Paste Power Rankings: The 5 Best TV Shows Right Now, from Umbrella Academy to MuppetsIllustration by Christine Fernando and Soleil Collins TV Lists Power Ranking
The Emmy nominations came and went virtually and caused only a minor disruption of the Force (mainly from Baby Yoda), but what really stood out for us was Leslie Jones’ enthusiasm for the nominees. What would it feel like to be that excited about anything right now??
To be fair, there was an exciting live event this week. No, not the return of basketball, but the safe return of the SpaceX Dragon capsule to Earth after its astronauts spent two months in space. A beautiful sight to behold!
On TV, as new releases continue to be sparse, we saw four second-run series hit the airwaves and streaming: Frayed, an Australian comedy on HBO Max, UK series In My Skin and Maxxx on Hulu, and horror anthology Tell Me a Story on The CW (moving from CBS All Access). Like David Makes Man receiving a second life on HBO Max after airing originally on OWN, we at Paste are all for great shows getting increased visibility on multiple platforms. Parks and Rec, for example, is currently streaming on four (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Peacock).
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: Corporate (Comedy Central), Wynonna Earp (Syfy), Frayed (HBO Max), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC), P-Valley (Starz), I May Destroy You (HBO)
5. The Alienist
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: Luke Evans’ butt!
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
4. In My Skin
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: An affecting portrait of one Welsh teen’s very complicated life.
Those tuning into In My Skin expecting a poppy British teen comedy will need to look elsewhere—but not until you have first finished In My Skin. It’s not a difficult proposition: The series run five half-hour episodes, though features Welsh accents so thick that subtitles will be a must. But this brief, deeply affecting story defies expectations at every turn.
Another BBC acquisition for Hulu, one that originally aired in 2018, In My Skin follows the story of Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy), a misfit teen who has the weight of the world upon her. She lives two, and eventually three, separate lives. In one, she is caretaker for her unmedicated, bipolar mother. In another she’s a pathological liar trying to escape her real circumstances by pretending to be upper-middle class, and in a third she’s incredibly charming yet vulnerable as a popular girl starts up a flirtatious friendship with her.
Created and written by Kayleigh Llewellyn, In My Skin approaches familiar teen TV beats in naturally awkward ways, with its young cast nailing the discomfort and constant strangeness of high school. The teachers are sardonic, the bullies are gross, and everyone is always fearful that they are ugly and hated. It feels like a real school, and moreover, these feel like real kids. The gloomy skies and cold, damp weather only augment a seasonal sense of unease and longing that permeates teenage life (heck, often adult life as well). And while there are constant small trainwrecks all around, In My Skin manages to find earnest moments of triumph that lift it out of hopelessness. —Allison Keene
3. Muppets Now
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: It’s not The Muppet Show, but it’s still a treat.
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
2. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Ranked
This Week: An exceptionally emotional finale finds hope amid the trauma.
The HBO documentary series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark tells two interwoven stories. The first is of true crime writer Michelle McNamara, the late wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, who penned the New York Times bestselling book for which the miniseries is named. The second is of her subject, a serial rapist and murderer known alternately as the East Area Rapist and the Golden State Killer (among other monikers), whose acts of terror spanned a horrific 12 year period through the 1970s and 80s. Directed by Liz Garbus, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a powerful eulogy for McNamara using video and voice recordings, as well as passages from her book (read by Amy Ryan), to detail her obsession into this unsolved case—which eventually helped lead to an arrest, but took a devastating emotional toll on her.
To say that I’ll Be Gone in the Dark requires a trigger warning is a huge understatement, given the harrowing nature of the crimes and the very detailed discussions by survivors. It is clear from the start though that Garbus, like McNamara, is not interested in the personhood of the perpetrator (beyond bringing him to justice), but in illuminating the stories of those he terrorized. There’s almost no discussion of potential suspects or theories of the case before the final episode; there is nothing for viewers to “solve” here. Because of that, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark wisely removes one of the elements that plagues the true crime genre of fetishizing the attacker or his methodology. When he is revealed, his story is told briefly by the few family members willing to speak on record, but it’s still not really about him. It is about everyone he hurt coming to terms with the evil he wrought.
That is why, ultimately, the moment in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark that resonates so strongly is a scene of the survivors meeting and coming together. There they are able to talk about something that no one else understood. McNamara was key to all of this, not just in her research and writing that illuminated this cold case in a way that caused law enforcement to use new DNA technology to give it another look, but by creating something with her book that allowed these men and women to form, as one of them defines it, “a survivor family.” I’ll Be Gone in the Dark can be very difficult to watch; it’s haunting and incredibly sad. But that’s also what made it all the more moving, in the end, to see the survivors join together: bonding, smiling, and living their lives in the light. —Allison Keene
1. The Umbrella Academy
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: Because Klaus saying “what I am is sexy trash” is a mood
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
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