This week, TV’s answer to addressing the pandemic was to make TV about it. But is the meta storytelling of Netflix’s Social Distance and NBC’s Connecting… cathartic or a scourge ? YMMV. For us at Paste TV, we prefer our television light. Well, as light as a queen charging into battle with copper pregnancy armor can be (not very light, turns out).
This week also saw the end of Lovecraft Country, which started strong and fizzled into its finale. Meanwhile, we’ve turned our sci-fi attentions to Discovery and are heading to Bly Manor for our spookies. And we’re finishing things off, as always, with a nice new episode of The Great British Baking Show (which actually shattered us. Ok y’all this week was kinda rough).
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.
Soulmates (AMC), The Good Lord Bird (Showtime), Emily in Paris (Netflix), Fargo (FX)
Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Providing the inspiration we all need more than 14 years after going off the air.
Can a TV special soothe the soul and heal a broken nation? Probably not, but the cast of The West Wing came pretty damn close. On the same day that Savannah Guthrie reminded the President that he was not, in fact, someone’s crazy uncle allowed to retweet vicious conspiracy theories, the cast of The West Wing presented a staged presentation of “Hatsfield’s Landing,” the 15th episode of the show’s third season. The episode takes place on the eve of the Presidential election with President Bartlett (the incomparable Martin Sheen) dealing with an international crisis between China and Taiwan. From the drama’s trademark walking and talking to its rat-a-tat dialogue, grand speeches and even grander analogies (you need to see the whole board in both chess and politics), the special reminded us why the Emmy-winning series was so beloved. The full cast returned including many secondary and tertiary characters (I, for one, was thrilled to see Melissa Fitzgerald’s Carol again). Sterling K. Brown took over as the late John Spencer’s Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, and the star-powered interstitials were both informative and hilarious (Lin Manuel Miranda was admonished to “Try not to rhyme. It can get irritating.”). Although the original cast hadn’t been together in 17 years, their rapport was palpable. They didn’t miss a beat. As they reminded us, “We’re America. We are good at this.” President Trump may not see the best in all of us but Aaron Sorkin and the cast and crew of The West Wing did and do. The only downside of the entire special is that it aired on HBO Max, where not as many people will have access to this incredibly special hour.—Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: The ghosts aren’t that scary, but they will make you cry.
When is a horror story not a horror story? When is a ghost not a ghost? If a ghost lives, breathes and walks among the living, can that really be called anything other than life? If a ghost feels every bit as much love, fear and regret as a living person, then isn’t life just as fraught with peril as death?
These are a few of the roughly 10,000 questions that Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor would like you to roll around in your head during its nine-hour runtime, in which it adapts Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw but simultaneously finds time to go down every narrative rabbit hole you might find on a sprawling English manor’s property. The follow-up to Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House is more unfocused than its predecessor, attempting to build an operatic narrative with detailed backstories for seemingly every character, but it possesses the same sort of devastating emotional intensity seen in the previous Netflix series. What it doesn’t have, though, is likely to disappoint a certain chunk of the audience: The scares.
In the end, what we have in Bly Manor is an epic, romantic gothic melodrama that isn’t interested in classical horror motifs like a struggle of good against evil. This is a deeply human story in which there’s no such thing as indiscriminate evil—only misunderstood and fractured people, both living and dead. Even the ghosts all become figures of sympathy and pity, as they’re revealed as products of misdirected human emotions such as rage, loneliness and loss, rather than the supernatural bogeymen we’re more familiar with. —Jim Vorel
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: Our hearts are broken … but it could be no other way!
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—though I will never not be haunted by those cake busts. —Allison Keene
Network: CBS All Access
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: In Season 3, the series has finally found the story it was meant to tell
In the 18 months that have passed since that game-changing finale dropped, fans have only been able to hope that the promise such a big swing held would ultimately pan out. I can absolutely confirm: Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery is poised to be the series’ best yet. Moreover, I’d argue it’s poised to be the best “new” Star Trek made to date, both in terms of what CBS All Access has produced in the last few years (sorry, Picard—you’re beautiful, but confoundingly paced) and in terms of what J.J. Abrams has brought to the big screen over the last decade. It takes everything the first two seasons did best—namely, Michael and Saru’s hard-earned friendship; the deep commitment felt by everyone aboard the Discovery to both the ideals of the Federation and science; and Georgiou, just as a general agent of chaos—while dispensing entirely with all the baggage five decades of 23rd-century Star Trek storytelling that had originally weighed it down. Now stranded some 930 years in the future, Star Trek: Discovery can tell literally any story it wants.
In any case, whether you’ve been waiting 18 long months for this day, or you’ve been on the fence about giving the whole “new” Star Trek thing a shot in the first place, Discovery is finally back, and better than ever. Thank the Federation. —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: Two words: Pregnancy. Armor.
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
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