ultimately keeps things light and cozy. This tenderly drawn slice of life champions honor, character, and the care of animals, and is a wonderful treat and a balm for the soul. —Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: Season 2 when?
All hail Bridgerton, Netflix’s lush, swoony adaption of a set of romance novels that is the perfect way to close out 2020 (that is to say, thirsty). The series focuses on a London family with eight children, all of whom were blessed with good genes and five (or six?) of whom are currently of marriageable age. And thus, in this Regency-era setting, the game is afoot with the quippy, mysterious gossip Lady Whistledown as our guide. There are balls and rakes and other things that had a completely different meaning in the 1800s, but one thing that has not changed is how electrifying the buttoning of a glove or the slight touch of hands can be in the right context. The show also gets pretty explicit at times, but does so with a nearly revolutionary female gaze for a period drama. As such, it is as pearl-clutching as one can get (and not a show to watch with one’s family).
Although all of the Bridgerton siblings appear during the show’s eight episodes, the first season focuses primarily on eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) as she enters society and attempts to secure a marriage proposal. Initially the talk of the town, her standing falls with the arrival of a beautiful newcomer, so to escape a loveless marriage with an unsavory man chosen for her by her eldest brother, Daphne strikes a deal with the extremely handsome and newly titled Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a committed bachelor with twice the bodice-ripping hero energy any one man should possess. In a classic fake-dating scenario, the Duke pretends to court Daphne in order to raise her value in the marriage market, while their agreement keeps women from throwing themselves at him. It’s a win-win situation … until the two develop real feelings for one another, of course. Bridgerton isn’t perfect, but it’s a candy-colored, gloriously anachronistic romp that brings a new vivacity to bonnet dramas (leaving most of the bonnets aside, for one), and is great fun. —Allison Keene and Kaitlin Thomas
Network: Apple TV+
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Smarter, weirder, warmer, sexier.
Apple TV+’s clever anachronism-as-translation series returns more sure of itself. Not only have the musical drops become bolder (Sofi Tukker slotting in comfortably next to Volbeat, Monika Krause, and Cakes Da Killa feat. Rye Rye) and the slangy bits of dialogue more natural (“I’m at all of the balls; I’m a baller” could only ever work in the context of Dickinson), but the dimensions of the period-specific world as it exists beyond Emily’s brain have also deepened.
The most compelling element of this second season, though, always comes back to Emily. I mean, of course it does. Hailee Steinfeld is a magnetic performer, her sense of both comedic and tragic timing almost preternatural. But while her take on Emily was equal parts relatable and arresting from the minute she stepped into the frame in Season 1, Season 2 gives her even more to work with: namely, the question of fame, and whether or not it’s dangerous to seek it out; and also the question of love, and whether or not the world needs or deserves to know where your heart lives.
Honestly, the more Americans we can get thinking about how poetry and love and capital-T Truth can answer a moment of deep social and political divide, the better. That said, if all you want out of television this month is a bunch of shrewd Yankee witches claiming the right to be weird af and get lit off Emily’s dope-ass rhymes, Dickinson can do that for you, too. —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: The show’s women are its true strength. That and Johnny using the internet.
For two and a half years, I’ve been singing the praises of Cobra Kai and every time I talked about the show, people would give me a befuddled look. There’s actually a show that continues the story of The Karate Kid? Yes! William Zabka and Ralph Macchio are both in it? Yes! It’s actually good? Yes! It airs on something you call YouTube Red or possibly YouTube Premium? Not anymore!
Everything about Netflix continuing The Karate Kid story 30-plus years later seemed like a bad idea. Why muck with a beloved movie from so many people’s childhood? When would revivals stop messing with our memories?
But instead of being a crass money grab, the series was a surprisingly clever take on aging high school rivalries while being a good old fashion throwback to the 1980s, complete with extended montages, rock and roll fight sequences, and a head-banging soundtrack. The series is the ultimate flip of the script, turning the erstwhile villain Johnny into the show’s main protagonist.
Part of what makes the show so special is its charming mix of the ridiculous with the more sublime. The series is a study in contradictions. A tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek self-awareness is also the show’s secret weapon. Easter eggs and less-than-subtle shout outs to the movies are peppered throughout the season, even as Cobra Kai, at its heart, knows that it is ridiculous that two grown men are still jostling back and forth over a karate tournament that happened 36 years ago. Still, what really makes the show work is Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence. He’s a walking homage to that era, driving a beat-up Dodge caravan, listening to metal music on his cassette tape player, and eschewing modern technology. All in all, Cobra Kai , which thankfully has already been picked up for a fourth season, remains a pure, escapist delight. — Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Give us our singing and dancing escape please.
There’s nothing on TV quite like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
Where else can you find exuberant musical numbers, razor sharp satire of the tech world, snappy, pop-culture infused dialogue (“You look like a sad Emma Stone Halloween costume”), groundbreaking choreography, and an eloquently honest portrayal of grief? Nowhere else, that’s where. Zoey represents all the potential network TV has to take big, creative swings and hit the mark.
Kicking off its second season, Zoey (deftly portrayed by Jane Levy)—who hears other characters inner most thoughts through song—is still reeling from the death of her father (Peter Gallagher) and faced with a daunting promotion at work while trying to decide between her two suitors Max (Skyar Astin) and Simon (John Clarence Stewart). There are some big changes (Lauren Graham is out, Harvey Guillén is in), but it all works perfectly to create the kind of joyful, cathartic series we need right now. —Amy Amatangelo
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