Even though we are critics by trade, we are also fans who want to see TV series succeed. That’s why every week we come out with a Power List. We want to celebrate the shows that are thriving, not pick on the ones that are struggling. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about awful shows.
But every so often a TV show comes along that is so terrible—the writing so cliched, the acting so wooden, the plot line so laughable—that it is impossible to look away. We are talking, of course, about The I-Land which premiered last Thursday on Netflix. Our not-prone-to-hyperbole TV editor Allison Keene declared it to be “the worst TV show I’ve ever seen” while Paste TV contributor Keri Lumm wondered if it was some vanity project a parent had funded to make their child happy. The I-Land was such a disaster that it seemed almost everyone was talking about it. However, we cannot reward horrid television. And so, as usual, the Power List applauds the week’s highlights of which there were many including two new series which top this week’s list.
The rules for the power list are simple: Any 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—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. We’re merciless: a bad episode can knock you right off this list. So much good TV is available right now.
Honorable Mentions:Sherman’s Showcase (IFC), Top Boy(Netflix), The Terror (AMC), The Spy (Netflix) and The Great British Baking Show (Netflix).
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
On Becoming a God in Central Florida is the next bold career choice for Kirsten Dunst, one that only confirms that there is arguably a Kirsten Dunst role for every day of the week or emotional state. The series is set in an “Orlando adjacent” town in 1992 where Dunst’s Krystal Stubbs, a water park employee and former beauty pageant queen, sets out to take down FAM (Founders American Merchandise), the multi-billion dollar multi-level marketing scam that brainwashed her husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgård) and ultimately ended up ruining her family and home life. Specifically, the Garbeau System of FAM, created by a Colonel Sanders-doppelganger in the form of Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine).
Created by newcomers Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky—in their first major project and especially first-ever television show— and bounced around from ABC to AMC to YouTube Premium to Showtime, On Becoming a God in Central Florida is a series that caused me to, numerous times as I watched the first season, write in my notes, “What is this show?” But it was always in a good way, as I found myself in awe of what I was watching. With every hard left turn and 180 the series takes, the tone somehow manages to remain consistent. In fact, even through its trippier moments—like Krystal’s bird disease-driven “odyssey” in the fourth episode or in the introduction of Louise Garbeau’s (Sharon Lawrence) therapy method—the series continues to play them straight (or at least on the same level) as everything else in the show; no character ever addresses those bizarre moments. That’s a point that can make it easy to miss certain jokes and gags at first, but On Becoming a God in Central Florida excels because of how subtle it is—despite being a show whose very premise of Florida, the ‘90s, and pyramid schemes (and really, cults in general) suggests that “subtlety” is a concept that’s out the window altogether. This is not a series that is in a rush, even if the “get-rich-quick” component would make it seem so.
While On Becoming a God in Central Florida could easily work as a limited series—with a final scene that could easily be answered by the series co-creators in postmortems if it doesn’t make it past the first season—it also creates a perfect concept for a second, with an unexpected potential for the future from a show that took a while to even find the right home.—LaToya Ferguson
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
If Stranger Things is pure uncritical nostalgia that wants to transport audiences back to the ‘80s with its neon-tinted glasses, The Deuce’s ‘80s-set final season is brutal anthropology. Half-decade jumps have become the norm for HBO’s adult industry deep-dive drama, allowing its story to become a scarlet-collared examination of America at its most basic and honest intersection of sex, capitalism, and the art in between it all. A history of a country (through the evolution of its politics, technology, and culture) can also be found in how it deals with sex—and HBO’s The Deuce has been baring it all since Episode One. Three seasons in and creators David Simon and George Pelecanos continue to illuminate the big stuff by flicking the switches of a thousand small moments.
Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal)’s continued search for creative and romantic fulfillment—not to mention her endearing and enduring friendship with Harvey (David Krumholtz)—is still the show’s backbone. The ‘80s have brought Gyllenhaal’s performance, fashion game, and hair to unprecedented heights. It helps to have scene partners like Krumholtz and series newcomer Corey Stoll (who plays her sexy love interest), but most of all it helps to have writers crafting such compelling and consistent characters.
As The Deuce and its inhabitants see the chaotic ladder of the Golden Age of Porn end—as will any unregulated era, as supply and demand catches up to it (drug decriminalization, the actual Wild West)—its often grim struggles still boast the boons of industrial people. This final, lovely season won’t gloss over the nasty, cruel, and devastating parts of the sex industry, but it does let us soak in the finely-aged relationships between its note-perfect characters as they’re paved over for new hotels. These workers, forged in hardship like wartime comrades, gnawed termite art into the gentrified construction’s bones. History mostly leaves people behind in favor of progress and paperwork, but Simon and Pelecanos’ affecting work on The Deuce shows what we regain when we remember.—Jacob Oller
Last Week’s Ranking: 5
There is a moment in Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance—a prequel to Jim Henson’s beloved Dark Crystal movie (which is great but you do not need to have seen it before this)—where two ancient characters are recounting an important tale to our heroes. It’s about the beautiful land of Thra, and an event many years past that caused an imbalance and blight within the crystal that stands at the center of their world. All of the answers they seek will be “brought to life by that most ancient and sacred of arts…” they’re told, with a dramatic pause as the character looks right at the camera and breathes out: “Puppetry!”
“Oh nooo!” our heroes groan, and one immediately falls asleep.
That is the bias that Age of Resistance acknowledges it’s up against—but folks, get over it. Allow this incredible production to sweep you away in an epic fantasy journey, one that is able to so much more deeply and fully explore the world Henson and Frank Oz imagined with the original film. You can liken it to Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or any high fantasy series you like, but after ten magical hours it truly stands on its own as a gorgeous, innovative, emotional, joyous, and exceptional wonder. If that sounds hyperbolic, it’s only because that’s exactly the kind of sincere enthusiasm the show engenders. Get past any hesitance over the puppets (which are actually outstanding), turn subtitles on to help you remember all of the character names, and immerse yourself in this incredible world.—Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
And so the summer’s most surprising TV series has come to a close. This wonderful, weird and downright bizarro version of the iconic and beloved series leaned further and further in to the meta-ness of it all over the delightful six episodes. Just as the original 90210 broke the mold and set the foundation for all teen dramas to follow, BH90210 broke the mold on reboots and may very well inform all that follow.
Yes it was weird. Not as weird as the time Brandon and Dylan went to a sweat lodge or Kelly joined a cult, but close. Tori Spelling, Jason Priestley, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth, Ian Ziering, Gabrielle Carteris, and Brian Austin Green all returned to play heighten versions of themselves. They were all willing to mock themselves, their reputations, their pasts and their varying degrees of fame. But attention must be paid to Shannen Doherty whose take on Shannen Doherty grew more hilarious with each passing episode (“Siri how many seasons of 90210 were there?”). Why was she eating in nearly every scene she was in? Who knows? But I loved it. And Green, in particular, brought nuance and meaning to his character amid all the shenanigans. The finale found the actresses arguing over matching dresses, Ian Ziering realizing he had unknowingly bed a mother and her daughter, and sparks flying once again among the show’s favorite couples. The gang learned they were picked up to series but would have to drop someone. Yes the proverbial stage was set for a second season. The original’s glory days were in those summer episodes. Here’s hoping BH90210 becomes a summer staple for the network once again.—Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
HBO’s Succession, from creator Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It) is dressed up as a prestige drama, but it’s actually one of TV’s most acid comedies. Once you embrace that, Succession unlocks as a never-ending battle of power and prestige with medieval royal overtones that is also wonderfully aware of how absurd that kind of story is. As one observer of the Roy family comments, “watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on planet Earth.”
In Season Two, Logan (Brian Cox) is back in full health and full power, having survived and subverted Kendall’s (Jeremy Strong) late-season attempts at a coup—incidentally, one of TV’s most horrifically sad sequences of events. It left Kendall completely broken, a dead-eyed robot who now lives in service to his father’s wishes. But all of the spoiled siblings are cowed (except for Connor (Alan Ruck), still deludedly considering a Presidential bid) with Logan’s return. He’s a bully, frightening even his oldest friends, yet knows exactly how to emotionally manipulate everyone back into his thrall. They may complain and privately plot against him, but no one dares speak a word to disfavor them in his presence.
Succession is not made to be binge watched. It’s engrossing, as a world that’s easy to immerse oneself in, but there is a kind of shadowy, icky feeling that follows you when you’ve consumed too much. That’s not the show’s fault; it’s easy to laugh at Tom (Matthew Macfayden) getting upset that he’s “not in the right panic room!” when he discovers Shiv (Sarah Snook) is in a more posh stronghold, but seeing Waystar encourage a dotcom to not unionize before gutting them, or how even a supposedly ethical organization might well sell out to partisan interests when there’s enough money is just depressingly real. Succession is a combination of Tom’s exclamation “what a weird family!” and Logan’s “Money wins. Here’s to us.” And it has us fully in its thrall.—Allison Keene
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
Expectations are the last thing you should be bringing into OWN’s first original teen-centric series. David Makes Man transcends expectations. It transcends genre. It just… transcends. Much of this transcendence is due, of course, to creator Tarell Alvin McCraney’s particular line of naturalistic poetic genius. If you’ve seen Moonlight or High Flying Bird or Choir Boy, the fact that young David Young’s story both defies easy description and delivers deeply human realness on every page won’t be a surprise. But while David Makes Man would be excellent no matter how it traveled from McCraney’s imagination to OWN’s screen, the version we get to watch rises to exceptional thanks to the presence of two things: Akili McDowell’s astounding work as teen hero David (a.k.a. DJ / Dai), and the textural shimmer of the team’s dreamy, innovative visual style.
So much of David Makes Man depends on the inner churn David experiences as he tries to balance the daily struggle to survive life in the Ville without falling into the drug-dealing world that got his deceased father-figure killed, the academic expectations that seem to exist in a vacuum at the magnet school he buses to every day, and the quotidian social pressures to fit in and not be weird (slash, not be embarrassed by his corny-ass mom) that every middle-schooler in human history has had to face. More often than not, McDowell is asked to communicate that tightrope walk with just his eyes, or his balled fists, or his quicksilver mask of a school-day grin. It’s so much, but McDowell delivers every detail with such heartfelt naturalism that it’s hard to remember David isn’t real. It’s genuinely astounding. —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the words “16-hour documentary” I usually flee in the opposite direction. I don’t care if it’s 16 hours of puppies playing in the grass or Lizzo playing the flute—I’m out. But I’m making an exception for Ken Burns’ Country Music, and you should too. Not only is it an unbelievably detailed look at one of America’s greatest musical exports—the country music genre—but it’s also a chronology of American history itself, particularly that of the American south. The first episode tracks “The Rub,” aka the friction between white and black cultures and sounds that sparked modern country music. Old Crow Medicine’s Ketch Sector, who’s interviewed throughout the episode, sums it up simply and accurately: “Country music comes from the South because this is where slavery happened.” In addition to tracking the banjo’s journey from Africa to America and the fiddle’s trip from Europe to Appalachia, this episode examined the rise of formative stars like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The story of country music is multifaceted, complicated and completely riveting, and Burns brings its centuries-long story to life in another essential masterpiece. Maybe you won’t make it through all eight episodes, but you should aim to experience at least one. You may even learn something about your own history. —Ellen Johnson
Last Week’s Ranking: 9
In HBO’s new comedy The Righteous Gemstones, Danny McBride plays Jesse, the oldest son of the Gemstone clan of showbiz preachers, the flamboyant heir apparent to his legendary father Eli, who’s played with equal parts solemnity and menace by John Goodman. Eli turned the gospel into a chain store, opening up churches throughout the Southeast, and bringing his whole family into the business. In addition to the permed Jesse, there’s Adam DeVine’s Kelvin, who has the fauxhawk and designer jeans of a Christian pop star, and daughter Judy, who chafes at her family’s unwillingness to treat her as an equal, and who’s played by Vice Principals’ breakout star Edi Patterson. Jennifer Nettles of the band Sugarland cameos in flashbacks as the family’s now-dead (and very Tammy Faye-esque) matriarch, whose passing weighs especially heavy on Eli.
It’s not saying much to call a TV family dysfunctional, but the Gemstone children are immediately introduced as being uniquely fractious. They present a united front on TV or in front of their parishioners, who they openly treat as marks behind the scenes, but don’t try to hide their contempt for and disappointment with one another when the cameras are off. Much of what makes the show so enjoyable is the way these three gifted comic actors play off one another as their entire world threatens to unravel. As with McBride’s previous HBO shows, Gemstones delicately balances the ridiculous and extreme with surprisingly subtle character moments that keeps the show from drifting too far away from legitimate emotion and humanity. Even McBride’s Jesse, who is largely a hateful blowhard who deserves every bad thing that happens to him, has moments of levity and regret that humanize him; his relationship with his children might be terrible, but he earnestly seems to want their love and respect, even as he blows everything up again. It’s a worthy addition to McBride’s HBO oeuvre—another messy, honest, exaggerated and realistic look at Southern charlatans desperate for fame, power, and success in a modern South that can too easily fall prey to their schemes. Praise the Lord and pass the loot, indeed. —Garrett Martin
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
Loops, quantum entanglement, and a lot of screwed-up people: Time travel shows have fully embraced the inverse relationship between narrative linearity and character troubles. The latest to do so is Undone, the rotoscoped Amazon series from BoJack Horseman creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg. It’s not just nonlinear—it’s antilinear. Linear storytelling is antithetical to its entire premise, as embracing atypical perception is its goal. The diverse (and neurodiverse) experiences of its characters—told through immigrant stories, multicultural backgrounds, and yes, those that can screw with the timeline—exist to create a message of complicated inclusion that makes the bold yet repetitive show completely unique. Thankfully, it’s also visually exciting enough to sustain most of its philosophical musings, with a central character charming enough to shoulder some head-shaking misfires.
Rosa Salazar plays Alma, a small-scale rebel—one who wouldn’t feel out of place in a Linklater film—who has a brush with death in a car accident. Afterwards, the ordinarily strict workings of time play hooky and she sees her dead dad (Bob Odenkirk) appear before her. He goes full Hamlet and tells her that he was actually murdered. Of course, Alma is the only one who can set things right thanks to her special abilities.
It’s a strange story, and it only gets stranger as we follow Alma down the rabbit hole. The characters, which include Alma’s sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) and mom Camila (Constance Marie) alongside her ghost pop’s existential Yoda (there’s even a “there is no ‘try’” moment), are more coherent than the tale they’re telling, which is the only way a show that’s attempting to be mysterious but not cliffhanger-y can keep you watching. Undone is ambitious to a fault, beautiful as all get-out, but more enjoyable when its focus doesn’t stray too far from its great lead performance.—Jacob Oller
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
There’s something quietly revolutionary about Unbelievable. It is difficult to watch at times, the kind of series likely to live with you long after its final moments come to a close; for a story centered on rape, that is hardly unusual. The work of its three remarkable lead actors is wonderful but also not unique; other television shows and movies have hired exceptional performers to tell these stories. Instead, Unbelievable distinguishes itself by the simple act of making one very big assumption: that everyone watching already knows that rape is a horrific violation. It assumes you’ve got that handled. It assumes that you’ve seen The Handmaid’s Tale or Boys Don’t Cry, or most recently, The Nightingale, and have plenty of experience seeing rape depicted in media in visceral, nightmarish fashion. It is fully aware that of the people on the other side of the screen one in six women and one in 33 men will have personally experienced a rape or an attempted rape in their lives. It has absolutely no interest in immersing its audience in trauma and violation. Unbelievable knows that you know rape is bad. It does not act as a voyeur. Under the guidance of showrunner Susannah Grant, it is far more interested in the survivor’s perspective—on what happened to her, yes, and how it lingers, but also on the violations that came after.
Based on a Pulitzer-winning piece of journalism by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong (of ProPublica and The Marshall Project, respectively), Unbelievable is a series of such quiet power that its full impact may not come crashing down until after its conclusion.—Allison Shoemaker