Paste Power Ranking: The 5 Best TV Shows on Right Now, from Hacks to Underground Railroad

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<i>Paste</i> Power Ranking: The 5 Best TV Shows on Right Now, from <i>Hacks</i> to <i>Underground Railroad</i>

News broke earlier this week that WarnerMedia and Discovery would be merging. As we explain in our 5 Things to Know about the deal, this could start the eventual contraction of the streaming industry, which has fanned out to unsustainable proportions.

Look at this week’s Power Ranking: To watch all of our Top 5 shows, you would have to subscribe to 3 different services (HBO Max, Amazon, Hulu) and/or get one broadcast network (NBC) via antenna or a Live TV service. If you include our Honorable Mentions—each being just a breath away from being included in the Top 5—that would expand to 3 more subscription streamers (Peacock, Netflix, and Disney+). It’s too much!

But 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: Rutherford Falls (Peacock), High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (Disney+), Castlevania (Netflix), Legends of Tomorrow (The CW), Girls5EVa (Peacock)


5. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

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Network: NBC
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: An excellent season finale with a hell of a plot twist shocker in the last few seconds.

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.

In 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—at least for awhile), but it all works perfectly to create the kind of joyful, cathartic series we need right now. —Amy Amatangelo


4. Cruel Summer

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Network: Freeform (Next day on Hulu)
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: The show not only tackled a dual POV episode across all three timelines, but managed to pull it off! Genius.

I had to give up taking notes on Cruel Summer, Freeform’s new 90s-set teen mystery series, about 2,000 words in. That said, the very density that prompted me to get 2,000 words deep in a meticulous kind of madness before changing course is precisely the thing that’s likely to turn Cruel Summer into the internet’s next big generation-spanning hit. Truly, from its complex, triple-layered timeline to its compellingly intimate POV-flipping narrative structure to its viscerally accurate mid-90s details, Cruel Summer is custom-built to be an object of social media obsession.

In the one corner, you have Aurelia’s Jeanette Turner, who at any given moment is a sweetly awkward 15, or a recently popular 16, or a universally despised 17, and who may or may not be guilty of compounding another girl’s trauma. In the other corner, you have Holt’s Kate Wallis, who at any given moment is a universally beloved 15, or a freshly traumatized 16, or an acidly angry 17. In between them, you have a gulf of not-knowing—a not-knowing that at any given moment might come from one character’s inherent duplicity, the natural gaps in another’s first-hand knowledge of a situation, or the fundamental unreliability of memory even before intense emotion is involved. There are some truths that are more real for some characters, and less for others; some realities that are more tangible in one moment than they are in the next.

The likelihood that one girl is lying and the other telling the truth hangs over Cruel Summer like a thundercloud, but in giving the audience just one walled-off chunk of each girl’s side of the narrative at a time, the possibility that they’re both telling a story that’s true to them is just as present. In floating the mid-90s media’s take on Jeanette and Kate to the top of its story over and over again, Cruel Summer adds an important third perspective on the nature of reality, and all the ways in which it can be warped in the name of “truth.” —Alexis Gunderson


3. The Underground Railroad

Network: Amazon
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A tense, atmospheric exploration of hope amid trauma

The 10-episode limited series, based on Colson Whitehead’s novel, is a fictional account of two runaway slaves, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and her partner Caesar (Aaron Pierre), as they traverse the American South via a connection of literal hidden railroads. Helmed by Barry Jenkins, the series is lush and atmospheric while never shying away from the atrocities Cora and Caesar are running from, most notably the persistent slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), who stalks the duo relentlessly.

Each episode plays like a chapter in their journey, one stop on the railroad at a time, and Jenkins is deliberate in his worldbuilding. Georgia and South Carolina and North Carolina feel like different countries with different rules for how to treat Black folk: slaves in one, members of society in another, and illegal to exist in the open in the last. Jenkins fills every location with its own flavors. The first time we see the railroad, it feels like a huge sigh of relief—a literal bright light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s easy for a slavery drama to feel suffocating or paralyzing, and there are parts of The Underground Railroad that are designed to evoke discomfort and stagnancy. But Jenkins’ composition also allows us to examine every side of the story, every perspective at play. The series is urgent even in its slower moments. There is a thudding heartbeat at the center, proving that despite the trauma at the core of the story, the series is about perseverance. And in it is a tale ready to be deemed a classic. —Radhika Menon


2. Mare of Easttown

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Network: HBO
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: This episode just changed the game.

Is there such a thing as a sober, carefully considered obsession? If so, that’s what we encounter in the HBO limited series Mare of Easttown, a show that is ostensibly about a series of deaths in a hardscrabble Pennsylvania town, but is, in reality, about the heavy pain of being alive. The plights of our time are all on display in the series—poverty, depression, drug addiction, suicide—and the debilitating effects are handled with masterful subtlety. This is a Kate Winslet vehicle through and through, and for an actor once described as having the “soul and attitude of a jobbing actress, trapped in the body of a movie star,” here again we see her embodying a pained, difficult character who is not always sympathetic. As Mare Sheehan, police detective and former high school basketball star, she has suffered, and suffered, and suffered some more in ways that leave her defiant, sarcastic, and cynical, but too tough to be broken. It’s not an easy psychological space to occupy, but Winslet, looking appropriately haggard except in the rare cases when she decides to be beautiful—moments of hope that are almost more painful than the perpetual fatigue of reality—is more than equal to the task, carrying the show with all the brilliance you’d expect from somebody so talented. If you come to Mare for Kate Winslet, as many will, you won’t be disappointed.

There can be a nagging tendency, when depicting “strong women,” to atone for years of under-representation on the screen by turning them into invulnerable super women, conflating the two genres—drama and comic book—that should be kept separate. Mare stands out for its realistic depictions of this strength, highlighting not just the impressive resilience of its women, but the ways in which the need for this resilience takes its toll, both over time and in harsh, shattering moments. When those characters falter, or even break, it only serves to highlight that underlying strength; these are portraits written and directed by human beings with a deep understanding of how life works on the psychological margins. —Shane Ryan


1. Hacks

Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Is there anything Jean Smart can’t do?

HBO Max’s latest series Hacks follows 25-year-old writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) as she tries to get her comedy career back on track after losing her job due to a bad tweet. Her journey takes her to Las Vegas, where she reluctantly starts writing material for Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a comedy veteran whose life is much like the china she collects: beautiful to behold, but cold and empty within. Deborah fills her life with work due to the absence of a personal life, which she’s eschewed ever since her husband left her for her own sister decades ago.

The show is a traditional odd couple pairing. Ava is bisexual, a Bernie supporter, and a chronic oversharer—in essence, your classic media depiction of a millennial. Deborah is brash, saying whatever she likes regardless of how others feel, and surrounds herself with gaudy opulence. Over the course of the series, they realize just how similar they are. Both of them are career-obsessed, more than a little self-centered, lack a personal life and, in the words of one side character, they’re “both psychotic bitches.”

Smart and Einbinder deftly pull off this two-hander thanks to their respective talent and excellent chemistry. Smart is at her peak here, moving from hilarious in one scene to quietly heartbreaking in the next. Deborah can be truly unlikable at certain moments, but the sensational Smart plays her with such subtlety and warmth that you still care about her—even though she has live fish pumped into her man-made lake.

With a strong cast and some stellar directorial choices, Hacks is a necessary addition to your summer watch list. —Clare Martin



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