Sci-fi is making a stand this week on the Power Ranking. From the trippy and satisfying “let’s look at the other side of things, shall we?” in this past week’s WandaVision to the advent of Alan Tudyk as a Resident Alien, the return of Snowpiercer (minus a few cars) and the near-end of The Expanse, we are loving our reality-bending narratives this week. Of course, when it comes to alt universes, Dickinson also fits the bill as well. It’s not exactly science fiction, but it’s weird (and wonderful). One thing that the pandemic production schedule seems to have made more room for are strange and otherwise niche series. We love to see it.
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.
Attack on Titan (CrunchyRoll), All Creatures Great and Small (PBS), Everyone Is Doing Great (Hulu), Lupin (Netflix), Mr. Mayor (NBC)
Network: Amazon Prime
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
This Week: The penultimate episode delivered all the goods.
All the pieces The Expanse fans love are still in play in Season 5, from Amos (Wes Chatham) dispassionately busting skulls to Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) glaring rail-daggers through anyone who crosses her, to Avasarala cursing her way into the highest (like, to-the-Moon highest) halls of power while dressed to the jewel-toned nines. But where fans might be expecting to see Amos bust those skulls with Holden, Naomi (Dominique Tipper), and Alex (Cas Anvar) around to keep him grounded, or Drummer glare those rail-daggers while working to help the Belters achieve peaceful stability, or Avasarala doing her power-sweeping through the halls of the UN, loving husband and/or Bobbie just a call away, this season finds them all scattered across the solar system, thrown into settings and character combinations we’ve never seen.
Now, how well this will work for you will absolutely vary. Having its core characters so dramatically isolated means that the action in Season 5 is, by necessity, much slower than a lot of fans will be used to—and The Expanse already had the capacity to be a pretty slow show. (A generous description would be meditative, but an honest one might allow for ponderous.)
That said, when it comes to The Expanse, it is still a deeply satisfying, multisensory experience, and for all that the interpersonal stories are smaller this season, it is still as beautiful to look at as ever. —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A hidden gem emerges on cable.
So 2021 is already a lot, but our prescription is to take your weekly dose of Alan Tudyk in Resident Alien. The fantastically talented Tudyk finally gets to lead his own show in essentially a dual role as Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle and the alien who has secretly crash-landed on Earth and assumed the dead doctor’s appearance for safety. Much actual hilarity does ensue when the imposing local sheriff (Corey Reynolds) demands Vanderspeigle’s help in solving the murder of the lone town doctor in nearby Patience, Colorado. With an entertaining ensemble of quirky townspeople as support, the series unfolds like the mad cousin of Northern Exposure mashed up with John Carpenter’s Starman. And Tudyk is on point serving up a weekly Master’s class in physical comedy and pitch-perfect line readings. Plus, there’s an inspired side plot about a single kid in town who can see what Harry actually is, and their mutual détente of deep dislike is sublime. Get on this one—it’s the tension release valve you need. —Tara Bennett
Network: Apple TV+
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: The Dickinson women have a spa day (with healing crystals).
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: Not Eligible
This Week: Still a mirror—but now there’s hope.
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: 1
This Week: It confidently and charmingly answered our questions and put things in a whole new perspective.
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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