Sometimes TV is a box of donuts and sometimes it’s a toilet full of broccoli. Shows we have looked forward to for months can land with a disappointing fizzle (shout out to The Morning Show and The Little Mermaid Live!) and ones that fall under that pop-culture radar turn out to be a delightful surprise (Hi Back to Life). And some weeks, a cherished show like The Good Place returns to not only its box of donuts status but gives us a quote we will be weaving into our daily lexicon for years to come.
The rules for the Power Rankings 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.
Stumptown (ABC), Mr. Robot (USA), Impulse (YouTube Premium), Rick & Morty (Adult Swim), and Watchmen (HBO).
Last Week’s Ranking: 7
What is the worst thing you’ve ever done? How hard do you have to work to avoid thinking about it every day? And do you actually deserve to escape it? Netflix’s BoJack Horseman has, nearly since the beginning of the series, ascended beyond the surface level aspects of its premise: An animated satire about a washed-up sitcom star (who happens to be an anthropomorphic horse). And that transcendence has always been courtesy of the show’s obsession with examining questions like the ones above. In many ways, Season Six begins like many others — with BoJack (Will Arnett) determined to make his life better, despite whatever setbacks/emotional trauma he’d endured over the course of the previous season. This time, this is even more explicit, because at the end of Season Five, BoJack made the decision (with some help from Diane (Allison Brie)) to go to rehab. His time there stretches across multiple episodes, even after a somewhat easy-to-predict inspirational montage where BoJack’s difficulties with sharing, crafts, therapy and yoga are overcome.
As an unabashed fan of BoJack, I have personally spent untold hours inflicting one of the lamest cards in the critics’ deck of cliches upon friends, family and random acquaintances: “You have to watch until [This Episode].” For me, that episode is Season One’s “The Telescope,” where the show’s understanding of how to invoke the past collides in a haunting way with the present, revealing the true potential of this series. It’s also an episode which reveals how BoJack’s use of flashbacks is perhaps its greatest, most deadly emotional superpower: No one can withstand how the dance of nostalgia, hard truth, and real consequences lead to damaged, even broken lives. This is a long-term train of thought that BoJack Horseman is close to completing. But waiting another three months for the show’s final thoughts is going to be rough. —Liz Shannon Miller
Last Week’s Ranking: 10
The Cry, a four-part psychological thriller from the BBC (now making its way to AMC), is definitely not just for people who need re-schooling on “gaslighting,” an abnormal psychology term that’s been abused in a pathology-obsessed and relentlessly finger-pointing cultural moment, but for sure it can also do that for you. This excruciating breakdown of a toxic marriage will keep most people on the edges of their chairs.
The four hours of The Cry cut back and forth relentlessly, chopping past and present narratives into spliced, stochastic, and muddled webs of connected moments. Joanna (Jenna Coleman) is the young mother of a colicky newborn. Her husband, Alistair (Ewen Leslie), wants to go from Scotland to his childhood home outside Melbourne, where his first wife has absconded and “stolen” his teenage daughter, Chloe (Markella Kavenagh), after their marriage fell apart. The day Alistair and Joanna arrive, after a harrowing flight with a shrieking baby and a cabin full of resentful co-passengers, they make a pit stop at a convenience store and, after leaving the car unattended for just a minute, find the baby is not in the car seat.
The truth is, heroes and villains are pretty thin on the ground. Most of us are a lot more complicated than that, more blinkered, more inconsistent, more capable of shifting in response to context, sometimes in ways that shock everyone, especially ourselves. Many people are manipulative; very few are true gaslighters. Anyone can be lied to and not see it, but not everyone is susceptible to deliberate and sustained psychological torture—it takes a unique set of personality traits and circumstances for someone to be destabilized enough to accept that kind of abuse. When it does happen, though, the results can be spectacular and horrible, and not just for the victim. The Cry is an intelligent psychological thriller that will focus and refocus your suspicions and loyalties, all the while evocatively demonstrating the shifting power dynamics, rotating roles and changing presumptions that characterize a marriage where something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. —Amy Glynn
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
We think you’ll like this one on a train, on a plane, in the rain … well you get the idea. It seemed impossible that Netflix could take the beloved but not exactly plot heavy Dr. Seuss book and turn it into a 13-episode series. Yet somehow they did, creating a show that both kids and adults will adore and that is also completely true to the artwork and the spirit of the Seuss cannon. Adam Devine is pitch perfect as the voice of the ever optimistic and totally persistent Sam I Am, and yes that really is Michael Douglas you are hearing as the cranky and ever pessimistic Guy I Am. The unlikely duo team up on a road trip with the rare animal the Chickeraffe (as you do in the Seuss world) and make friends with a mom Michellee (Diane Keaton), a literal bean counter, and her daughter E.B. (Ilana Glazer). This show may become your kid’s first binge watching experience. —Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
ABC and Freeform offered viewers an early look at this Disney+ series, allowing it to sneak on to our Power Rankings a week early. And what a title to launch one of the flagship series of a new streaming platform with! To crib the rhythm of a waning TikTok trend: Does it flaunt the platform’s corporate reach(™)? Yes. Is it unwieldy as hell? YES. Who’s ready to crown it a self-aware heavyweight champ? Me! Is that because this Disney+ defining teen series is coming out of the gate so extremely self-aware that it blazes right past the meta event horizon that would incinerate all other attempts at such a vertically integrated creative experiment, rolling instead to a victorious stop in the land of what I am, of this moment, going to be calling post-cringe? Ah! (Translation: Yes.)
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which follows the fictional students of the fictional version of the real Salt Lake area high school where the real High School Musical was filmed, as they embark on staging the first production of the fictional High School Musical: The Musical at the real (that is, fictional) East High—if your brain’s not broken yet, then I suspect you’re already doubled over with how chaotically genius this is.
The corporate behemoth that Disney has become is literally the only operation in town that could produce something as vertically integrated and as a richly and winkingly self-referential as High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. And for all that, it’s both fun and fascinating to see the company use its new Disney+ platform to send up its own fairly conservative cable television past. —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
There’s something so satisfying, so pleasurable, when a series returns for its second season and immediately reveals itself to have surpassed the first. So it is with the first three episodes of this second go-round for Castle Rock. Yes, there’s still something of an over-reliance on wink-wink references to the King canon, but so far, this Misery-influenced season feels less like fan service and more like a fever dream—the kind you can’t wake from. The kind that pops, unbidden, into your mind when you’re just hoping to move on with your day. The kind that follows you, moist and staring, out of the hole you dumped it in.
Much of the success of these episodes is due to the fascinating, fearless performance of Lizzy Caplan, playing a pre-Misery Annie Wilkes with seemingly bottomless panache. It’s a turn that’s both terrifying and funny, yet she plays Annie with enough emotional honesty that it’s still somehow possible, even easy, to invest in her journey. In this case, the journey is somewhat literal—Annie and her daughter Joy (Eighth Grade’s powerhouse Elsie Fisher) criss-cross the country, Annie finding temporary work as a nurse so she can easily steal her self-prescribed cocktail of antipsychotics. But an accident strands them in Castle Rock and throws them in the path of Ace Merrill (King alumnus Tim Robbins), and things go sideways in a big way. The performances are intimate and honest, but the scares are visceral and grotesque. It’s a cockadoodie delight.—Allison Shoemaker
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
I’m not quite sure CBS knows Evil is on its network because Oh. My. God. Are you watching? I can’t believe the same network that airs like 50 different versions of NCIS is airing this meditation on evil from the same people who brought you The Good Wife. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) is a forensic psychologist who becomes something of a believer when she meets priest-in-training David Acosta (Colter) and tech expert Ben (Aasif Mandvi) and they begin to investigate the inexplicable. The always creepy (in the best way) Michael Emerson is also on hand as Leland Townsend, a mysterious character who epitomize the title of the series. Truly my only complaint about this drama, which gets better with each passing episode, is that may be too creepy for me. The show produces the kind of scares that stay with you long after the lights go out.—Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
Despite all the mystery surrounding her long, hermetic life, it’s hard to imagine that the real Emily Dickinson (she of the poetic syntax so wildly removed from the style of her time that it wasn’t until 1955 that publishers stopped editing all her linguistic ecstasies into comparatively dull normalcy), wouldn’t get a kick out of Dickinson, Alena Smith and Hailee Steinfeld’s lovingly weird imagining of the poet’s young adulthood. Dickinson is so fun and so strange and so tireless in handing out little moments of character development, with wildly original mood setting, you could watch thousands of hours of television and still not think to expect, of course, the Dickinson who scrawled out “Wild nights – Wild nights!” and left behind thousands of scraps of genius in a locked chest would dig it.
To be clear, this is not me saying that rapturous anachronisms of Dickinson will be to everyone’s taste. Would Emily’s parents, in reality or as played here by Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski, be into it? Nah. Emily’s peers? Sue (Ella Hunt)—yes. George (Samuel Farnsworth)—yes. Everyone else—it depends. You? Who’s to say! Death showing up in the guise of Wiz Khalifa in a black silk top hat inside a ghostly black carriage to take Emily (Steinfeld) away from the funeral of her bosom friend/true love Sue’s last remaining sister (as Billie Eilish’s “bury a friend” pulses underneath the dialogue almost too quiet to hear) will read to many as try-hard poptimist-adjacent gimmick, and it feels likely that Apple is trying to buy the affections of a Gen Z audience through clout rather than substance.
But with such gorgeous cinematography, costuming, and metatextual design, and with every actor putting in such fun, charming, deeply specific (read: often deeply odd) performances—and with Smith and Steinfeld, especially, so blazingly self-confident in their vision—it seems entirely likely that Dickinson will be one of the brightest debuts of 2019. I genuinely want to be shut up in the prose of its walls, for as long as Emily will have me. —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
America has never lost gracefully. Exploring alternate histories where America loses usually involves the country’s moral stance defeated by a great political evil. The Nazis win World War 2; the British suppress the revolution. But what if the loss was more complicated than that? More ideologically gray. Less focused on Superman’s truth and justice, and more on his American Way. Apple TV+ asks this question with alt-history For All Mankind’s opening, where the Soviet Union stuns a watching world by beating the U.S. to the moon, and answers it with an enthralling drama dedicated to the flawed pursuit of greatness.
It’s certainly appropriate for a show about the best pilots in the world to have a great pilot episode, but its early success is matched by a show where politics and science branch in ways pleasing for space junkies and astro-nots alike. The sprawling sociopolitical butterfly effects—like how the Nixon administration reacts to, and is affected by, losing the first leg of the space race—are just one of the pleasures to be found in Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi’s creation. After seeing eight episodes of the ten-episode season, For All Mankind has already set itself apart as the must-see show of Apple TV+.
NASA, pushed as much by a president needing a political victory as by their own wounded pride, shoots for sci-fi. And the writing is smart. Potentially saccharine rah-rah patriotism is undermined by dashed hopes and a permeating need for American exceptionalism that is, in this version of events, proven untrue. Instead, the series works towards a new national culture in its large scale and quiet, workhorse dignities in its small scale. America gets back to its scrappy roots through its space program.
Those scrappy (bordering on irresponsible) elements—government employees doing their best at the behest of their overlords—see a powerhouse turn underdog. Nothing’s more humanizing than trying to break ground with equipment from the lowest bidder. Avoiding the truly sappy by showing the scars left by the program (the fuck-ups, the deaths, the near-misses, the battered relationships) earns the show its most moving moments. Rather than pure golden glow, For All Mankind leaves you smiling and ugly crying at the same time, amazed that humanity has achieved so much despite all its stupid pettiness. Unlike the space program it follows, For All Mankind pursues greatness, succeeds, and plants an Apple flag for the world to see.—Jacob Oller
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
We have been patiently waiting this season for The Good Place to become forking great again. As the beloved NBC comedy barrels towards its series finale, this final season has been good but not the combination of hilarity and high stakes we’ve come to expect from the series. That all changed last week when, as the human experiment headed towards its conclusion, Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) realized the same thing Eleanor (Kristen Bell) did in the game-changing episode back in Season 1: They are decidedly not in the good place. The result was an episode that was thrilling and hilarious (what other show can make a dig at Facebook and broccoli all in the same half-hour). Plus Jason finally made sense as he got to put his extensive knowledge of football to good use. And just like that The Good Place is back in the game.—Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
Like the exceptional SundanceTV series Rectify, Showtime’s Back to Life picks up when the 30-something Miri (Daisy Haggard) returns to her small hometown after being in prison for 18 years. But this series never flashes back to that time, because Miri’s focus is on starting over and getting a second chance—if only anyone would let her actually achieve it.
The charming and wryly funny series (running an economic six half-hour episodes) is also created by Haggard and co-written by Laura Solon. The duo take the familiar canvas of a small British seaside town where a crime was committed and everyone has secrets, and subverts our expectations of where the story goes next. Yes there is something of a mystery as far as what Miri did, but the script has fun playing with our assumptions (like having Miri’s mother Caroline, played by the great Geraldine James, pluckily hiding the knives before she comes back downstairs). Neighbors write terrible messages on the family’s fence, they harass Miri, or whisper like cowards about rumors they’ve heard. But through it all, Miri puts on a brave if exasperated face, appreciating her freedom and hoping that some day people can forget what she did.
The key to Back to Life’s success is how it dances along the line of humor and grief, like when Miri returns to her room—untouched since she was a teenager—and sees posters of David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Jackson. “Last one standing,” her mother says, gesturing to a bedside poster of Jamie Oliver. “Thank God he’s still with us,” Miri replies dryly. In a late episode moment, Miri notices that her parents have made a cup of tea for an effigy doll of her that someone left in their front garden. “Well, she was cold,” her mother says, almost breaking into a laugh—I nearly did the same. Back to Life is a quiet and emotionally genuine series that hinges on the fantastic interactions among its characters. It examines the fallout of this past tragedy through the mundanity of daily life, including the lies we hold on to that mask truths we don’t want to confront. —Allison Keene
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