Summer TV is in full swing as two long-awaited dramas returned for new seasons. But the women of Gilead and Monterey were not enough to knock Netflix’s powerful miniseries from the number one slot.
The rules for the power 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 composed 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. So much good TV is available right now!
Honorable Mentions: Claws, Jane the Virgin, Perpetual Grace LTD
10. Swamp Thing
Network: DC Universe
Last Week’s Ranking 9
Swamp Thing adapts dual sides of its comic character’s mythos. Some of the darker, stranger, more horrific elements of Alan Moore’s take on the character meet the supporting cast that preceded the writer’s tackling of the tragic mossy monster. The result is a fully-established community flecked with lurking evil, more akin to the supernatural “gravitational pull” (as one local puts it) of Castle Rock than most superhero TV. But Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) is concerned first with more worldly threats. She links up with out-of-town biologist Alec Holland (Andy Bean) to look into the same problem and some weird, accelerated plant growth.
The first two episodes are rife with sweaty swamp-town politics, a stark class divide, and some seriously grotesque effect work. With a lot of practical vine monsters and committed acting, exciting scenes (like one of Abby and Alec escaping a morgue) are delightfully gross and tangible—almost as tangible is the bad blood and old relationships between Abby and the rest of town. Abby’s position in the town is almost as important as the mysterious swamp illness plaguing it, which means her relationships (even her single day spent with Alec before he becomes Swamp Thing) are all given ample screen time. The cast of weirdos is begging for very weird, very Annihilation-style deaths. Ian Ziering’s cocky actor, Jennifer Beals’ snarky sheriff, Henderson Wade’s earnest cop, and Kevin Durand’s eccentric soon-to-be Floronic Man all steal scenes like horror movie victims can, making their marks early . . . in case they don’t stay late. Because the kills we do get to see in the first two episodes will make gorehounds proud, it’s worth watching alone for the promise of bigger, better, and more tendril-filled deaths.—Jacob Oller
9. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City
Last Week’s Ranking: Not eligible
Netflix’s new adaptation of (or really, fantasia on) Armistead Maupin’s series is a riff that takes its own mysterious direction, but it honors the books’ characters, particularly linchpin-landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) and uptight greenhorn Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney). The vibe is (for an update bent on respecting and reflecting contemporary social cues) strangely nostalgic, and that’s not a criticism. It works.
For those of us who call mythic, precarious San Francisco home, it wonderfully evokes a version of the city where everyone saw self-expression as a kind of Romantic quest, and where people could afford to live where they lived even if they were artists. Not everything in the series feels totally authentic to San Francisco but the overall sensibility is right: a little constellation of people are bound together not by blood but by common values and a wagon-circling mentality in the face of external forces. There are tensions between the families we come from and the ones we choose, contending with the thornier internal tensions between who we are in our hearts and who we are in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The series’ strengths include super solid acting all around; there is great chemistry in group scenes (a men’s dinner party takes a striking turn when Charlie Barnett’s 28-year-old Ben complains about the older guys’ catty and transphobic insults), as well as a deeply felt and interestingly articulated crisis for a young couple trying to stay together in the aftermath of one partner’s transition to male. It has a genuinely inclusive and celebratory character as a lovingly composed panoramic photograph of SF queer culture. And, it’s a more-than-decent evocation of the thing about San Francisco: its still-unbelievable gravitational pull for people who, in whatever ways, don’t conform.—Amy Glynn
8. Black Mirror
Last Week’s Ranking: Not eligible
As Black Mirror returns to Netflix in a sadly truncated Season Five (largely owing to the amount of time and resources that were dedicated to the choose-your-own-adventure stylings of “Bandersnatch”), the moment has come to once again consider the show’s legacy in a world that now also contains a new version of the program to which it has inevitably been compared since the beginning: The Twilight Zone. All too often dismissed as being some kind of pale Twilight Zone imitator, it is instead a natural refinement of the ideas Rod Serling’s seminal series once espoused. Like any anthology, its quality wavers from episode to episode, but its best works tackle truly relevant themes with an emotional maturity not seen anywhere else in the “hard sci-fi” genre. And the first episode of Season Five, “Striking Vipers,” is the ideal example of what it looks like when everything goes right for Black Mirror, ranking among the series’ most pitch-perfect achievements.—Jim Vorel
7. The Spanish Princess
Last Week’s Ranking: Not ranked
If you love historical fiction, then The Spanish Princess is the show for you. Instead of a typical Tudor story about Henry VIII, after he decides he wants to dump Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, this show shares Catherine of Aragon’s triumph. A story rarely told, The Spanish Princess details her happy years which, you may not know, were 24 years of marriage before her union was annulled. What makes this story particularly compelling is its intentional choice to use a diverse cast which is also rooted in history. While some might define the use of people of color in a historical fiction drama progressive, it is simply accurate. Chances are you have never seen this story of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon on screen, and it is well worth the watch.—Keri Lumm
6. The 73rd Annual Tony Awards
Last Week’s Ranking: Not eligible
Broadway and the joy of live theater came into your home as the American Theatre Wing honored the year’s best performances and shows. There were amazing numbers (I’m still in awe of the tap dancing in Kiss Me Kate) and James Corden, who kicked of the night with a delightful song and heavily choreographed dance, was a lively and humorous host. Jeff Daniel’s mock reaction to losing a Tony was also hilarious. The night had all the glitz and glamour (hello Billy Porter and your fabulous outfit) befitting an awards show, and because the winners are all used to performing in front of a live audience, the acceptance speeches were A++. But the night belonged to Ali Stroker who performed her show stopping rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” and later won for her portrayal of Ado Annie in the revival of Oklahoma. She’s the first actor in a wheelchair to ever take home a Tony. “This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena, you are,” Stroker said. —Amy Amatangelo
Last Week: 4
In its long awaited second season, Fleabag, which unfolds in six delightfully perfect installments, remains as sharp and as witty as ever. Our heroine, still reeling from the death of her best friend and her culpability in what happened, is still struggling. “I want someone to tell me how to live my life because I think I’ve been doing it wrong,” she wails in the fourth episode. But living your life is difficult when you have a sister who blames you for all her problems (“We’re not friends. We are sisters. Get your own friends,” Claire tells her) and a father who gives you a therapy session as a birthday gift (which leads to a delightful cameo from Fiona Shaw). Fleabag cuts to the core of the female experience. Whether it’s Fleabag rightly explaining that how your hair looks can be the difference between a good day and a bad day or guest star Kristen Scott-Thomas, whose character receives a women in business award in the third episode, only to rightly decry it as the “fucking children’s tables of awards,” explaining menopause as “it’s horrendous and then it’s magnificent.”
Over these six episodes there are, among other things, miscarriages, a return of an iconic object from the first season, and an obsessed stepson whose mantra is “Where’s Claire?” The series succeeds because it never has distain for its characters and their tragic dysfunction. It never mocks them. It merely lays them bare for everyone to see. Martin’s stifling cruelty. Claire’s overwhelming unhappiness. Their dad’s desperation not to be lonely. The godmother’s narcissism as a cover for her acute insecurity. I don’t want to say too much about the relationship between Fleabag and the priest because the way it unfolds is so perfect and surprising and, in the end, redeeming. But I will say that Andrew Scott, who wears a priest’s robe very well, creates a priest that is fully realized. A real person who swears and makes mistakes but is still devoted to his faith. Their love story is one of salvation.—Amy Amatangelo
4. The Handmaid’s Tale
Last Week’s Ranking: Not eligible
The third season of creator Bruce Miller’s Emmy-winning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel continues to be pretty gruesome and eerily prescient—this is still a world where the few remaining fertile women in what used to be America are rounded up to be systematically raped and anyone who objects to this new form of government runs the risk of being BTK’ed in the name of God. But it does offer more hope than last season. The first episode maintains the cardinal rule of televised storytelling in that it keeps a baby alive as Emily (Alexis Bledel) safely makes it to Canada with the infant Nichole. (She, theoretically, also has the power to go to the media and become the face of what it’s like in that dystopian hellscape). The child’s birth mother, June (Elisabeth Moss), doesn’t have as much luck when she returns to captivity after an ill-thought-out attempt to save her elder daughter. But the experience may have also taught her some valuable lessons about who is trustworthy and how she can game the system to save herself and others. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum—Whitney Friedlander
3. Good Omens
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
Neil Gaiman’s passionate fans can safely dive into this adaptation of Good Omens; since the author served as showrunner and handle the script himself, his vision comes through very much intact. The six-part series follows the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) as they team up to avert the apocalypse. It has sensibilities that recall the work of Terry Gilliam and the films of Powell and Pressburger. It’s funny, eccentric (sometimes downright hammy) and quite poignant, and it’s got a totally delightful script and a mostly amazing cast, including Frances McDormand as the voice of God and Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of Satan. But for all its virtues the standout feature of Good Omens is the incredible chemistry between Tennant and Sheen, who make sparks fly every time they appear onscreen together. Happily for us, that’s most of the show.—Amy Glynn
2. Big Little Lies
Last Week’s Ranking: Not eligible
Season Two of the HBO series, written by David E. Kelly and author Liane Moriarty and directed by Andrea Arnold, picks up about a year after the Emmy-winning first season as it investigates the fallout from both Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgard) death and the lie the women shared about its circumstances. Though Arnold follows the dreamy, fractured visual style that director Jean-Marc Vallée established in the first season, the tone is very different this time around. Season Two is about consequences, and though the series doesn’t lose its edge or satirical style (particularly when it comes to Renata), it’s far more meditative and melancholic than before.
Big Little Lies is at its best when it’s primarily a character exploration, and the caliber of its cast cannot be overstated. Though the series always has been a strange blend of trauma and satire, Season Two leans into the former much more so than the latter, focusing (perhaps rightly) far more on the dynamic Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and their interior lives. If the first season was about the women coming together, then so far this is about them falling away. That’s not an unnatural result given their shared trauma and the lie that will surely come out, but it does leave the narrative feeling unbalanced and fractured.
While it may lack some of the bite and urgency of its first season thus far, Big Little Lies is still an absolutely gorgeous series with a lot to unpack in terms of its complex women, the legacy of abuse, the makeshift families we form, and protecting one’s friends. There are several conversations in these early episodes about people who “want,” and women who “want” in particular. Each of the Monterey Five want for different things, but in this moment—in their lives that are full of convoluted lies and devastating consequences—most of all they want to know who they really are.—Allison Keene
1. When They See Us
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
Antron McCray. Kevin Richardson. Yusef Salaam. Raymond Santana. Korey Wise.
I will admit that up until When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s searing four-part miniseries, I knew these men as only the “Central Park Five.” That they were, to me, first the perpetrators of a horrific crime and later exonerated victims of a racist and rigged legal system. But you cannot look away from When They See Us or shelter yourself from the blinding truth. The harrowing episodes will leave you devastated yet in awe of how McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise came out on the other side of what happened to them to lead happy, productive lives today. The story itself is overwhelmingly powerful. But there are several key decisions DuVernay makes that turns When They See Us into one of the year’s, if not the decade’s, best programs. One is the casting of five relatively unknown actors to play the boys. The “Central Park Five” were 14-16 years old in 1989 and Marquis Rodriguez, Ethan Herisse, Jharrel Jerome, Asante Blackk and Caleel Harris not only look young but portray the absolutely vulnerability and fear that their real-life counterparts must have felt. The devastating fourth episode is a tour-de-force performance for Jerome, the only actor to play both the younger and older version of his character. In this traumatic hour, Jerome is nothing short of phenomenal. When They See Us is exceedingly difficult to watch; it cut me to my very core. When you see it, I’m sure it will do the same to you.—Amy Amatangelo