The holidays are upon us, and so is a sea change in Paste’s TV Power Rankings: Several early autumn debuts that have appeared on the list repeatedly—including this week’s No. 1, the glorious season finale of Better Things—are coming to an end or going on hiatus, and the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas brings a raft of heavy hitters, from Godless (Nov. 22) to Season Two of The Crown (Dec. 8). By the time we return in two weeks—next week, we unveil our list of the 25 best TV shows of 2017—the rankings will look mighty different.
The rules for this 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 comprised 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, as much good TV is available right now.
black-ish, SMILF, Queen Sugar
Last Week’s Ranking: Not ranked
Look, I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t thrilled when This is Us started going down the road of Kevin (Justin Hartley) being an addict. It’s a TV cliché. As is the golden child who peaked in high school and just can’t get his life together. But here’s the thing—it doesn’t matter if it’s a cliché if it’s done well. And Hartley transcends stereotypes with his intuitive performance and brings a nuanced grief to Kevin’s angst. (Kudos to the make-up team for making Hartley look so awful.) The episode, the first of three that will focus on the siblings individually, showed how you can be unbearably lonely in a crowd and how external accolades can sometimes be more damaging that criticism. Kevin has yet to face his demons—from his addiction to how he handles his relationships to confronting his father’s death. His heartbreak as he realizes he’s lost his father’s necklace, the only thing he has of him, is palpable. “Number One” is melodrama done right. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)
Last Week’s Ranking: Not ranked
Perhaps you’ve never watched The Middle, writing it off as just another middling network comedy (see what I did there?). I cannot begin to explain to you how wrong you are about this funny, brilliant show. Eden Sher deserves like 1,000 Emmys for her consistently excellent performance as plucky middle sister Sue. But I digress. The comedy, which homes in on the joys, struggles and economics of raising a family, typically eschews politics. But in its final Thanksgiving episode, the series broaches the topic in a subtle, effective and poignant way. Stuck in traffic on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, the Hecks realize that a lot of problems could be solved if we simply got out of our cars and talked to one another. During these fraught political times, that is a message we all need to hear. My goal is to get everyone to give this amazing show a look. Give The Middle a chance. I promise you won’t be disappointed. —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: ABC/Michael Ansell)
Last Week’s Ranking: 6
Stranger Things Season Two is full of the same kinds of joyful moments of television that made its breakout first season so fun. If ‘80s nostalgia, plucky kids, pre-teen awkwardness, scary-but-not-terrifying monsters, goofy minor characters and emotional reunions aren’t your thing, I get it, go ahead and skip this one. But if you loved the first season, loved Goonies and E.T. and the John Hughes canon, you may find yourself binging all nine episodes in a weekend. The world gets a little bigger than Hawkins, Indiana, and the stakes get a little higher, but at its heart, six kids must face up to their monsters, metaphorical and real, to a perfect ‘80s soundtrack. —Josh Jackson (Photo: Netflix)
Last Week’s Ranking: 5
Lady Dynamite has always been a very easy show to recommend to some and a very difficult show to recommend to others. This is in part because of how successfully it melds the strongest attributes of its creators (South Park’s Pam Brady, Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz, and Maria Bamford) into one singular voice. If that voice speaks to you, its specificity often feels like a one-to-one connection. Returning after an 18-month hiatus, Lady Dynamite doubles down on these qualities while also cohering faster than the first: Season Two, which picks up on last season’s present-day timeline while flashing back to Maria’s childhood and forward to the future, has a real streak of optimism to it. Even with conflicts and mania looming on the horizon, it makes Season One’s peppy steps forward look almost fatalistic by comparison. —Graham Techler (Photo: Netflix)
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
Adapted by Sarah Polley from Margaret Atwood’s historical novel, and directed by Mary Harron with forthright shudders of psychological horror, this sterling Canadian limited series is a tightly constructed marvel. In Canada in 1859, “celebrated murderess” Grace Marks (the brilliant Sarah Gadon) submits to an interview with Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), and their ongoing conversation unearths a pattern of violence and trauma, which Alias Grace spins into a scintillating mystery, an intricate biographical portrait, a lushly appointed period drama, and a ferocious treatment of the distance between what “the world at large” deigns to call harm and the countless ways men cause it. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Sabrina Lantos/Netflix)
Last Week’s Ranking: Ineligible
Hari Kondabolu is no stranger to grappling with the negative aspects of the art you love (see: his excellent stand-up routine about falling out of love with Weezer). But in The Problem with Apu, a new, unsettling documentary that is at the same time both playful and personal, Kondabolu has much bigger fish to fry. The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon has been more than a thorn in his side and the sides of his South Asian-American colleagues in the entertainment industry. He is a genuine specter of modern minstrelsy that has lodged in the American cultural psyche and plagued Kondabolu’s interviewees—including Kal Penn, Sakina Jaffrey, Aasif Mandvi, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, Aparna Nancherla and many more—for their entire lives.
This should be an open-and-shut argument: Apu is an embarrassing racial stereotype voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria). But Kondabolu is coming at the problem from a different angle than, say, Kal Penn. Kondabolu, like almost everyone, loves The Simpsons and credits it with helping him recognize his own voice and identity as a comedian. As a result, he’s unusually nimble when it comes to anticipating the bullshit excuses of a stonewalling Simpsons fan that are unfortunately bound to be many viewers’ gut reactions to the premise of this movie and addressing them head-on. —Graham Techler (Photo: truTV)
Last Week’s Ranking: Ineligible
Future Man takes a bit to get going. It’s a series executive produced and partially directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, so it’s their brand of strange, silly, R-rated kids content (think of all the references in This Is the End) applied to time travel, the apocalypse, and other great science fiction subjects of (but not limited to) the 1980s. The pilot episode features Josh Futturman (Josh Hutcherson) completing the last level of his favorite video game, which turns out to be a recruitment tool sent from the future. This is a future run by perfect Biotics (a fear of anyone in any minority, let alone a loser janitor like Futterman), the flawed, human resistance to which is made up of a bunch of subterranean Mad Max machos.
This set-up is so tired that the show has to call attention to it, and the loser-done-good trope is as simplistic as you can get, but as the season progresses to the genre’s more exciting aspects (including the spectacular time travel episode “Herpe: Fully Loaded,” which manages to nail a racial tension/humor divide), it gives itself more chances to exhale and expand its weirdness. There’s a lot of fun to be found in the ridiculous “what-if” theorizing the show explores, especially as it abandons its fake-out “chosen one” premise for its time travel craziness, that make me even more excited for where it’s going. Starting with references to 1980s sci-fi and ending with a nod to Her (and Avatar), Future Man’s present is strong enough that it deserves to live on. —Jacob Oller (Photo: Brandon Hickman/Hulu)
Last Week’s Ranking: Ineligible
From a neon sign that reads “slay” and an eerie synth jingle to a painting of a dead man and a play about Charles Manson, Season Two of Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers’ superb comedy is littered with half-frightful, half-funny details; the episode titles (“Murder!” “Suspicion” “Obsession,” etc.) might’ve been culled from the poster for one of Hitchcock’s classics. Indeed, if the first season’s search for Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty) once reminded me of Vertigo, the second completes the connection: Dory (Alia Shawkat) and co. are the series’ Scottie Fergusons, unraveled not by the chase, but the capture. Shifting from mystery to (psychological) horror, and buoyed by standout comic performances from Meredith Hagner and the relentlessly funny John Early, Search Party is as witty and strange as ever. What sophomore slump? —Matt Brennan (Photo: TBS)
Network: The CW
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
With the sunny, theatrical inflection of “My Diagnosis,” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend completes its Season Three evolution into one of the best portraits of mental illness on TV. After an attempt on her own life, Rebecca (series co-creator Rachel Bloom) learns that she has Borderline Personality Disorder, and though there are struggles to come, the number offers a ray of hope for our heroine as The CW’s brilliant musical comedy embarks on the next stage of its development. We can’t wait to see what’s next. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW)
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable mention
There’s a moment in “Graduation,” a fittingly tender end to Better Things’ tremendous second season, that seems to be the episode’s (clearly telegraphed) “twist”: The moment Sam (series creator Pamela Adlon) reveals to her eldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), that her father has bailed on the ceremony. I say “seems” because it’s a sequence—tearful, frank, and ultimately loving, as Sam’s family and friends rally around her distraught daughter—that encapsulates much of what makes Better Things so striking, and it turns out to be not even close to the most breathtaking part of the episode. I’ve nothing to add to the sleek, surprising modern dance that caps off the season, except to say that it must qualify as some sort of empathetic magic. Just watch. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Beth Dubber/FX)