Paste Power Rankings: The 5 Best TV Shows on Right Now, Thanks Largely to Jean Smart

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<i>Paste</i> Power Rankings: The 5 Best TV Shows on Right Now, Thanks Largely to Jean Smart

Jean Smart is once again Queen of the TV Power Rankings. Two of her shows, Hacks and Mare of Easttown, have dominated the list since their premieres. The truth is that every other show falls short simply because it does not have Jean Smart. She is the not-so-secret weapon that has elevated many a TV series in the last few years especially. More Jean Smart is something we need across the board.

Elsewhere on the dial, though it didn’t make the Power Ranking, the Paste TV writers were thrilled to see Toxic Toby thrown to the curb in This Is Us. We were also underwhelmed by the Friends reunion on HBO Max, not only because it was a huge waste of money and nothing new was revealed, but because it didn’t tackle anything serious. It was fun, sure, but in an age of accountability we need something more.

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: The Bite (Spectrum), The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers (Disney+), Gomorrah (HBO Max), Legends of Tomorrow (The CW)


5. Girls5eva

Network: Peacock
Last Week’s Ranking: 3
This Week: We need more people to discuss the concept of a New York Lonely Boy with.

Meredith Scardino’s series, which is also executive produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock—her bosses from Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—focuses on the four remaining members of a one-hit wonder ‘90s girl pop group. Thrown together then by a lecherous and demoralizing manager, they had nothing in common, no autonomy over their talents or their bodies, and no idea what they were getting into. They sang songs entitled “Jailbait” and “Dream Girlfriends” (which included lyrics like “We’ve got the kind of birth control that goes in your arm. And tell me again why Tarantino’s a genius”). Now Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Dawn (Sara Bareilles), Summer (Busy Philipps), and Gloria (Paula Pell) have all but been forgotten by anyone beyond a bored Wikipedia editor—until a chance at a comeback has them taking a second look at where they’ve been and where they’re going.

Girls5eva is a cautionary tale about the era of low-rider jeans and sateen “going out tops”; about a time when young girls were supposed to giggle when their boyfriends compared them to the women in Maxim magazine and didn’t flinch if their professors offered to buy them drinks after class. But it also has a special present for the Gen Xers, late Millennials, Xennials, and anyone else who groks with its commentary on aging and the frustration and rage one can feel over being ignored and underappreciated—especially the frustrations we have with ourselves for not being “better.”—Whitney Friedlander


4. The Underground Railroad

Network: Amazon
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: A television experience.

The 10-episode limited series, based on Colson Whitehead’s novel, is a fictional account of two runaway slaves, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and her partner Caesar (Aaron Pierre), as they traverse the American South via a connection of literal hidden railroads. Helmed by Barry Jenkins, the series is lush and atmospheric while never shying away from the atrocities Cora and Caesar are running from, most notably the persistent slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), who stalks the duo relentlessly.

Each episode plays like a chapter in their journey, one stop on the railroad at a time, and Jenkins is deliberate in his worldbuilding. Georgia and South Carolina and North Carolina feel like different countries with different rules for how to treat Black folk: slaves in one, members of society in another, and illegal to exist in the open in the last. Jenkins fills every location with its own flavors. The first time we see the railroad, it feels like a huge sigh of relief—a literal bright light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s easy for a slavery drama to feel suffocating or paralyzing, and there are parts of The Underground Railroad that are designed to evoke discomfort and stagnancy. But Jenkins’ composition also allows us to examine every side of the story, every perspective at play. The series is urgent even in its slower moments. There is a thudding heartbeat at the center, proving that despite the trauma at the core of the story, the series is about perseverance. And in it is a tale ready to be deemed a classic. —Radhika Menon


3. Cruel Summer

cruel-summer-mainNEW.jpg

Network: Freeform (Next day on Hulu)
Last Week’s Ranking: 4
This Week: The understanding of 90s teen culture is very on point.

I had to give up taking notes on Cruel Summer, Freeform’s new 90s-set teen mystery series, about 2,000 words in. That said, the very density that prompted me to get 2,000 words deep in a meticulous kind of madness before changing course is precisely the thing that’s likely to turn Cruel Summer into the internet’s next big generation-spanning hit. Truly, from its complex, triple-layered timeline to its compellingly intimate POV-flipping narrative structure to its viscerally accurate mid-90s details, Cruel Summer is custom-built to be an object of social media obsession.

In the one corner, you have Aurelia’s Jeanette Turner, who at any given moment is a sweetly awkward 15, or a recently popular 16, or a universally despised 17, and who may or may not be guilty of compounding another girl’s trauma. In the other corner, you have Holt’s Kate Wallis, who at any given moment is a universally beloved 15, or a freshly traumatized 16, or an acidly angry 17. In between them, you have a gulf of not-knowing—a not-knowing that at any given moment might come from one character’s inherent duplicity, the natural gaps in another’s first-hand knowledge of a situation, or the fundamental unreliability of memory even before intense emotion is involved. There are some truths that are more real for some characters, and less for others; some realities that are more tangible in one moment than they are in the next.

The likelihood that one girl is lying and the other telling the truth hangs over Cruel Summer like a thundercloud, but in giving the audience just one walled-off chunk of each girl’s side of the narrative at a time, the possibility that they’re both telling a story that’s true to them is just as present. In floating the mid-90s media’s take on Jeanette and Kate to the top of its story over and over again, Cruel Summer adds an important third perspective on the nature of reality, and all the ways in which it can be warped in the name of “truth.” —Alexis Gunderson


2. Hacks

Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: 2
This Week: Blackmail, ovarian cysts, a night out in Vegas, and an eye-bag refresher… what more do you need from a TV show?

HBO Max’s latest series Hacks follows 25-year-old writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) as she tries to get her comedy career back on track after losing her job due to a bad tweet. Her journey takes her to Las Vegas, where she reluctantly starts writing material for Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a comedy veteran whose life is much like the china she collects: beautiful to behold, but cold and empty within. Deborah fills her life with work due to the absence of a personal life, which she’s eschewed ever since her husband left her for her own sister decades ago.

The show is a traditional odd couple pairing. Ava is bisexual, a Bernie supporter, and a chronic oversharer—in essence, your classic media depiction of a millennial. Deborah is brash, saying whatever she likes regardless of how others feel, and surrounds herself with gaudy opulence. Over the course of the series, they realize just how similar they are. Both of them are career-obsessed, more than a little self-centered, lack a personal life and, in the words of one side character, they’re “both psychotic bitches.”

Smart and Einbinder deftly pull off this two-hander thanks to their respective talent and excellent chemistry. Smart is at her peak here, moving from hilarious in one scene to quietly heartbreaking in the next. Deborah can be truly unlikable at certain moments, but the sensational Smart plays her with such subtlety and warmth that you still care about her—even though she has live fish pumped into her man-made lake.

With a strong cast and some stellar directorial choices, Hacks is a necessary addition to your summer watch list. —Clare Martin


1. Mare of Easttown

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Network: HBO
Last Week’s Ranking: 1
This Week: The finale did not disappoint.

Is there such a thing as a sober, carefully considered obsession? If so, that’s what we encounter in the HBO limited series Mare of Easttown, a show that is ostensibly about a series of deaths in a hardscrabble Pennsylvania town, but is, in reality, about the heavy pain of being alive. The plights of our time are all on display in the series—poverty, depression, drug addiction, suicide—and the debilitating effects are handled with masterful subtlety. This is a Kate Winslet vehicle through and through, and for an actor once described as having the “soul and attitude of a jobbing actress, trapped in the body of a movie star,” here again we see her embodying a pained, difficult character who is not always sympathetic. As Mare Sheehan, police detective and former high school basketball star, she has suffered, and suffered, and suffered some more in ways that leave her defiant, sarcastic, and cynical, but too tough to be broken. It’s not an easy psychological space to occupy, but Winslet, looking appropriately haggard except in the rare cases when she decides to be beautiful—moments of hope that are almost more painful than the perpetual fatigue of reality—is more than equal to the task, carrying the show with all the brilliance you’d expect from somebody so talented. If you come to Mare for Kate Winslet, as many will, you won’t be disappointed.

There can be a nagging tendency, when depicting “strong women,” to atone for years of under-representation on the screen by turning them into invulnerable super women, conflating the two genres—drama and comic book—that should be kept separate. Mare stands out for its realistic depictions of this strength, highlighting not just the impressive resilience of its women, but the ways in which the need for this resilience takes its toll, both over time and in harsh, shattering moments. When those characters falter, or even break, it only serves to highlight that underlying strength; these are portraits written and directed by human beings with a deep understanding of how life works on the psychological margins. —Shane Ryan



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