It’s a time of flux here at the power rankings. Last week, we saw Girls reach the no. 1 pinnacle with an excellent finale, but now Lena and friends are into their offseason, and they’re not alone. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Broad City, fixtures of the last two rankings, also had finales last week, and will be fading into the background until 2016. With a few powerhouse shows still two weeks away from their own premieres, it’s a week of opportunity—who will take the vacated spots? Let’s kick it off.
10. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO
Last Week: 7
The show was actually off this week, but as a gift to fans, Oliver released a web exclusive taking down that shittiest of holidays: April Fool’s Day. Like most of Oliver’s work, this was equal parts funny and necessary. Even when he’s off, this guy is on. (PS, seriously, don’t be obnoxious April Fool’s prank guy.)
9. Better Call Saul, AMC
Last Week: Honorable Mention
For the first time, AMC’s Breaking Bad spinoff is poking its head into the top ten. Through the first eight episodes, Vince Gilligan’s latest offering has been uneven, frustrating, and, yes, occasionally excellent. Josh Jackson and I have been writing email reviews since it began, and in last week’s letters, he was a bit more forgiving of the show’s vacillating quality, though he did recognize the narrative uncertainty:
I think you nailed what’s been so frustrating about the show so far. It’s not exactly episodic, but most of the arcs have been resolved pretty quickly. And a whole new thread was begun last night with only two episodes left to wrap it up. Walter White never met a challenge that could be overcome in less than half a season.
But that’s a comparison I’m sure the showrunners would love for us to stop making. Better Call Saul was billed as an hour-long dark comedy, making it more akin to Orange Is the New Black or Pushing Daisies, and it still mostly succeeds on that front.
I take a bit of a harder line—I think there’s greatness here, but it’s still mostly potential. The distracting elements have to take a back seat to the driving energy of Saul, Mike, and the underworld they’re destined to occupy. With two episodes left in the season, BCS is on the cusp of a two week stretch that could end up making or breaking the show. WATCH. THIS. SPACE.
8. Veep, HBO
Last Week: Not Ranked
Listen, the best sitcom on television is less than two weeks away, and the season four trailer looks amazing. Two weeks might seem early for comedy anticipation, but Armando Iannucci’s political comedy is so smart, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is so funny, that I’m making an exception.
Also, here’s a thing I wrote last year about the 15 best profane moments from the show. Fans of incisive, poetic swearing will be delighted, while others should probably skip it and listen to soothing ocean sounds.
7. Big Time in Hollywood, FL, Comedy Central
Last Week: Not Ranked
This is a Garrett Martin special, and be sure to check out his excellent feature on the show he calls “comedy’s Breaking Bad.” Dan Schimpf and Alex Anfanger created the show, with Ben Stiller as executive producer (in a Broad City-esque origin story, he discovered the two through a YouTube series), and it’s part of the growing movement of serial comedies that favor an season-long arc rather than isolated episodes. Garrett’s take:
I was ten minutes into Big Time in Hollywood, FL’s first episode and I thought I knew the score. The story of two man-children brothers just barely on either side of 30 making incompetent films while living with their parents bore the hallmarks of various other basic cable comedies. Mix up the destructive self-obsession of the Always Sunny gang, the frat-slacker charisma of Workaholics and the film genre parodies of any number of comedy shows, and you’d have Comedy Central’s latest original program. It was funny, but it felt too familiar. And then the pilot ended with a genuinely shocking moment that was clearly going to have an impact on the rest of the series. It earned my repeat business, and immediately: I pulled up the screener of the second episode as soon as the first one ended.
6. The Good Wife, CBS
Last Week: Not Ranked
Hey, it’s time for some network love! Paste’s Shannon Houston tells us why the cable/premium-channel-only drama snobs among us (yup, me included) should be watching this gem:
This is a great time for feminist themes on TV, but many shows miss the mark slightly when we feel that dreaded hand of the writer. This season of The Good Wife is showing everyone (ahem, Scandal) how it’s done—how you have open-ended debates about abortion and women in politics, how you have a Gloria Steinem guest spot that feels perfectly aligned with a show (and still, somehow, pokes fun at her mythic, god-like status in the women’s movement)—how you do all of this on a series that, oftentimes, isn’t directly concerned with such issues.
Last night’s episode was, technically, about Alicia’s first day as State’s Attorney and a new case involving the free (and illegal) downloading of movies. And yet, we got some hilariously biting commentary on the realities of women in politics, racism, and this odd world we live in where what we say online (or in e-mails) is “supposed” to be private and anonymous. It’s incredible how a show that is so well-written, and, well, adult, can thrive off of the immature humor that arises when colleagues reach each other mean e-mails that were hacked. It was basically the “Burn Book” scene from Mean Girls, but in a law firm. Once again, The Good Wife pleased the TV snobs who won’t watch a show unless they can reference Virginia Woolf (http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/03/the-good-wife-review-minds-eye.html) in the recaps, and the teens in us, who still want to laugh at crass jokes about people hooking up in the supply closet.
5. Game of Thrones/Mad Men
Last week: 8/Honorable Mention
We’re just going to bunch these two juggernauts together this week, because GAHHHH THEY’RE ALMOST HEREEE!!! The anticipation is driving me insane, so let’s distract ourselves with the latest news and notes. We’ll start with GoT:
—George R.R. Martin will work on his next book rather than write for season six of the TV series. Good move, Mr. Martin. Far be it from me to suggest that you need to focus on finishing your actual book, but consider this argument, if you will: finish your F$*((# book, man!
—Maise Williams will appear on Dr. Who.
—We’re getting more Missandei and Grey Worm this season.
—Peter Dinklage accidentally let a minor spoiler slip.
And Mad Men:
Oh wait, there’s nothing, because Matthew Weiner is a withholding jerk who won’t even give us a decent trailer. (I didn’t mean that, Mr. Weiner. I love your show. Please don’t cancel Don Draper because of what I said.)
4. The Americans, AMC
Last Week: 6
To my shame, I’m still trying to catch up on this admittedly excellent show. Lucky for all of us, Amy Amatangelo has her finger on the pulse. Here’s her take on season three of the Cold War spy thriller:
There’s so much to say about this glorious third season of The Americans. I could talk about the amazing and profound performances and the clever, constantly surprising script. But here’s what I really want to say about this drama following two KGB spies hiding in plain sight in 1980s America: Every week I think, “Well that’s it. The show has reached its pinnacle. There’s no way it can top itself now.” And then it delivers an emotionally devastating scene like the one between Keri Russell and guest star Lois Smith last week. As I said in my review, it was all too much. I needed to lie down after watching.
How many show can punch you in the gut like that? The sequence between Russell and Smith was interspersed with the jaw-dropping revelation that Martha was going all in on committing treason bringing to bear a storyline planted in season one. On another show keeping Nina (the amazing Annet Mahendru), who was deported back to Russia at the end of last season, in the series might have been awkward. But having her still in play has turned out to be fascinating. Nina is the ultimate survivor. She’s using her cunning ways to free herself from what seemed like certain death while Stan and Oleg, the two men who love her, work to save her. All this happens while the show deftly explores love, marriage, family and parenting amid the backdrop of the Cold War. I love this show. And you should too.
3. Justified, FX
Last Week: 5
Jack McKinney, with a teaser on one of the last episodes ever (sob). Check out the full review for more:
With so little time left in the show it grows increasingly tempting to act as much as prognosticator as reviewer. Just two weeks ago, I would have bet that the show would end with a confrontation between Raylan and Boyd down in the mine beneath the Pizza Parlor; a fitting symbolic end to their relationship as their entwined fates drew them back into the dark where their relationship began. But that was not to be. The plot of the mine has come and gone as have other likely subplots. In fact, with each passing hour the show grows increasingly unpredictable as this week’s installment so clearly shows. Then again, though the show leans heavily on its western themes, it thrives just as much on subverting those themes and deconstructing our expectations. Thankfully, knowing that unexpected twists are coming does nothing to diminish their impact and this week ends with a whopper.
2. The Last Man on Earth, Fox
Last Week: 2
I’m becoming a bit of a broken record here, but the envelope-pushing in this show is just next level, and I don’t even need to qualify that with “for a network show” any longer. Fox now seems to be running two episodes each week, and while I’m almost totally convinced they’re doing it out of ignorance or incompetence (see: Arrested Development), it’s pretty great to get a full hour of Last Man every week.
In last night’s first episode, we had another jaw-dropping bit of dark plotting when Phil (Will Forte) became so jealous that the new guy Todd was sleeping with Melissa (January Jones) that he literally plans to abandon him to die in the middle of the desert. Phil gets as far as leaving him on the side of the road before he barely—barely—finds a last shred of humanity and returns. The big moments like that continue to be fascinating and hilarious, and the dream sequences are the stuff of legend, but the more I watch, the more I notice how Forte just kills the small moments. I’ll leave you with a series of .GIFs showing his facial expressions when he first discovers that Todd and Melissa are having sex. There’s no better illustration of the minute hilarities that Forte conveys:
1. The Walking Dead, AMC
Last Week: 3
Pretty simple choice here: The cable ratings giant had its season five finale last night, and utterly knocked it out of the park. May I quote myself, from my review with Josh? I may:
Finales do not come much better than that…let me start at the end and say that if the goal of a finale is to provide enough resolution to satisfy the viewers who have stuck you with for a full season, but also introduce the elements that lure us in for the next, then mission f’ing accomplished. The meeting by the fire, invoking Lord of the Flies, managed to pack more tension than a thousand zombie attacks. It was all because so much hung in the balance, and the results could go ten different ways. Would Rick’s gang have to kill Deanna and the rest of the Alexandrians? Would she have a backup plan? Would they pardon Rick, or would an uneasy truce continue? As it turned out, it was a zombie break-in and a late intervention from Pete the irate surgeon that finally opened their eyes. With one command, Deanna sacrificed the thin veneer of civility that had sustained them since the walls went up, and gained a dose of realism that might help them survive.
The most impressive thing about this show, for me, is how the writers and directors keep adding depth to a show where the temptation for complacency must be so strong. I mean, they’re absolutely killing every other drama, and would probably still be successful if they just phoned it in and ran 45 minutes of scary zombie scenes every week. The fact that there’s still a desire to improve the drama shows a lot—there’s no quit in the Walking Dead team.
This week is going to be huge, my friends. Mad Men will debut on Sunday, The Walking Dead will be off for another year, and shows like Better Call Saul and Last Man on Earth will approach the end of their first seasons. The no. 1 spot is very much up for grabs, and I get the feeling it’ll be a Mad Men—Last Man duel to the wire. Check back on Monday!