Paste Power Rankings: The 5 Best TV Shows on Right Now, from Aretha to Stanley Tucci's Italian Sojourn

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<i>Paste</i> Power Rankings: The 5 Best TV Shows on Right Now, from <i>Aretha</i> to Stanley Tucci's Italian Sojourn

First of all: No, we’re not going to talk about the Snyder Cut, which was clearly meant to be a TV miniseries but everyone was too afraid to say it. We know the truth!

Meanwhile, TV is… er… a little tepid right now. There are a few shows that we’re enjoying, but not many we would necessarily enthusiastically recommend (Call My Agent, which I snuck in last week, being an obvious exception). But the Power Rankings are ultimately about the best shows right now… and our list below (including our picks for Honorable Mention) certainly fits the bill.

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: Resident Alien (Syfy), For All Mankind (Apple TV+), Kenan (NBC), Snowpiercer (TNT), Beartown (HBO Max), Young Rock (NBC)

5. Back

Network: Sundance Now, AMC+
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: That Mitchell and Webb look…

In very UK TV form, Back ran for six half-hour episodes in 2017, and has only now reemerged for another six-episode second season. The first run found Stephen (David Mitchell) stumbling into a midlife crisis: 40-something and recently divorced, Stephen is thrown further off-kilter when his father dies suddenly and leaves him his pub, which he has no experience running. Just as he starts sorting things out, his long-lost “brother” Andrew (Robert Webb) arrives on the scene, looking to reclaim time with Stephen’s mother (Penny Downie) who had briefly fostered him in his youth. Charming, worldly, and everything Stephen is not, Andrew seemed bent on supplanting Stephen’s role within his own family. Except no one could see this besides Stephen; to his sister Cass (Louise Brealey), Uncle Geoff (Geoffrey McGivern) and others, Andrew was not a devious rival but simply a helping hand.

Stephen and Andrew’s rivalry is therefore always simmering in the background while other, more comedy-focused plots play out. The townsfolk, who are always at the local pub, are a collection of various eccentrics who are willfully and jollily ignorant of the world and the way things work. It’s a consternation to Stephen, who sees all things as they are and speaks with a fantastically articulated clarity that has become David Mitchell’s entire brand on and off screen. Back is at its best here and when Mitchell leans into Stephen’s wild-eyed paranoia while Webb placidly stokes the fires. Emotional resonance doesn’t arrive, though, until Stephen’s ex-wife Alison (Olivia Poulet) gets involved late in the season as the only other person who really believes Stephen.

Back is not up to the level of Peep Show or other more recent short, quirky comedies. It’s really more of a collection of ideas than a fully-formed series. But its cozy-caustic style hits just enough to be worth a short binge, if largely to hear Mitchell just create and repeat the phrase “hedge vodka” over and over again. —Allison Keene


4. Genius: Aretha

Network: NatGeo (Next day on Hulu)
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Cynthia Erivo is a treasure.

We’ve gone nearly an entire year without any major live music performances. It’s been hard, hasn’t it? There’s no salve quite like a burst of piano keys all at once, a silky voice stirring into a room, a steady drumbeat to parallel one’s heartbeat. Enter National Geographic’s near perfectly-timed Genius: Aretha, which offers a front-row seat to the life and art of Aretha Franklin, a role that’s executed exquisitely by Cynthia Erivo. Erivo also lends her own vocals to the role, adding to the wonderfully intimate, genuine feeling to every single performance. We may not have concerts, but now we have Aretha.

New episodes of the series are airing back-to-back on consecutive nights—this is not one to binge, though, and benefits from breaks. Even though Erivo and her protégé (playing Young Aretha) are fantastic, the show tends to droop when it comes to the non-musical storylines. Understanding Franklin’s familial relationships are key to her music and her life, but the layers upon layers of context can make some segments drag. This is a dilemma most biopics face, however, and Aretha largely makes up for it with a bevy of whip-smart performers and breathtaking melodic sequences. —Fletcher Peters


3. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Network: Disney+
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: What was meant to be the MCU’s first Disney+ series finally lands.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may kick off with a brutal, cinematic-quality action sequence, but that’s not really what sets the tone for the MCU’s latest superhero TV show—or at least, it shouldn’t.

More interesting is that, for Sam/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), their time with the Avengers has been a kind of extended military tour of duty. Now, Sam is trying to reconnect with his widowed sister and her sons, and save his family’s fishing business. When they go to apply for a loan, there’s a cheeky reference to “how do [the Avengers] make money?” with no good answer. “Isn’t there some kind of Hero’s Fund?” the loan officer asks. This and the general hesitation for the loan to be approved feels like a not-so-coded reference to very real issues and biases faced by veterans, especially BIPOC veterans. Meanwhile, Bucky’s issues are largely internal. He isn’t in financial trouble, but he has no friends or family. When his therapist tells him that he’s free now, he answers “to do what?” He’s 106 years old, has no history and no life, and finds the modern world overwhelming and alienating.

Whereas Wanda Maximoff was ensconced in her own world, TFATWS is very firmly in our own. (It also presupposes a much deeper knowledge of the Marvel movies than Wanda did, with lots of casual references to them and a lack of introduction for anyone else.) Tonally it’s along the lines of The Winter Soldier and the start of Civil War, at least regarding political jockeying and America-centric military issues. That’s both good and bad. On the one hand, the series could delve into some very worthy considerations of what it means to serve, to come home, to feel unmoored by a world that has moved past you; it could even reach Wanda-levels of introspection and emotional resonance regarding consequence. On the other, it could devolve into more of how this first episode starts: Call of Duty-esque mumbo jumbo, murder, explosions. That vibe has its place (like, say, innumerable blockbusters and more than a handful of network TV shows). But six episodes is not a lot of time to spend time doing both, at least not well. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will need to pick a side: for America’s sake, I hope it’s the right one. —Allison Keene


2. DuckTales

ducktales-finale.jpg

Network: Disney XD
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: A zinger of a series finale.

Disney XD’s gleeful reimagining of DuckTales made a splash when it first debuted in 2017 (we’ve long been on the record as big fans), but unless you’ve spent the intervening years keeping diligent track of Disney’s notoriously arcane episode release schedule—and/or you’ve had kids at home keeping one or both Disney channels on 24/7—it’s entirely possible you fell off the McDuck Family wagon long before last Monday’s supersized series finale. And that’s a shame, as the David Tennant-led adventure comedy only got bigger, funnier, and more sure of itself as the seasons wore on, the wacky one-off adventures Scrooge let Huey (Danny Pudi), Louie (Bobby Moynihan), Dewey (Ben Schwartz), and Webby (Kate Micucci) tag along on in the series’ early seasons slowly evolving into the more emotionally weighted (if still wacky) family adventures they started taking together in its later ones. 

Unfettered goofiness never stopped being the show’s lifeblood, of course (and I mean that literally—they stunt-cast Goofy in Donald’s pre-WandaVision take on an anxiety-induced sitcom world), but if goofy adventures were DuckTales’ lifeblood, the power of family—both official and unofficial—was its marrow. And that, exactly, was the point of last week’s massive finale episode, “The Last Adventure,” which found Webby’s big birthday bash devolving into a McDuck family spy raid on F.O.W.L.’s underground lair, which in turn devolved into a mystery that required every last McDuck ally—including Darkwing Duck and even the Rescue Rangers—to assemble for one, well, last adventure. 

More impressive than the Avengers-style final team-up, though, is the way the series managed to pull together what felt like dozens of throwaway details from the entirety of its four-year run and turn them all into something meaningful. Truly, your favorite adult ensemble drama wishes it could tie its many and tangled narrative threads up so easily, and with such an earworm of a theme song to send its fans off with, to boot. The only bummer part of “The Last Adventure,” honestly, is the fact that it marked the end of DuckTales, the series.

But even there, there’s a kicker: Starting Monday, March 29, the adventures of Huey, Louie, Dewey, Webby and Scrooge will continue in official podcast form via the Huey-hosted This Duckburg Life. Same voice cast, same creative team, same gimlet-eyed corporate vision of vertical IP integration. My friends: DuckTales is dead; long live DuckTales. —Alexis Gunderson


1. Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy

Network: CNN
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: Sicilia!

Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy is a six-part series that’s been airing on CNN since mid-February, a quiet blessing in a sea of other new series. Tucci explains the concept in the opening of every episode: “I’m Stanley Tucci,” he says, as if he’s welcoming us into his kitchen. “I’m Italian on both sides, and I’m traveling across Italy to discover how the food in each of this country’s 20 regions is as unique as the people and their past.” Sign me up. Throughout those six episodes, Tucci gallivants to Naples, the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Bologna, Milan, Tuscany, and Sicily.

Inarguably the best part of the show, Tucci spends the majority of his program admiring the many, many facets of Italian cuisine. Upsettingly, we cannot taste anything he stirs, sears, or serves, but Tucci does offer us a whiff of his delicacies. His narration whips a meal into words, so detailed that it’s nearly tastable. “Have a smell,” Tucci flirts, while inching a tub of Milanese butter towards our noses. Juicing lemons over crisped, tender Florentine steak… it’s easy to feel the meat melt in your mouth, even though it’s not actually. Sure, a TV show is a medium of entertainment based in listening and watching, but Searching for Italy has found a way to enchant every sense. In times like these, Stanley Tucci is keeping us fed, jolly, and well-traveled. 

Searching for Italy finds Tucci in the role he was meant to play: the Italian American wanderer, full of spirited reactions and excitement for life. —Fletcher Peters



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