Paste Power Ranking: The 5 Best TV Shows on Right Now, from Queen’s Gambit to Spanish PrincessIllustration by Christine Fernando and Soleil Collins TV Lists
Network TV is slowly making a comeback this week; nature is healing. As our own broadcast aficionado Amy Amatangelo pointed out, “after Supernatural, ABC was first out of the gate with scripted programming with the return of The Goldbergs, The Connors, and black-ish. The episodes were solid, but also I think represent a much needed return to normalcy as network television is back!” Now, while none of those series made our Power Ranking this week, stay tuned! It’s the Wild West out there right now when it comes to pandemic programming ….
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.
Honorable Mention: The Amber Ruffin Show (Peacock), Soulmates (AMC), The Good Lord Bird (Showtime), The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix)
5. The Undoing
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A wonderfully pulpy soap dressed up as prestige drama.
A brooding, murder-y HBO drama adapted by David E. Kelley and starring Nicole Kidman as an emotionally wrecked, extremely wealthy wife and mother … we’re talking about Big Little Lies, right? But surprise! This is actually about The Undoing, a six-part limited series that is in many ways Big Little Lies-lite. It doesn’t star the strong, sprawling female cast that BLL did, but it does feature a number of similar hallmarks (see above). It’s also not nearly as gaudy or bombastic or even dreamy, but rather a muted investigation into one character’s realization that she could be married to a monster.
In Big Little Lies, Nicole Kidman’s character knows she’s married to a monster, she just chooses to look past it (for awhile). Here, it’s less clear. In the premiere, Kidman’s Grace Fraser is one of those “has it all” New York women that TV loves so much. She’s a gorgeous therapist married to an endlessly charming pediatric oncologist, Jonathan (Hugh Grant). Her son, Henry (Noah Jupe) is sweet and precocious and goes to an insanely expensive school where the parents are, a la Big Little Lies, absolute snobby terrors. So you know it’s about to all come crashing down.
This is peak Nicole, and it’s also great to see Hugh Grant continue his career heel turn playing villains. Still, though presented as a prestige piece, The Undoing is more like a pulpy thriller novel. A slightly new spin on a familiar genre, it’s a page-turner for the duration of the ride, even if it’s ultimately a little thin. —Allison Keene
4. Star Trek: Discovery
Network: CBS All Access
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery this season are the best two of the entire show so far.
In the 18 months that have passed since that game-changing finale dropped, fans have only been able to hope that the promise such a big swing held would ultimately pan out. I can absolutely confirm: Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery is poised to be the series’ best yet. Moreover, I’d argue it’s poised to be the best “new” Star Trek made to date, both in terms of what CBS All Access has produced in the last few years (sorry, Picard—you’re beautiful, but confoundingly paced) and in terms of what J.J. Abrams has brought to the big screen over the last decade. It takes everything the first two seasons did best—namely, Michael and Saru’s hard-earned friendship; the deep commitment felt by everyone aboard the Discovery to both the ideals of the Federation and science; and Georgiou, just as a general agent of chaos—while dispensing entirely with all the baggage five decades of 23rd-century Star Trek storytelling that had originally weighed it down. Now stranded some 930 years in the future, Star Trek: Discovery can tell literally any story it wants.
In any case, whether you’ve been waiting 18 long months for this day, or you’ve been on the fence about giving the whole “new” Star Trek thing a shot in the first place, Discovery is finally back, and better than ever. Thank the Federation. —Alexis Gunderson
3. The Spanish Princess
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: Firing on all cylinders, we even got a bonnie Scottish ballad this week, Outlander-style.
Starz’s lavish historical drama The Spanish Princess is back for a dramatic Part 2, which details the doomed romance of Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) and Henry VIII (Ruairi O’Connor). Picking up post-coronation, things are looking bright for a resurgence of “Camelot” in England—but that happiness does not last.
The other queens of these War of the Roses series (The White Queen, The White Princess) have had a certain amount of influence thanks not only to their wit and wiles but in their ability to produce heirs. Catherine doubles down on the first, but falters in the latter; she is shown unabashedly as a warrior queen—in striking pregnancy armor—one who is more than able to rule and provide good counsel to Henry. But her inability to produce a son for Henry erodes his confidence and ultimately his adoration for her. Increasingly, she’s essentially patted on the head and sent to the shadows to focus on her pregnancy rather than matters of state.
There are some things that are consistent both within this overall anthology and in the series by which all Starz historical shows are measured: Outlander. There are equals parts battles and romances, and the set designs, careful costuming, cozy exteriors, and rainy gray moors create a fantastic aesthetic. And it’s very, very female-driven. While history focuses on Henry and his mistresses and wives, The Spanish Princess continues to show us that Catherine is the beating heart of this court, and one of the only things holding it all together. While Henry is wrapped up in himself and his legacy, Catherine—over and over again—displays her unyielding optimism and loyalty to England itself. Like in the first installment, Charlotte Hope carries this series on her petite shoulders, summoning a constant inner strength from Catherine as she recovers from repeated losses. She is a warrior, after all—even though there is a simmering dread on our part knowing this is a battle she will not conquer. —Allison Keene
2. The Great British Baking Show
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: We are all Laura beating butter.
On your mark, get set … bake! Yes, there is one good thing about 2020 it is the iconic tent being raised with bakers are baking once again. The Great British Baking Show (aka Bake-Off to our UK friends) has taken some new coronavirus-related safety measures by having its hosts, judges, and bakers all in a quarantine bubble together, and the result is something that feels very normal in an otherwise extremely abnormal time. The biggest non-COVID change is the departure of co-host Sandi Toksvig and the entrance of comedian and actor Matt Lucas. He and Noel Fielding bring a silly sweetness to one of TV’s altogether sweetest shows, one that has assembled a fantastic group of personalities this year—though I will never not be haunted by those cake busts. —Allison Keene
1. The Queen’s Gambit
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A unanimous #1 pick among all those who watched.
You would be forgiven for thinking The Queen’s Gambit is based on a real chess player, perhaps introducing us to a forgotten but pivotal name in the game. Thankfully it is not, freeing it from the confines of what could be stodgy biopic traps. Instead, the seven-episode limited series, based off Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, positively soars.
Gorgeously shot and lovingly crafted, The Queen’s Gambit takes place in the late 1950s and ‘60s, and focuses on a young chess prodigy, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). Tragedy and fantasy engage in a complicated dance in Scott Frank’s scripts, as Beth is fed (and quickly develops an addiction to) tranquilizers as an eight-year-old child, something that opens her mind up but (obviously) plagues her throughout her young adult life.
And yet, The Queen’s Gambit is secretly a sports story. Chess has never been more kinetically riveting. Deftly edited and full of stylish montages, the moves that come so easily to Beth are not easily explained to viewers. There is a depth of knowledge that defies casual understanding, but it is also never a barrier. Beth is almost supernaturally gifted, brilliant at chess yet hindered by a mind that also finds solace in addictions of various kinds. It’s a story usually told about a man, but part of what’s so refreshing about The Queen’s Gambit is that, despite one or two quick comments, this is really not about Beth being a woman (or more accurately, a girl). The show doesn’t need to make a statement.
Because The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction (that title, by the way, is mentioned 33 minutes into the first episode and then dispatched with), it tells exactly the engrossing character story it wants to, and how. That might sound obvious, but it’s no small thing. With excellent pacing and a sure sense of itself out of the gate, The Queen’s Gambit is a work of art—riveting, radiant, and simply spellbinding. Like Beth, it triumphs through its devotion to a love of the game. —Allison Keene
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