Just as HBO had a swing and a miss with its new adaptation of Perry Mason, it made the right move of reviving a better-received limited series from its vault: Watchmen. Free to stream without a subscription this past weekend, the themes that Watchmen seeks to address—not least of which is an education on the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, where a white mob murdered black citizens—are more timely than ever, and providing that accessibility was really key.
Both of those series were polarizing for very different reasons when they premiered, but one new show we haven’t made our minds up about is Netflix’s silly competition series The Floor Is Lava … check back with us next week.
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.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC), NOS4A2 (AMC), Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (Showtime), Snowpiercer (TNT)
Network: National Geographic
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: NatGeo’s weirdo series had a conclusion that begs for more episodes.
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
4. Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: Utterly rage-inducing.
Nothing excuses a double homicide. But the eight-part second season of Dirty John (now an anthology) begins to unravel what drove its lead to a violent act, and sheds light on the long-term effects of clinging to your anger and rage. Based on a true story, Betty Broderick (Amanda Peet) married Daniel Broderick (Christian Slater) when she was 19 years old. She had four children, suffered a still birth and a miscarriage, and worked multiple jobs to put him through medical school and law school. When Dan finally found success as a medical malpractice lawyer, he left Betty for Linda Kolkena (Rachel Keller), his much younger receptionist. He did this cruelly by denying for years that anything was going on between him and Linda, then by moving Betty into a new house under the ruse that they were all going to live their together. Dan was president of the San Diego Bar Association and used his legal connections to make it hard for Betty to find a lawyer. He also sent her to jail and put her in a psychiatric hold. When Linda moved in with him, before they were married, it was her voice Betty had to hear on the answering machine.
But this isn’t what people remember about the story. They may remember the 1992 made-for-TV movie staring Meredith Baxter. They may have listened to the L.A. Times podcast. They may recall the incessant vulgar messages Betty left on his answering machine and that she drove her car into his house. And they definitely remember that in November of 1989 Betty broke into Dan’s new home and killed Dan and Linda in their sleep.
Showrunner Alexandra Cunningham never forgets whose story she is telling, and Dirty John is the TV equivalent of a compelling page turner. From the Dynasty-esque outfits and hair to the fabulous 80s laden soundtrack, Cunningham peppers the series with wonderful ‘80s touches. There’s a certain camp to the series, but it never distracts from the central theme: That far too often our society casts a woman aside in favor of the man. And that’s the dirty truth. —Amy Amatangelo
3. Love Victor
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: An utterly charming teen romcom.
It’s not an earth-shattering statement to announce that teen dramas on TV have remained predominately white and predominantly heterosexual. Love, Victor, Hulu’s new 10-episode series, finally makes a gay teen and his origin story the main storyline. Victor (Michael Cimino) isn’t the sidekick, he’s the hero. Love, Victor pays homage to all its predecessors, sharing much in common with teen dramas of yesteryear with unrequited romances, love triangles, quirky best friends, parental drama, winter carnivals with Ferris wheels, and momentous school dances. Victor is a 16-year-old boy who thinks he might be gay and is figuring out how to navigate his feelings, his conservative family, and societal pressure. The result is a series that’s poignant, funny, smart, full of fun pop-culture references (from The Breakfast Club and Billy Joel to Billie Eilish and the Ann Taylor Outlet, there’s something for everyone) and clever, believable dialogue.
While the show’s message is a great, life affirming one, Love, Victor never feels like work or a pedantic “very special episode.” The message of the show never takes over the entertainment value. It’s just a consistent hum throughout. Be yourself. Love who you are. Stand up for what you believe in. Although groundbreaking in and of itself in many way, Victor’s story is most special because of how normally the show treats it and its charismatic and adorable title character. There’s just so much here to love. Honestly what more could you want in a half-hour series? —Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: A surprisingly ambiguous finale left us wondering: Did they cheat?
In 2001, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was not just a popular program, it was a cultural icon. The game show, which originated in Britain in 1997, became a mega-phenomenon across the globe. As chronicled by the ITV miniseries Quiz, airing on AMC in the U.S., the show’s format was something special from the very start. The response to it was as well. Fans began talking with one another, scheming even to get in the audience and compete for a chance at the hot seat. And, allegedly, three of them conspired to “steal” the one million pound prize in an extraordinary manner: coughing. It was a major scandal, and yet, one that was almost immediately forgotten because the day after it happened, it was 9/11.
Of course, living in a time of coronavirus makes all of the coughing on the show feel especially tense, but Quiz—written by James Graham and directed by Stephen Frears—makes this reenactment reverberate emotionally as well. Weaving its story among three different timelines and perspectives, Quiz (running a mere three hourlong episodes) is fair to all involved, which is not a small thing when there is so much to potentially lampoon. The tone is light and whimsical from the start (cheeky even), because while this is fraud, it’s not necessarily life or death. The miniseries wisely lets its story speak for itself, without making fun of or being mean-spirited towards the eccentric but unexpectedly endearing couple at its core.
What Quiz is, above all, is an acting showcase. Matthew MacFadyen (Succession) and Sian Clifford (Fleabag) star as the otherwise ordinary, middle-class couple in question, Charles and Diana Ingram, who plot to get onto the quiz show. More accurately, it begins with Diana’s oddball brother Adrian (Trystan Gravelle) who—along with his sister and father—are pub quiz fanatics. But then things start to get tricky. As Celador producer Paul Smith (Catastrophe’s Paul Bonnar) says of the brand-new Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? format: “Everybody loves a good pub quiz, a uniquely British invention that combines our love of drinking and being right.” —Allison Keene
1. One Day at a Time
Network: Pop TV
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: An animated special (to close out a COVID-shortened season) provided great social commentary on what the Trump presidency has done to our national discourse, and how we can begin to talk to those we love but vehemently disagree with.
One Day at a Time, which moves to Pop TV after being unceremoniously cancelled by Netflix after three seasons, didn’t just survive the move from a streaming platform to a more traditional network, it is thriving. The show is as sharp, witty, poignant, and hilarious as ever. Truly the only noticeable difference is that Alex (Marcel Ruiz) is a lot taller. The show gets its dig at its former home out of the way early (“It’s like there’s nothing good on Netflix anymore,” Alex laments) so it can get back to doing what it does best. The minute Lydia throws open her bedroom curtains with her trademark dramatic flair, you know everything is going to be okay.
The show is actually a much better fit on Pop TV, the home of Schitt’s Creek. Its comedic beats are more suitable for commercial interruption. And there’s so much to love about One Day at a Time: the way it both respects and finds the humor in the family’s Catholic faith, the ongoing repercussions of Penelope’s time in Afghanistan (she’s still in group therapy with McKenzie Phillips as the group leader), the loving way it admires a close-knit family (“There is no such thing as privacy from your mother!”) celebrating the family’s Cuban heritage, and honoring that a loving, devoted and platonic friendship can exist between Penelope and Schneider. The show is at once a throwback and cutting edge. The cast is all so strong. They hit the comedic notes effortlessly and with aplomb.
How lucky we all are to have a show this beautiful, funny and uplifting during such a difficult time. Dale One Day at a Time! Dale! — Amy Amatangelo
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