March 2021 feels a lot like March 2020, and not only because we’re still getting reboots and revivals of older TV shows (hello, Punky Brewster 2.0) and new streaming services launching (hello, maybe, Paramount+). One thing a year of living through a pandemic has not done, though, is kill off good television. There is less TV overall, but still good stuff miraculously being doled out.
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.
Snowpiercer (TNT), For All Mankind (Apple TV+), Men in Kilts (Starz), Resident Alien (Syfy)
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: Super charming, but somehow better with less of the Rock? How is it possible?
A cute and nostalgic network TV journey through a celebrity’s early years would probably not work under any other circumstances than those of Young Rock. The NBC series brings together the comedy savvy of Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B— in Apt 23 and Fresh Off the Boat) and the well-established charisma of wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, hopping through several timelines to give a colorfully embellished but seemingly emotionally genuine survey of The Rock’s childhood.
There are plenty of Easter eggs for wrestling fans in particular, who will undoubtedly enjoy (or bristle) at depictions of famous figures like André the Giant, the Iron Sheik, and Macho Man Randy Savage. Even for those like myself who have no real context for the history of the industry being represented, it all helps build out Young Rock’s candy-colored, comedically-heightened world.
While fans of Khan’s previous work may be disappointed by a dulling of her signature surrealist humor, there are still some sharply funny moments throughout Young Rock, and the show is certainly brimming with warmth. Johnson is charming as always, and he manages to come off as genuine. The first episode’s title, “Working The Gimmick,” really sets up a wary expectation for all that follows. But the goal of wrestling is entertainment, and Young Rock provides that in spades; it’s a sweet show, and earnestly likable. So even if viewers do feel like we’re being worked, do we mind? —Allison Keene
Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: An immediately engaging Swedish noir about hockey, small town secrets, and coming home.
Through five episodes, the limited Swedish series Beartown tells the story of Peter Andersson (Ulf Stenberg), a retired NHL player who returns to his hometown (Bjornstad, which translates to “Beartown”) with his wife and two children to coach the semi-professional hockey team. Bjornstad is a failing, dilapidated town steeped in Nordic misery, and the hockey team is a perfect reflection of the people: sad, old, and almost hopeless. Andersson, who comes with his own tragic burden—his young son died while he lived in North America—decides that the only way he’ll continue is if he can coach the junior team. There, he can utilize the talents of Kevin Erdahl (Oliver Dufaker), the son of his former rival, a prodigious talent who spends hours outside his home on the cold winter nights, slapping puck after puck into a net hung with targets.
There’s an almost Robert Altman-esque vibe to many of the scenes, in the sense that overlapping conversation and seemingly improvised bits of dialogue add credibility to a party scene, or a locker room speech, or the chatter of parents in the stands. Through these methods, director Peter Gronlund establishes a wonderful flow that nearly goes unnoticed amid the story and the drama, but that is essential to the world-building which seems to capture a viewer so effortlessly. And it should come as no surprise that the hockey scenes are also executed extremely well, which is quite an effort considering that this is only a “sports” show in the loosest sense.
This ingredient and all others cohere seamlessly, and you’re left with a show that transcends noir even as it elevates it. It’s clear that noir generally—and Scandi-noir specifically—hold a special appeal to modern audiences, and it’s clearer still that in the race to pump out as many as possible, some of the vibrant energy of what makes it special has been lost. There is no serial killer in Beartown, there is no religious iconography, no mass conspiracy, no last-minute twists to justify hours of uncertainty. There are only human beings, lost in a landscape, subject to the nightmares and redemptions that have plagued and absolved us from the start, and from which we’re called upon to rise even as the earthly world extends its cold, familiar shackles. —Shane Ryan
Network: Apple TV+
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: A pitch-perfect Emisue-swoony finale.
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
Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: We just can’t stop thinking about it.
From the beginning of It’s a Sin, the show’s ending is foreseeable. And yet it’s impossible to resist hoping for a different outcome: in a 1980s London plagued by AIDS, maybe these gay men we’ve come to know and love can make it out of the epidemic unscathed. Maybe government officials—and, inherently, the rest of the world—will take notice of the crisis as it unfolds and try to do something to help these men. But, no; Russell T. Davies’ limited series is a tragic, albeit masterful, retelling of the AIDS epidemic.
The main group—including the fashionable Roscoe (Omari Douglas), sweet Colin (Callum Scott Howells), guardian angel Jill (Lydia West), and lanky Ritchie (Olly Alexander) at the forefront—forms in and around London, at clubs, bars, apartment parties, becoming a larger and larger group of friends as they do. Then they’re crashing in an apartment together, tossing around witty nicknames and cups of tea.
It’s a Sin explores the HIV/AIDS illness as it unfurls in gay clubs and communities around the city—though it never villainizes or blames them for the crisis. Despite being a series almost entirely about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, It’s a Sin does not dawdle in statistics or tragedy. By energizing the show with a spirited cast, a storyline about growing up, and plenty of scenes that follow the joy of their kinship, Davies has created a tale that can entertain while still spotlighting an imperative point of discussion. —Fletcher Peters
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: “What is grief if not love persevering?”
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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