What’s old is new again on TV this week. That’s certainly true regarding WandaVision’s warped classic sitcom fantasy (nightmare?) as well as Dickinson continuing to make the struggles of a poet from the mid-1800s feel relevant now (writers block: still a very real thing). But in more meta ways, this week also saw the return of Batwoman to the CW with an all-new lead in Javicia Leslie, replacing Ruby Rose. Elsewhere on the dial, Ken Jennings has started his run as interim Jeopardy host after Alex Trebek’s passing—but only time will tell if this replacement sticks. Speaking of replacements, January 20th is nigh….
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.
Cobra Kai (Netflix), Lupin (Netflix), Night Stalker (Netflix), Carmen Sandiego (Netflix), Everyone Is Doing Great (Hulu)
Last Week’s Ranking: 5
This Week: Siegfried’s rogue brother Tristan arrives and shakes things up at Skeldale House.
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: 4
This Week: A toast to Bridgerton in its last week on the Power Ranking, and the many ‘ships and fanfic it has inspired along the way!
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: 3
This Week: Timothy Simons as a quirkily zen Frederick Law Olmsted? Bless this show.
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: 1
This Week: Still firing on all cylinders as it shifts gears to explore Zoey’s grief.
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
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: The MCU took a big risk, and it’s paying off in spades.
In the Marvel comics, Wanda Maximoff is a reality-bending enchantress known as Scarlet Witch. Her power set is immense, and we have never seen the full scope of it within the movie universe—it’s too big, really, when you compare the fact that she and an actual god (Thor), and a wizard (Doctor Strange), are equals on a team with a Russian spy (Black Widow) carrying a gun, and an archer (Hawkeye). There are limits.
Not, however, when it comes to WandaVision itself, which is where we finally get to see the Marvel machine slightly unleashed. Marvel’s forays into television have not been altogether fantastic. But these new Disney+ series expand the story of characters we know from the movies in way that the movies simple did not have time to do. It also allows WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman to put a uniquely stylized and deeply emotional spin on a story that would have (had this been a movie) otherwise been shackled by the mandated aesthetics of the overall MCU.
As such, in WandaVision, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) is also unleashed. She has used her immense power to create an insular world where she and her lost love, Vision (Paul Bettany), get to live happily ever after in classic sitcoms based on the likes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and I Love Lucy. For fans of classic television, this is no satire; despite a few over-the-top ham moments, it is a loving homage to these series.
But of course, it’s not real. Throughout these half-hour episodes (both the ones we experience and the ones Wanda and Vision are living through), the world outside of this coping fantasy begins to creep in. First with bursts of color, then occasional off-script moments. Wanda stops these right away by rewinding and reliving the situation without the disruption. A clean story, nothing to disturb them. Just a husband and wife living a normal life in perfect suburbia (with the occasional advertisement for a Hydra watch or a Stark Industries toaster, of course).
Soon, however, Wanda is spinning out of control. Reality is closer than ever, and the teases we get to the world outside of Wanda’s creation, one where Vision is gone, get increasingly overt. She will have to come to terms with the truth soon, but it will hurt. And yet, I don’t really want reality to impede on Wanda’s created life at all. WandaVision’s core conceit—that sometimes you just want to escape into television, into fantasy, into a daydream—couldn’t be more meta. Let’s stay here in this happiness just a little while longer. The world outside is so dark. —Allison Keene
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