Welcome to final power rankings of 2019! We’ll be taking a short winter’s nap the next two weeks and the Power Rankings will return to tackle all the TV 2020 has to offer on January 7.
What a year it has been in TV; we end by celebrating an HBO show—just not the one you might have expected. Watchmen has almost made us forgive the cable network for the final season of Game of Thrones. Almost. And proving that network TV still wants a piece of the peak TV pie, Crisis of Infinite Earths is one of the biggest crossover events ever. Sure TV still offers up lumps of coal every now and then, but in general the medium has never been stronger.
The rules for the power Rankings 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.
Honorable Mentions: Forky Asks a Question (Disney+), Dollface (Hulu), Work in Progress (Showtime), Fuller House (Netflix), and Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show (Netflix).
10. The L Word: Generation Q
Last Week’s Ranking: 5
Period sex and menopause. Yes my friends, The L Word is back and subtly is not on the agenda. Bette (Jennifer Beals wearing pantsuits that are better than ever), Alice (Leisha Hailey) and Shane (Katherine Moening) are joined by, as the title suggests, a new cast of characters navigating their lives, loves and careers in Los Angeles. Bette is now running for mayor and mom to an adolescent Angie (Jordan Hull). Alice has her own talk show and Shane is, well, Shane-ing it up as only she can (of course she has sex with the flight attendant on her private plane, of course she does). The L Word, at its very best, was a juicy soap opera that put lesbian characters front and center and gave them plot lines, melodrama, romances, and love triangles that had been previously only been given to straight characters. Lots has changed in the world since the original series went off the air 10 years ago but, with the current administration, so much hasn’t. The L Word: Generation Q is poised to pick up where its elders left off with complex new characters and soapier than ever stories. —Amy Amatangelo
9. Mr. Robot
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
Beginning its fourth and final season with some big shifts for its characters (including at least one shocking death), Mr. Robot remains awe-inspiring for the ways in which it plays with the concept of what you can do on television. Few shows have ever delivered the same level of creative spark on a week-by-week basis, but that’s because Sam Esmail is only one man; the creator and auteur has truly made his mark on the TV landscape with each inventive choice. The season continues to focus on the increased threat presented by the mysterious Whiterose (B.D. Wong) and Elliot’s (Rami Malek) efforts to take her down, was a strong opening that delivered a few major twists. It’s all-consuming television that never takes its foot off the accelerator, except for the occasional moment of grieving that reminds us that these characters might be caught up in a crazy global conspiracy, but that doesn’t make them any less human. —Liz Shannon Miller
8. The Morning Show
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
The most damning thing I can say about The Morning Show, the star-studded drama that is part of Apple TV+’s big launch, is that it’s fine. Reminiscent of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip with its frenetic take on putting on live television, the show is like an old-school network drama—which again is perfectly fine, but not exactly what one would hope for when discussing the crown jewel of the streaming launch.
But let’s back up. Clearly inspired by Matt Lauer’s firing and allegations of sexual misconduct (which also broke two years ago in November of 2017), The Morning Show follows popular morning show co-hosts Alex (Jennifer Aniston) and Mitch (Steve Carell). They’ve worked together for 15 years amid declining ratings for their network UBA. As the show begins, Mitch is fired for his behavior and, with only a few hours notice, Alex must go on air and address the situation. “You are part of this family and we will get through this together,” she says at the top of the hour. Meanwhile, feisty whippersnapper Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) is biding her time as a reporter for a conservative local affiliate in West Virginia. Her job prospects are stagnated by her uncontrollable temper, but Bradley’s career begins to change when one of her politically-tinged outbursts is videotaped and goes viral.
The Morning Show is chock-full of big names and they all do a fine job. It’s great to have Aniston back on a TV series. Billy Crudup oozes smarm as UBA news division president Cory Ellison. The real problem is that it’s hard to have a clear idea of who these characters really are. They do a lot of telling us who they are without really showing us. The writing fails to make anyone distinct. The Morning Show is a fine drama. But when launching a streaming platform you expect people to pay for, you need more than fine. You need to break the mold and give us a TV show we didn’t even know we needed but cannot live without. The Morning Show is not that. —Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: 8
I’m not quite sure CBS knows Evil is on its network because Oh. My. God. did you see last week’s episode? I can’t believe the same network that airs like 50 different versions of NCIS is airing this meditation on evil from the same people who brought you The Good Wife. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) is a forensic psychologist who becomes something of a believer when she meets priest-in-training David Acosta (Colter) and tech expert Ben (Aasif Mandvi) 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. Truly my only complaint about this drama, which gets better with each passing episode, is that may be too creepy for me. The show produces the kind of scares that stay with you long after the lights go out.—Amy Amatangelo
6. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Network: Amazon Prime
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
When it comes to the show’s particular brand of entertainment, your enjoyment of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is down to whether or not you want to buy into this escapist world and showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino’s very specific dialogue patterns and set aesthetics. People talk in this show, and I mean talk, and the series’ pace is a whirlwind of nightclubs and jokes and stage performances. The third season is even more indulgent than the first two in those terms; the introduction of Shy Baldwin and his Big Band sound remind one a little bit of watching HBO’s Treme, which would just wander into a musical interlude and stay there for as long as it liked. Maisel is visually dazzling, full of colorful patterns, opulent settings, and lavish fabrics.
In that and more, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel continues to be a pleasant escapist parade of sartorial and financial fantasy, even if the individual stories may not be quite as interesting or as emotionally involving as in the past. Midge’s charmed life is now taking her across the country to do standup, some of which lands and some of which does not, and Rachel Brosnahan continues to be exceptionally adept at balancing Midge’s girly charms with her more mature, profane frustrations. So is Maisel prestige? Is it Important? Does it matter? As glittery fun, whether or not it ultimately sticks with you, it’s greatly entertaining and very, very funny. And for those who have enjoyed the first two seasons, that should be reasons enough to buy another ticket to the show. —Allison Keene
5. Saturday Night Live
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
Saturday Night Live may be known these days for its political skewering (or lack thereof) but the venerable sketch show is at its best when it hits upon a universal truth we can all relate to no matter what our political leanings. And so it was with the pitch-perfect Macy’s ad that had parents everywhere howling. “We’re taking 25% boys merino wool sweaters that won’t fit over his head,” the ad proclaimed. There were also “hard shiny shoes that hurt,” “holiday rompers she’ll never get off in time,” “jackets so big and thick they won’t fit in their car seat anymore” and “snow boots that are so hard to put on it will strain your marriage.” The ad was the epitome of “it’s funny because it’s true.” Add in a spoof on Marriage Story skewering the union of Kellyanne and George Conway plus Cecily Strong’s version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” Saturday Night Live put a little joy in our harried holidays. —Amy Amatangelo
4. The Mandalorian
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
One of the year’s most anticipated series—arguably the most anticipated—coincided with the launch of a brand-new streaming service. It was no small thing to combine the genesis of Disney+, with its robust back-catalogue of childhood favorites, alongside a new Star Wars TV show. But Disney is very good at corporate synergy, especially since it now owns so many beloved pop culture properties.
As one would expect from a Star Wars property, a fully-formed fantasy world is immediately presented to us here, filled with interesting characters and lively backgrounds. It has a cinematic quality. Things click and whir and bleep and boop alongside foreign chatter and a host of interesting creatures. The world of The Mandalorian immediately feels lived in, so even though we don’t know much about this particular story yet, there’s no time wasted with setup.
But aside from being a very fun space western with strong ronin influences (which only runs for 30 minute weekly episodes—imagine!), The Mandalorian immediately dominated the zeitgeist by introducing one of the cutest creatures of all-time: Baby Yoda. This incredibly adorable puppet creature has captured our hearts and united the world. Disney gonna Disney. —Allison Keene
3. Crisis of Infinite Earths
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
To say there was a lot of buildup to Crisis On Infinite Earths, The CW’s massive Arrowverse crossover event, would be an understatement the size of one of Mar Novu’s (LaMonica Garrett) quantum towers. The crisis itself was first teased with the series premiere of The Flash in 2014, if you want to be technical about it. But the ramp-up properly began with last year’s crossover, Elseworlds, in which Oliver Queen/Green Arrow (Stephen Amell) made some sort of mysterious deal with Garrett’s godlike figure to save the lives of Barry Allen/The Flash (Grant Gustin) and Kara Danvers/Supergirl (the invaluable Melissa Benoist, giving one of TV’s most underrated performances week in and week out) by, it seemed, sacrificing his own. But gods are often tricksters, and crises keep coming. The first three installments pulled off some Thanos-snapping-level dramatic events, incorporated both promised and surprise cameos, and gave us the gift of both a big focus on Sara Lance/White Canary (Caity Lotz) and not one but two Brandon Rouths. The first, the always welcome Ray Palmer/The Atom (like Sara Lance, of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow), was as delightful as ever. The second involved a return to the blue tights for the onetime Superman, here donning the Kingdom Come super-suit and introducing us to a grieving, graying, but somehow still hopeful Clark Kent. It’s one of the year’s best superhero performances, a terrific element in a “television event” that somehow, impossibly, lived up to the hype. Bring on the final two. —Allison Shoemaker
2. The Expanse
Network: Amazon Prime
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
The Expanse is not Battlestar Galactica, but it’s the closest a TV show has gotten to capturing a gritty future for humanity than brings travel among the planets metaphorically down to Earth. Like Battlestar, our species’ tendency to form factions and jockey for power isn’t imagined away in some utopian dream. Earth, Mars, and the Belters living in our Solar System’s outer rim all have bad blood between them, even as humanity begins to look beyond our solar system in the fourth season, now streaming on Amazon Prime. A bigger corporate home means a bigger budget, but it’s the tight writing that gained the show its small but loyal following in the first place. As the story keeps broadening in scope, it threatens to buckle under the weight of its scattered threads, but it remains the best space travel show currently airing on TV right now.—Josh Jackson
Last Week’s Ranking:4
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen, like Fight Club and Starship Troopers, has a knack for getting itself misunderstood. Frankly, that’s mostly because white guys in the demographic that usually watches this kind of thing are used to a certain kind of messaging and a certain status quo interpretation. Action heroes kill stuff. It’s awesome. Rah, rah, violence. Move along, see the sequel in a year. Past behavior is hard to escape; it’s also hard to criticize without accidentally dipping back into old habits. Watchmen’s HBO sequel series from Damon Lindelof isn’t perfect in this regard, but it’s easy to watch, tough to pin down, and well worth working through.
The show becomes more and more about the traumas suffered by our progenitors, how they’ve lived on through us, and how we respond to their effects. It susses out the ways the government would attempt reparations for black Americans robbed of historical wealth—including the racist backlash against and cringe-inducing videos used to inform those receiving them. This applies to oppression and inequality, sure, but an entire episode digs into the 9/11-like aftershocks resonating into the American psyche from Ozymandius’ space squid drop on NYC. The past comes for everyone in the show.
Unlike some other prestige TV with muddled messaging, Watchmen doesn’t leave you feeling empty. The thematic throughline of the past’s haunting echoes and tangible consequences can get hammy at times, but it’s still a fascinating concept for a sequel series that nobody asked for. Clever, mean, blood-in-the-mouth humor meshes with politics warped and wild in this alt-present where Robert Redford is president and peace was forced upon the world by a murderous genius. Coping with this reality, moving on from the sins of the past, and figuring out how to find a just future—that’s a journey riddled with pitfalls, but one Watchmen has made irresistible. —Jacob Oller
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