Emotions were running high during the voting of our Power Ranking this week. Firstly, we had to deal with the devastation wrought by the Great British Baking Show not giving us a four-person final. If any season deserved it, it was this one. But that wasn’t all—there were a number of big premieres this week that garnered polarized responses from our staff and writers. Many of us were disappointed with Netflix’s messy Cowboy Bebop adaptation, though a few spoke out in its defense. The Wheel of Time struck a chord with some, while others thought it did not come close to delivering TV’s next great fantasy hit. Meanwhile, our Honorable Mentions this week are full, again, of shows we are truly enjoying individually, but which didn’t earn enough of a consensus for a top spot. It’s going to take a lot to unseat Succession and, now, The Great.
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.
Insecure (HBO), Marvel’s Hit Monkey (Hulu), The Sex Lives of College Girls (HBO Max), Yellowjackets (Showtime), Ghosts (CBS), The Big Leap (FOX)
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: Yep, it nailed the landing.
Netflix and RiotGame’s Arcane, based on the decade-old League of Legends multiplayer online battle arena game, is a revelation. Stunningly crafted in a mix of 2D and 3D by French animation studio Fortiche Productions, Arcane is created and showrun by League video game architects Christian Linke and Alex Yee. For 10 years, the duo and their studio have cultivated a passionate and massively dedicated community of eight million players who have immersed themselves in the games, tie-in comics, and music videos that make up the complex mythology of the world. But as so many videogame-to-movie adaptations have proved, even hit games have a rough time translating to a new medium. It’s the perpetual challenge for even the best creatives: finding the right balance of fan service while engaging non-gamer audiences.
Not unlike other heavy world-building series like Game of Thrones or Shadow and Bone, Arcane mostly concerns itself with political and familial conflicts in a world where magic exists. If you happen to be a gamer, the art deco-meets-steampunk aesthetics of Piltover and Zaun will immediately draw parallels to the lauded Bioshock games. If you’re not, it doesn’t matter because a huge part of the appeal of the series is getting lost in how visually immersive every frame of this show is. The textures, lighting, and color palettes—dank and neon in the under city, which juxtaposes against the more pastel and metallic topside—are a feast for the eyes.
Even if you have no interest in picking up any kind of gaming console, do yourself a favor and give Arcane a try. It has more mature storytelling and emotional resonance than many live-action shows do right now. And it deserves to be lauded as the new benchmark for what can be done when it comes to successfully translating worthy videogame universes into a different medium while refusing to dumb down or simplify complex storytelling. Arcane is a world worth getting lost within. —Tara Bennett [Full Review]
4. The Wheel of Time
Network: Amazon Prime Video
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A whirlwind introduction!
“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: Honorable Mention
This Week: A devastating but powerful finale.
Dopesick is not messing around. It can be heavy handed, but its aim is true. Over eight episodes, seven of which were available for review, the series—based on Beth Macy’s non-fiction book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America—chronicles the rise of America’s devastating opioid epidemic through the astronomically successful sale of OxyContin. Jumping around between 1986 and 2005, the fictionalized Dopesick follows members of the Sackler family, federal regulatory agencies, and sales reps complicit in the spread of OxyContin alongside the investigators and district attorneys who have worked to stop them. Meanwhile, patients suffer gravely throughout.
Adapted by Danny Strong and directed by Barry Levinson, Dopesick is certainly not a light watch. Drenched in blues and grays and with a stoic narrative tone, the series is full of terrible, damning factoids. It’s difficult to watch, frankly, because in 2021 we know both how this all ends up and still continues on, so the tension of seeing a good doctor, who deeply cares about his patients, be taken in by the lies about the drug’s safety is agonizing.
It’s why, for all its faults and lulls, I wanted to keep watching. Every reveal is damning and essential. I wanted to quote all of it: the lies, the greed, the manipulations, the horror. No one who supported the Purdue Pharma side comes out looking good—particularly the FDA. Even those with good intentions were bamboozled, but there is no room for absolution here. When it comes to OxyContin, Dopesickis clear: there is only pain and reckoning. —Allison Keene [Full Review]
2. The Great
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Who among us would have the strength to NOT give a kingdom away when we’re hungry?
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: 1
This Week: Yes, America would elect Connor Roy God help us. (Also, hello to Justin Kirk and Stephen Root.)
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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