Paste Power Rankings: The Best on TV This Week, from SpaceX to Killer MikeIllustration by Christine Fernando and Soleil Collins TV Lists Power Ranking
With so much heartache and sadness throughout our nation this week, we wondered if we should even publish the Power Rankings. But ultimately we believe that entertainment can and should be a balm through difficult times; a moment of respite admid turmoil. That doesn’t mean that we should use it to cover our ears and distract us from the truths at play—it’s essential that we acknowledge and engage with the realities around us, be they pandemics or systemic oppression. But that takes a toll, and it’s important sometimes to unplug and regroup.
Cell phone footage became an invaluable way for us to get truth and information over the weekend, as protestors gathered and violence erupted. Many felt the news coverage was biased against the protests, and thus sought out the raw footage on places like Twitter. But we also want to acknowledge the journalists who put themselves on the front lines to document what was happening, who were also injured in what has become a bald display of injustice against those desperate to be heard.
What comes next, we don’t know. Our expertise at Paste is in entertainment. That can feel useless at a time like this, but hopefully we can provide something worthy in this important, difficult, and uncertain time. Because sometimes there is a moment of hope to celebrate, like the successful launch of a space shuttle, the first in a decade, from American soil.
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: Siren (Freeform), Killing Eve (BBC America), VIDA (Starz), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC), Dead to Me (Netflix), Sweet Magnolias (Netflix).
Last Week’s Ranking: 9
This Week: The reunion we’ve been waiting three seasons for
Now in its fourth season, the HBO comedy remains a delicious, hilarious, thought-provoking and thoughtful ride as Issa (Issa Rae) and her friends navigate career, friendship and family in Los Angeles. This season has delved deep into the relationship between Issa and her bestie Molly (Yvonne Orji) as the foundation for their long running friendship has begun to crumble. The show understands that female friendships are tricky business. Long brewing resentments can come to a boil. The things that annoy you about someone—be it their inability to commit to a romantic relationship or follow through on a work goal—can fester. As Molly embarks on a new relationship with Andrew (Alexander Hodge) and Issa plans a huge neighborhood block party, both women nitpick at each other. Instead of celebrating their successes, they make snide comments. It’s not good. As Molly says of Issa, she loves her but she doesn’t like her right now. Passionate viewers are picking sides, but the truth is the series is doing a great job of showing both women’s perspectives. As if that was not enough fodder for a terrific season, Insecure is tackling a topic rarely seen on television as the early hints of Tiffany’s (Amanda Seales) a post-partum depression are beginning to reveal themselves. Unwilling to just coast on its previous success, Insecure forges into new arenas and offers a very honest look at female friendships and motherhood all while being hilarious (hi British Kelli!).—Amy Amatangelo
9. What We Do in the Shadows
Last Week’s Ranking: 6
This Week: Nandor and Guillermo’s relationship was great, but how about Laszlo and Nadja’s terrible band?
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
8. The Great
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: Yes, it’s still great.
For those who adored The Favourite, writer Tony McNamara is back with “an occasionally true story” for Hulu focused on the rise of Catherine the future great, when she was just “a 20-year-old who’s been in Russia six months, and who—with the aid of a drunken general, an angry maid, and a nervous bureaucrat—is going up against the violent regime that is Peter’s empire,” (as one character succinctly states). The 10-episode series has a crisp, fast-moving script and sumptuous costuming that looks like a traditional historical drama but feels refreshingly modern in its approach. Bathed in a Marie Antoinette meets Death of Stalin aesthetic (and never going Full Dickinson), the series’ acid, winning humor understands the familiar absurdity of an age filled with the constant juxtaposition of wealth and brutality. Emotionally affecting as a complicated dance of horror and hope, Catherine’s outright victories may be few and far between, but the journey is thrilling.
The Great begins in the mid-18th century, with Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) arrival at the Russian court as a naive German bride for Peter (Nicholas Hoult) the not-so-great and in fact very-much-awful. A script this cleverly bombastic requires very specific handling to balance its humor and drama, and both Hoult and Fanning are luminous as the ill-matched new couple. But though Catherine has a distaste (quite rightfully) for Peter, she does have a heart for her new country. “I want a strong, vibrant Russia alive with ideas, humane and progressive, where people live with dignity and purpose,” she says dreamily. “Russia?” the Emperor’s advisor Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) says in a questioning tone. “It needs to be believable.” Catherine’s maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox)—a former noble lady stripped of her position—adds, “Just tell them … no one will rape and kill you and your children, and you’ll have some bread. That would be sufficient.”
In some ways, it might be a mistake for Hulu to have released all ten hourlong episodes at once, because The Great really should be savored. The way it charts Catherine’s quiet but brave attempts to take power by growing a voice at court and discovering new things about herself is a really beautiful journey, punctuated by completely absurd events. It’s strange and wonderful and a fantastically funny ride. But it will also leave you pondering the nature of sacrifice and real change, and the courage it takes to overthrow a despot. Huzzah. —Allison Keene
Network: National Geographic
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: It’s the right kind of strange.
The first herald of Barkskins’ charming strangeness is David Thewlis’ Claude Trepagny. Keep in mind that we’re dealing with New France (now Quebec) of the late 1600s—thus, most of the inhabitants of the town and surrounding areas are played by British actors with French accents. Some are a little outrageous, but it’s another sign that the series has just an edge of camp to it. Trepagny, however, has more than an edge of camp; he embodies it. He lives on the outskirts of a town that barely tolerates him, in a large stone manor house with an enormous amount of land he refers to as his “doma.” More importantly, he has a cane with a tiny skull on the end of it that he wields with abandon, likes to sing as he tramps through the woods, and prays to an old log and a bowl of hair.
The gorgeously produced series, based on the Annie Proulx novel, is sufficiently muddy, bare, and claustrophobic in its depiction of frontier life along a wild, untamed landscape. It’s also, rightfully, quite spooky. David Slade directs the first episode, and the atmosphere he sets continues throughout. There’s something Deadwood-ish here, something both raw and theatrical that makes Barkskins’ world so intriguing. It’s also, crucially, wryly funny at times. That tone doesn’t always mesh, but Elwood Reid’s series has my respect for taking big swings.
The wonderful but frustrating thing about Barkskins is that there are so many good stories being told here, but they overlap only glancingly so that snapping to another scene feels like changing the channel entirely. Also of note: while Barkskins is dark, it’s not grueling. The tales it tells are worth investing in, even though the final episode hardly feels like an end. Like the land in which it is set, there is so much more worth exploring and uncovering in this wonderfully surprising and often beautifully bizarre tale. —Allison Keene
6. The Good Fight
Network: CBS All Access
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
This Week: An early finale (because of COVID) closed the season out with the difficult task of taking on Jeffrey Epstein.
What is Memo 618? After kicking off the fourth season with Diane’s (Christine Baranski) trippy hallucination that Hillary Clinton actually won in 2016 (not, it turns out, as wonderful as we would have thought), the CBS All Access drama launched its season-long mystery of “What is memo 618 and what does it mean?” Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart has joined forces with a much bigger, much more powerful firm headed by Gavin Firth (comedy veteran John Larroquette at his smarmiest). The new firm is fond of gargoyles and, in a running gag, really likes their dogs. Along the way there’s the delightful return of divorce lawyer David Lee (Zach Grenier), the beloved nemesis of The Good Wife and Michael J. Fox’s conniving Louis Canning. Lucca (Cush Jumbo) has a new best friend she might not need in wealthy cosmetic mogul Bianca Skye (Chasten Harmon), and Julius (Michael Boatman) is finding that being a federal judge is not all that he dreamed of. Fret not! Diane and her fabulous statement necklaces are ready to well, fight the good fight in the search for the truth. Over two series and 11 seasons, creators Michelle and Robert King have crafted worlds rich in beloved characters and ripe with intriguing plots. Its smart humor zigs and zags throughout each installment. Like its predecessor, the series works as a political drama, an interpersonal one, and even as a case of the week. But more than anything, The Good Fight continues to provide the group therapy we all need to deal with the current administration. It’s the fever dream we’ve all been waiting for.—Amy Amatangelo
5. Legends of Tomorrow
Network: The CW
Last Week’s Ranking: 8
This Week: A meta homage to TV history brought timelines (and hearts) together.
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
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A winning retelling of a forgotten game show scandal.
In 2001, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was not just a popular program, it was a cultural icon. The game show, which originated in Britain in 1997, became a mega-phenomenon across the globe. As chronicled by the ITV miniseries Quiz, airing on AMC in the U.S., the show’s format was something special from the very start. The response to it was as well. Fans began talking with one another, scheming even to get in the audience and compete for a chance at the hot seat. And, allegedly, three of them conspired to “steal” the one million pound prize in an extraordinary manner: coughing. It was a major scandal, and yet, one that was almost immediately forgotten because the day after it happened, it was 9/11.
Of course, living in a time of coronavirus makes all of the coughing on the show feel especially tense, but Quiz—written by James Graham and directed by Stephen Frears—makes this reenactment reverberate emotionally as well. Weaving its story among three different timelines and perspectives, Quiz (running a mere three hourlong episodes) is fair to all involved, which is not a small thing when there is so much to potentially lampoon. The tone is light and whimsical from the start (cheeky even), because while this is fraud, it’s not necessarily life or death. The miniseries wisely lets its story speak for itself, without making fun of or being mean-spirited towards the eccentric but unexpectedly endearing couple at its core.
What Quiz is, above all, is an acting showcase. Matthew MacFadyen (Succession) and Sian Clifford (Fleabag) star as the otherwise ordinary, middle-class couple in question, Charles and Diana Ingram, who plot to get onto the quiz show. More accurately, it begins with Diana’s oddball brother Adrian (Trystan Gravelle) who—along with his sister and father—are pub quiz fanatics. But then things start to get tricky. As Celador producer Paul Smith (Catastrophe’s Paul Bonnar) says of the brand-new Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? format: “Everybody loves a good pub quiz, a uniquely British invention that combines our love of drinking and being right.” —Allison Keene
3. Mrs. America
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: An incredible finale that served as both a warning and an expression of hope.
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
2. The SpaceX Launch
Amid a weekend filled with social unrest, the SpaceX launch showed exactly the kind of American hope and optimism that should be available to everyone—not hoarded by a privileged few. Though the Elon Musk of it all does taint the outright celebration somewhat, having American astronauts launching from our home soil again (for the first time in a decade) was a major moment. Plus, the safe return of the launcher to a drone ship off the coast of Ireland was a next major technological step in lowering the cost of space travel. While CNN and ABC’s feeds were full of talking heads discussing the broader context of the American space program, NASA’s quietly triumphant (and far more scientific) broadcast on Twitch.tv was the place to be. With helpful graphics and full screens or splitscreens showing the astronauts (and later, cosmonauts!) who were gathering together in orbit as they explained everything that was happening, it was incredible to sit and watch and hear such a clear feed from space! What an incredible moment for America, made bittersweet by the reality of the brokenness being expressed on our streets. We as a nation have to do better, and the SpaceX launch showed that we can.
1. Killer Mike’s Speech
When events like the protests across the country over police brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd take place, there is never a shortage of commentary. But on Saturday, one voice spoke out with clarity, strength, and truth: That of rapper and activist Killer Mike. During a press conference, standing next to Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Killer Mike said simply “I don’t want to be here.” But he was there, and what he said—hard truths, with incredible passion and importance behind them—made his one of the only opinions worth hearing. Killer Mike spoke to the brokenness and to the hurt, never minimizing it, never inflaming it, but wearing a shirt that said “Kill Your Masters” while preaching organization. These messages were not in conflict. They acknowledged a pain spilling out onto American streets that could not longer be repressed. He gave the word, and it’s our responsibility to listen. —Allison Keene
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