It’s the Paste TV Power Ranking Election Day Special! Which is to say this list has absolutely nothing to do with the elections! For those who are turning away from 24-hour news networks (and you really should) and finding comfort in distraction while … whatever is about to happen actually shakes out, we have some great recommendations 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.
The Good Lord Bird (Showtime), City So Real, Deutschland 89 (Sundance TV), American Ninja Warrior (NBC), Soulmates (AMC), Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access)
5. Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: The right kind of 2020 weird.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, 2020 has not exactly been a stupendous year. Actually, that is an understatement. Not only has 2020 been a huge dumpster fire, it seems like someone has set fire to the entire dump. One bright spot has been comedian Sarah Cooper and her social media platforms used to showcase her Trump lip sync videos. Cooper has been a comedian and author for many years, but her new videos launched her to superstardom while we were all locked away in our homes looking for anything to entertain us. There was no question that somebody would jump at the opportunity to bring her in for a special. That somebody, of course, is Netflix. This special, in many ways, sums up the entire year: it starts off on a normal note and then slowly spirals into craziness minute after minute.
In Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine, Cooper is put in the anchor’s chair of her own morning news program called Everything’s Fine. Using the morning news show as a framing device to bring in a plethora of guests, characters and sketch opportunities, Cooper and crew are able to pack so much into what is right now a one-off special that is under an hour long. The sketches all feature Cooper in some way, shape or form as she takes us on a tour of the insanity that has been this past year. These sketches cover everything from the My Pillow guy creating a COVID vaccine out of pillows, (played by the scary good Jon Hamm), the history of “Karens,” a QAnon trade show, drive-in entertainment, and so much more. These are tightly written sketches that would be the best ones on any given SNL episode this season and spotlight Cooper as a wonderful sketch performer beyond just her TikTok creations. (There’s also the Access Hollywood Billy Bush spoof with Helen Mirren, but it feels out of place compared to everything else going on because of how dated that infamous tape is.)
Everything’s Fine is difficult to describe. I don’t think anybody who presses play will be able to predict all its bizarre twists and turns. It seems fitting, albeit cliché, that the ending would have a meteor hurdling towards Earth, but that might be why it ends up working. This year has been an unpredictable mess that we’re all just trying our best to navigate through. Sarah Cooper does her part in bringing a smile to the faces of everyone just doing their best and looking for joy anywhere they can find it. —Christian Becker
4. The Great British Baking Show
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: British people saying “match-ah.”
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
3. The Spanish Princess
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: Henry does a heel turn.
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 Queen’s Gambit
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: We all love chess, who knew?
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
1. The Mandalorian
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Our weekly treat is back: It’s Deadwood in spaaaace! (with puppets!)
Disney+’s The Mandalorian, a.k.a. “Hot Space Daddy and His Tiny Puppet Son,” a.k.a. “The Baby Yoda Show” is back. And like its first season, it wastes no time jumping right in. One of The Mandalorian’s many successes is how it manages its time—an overlooked and under-appreciated facet of storytelling in the streaming era.
More than anything, perhaps, there is a genuine sense of excitement with each new Mandalorian episode, and not just in anticipation of what The Child will do next (although that is, admittedly, a huge part of it). Between reaction shots of The Child, excellent guest stars, and compelling Adventures of the Week, the new season includes everything that makes the show so enjoyable: it’s unique, tactile, funny, exciting, cute, and full of lore. It’s referential to Star Wars without being overly reverential to it. It’s accessible for casual fans or even those who haven’t seen a Star War (sure, there’s shorthand used that helps if you have context for it, but somewhat brilliantly it isn’t necessary). Adults can enjoy it, kids can enjoy it. It’s thrilling and silly. In short, it embodies the true spirit of Star Wars. We’re all experiencing something together each week—an increasingly rare feat in television these days—and it is good. —Allison Keene
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