A lot of TV time this week was taken up with the second (2nd) impeachment of Donald Trump, but we at Paste TV are casting our eyes towards escapist fare rather than the dim horror of various current events. (Although it’s worth noting that Drag Race UK had an informative episode during a COVID-related break about how the queens having been struggling with income during the lockdown and, according to our writer Austin Jones, “it was a really interesting look at how queer talent has been cast aside over the last year”).
But what could be more escapist than a parallel reality created by Wanda Maximoff? Even if it’s actually a mind-controlled horror show? Which is why we have also embraced the light-hearted Men in Kilts, because if we can’t visit Scotland right now at least we can look at burly men throwing rocks and downing whiskey.
And a Movies section crossover: Speaking of joy, the Brandy / Whitney Houston version of Cinderella is now on Disney+, as noted in their piece on 10 films celebrating Black joy. The weather is horrible right now in most of the U.S., so why not cozy up with some of those selections, as well as our weekly TV picks listed below?
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.
All Creatures Great and Small (PBS), All American (The CW), Resident Alien (Syfy).
Network: Apple TV+
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: An meditative discussion of racism, but also, Nick Kroll as the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe.
Apple TV+’s clever anachronism-as-translation series returns more sure of itself. Not only have the musical drops become bolder (Sofi Tukker slotting in comfortably next to Volbeat, Monika Krause, and Cakes Da Killa feat. Rye Rye) and the slangy bits of dialogue more natural (“I’m at all of the balls; I’m a baller” could only ever work in the context of Dickinson), but the dimensions of the period-specific world as it exists beyond Emily’s brain have also deepened.
The most compelling element of this second season, though, always comes back to Emily. I mean, of course it does. Hailee Steinfeld is a magnetic performer, her sense of both comedic and tragic timing almost preternatural. But while her take on Emily was equal parts relatable and arresting from the minute she stepped into the frame in Season 1, Season 2 gives her even more to work with: namely, the question of fame, and whether or not it’s dangerous to seek it out; and also the question of love, and whether or not the world needs or deserves to know where your heart lives.
Honestly, the more Americans we can get thinking about how poetry and love and capital-T Truth can answer a moment of deep social and political divide, the better. That said, if all you want out of television this month is a bunch of shrewd Yankee witches claiming the right to be weird af and get lit off Emily’s dope-ass rhymes, Dickinson can do that for you, too. —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: Turns out, democracy is hard!
In its first season, Snowpiercer had the difficult task of weaving in storylines from the well-known film and creating new avenues in which to tell its story on a weekly basis to sustain itself for seasons to come. One of the most important tweaks was the introduction of Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), a Tailie who is called up to be the train’s detective when a series of murders had everyone terrified. It was a clever way to give us a reason to see how the Snowpiercer train—1,001 cars long—operates, and gave context to the many characters who populate it. But soon, a more interesting mystery arose: was the eponymous Mr. Wilford actually aboard the train he created? Or had it been secretly taken over by the chief of Hospitality and Voice of the Train, Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly)?
In its second season, and you can feel that story really settling in to some interesting character arcs now that the initial rebellion has taken place. It also takes some quiet risks; for instance, we almost immediately see Layton deferring the democracy the lower classes fought for in favor of martial law. He doesn’t really have a choice—in the Season 1 finale, the train was taken over by a smaller but stronger supply train called “Big Alice,” carrying both Mr. Wilford himself (Sean Bean) and Melanie’s daughter Alex (Rowan Blanchard) who she thought had died seven years earlier. Still, as the de facto leader of the revolution, it stings.
It’s refreshing, however, that the series’ women get some of the best arcs. Miss Audrey (Lena Hall), in particular, gets a complex exploration of her traumatic past with Wilford that only really begins about halfway through Season 2. Tilly (Mickey Sumner) hesitantly turns to faith to cope with the horrors she has witnessed, while Alex is torn between supporting her absentee mother or staying loyal to her mentor.
Even for those of us who enjoyed those first episodes, Snowpiercer Season 2 is a realigned but richer experience. It still feels like a mirror, though in different ways than before. Now, like our real lives, it’s about finding a way forward and adjusting to new normals. We’re not off the train yet, but there’s a hope one day we might be. —Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A light, charming, vicarious Scottish pleasure
In Starz’s Men in Kilts: A Roadtrip with Sam and Graham, Outlander’s Sam Heughan (Jamie Fraser in the series) and Graham McTavish (who plays his uncle, Dougal Mackenzie) team up to explore the Scottish countryside. For those who watch Outlander, there’s really no need for further convincing. The two handsome, ridiculously charming men have an excellent rapport, and their approach to the series is not unlike a much gentler, kinder version of The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Like that (fictional) series, Men in Kilts is really a light survey of Scottish exports and elements of national pride—they don’t spend too long in any one place or go too in-depth. The main appeal is just spending time with these two (although so far no one has done a Michael Caine impression).
In eight quick 30-minute episodes, Sam and Graham travel around in a small bus, trade witticisms, and tease each other. In the first episode, “Food & Drink,” the two spend time sourcing some truly mouth-watering seafood and visiting famous scotch distilleries; in Episode 2, “Scottish Sport,” they compete against one another and take bets on who will win in various feats of strength. Essentially, the show is based totally on these men’s many charms (there is never a missed opportunity to have Sam take off a shirt or flash a bare bottom), and it absolutely works.
What reportedly began as a podcast idea certainly shines in this visual format, which delivers great shots of the beauty of Scotland’s countryside as well as of our two sartorially-snappy hosts. It also doesn’t relish in trying to be hypermasculine. Yes sometimes they try to throw hammers or pick up giant rocks, but they’re also squeamish at weird sea creatures, and look away—pretending to study birds—while the chef guts a lobster behind them. This kind of meta theatricality is the show’s secret weapon. Well, that and the two extremely good-looking men at its center. Either way, it’s light entertainment and escapist TV at its best. —Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: The best musical opening of the season, and a strong message regarding corporate responsibility surrounding diversity in the workplace.
There’s nothing on TV quite like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
Where else can you find exuberant musical numbers, razor sharp satire of the tech world, snappy, pop-culture infused dialogue (“You look like a sad Emma Stone Halloween costume”), groundbreaking choreography, and an eloquently honest portrayal of grief? Nowhere else, that’s where. Zoey represents all the potential network TV has to take big, creative swings and hit the mark.
In its second season, Zoey (deftly portrayed by Jane Levy)—who hears other characters inner most thoughts through song—is still reeling from the death of her father (Peter Gallagher) and faced with a daunting promotion at work while trying to decide between her two suitors Max (Skyar Astin) and Simon (John Clarence Stewart). There are some big changes (Lauren Graham is out, Harvey Guillén is in—at least for awhile), but it all works perfectly to create the kind of joyful, cathartic series we need right now. —Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: Do we know what’s going on? No! Do we care? No!
In the Marvel comics, Wanda Maximoff is a reality-bending enchantress known as Scarlet Witch. Her power set is immense, and we have never seen the full scope of it within the movie universe—it’s too big, really, when you compare the fact that she and an actual god (Thor), and a wizard (Doctor Strange), are equals on a team with a Russian spy (Black Widow) carrying a gun, and an archer (Hawkeye). There are limits.
Not, however, when it comes to WandaVision itself, which is where we finally get to see the Marvel machine slightly unleashed. Marvel’s forays into television have not been altogether fantastic. But these new Disney+ series expand the story of characters we know from the movies in way that the movies simple did not have time to do. It also allows WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman to put a uniquely stylized and deeply emotional spin on a story that would have (had this been a movie) otherwise been shackled by the mandated aesthetics of the overall MCU.
As such, in WandaVision, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) is also unleashed. She has used her immense power to create an insular world where she and her lost love, Vision (Paul Bettany), get to live happily ever after in classic sitcoms based on the likes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and I Love Lucy. For fans of classic television, this is no satire; despite a few over-the-top ham moments, it is a loving homage to these series.
But of course, it’s not real. Throughout these half-hour episodes (both the ones we experience and the ones Wanda and Vision are living through), the world outside of this coping fantasy begins to creep in. First with bursts of color, then occasional off-script moments. Wanda stops these right away by rewinding and reliving the situation without the disruption. A clean story, nothing to disturb them. Just a husband and wife living a normal life in perfect suburbia (with the occasional advertisement for a Hydra watch or a Stark Industries toaster, of course).
Soon, however, Wanda is spinning out of control. Reality is closer than ever, and the teases we get to the world outside of Wanda’s creation, one where Vision is gone, get increasingly overt. She will have to come to terms with the truth soon, but it will hurt. And yet, I don’t really want reality to impede on Wanda’s created life at all. WandaVision’s core conceit—that sometimes you just want to escape into television, into fantasy, into a daydream—couldn’t be more meta. Let’s stay here in this happiness just a little while longer. The world outside is so dark. —Allison Keene
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