This isn’t true for every entry in our Power Ranking this week, but for the most part, we’ve been enjoying shows that are sweet. If you are launching a long, dour, involved drama right now well … it may not be the best time. Life is feeling kinda dour at the moment, and we’re looking to television as a balm. Series with sincerity, that make us laugh, or that just bring us joy in whatever form, are the ones we’re the most excited to watch and talk about. And who could blame us??
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. And be sure to check out our new section, This Week, which explains the show’s rank on the list.
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.
Hollywood (Netflix), Rick and Morty (Adult Swim), One Day at a Time (Pop TV), The Last Kingdom (Netflix), What We Do in the Shadows (FX), Legends of Tomorrow (CW)
Network: Apple TV+
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A rare Apple TV+ success without caveats.
In Trying, thirtysomething couple Nikki (Esther Smith) and Jason (Rafe Spall) have been together for three years. The series’ title refers to their continued attempts to have a baby. They monitor Nikki’s ovulations cycles (the series kicks off with them having sex on a bus so they don’t miss Nikki’s ovulation window. Not a great way to start, but definitely a way to get the viewer’s attention) and try IVF where they are unceremoniously informed that the chances of conceiving with Nikki’s eggs is very unlikely given her sub-par fertility numbers. “Are you sure? I definitely feel higher than that,” Nikki says.
Nikki and Jason thus embark on a journey to adopt a child, where they are faced with one of society’s most perplexing double standards. Anyone who can get pregnant can have a baby. There are no screenings. No home visits. No forms to fill out. No one assesses your health or your habits. No classes you have to take. You just … have a baby. But the adoption process is long and arduous. They have regular visits from Penny (Imelda Staunton), the case worker assigned to assess them and issue a report. They have meet-ups with other prospective adoptive parents. They go to workshops where they are lectured on things like “oppositional defiant disorder” and “object permanence.” And, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes, have to go in front of a panel to defend that they are worthy of adopting a child.
Written by Andy Wolton and directed by Jim O’Hanlon, each episode ends with a lovely montage that checks in on all the characters the viewer has seen over the last half-hour. The way it’s structured reinforces how much we as humans have in common. How love and friendship sustain us.
The eight episodes go by far too quickly, but end in a place where you can easily envision multiple seasons. We are only at the beginning of Nikki and Jason’s journey. I can’t wait to watch them keep trying. —Amy Amatangelo
9. Mrs. America
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
This Week: Phyllis doesn’t care for the truth, but more importantly, we get to hear beloved character actress Margo Martindale describe former O.C.-er Adam Brody as a “magnificent hunk of a man.”
Equality is at the heart of Mrs. America. The series, which starts in 1971, examines the national debate taking place over the Equal Rights Amendment, meant to put women on the same legal footing as men. For some housewives across America, though, the amendment was concerning because it was ushered in by second-wave feminists who (they believed) threatened to dismantle traditional family values. And at the head of that anti-ERA movement was Illinois housewife and mother of six, Phyllis Schlafley (an elegant Cate Blanchett).
Phyllis is the nexus of everything happening in Mrs. America, but each episode also spends time with one or two other important women on the opposite side of the movement, from Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) to Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) to the first black woman to run for President, Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). Where the limited series, created by Dahvi Waller, really excels (and manages to eschew the issues of other series dealing with similar topics) is that it’s not overly reverential to these real-life characters. It also, crucially, doesn’t treat them as caricatures—there is a deep, recognizable, and very true humanity to each of these women that is immediately authentic, as they move in and out of each other’s lives.
Mrs. America is juggling a lot, but it never feels like too much. Like the ever-present (worthless) question of “can a woman have it all?” Mrs. America does have it all, and more. It illuminates an essential part of the women’s liberation movement and the real women behind it (and against it) in ways that are engrossing, enlightening, and sometimes enraging. —Allison Keene
8. Dispatches from Elsewhere
Last Week’s Ranking: 7
This Week: A bold, perhaps polarizing finale that went fully meta.
Jason Segel’s charming new series is a puzzle box: four strangers band together to try and put together clues relating to two warring secret institutes. And yet, Dispatches from Elsewhere wraps all of that up into an optimistic and charming exploration of selfhood. Like a kind of Amélie-by-way-of-Philadelphia, its central characters (played by Segel, Andre Benjamin, Sally Field, and Eve Lindley) wander the city through warm, candy-colored hidden rooms divining cryptic patterns and uncovering unexpected vistas they never knew existed—both within the visual landscape and inside their very souls. It has quite a bit in common with the late, great Lodge 49, as our heroes step outside their comfort zones to try and unpack what it all means (and what “it” even is) in sweet, earnest ways. —Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: A truly extraordinary finale that was emotional and honest about death (and managed an amazing one-shot).
Look there’s no denying that 2019 was a tough year, and 2020 is already worse (!) When I look back on some of my favorite TV shows of 2019—Unbelievable, Fleabag, Russian Doll, Evil—they aren’t exactly brimming with joy. Perhaps it was an extension of the pathetic fallacy where TV, not nature, is reflecting human emotions. That’s why I’m so delighted to tell you that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist on NBC is a pure delight. It is a show that is 1000% guaranteed to put a smile on your face, get your feet tapping and leave you humming a happy tune. I defy you to not be in a good mood after watching it.
The show skews towards people who love musicals and big Broadway-style production numbers (guilty as charged). Jane Levy stars as the titular character who, after an MRI gone awry, can suddenly hear the soundtrack of people’s lives; their innermost thoughts set to a Beatles song, a Whitney Houston ballad or a Katy Perry number.
It’s NBC taking a risk. As far as musical TV series go, for every Glee or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend there’s a Cop Rock. But for network television to be airing, promoting, financing a show like this is a sign that broadcast TV isn’t throwing in the towel to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or (heaven help us) Quibi. NBC has come to play, thank you very much. And that is something to sing about. —Amy Amatangelo
6. Middleditch and Schwartz
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: The pinnacle of improv form.
The better understanding or more experience you have with live performance, the more impressive you’re likely to find Netflix’s Middleditch & Schwartz. This kind of loosey-goosey, long-form improv comedy storytelling is exactly the kind of thing that an inexperienced onlooker is likely to assume is easy, where a seasoned performer is likely to tell you just how brutally difficult it truly is. Not to simply “keep going” for 50 minutes, mind you, but to actually make that sketch consistently funny? No, not even that—to make that sketch side-splittingly hilarious for the majority of its runtime? That’s borderline impossible, but that’s exactly what Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz pull off here, making a case for themselves as literal titans of their craft. Watching this special, chopped up into what amounts to three distinct episodes, should be aspirational for any comic performer—to see how fast these guys’ minds are working as they plan future jokes and callbacks is like getting a glimpse into how geniuses operate. All three outings are full of hilarious moments, but allow us to recommend “Parking Lot Wedding” in particular, which benefits from a natural dramatic build-up to a crescendo that very satisfyingly pulls all of its characters together. We clearly need more episodes of Middleditch & Schwartz, and hopefully we’ll get them. —Jim Vorel
Last Week’s Ranking: 6
This Week: An exciting entry firing on all cylinders, with a killer cliffhanger leading to the finale.
As our own Keri Lumm said of Outlander’s new season, it feels like a warm hug of familiarity. But after kicking off with the joy of a wedding, Outlander soon movies into worthy and complicated considerations of living in the past while having modern knowledge—particularly of medicine that could help your family and community. As Claire (Caitriona Balfe) expands her medical practice, Jamie (Sam Heughan) must wrestle with promises he’s made to the Crown in order to keep his American land where his family has made a homestead. The America Revolution inches closer, with the Frasers at the center of it all, of course. But Outlander is at its best when its focusing on the personal stories (including one surprisingly horrific story detour that may also be one of the show’s most outstanding) within these larger historical contexts, most especially the partnership and enduring romance between Jamie and Claire, which remains TV’s most loving and aspirational. —Allison Keene
4. Better Things
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: The soulful season finale was beautiful and cathartic, and featured a perfect montage set to REM’s “Nightswimming.”
Pamela Adlon’s dreamy FX series Better Things returns as biting and artful as ever. Sam (Adlon) continues to navigate life with her three young adult daughters, although the show’s best episodes are usually ones where she’s out on her own. From embracing a midlife crisis muscle car, to a strange and beautiful sojourn to New Orleans, to the constant cooking happening in her LA kitchen, Sam’s world is warm and funny and full of self-awareness. Adlon again directs the episodes that play out as flowing vignettes of life—the awkward, weird, funny, heartbreaking. Sometimes they connect, sometimes they don’t (which means you can really jump in any time). It’s a heightened view of reality that, even in its more surreal moments, still manages to capture something deeply truthful. —Allison Keene
3. Normal People
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: The thirsty—but authentic—Irish drama of your quarantine dreams.
Many people are confined to their homes with various family members right now, but Hulu’s new show Normal People is not one to watch with your mom. Trust me on this. Normal People is a journey best taken alone in a dark room. The series, especially in the beginning, is uninhibitedly horny and would certainly make for an awkward group watch. If you’ve read the book, all this hot-and-bothered business probably sounds familiar (author Sally Rooney writes freely and without using conventional punctuation structures, bringing the reader even closer to the action). But it’s also a deeply felt story.
For the uninitiated, Normal People is the tale of two Irish teens, outsider Marianne and cool-kid Connell who, against all the odds (namely, a high school social hierarchy) fall in love and float in and out of each other’s lives into their university years. In the new adaptation starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal (both poised for breakouts), the plot is treated delicately and with great care, allowing for lots of small, quiet moments with these characters as they change, mature, break up, have sex, and make up over the years. At first, they hide their relationship from Connell’s popular friends, a group of random hot Irish people who stalk the halls of a high school that looks inexplicably like an airport terminal. Connell comes across as quite a scumbag early on, but the imperfectness of both his and Marianne’s youthful mistakes are part of what makes Normal People so real and endearing.
in the end, Normal People isn’t just some erotic but sweet story of turbulent young love. It’s a portrait of intimacy itself—and I do mean both kinds, sexual and emotional. There’s an earnestness to it that you won’t find in other TV shows aimed at young adults. But take away all the dynamic storytelling and so-real-it-hurts humanity, and you’re still left with a steamy quarantine binge that’ll leave your heart racing in the best way. But you’ve been warned: Just don’t watch with your friends or loved-ones if you, like Connell, are prone to blushing. —Ellen Johnson
2. Never Have I Ever
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A wonderfully sweet and worthy entry to Teen TV canon.
15 sucks. You’re not sure who you are or what you’re doing or who you should be doing it with, but you’re 100% certain that everyone around you is always laser-focused on every embarrassing mistake that you make. Mindy Kaling’s new coming-of-age sitcom taps into the painful awkwardness of figuring it all out with the same mix of earnestness, realism and humor as Freaks and Geeks and The Wonder Years, but filtered through a cultural lens not often seen on American TV. Devi Vishwakumar isn’t just grappling with typical teenage drama, but is stuck between two cultures that she never quite feels like a full member of: the American life she was born and raised in, and the Indian heritage of her family. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan captures this anxiety and charm beautifully, that weird mix of constant shame and unearned confidence, in what is shockingly her first professional acting role. If you’re looking for a teen comedy that reflects the ups and downs of real life and is actually funny, here’s your chance. —Garrett Martin
1. Parks and Recreation Reunion Special
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Like 5,000 candles in the wind.
Whether or not you cried at the full-cast rendition of “Bye, Bye Lil Sebastian” (I definitely did), seeing all of our favorite current and former Pawnee residents was a true delight. Reunions are tricky at the best of times, but this virtual meetup, that doubled as a fundraiser, arrived at the perfect time and in the perfect way. Weird, nostalgic, sweet and genuinely funny (with Ron stealing the show per usual), Twitter was alight all week in anticipation, and later, in appreciation. Not just an innovative way to tackle filmmaking and social distancing, the reunion was the exact mood-booster we needed. Bye, bye Parks and Rec cast (again) and your Grizzl points. We miss you in the saddest fashion. —Allison Keene
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