It’s beginning to feel a lot like … fall TV! Though it’s not quite like the fall TV seasons of our non-COVID past, this one is not as bleak as we first feared. In fact, there were some great premieres this past week, including The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock and the fun of Sneakerheads on Netflix. But there can only be one winner, one that is always a showstopper … (that’s your hint).
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.
Last Tango in Halifax (PBS), Lovecraft Country (HBO), Sneakerheads (Netflix), The Amber Ruffin Show (Peacock), Away (Netflix)
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: The most stylist show on TV returns.
Viewed one way, the fourth season of FX’s Fargo can be seen as an experiment to test what happens when every element of a TV show is executed brilliantly … except the story.
The reason is more complicated than you might think. In fits and starts, the new season drags the viewer in, approaching but never quite reaching the threshold at which art becomes truly compelling. But about those other elements: the praise is sincere. The cinematography stands out as particularly gorgeous, depicting early and mid-century Kansas City in muted tones ranging from black-and-white to variations on sepia, and the visual feast extends to the costumes (khaki has never looked so elegant), the buildings (ditto: bricks), and the weather (Fargo continues to shine in the medium of, um, snow).
The performances are equally riveting, and even the names are fantastic. It doesn’t really matter in the end, but the art of naming characters is an under-appreciated one, and these are marvelous: Gaetano Fadda, Constant Calamita, Rabbi Milligan, Ebal Violante, Lemuel Cannon, Dibrell Smutny, Satchel Cannon, Narcissa Rivers, etc. etc. etc. It’s an anthroponomastical feast.
But we must arrive, ineluctably, at the story, which features both a cluttered and nonsensical plot. The complexity here is not the mark of sophisticated storytelling, but about losing sight of the value of simplicity. To borrow a cliche from sports, this is a classic case of trying to do too much. There is nothing substantial here, nothing that grips the heart. But snow melts, seasons change, and this show has earned some generosity. —Shane Ryan
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: The accuracy though.
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
Network: Apple TV+
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: It makes us actually proud to be American.
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
Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: Thankfully renewed for Season 2, because there’s no way they can wrap this up in 1 more week.
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
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Exactly what 2020 needed.
On your mark, get set … bake! Yes, there is one good thing about 2020 it is the iconic tent being raised with bakers are baking once again. The Great British Baking Show (aka Bake-Off to our UK friends) has taken some new coronavirus-related safety measures by having its hosts, judges, and bakers all in a quarantine bubble together, and the result is something that feels very normal in an otherwise extremely abnormal time. The biggest non-COVID change is the departure of co-host Sandi Toksvig and the entrance of comedian and actor Matt Lucas. He and Noel Fielding bring a silly sweetness to one of TV’s altogether sweetest shows—even though the premiere delivered some of some of the series’ most difficult and even outrageous challenges yet (I will never not be haunted by those cake busts). —Allison Keene
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