Is The Floor Is Lava the perfect show for 2020? Is it the kind of dumb entertainment we need to distract us from a global pandemic, or is it a kind of metaphor for the hotbed of intensity that has also defined this strange year? Either way, it’s not exactly worthy of praise, but since it is on everyone’s minds (and TVs, at least according to Netflix), it’s something to ponder …
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.
Harley Quinn (DC Universe), Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story (USA), Adventure Time: Distant Lands (HBO Max), Love, Victor (Hulu)
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: A corpse came back to life and stapled himself back together and we got an origin story of Christmasland and the band of cannibal children. What other show??
NOS4A2’s second season seems to be balancing its zanier plot points—like demon cannibal children who live in a make-believe world where it’s always Christmas—with a story of how to parent with unresolved trauma. When I started watching NOS4A2, I didn’t expect it to turn into a thoughtful treatise on the sacrifices of parenthood and protecting children from the horrors of the world. But now that it has leaned into exploring parenting and childhood from a variety of angles, NOS4A2 has gotten richer and deeper. With Vic (Ashleigh Cummings) naming her son Bruce Wayne McQueen and using the nickname Bats, and a villain that gruesomely dies and comes back to life, there is still plenty of fun and plenty of camp to make NOS4A2 a wild summer show—whose heart remains as sickly sweet as a sugar plum. —Rae Nudson
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: A a new 70s-action-series opening and fun character work continue to make this one of TV’s most underrated series.
It’s almost a marvel (sorry) Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has lasted as long as it has. Hydra has come and gone; the Inhumans have come and gone; even the inimitable Agent Peggy Carter (RIP) has come and gone. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., though—it’s held on. More than that, in its quiet way (quiet, at least, relative to the greater MCU), it’s thrived. The cast’s palpable family chemistry can be thanked for much of that—the paternal bond between Clark Gregg’s Coulson and Chloe Bennet’s Daisy is especially lovely—but just as important has been the fact that every season that S.H.I.E.L.D. has defied ratings odds and come back, it’s been to a completely different kind of genre landscape than it left behind. From spy vs. spy to mutant family drama to alien horror story, time loop apocalypse and long haul space adventure, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s greatest weapon has always been its ability to evolve, adapt, and keep things fresh.
But while each of the series’ previous six seasons have been plenty entertaining (the occasional episode rising, even, to dazzling), it’s only now, as it’s gone full-on pulpy time-traveling mystery/costume drama for its seventh (and final) season, that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has reached the kind of gleefully bonkers heights that have made other franchise oddballs like Legends of Tomorrow (of the Arrowverse) and Legacies (of the TVD-verse) so consistently fun to watch. Like, Daisy, Yo-Yo and Mack dressed up to blend in at a 1931 speakeasy run by a mustachioed Patton Oswalt? Please! How about Simmons infiltrating an Area 51-esque base circa 1955 dressed up as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Peggy Carter, only to be found out by Agent Carter’s own Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj)? Or LMD!Coulson getting knocked so cold he wakes to a 1950s noir world, complete with black and white graphics and a hard-boiled inner monologue? What about Sousa getting plucked from his should-have-been death in 1955 to go time traveling to the ‘70s with the rest of the team on the Zephyr, only to turn into a real old man yelling at clouds at his first sight of Daisy in bell bottoms, hacking Hydra with her tiny computer? Yes, yes, and oh heck, yes. Add in bespoke, era-appropriate title cards and/or opening sequences—detective noir; sci-fi pulp; 70s action drama—and you’ve got the kind of farewell season most series could only dream of.
Where—or rather when—the rest of the season will end up is anyone’s guess (although a quick glance at upcoming episode titles suggests a Bill and Ted homage might be right around the corner), but wherever (slash, whenever) it goes, it’s bound to be fun. And this summer especially, that’s just what Marvel fans need. —Alexis Gunderson
Network: HBO Max
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: TV’s most oddball superhero squad returns with a thoughtfully thematic new season.
From the first episode of Doom Patrol’s second season, the strangest superhero show on TV turns its already inward-facing gaze to the specifics of legacy. The show’s no stranger to introspection or even intraspection (where one or more of the Patrol goes inside another’s psyche, Magic School Bus-style), but over the course of the season’s first three episodes, the personal progress of its heroes is hindered and complicated by family that both threatens doom and offers salvation.
Niles Caulder’s (Timothy Dalton) daughter Dorothy Spinner (Abigail Shapiro) is the major new character among the oddball, R-rated superhero squad, after making her debut in the first season finale. A driving force behind these new episodes—just as she was during her part of Grant Morrison’s run on the comic—her psychic potential, foreboding power, and emotional consequence form the keystone in a seasonal arch built from resonant voussoirs and, at least at first, held together by the existential fear driving its selfish superhero parenthood.
Doom Patrol, perhaps the superhero show farthest from the idea that real problems can be solved by a powerful punch, takes a surprisingly scenic route to personal health. Its uniquely therapeutic text expands beyond the personal so that its characters can (hopefully) follow suit. As all the problems of these warped superhero families come to a head, the Doom Patrol’s archnemesis continues to be closer to one faced by Tony Soprano than Superman. —Jacob Oller
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable Mention
This Week: We’re into some interesting moral quandaries now.
The most unsettling thing about watching a show about a post-apocalyptic future during a pandemic is that even the most random details hit a little too close to home. At one point during TNT’s new series, Snowpiercer, head of hospitality Melanie (a perfectly cast Jennifer Connelly) asks one of the train’s conductors, “Do you remember fresh air? Do you remember going for walks?” to which he responds, after a thoughtful pause, “Rain. I miss the sound of rain.”
The premise for the series is that in the not-too-distant future, climate change has taken a turn for the worse, and scientists attempting to counteract the damage humanity has enacted upon our planet accidentally freeze the world instead. A supposedly forward-thinking “visionary” named Mr. Wilford predicts the coming disaster, and builds a train 1,001 cars long that will house all of Earth’s last remaining citizens, circling the globe without an end in sight. As is the case with society itself, the train is divided into various classes—first, second, third, and the tail—each defined by varying degrees of privilege and poverty. The story is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, originally published in 1982; Oscar winner Bong Joon-Ho adapted it into a star-studded, big-screen action flick in 2013 (see: Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, and Song Kang-Ho).
In place of Bong’s Hollywood action hero Evans, the TV series enlists Hamilton star Daveed Diggs as Andre Layton, the reigning leader of the mistreated “tailies” section of the train. Instead of a more straightforward rebellion pushing Evans’ Curtis from the tail to the front of the train, the series takes advantage of its multi-chapter format to present a complex web of lies, false identities, and complicity.
It’s important to note here that when Bong’s film was released in 2013, the world was a much different place. Snowpiercer, the movie, felt prophetic, like a warning of what could happen if humans continued to allow capitalistic impulses guide our decisions. But the TV series isn’t prophetic. It’s a mirror. What happens when there is less to learn from the allegory than from reality itself? When simile becomes metaphor? It’s not that the society we live in is like the fictional world of Snowpiercer; it’s that the society we live in is Snowpiercer. —Joyce Chen
Last Week’s Ranking: Not Eligible
This Week: An engrossing start to a difficult but fascinating journey of crime, obsession, and loss.
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
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