It’s been two and a half years since the last installment of the Paste TV Power Rankings. We can only imagine you’ve spent that time wandering in a television desert, relying on Xfinity’s recommendations or, god forbid, flipping channels. Okay, nobody really flips channels anymore, but we do hope this makes it easier to see what great new show you might be missing.
The rules 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 upcoming week—or, in the case of shows released all at once, it has to have been released within as many weeks as episodes are available (10 weeks for a 10-episode series).
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.
10. Mr. Robot
In its first season, talk of Mr. Robot was like one of those computer viruses its protagonist slipped into the zeitgeist; you heard whisperings of this new show that must have been only broadcast in an abandoned warehouse downtown. Soon it was completely unavoidable—break down and watch the pilot that was floating around the Internet or have your cousin who’s an occasionally employed network engineer write you off for good. But there was substance to the hype. It was tremendously fun to watch the mysteries, both technological and psychological, unfold in 10 taught episodes, led by Rami Malik’s Emmy-winning performance as our unreliable narrator. The second season couldn’t maintain the adrenaline and intrigue of the magical Season One, but the Season Three premiere shows promise, as Jason Rhode writes in his recap for Paste:
The noir is twisted rope-tight, and the cut-glass sharpness that drew us in the first time is back in full swing. The Dark Army is on the move, and so is our cast—after the car-chasing of the first and second season, each of the better angels seems to be at one another’s throats. That’s to be expected; nobody makes these kinds of stories without at least one double-cross. I can confirm that Internet favorite Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is still frayed at the edges and projecting bravado, and that Angela (Portia Doubleday) has the shell-shocked thousand-yard stare of the purposefully broken. And of course, Young Hamlet and his Ghost Father are still grappling for supremacy: Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) are as far along in their relationship as can be expected with the end of Our Capitalist World gunning down on them. I’ll skip the Wellicks for the moment. You want to know if the taste is still there, perhaps. The constant vaporwave air, the full-frontal sense of dread. I can confirm the mood is back. It is 2015 in Mr. Robot: in the room billionaires come and go, and talk of our lives one President ago.
9. Queen Sugar
You might not have looked to the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) for your binge-watching pleasure, but in that case, you’ve missed out on Ava DuVernay’s family drama set in the middle of Louisiana. The two-time Oscar nominee for Selma and the documentary 13th and director of Disney’s A Wrinkle In Time adapted the series from Natalie Baszile’s novel about two estranged siblings on a sugarcane farm. In the penultimate episode of the second season, family history that’s been hinted at is more explicitly revealed, as Ashley G. Terrell writes,
Looking at the Bordelon siblings from the beginning, you can see the contrast between Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) and her siblings, Nova (Rutina Wesley) and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe)—from the color of their skin to their lifestyle and upbringing. Since Season One, Queen Sugar has alluded to the relationship between Ernest and Charley’s mother, Lorna (Sharon Lawrence), as an affair on Nova and Ralph Angel’s mother, Trudy… Tonight’s episode, “Fruit of the Flower” (written by Dana Greenblatt), finally unearths the truth about the relationships Ernest had with these two women, giving Nova an epiphany about herself.
8. Better Things
With “Phil,” which focuses on Celia Imrie’s Phyllis—the mother of the series’ protagonist, Sam Fox (creator Pamela Adlon)—Better Things’ brilliant second season reaches a new height: So starved for connection that she resorts to stealing from the museum where she works as a docent and then steps into a hole in the sidewalk to regain her daughter’s attention, Phyllis suggests the loneliness of aging in stark terms. Imrie is a knockout here, even more so than usual, though even the strength of “Phil” is unlikely to mean that Better Things has topped out on this list. Pro-tip: Thursday night’s episode, “Eulogy,” is one of the year’s best. Set your DVRs.
7. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
While the number of comedians standing in the gap to call bullshit on all of the unbelievable and despicable words and actions coming out of Washington, D.C., has ballooned in 2017, nobody but John Oliver digs significantly deeper than the easy, easy, a-toddler-could-make-them shots our presidents invites to tackle real problems in our society and present actual, sensible solutions. The jokes are still there. But there’s a Robert Reich-level of detail and the unimpeachable arguments of a legal scholar to back them up. Last week saw him taking Equifax to task for both its security breach of all of our personal data and its handling of that breach, along with Harvey Weinstein’s heinous behavior and Trump’s potential sabotage of our nuclear deal with Iran. With John Stewart busy, um, growing a beard, Oliver is the biggest voice of reason in comedy news land, and his satire show is more trustworthy than most serious talking heads.
6. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Network: The CW
In 2015, co-creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna delivered one of the most original comedies on TV, telling the story of a successful lawyer fleeing everything she worked so hard to accomplish in order to chase a simpler what-if. Over two seasons, Bloom’s eccentric dreamer Rebecca Bunch has sought love and happiness in West Covina, California, that eluded her in New York. That came to a crashing halt at the end of Season Two, and last week’s premiere had fans wondering what to expect from a normally peppy opening musical number. As Bloom tells Paste’s Whitney Friedlander:
The first two seasons are something she’s telling herself and they’ve been really straight-forward. The thing that’s been really interesting this season… is a theme song that doesn’t play with what story she’s telling herself, but plays with the struggle [over] what to tell herself. It’s not as much a thesis statement as her trying to find what her thesis statement should be.
5. Vice Principals
The two-season arc of Vice Principals was originally conceived as a movie and filmed all at once. Karen Han makes the argument it’s the perfect show for binge-watching for this reason. She also proposes that the real hero of this Danny McBride and Walton Goggins comedy is Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Dr. Belinda Brown, the principal in this story of wannabes.
The first season of Vice Principals was one of the most remarkable things to come out of 2016, but it seems as though the show has largely been overlooked. The reasoning is evident enough: on a surface level, it looks like we’ve seen this show before. Even the marketing suggests as much, featuring Gamby and Russell, with Belinda nowhere in sight. But Danny McBride and Jody Hill (as well as executive producer David Gordon Green, who takes on directing duty in the second season) have a long history of sneaking cutting social commentary by in the guise of crass comedy, and Vice Principals is even sharper than their earlier work.
4. The Good Place
Somehow, everyone slept on the best new comedy last year, NBC’s The Good Place, despite creator Michael Schur’s flawless track record with The Office, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The show stars Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, mistakenly assigned to the exclusive heaven-like Good Place after a life of total selfishness. The 13-episode first season had more plot twists than M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Without giving too much away to those of you yet to experience the joy of another excellent Michael Schnur ensemble comedy, Season Two turns the first season on completely on its head.
3. Bojack Horseman
That BoJack manages to pinpoint the character of the zeitgeist and map a few of the ways through it is, for me, at the heart of its profound genius, always slipping, almost imperceptibly, from silver-tongued satire to pathos and back. As BoJack forges a relationship with the daughter he didn’t know he had (Aparna Nancherla) and cares for the mother he’s long wished to forget about (Wendie Malick), Season Four doesn’t forgive his cruelties—or anyone else’s—so much as suggest that cruelties are now our dominant form of currency, the payola that secures the White House for the wicked and Wall Street for the damned, the surest path to fame and fortune for the tiny few and destitution for the many. In BoJack, the backdrop to the characters’ familiar foibles—their unthinking insults, their unspoken apologies, their selfish choices, self-doubt, self-flagellation—is the even more familiar crassness of lobbyists, donors and campaign managers, of studio heads, ambitious agents, stars on the make; of cable news anchors, dimwitted columnists, “Ryan Seacrest types”; of a social order so inured to insincerity, whataboutism, political profiteering, environmental collapse that being kicked in the stomach starts to feel like a gift.
2. The Deuce
Since creating The Greatest Series of All Time, David Simon has maintained a fruitful relationship with HBO. Like The Wire, his fifth project for the premium cable channel lives at the margins of society, those scraping by to survive or taking advantage of the only opportunities they see. The Deuce is set in the Times Square of the 1970s, where pimps, prostitutes, beat cops, pornographers and reporters make sense of a world in which New York has just decided it doesn’t have any decency standards. The cast includes A-listers James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as well as The Wire’s Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (this time on the other side of the law from D’Angelo Barksdale), Chris Bauer and Gbenga Akinnagbe. But the show relies as heavily on its large ensemble cast like Dominique Fishback (Darlene), Chris Coy (Paul) and Gary Carr (C.C.), as well as musicians-turned-actors Black Thought and Method Man. A show about sex workers on HBO could easily feel exploitative, but Simon and co-creator George Pelecanos seem more interested in the stories of their characters than titillating their audience. Six episodes in, and the grimy heart of New York is full of humanity and their very real struggles.
1. Halt and Catch Fire
This was supposed to be the show that kept the Emmys and attention on AMC’s original programming after Don Draper set down his whiskey glass for the last time. And while it never got the attention of Mad Men, those of you who stuck with Halt and Catch Fire know that it just kept getting better as the focus shifted from Joe and Gordon to Donna and Cameron. As Matt Brennan said of last week’s two-part finale:
Halt and Catch Fire suggests that life is additive, not episodic—that no change, no escape, no reinvention can erase the one constant. It’s you: It’s your wins and your losses, your fears and regrets; it’s the relationship you couldn’t save and the one you still might; it’s the miracle you made, and maybe relinquished; it’s your obligations, your instincts, your heartaches, your hopes; it’s the understanding, built into the series’ bones, that there are no clean breaks, that “feeling weird is how you know you’re still here.” I suppose this is the reason Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers’ human-sized saga has strengthened each season, the reason the gorgeous, stirring series of episodes that cap off Halt and Catch Fire’s four-year run — “Who Needs a Guy,” “Goodwill,” “Search,” “Ten of Swords” — appear as if lifted to another plane. It is only in summation that we can calculate the series’ weight, because all of it matters, every beginning, every ending, even the middle that runs together, parts of a perfect whole.