Though we’re getting closer to 2021, it’s starting to feel like 2019 again—in a good way. There are a lot of great series on right now, including an excellent finale for The Good Lord Bird and a fond farewell to Paste favorite The Queen’s Gambit from the Power Ranking’s window of eligibility. As for those that didn’t make the list this week, the underrated Soulmates also gave us a doozy of a finale, while similarly under-the-radar The A Word is a soulful respite in each hour. The Undoing might be a mess, but Nicole Kidman’s untamed locks and exceptional coats are giving us life (not to mention our love of Hugh Grant as a villain). Finally, Dash & Lily might be the sweetest thing on TV—even if it did premiere a few weeks too early for a full-on Christmas show.
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 Great British Baking Show (Netflix), The Good Lord Bird (Showtime), The Spanish Princess (Starz), The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
5. Alex Rider
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Cinematic and self-assured, the series sets a blockbuster of a bar for free service IMDbTV as it enters the original content game.
This newest take on Alex Rider is something entirely different. More of a piece with what Teen TV has become in in the last decade—slick, serious, cinematic and mature, with a strong bent towards internationalism and diversity—it’s the kind of spy drama you can recommend indiscriminately to your adult friends. So what that its reluctant spy hero is a teenage boy? The show takes him seriously, which means their fictional version of the SAS takes him seriously, which means the deeply realistic bad guys out to literally kill him also take him seriously. And while that much seriousness has the tendency to drag lesser adult action series to an absolute standstill, the hyper-realistic teen antics Alex and his tiny circle of friends get up to, even in the midst of life-or-death situations, serve as useful tonal ballast that lends the series just enough warmth and humor to bolster the rest of the story’s inherent tension. (That the soundtrack is excellent definitely helps.)
And when I say tension, I mean tension. The story the Alex Rider team have chosen to take on for the show’s first season, which mostly comes from the second book of the series, Point Blanc, finds Alex (Otto Farrant) on a mission to embed himself at a mysterious boarding school for troubled, ultra-wealthy youths. Isolated high in the French Alps and run by a virulently racist South African expat named Dr. Greif (Haluk Bilginer), the shadowy Point Blanc academy becomes a point of SAS interest when Alex’s spy uncle is killed after his investigations into the “accidental” deaths of two otherwise unconnected global power players—which had turned up evidence that both died shortly after Point Blanc sent their now-perfect kids back home.
That said, there are a few elements of the series that jangle more than they should. Of course, Alex Rider is still a spy drama, and as such is obliged to have its characters make a lot of silly decisions for the sake of plot. But if watching 2020 torturously unfold for the last eleven months has convinced me of anything, it’s that the existence of rich teen Nazis with a chip on their shoulder and the will to wreck the world ought to be taken much more seriously than any of us might want to believe, and Treadstone-esque Alex Rider gets it. It’s a sophisticated spy thriller custom-made for the Bourne Identity set. More good news: It was just renewed for Season 2. —Alexis Gunderson
4. A Teacher
Network: FX on Hulu
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A surprising series that walks an extremely perilous tightrope with expert precision.
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
3. Grey’s Anatomy
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: The best McDream ever.
How does a show entering its 17th(!) season premiere with a shock heard all around the Internet? By bringing back—in one of television’s best kept secrets—a beloved character who died six seasons ago. In the final moments of the two-hour premiere, Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) returned to his wife Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) in an idyllic beach dream sequence after she collapsed in the hospital parking lot. The reunion of the show’s super couple brought pure joy to the series’ loyal viewers at a time when joy is in short supply. But more than that jaw-dropping moment, the ABC series proved that no TV show is better equipped and well poised to accurately portray the greatest public health crisis of our time. The doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital struggled to keep up with the pandemic as patient after patient succumbed to COVID-19 and PPE was in short supply. It was brutal and heartbreaking to watch. But this is still Grey’s Anatomy so of course there were supply room hook-ups (naturally), romantic betrayals, unexpected couplings and long-awaited reunions. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Grey’s Anatomy will forever remain our person.—Amy Amatangelo
2. The Mandalorian
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: Baby Yoda plays with his food … and then the food plays with Baby Yoda (plus: Bo-Katan!)
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
1. The Crown
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Charles, Diana, Thatcher—oh my!
The Crown, Netflix’s lush and lavish detailing of Queen Elizabeth II’s rein over the United Kingdom, parks its historical tour bus in the late 70s and 80s for its fourth season, primarily tracking the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin). As Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) tells Diana late in the season, everyone and everything in their lives revolves around one woman—but that Diana seems to be confused as to who that woman is. It’s not a surprise. Throughout its run thus far, Peter Morgan’s series has always made a case for the crown and for Elizabeth specifically. But Thatcherism, and to a much larger degree Diana’s celebrity star power, so fundamentally changed the way they are perceived that one leaves Season 4 wondering what, exactly, the future of the crown should be.
To that end, Season 4 is caught up almost exclusively in the drama of Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana’s marriage, and the “third party” who continued to plague it, Camila Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell). These personal moments are juxtaposed with increasingly caustic matters of state, led by England’s infamous “Iron Lady.” Among all of that, Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) gets rather sidelined; with more Windsors than ever to track, the storytelling is more scattershot than in the past. Still, the new season remains mesmerizing and heartbreaking in turn, never letting any of its larger-the-life figures off the hook, but allowing for complex portrayals (especially from Anderson and Corrin, who are uncanny) that are extraordinarily gripping, compelling, and even educational. If you aren’t reading Wiki alongside watching the show, you’re missing out on half the fun.
When Philip tells Diana that everyone is an outsider in the palace except the one woman around whom everything revolves, we see the profile of Colman’s impressively placid Elizabeth. But despite Philip’s admonishments that Diana is making everything about herself, The Crown follows suit. In its parting Season 4 shot, of a forlorn princess staring out into the abyss while surrounded by that fickle family, we see the first major fissure in the previously unquestioned purpose of a modern sovereign—one that we know will only grow larger with time. —Allison Keene
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