For the first time in its sterling final season, The Americans (rightfully) leads the Paste Power Rankings (no Michelle Wolf to knock it off its pedestal this week!), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t face stiff competition, from both perennials—Atlanta, which concludes Thursday, and Killing Eve, which is in the back half of its first season—and highly bingeable newcomers—Cobra Kai, Dear White People. Plus, a certain spectacle about a futuristic Cold War in space makes its Power Rankings debut. TV right now is truly an embarrassment of riches.
The rules for this list 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 six weeks.
The voting panel is comprised 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, as much good TV is available right now.
American Housewife, Barry, The Good Fight, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Legion, Silicon Valley
Last Week’s Ranking: 10
My ode to Bosch’s first three seasons as one of Amazon’s quietly excellent workhorses focused on two things: how the series functions as a contemporary noir, and how it eschews heavy-handed musical cues to score its story, leaning instead on long silences punctuated by the ambient background noise of everyday life in Los Angeles. With the caveat that the script goes so minimal in the series’ fourth season that a stark score (and more diegetic runs of jazz, Bosch’s signature preference) has to be brought in just to keep the audience’s eyes on the screen, this formula remains intact. In fact, Season Four is Bosch’s strongest yet, taking advantage of the robust identity it built in those early, quiet noir years and using it as a foundation to build out its most criminally and emotionally complex stories to date.
In a feat of pure storytelling acrobatics, the central investigation—a race to determine who murdered a beloved local civil rights attorney on the eve of a legacy-making police brutality trial, before the city’s impassioned social justice activists, justifiably mistrustful of corrupt law enforcement investigating their own, reach a breaking point—succeeds in delivering a nuanced look at one of the thorniest, most deeply entrenched issues facing the country today, neither letting bad cops and corrupt city officials off the hook, nor villainizing the activists’ standing up against them, even as the latter are positioned, necessarily, as a danger to the force as the investigation drags. Instead, Bosch is firm in using the corruption at its force’s core to demonstrate how effective good policing and better precinct management can be, and takes every opportunity to show the activists’ motivations as utterly valid and worthy of respect, even if the efficiency of the investigation is held up because of them. The rest of the precinct’s work, meanwhile, continues throughout, and includes two terrific minor arcs that highlight the brusquely fantastic work Amy Aquino has been putting in since minute one as Sergeant Grace Billets, and the quiet comic relief Troy Evans and Gregory Scott Cummins have been providing as the mellowly competent Detectives Crate and Barrel. And while everything in Bosch’s (Titus Welliver) professional world would be plenty to pack into a single, 10-episode run, Season Four also includes an out-of-the-blue shock in his personal life that lands like a punch to the chest, and puts him and his family—including his work family, Billets and half-estranged partner J. Edgar (Jamie Hector)—on a compelling, if painful, new path. It is a lot for 10 episodes, told with as few words as possible, but it is fantastic. Catch up now. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Amazon Prime Video)
Last Week’s Ranking: Not ranked
When something isn’t working in your life, it casts a shadow over everything. In flashbacks we see Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Dre (Anthony Anderson) brightly lit in vibrant colors as they eat ramen noodles (even though they’re so bad for you), move into their new house and play charades with an envious synergy. In the present, as the long-married couple strives to communicate, they are filmed in muted, sepia tones. The weight of their sadness is palpable. Set against the backdrop of remodeling their kitchen (which we all know can take forever), their marriage crumbles—choosing the new kitchen sink becomes emblematic of their central issue. They each think the other isn’t listening, that nothing will make their spouse happy, that the other only wants things his or her way. There was no big blow up. No affair. No unforgivable transgression. Their marriage fell apart by a thousand cuts. The episode, directed by executive producer Jonathan Groff, is devastating. Like their marriage, the Johnsons’ new kitchen doesn’t fit in with the rest of their house. Not many shows could so effectively and believably pull off the disintegration of a marriage that is the foundation for this excellent comedy. With only two episodes left this season, it seems unlikely that Dre and Bow will find their way back to each other. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: ABC)
8. The Handmaid’s Tale
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
Two months into her solitary confinement at the Globe offices, June’s (Elisabeth Moss) thinking about her mother (a pitch-perfect Cherry Jones), with whom she had, as mothers and daughters often do, a mixed-bag relationship. She spends her days clipping photos and articles from before, lingering over a photo of a protest rally in which her mother’s face is clear in the foreground. “She said we were going to feed the ducks,” she says over a flashback of Mom taking her to a Take Back the Night rally where women are burning papers with the name of their rapist. “So many pieces of paper… It was like snow.” Eventually, she runs for it, in stolen clothes. She knows she’s leaving her daughter. But there’s nothing for it. June’s realizing that between mothers and daughters—perhaps without exception—there’s nothing for any of it, other than a good faith effort to forgive, and to ask forgiveness. —Amy Glynn (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu)
Last Week’s Ranking: 8
We learn about Delos’ colonial-ass Disney version of the Crown’s rule in the opening minutes of “Virtù e Fortuna,” through guests played by Neil Jackson and Katja Herbers, two humans looking for a shade of fun more messy than the park’s sterilized hosts. Herbers’ ass-grabbing pleasure at finding some real flesh and blood in the park takes a step in an even more deliciously masochistic direction when she threatens Jackson’s guest with a special host-zapping gun. The two actors have great chemistry, and the staging is perfect for a whirlwind hookup. More importantly, though, the romance reassures us on one main point: A bit of danger is always more exciting than a sure thing. Though the rest of the episode has its weak spots, that’s what makes the episode’s opening (and the narrative this season is pursuing) so much fun. —Jacob Oller (Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO)
6. The Expanse
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable mention
SyFy’s densely exhilarating space epic, The Expanse, is always a bright spot in a long TV week, but now that Mars and Earth have officially locked all of humanity into the war they’ve been using the threat of the protomolecule to justify since the first season, it’s become a can’t-miss affair. Complex plots that have been simmering for years are reaching their breaking points; characters who have only known each other at an astronomically long distances are finally sharing literal, contentious space as they grapple with their respective roles and obligations to the war’s many sides; and all the moral and existential crises that both the war and the ever-present threat of the alien protomolecule have heralded since the start have come to grim fruition. Every episode this season has been as quietly excellent as anyone who knows the show would expect, but last week’s outing, “Reload,” which saw the crew of the Roci turn a fuel-salvage run into a Martian Marine rescue mission into a foiling of a Martian highjacking into a reason to dive back into the fray and play the role of humanity’s Biggest Damn Heroes once more, was the third season’s best yet. Not only did it give Holden (Steven Strait) the chance to do some heroic brooding, but it also gave Amos (Wes Chatham) and Prax (Terry Chen) the opportunity to bond over their lost pasts, Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and Naomi (Dominique Tipper) the chance to establish their ideological enmity, and estranged Martians Bobbie (Frankie Adams) and Alex (Cas Anvar) the chance to find common ground, while also giving UN Secretary General Gillis (Jonathan Whittaker) the chance to turn Earth’s war footing from Reverend Volovodov’s (Elizabeth Mitchell) message of moral fortitude to Errinwright’s (Shawn Doyle) scream of sly hawkishness, and Mao’s (François Chao) protomolecule experimentation on Mei (Leah Madison Jung) and the rest of the stolen Ganymede kids the chance to make its most disturbing breakthrough to date. (Spoiler: It involves a disarticulated corpse, a half-possessed child with blood to the elbows, and the only adults with the power to step in and help two men for whom the horror is an animating force.)
I could go on, but the point here is that, while The Expanse has always had a lot to say, if “Reload” is any indication, this season will be its most eloquent yet. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Rafy/Syfy)
Last Week’s Ranking: 7
Atlanta’s second season has been ambitious in the extreme, teaching its lessons in one-offs that separate its characters and genres that don’t bend so much as become multi-hyphenates. Its first all-flashback episode is just as dark and just as revealing. While the end of “North of the Border” proved that Earn (Donald Glover) and Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) personal and professional relationship had its back broken by a spilled drink at a shitty gig, “FUBU” explains how that particular camel started its trek through the desert. It’s the second episode Donald Glover’s directed this season, from a script by his brother, Stephen—so, of course, it’s about family.
It’s time for a trip down memory lane. Alfred and Earn go back to school. ROTC and Marshall’s clothes, science labs and substitute teacher cruelty. Somehow the protagonists seem the same. That’s because the casting is impeccable and the performances are a joy. Little Earn (Alkoya Brunson) and side-eyein’ Little Alfred (Abraham Clinkscales) walk that perfect line between recognizable performance and outsized impression, especially in Brunson’s delivery style, that makes the flashback work. That and the single-line roast/love of Dragon Ball Z. Its moments—delicately crafted by the Glovers with poetic scenes and shots so nostalgic they threaten to start your own flashbacks—are satisfyingly minute and mundane. That is, they would be if they didn’t happen to you. But some version did. —Jacob Oller (Photo: Curtis Baker/FX)
4. Cobra Kai
Network: YouTube Red
Last Week’s Ranking: Ineligible
Cobra Kai is a real television show.
Maybe this is obvious to some of you, but when YouTube Red first announced a TV series based on The Karate Kid story, the whole thing sounded like a joke: at best a campy, kitschy paean to 1980s nostalgia, at worst a crass money grab. But the 10-episode series is neither. Instead, it’s a rich story that revisits Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) 34 years after Daniel’s crane kick won him the karate tournament. But, as suggested by the title—which takes its name from Johnny’s dojo—the show has flipped the script, putting Johnny at the center. “My whole life went downhill with that kick,” Johnny says in the premiere. One of the biggest takeaways is that it’s all about perspective: My favorite moment in Cobra Kai finds Johnny re-telling the entire plot of the first movie from his point of view. Just as Wicked helped us see The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch’s angle, Cobra Kai is Johnny’s story. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: YouTube Red)
3. Dear White People
Last Week’s Ranking: Ineligible
In its second season, Justin Simien’s campus comedy continues to impress. The density of its political allusions (“Please tell me you’re about drag this Kirkland Signature Ann Coulter!”) is exceeded only by its cultural ones (an Empire parody that snatches the soap’s proverbial wig); the ambition of its unorthodox structure, with each episode given over to a single character, is surpassed only by the ambition of its dizzying array of hot-button issues, from the history of racism at elite universities to abortion rights to the effects of social media. That it submits exactly none of these to the after-school special treatment is a tribute to Simien, his writers’ room, and his talented, young cast, dancing from subject to subject so deftly that it never feels like homework. Dear white people—no, dear all people—watch this show. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Tyler Golden/Netflix)
2. Killing Eve
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
There is a stereotype of superficiality associated with clothes; that only the most vapid and insecure people (read: mostly women) care about the way they dress or how others think of them because of the way they dress. These naysayers choose to ignore the lesson that those who truly dress well do so because they know their bodies and are comfortable enough to understand how to accentuate them. And that’s precisely what makes this episode of Killing Eve so terrifying. It isn’t so much that Villanelle (Jodie Comer) broke into Eve’s (Sandra Oh) home for the most absurd impromptu dinner party ever—although that was certainly hilariously terrifying. Rather, it’s that Villanelle knows Eve’s style and sartorial potential well enough to be able to outfit her perfectly from afar by dropping a suitcase of well-curated couture on her doorstep earlier in the episode. That Eve is wearing the best item of that bunch—a black and white silk evening gown—upon Villanelle’s arrival proves just how well the MI5 agent has fallen into her trap. —Whitney Friedlander (Photo: BBC America)
1. The Americans
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
The beginning and ending contain the most important developments, but it’s for the middle of “Rififi” that The Americans should be seen as a classic. After last week’s forbidding all-timer, one might’ve forgiven the series a comedown, and in terms of the narrative, I suppose it is: With their Russian defectors’ grisly demise, the FBI’s counterintelligence division springs into action, and though the “illegals” program is rounding into focus, the agency’s confrontation with Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) must wait another week. Yet in terms of structure, subject matter, setting, and tone, “Rififi” is the ambitious equal of “The Great Patriotic War,” a surprisingly funny, Henry-centric hour that doubles as a love letter to critics, triples as a Thanksgiving episode, and quadruples as a change-up pitch, which is another way of saying that there is no drama on TV right now firing on more cylinders than this one. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX)