As far as heavy-hitters go, this week we are saying farewell to Hacks and hello to Loki, but let us not forget that Freeform’s Cruel Summer has appeared on our ranking every single week (except one) since its premiere. Don’t dismiss it!
There is also the curious case of Kevin Can F—k Himself premiering on AMC+ a week before AMC, and while it is technically eligible for consideration, we’ll be waiting until the linear premiere to include it in the Power Ranking. Meanwhile, you can catch up on our other picks below, and don’t forget to check out our list of the 20 Best TV Shows of 2021 So Far.
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.
Mythic Quest (Apple TV+), Starstruck (HBO Max), Legends of Tomorrow (The CW), We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)
5. Tuca and Bertie
Network: Adult Swim
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A triumphant return with a new season on a new network.
After Netflix pulled the plug on Tuca & Bertie nearly two years ago, fans of the cult-favorite cartoon were heartbroken. But last summer, Adult Swim came to the rescue, announcing a resurrection of the bold, feminist series. Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong star as a pair of 30something BBFFs—Best Bird Friends Forever—who spend their time frolicking around Bird Town when they aren’t busy managing panic attacks or fending off scores of creepy men. Haddish voices Tuca, a confident, short-short wearing toucan while Wong voices Bertie, a neurotic and sweet song thrush. In their new home on Adult Swim, the duo are back with a vengeance, proving themselves worthy of earning their Lazarus status.
Returning with something to prove, Tuca & Bertie makes it abundantly clear that this show deserved to live another day. The series addresses taboo topics but reminds us of how easy it can be to find humor in these dark moments. Seeing the way Tuca and Bertie have already started to grow in the first few episodes, we can’t wait to see how the rest of the season plays out. —Kristen Reid
4. Sweet Tooth
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: A genuine delight.
In the wrong hands, a live-action Sweet Tooth is the definition of a nightmare waiting to happen. Happily, Netflix’s adaptation retains the lyrical qualities, rich character exploration, and compelling world-building of Jeff Lemire’s comic series, while expanding and fleshing out narrative elements that only add to its depth and resonance.
There is a warm, folksy charm to Sweet Tooth, where the core plot is told from the perspective of 10-year-old Gus (Christian Convery), a “hybrid” boy who is clearly part deer, as noted via his ears and antlers. Raised in solitude for a decade by his father, Pubba (Will Forte), inside a deep forest because of the pandemic, Gus is socially immature (to say the least) but rich in compassion. He’s inquisitive and stubborn, but deeply attached to his dad and the idyllic little cabin bubble they live within. Unfortunately, he’s incredibly unprepared for reality in the outside world.
Without every being annoying or cloying, there’s a natural wit to Convery’s entire performance that adds subtle layers to the new friendships and alliances he makes with adults and kids once he’s forced out of his bubble. In particular, his connection with Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie), a loner/survivor who grudgingly saves Gus’ life and gets stuck shepherding the kid to Colorado, is a masterful evolution from mutual irritation to an earned bond that becomes one of the most important emotional arcs of the whole series.
Ultimately, there’s not a clunker amongst the eight episodes of the first season, which all manage to build up three concurrent storylines that coalesce into a deeply affecting season finale that earns its gasps and tears. —Tara Bennett
3. Cruel Summer
Network: Freeform (Next day on Hulu)
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: An underrate gem, this last episode dealt with difficult issues of grooming and power dynamics with an honesty like we’ve never seen on TV before.
I had to give up taking notes on Cruel Summer, Freeform’s new 90s-set teen mystery series, about 2,000 words in. That said, the very density that prompted me to get 2,000 words deep in a meticulous kind of madness before changing course is precisely the thing that’s likely to turn Cruel Summer into the internet’s next big generation-spanning hit. Truly, from its complex, triple-layered timeline to its compellingly intimate POV-flipping narrative structure to its viscerally accurate mid-90s details, Cruel Summer is custom-built to be an object of social media obsession.
In the one corner, you have Aurelia’s Jeanette Turner, who at any given moment is a sweetly awkward 15, or a recently popular 16, or a universally despised 17, and who may or may not be guilty of compounding another girl’s trauma. In the other corner, you have Holt’s Kate Wallis, who at any given moment is a universally beloved 15, or a freshly traumatized 16, or an acidly angry 17. In between them, you have a gulf of not-knowing—a not-knowing that at any given moment might come from one character’s inherent duplicity, the natural gaps in another’s first-hand knowledge of a situation, or the fundamental unreliability of memory even before intense emotion is involved. There are some truths that are more real for some characters, and less for others; some realities that are more tangible in one moment than they are in the next.
The likelihood that one girl is lying and the other telling the truth hangs over Cruel Summer like a thundercloud, but in giving the audience just one walled-off chunk of each girl’s side of the narrative at a time, the possibility that they’re both telling a story that’s true to them is just as present. In floating the mid-90s media’s take on Jeanette and Kate to the top of its story over and over again, Cruel Summer adds an important third perspective on the nature of reality, and all the ways in which it can be warped in the name of “truth.” —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: The show may wobble, but Tom Hiddleston’s charm is no trick.
Of all of the Marvel TV series on Disney+ so far, Loki has been the most highly anticipated. An OG associate of the Avengers universe, Loki remains the brightest spot of any movie he’s in. Tom Hiddleston has made the character iconic, and his portrayal—be it in Thor movies or Avengers get-togethers—is off-the-charts charming. It’s also the reason Loki has been the only truly successful Marvel villain to date, one who not only has a fully-realized backstory and emotional connection to the heroes, but who just keeps gloriously popping up (as the God of Mischief is wont to do). He’s not a one-off rushed through 120 minutes of storytelling, he’s a dynamic presence who has earned his own fandom.
And now, at last, he has his own show. In Loki, our Asgardian prince starts off in 2012 where he deviates from the “sacred timeline” of events by snatching the Tesseract and zipping away from imprisonment. He’s quickly apprehended by agents of the TVA (Time Variant Authority), who are charged with keeping the multiverse down to just one stream of approved reality. This Loki, now a “variant,” is essentially marked for extermination, until an agent named Mobius (Owen Wilson) advocates for him to help the TVA investigate a series of crimes suited to his unique skill set.
From there, Loki turns into a kind of buddy-cop procedural. Sure it takes a lot of convincing to get Loki on board, and no you can never tell whether or not he’s lying or what his ultimate game is, but that’s all part of the fun (and when the show is at its best). The key to Loki—both the character and the show—is always Tom Hiddleston. He is the king of arrogant grandstanding, withering looks, and the ability to turn on a dime and make you feel overwhelming pathos for him.
All of this to say: If you like Loki, the character, you’ll probably like Loki, the show. It’s not as groundbreakingly bonkers as WandaVision, but it’s also not as dourly macho as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. One perhaps wishes for more when it comes to Loki. Then again, he’s known for not living up to his own expectations at times. “For a guy born to rule, you sure do lose a lot,” Mobius notes. But by Odin he sure is a charmer. —Allison Keene
Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: A stellar, emotionally-satisfying finale—even if it felt like it should be a miniseries.
HBO Max’s latest series Hacks follows 25-year-old writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) as she tries to get her comedy career back on track after losing her job due to a bad tweet. Her journey takes her to Las Vegas, where she reluctantly starts writing material for Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a comedy veteran whose life is much like the china she collects: beautiful to behold, but cold and empty within. Deborah fills her life with work due to the absence of a personal life, which she’s eschewed ever since her husband left her for her own sister decades ago.
The show is a traditional odd couple pairing. Ava is bisexual, a Bernie supporter, and a chronic oversharer—in essence, your classic media depiction of a millennial. Deborah is brash, saying whatever she likes regardless of how others feel, and surrounds herself with gaudy opulence. Over the course of the series, they realize just how similar they are. Both of them are career-obsessed, more than a little self-centered, lack a personal life and, in the words of one side character, they’re “both psychotic bitches.”
Smart and Einbinder deftly pull off this two-hander thanks to their respective talent and excellent chemistry. Smart is at her peak here, moving from hilarious in one scene to quietly heartbreaking in the next. Deborah can be truly unlikable at certain moments, but the sensational Smart plays her with such subtlety and warmth that you still care about her—even though she has live fish pumped into her man-made lake.
With a strong cast and some stellar directorial choices, Hacks is a necessary addition to your summer watch list. —Clare Martin
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