2020 is full of surprising twists, and TV is not immune. No one talked about HBO’s pulpy thriller The Undoing until its finale, and then Twitter exploded (even though the reveal was meh). And yet, Fargo—formerly a beloved series—has faded into quietude, with a finale that did not garner any attention at all.
Still, it was a great week for TV, and much like the finale of the Great British Baking Show the margins for what made the list were razor thin this week. To that end, don’t overlook our Honorable Mentions! These are shows we still verily stump for, and highly recommend.
Speaking of, as our writer Alexis Gunderson pointed out, “Star Trek: Discovery timed its season to give us a reunion between Michael and her mom *on* Thanksgiving. It was lovely, and a really excellent reflection of the stickiness and impossibility of coming home to family, all on a Thanksgiving where the same was true for most people watching. (And not least because Michael’s plan to succeed was based on her utter faith in logical, scientific thinking, which collapsed immediately in the face of a panel of judges all working from three different sets of ‘facts’ and ‘truth’.)”
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.
A Teacher (FX on Hulu), The Crown (Netflix), Black Narcissus (FX on Hulu), Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access), Animaniacs (Hulu)
5. The Spanish Princess
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: We knew it wasn’t going to end with happiness, but it still socked us in the gut.
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
4. Saved By the Bell
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: The Max is back, baby!
A new Max is back, as the retro after-school hangout spot frequented by the latest Bayside High class—a class which includes not only a core trio of white kids from Bayside’s Pacific Palisades neighborhood (Zack, Kelly, and Jessie’s kids included), but also a trio of Black and and Latinx kids who are forced to bus in from a lower income neighborhood after their own school gets defunded following a $10 billion budgeting ruh-roh by that irascible bleach-blonde scammer, Zack Morris—these days better known as (sigh) Governor Zack.
Enter: Saved by the Bell. Well, Saved by the Bell 2.0. The original talent is (almost) all on hand—stars Elizabeth Berkley, Mario Lopez, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Thiessen and even Lark Voorhies all reprise their original roles (as does Ed Alonzo as the Max’s titular Max), while Berkley, Lopez, and Gosselaar join SBTB vets Peter Engel and Franco Bario as producers (the latter three as EPs). The dope af theme remix is here, too, rapper Lil Yachty putting a solid Gen Z twist on Scott Gale’s iconic surf-slacker jam. But while 90s-era Saved by the Bell was a goofball sitcom of the sturdiest variety, Peacock’s Saved by the Bell is pure 2020. Gone is the old school multi-cam format, the live studio audience. In their place is a slick single-camera comedy that—barring a smart pivot back to the original theme song and tone for the Homecoming/reunion episode halfway through the season—will feel far more at home alongside Peacock’s other high school sitcom, A.P. Bio, than anyone trying to imagine a post-Peak TV take on Saved by the Bell is likely to believe.
To that end, it’s nearly impossible to articulate just how impressive the high wire act is that showrunner Tracey Wigfield (Great News, The Mindy Project) is walking here. Not only has she managed, in the series’ short Season 1 run, to split the difference between a love letter to and send-up of Bobrick’s beloved original, but she’s also succeeded at updating the show’s vibe to hew more closely to the politically progressive, wryly self-aware tone endemic to contemporary Teen TV. I can’t count the number of times I squawked so loud I rose half off my couch each episode, including in the final minute of the finale, which features a pitch-black joke so contextually perfect I literally stopped and rewound, just to bask in its dark clarity. —Alexis Gunderson
3. The Flight Attendant
Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Bottom line? This is a series poised to take off.
The Flight Attendant, based on Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 novel of the same name, is a taut, crisp whodunit, darkly comedic and wildly suspenseful. The eight-episode series is also a true star turn for Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory), who shows off a much broader range than she ever had the opportunity to on her long-running CBS comedy. A bubbling, popcorn thriller, the cliff-hanger ending to each episode entices you to keep going; it’s HBO Max’s best reason yet for subscribing to the streaming platform.
Cuoco stars as Cassie Bowden, who jet sets from international destination to international destination. When she’s not in the sky for Imperial Airlines, she’s flying high as a party girl who drinks to the point of blacking out, is fond of one-night stands, has a gold lamé dress at the ready in her carry-on luggage, and sustains herself on a breakfast of Diet Coke and pickles. She’s a train wreck, but a train wreck who gets to work on time, is kind to children and animals, and loved by her friends. And after a whirlwind encounter with the dashing Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman) on a trip to Bangkok, might be on the hook for murder.
The entire story truly rests in Cuoco’s capable hands. Her knack for comic relief is securely intact, but she also easily dives into the depths of Cassie’s terror and uncertainty. Her journey is our journey. Her terror is our terror. She may be an unreliable narrator, but she’s a highly entertaining one. —Amy Amatangelo
2. The Great British Baking Show
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: A bittersweet finale as family members couldn’t join, but the right baker took home the plate.
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 Mandalorian
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: Bow to your Sith Lord Grogu! (Also, Ahsoka Tano!)
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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