Paste Power Rankings: The 5 Best TV Shows Right Now, from The Alienist to Lower Decks

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  • August 11, 2020
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Recently at Paste we’ve been looking to the past and reconsidering some long-held beliefs. For one: did we too readily embrace binge TV? Wouldn’t it be nice if we all watched at least a few shows at the same time so we could talk about them? Perhaps the old weekly episode release model should not go out of fashion.

For those who grew up looking to talk show hosts like Ellen and Bill Maher as the pinnacle of liberal TV role models, it’s time to take a second glance at their legacy as well. More pointedly, as our own Lizzie Manno wrote, it’s time for them and their problematic ways to move on.

And apparently, ABC has been reconsidering some of their past stances, too. Yesterday, they made an episode of black-ish available on Hulu that was filmed three years ago (though could have been made yesterday) and shelved. At the time, the network thought it was too political. Obviously, it should have run then, and we’re grateful to have it now. Give it a watch, even if you aren’t typically a viewer of the show (it’s listed now as the final episode of Season 4 on Hulu, “Please, Baby, Please”).

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: We Hunt Together (Showtime), Indian Matchmaker (Netflix), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC), P-Valley (Starz), Frayed (HBO Max), In My Skin (Hulu), Wynonna Earp (Syfy)

Network: HBO
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: It’s pretty much impossible to be an influencer and stay true to yourself.

There may be few series as difficult but as important right now as Michaela Coel’s new 12-episode HBO show I May Destroy You. The Ghanaian-British creator and star explores the pain, confusion, and eventual road to healing regarding the rape experienced by her London-based lead, Arabella. Playing out as a series of vignettes, the season is tied together by a close-knit group of friends who must confront everything from their own biases to sexual crimes perpetrated against them.

Coel is taking on a lot here, and while the journey of these friends trying to make it can feel familiar, it’s coming to audiences from a new perspective—instead of young white adults in New York, we have young black adults in London. That distinction is important in a number of ways, and Coel also leans in to the Millennial nature of it all by showing Arabella’s obsession with her social media influence and ways she seeks to monetize without being exploited (which feels impossible). There’s also an early scene where a white casting director asks Terry if she’s wearing a wig, if she can wash it, and to please take it off to show them her “real” hair. The way Terry responds (hesitant, uncomfortable, and ultimately rebuffing) mirrors in some ways the moments of assault shown in the series. It upsets her but she tries to brush it off, much like everyone else responding to controlling or aggressive behavior.

All of this adds up to a weighty, ambitious attempt to wade through incredibly difficult subject matter, but one that also seeks to balance with earnest optimism and a desire for healing. There are many, many scenes of the friends just having fun, of getting annoyed with one another, of professing their undying love. That movement back and forth, to the past and present (to an imagined future), between feelings and experiences and traumas and desires, covers some of the series’ other uncertainties in ways that are both compelling and true. But more than anything, it’s a thought-provoking work that should make us consider our own relationship to trauma, experienced by ourselves or others, as well as hopefully this new cultural awakening to the many, many different kinds of sexual assault. —Allison Keene


Network: Disney+
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: A joy—and not just because Miss Piggy steals the show.

The relatively low-fi Muppets Now taps into pure Jim Henson art, leaving the explicitly educational focus of the Sesame Workshop for an entertainment experience that informs through tone and content. The Muppet Show wasn’t supposed to be just for kids (one of its pilots was titled The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence), but its bananas antics became a gateway to pop culture for many impressionable, starry-eyed show biz wannabes. Beyond the guest list of iconic actors and legendary musicians, the bevy of parody at hand eased kids into mainstream media with slapstick and silliness, from soap opera knock-off “Veterinarian’s Hospital” to “Pigs in Space” to Sam the Eagle’s ridiculous editorials.

Where Mark Hamill, Vincent Price, Elton John, and Diana Ross were once humanized and sillified by their foam-and-felt companions, RuPaul, Seth Rogen, and Taye Diggs take part in the media mélange of Muppets Now. And it still floats between the scenes and behind-the-scenes in a way that makes both more fun. That gives it a simplified 30 Rock feel (or Between Two Ferns, according to our Keri Lumm), where the ridiculous variety of TV genres (and the nonsense behind creating them) are brought down a few pegs.

Interspersed between hit-and-miss reality shows and celebrity chefs are bits of industry operation filled with references to having final cut, getting coverage, or punching up jokes. And it’s best when it all falls apart. Like the failures and trials of the Sesame Street stars, the explosive disasters of the Muppets—flecked with jargon shrapnel to separate the media circus from the regular circus—not only return the Muppets to their unpredictable and childishly dangerous roots (how far they’ve come from blowing people away in a coffee ad), but make them even more approachable. Nothing says “relatable” to kids more than making a mess and goofing off. The segments may have gotten a facelift and the lingo may have been updated, but the same addictive and attractive qualities of entertainment TV are being put back to use for something good—even if it’s not capital, brought-to-you-by-the-letter-G Sesame Street Good. —Jacob Oller


Network: Netflix
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: A loving lampoon of Gene Roddenberry’s hope for the future.

When Enterprise was canceled after four seasons in 2005, it ended an 18-year streak of various Star Trek TV series. But it would be a dozen years before Starfleet’s exploration of the final frontier would return to the small screen where it began. CBS All Access revived it with a trio of very different shows, the prequel Discovery; the follow-up to Next Generation, Picard; and now the animated comedy Lower Decks.

All three shows take great liberties with the optimistic vision of the future Gene Rodenberry revealed in 1966. Discovery hints at a more brutal beginning to humanity’s first attempts at interstellar travel. And Picard reveals that the ideals of Starfleet aren’t immune to a terror attack. But it’s Lower Decks, set just a few years after Next Generation that—for better or worse—most directly unmasks the idealized world seen through the eyes of the senior staff on the jewel of Starfleet’s fleet by focusing instead on the misfits whose jobs include cleaning out the holodeck filters. It’s hard to feel hopeful about the future right now, and that’s even reflected in how we approach our speculative fiction.

CBS tapped Rick and Morty writer Mike McMahon to create the series, and the Adult Swim show’s sensibilities and humor come through, mostly without the meanness. The staff of the U.S.S. Cerritos is certainly more flawed than your average Star Trek crew, but there’s still a lot more heart here than in McMahon’s previous work on Rick and Morty or Hulu’s Solar Opposites. Most of the characters love their jobs, and even slacker protagonist Ensign Becket Mariner (Tawny Newsome) is talented and capable if frustrated by the rigid militaristic structure of Starfleet. Lower Decks finds a lot about the long-running sci-fi franchise worthy of lampooning, but mostly it’s a fun, imaginative and clever look at this beloved universe from a very different perspective. —Josh Jackson


Network: Netflix
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: Still blessed by the optimism of time travel.

The first season of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy was a superhero series for those who don’t really like superhero shows, an exploration of family, failure and the pain associated with being asked to live up to a destiny you never asked for. For the seven Hargreeves children who comprise the titular team, their powers have generally been more of a curse than a blessing, and their resulting mental problems, various substance addictions, and general loneliness are proof positive of that. But this is a show whose whole is much more than the sum of its parts, and that is what makes all the difference.

Though the siblings seem to spend all their time running from the end of the world, the show never treats their efforts as futile. It never gives up on them, even when it occasionally appears as if they have given up on each other. And that’s oddly more comforting than ever before now, as the show returns for Season 2 amidst a real world that feels as messy and dangerous as any paradox that Number Five’s (Aidan Gallagher) time travel could accidentally create.

As usual, The Umbrella Academy soars when it’s about the relationships between our multiple leads, and Season 2 is particularly good about giving us new pairings between and among the main group. Yes, the show has multiple apocalypses, but it also never despairs. We literally see the world burning, but things never feel truly bleak. And though this is in the strictest sense a comic book adaptation, at its heart it’s really just a story about family, forgiveness, and hope. —Lacy Baugher


Network: TNT
Last Week’s Ranking: 5
This Week: A satisfying finish that was bittersweet yet hopeful.

The second season of TNT’s dark crime drama The Alienist, subtitled Angel of Darkness (after the novel of the same name by source author Caleb Carr), improves its storytelling significantly while maintaining one of the most interesting aesthetics on air.

A year has passed since the events of the first season: It’s 1897 and Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) is back as your great-great-great-grandpappy’s criminal psychologist AKA alienist. The blessings of history have sent Teddy Roosevelt (a weak link from last season) out of the picture, having been appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. That leaves The Alienist’s Ye Olde Mystery, Inc. firmly in the hands of its central trio. Intense, driven Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) now runs her own detective agency while timid, fidgety John Moore (Luke Evans) hangs on her every word, writes at the New York Times, and falls deeper into high society politics. The season wastes no time assembling the squad, which must solve a rash of baby-nappings.

Period props, along with various maps, photos, scientific instruments, and other tactile 1890s ephemera only enhance this visually-driven production, one that seems to give its lead a new, out-of-control hat and shirtwaist in every scene. The props are upsetting, the staging is nerve-wracking, and the shot choices are often unsettling. Angel of Darkness looks so lush you’ll think robber barons were behind it.

Flashes of police brutality and corruption in the news industry supplement a story of cyclical injustice and violence, but with so much going on, it’s easy for aspects to feel underdeveloped. However, I still wanted more. By pushing a more layered story to its limits and maintaining its exquisite art direction, The Alienist’s second case is starting to show gold beneath the gilt. —Jacob Oller


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