Paste Power Ranking: The 10 Best TV Shows on Right Now, from Penny Dreadful to Middleditch and Schwartz

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<i>Paste</i> Power Ranking: The 10 Best TV Shows on Right Now, from <i>Penny Dreadful</i> to <i>Middleditch and Schwartz</i>

This week’s Power Rankings have finale fever, as we say goodbye to a few favorites, including the long-running Homeland (if you haven’t watched in awhile but are curious, you can read where each character ended up here). But plenty more series have debuted to wrestle for their own place in the Top 10, including the new chapter of Penny Dreadful.

Meanwhile, we have to acknowledge the online spectacular that was a 90th birthday celebration of Stephen Sondheim, including a rather iconic rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch” from Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, and Audra McDonald (watch here). Though the event was beset by technical difficulties, it was a radiant display of stars singing for our joy. We truly 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. And be sure to check out our new section, This Week, which explains the show’s rank on the list.

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 Mention: Run (HBO), Killing Eve (BBC America), Belgravia (Epix), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (NBC), Vida (Starz), SNL at Home (NBC), Westworld (HBO)

10. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

Network: Showtime
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Natalie Dormer is a vision.

It’s Natalie Dormer’s world, and we’re all just living in it.

That’s largely the feeling one gets upon watching Showtime’s new series Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, in which she plays a shapeshifter that wears a half dozen different identities over the course of the series’ first six episodes, meddling in storylines that include everything from murder to Nazis to a street-level race war.

It’s a wonderfully fun, energetic performance, sly and complex in a way that will delight anyone familiar with the actress’ work from such previous outings as Game of Thrones and The Tudors. Her character Magda—a demonic chaos agent—is beautiful, manipulative, cunning, ruthless, and utterly impossible to look away from. (Plus, the outfits! Swoon!) We may not yet understand how the many pieces of City of Angels ultimately fit together yet, but it’s obvious that Magda sits at the center of it. And, if we’re honest, we’re all probably pretty okay with that.

Where Penny Dreadful was a reinvention of Gothic horror, City of Angels attempts to do the same to detective noir, unspooling a gripping murder mystery even as it interrogates Los Angeles’ increasingly violent racial divide and depicts the rising presence of fascist sympathizers in the city. This is a period historical piece as much as it is a tale of monsters, and the uncomfortable view of mankind it reflects back at us is both predictably and painfully bleak.

City of Angels is fascinating to watch, set in a world that’s richly imagined and beautifully brought to life, populated by sharply drawn characters who consistently wrestle with ideas of right, wrong and everything in between. The show may have yet to reveal the full scope of its larger ambitions or thematic plans, but while we wait, there are definitely worst ways to spend your time than watching these plots spin out in the sun. —Lacy Baugher


9. Homeland

Network: Showtime
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: After almost nine years, eight seasons, 96 episodes, many deaths, explosions, betrayals and ugly cries, Homeland ended with a taut, thrilling and satisfying hour.

I don’t have a lot in common with Carrie Mathison, the beleaguered heroine of Showtime’s Homeland, which just finished its eighth and final season. For one thing, I didn’t sleep with/fall in love with/have a child with a war hero/sleeper agent. I’m not in the CIA. I didn’t spend 213 days in a Russian prison.

But we do have one very important thing in common: every time we think we are out, Homeland pulls us back in. The season starts less than a year after the seventh season finale, with Carrie (Claire Danes, forever queen of the glorious ugly cry) in a medical treatment facility in Germany trying to account for the 180 days in captivity she can’t recall. Carrie’s mental state is fragile at best. So, of course her mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin), now the National Security Advisor to President Warner (Beau Bridges) pulls her into a mission in Afghanistan where Saul is trying to end the war and forge peace with both the Taliban and Afghanistan. No one else can do what Carrie can do. Her mental well-being be dammed.

I can’t think of a show that has changed more since its original inception than Homeland. Those taut early seasons where Brody’s allegiance was in question. (Remember how hating Brody’s children, and in particular his daughter Dana, was a whole thing?) In many ways, it remains true that the series should have ended when Brody died at the end of the Season 3 (Editor: Or the end of Season 1!). Sure there have been some good seasons since then, but there have also been plenty of mediocre and bad ones. But then, just as I’m about to write off this final season, something happens that pulls me right back in. Just like Carrie, I can’t seem to let go. —Amy Amatangelo


8. Little Fires Everywhere

Network: Hulu
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: A mixed finale, but a better ending than the book.

“You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices! Options that being rich and white and entitled gave you.”

That’s Mia (Kerry Washington) screaming to Elena (Reese Witherspoon) during the emotionally charged fourth episode of the new Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere.

The line sums up the crux of a series that explores the complicated themes of race, wealth, and motherhood with a delicate aplomb. Based on the Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel of the same name, the eight-episode series follows the sequence of events that occur when Mia moves to the storied community of Shaker Heights, Ohio with her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) in 1997.

Elena’s friend Linda (Rosemarie DeWitt) has struggled with infertility for years and has finally adopted a baby with her husband Mark (Geoff Stults). Their lives have been wrecked by miscarriages and still births. Their adopted daughter Mirabelle is the answer to years of prayer and heartache. Meanwhile, Mia’s co-worker Bebe (Huang Lu) decides to fight for custody of the baby she abandoned. The mother-focused stories continue, and eventually come to a boil: these proverbial “little fires everywhere” become harder and harder to extinguish as the series progresses.

The series is set in the 1990s but its themes, particularly those surrounding what defines motherhood, are timeless. The conversation around race and privilege are perhaps even more relevant today than the era in which the show is set.

Washington is fantastic as Mia. Her hard, angry exterior barely conceals her vulnerability. She’s a fiercely protective mother who may not always make the best choices but always wants what is right. Witherspoon has perfected the entitled character who is blind to her own entitlement, living a life that is so controlled and carefully cultivated that she may have even lost sight of what she truly wants in life. Together, these elements ignite to form a show well worth watching.—Amy Amatangelo


7. Dispatches from Elsewhere

Network: AMC
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
This Week: Beautiful, gentle, soulful television.

Jason Segel’s charming new series is a puzzle box: four strangers band together to try and put together clues relating to two warring secret institutes. And yet, Dispatches from Elsewhere wraps all of that up into an optimistic and charming exploration of selfhood. Like a kind of Amélie-by-way-of-Philadelphia, its central characters (played by Segel, Andre Benjamin, Sally Field, and Eve Lindley) wander the city through warm, candy-colored hidden rooms divining cryptic patterns and uncovering unexpected vistas they never knew existed—both within the visual landscape and inside their very souls. It has quite a bit in common with the late, great Lodge 49, as our heroes step outside their comfort zones to try and unpack what it all means (and what “it” even is) in sweet, earnest ways. —Allison Keene


6. Outlander

Network: Starz
Last Week’s Ranking: 5
This Week: A great episode that felt like a finale (but wasn’t).

As our own Keri Lumm said of Outlander’s new season, it feels like a warm hug of familiarity. But after kicking off with the joy of a wedding, Outlander soon movies into worthy and complicated considerations of living in the past while having modern knowledge—particularly of medicine that could help your family and community. As Claire (Caitriona Balfe) expands her medical practice, Jamie (Sam Heughan) must wrestle with promises he’s made to the Crown in order to keep his American land where his family has made a homestead. The America Revolution inches closer, with the Frasers at the center of it all, of course. But Outlander is at its best when its focusing on the personal stories (including one surprisingly horrific story detour that may also be one of the show’s most outstanding) within these larger historical contexts, most especially the partnership and enduring romance between Jamie and Claire, which remains TV’s most loving and aspirational. —Allison Keene


5. Better Call Saul

Network: AMC
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: A great episode that didn’t feel like a finale (but was).

It was only recently announced that Better Call Saul would be ending with its sixth season, though it wasn’t necessarily shocking news, given that with each passing year it’s been harder for one of TV’s best shows to ignore the future it’s been creeping towards. Season 5 is smart about how it acknowledges that, specifically in regard to increasing the Breaking Bad prequel’s engagement with what came canonically before but narratively after.

The final 13-episode season will mean that Saul will have run for 63 episodes, one more than Breaking Bad. Like everything else about this show, that was a deliberate choice. That said, Season 5 of Saul doesn’t necessarily feel like the beginning of the end. Instead, it’s more like the end of the beginning, given that after the events of the Season 4 finale, Jimmy McGill has now officially embraced the Saul Goodman identity—legally and professionally, at least.

Saul is the first persona we ever saw Bob Odenkirk wear in this universe, but thanks to the four seasons that have come before, we recognize it for the mask that it is. However, Jimmy seems to be getting more comfortable with wearing it, especially when this season pushes him to make some choices that prove reminiscent of his original introduction: In the words of Jesse Pinkman, “You don’t want a criminal lawyer… you want a ‘criminal’ lawyer.”

But Better Call Saul is a show whose fundamental foundation is built on the idea that every action has consequences, seen or unseen. In comparison to The Good Place, a show all about ethical debate, Better Call Saul isn’t searching for answers: The characters might debate ideas of moral relativism, but the sure and steady hand of creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan knows what is right and what is wrong—and it is never afraid to reveal what can happen when that line gets crossed. —Liz Shannon Miller


4. Mrs. America

Network: Hulu/FX
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: Tracey Ullman earns herself an Emmy in this Betty Friedan-focused episode.

Equality is at the heart of Mrs. America. The series, which starts in 1971, examines the national debate taking place over the Equal Rights Amendment, meant to put women on the same legal footing as men. For some housewives across America, though, the amendment was concerning because it was ushered in by second-wave feminists who (they believed) threatened to dismantle traditional family values. And at the head of that anti-ERA movement was Illinois housewife and mother of six, Phyllis Schlafley (an elegant Cate Blanchett).

Phyllis is the nexus of everything happening in Mrs. America, but each episode also spends time with one or two other important women on the opposite side of the movement, from Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) to Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) to the first black woman to run for President, Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). Where the limited series, created by Dahvi Waller, really excels (and manages to eschew the issues of other series dealing with similar topics) is that it’s not overly reverential to these real-life characters. It also, crucially, doesn’t treat them as caricatures—there is a deep, recognizable, and very true humanity to each of these women that is immediately authentic, as they move in and out of each other’s lives.

Mrs. America is juggling a lot, but it never feels like too much. Like the ever-present (worthless) question of “can a woman have it all?” Mrs. America does have it all, and more. It illuminates an essential part of the women’s liberation movement and the real women behind it (and against it) in ways that are engrossing, enlightening, and sometimes enraging. —Allison Keene


3. Legends of Tomorrow

legends-of-tomorrow-season-5-main.jpg

Network: The CW
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: As if the Supernatural crossover (of sorts) wasn’t enough, the Zari/Behrad storyline left us in tears.

For those weary of the Arrowverse or of superhero shows in general, Legends of Tomorrow remains an intoxicating breath of fresh air. The series began by assembling a ragtag crew of characters from elsewhere in the CW’s superhero universe, and while it was always a bonkers good time, it has grown into a series that continues—even into its fifth season—to surprise and delight as one of TV’s smartest. Filled with meta humor and history-tinged hilarity as our crew of sundries travel through time to stop demons, hellspawn, magical creatures, and other power-hungry baddies from altering the past, the series will often gut-punch you with incredible emotional storylines and reveals that illustrate how wonderfully deep it all really is. The writers and actors are all clearly having a good time, and viewers can’t help but mirror that positivity and excitement. As a show that is never afraid to mix things up, cut things that aren’t working, change up entire narratives, or replace old characters as alt-timeline versions of themselves, Legends of Tomorrow continues to reinvent itself and only get better as it goes. One of TV’s best kept secrets, it’s also one you really cannot miss. (You can catch up on previous seasons on Netflix, and use this guide to figure out where to start). —Allison Keene


2. What We Do in the Shadows

Network:FX
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: From an Ocean’s 12 gag to a “Superb Owl” party, the series continues to lift us.

In its first season on FX, What We Do in the Shadows took Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s film to a delightfully banal Staten Island. It was a laid-back good time filled with the hilarious injection of out-of-touch vampires Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Laszlo (Matt Berry) into the land of the living. Things are still hilariously dull in Season 2, but the jokes don’t need too much energy—or even have to be that funny. In the long-nailed hands of these undead roommates, even a protracted “updog” bit slays.

What We Do in the Shadows’ new episodes begin by slowly settling into a sitcom. Still, the groundwork laid last season helps this one stay low-key. We stay in the mansion more. The bigger visual gags aren’t massive setpieces, but sustained silliness. Novak, Berry, Demetriou, and Mark Proksch as energy vampire Colin Robinson sell entire scenes with a look and a deadpan, even if it’s something as high concept as the vampires finding out they’ve all got ghosts of themselves. Nandor’s familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), is the show’s dynamic center, and it is upon his sagging shoulders that the new season’s plot rests, as he grapples with his genetic predisposition to slay vampires as a descendant of Van Helsing.

Since the undead housemates are still wanted by the Vampire Council, the possibility is still there for a cameo-laden episode later in the season. However, the swaggering silliness of the first episodes shows the acceptance of a smaller, more sustainable comedy that’s less concerned about plotting the future of the undead and more about un-living in the moment. —Jacob Oller


1. Middleditch and Schwartz

Network: Netflix
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Hey everyone, improv is good again! Really good.

The better understanding or more experience you have with live performance, the more impressive you’re likely to find Netflix’s Middleditch & Schwartz. This kind of loosey-goosey, long-form improv comedy storytelling is exactly the kind of thing that an inexperienced onlooker is likely to assume is easy, where a seasoned performer is likely to tell you just how brutally difficult it truly is. Not to simply “keep going” for 50 minutes, mind you, but to actually make that sketch consistently funny? No, not even that—to make that sketch side-splittingly hilarious for the majority of its runtime? That’s borderline impossible, but that’s exactly what Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz pull off here, making a case for themselves as literal titans of their craft. Watching this special, chopped up into what amounts to three distinct episodes, should be aspirational for any comic performer—to see how fast these guys’ minds are working as they plan future jokes and callbacks is like getting a glimpse into how geniuses operate. All three outings are full of hilarious moments, but allow us to recommend “Parking Lot Wedding” in particular, which benefits from a natural dramatic build-up to a crescendo that very satisfyingly pulls all of its characters together. We clearly need more episodes of Middleditch & Schwartz, and hopefully we’ll get them. —Jim Vorel



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