TV is firing back up, although not on all cylinders yet. The finale of The Boys gave us a lot to think about, and Maya Rudolph’s regular SNL spot is something to rejoice over. But when it comes to the new space-based series The Right Stuff, the interchangeable whiteness of it means we can only recommend Away instead.
There are also some new frightful series for the October season, mainly Haunting of Hill House follow-up Bly Manor (although Lovecraft Country’s hellacious twins have us thoroughly creeped). The most frightening thing on TV this week, though, may have been the reveal of Paul Hollywood’s non-handshake hand ...
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.
The Boys (Amazon), The Spanish Princess (Starz), PEN15 (Hulu), Lovecraft Country (HBO)
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: Just for the Jessie Buckley of it all.
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: Not Eligible
This Week: An underrated antidote for wanting to scream at politicians, because Ethan Hawke does it for you.
John Brown was the first man executed for treason in American history. Fittingly, the American institution he was actually showing disloyalty to was slavery. The practice so deeply tied to the foundation of the United States so offended him that he raided Harpers Ferry, forged a new vision for the government, and put together a plan to ruin the South’s economy through liberation. Showtime’s seven-episode limited series The Good Lord Bird, from Blumhouse Television and based on James McBride’s National Book Award winner of the same name, is a rollicking ride to the Civil War dominated by Ethan Hawke, dark humor, and mixed successes.
So how do you capture eccentricities and flaws in a funny caricature without feeding into a damaging depiction of a man whose intense desire to end slavery has been conflated with madness? Well, if you’re The Good Lord Bird, which clearly isn’t here for historiography, you don’t. The series, co-created (and partially written) by Hawke with Mark Richard (who co-wrote its entirety), gives us a Bible-thumper whose abolitionist idealism is just another stubborn aspect of an over-the-top fervor. His odd obsessions and personal blinders—shown initially by his insistent belief that Henry Shackleford AKA Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) is actually a girl named Henrietta—turn the anti-slavery revolutionary into a bumbling zealot…who despite it all manages to be pretty goddamn righteous.
The Good Lord Bird is funny and strange, often entertaining and rarely self-serious. Even it’s wild-man depiction of Brown leaves us with a message of hope. Think of it as a slightly more sober, slightly less accurate Drunk History saga focused on one of America’s most singular ideologues. The show is a romp through an ostensibly unrompable subject that more often than not actually pulls it off, aside from its dominating firework display showcase for Hawke. Watchmen may have reminded the TV-watching public about the Tulsa Massacre through narrative craft, but The Good Lord Bird might inspire the same kind of “Holy shit, what?” historical investigation by sheer force of will—and that’s something John Brown would definitely approve of. —Jacob Oller
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Like Bly, it mixes in a little horror with its romance.
One of the best things about AMC’s thoughtful, engrossing Soulmates is how little it actually reveals about the fabled test around which the entire anthology orbits. In quick order it’s confirmed that, in this-near future of ours, we A) definitively have a soul B) definitively have a soulmate C) this is something science can detect based on a test. It’s never clear what the test is or any of this works, and that’s really fine because it doesn’t really matter. There’s skepticism from characters, but also general acceptance that this is all real. Whether it works regarding true love, though, is a different story.
Six different stories, to be exact, written by Will Bridges (Black Mirror) and Brett Goldstein (Ted Lasso). In each episode of this anthology, we meet characters who are questioning their lives in the wake of the test’s availability. Basically, if you had the option, would you? Is there someone out there for you? Or if you are already in a relationship, is there someone better? And if so, what does that even look like in practical terms?
Each episode feels like the start of a longer conversation, but it’s important to say as little as possible about the particulars; the journey these stories take (and the twists, of course) are worth the surprise. Like any anthology series, your mileage may vary as to which episodes strike a chord more than others, but all are worthwhile considerations of the nature of love—or perhaps the science of it. Either way, Soulmates aims for the messy heart of the matter. —Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: Justice, and bread, was served.
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—though I will never not be haunted by those cake busts. —Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: An emotionally resonant, romantic follow-up to Hill House
When is a horror story not a horror story? When is a ghost not a ghost? If a ghost lives, breathes and walks among the living, can that really be called anything other than life? If a ghost feels every bit as much love, fear and regret as a living person, then isn’t life just as fraught with peril as death?
These are a few of the roughly 10,000 questions that Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor would like you to roll around in your head during its nine-hour runtime, in which it adapts Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw but simultaneously finds time to go down every narrative rabbit hole you might find on a sprawling English manor’s property. The follow-up to Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House is more unfocused than its predecessor, attempting to build an operatic narrative with detailed backstories for seemingly every character, but it possesses the same sort of devastating emotional intensity seen in the previous Netflix series. What it doesn’t have, though, is likely to disappoint a certain chunk of the audience: The scares.
In the end, what we have in Bly Manor is an epic, romantic gothic melodrama that isn’t interested in classical horror motifs like a struggle of good against evil. This is a deeply human story in which there’s no such thing as indiscriminate evil—only misunderstood and fractured people, both living and dead. Even the ghosts all become figures of sympathy and pity, as they’re revealed as products of misdirected human emotions such as rage, loneliness and loss, rather than the supernatural bogeymen we’re more familiar with. —Jim Vorel
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