By our (totally unaudited) count, 18 new series premiered last week and 50 (yes that’s right 50) shows returned for new seasons.
People, even for us that’s a lot of TV. The surge of new series to consider made for some tough choices in this week’s Power Ranking. More than even a mediocre episode of a show we love simply wasn’t acceptable (sorry The Good Place, the truth forking hurts).
The rules for the power list are simple: Any 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—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. We’re merciless: a bad episode can knock you right off this list. So much good TV is available right now.
Undone (Amazon), Poldark (PBS), The Politician (Netflix), The Durrells in Corfu (PBS), Bob’s Burgers (Fox), On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Showtime), This Is Us (NBC) and Saturday Night Live (NBC).
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
A mysterious child who appears out of nowhere. Is she an alien? A product of a secret government experiment? I know what you’re thinking: From Stranger Things to last season’s short-lived The Passage, we’ve seen this before. But Emergence has a secret ingredient: Allison Tolman. Tolman who burst on to the scene in Fargo and was so fabulous in Downward Dog, takes the show to the next level. There’s something so palpably believable in Tolman’s Jo Evans, a police chief who suddenly finds herself responsible for Piper (Alex Swinton), a young girl with amnesia found next to a mysterious plane crash. Bonus points for getting to see Donald Faison back on TV as Jo’s sympathetic but a bit skeptical ex-husband. The final minutes of the series premiere hooked us.—Amy Amatangelo
9. Perfect Harmony
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
Really no one is more shocked than we are to find Perfect Harmony on this list. The premise sounds so terrible. Bradley Whitford (who brings with him a lot of TV goodwill), stars as Arthur Cochran, a music professor who, after the death of his wife, suddenly finds himself leading a small-town church choir. Anna Camp is terrific as a congregant who believes Arthur can help her choir, and I got a kick out of Reverend Jax (Rizwan Manji) whose parents never told him the real names of movies (he knows Mary Poppins as Unmarried Women Cause Trouble). The whole show has an inspirational feel and the ending number will remind you of the early days of Glee. I have no idea where the show goes from here since the pilot seemed to cover a whole season’s worth of episodes but I am looking forward to finding out.—Amy Amatangelo
8. Righteous Gemstones
Last Week’s Ranking: 8
In HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, Danny McBride plays Jesse, the oldest son of the Gemstone clan of showbiz preachers, the flamboyant heir apparent to his legendary father Eli, who’s played with equal parts solemnity and menace by John Goodman. Eli turned the gospel into a chain store, opening up churches throughout the Southeast, and bringing his whole family into the business. In addition to the permed Jesse, there’s Adam DeVine’s Kelvin, who has the fauxhawk and designer jeans of a Christian pop star, and daughter Judy, who chafes at her family’s unwillingness to treat her as an equal, and who’s played by Vice Principals’ breakout star Edi Patterson. Jennifer Nettles of the band Sugarland cameos in flashbacks as the family’s now-dead (and very Tammy Faye-esque) matriarch, whose passing weighs especially heavy on Eli.
It’s not saying much to call a TV family dysfunctional, but the Gemstone children are immediately introduced as being uniquely fractious. They present a united front on TV or in front of their parishioners, who they openly treat as marks behind the scenes, but don’t try to hide their contempt for and disappointment with one another when the cameras are off. Much of what makes the show so enjoyable is the way these three gifted comic actors play off one another as their entire world threatens to unravel. As with McBride’s previous HBO shows, Gemstones delicately balances the ridiculous and extreme with surprisingly subtle character moments that keeps the show from drifting too far away from legitimate emotion and humanity. Even McBride’s Jesse, who is largely a hateful blowhard who deserves every bad thing that happens to him, has moments of levity and regret that humanize him; his relationship with his children might be terrible, but he earnestly seems to want their love and respect, even as he blows everything up again. It’s a worthy addition to McBride’s HBO oeuvre—another messy, honest, exaggerated and realistic look at Southern charlatans desperate for fame, power, and success in a modern South that can too easily fall prey to their schemes. Praise the Lord and pass the loot, indeed. —Garrett Martin
7. David Makes Man
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
Expectations are the last thing you should be bringing into OWN’s first original teen-centric series. David Makes Man transcends expectations. It transcends genre. It just… transcends. Much of this transcendence is due, of course, to creator Tarell Alvin McCraney’s particular line of naturalistic poetic genius. If you’ve seen Moonlight or High Flying Bird or Choir Boy, the fact that young David Young’s story both defies easy description and delivers deeply human realness on every page won’t be a surprise. But while David Makes Man would be excellent no matter how it traveled from McCraney’s imagination to OWN’s screen, the version we get to watch rises to exceptional thanks to the presence of two things: Akili McDowell’s astounding work as teen hero David (a.k.a. DJ / Dai), and the textural shimmer of the team’s dreamy, innovative visual style.
So much of David Makes Man depends on the inner churn David experiences as he tries to balance the daily struggle to survive life in the Ville without falling into the drug-dealing world that got his deceased father-figure killed, the academic expectations that seem to exist in a vacuum at the magnet school he buses to every day, and the quotidian social pressures to fit in and not be weird (slash, not be embarrassed by his corny-ass mom) that every middle-schooler in human history has had to face. More often than not, McDowell is asked to communicate that tightrope walk with just his eyes, or his balled fists, or his quicksilver mask of a school-day grin. It’s so much, but McDowell delivers every detail with such heartfelt naturalism that it’s hard to remember David isn’t real. It’s genuinely astounding. —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
A priest-in-training who solves mystical mysteries? No, thank you. But! What if I told you the priest was played by Mike Colter, Luke Cage himself. And that the series is from Michelle and Robert King, the duo behind both The Good Wife and The Good Fight. See? You’re intrigued aren’t you. The pilot episode transcended its awkward premise to introduce us to Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) a forensic psychologist who becomes something of a believer when she meets David Acosta (Colter) and they begin to investigate the inexplicable. The always creepy (in the best way) Michael Emerson is also on hand as Leland Townsend, a mysterious character who epitomize the title of the series.—Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
There’s something quietly revolutionary about Unbelievable. It is difficult to watch at times, the kind of series likely to live with you long after its final moments come to a close; for a story centered on rape, that is hardly unusual. The work of its three remarkable lead actors is wonderful but also not unique; other television shows and movies have hired exceptional performers to tell these stories. Instead, Unbelievable distinguishes itself by the simple act of making one very big assumption: that everyone watching already knows that rape is a horrific violation. It assumes you’ve got that handled. It assumes that you’ve seen The Handmaid’s Tale or Boys Don’t Cry, or most recently, The Nightingale, and have plenty of experience seeing rape depicted in media in visceral, nightmarish fashion. It is fully aware that of the people on the other side of the screen one in six women and one in 33 men will have personally experienced a rape or an attempted rape in their lives. It has absolutely no interest in immersing its audience in trauma and violation. Unbelievable knows that you know rape is bad. It does not act as a voyeur. Under the guidance of showrunner Susannah Grant, it is far more interested in the survivor’s perspective—on what happened to her, yes, and how it lingers, but also on the violations that came after.
Based on a Pulitzer-winning piece of journalism by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong (of ProPublica and The Marshall Project, respectively), Unbelievable is a series of such quiet power that its full impact may not come crashing down until after its conclusion.—Allison Shoemaker
Last Week’s Ranking: 6
HBO’s Succession, from creator Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It) is dressed up as a prestige drama, but it’s actually one of TV’s most acid comedies. Once you embrace that, Succession unlocks as a never-ending battle of power and prestige with medieval royal overtones that is also wonderfully aware of how absurd that kind of story is. As one observer of the Roy family comments, “watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on planet Earth.”
In Season Two, Logan (Brian Cox) is back in full health and full power, having survived and subverted Kendall’s (Jeremy Strong) late-season attempts at a coup—incidentally, one of TV’s most horrifically sad sequences of events. It left Kendall completely broken, a dead-eyed robot who now lives in service to his father’s wishes. But all of the spoiled siblings are cowed (except for Connor (Alan Ruck), still deludedly considering a Presidential bid) with Logan’s return. He’s a bully, frightening even his oldest friends, yet knows exactly how to emotionally manipulate everyone back into his thrall. They may complain and privately plot against him, but no one dares speak a word to disfavor them in his presence.
Succession is not made to be binge watched. It’s engrossing, as a world that’s easy to immerse oneself in, but there is a kind of shadowy, icky feeling that follows you when you’ve consumed too much. That’s not the show’s fault; it’s easy to laugh at Tom (Matthew Macfayden) getting upset that he’s “not in the right panic room!” when he discovers Shiv (Sarah Snook) is in a more posh stronghold, but seeing Waystar encourage a dotcom to not unionize before gutting them, or how even a supposedly ethical organization might well sell out to partisan interests when there’s enough money is just depressingly real. Succession is a combination of Tom’s exclamation “what a weird family!” and Logan’s “Money wins. Here’s to us.” And it has us fully in its thrall.—Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking:Not Eligible
George A. Romero’s Creepshow, written by Stephen King, was formative alongside similar fare like Bordello of Blood. Now that the film anthology’s format and style has found a new home on Shudder, fans—be they longtime members of the cult or new converts seduced by the EC Comics spooky-fun vibe—will be doing the Danse Macabre “eek” to “eek.”
The first episode of Creepshow, “Gray Matter/The House of the Head,” starts with a comicky reintroduction of the Creep and doesn’t let up. With comic fidelity unseen outside of the MCU (whole pages, ads, and page-flipping transitions make their way on-screen) and Easter eggs enough to make King fans happier than a Mainer at a townie bar, Creepshow plays to audiences with the same storytelling strategies as superhero cinema. The original fans get their nostalgia, with the old masters well represented and throwback tones well mimicked, while the new inductees get enough modernity to Trojan Horse in the show’s addictive camp.
Creepshow’s first pair of ghoulish tales so solidly nail what made the original so beloved (an unabashed sense of look-what-we-can-get-away-with fun) that it’s easy to get swept up in its own appreciation for the dark material. It might not all be perfect in the coming episodes, but it’ll certainly be a good gamble. Creepshow’s a Halloween party thrown by your favorite goths and worth attending simply to see what will pop out of the closet next.—Jacob Oller
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
Time is in short supply for anyone who loves television these days, and shorter still for those of us professionally obligated to keep up, but even so, I watched “Forget It, Dex, It’s Stumptown” three times and got more out of it each time. What’s more, each of those three times, the cold open gag plus action sequence plus Neil Diamond musical sting that sets up the series’ whole vibe absolutely killed, as did its callback at the end of the hour.
Created for television by Jason Richman and based on Greg Rucka’s comic book limited series of the same name (Rucka also writes for the show), Stumptown is a modern-day hardboiled detective drama that follows Dex Parios (Smulders), a former Marine investigator with a gambling problem, a drinking problem, and a monster-sized case of undiagnosed PTSD when she stumbles her way into a gig as Portland’s new favorite private investigator.
As a detective procedural on an alphabet network, the story that follows traces a fairly standard shape: A civilian (Dex) has a case land in her lap that parallels a formative tragedy/mystery from her past and her mixed success with that case sparks the idea that, hey, there might be some kind of career to be made out the whole detection game. The difference in this case is that “Forget It, Dex, It’s Stumptown” does all that with a handcrafted Pacific Northwest cedarwood scalpel. The formulaic parallels aren’t the surgical part—it’s the finesse will which all the exposition and characterization necessary to introduce Dex’s world, including the tiny but sympathetic support system she has in her brother Ansel (a very charming Cole Sibus) and best friend Grey (Jake Johnson, who was born for a hipster-brewer beard and shearling denim jacket). This is especially true about Dex’s military background, which sets up both her exceptional hand-to-hand combat skills and her cynical loner attitude as natural consequences of the life she’s lived, rather than convenient coincidences for the hardboiled story the show wants to tell.—Alexis Gunderson
1. Lodge 49
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
In a sea of Puzzle Box Television, Jim Gavin’s chilled-out, languid respite Lodge 49 offers something different. There is a mystery, about the potential existence of magical scrolls that belong to the fraternal order’s True Lodge (ones that may hold alchemical keys), and while it does drive some of the narrative, it’s all so esoteric and blissed-out that whether or not they exist is never the point. Back on Earth, Dud (Wyatt Russell), his sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy), and his lodge friend Ernie (Brent Jennings)—really everyone at the lodge—are just trying to figure their own lives out.
As such, Lodge 49 is still primarily a show about discovery: of the self, of history, of arcane knowledge. Everyone is haunted by friendly ghosts from their pasts, often in ways that make these spirit guides feel very real and tangible. They are meant, like the Knights of the Lynx Lodge, to both fought against and learned from. The show is an unhurried meditation and a quirky delight. There is something quiet and nice about a show that is, well, quiet and nice.
When Liz tells her placement counsellor at TempJoy that she feels like her life isn’t heading anywhere, nothing has been accomplished, and she has no idea what she wants or where she’s going, he replies, “from what I’ve seen, your feelings are in line with the larger work force.” That’s part of the show’s sly, winking tone that never feels at odds with its sincerity. In both cases it’s heartfelt and real. “LIFE IS GOOD!” Now get off your laurels and live it. Right after a dreamy afternoon at the beach, maybe. —Allison Keene