Paste Power Ranking: The 5 Best TV Shows on Right Now, from The Witcher to InsecureIllustration by Christine Fernando TV Lists Power Ranking
There were some excellent premieres this past week alongside stellar episodes of already-great series. But what is maybe even more interesting is how quickly one of the highly-anticipated premieres from the week before, HBO Max’s And Just Like That…, faded from the public consciousness. Granted, the show is pretty terrible, there are allegations against one of its stars, and then there was the Peloton of it all. But after a very-discussed (and derided) launch, the show just… disappeared. And it’s releasing weekly episodes! But hey, it’s tough out there—only the strongest TV survives.
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.
Honorable Mention: Dickinson (Apple TV+), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX), The Expanse (Amazon Prime Video), Landscapers (HBO), Hawkeye (Disney+), With Love (Amazon Prime Video)
5. Station Eleven
Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: A rare pandemic show you should watch.
The past few years have really pushed us to consider what the end of the world might look like. And in that sense, HBO Max’s new series Station Eleven, an adaptation of the apocalyptic 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, has unfortunate (or perhaps auspicious) timing. Who wants to watch a show where the world’s population has been ravaged by a pandemic, where characters suffer through what they have lost and debate if hope is a worthy investment? Who wants to inhabit a dark universe that feels just a branch away from our own?
And yet, the 10-episode miniseries pulls off an incredible feat: it is a masterpiece. The timing of our own pandemic escalates the horror and doom of the show, but also makes every emotional beat even stronger. Station Eleven’s pandemic is very different from our own: it is quick. In only a few days the world is forever changed, very few get to say goodbye. The series dives into this pain, and asks if parting is something one can learn to endure in a world that takes each character on their own path. For a series so inspired by the legacy of Shakespeare, it seems fittingly impacted by “parting is such sweet sorrow.” Station Eleven ventures to dwell on both the sweet and sorrow, that both can exist at once all the time.
While COVID-19 remains a fresh wound and Station Eleven is not for the faint of heart, it rewards the viewer by finding the artful beauty in a painful world. —Leila Jordan [Full Review]
4. The Wheel of Time
Network: Amazon Prime Video
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: We know who the Dragon Reborn is!
“The wheel weaves as the wheel wills,” and for Amazon Prime Video’s new fantasy series, it wills it quickly. Running an economic eight hourlong episodes, The Wheel of Time is a brisk entry to Robert Jordan’s massive novel series, which evidently contains 2782 distinct characters. Amazon’s version doesn’t have quite that many, not yet, but I can genuinely say that as a newbie to the franchise it took me several episodes and many tabs to understand what anyone’s name actually was. And yet, this adaptation—developed by Rafe Judkins—does everything it can to be accessible to viewers unfamiliar with the source material.
It doesn’t hurt that the fantasy beats are familiar: There is a battle between light and dark, as well as a Chosen One (the “Dragon Reborn”) who will fight to save humanity—or destroy it in the process. There are critters and creatures and a magic that can only be wielded by women, plus a cult looking to eradicate the use of magic, pretenders to the would-be throne, and a hellish army of darkness. Navigating all of this are four young adults (any of whom could be the fabled savior) shepherded by a powerful sorceress named Moraine (Rosamund Pike).
The Wheel of Time teases out so much, but whether or not it eventually fills that out—or if its surface-level telling of this story will lead viewers to a deeper connection with the series itself—is uncertain. For now, it’s a fun ride. —Allison Keene [Full Review]
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
This Week: “Were you out here last night eating dirt?”
Showtime’s new survival thriller Yellowjackets feels like such a breath of fresh air. The series is an intriguing mix of genres: part 1990s-set horror story and part modern-day mystery, with heaping doses of teenage angst and supernatural weirdness thrown on top. It honestly feels like nothing else on television right now, and though its pace is somewhat more glacial than its trailers might have initially indicated, there are moments where the tension—combined with our knowledge that many of these people aren’t going to make it out of this alive—is nigh unbearable.
The story begins in 1996 and follows the titular Yellowjackets, a New Jersey girls high school soccer team on their way to nationals. But when the private plane lent by a rich dad for the trip goes down in the Colorado mountains, they spend the next 19 months fighting to stay alive—a feat not all of them apparently accomplish. We know this because the other half of the show’s plot is set 25 years later, as several of the crash survivors (played by Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, and Tawny Cypress) find themselves visited by a nosy reporter aiming to write a book about their stories.
Ultimately, Yellowjackets is a twisty mystery that doesn’t easily give up many of its secrets, and grounds its story in a specifically female experience in a way that other series like this have never bothered to try. From awkward crushes and sexual double standards to character revelations driven by the fact that the girls’ menstrual cycles sync up… basically what I’m saying is that Lord of the Flies could never. —Lacy Baugher Milas [Full Review]
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: The penultimate episode shows how far everyone has come—and gave us a long-simmering showdown.
HBO’s Insecure has always been a show about growth while chasing fulfillment, both personally and professionally. In Season 1, Issa’s (Issa Rae) feelings of stasis at work and in her relationship led her to lash out and threaten the bedrocks of her life; the aftermath then put her on a rocky path to self-discovery, which is still ongoing.
Over the course of four seasons, Issa, her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), her on-again off-again boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis), and their circle of romantic interests, friends, and coworkers have evolved from lost and confused young adults to confident, successful people who have made inroads towards achieving their life goals. But as a show about Millennials, Insecure’s final season leans into this generation’s most incisive fear: why do I still feel so far from where I should be?
As the show enters its fifth and final season, these thoughts on at the forefront. It’s not uncommon to suffer from imposter syndrome, the feeling of self-doubt that tells you that you’re somehow unworthy of your achievements. But alongside these meditations, the fun parts of Insecure are still there. The parties, the one-line zingers, the hookups and relationship drama, the mirror raps, and the humanistic portrayals of complicated friendships still fill the screen with so much heart. It’s what the show does best: it shines a light on real people living their lives and dealing with issues in authentic and believable ways. Only now, our favorite characters are committed to growing from their experiences. —Radhika Menon [Full Review]
1. The Witcher
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Ciri Hive Rise!
“It’s a bit complicated,” a guard at the docks calls out to Jaskier (Joey Batey) about one of his new songs. “Took me until the fourth verse to understand there were different timelines.” That’s the kind of sly, self-aware humor that The Witcher once again brings to its layered fantasy storytelling. Showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich also made an adjustment after that Season 1 experiment; Season 2 has dropped the timey-wimey stuff, and instead sets a more linear—although still complicated—story that follows Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) and his ward Ciri (Freya Allen), who are finally reunited just as her destiny becomes clear.
Based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels that spawned an extremely popular gaming franchise, Netflix’s series remains both fully engrossing and fully ridiculous. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Like any good bard, Hissrich understands that both parts are necessary to tell a great fantasy tale. It’s also worth noting that Season 2 is a marked improvement over that messy, if enjoyable, first season. More episodic in nature, especially at the start, the series can now let us relish in everything that was previously established. That means Geralt traveling with Ciri—the Child of Surprise whose powers and lineage become more surprising by the day—mourning what he believes is the death of Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), and meeting up with more witchers at their stronghold in Kaer Morhen, including Geralt’s mentor, Vesemir (Kim Bodnia).
This excellent second season is a deeper dive into a rich world that shines in its focus on Ciri and Geralt’s relationship, and how that connection influences everything around them. Though there are plenty of things to quibble over from book to screen (or from videogame screen, although the show is expressly pulled from the page), The Witcher is perhaps best viewed and accepted as a fresh translation of an old fable. Redoing the same thing over and over again, exactly the same way, is boring. The Witcher’s interpretation of its original text offers up something new—and that’s refreshing, both within this story and for fantasy TV at large. —Allison Keene [Full Review]
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