TV once again mined its own past last week, with mixed results. ABC’s retro-inspired Live in Front of a Studio Audience was a hit, but HBO Max’s Sex and the City revival series And Just Like That… was not. However, it did spawn an almost immediate response ad from Peloton (beware of spoilers in that link if you haven’t watched the episode), showing how closely tied TV narratives and marketing continue to be since the days of, well, most shows being filmed live in front of a studio audience. (Speaking of live, or at least a taping of something live, don’t miss out on Nicole Byer’s stand-up special on Netflix.)
And in case you missed it, here are our picks for the 30 best TV shows of 2021, as well as the 25 best episodes. Keep an eye out for more to come!
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 Beatles: Get Back (Disney+), The Expanse (Amazon Prime Video), Ghosts (CBS), Landscapers (HBO), PEN15 (Hulu), Lost in Space (Netflix), The Big Leap (FOX)
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: It’s the last eligible week on the Power Ranking, but this season deserves to be talked about far more than it has been.
As Archie (Adam Godley) puts it, “Russia… a prehistoric creature all anger and thoughtless disregard for life. Anarchic and selfish, lacking reason. These are the things we must face down metaphorically.” But Tony McNamara’s bombastic The Great, returning for another 10-episode season on Hulu, faces these things down literally. What makes the show so excellent is not that it solves any of these problems, or even comes close—it’s that its characters constantly yearn and strive and lash out and cry with a mixture of humor and humanity unlike anything else on television. Perhaps these is nothing more Russian than that.
In Season 2, we see how the power dynamic has shifted after the success of the coup. Catherine (Elle Fanning) has Peter (Nicholas Hoult) cornered and imprisoned. This assertion of dominance alongside her pregnancy is enough to control Peter through a love he has now discovered for her (and crucially their forthcoming son, Paul). But Catherine’s feelings for her violent, chaotic husband are similarly complex. And so, The Great Season 2 is essentially a flamboyant Russian divorce of sorts, full of artfully vulgar dialogue, indiscriminate violence, and the constant threat of death on all sides from everyone.
Like Russia itself, The Great is an amalgam of many disparate parts, all of which ultimately fall in line if by duty or destiny. Led by an outstanding cast, the series remains a strange, funny, ridiculous, trundling carnival of ideas, genres, and characters. It is great in both size and quality—ambitious, reckless, and always a joy.—Allison Keene [Full Review]
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: A spooky seance set the stage for more supernatural events.
Showtime’s new survival thriller Yellowjackets feels like such a breath of fresh air. The series is an intriguing mix of genres: part 1990s-set horror story and part modern-day mystery, with heaping doses of teenage angst and supernatural weirdness thrown on top. It honestly feels like nothing else on television right now, and though its pace is somewhat more glacial than its trailers might have initially indicated, there are moments where the tension—combined with our knowledge that many of these people aren’t going to make it out of this alive—is nigh unbearable.
The story begins in 1996 and follows the titular Yellowjackets, a New Jersey girls high school soccer team on their way to nationals. But when the private plane lent by a rich dad for the trip goes down in the Colorado mountains, they spend the next 19 months fighting to stay alive—a feat not all of them apparently accomplish. We know this because the other half of the show’s plot is set 25 years later, as several of the crash survivors (played by Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, and Tawny Cypress) find themselves visited by a nosy reporter aiming to write a book about their stories.
Ultimately, Yellowjackets is a twisty mystery that doesn’t easily give up many of its secrets, and grounds its story in a specifically female experience in a way that other series like this have never bothered to try. From awkward crushes and sexual double standards to character revelations driven by the fact that the girls’ menstrual cycles sync up… basically what I’m saying is that Lord of the Flies could never. —Lacy Baugher Milas [Full Review]
Network: Amazon Prime Video
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: Wow, we’re already there, huh? The excitement just continues to build for what comes next.
“The wheel weaves as the wheel wills,” and for Amazon Prime Video’s new fantasy series, it wills it quickly. Running an economic eight hourlong episodes, The Wheel of Time is a brisk entry to Robert Jordan’s massive novel series, which evidently contains 2782 distinct characters. Amazon’s version doesn’t have quite that many, not yet, but I can genuinely say that as a newbie to the franchise it took me several episodes and many tabs to understand what anyone’s name actually was. And yet, this adaptation—developed by Rafe Judkins—does everything it can to be accessible to viewers unfamiliar with the source material.
It doesn’t hurt that the fantasy beats are familiar: There is a battle between light and dark, as well as a Chosen One (the “Dragon Reborn”) who will fight to save humanity—or destroy it in the process. There are critters and creatures and a magic that can only be wielded by women, plus a cult looking to eradicate the use of magic, pretenders to the would-be throne, and a hellish army of darkness. Navigating all of this are four young adults (any of whom could be the fabled savior) shepherded by a powerful sorceress named Moraine (Rosamund Pike).
The Wheel of Time teases out so much, but whether or not it eventually fills that out—or if its surface-level telling of this story will lead viewers to a deeper connection with the series itself—is uncertain. For now, it’s a fun ride. —Allison Keene [Full Review]
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A delightful new series that rings true in its public school setting.
The best new network show of the season got a sneak preview after the Live in Front of a Studio Audience broadcast of The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes, and seems poised to return with dominance in 2022. Quinta Brunson writes, executive produces, and stars in this comedy inspired by her mother’s experience as a teacher in the Philadelphia public school system. The show is both hilarious and poignant as it lays bare the inequities in our public education system. Keep an eye out for Tyler James Williams as a substitute and Sheryl Lee Ralph as the veteran teacher who has seen it all. After this airing, the show will return January 4. —Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: The Shivving, the Wambsjab, whatever you want to call it, Succession went out with an episode for the ages.
In some ways, HBO’s Succession is America’s version of The Crown. Focusing on the lavish, petty corporate overlords of a rotten cabal, the show’s machinations are both fully present and menacingly medieval. Unlike The Crown, Jesse Armstrong’s show doesn’t venerate its billionaire royal family, The Roys—it lampoons them, and exposes them as actually being as vain and stupid as they believe the bulk of America to be. In its bombastic second season, the show rose to both comedic and dramatic heights, from “Boar on the Floor” to Kendall’s season-ending mic drop that promised an explosive third outing. But Season 3 is actually more subdued, and occasionally a little too stuck in the endless tread of the Roy siblings’ backstabbing and creatively vile behavior towards one other to gain power and, most importantly, Daddy’s affection.
The essential guessing game of Succession is “what is Logan thinking?” followed by what is everyone else thinking in response to that. It creates an air of extreme anxiety, both for those involved and for viewers, because even though there are no heroes here, we want to champion someone. Even if you want to support Kendall and his genuinely good ideas about cleaning up the company if he were in power, you can’t trust him because he’s arrogant, insecure, and unstable. Along with his siblings, he’s a master of self-sabotage. The actors are all exceptional in conveying these tenuous moments when the various factions meet and clash—as the camera flits from face to face, you can see their shifting alliances even when they would never, ever admit to any of them.
It is in this way that Succession continues to be one of the best shows about royal in-fighting on TV. It’s the Wars of the Roses, it’s Machiavelli, it’s the last days of Rome. It’s addictive, but it’s also depressing. Because even in its most grandiose comedic moments, there is truth to Succession’s cynical world that makes us realize yes, these idiots are absolutely in charge of our world and no, there’s not really anything we can do about it. —Allison Keene [Full Review]
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