Paste Power Ranking: The 5 Best TV Shows on Right Now, from PEN15 to Last Tango

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<i>Paste</i> Power Ranking: The 5 Best TV Shows on Right Now, from <i>PEN15</i> to <i>Last Tango</i>

This past Sunday saw the advent of the Emmys, aka “Pandemmys,” aka the quasi-virtual event that is usually “TV’s biggest night.” It was a big night for Schitt’s Creek specifically! Though the winners were mostly expected, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Awards went to deserving shows and people, it’s just that there were too many deserving shows and people for the outdated Emmys to reasonably highlight (you can read our list of the best and worst moments from this year’s ceremony here ).

Though ABC’s Emmy presentation gave us a mini-Friends reunion that probably had HBO Max screaming (since they delayed their highly-anticipated reunion show because of the pandemic), HBO Max did score well this week in the realm of children’s programming with Mo Willems and The Storytime All-Stars Present: Don’t Let The Pigeon Do Storytime! As our own Amy Amatangelo notes, “The special was so charming and truly captured what makes his books so fantastic. My kids loved it and so did I.” Now if only we could get them to save The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance….

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.

Honorable Mention: Cobra Kai (Netflix), AP Bio (Peacock), Julie and the Phantoms (Netflix), Lovecraft Country (HBO)

5. Last Tango in Halifax

Network: PBS
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: The return of this beloved UK series is a balm.

As both a critic and a regular TV viewer I have always appreciated the short episode runs of so many UK series. In many cases, though, that also means being sad that there simply isn’t more. That is certainly the case with the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax (airing in the US on PBS and in reruns on Netflix), a show where to know it is to love it. The gentle series follows two septuagenarians (now octogenarians) as they rekindle a lost love and meld their two very disparate families (and dramas) together. And that’s really it. The show draws you in though because of its excellent cast and the many scrapes and bust-ups and just simple conversations they all have. It’s wonderfully full of characters you can’t wait to spend more time with.

Now in its fourth (or fifth, if you’re in the UK) season, there is just so much happening in this short run of four episodes that just as storylines start to reveal their potential, everything ends. There’s a possible Bansky, a little street urchin who goes on a seaside joyride with Alan’s brother who has arrived unexpectedly, the teasing of a throuple, and a host of other surprises. One of the great successes of Sally Wainwright’s writing style, and the way these actors handle it, is how naturally she captures the speech patterns of ordinary people, particularly those of the Yorkshire dales. Despite some exceptional theatre actors involved here, there’s nothing theatrical about these performances. There’s also something so wonderful about the simplicity of this small-town life with its exceptional real estate that you feel like you, too, are just standing there with them, or sitting down for tea, or taking a stroll down the corridors of the school. There’s always a spirit of inclusion here, not just among the families, but in the story this show is telling about love at any age and between any two people lucky enough to find each other. —Allison Keene


4. Away

Network: Netflix
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: Continuing to provide such hope about what’s possible when people work together towards a common glorious goal.

Away is a 10-episode crowd pleaser. It’s a blockbuster TV series during a time when blockbuster movies aren’t in theaters (or at least they shouldn’t be). Hilary Swank headlines as American astronaut Emma Green. She leaves her husband Matt Logan (Josh Charles) and her 15-year-old daughter Lex (Talitha Bateman) to command a three-year mission to Mars, heading up an international crew comprised of Russian astronaut Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir), British botanist Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh), Indian astronaut Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki), and Chinese chemist and astronaut Lu Wang (Vivian Wu).

The series is awe-inspiring in scope, and the scenes in space are gorgeous. Knowledge of the particulars of space travel is woven throughout the narrative, both what’s possible and the daily physical struggles astronauts endure. The special effects are so precise and authentic you feel like you are in space with the astronauts.

Executive producer Jason Katims perfected the art of feel-good TV with series including Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. He knows it’s the little moments that make the big moments important and that interpersonal drama drives a series. At first it seems like the series is leaning too far into the stereotypes about the countries the astronauts are from, but as the story progresses, their outer façades are peeled back to reveal a more complex, nuanced characters. The notion that countries and people can work together to achieve greatness is the consistent and very welcomed undercurrent to the series, making the drama not only inspirational but aspirational.

Ultimately, Away manages to be a fine escapist, inspirational series—one that provides an opportunity to at least feel away if we can’t actually be away. —Amy Amatangelo


3. Raised by Wolves

Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
This Week: Three Words: Ghost. Robot. Romance.

There are no wolves in Raised by Wolves, but the ambitious HBO Max series from writer/creator Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) raises a handful of kids, plenty of hell, and the bar for meaty sci-fi TV. Starting simply enough—with two factions of survivors, whose religious war has demolished Earth, landing on the only other inhabitable planet the species knows about—Raised by Wolves builds out an in-depth sci-fi world through the language of a survival story and the inherently human question of the soul. Even if Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) only directed the first two episodes, his maverick touch is felt throughout the confident show.

There might not be a bloody battle or alien confrontation in each episode, but the drama is compelling and built of character-driven moments. That makes the action, when it does happen, intensely exciting and anxiety-ridden. With such finite scope, each moment of possible loss is heavily weighted and gorgeous to look at. While rustic and detailed in its production design, the variety of visuals go from Tatooine’s desert starkness to hyper-glitchy simulation interfaces to war-torn Earth cities in flashbacks. Each new development, nicely metered-out in doses of mystery, plotting, and payoff, is a natural occurrence cropping up as we run our hands through the series’ dense texture. Don’t worry, that’s all part of the Scott/Guzikowski vibe: honestly-performed, slow-burn devotion to themes nestled into a pulpy shell.

Smart and crunchy rather than sleek and slick, Raised by Wolves won’t be for everyone. It’s tragic, thought-provoking sci-fi that works through its problems rather than relying on big flashy twists. But for those itching for something unabashedly weird and devoted to its own rules, the show won’t disappoint. Deceptively intimate, the story of repopulation—and the war for humanity’s future—is a family drama living inside a honed genre universe. It’s a world built to last and a show built for fans of Scott’s particular brand of imperfect, muscly fence-swings. —Jacob Oller


2. Ted Lasso

Network: Apple TV+
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: The show does a great job of showing male friendships and men being supportive of one another. You don’t see that a lot!

Seven years ago, NBC Sports released a very funny sketch starring Jason Sudeikis as an American football coach named Ted Lasso who manages to get hired as the manager of Tottenham, one of the top soccer clubs in England’s Premier League, which is one of the best leagues in the world. The comedy is the culture clash—a shouting alpha male with a southern accent trying to figure out a totally unfamiliar sport in a strange place, too stubborn to adapt and bringing all the wrong lessons over from America. As soccer becomes more familiar in the U.S., that sketch becomes increasingly quaint, since even your average deep-south gridiron jock knows more and more all the time about the world’s most popular sport. Which makes the premise of Ted Lasso the 2020 TV show questionable; can you really translate a premise that’s thin in the first place, and extend it to a ten-episode season even as soccer becomes less and less exotic to us all the time?

Wisely, creators Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence didn’t really try. Now focused on AFC Richmond, a middling English soccer club facing relegation, the success of the show begins and ends with Sudeikis (whose Lasso is almost pathologically nice as a coach and motivator rather than tactical genius), but the rest of the cast is also superb. In short, I found it genuinely moving more than it was uproarious, although the climactic scene in the final episode might be one of the greatest athletic set pieces in comedy history, and will make any sports fan bust a gut. There’s also something very timely about the fact that the competitive drama here isn’t about winning a glorious championship, but about avoiding the shame of relegation. And yet, when faced with the unofficial AFC Richmond credo, “it’s the hope that kills you,” Lasso disagrees. “It’s the lack of hope that comes and gets you,” he tells his team, and whether or not that’s strictly correct is irrelevant. What actually matter is, do you believe? —Shane Ryan


1. PEN15

Network: Hulu
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Oh the haunting accuracy!

In his commencement address to Emory University in 2005, Tom Brokaw said, “real life is not college; real life is not high school. Here is a secret that no one has told you: Real life is junior high. The world that you’re about to enter is filled with junior high adolescent pettiness, pubescent rivalries, the insecurities of 13-year-olds, and the false bravado of 14-year-olds. 40 years from now, I guarantee it: You will still make a silly mistake every day. You will have temper tantrums and you’re feelings will be hurt for some trivial sleight. You’ll say something dumb at the wrong time. And you will wonder at least once a week, ‘Will I ever grow up?’”

The truths laid bare in Hulu’s PEN15 will probably destroy you directly, especially if you were in junior high from anywhere in the 90s to early aughts. The hysterical, brutal specificity in which Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle set their story is exceptional because it captures the dramatic earnestness of being that age without simply satirizing it from an adult’s perspective. The trials and tribulations of early teen life are presented as emotionally raw as they were at the time. Though the series is ostensibly a comedy, and there are some moments of some traditional humor, PEN15 is not so much funny as felt, deeply, uncomfortably accessing memories of a time you thought you had moved on from. It’s bold and quite possibly brilliant.

In its second season (the first of two parts, the second of which will air in 2021 per Hulu), the show continues to explore school-age traumas like gossip, unrequited crushes, being desperate to fit in, trying out new curse words, being mean to your parents and immediately regretting it, and above all becoming self conscious of your own awkwardness. Though Maya and Anna occasionally still play with dolls and engage in incredible silliness, it’s more timid now than when they were in grade school. They’re aware, suddenly, that they might be “too old” for those things, and yet they are still too young to do anything more than dip a toe in the world of adults (drinking, smoking, ideas of sex). Erskine and Konkle capture this by being bold in their performances—one of the show’s greatest, strangest tricks is that the actresses are in their early 30s, yet somehow fit in seamlessly with their teenage co-stars. Thus, they can be as curious, vulgar, and vulnerable as teens really are without worrying about asking actual kids to portray that on screen. Their investigation into this fraught time comes out of love and understanding, their heightened portrayals of junior high life acutely emotionally accurate. —Allison Keene



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