We no longer live in a society, but we still have TV! Though fictional worlds provided us some divisive (Star Trek: Picard) and cathartic (The Sinner) finales this week, we’ve also seen the birth of unexpected avenues for filtering the news of our real world—like John Krasinski’s “Some Good News.” We’ve also found some new national heroes in the media, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo (who has been having some great and spirited conversations with his brother Chris on CNN, mostly about who is their mother’s favorite), and seen some late-night hosts thrive (Samantha Bee) in the move to a non-audience setting, while others have faltered.
And while it’s always good to have options to binge, series releasing their episodes on a weekly basis bring some comfort (except for Outlander, which wrecked us), giving us something to look forward to as well as marking time in this strange new world.
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.
Miracle Workers: Dark Ages (TBS), Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access), Schitt’s Creek (Pop TV), Castlevania (Netflix), Better Things (FX), The Sinner (USA), One Day at a Time (Pop TV)
Last Week’s Ranking Not Ranked
First season shows that haven’t yet been renewed are always on the proverbial bubble this time of year. Of course right now things are even more precarious for TV series that haven’t yet gained ratings and pop culture traction: Production everywhere has shut down and for a show like Stumptown, which ended its first season last Wednesday without yet being picked up for a second season, its fate is more uncertain than ever. But let’s hope Dex (Cobie Smulders in a career-best turn) and her rag-tag crew return for a second season because “All Hands on Dex” was a near perfect season finale—satisfyingly wrapping up the season-long mystery of what happened to Dex’s beloved Benny (Sam Marra) while ending on just enough of a cliffhanger to leave loyal viewers excited for next season (suffice to say parents everywhere are causing problems). Stumptown is a near perfect mix of terrific acting, engrossing cases of the week, overarching mysteries and ongoing character entanglements and romances. And what a soundtrack! Now is a great time to catch up on Stumptown’s first season. —Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
The English Game arrives at a good time for two reasons. One, the 21st century has really been lacking in great sports movies that so dominated the 1980s and ‘90s. Two, sports are cancelled right now because of the spread of coronavirus. So why not settle in and watch some pale but fit English lads run around the pitch in what is essentially Chariots of Fire: The Series?
Taking place in the 1870s, the six-part miniseries (from Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes) introduces us to the true story of two players from opposing sides who will change the game in critical ways. The first, brashly handsome Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft ), has dominated the field for years playing for the Old Etonians—whose team has not only won four FA (Football Association) cups at this point, but who also double as FA board members and chairman. (You see the problems already). The second, Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie ), is a wee Scottish powerhouse who has been brought to play for Darwen FC, a northern mill-town club, before being wooed by Blackburn.
The larger question that The English Game tackles (pun partially intended) is one of inclusion. Who is this game for? It was crafted by wealthy Englishmen, but are they the future of it? We know they answer is “no,” but it’s something in the 1870s that was only just beginning to become clear. Fergus and Love—two of the best players in the game—are Scottish and working class. This is already revolutionary. But their play style is also evolving from the one the Old Etonians employ. Fergus encourages his teammates to move out farther and pass more, something we’ve seen Spanish players in just the last decade take to an exceptional art form.
The short run and miniseries format (one that is a true miniseries, with a very clear end) make The English Game an easy investment, and one that everyone can enjoy while under quarantine orders or beyond. But it’s also a story whose questions are still very relevant today (regarding hooliganism, playing for money versus pride, the role of amateur clubs). Its answers are, too. Who is the game for? That is clear enough: Anyone who loves it. When speaking of the growing numbers of supporters in the stands or those anxiously sitting at pubs waiting for scores, characters note again and again that it “gives them hope and pride and so much more.” And that’s what makes it not just The English Game, but the beautiful one.—Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking: 6
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
Last Week’s Ranking: 9
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: 3
The Hosts have left the murder-happy amusement park of carnal sin to give humanity a taste of its own medicine in Season 3 of HBO’s Westworld, where the mythical conflict of creator and creation continues to follow its tragic and violent course. Revolts against a progenitor pantheon—for example, in the Greek War of the Titans—rarely result in fuzzy feel-good fun for the victors (or those over which they rule), but like most things in the labyrinthine sci-fi, it’s the flavor rather than the fact that makes the show fun. While its ambitions have certainly changed since its first screenshot-able season encouraged fans to play Where’s Waldo in the forums, Westworld is still a good time with its looming war on the horizon—and it’s even halfway comprehensible this time around. Don’t worry! There’s still plenty to be confused about. Westworld is 100% back on its bullshit and, depending on how much you like your TV to be a rug-yanking crash course in skepticism, still presents beautiful illusion after beautiful illusion for you to doubt. Westworld at its most narratively accessible and visually unambitious. Season 3 may have expanded its story to a worldwide class conflict, but it still feels like its scope scaled down for the better as it hurdles towards a conclusion perhaps tragically predestined to reverse the power dynamics of the original park.—Jacob Oller
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
Last season, The Magicians made a bold choice to kill off the oft-presumed main character of this fantasy journey. Grief may have changed some viewers’ relationship to the show, but it hasn’t changed The Magicians. The show is still snappy fun in between magical crisis after magical crisis. The Magicians has always been about trauma, grief, and pain, and Season 4 continues that journey in a cathartic and touching way as characters process that death. Whether an individual viewer will want to watch will likely depend on how they have come to feel about his death. As Julia says in Season 3, “When things happen they leave a mark. Figuring out how to deal with it takes time.”
Characters keep trying, trying, trying to make themselves feel better when they just won’t. Margo and Eliot interact with an actual brick wall in Fillory, but they and the other characters also hit a metaphorical one. They must decide to either crash into their grief or let it go and run the other way. When something does go right and a character comes back unharmed, it felt like such a relief I could have laughed. When another decides to remember the truth instead of lying or ignoring the pain, it was a revelation.
Because it’s The Magicians, I’m sure the relief will be short lived. These bits of grace are a good reminder that life goes on, and the show must, too.—Rae Nudson
Last Week’s Ranking: 10
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. (*But ending this last already-emotional episode with THAT cliffhanger for 2 weeks is cruel!) —Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
We’re not saying Tiger King is good, or healthy, or something you won’t feel guilty about watching. It’s impossible to deny the impact this documentary about big cat collectors has had on pop culture over the last 10 days, though, or to argue that the story itself isn’t perversely compelling. Almost nobody is likable in this seven-episode descent into human misery and animal abuse, and yet it’s hard to look away from the egomaniacal fantasies of Joe Exotic, the sex cult drama of Doc Antle, or the slightly classier facade of Carole Baskin, who tries to retain a veneer of bland, bourgeois respectability while keeping cats in captivity and exploiting the labor of her volunteers (and, yes, whose first husband disappeared mysteriously…). Somehow one of the more likable figures is a drug lord who claims to be the basis for Tony Montana—that’s how contemptible almost everybody else in this series is. Yes, this might be bottom-feeder reality trash dressed up with post-Serial true crime prestige—and yes, its central message of “maybe random yahoos shouldn’t be allowed to own endangered wildlife that can kill a human in a heartbeat” is a noble but blazingly obvious one—but damned if it isn’t as entertaining as anything else you’ve seen this year. —Garrett Martin
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
It was only recently announced that Better Call Saul would be ending with its sixth season, though it wasn’t necessarily shocking news, given that with each passing year it’s been harder for one of TV’s best shows to ignore the future it’s been creeping towards. Season 5 is smart about how it acknowledges that, specifically in regard to increasing the Breaking Bad prequel’s engagement with what came canonically before but narratively after.
The final 13-episode season will mean that Saul will have run for 63 episodes, one more than Breaking Bad. Like everything else about this show, that was a deliberate choice. That said, Season 5 of Saul doesn’t necessarily feel like the beginning of the end. Instead, it’s more like the end of the beginning, given that after the events of the Season 4 finale, Jimmy McGill has now officially embraced the Saul Goodman identity—legally and professionally, at least.
Saul is the first persona we ever saw Bob Odenkirk wear in this universe, but thanks to the four seasons that have come before, we recognize it for the mask that it is. However, Jimmy seems to be getting more comfortable with wearing it, especially when this season pushes him to make some choices that prove reminiscent of his original introduction: In the words of Jesse Pinkman, “You don’t want a criminal lawyer… you want a ‘criminal’ lawyer.”
But Better Call Saul is a show whose fundamental foundation is built on the idea that every action has consequences, seen or unseen. In comparison to The Good Place, a show all about ethical debate, Better Call Saul isn’t searching for answers: The characters might debate ideas of moral relativism, but the sure and steady hand of creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan knows what is right and what is wrong—and it is never afraid to reveal what can happen when that line gets crossed. —Liz Shannon Miller
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
“You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices! Options that being rich and white and entitled gave you.”
That’s Mia (Kerry Washington) screaming to Elena (Reese Witherspoon) during the emotionally charged fourth episode of the new Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere.
The line sums up the crux of a series that explores the complicated themes of race, wealth, and motherhood with a delicate aplomb. Based on the Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel of the same name, the eight-episode series follows the sequence of events that occur when Mia moves to the storied community of Shaker Heights, Ohio with her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) in 1997.
Elena’s friend Linda (Rosemarie DeWitt) has struggled with infertility for years and has finally adopted a baby with her husband Mark (Geoff Stults). Their lives have been wrecked by miscarriages and still births. Their adopted daughter Mirabelle is the answer to years of prayer and heartache. Meanwhile, Mia’s co-worker Bebe (Huang Lu) decides to fight for custody of the baby she abandoned. The mother-focused stories continue, and eventually come to a boil: these proverbial “little fires everywhere” become harder and harder to extinguish as the series progresses.
The series is set in the 1990s but its themes, particularly those surrounding what defines motherhood, are timeless. The conversation around race and privilege are perhaps even more relevant today than the era in which the show is set.
Washington is fantastic as Mia. Her hard, angry exterior barely conceals her vulnerability. She’s a fiercely protective mother who may not always make the best choices but always wants what is right. Witherspoon has perfected the entitled character who is blind to her own entitlement, living a life that is so controlled and carefully cultivated that she may have even lost sight of what she truly wants in life. Together, these elements ignite to form a show well worth watching.—Amy Amatangelo
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