With the exception of one bittersweet farewell, a raft of new series and seasons leads this week’s Power Rankings—from a docuseries that turns one of the 1990s’ most infamous scandals into rich social history to an afterlife comedy not named The Good Place and a fresh spin on superheroes. Plus, John Oliver is back for a sixth (!) season, taking on Brexit in one of his trademark deep dives. No excuse for the midwinter doldrums: TV is plenty exciting at the moment.
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.
Last Week’s Ranking: 7
Two young women make a comedy about middle school. It’s based on their own experiences, and they name the characters eponymously: Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle). Then they make a really interesting choice, casting their 30-ish selves as the 13-year-old principal characters, and surround themselves with a supporting cast of actual middle schoolers. The result is so excruciatingly awkward it probably out-awkwards actual middle school, which is no small feat. Erskine and Konkle absolutely hurl themselves into the roles, sparing nothing in their quest to anatomize seventh grade in all its disgusting, giddy glory. They’re hilarious, and there are moments when you entirely forget they’re adults. And then there are moments when that fact sticks out like a sore thumb and those moments are possibly the best, because they evoke the competing impulses of the age—to race into adulthood and to go back to the safety of childhood—with a kind of zany, surreal brilliance. These are young people for whom every single minute seems momentous and defining, and who cannot realize that nothing momentous and defining has yet happened to them. —Amy Glynn (Photo: Alex Lombardi/Hulu)
9. NBA All-Star Weekend
Last Week’s Ranking: Ineligible
It’s a bit of a trip to have the NBA All-Star Weekend roll in so close on the heels of Soderbergh’s subversively (I think?) anti-NBA (I think??) High Flying Bird dropping on Netflix (look, that film will take a dozen re-watches to understand in full), but even with Big Ideas about the Exploitation of the Black Athlete and the cold calculations of fat cat league executives floating around in the ether, watching the best men’s basketball players in the world come together to just revel in the game they love, and in the astonishing level of natural talent and hard-earned skill with which they all play it, is a damn good time. I haven’t been a basketball fan long enough to be able to qualitatively situate the 2019 All-Star Game (or the 2019 All-Star Dunk Contest) within the whole history of All-Star Weekends, but looking at how much fun everyone in Charlotte seemed to be having, both on and off the court, I don’t think ranking one All-Star Weekend against another matters. Besides, on top of the unbelievable athleticism currently being practiced in the sport (please see the bounce-alley-oop pass above!), the league culture being cultivated right now by this year’s All-Star team captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo feels, from a very lay perspective, like it is one full of goodwill, mutual respect and genuine, unselfish joy. And that, right now, is all I want.
Basketball, my friends, is good. —Alexis Gunderson
8. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Last Week’s Ranking: Ineligible
To kick off the sixth season of their Emmy-winning news show, host John Oliver and his writers went full Brit. In a detailed, pop-culture laden 21+ minutes—that’s two-thirds of the episode, mind you—the native Englander explained just how insane Brexit matters have gotten. This is done with reference to the Cranberries’ 1994 hit “Zombie,” which helps explain how the decision to leave the E.U. impacts Northern Ireland’s delicate place within the U.K.; a shout-out to a boy band of late Millennials who hope one member’s four pack will help this whole thing blow over; an examination of how the decision could tank the U.K.’s economy; and comedian Stephen Fry delivering a Winston Churchill-esque speech to suggest that Brits don’t need others to screw them over when they can do it just fine on their own. Oh, and it also taught me about Gogglebox, which is literally a TV show where you watch regular people watch TV. How has Netflix not adapted this yet? —Whitney Friedlander
7. True Detective
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable mention
Time is melting a bit in “The Final Country,” the penultimate episode of True Detective’s third season. Transitions among 1980, 1990 and 2015 are getting more abrupt and fluid. We even start in an unspecified time we haven’t seen yet, in which Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) drops a college-age Becca off at school. In 1990, though, time has stopped for Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy), who turns up dead of a “self-inflicted” gunshot wound with a strange typewritten suicide note next to him. Roland West (Stephen Dorff) looks understandably stricken; no one feels good about how their spurious interrogation of Tom went. At home, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) tells Wayne about the one-eyed man who came to her reading, and Wayne tells her about Tom. The whole thing’s a hot mess. By the time the filmmaker in 2015 asks him about whether they’d suspected foul play in the death of Tom Purcell, it’s tough to tell whether Wayne’s responses are sincere or whether he’s downplaying what he knows. —Amy Glynn (Photo: Warrick Page/HBO)
6. Miracle Workers
Last Week’s Ranking: Ineligble
The best way to make a TV show about religion, especially a comedy about religion, is to dive into it so thoroughly and so ridiculously that the episodes are filled with both jokes and unique, world-building gospel. Miracle Workers, somewhere between The Good Place’s offbeat, pseudo-religious charm and American Gods’ mythology of gods so human they’re in fact more deeply flawed, needy, and ridiculous than their worshippers, is a comedy that treats the celestial forces of the universe as a dysfunctional corporation. Series creator Simon Rich (the guy behind the eccentric, subversive rom-com Man Seeking Woman), who based Miracle Workers on his novel What in God’s Name, has found a cast that amplifies his adaptation’s assets while telling the story of a radical shift in how the powers of Heaven and Earth interact. And it’s funny. Really. —Jacob Oller (Photo: Curtis Baker/TBS)
5. Russian Doll
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
Netflix, if you’re reading this: Please don’t renew Russian Doll.
Renew Natasha Lyonne. Renew Amy Poehler. Renew Leslye Headland. Renew Charlie Barnett. Renew Rebecca Henderson and Greta Lee as hot mess hipster art friends ready to make parties across the Netflix spectrum that much spikier and sparklier. Renew Elizabeth Ashley as every Netflix heroine’s no-bullshit therapist (but make it fashion) mom-figure. Renew sharp, funny women directing sharp, funny women written by sharp, funny women. Renew that hair. Renew every damn thing about Russian Doll that helped make it such a brambly triumph of black comedy, macabre ennui and existential optimism. (Everything, that is, except Dave Becky in a producer’s chair—if Broad City can change precedent after four seasons, new series can avoid setting one altogether.) Just, please, don’t renew Russian Doll. It is, in the eight shaggy, smartly-constructed puzzlebox episodes of its debut season, nearly perfect. —Alexis Gunderson (Photo: Netflix)
4. One Day at a Time
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
I promised myself I would savor the third season of One Day at a Time. That I would space out watching the 13 episodes, treasuring each one. I would relish how each precious half-hour was simultaneously timeless and cutting edge. I would marvel at the series’ ability to be quietly groundbreaking. I would reflect on how it made Cuban culture at once unique and intimately relatable.
Instead, I devoured it. The series is so excellent and so compulsively watchable I couldn’t help myself. It’s like that old commercial for Lay’s potato chips: “Betcha you can’t watch just one.” In a seemingly impossible feat, the third season of this cherished comedy is even better than the two that preceded it—and the two that preceded it were pretty awesome. For its third outing, the series goes deeper on the challenges of modern parenting, addiction struggles, and living with anxiety and depression. It explores with great nuance what makes a family. It is pioneering in its ability to treat Elena’s (Isabella Gomez) same-sex relationship as a high-school first love, with all the drama and issues that accompany that regardless of gender. Justina Machado and Rita Moreno are, of course, reliably fantastic as the mother/daughter matriarchs of the family, but the season really gives Todd Grinnell, as handyman/landlord Schneider, a chance to shine. Alex (a terrific Marcel Ruiz) also gets a complex storyline, which is honest in its admission that adolescent issues aren’t easily solved. Now I’m off to watch the third season again. ¡Dale One Day at a Time, dale! —Amy Amatangelo (Photo: Ali Goldstein/Netflix)
3. The Umbrella Academy
Last Week’s Ranking: Ineligble
As a fan of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s comic book, I was a little skeptical of Netflix’s adaptation of The Umbrella Academy. I assumed it’d flatten out the comic’s esoteric edges in an attempt to make it more like other superhero shows. The first episode almost immediately calms those fears, though, revealing a series as weird and idiosyncratic as the comic. Imagine if Wes Anderson directed a Grant Morrison adaptation, complete with a mansion-spanning sad-superhero dance break to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” If that’s not your cup of coffee, maybe find something else to stream. —Garrett Martin (Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix)
Last Week’s Ranking: Not ranked
The Season Two finale of one the smartest—and yet largely ignored—series to come out of “peak TV” is unfortunate, in that it also serves as the series’ finale. However, while we don’t know what creator Justin Marks and his writers had in store for a potential third season, we can say that this episode nicely tied up a lot of loose ends in the story of a budding war between parties in parallel universes. Even ace covert assassin Clare (Nazanin Boniadi) and her formerly conceited husband, Peter (Harry Lloyd), appear to be heading into marital bliss. But the finale was not without its carnage, particularly with some delicious karma working itself out among the cunning Emily (Olivia Williams) and the diabolical Mira (Christiane Paul), and the no-longer-nebbish Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) and his agro clone. Counterpart is available on Hulu through the Starz add-on feature. Here’s hoping that it moves into the digital channel’s regular circulation, gets a bigger late-in-the-game audience, and becomes this year’s You. —Whitney Friedlander (Photo: Starz)
Network: Amazon Prime Video
Last Week’s Ranking: Ineligible
“The p-word,” to quote John Wayne Bobbitt’s urologist (of all people), is a microcosm of the case, itself a microcosm of its cultural moment. The discomfort journalists, police officers, attorneys, and, yes, doctors evince in the series, faced with the very word “penis,” anatomizes the political atmosphere in which the Bobbitts grabbed hold of the American imagination—and, indeed, our own. By the midpoint of the first episode, Lorena laces together patriarchal mores, the media circus, and the limits of the law into a damning portrait of a nation so ill-equipped to deal with the substance of the case that it turned instead to the adolescent humor of Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, and Robin Williams. In an archival clip from Jenny Jones, John Wayne’s brother, Todd Biro, claims that he’d have killed Lorena if he’d had the chance, and the camera captures a man in the audience, applauding vigorously, as the woman seated directly in front of him stares into the distance, bemused. Cut to: Surgeon General C. Everett Koop calling violence against women “an overwhelming moral, economic, and public health burden.” Cut to: Anita Hill testifying against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Cut to: the acquittal of political scion William Kennedy Smith in a highly publicized Palm Beach rape case, and, around the same time, the explosion of the Tailhook scandal, in which more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps officers were accused of committing sexual assaults during a four-day conference in Las Vegas. Down to multiple on-camera interviews, with the Bobbitts’ neighbors and others, in which the subjects describe their personal encounters with domestic violence, Lorena picks at the scab of “sensational” stories and finds a raw and bloody scourge. —Matt Brennan (Photo: Amazon Prime Video)