With the amount of TV available everywhere, it’s easy to become a jaded viewer. What haven’t we seen?
But the medium has a delightful way of surprising us. Whether it’s stealthy dropping an extended music video on Netflix or airing a live version of timeless television, TV last week was more amazing than ever.
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 six 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.
The Spanish Princess, Vida, Fosse/Verdon, What We Do in the Shadows and American Housewife
Last Week’s Ranking: 9
I’ve watched a lot of television whose nuanced self-possession has sharpened my understanding of what it means to be human but I genuinely can’t remember the last time I came out on the other side of a binge seeing the base tenuousness of the society we’ve made for ourselves with such terrifying new clarity. The Society, Netflix’s new high-tech, aged-up take on Lord of the Flies, manages the trick with a simple bus ride. Although teen television has been peddling in intensely dark moral allegories for decades now, it is difficult to articulate just how existentially devastating The Society gets, or how quickly. The Society gives its modern, engaged audience a co-ed spread of hormonal high schoolers, left behind by a fleet of school buses that, returning from an aborted end-of-year camping trip, drop them off in the middle of the night in an empty, uncanny double of their idyllic New England hometown. They discover the next day that not only is all satellite and internet connection to the outer world gone, but that all roads out of town end abruptly in impenetrable forest. The Society isn’t remotely interested in spending a lot of time on the whys or wheres of the teens’ new reality. The only thing it cares about is sinking into the psychological nightmare of a bunch of underprepared kids realizing not only that they’re all alone in the universe, but that it’s on them to make up and enforce all the boring, hard rules required to sustain a civilized society. —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: 8
Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini) meet not so cute at a grief support group. Jen’s husband died three months ago in a hit and run accident. Judy’s fiancé died eight weeks ago of a heart attack. They develop a friendship over their mutual anguish and their love of Facts of Life (Jen is a Jo, Judy a Tootie). Before long Judy is moving into Jen’s guest house and a beautiful friendship is formed. Or is it? Netflix is keen on keeping the pilot’s big reveal a secret. I watched it with my husband and didn’t even let him know there was a secret and he still guessed it within minutes of the show’s opening. But no matter. The series, rooted in terrific performances from Applegate and Cardellini, is a fascinating mix of humor and pathos. The show deftly balances both extremes and pull both off. After watching the second episode, I have no idea what Dead to Me is really up to and that’s just the way I like it. —Amy Amatangelo
Network: The CW
Last Week: Honorable Mention
After several episodes in a row of frustrating wheel-spinning, “Chapter Ninety,” firing on all the tenderly drawn cylinders it does, marks Jane the Virgin finally returning to form. Gone are the hysterical extremes The Love Triangle forced Jane (Gina Rodriguez), Rafael (Justin Baldoni), and everyone else in their orbit into; here to (hopefully) stay is the BIG-but-delicate character development Jane’s telenovela over-the-topness has historically made space for.
In a move that almost makes me think that Jane, too, knew it’d been off the rails for awhile, for much of “Chapter Ninety,” this return to form is extremely literal. As in, from Alba (Ivonne Coll) and Jorge’s (Alfonso DiLuca) hormone-propelled romance, to Petra (Yael Grobglas) and JR’s (Rosario Dawson) parenting-adjacent relationship processing, to the soapy deepening of Jane and Rogelio’s (Jaime Camil) father-daughter relationship, some of the series’ most recognizable emotional themes/visual storytelling elements (the abstinence flower! the animated wedding night sex sequence! the stoop-sitting heart-to-heart!) stage a triumphantly unsubtle return, while at the same time, Jane’s pilot script deep-dive leading to a “discovery” of the five-step formula for telenovela success—a formula our Latin Lover Narrator promptly puts into use to frame the remainder of the episode—gives us all the cheeky form we could possibly want. —Alexis Gunderson
Last Week: Not Ranked
Maybe this is a good time for a drama about Chernobyl. I mean, as it becomes increasingly tempting to give in to apocalyptic ideation, I guess it’s useful to remember that the apocalypse already happened, and not even that long ago (I was a teenager and remember it vividly), and we apparently survived it.
In April 1986, the reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in present-day Ukraine, exploded, leaving a large number of first-responder widows and a legacy of environmental annihilation. The incident and its aftermath are the subject of a new, five-part drama on HBO. Let me start by saying people with mood disorders should weigh the pros and cons carefully before tuning in: It’s possibly the worst thing I have ever seen on TV. And I don’t mean poorly done. (It’s unfortunately brilliant). I mean Chernobyl is devastatingly realistic and really, really painful, so be prepared for graphic depictions of what it’s like to die of radiation poisoning. Or what it’s like to be recruited to the task force that has to destroy radioactive housecats, milk cows and puppies. I literally couldn’t sit through the first episode. I had to watch it 10 minutes at a time.
The outstanding cast is led by Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Scherbina, a Kremlin apparatchik, and Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the nuclear physicist who makes the government understand they cannot lie and obfuscate their way out of a nuclear disaster. Emily Watson rounds it out as Ulana Komyuk, a Byelorussian scientist determined to find out what really happened in order to keep it from ever happening again. The production is HBO-grade excellent. The soundtrack is a testament to the terrifying sound of a chattering Geiger counter. Writer and producer Craig Mazin is relentless in his depiction of human corruption and environmental breakdown, and director Johan Renck gives Lars von Trier a run for his melancholic money. It is an anatomy of fear and incompetence and hopelessness and baseness and self-destructiveness. It is desolate and desperate and excruciating and horrible. Horrible. Horrible. And it should be. —Amy Glynn
Last Week: Not eligible
What are your feelings on monkeys? Were you traumatized by the Wizard of Oz as a child? Well The Hot Zone, which follows how Ebola arrived in the U.S. in 1989 and how U.S. Army scientist Dr. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies) and her team risked their lives to stop the spread of the deadly virus, is not going to change your feelings about the primates. Infected, in cages and crazed, these monkeys are the stuff of your nightmares. And the stellar six-episode miniseries, based on the novel by Richard Preston, is definitely not for germaphobes. But it will make you acutely aware of how easily deadly viruses can spread and how much we, the average citizens, don’t know. We are allowed to continue our lives blissfully unaware (for the most part) of how many pathogens lurk around us. The terrific cast, which also includes Noah Emmrich as Nancy’s husband and Topher Grace as a cocky scientist who quickly realizes his hubris has endangered himself and others, deftly navigates the scientific exposition with sheer terror. The entire production is the all too real horror story that we narrowly avoided. —Amy Amatangelo
Last Week: 4
As panic stricken bombardier John Yossarian, Christopher Abbott successfully takes on a role that was thoroughly owned by Alan Arkin. He’s convincing, equally so in dramatic and comedic moments (and there are plenty of both), and the direction takes good advantage of it, with ample closeups of Abbott’s large, dark, liquid-looking eyes as they perfect the thousand-yard-stare of a man for whom horror and idiocy have become the same thing. The supporting cast (including George Clooney as the parade-obsessed General Scheisskopf and Hugh Laurie as taste-for-the-finer-things Major de Coverley) is absurdist-perfecto, nailing the complicated balance of “real” emotion and farce. Production design is understated, a drab palette of khaki uniforms and dry bisque-colored Mediterranean landscapes; even the sky and the water seem subdued and desiccated, making the bizarre comedic eruptions stand out and the occasional moments of raw combat gore all the more shocking and bloody. Daniel Davis Stewart as the enterprising mess officer Milo Minderbinder and Lewis Pullman as the kerfuffled Major Major are also standout-funny. The episodes’ pacing is very balanced, so that we feel the endless repetition Yossarian feels without feeling like the show itself is spinning its wheels.
At risk of overusing the word “zeitgeist,” Catch-22 is a meaningful, enduring example of it—I wonder how many people routinely use the term “catch-22” without even knowing where it comes from? Probably a fair few. If you did have to study Heller’s novel in school, you probably learned that the term was of Heller’s own coinage, denoting a kind of paradox that paralyzes people in a bureaucratic insanity loop. The setting of the novel is the second world war; the novel was published in 1961—and the conundrum is all too eternal and has any number of disturbing exemplars in the present day. The number 22 is as arbitrary as anything the buffoons in Yossarian’s unit might come up with: Heller called it “Catch 18” and then “Catch 17;” the publishers thought “Catch 22” was more melodious sounding. Arbitrariness infiltrates every level of everything, as it turns out. —Amy Glynn
Network: BBC America
Last Week: Not ranked
The Season Two finale seems to be a funhouse mirror of the Season One finale: Instead of a cliffhanger ending where Eve has just stabbed Villanelle, we end with Villanelle shooting Eve. The color and scope of the photography (does it get any better than two charismatic actresses, a great costume designer, and Rome?) are fantastic. Individual moments—not just the dramatic finale but the conclusion of the Aaron Peel case (he’s a serial killer, of course) and Villanelle goading Eve into axe-murdering Raymond (the look on her face is priceless) and the revelation that Carolyn set up the assassination by manipulating Eve and VIllanelle into this whole crazy operation—are strong. Maybe so strong that you forgive the second season for not being the first season. Season Two never entirely recaptured the magic, but even if the jigsaw puzzle never formed a completely cogent picture, the pieces are still all arresting. —Amy Glynn
Last week: Ineligible
Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, aka The Lonely Island, stealthy dropped a 27-minute series of music videos about a significant run of Bay-area baseball. As the name implies, it’s loosely based on Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco’s late ‘80s run as the Oakland A’s home running crushing superstars. While they call it a visual poem, this is a mini-album in music video form, like what Beyoncé did with Lemonade but with dick jokes instead of boundary-smashing music. And although the idea seems absurd, it’s still absolutely fucking brilliant. Enjoying The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience requires absolutely no knowledge of the game of baseball. Lonely Island throws in bits and pieces of fact between their sex jams and rapid-fire rap verses, but it’s hard to tell when it happens. The reality of McGwire and Canseco’s lives in that time feels right out of the hubris soaked parody of hyper-masculinity that Lonely Island excels at.
Unbelievably, the group got the Oakland A’s to grant permission to use their archival footage and team logo, even as they croon and rap about steroids and sex. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers is equally vicious and loving, showing the two athletes as hapless idiots driven by smashing balls and trolling for women. But the characters are never losers, even when their overeager sex drives get in the way of a good time.
Canseco, played with explosive glee by Samberg, is an alpha jock, driven by winning and the spoils of winning, from drugs to women. Schaffer meanwhile molds McGwire into a timid sweetheart who’d rather go on a date with his mom than a groupie any day of the week. The dynamic is immediately clear from the opening song as Canseco croons his intro like he’s at the VMAs while McGwire merely says “and I’m Mark.” Discussing any more details would give away laughs and we aren’t’ willing to do that. What we are willing to do is let you know that the next time you’re on Netflix this should be the first thing you watch. You don’t even need to like sports—in some ways ignorance makes it even funnier. —John-Michael Bond
Network: Amazon Prime
Last Week: 2
In its long awaited second season, Fleabag, which unfolds in six delightfully perfect installments, remains as sharp and as witty as ever. Our heroine, still reeling from the death of her best friend and her culpability in what happened, is still struggling. “I want someone to tell me how to live my life because I think I’ve been doing it wrong,” she wails in the fourth episode. But living your life is difficult when you have a sister who blames you for all her problems (“We’re not friends. We are sisters. Get your own friends,” Claire tells her) and a father who gives you a therapy session as a birthday gift (which leads to a delightful cameo from Fiona Shaw). Fleabag cuts to the core of the female experience. Whether it’s Fleabag rightly explaining that how your hair looks can be the difference between a good day and a bad day or guest star Kristen Scott-Thomas, whose character receives a women in business award in the third episode, only to rightly decry it as the “fucking children’s tables of awards,” explaining menopause as “it’s horrendous and then it’s magnificent.”
Over these six episodes there are, among other things, miscarriages, a return of an iconic object from the first season, and an obsessed stepson whose mantra is “Where’s Claire?” The series succeeds because it never has distain for its characters and their tragic dysfunction. It never mocks them. It merely lays them bare for everyone to see. Martin’s stifling cruelty. Claire’s overwhelming unhappiness. Their dad’s desperation not to be lonely. The godmother’s narcissism as a cover for her acute insecurity. I don’t want to say too much about the relationship between Fleabag and the priest because the way it unfolds is so perfect and surprising and, in the end, redeeming. But I will say that Andrew Scott, who wears a priest’s robe very well, creates a priest that is fully realized. A real person who swears and makes mistakes but is still devoted to his faith. Their love story is one of salvation. —Amy Amatangelo
Last Week: Ineligible
There’s something uniquely special about live television. It has an energy and an excitement that’s hard to replicate. Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Wanda Sykes, Kerry Washington, Jamie Foxx and an amazingly star-studded cast performed classic episodes of All in the Family and The Jeffersons live last Wednesday night. Norman Lear, the man behind these iconic comedies, is 96 years old and the episodes themselves are more than four decades old. But their content is not only timeless but resonates even more profoundly in 2019. Too often today we avoid topics instead of confronting them head on. Archie Bunker (so terrifically played by Woody Harrelson) never did that. He said exactly what he was thinking, no matter how offensive it was or how uncomfortable it made people. Special shout out to Jennifer Hudson’s inspiring rendition of The Jeffersons theme song and the surprise appearance by Marla Gibbs, who reprised her iconic role of Florence Johnson. Live in Front of a Studio Audience beautifully brought the past right into the present. Let’s hope we see more things like this in our future. —Amy Amatangelo