Remember Peak TV? When there was so much to watch you simply couldn’t get to it? To be fair, that’s still true thanks to a plethora of streaming services that offer thousands of hours of TV shows on demand. But when it comes to new premieres, especially on cable, things are getting a little slim. Which is why, like last week, we have decided to shrink our list of the 10 best TV shows on right now to 5, to better reflect the shrinking TV schedule due to COVID-19 and social distancing measures. Still, the stuff that’s good is great! (A programming note: The finales for Quiz and Barkskins will be eligible for next week’s list.)
Also like last week, we wanted to point you in the direction of media that is important to keeping you plugged in with the real world. Dave Chappelle’s new special 8:46 is one (via YouTube), as is the entire Black Lives Matter collection that Netflix has put together. And after quite a few years off from political commentary, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart is back in the news, this time speaking out on police brutality .
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.
Honorable Mention: Stargirl (The CW), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC), Harley Quinn (DC Universe), Quiz (AMC), Dirty John (USA)
5. Love Life
Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: The gentle romcom series we need.
Look I’m not proud. I can’t tell you Love Life is a great show and probably can’t even defend my decision to binge all 10 episodes of HBO Max’s first original series. What I can tell you is that the show is compulsively watchable, much like every romantic comedy that you love even though deep down you know it’s not a great movie (here’s looking at you 27 Dresses).
Anna Kendrick stars as Darby, a would-be museum curator who we meet as a young twentysomething (the wigs at this stage of Darby’s life are bad). Each episode—blessedly only 30 minutes each which is absolutely part of the show’s appeal—follows Darby in a certain year of her life and in a different romantic relationship. The conceit of the show is that we are all in a few relationships before we find the one and that true happiness cannot be found in another person, you have to figure that out for yourself. (Special shout out to Zoe Chao, who is fantastic as Darby’s best friend Sarah.) The series deftly chronicles those rocky years in your 20s when your career, your friendships, and your relationships are all in flux, and it has some interesting things to say about parenthood and figuring out your relationship with your parents as an adult.
Love Life has been picked up for a second season where viewers will follow a whole new protagonist, this time someone who thinks they’ve found their soulmate, only to discover they were wrong. If you can figure out how to get HBO Max (no easy task, believe me), you might just end up loving Love Life.—Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: This show is pulling us in more than we expected …
The most unsettling thing about watching a show about a post-apocalyptic future during a pandemic is that even the most random details hit a little too close to home. At one point during TNT’s new series, Snowpiercer, head of hospitality Melanie (a perfectly cast Jennifer Connelly) asks one of the train’s conductors, “Do you remember fresh air? Do you remember going for walks?” to which he responds, after a thoughtful pause, “Rain. I miss the sound of rain.”
The premise for the series is that in the not-too-distant future, climate change has taken a turn for the worse, and scientists attempting to counteract the damage humanity has enacted upon our planet accidentally freeze the world instead. A supposedly forward-thinking “visionary” named Mr. Wilford predicts the coming disaster, and builds a train 1,001 cars long that will house all of Earth’s last remaining citizens, circling the globe without an end in sight. As is the case with society itself, the train is divided into various classes—first, second, third, and the tail—each defined by varying degrees of privilege and poverty. The story is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, originally published in 1982; Oscar winner Bong Joon-Ho adapted it into a star-studded, big-screen action flick in 2013 (see: Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, and Song Kang-Ho).
In place of Bong’s Hollywood action hero Evans, the TV series enlists Hamilton star Daveed Diggs as Andre Layton, the reigning leader of the mistreated “tailies” section of the train. Instead of a more straightforward rebellion pushing Evans’ Curtis from the tail to the front of the train, the series takes advantage of its multi-chapter format to present a complex web of lies, false identities, and complicity.
It’s important to note here that when Bong’s film was released in 2013, the world was a much different place. Snowpiercer, the movie, felt prophetic, like a warning of what could happen if humans continued to allow capitalistic impulses guide our decisions. But the TV series isn’t prophetic. It’s a mirror. What happens when there is less to learn from the allegory than from reality itself? When simile becomes metaphor? It’s not that the society we live in is like the fictional world of Snowpiercer; it’s that the society we live in is Snowpiercer. —Joyce Chen
Last Week’s Ranking: 5
This Week: A hell of a finale—even though we never got to find out what happened to LaToya.
Now in its fourth season, the HBO comedy remains a delicious, hilarious, thought-provoking and thoughtful ride as Issa (Issa Rae) and her friends navigate career, friendship and family in Los Angeles. This season has delved deep into the relationship between Issa and her bestie Molly (Yvonne Orji) as the foundation for their long running friendship has begun to crumble. The show understands that female friendships are tricky business. Long brewing resentments can come to a boil. The things that annoy you about someone—be it their inability to commit to a romantic relationship or follow through on a work goal—can fester. As Molly embarks on a new relationship with Andrew (Alexander Hodge) and Issa plans a huge neighborhood block party, both women nitpick at each other. Instead of celebrating their successes, they make snide comments. It’s not good. As Molly says of Issa, she loves her but she doesn’t like her right now. Passionate viewers are picking sides, but the truth is the series is doing a great job of showing both women’s perspectives. As if that was not enough fodder for a terrific season, Insecure is tackling a topic rarely seen on television as the early hints of Tiffany’s (Amanda Seales) a post-partum depression are beginning to reveal themselves. Unwilling to just coast on its previous success, Insecure forges into new arenas and offers a very honest look at female friendships and motherhood all while being hilarious (hi British Kelli!).—Amy Amatangelo
Network: National Geographic
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: How can they wrap this up in one more episode??
The first herald of Barkskins’ charming strangeness is David Thewlis’ Claude Trepagny. Keep in mind that we’re dealing with New France (now Quebec) of the late 1600s—thus, most of the inhabitants of the town and surrounding areas are played by British actors with French accents. Some are a little outrageous, but it’s another sign that the series has just an edge of camp to it. Trepagny, however, has more than an edge of camp; he embodies it. He lives on the outskirts of a town that barely tolerates him, in a large stone manor house with an enormous amount of land he refers to as his “doma.” More importantly, he has a cane with a tiny skull on the end of it that he wields with abandon, likes to sing as he tramps through the woods, and prays to an old log and a bowl of hair.
The gorgeously produced series, based on the Annie Proulx novel, is sufficiently muddy, bare, and claustrophobic in its depiction of frontier life along a wild, untamed landscape. It’s also, rightfully, quite spooky. David Slade directs the first episode, and the atmosphere he sets continues throughout. There’s something Deadwood-ish here, something both raw and theatrical that makes Barkskins’ world so intriguing. It’s also, crucially, wryly funny at times. That tone doesn’t always mesh, but Elwood Reid’s series has my respect for taking big swings.
The wonderful but frustrating thing about Barkskins is that there are so many good stories being told here, but they overlap only glancingly so that snapping to another scene feels like changing the channel entirely. Also of note: while Barkskins is dark, it’s not grueling. The tales it tells are worth investing in, even though the final episode hardly feels like an end. Like the land in which it is set, there is so much more worth exploring and uncovering in this wonderfully surprising and often beautifully bizarre tale. —Allison Keene
1. What We Do in the Shadows
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: Guillermo … Buillermo.
In its first season on FX, What We Do in the Shadows took Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s film to a delightfully banal Staten Island. It was a laid-back good time filled with the hilarious injection of out-of-touch vampires Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Laszlo (Matt Berry) into the land of the living. Things are still hilariously dull in Season 2, but the jokes don’t need too much energy—or even have to be that funny. In the long-nailed hands of these undead roommates, even a protracted “updog” bit slays.
What We Do in the Shadows’ new episodes begin by slowly settling into a sitcom. Still, the groundwork laid last season helps this one stay low-key. We stay in the mansion more. The bigger visual gags aren’t massive setpieces, but sustained silliness. Novak, Berry, Demetriou, and Mark Proksch as energy vampire Colin Robinson sell entire scenes with a look and a deadpan, even if it’s something as high concept as the vampires finding out they’ve all got ghosts of themselves. Nandor’s familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), is the show’s dynamic center, and it is upon his sagging shoulders that the new season’s plot rests, as he grapples with his genetic predisposition to slay vampires as a descendant of Van Helsing.
In a season that has truly brought joy, the swaggering silliness of this season also includes the acceptance of a smaller, more sustainable comedy that’s less concerned about plotting the future of the undead and more about un-living in the moment. —Jacob Oller
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