Welcome to the first Power Ranking of 2021! It feels a lot like 2020, except tinged with hope. There are some 2020 holdovers as well, including our beloved Bridgerton and the finale of A Teacher, but otherwise it’s a new year, and a new TV experience.
Elsewhere on the dial, there were a number of comedy specials devoted to saying goodbye to this hellacious year, including Amazon Prime’s Yearly Departed and Netflix’s Death to 2020. But it’s time to look forward now: Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose! Or wait, is it Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy? Hmm ….
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.
Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access), Tiny Pretty Things (Netflix), The Expanse (Amazon), Dare Me (Netflix)
5. A Teacher
Network: FX on Hulu
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: The final episode has finally aired, giving the necessary big-picture view to the series that weekly release did not allow for.
How do you tell a story about a 30-something teacher (Kate Mara) who has a sexual relationship (read: predatory) with her high school student (Nick Robinson) well? One that presents emotional truths without suggesting outright villainy, and yet, never lets her off the hook? One that meanwhile explores the hesitant understanding of trauma by the student himself? Extremely carefully. And that is what Hannah Fidell improbably achieves, with aplomb, in A Teacher.
The 10-episode FX on Hulu series is Fidell’s expansion (and tweaking) of her 2013 indie film of the same name. But the series, with its taught half-hour structure, doesn’t feel like a movie. It leans into its episodic structure in a way that allows it to hit upon the exact story beats it finds most crucial with deadly accuracy. There is no filler here—everything is essential.
It’s admittedly hard to garner enthusiasm for a show that is ultimately about trauma and abuse, but Fidell presents this chronicle (which starts and ends with trigger warnings of grooming, as well as links to resources) in a way that never feels like either an after-school special or a glorification of its content. It is a teacher, a student, a story. If you give it a chance (despite its misleading marketing and misguided weekly episode release), A Teacher will surprise you. It feels like an easy pass, something perhaps not worth engaging in because it is so difficult to handle this subject well (and why, perhaps, should it be handled at all?) It is, however, a stunning character study that understands all of the stakes and implications of the story it is telling. And if you saw Fidell’s 2013 film, this version is very, very different, and goes further in many ways. The story is all the richer for doing so. It is a fascinating consideration, well told. And well worth your time. —Allison Keene
4. Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks
Network: BBC America
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Chris Chibnall’s best holiday special yet.
From 2005 to 2017, Doctor Who had kept an over decade-long Christmas tradition, where the legacy sci-fi franchise would have a festive episode—sometimes serious, sometimes silly—in which the Doctor and friends would go on some sort of Christmas-themed adventure. In 2019, that tradition was replaced with a new one, where we can now expect a new special to kick off each New Year’s Day. Although showrunner Chris Chibnall has had his ups and downs in guiding the 13th Doctor on her path since 2018, the New Year’s specials have all been successes so far, with “Revolution of the Daleks” being the best one yet.
Running just over an hour, the episode crams enough twists and plot points to be worthy of the show’s many two-parters. Yet by having it be in one special, the pacing is dramatically improved, keeping viewers engaged and surprised throughout. I’ve been highly critical of the Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) lower moments in her current regeneration, but beyond a few questionable scenes in the wake of recent events the episode failed to predict, I have very few issues here. “Revolution of the Daleks” contains the best elements of Doctor Who’s current iteration and leaves behind the worst, resulting with something that made me laugh, gasp, and even tear up a little. —Joseph Stanichar
3. Awesome Games Done Quick
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Join in the fun, and don’t forget to donate!
Free gaming-oriented platform Twitch just started one of its biggest semi-annual marathon events, Awesome Games Done Quick, a charity live stream that raises money through viewer and corporate donations. All virtual again this year, AGDQ is championing the Prevent Cancer Foundation over the course of the week, as gamers gather to show off their skills at beating beloved titles as quickly as possible, or with specific challenges dictated through donation incentives. As a rare live event with user integration built-in, it’s a unique, fun, silly, raucous good time had by all, from the E-sports competitors themselves to those watching from home. —Allison Keene
2. Cobra Kai
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: “Cobra Kai never dies!” makes it Netflix-exclusive debut.
For two and a half years, I’ve been singing the praises of Cobra Kai and every time I talked about the show, people would give me a befuddled look. There’s actually a show that continues the story of The Karate Kid? Yes! William Zabka and Ralph Macchio are both in it? Yes! It’s actually good? Yes! It airs on something you call YouTube Red or possibly YouTube Premium? Not anymore!
Everything about Netflix continuing The Karate Kid story 30-plus years later seemed like a bad idea. Why muck with a beloved movie from so many people’s childhood? When would revivals stop messing with our memories?
But instead of being a crass money grab, the series was a surprisingly clever take on aging high school rivalries while being a good old fashion throwback to the 1980s, complete with extended montages, rock and roll fight sequences, and a head-banging soundtrack. The series is the ultimate flip of the script, turning the erstwhile villain Johnny into the show’s main protagonist.
Part of what makes the show so special is its charming mix of the ridiculous with the more sublime. The series is a study in contradictions. A tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek self-awareness is also the show’s secret weapon. Easter eggs and less-than-subtle shout outs to the movies are peppered throughout the season, even as Cobra Kai, at its heart, knows that it is ridiculous that two grown men are still jostling back and forth over a karate tournament that happened 36 years ago. Still, what really makes the show work is Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence. He’s a walking homage to that era, driving a beat-up Dodge caravan, listening to metal music on his cassette tape player, and eschewing modern technology. All in all, Cobra Kai , which thankfully has already been picked up for a fourth season, remains a pure, escapist delight. — Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: We’re already rewatching.
All hail Bridgerton, Netflix’s lush, swoony adaption of a set of romance novels that is the perfect way to close out 2020 (that is to say, thirsty). The series focuses on a London family with eight children, all of whom were blessed with good genes and five (or six?) of whom are currently of marriageable age. And thus, in this Regency-era setting, the game is afoot with the quippy, mysterious gossip Lady Whistledown as our guide. There are balls and rakes and other things that had a completely different meaning in the 1800s, but one thing that has not changed is how electrifying the buttoning of a glove or the slight touch of hands can be in the right context. The show also gets pretty explicit at times, but does so with a nearly revolutionary female gaze for a period drama. As such, it is as pearl-clutching as one can get (and not a show to watch with one’s family).
Although all of the Bridgerton siblings appear during the show’s eight episodes, the first season focuses primarily on eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) as she enters society and attempts to secure a marriage proposal. Initially the talk of the town, her standing falls with the arrival of a beautiful newcomer, so to escape a loveless marriage with an unsavory man chosen for her by her eldest brother, Daphne strikes a deal with the extremely handsome and newly titled Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a committed bachelor with twice the bodice-ripping hero energy any one man should possess. In a classic fake-dating scenario, the Duke pretends to court Daphne in order to raise her value in the marriage market, while their agreement keeps women from throwing themselves at him. It’s a win-win situation … until the two develop real feelings for one another, of course. Bridgerton isn’t perfect, but it’s a candy-colored, gloriously anachronistic romp that brings a new vivacity to bonnet dramas (leaving most of the bonnets aside, for one), and is great fun. —Allison Keene and Kaitlin Thomas
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.