It was a big (bang theory) week for television as the medium’s biggest drama and biggest comedy aired their final episodes. The TV landscape has changed so much since The Big Bang Theory premiered in 2007 and Game of Thrones premiered in 2011. It’s hard to fathom that we will ever again experience the collective pop-culture letdown that Game of Thrones provided in its final weeks. With the fractured nature of TV now, will there ever again be a show that many people watch all at the same time?
Even with the outrage, Game of Thrones dominated the TV discussion last week. So as we bid adieu to the dragons and the misplaced water bottles and coffee cups, the epic drama goes out at number one.
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.
The Spanish Princess, The Good Fight, Barry, Jane the Virgin, Killing Eve and Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Network: Disney Channel
Last Week’s Ranking: Not ranked
While tens of millions of eyeballs tuned in to HBO this past Sunday to watch one fantasy epic come to a close, millions of others turned to Disney Channel, where Daron Nefcy’s metal-as-heck animated princess vs. monster vs. magic vs. xenophobia fantasy epic, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, took its final bow. Originally a series about wayward teen princess Star Butterfly (Eden Sher) getting shipped off to Earth, where she and her new best friend Marco (Adam McArthur) fought monsters in between crushing on classmates and flailing through other awkward rites of puberty, Star vs. the Forces of Evil ended up being a deeply thoughtful allegory on the corrosive effects of total power (here, magic) and the moral imperative to fight hatred and xenophobia in whatever form it might take. As an animated series geared towards a kid audience, Star vs. the Forces of Evil couldn’t get as brutally, viscerally graphic as Game of Thrones, but what it had to forego in the way of violent sexual assault, bloody battles and ever-mounting body counts, it made up for in subtly complex existential horror—horror made all the more devastating for being candy-colored and full of butterflies and unicorns.
Sunday’s finale, though shorter than most fans would have liked for it to be, delivered an ending to Star and Marco’s journey that was both satisfying and earned. On a character level, it maintained the growth that not only each of the principles, but also all the key secondary players, had fought to attain across the show’s four seasons. More importantly for Disney’s target audience, it also put a bow on every lingering relationship arc, most critically between Star and Marco (#Starco forever), but also between Marco’s ex and her new French girlfriend, between Queen Eclipsa (Esmé Bianco) and the ghost of the monster-slaying mother who imprisoned her, and between Star and her own mother, Queen Moon (Grey Griffin), the latter who had spent the penultimate episode betraying Mewni in a way Daenerys Targaryen would have approved of. Plot-wise, it also tied off every lingering “how do we stop the destructive power of magic without losing ourselves” story the final season had set up, while not pretending, to itself or its audience, that the way Star ends up answering that question will dissolve the xenophobia pulsing just under Mewni’s surface, or will mean that there’s not more work for the characters to do once the animators put their digital pens down. But that’s the mark of a good story, told well: While we can be sad that we’ll miss all the adventures that Star and Marco get up to next, that they will be adventuring—and loving, and governing, and solving the universe’s Big Problems—isn’t even a question. Of course they will be. They’re as real as any metal-as-heck fictional characters ever could be, and we’re lucky they get to live on in our imaginations forever. — Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: 7
I’ve watched a lot of television whose nuanced self-possession has sharpened my understanding of what it means to be human but I genuinely can’t remember the last time I came out on the other side of a binge seeing the base tenuousness of the society we’ve made for ourselves with such terrifying new clarity. The Society, Netflix’s new high-tech, aged-up take on Lord of the Flies, manages the trick with a simple bus ride. Although teen television has been peddling in intensely dark moral allegories for decades now, it is difficult to articulate just how existentially devastating The Society gets, or how quickly. The Society gives its modern, existentially engaged audience a co-ed spread of hormonal high schoolers, left behind by a fleet of school buses that, returning from an aborted end-of-year camping trip, drop them off in the middle of the night in an empty, uncanny double of their idyllic New England hometown, where they discover the next day that not only is all satellite and internet connection to the outer world gone, but that all roads out of town end abruptly in impenetrable forest. The Society isn’t remotely interested in spending a lot of time on the whys or wheres of the teens’ new reality. The only thing it cares about is sinking into the psychological nightmare of a bunch of underprepared kids realizing not only that they’re all alone in the universe, but that it’s on them to make up and enforce all the boring, hard rules required to sustain a civilized society.—Alexis Gunderson
Last Week’s Ranking: 6
Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini) meet not so cute at a grief support group. Jen’s husband died three months ago in a hit and run accident. Judy’s fiancé died eight weeks ago of a heart attack. They develop a friendship over their mutual anguish and their love of Facts of Life (Jen is a Jo, Judy a Tootie). Before long Judy is moving into Jen’s guest house and a beautiful friendship is formed. Or is it? Netflix is keen on keeping the pilot’s big reveal a secret. I watched it with my husband and didn’t even let him know there was a secret and he still guessed it within minutes of the show’s opening. But no matter. The series, rooted in terrific performances from Applegate and Cardellini, is a fascinating mix of humor and pathos. The show deftly balances both extremes and pull both off. After watching the second episode, I have no idea what Dead to Me is really up to and that’s just the way I like it. —Amy Amatangelo
Last Week’s Ranking: 5
The co-star and co-creator of Comedy Central’s dearly missed Detroiters, Saturday Night Live alum Tim Robinson is equally comfortable on either side of the camera—he’s a fantastic sketch comedy writer who’s just as good of a performer, and who has carved out a unique and immediately recognizable niche in both. And he puts both skills to brilliant use in his new Netflix show, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.
Robinson is a master of embarrassment. His sketches tend to focus on two types of characters: People who tell small lies that grow larger and more obvious as they refuse to come clean, and people who are too irrational, confused, or stubborn to understand what’s happening—or refuse to understand because that would require admitting their own ignorance. This might sound like typical cringe comedy turf, but Robinson keeps it fresh by extending ideas behind all bounds of logic, resulting in characters or situations so utterly absurd that you won’t even think of comparing them to such cringe comedy forefathers as Larry David or Ricky Gervais. —Garrett Martin (Photo: Lara Solanki/Netflix)
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable mention
“All I Care About is Love,” the sixth episode of Fosse/Verdon and one that is directed by Minkie Spiro and written by playwright Ike Holter, seeks to remind the audience that none of us got enough love in our childhoods—or at least famed director-choreographer Bob Fosse (as depicted in this miniseries by Sam Rockwell) sure didn’t. His father mocked his talent as a dancer when he was growing up working-class in Chicago, but wouldn’t tell him to quit because the family needed the money. The middle-aged strippers who took his virginity in the back of the seedy dancehall where he performed laughed as they told him he was going to be a star. And his estranged wife, Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams)? She’s taking advantage of his brilliance and forcing him to make Chicago, their (he would say: her) long-gestating passion project of a musical.
Of course, this is a revisionist history and only person’s point of view. As the episode (and miniseries) suggests, Fosse was hell-bent on killing himself through cigarettes, prescription pills and insisting on doing both Chicago and his film, Lenny, at the same time right after a health scare. His insecurity at maintaining his fame and power were further addressed during the end of the episode when he coerced girlfriend Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley) into having sex in his hospital room while he’s recovering from heart surgery.
And who is left to put on a brave face while calming investors, handling hospital stays and protecting their daughter? Verdon, of course. And that’s showbiz, kid.— Whitney Friedlander
Last Week’s Ranking: Honorable mention
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, almost all women hate their mothers at one point or another, that is their tragedy. All mothers have to find a way of coping with it, that is theirs. Better Things star and co-creator Pamela Adlon’s Sam Fox has spent three seasons of her dramedy straddling these lines, both as the single mother of three children and as a daughter coping with living near her own aging, aggravating maternal unit.
All of this came to a head in the show’s third season finale, “Shake the Cocktail,” which Adlon wrote and directed. Middle child Frankie (played by the extremely talented Hannah Alligood) has ceased all contact and moved out over an infraction that Sam still isn’t sure about. And because she is the coolest mom ever—ask all of Frankie’s friends; they’ll agree with me—she suffers in mostly silence. Instead she opts to bring Frankie a peace offering of home-made chili while her other children help her cope and takes out her frustrations on a long-time friend (Diedrich Bader’s Rich).
On the plus side, these events helped Sam take her mind off turning 50 and her fears of kicking off early like her dad (Adlon’s actual father, TV producer and author Don Segall, died at 61). Oh, and now we know that Matthew Broderick, who plays Sam’s boyfriend/therapist, does a kick-ass one-word John Lithgow impression.—Whitney Friedlander
Last Week: Not eligible
As panic stricken bombardier John Yossarian, Christopher Abbott successfully takes on a role that was thoroughly owned by Alan Arkin. He’s convincing, equally so in dramatic and comedic moments (and there are plenty of both), and the direction takes good advantage of it, with ample closeups of Abbott’s large, dark, liquid-looking eyes as they perfect the thousand-yard-stare of a man for whom horror and idiocy have become the same thing. The supporting cast (including George Clooney as the parade-obsessed General Scheisskopf and Hugh Laurie as taste-for-the-finer-things Major de Coverley) is absurdist-perfecto, nailing the complicated balance of “real” emotion and farce. Production design is understated, a drab palette of khaki uniforms and dry bisque-colored Mediterranean landscapes; even the sky and the water seem subdued and desiccated, making the bizarre comedic eruptions stand out and the occasional moments of raw combat gore all the more shocking and bloody. Daniel Davis Stewart as the enterprising mess officer Milo Minderbinder and Lewis Pullman as the kerfuffled Major Major are also standout-funny. The episodes’ pacing is very balanced, so that we feel the endless repetition Yossarian feels without feeling like the show itself is spinning its wheels.
At risk of overusing the word “zeitgeist,” Catch-22 is a meaningful, enduring example of it—I wonder how many people routinely use the term “catch-22” without even knowing where it comes from? Probably a fair few. If you did have to study Heller’s novel in school, you probably learned that the term was of Heller’s own coinage, denoting a kind of paradox that paralyzes people in a bureaucratic insanity loop. The setting of the novel is the second world war; the novel was published in 1961—and the conundrum is all too eternal and has any number of disturbing exemplars in the present day. The number 22 is as arbitrary as anything the buffoons in Yossarian’s unit might come up with: Heller called it “Catch 18” and then “Catch 17;” the publishers thought “Catch 22” was more melodious sounding. Arbitrariness infiltrates every level of everything, as it turns out.—Amy Glynn
Last Week: Not ranked
After 12 seasons, Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Penny (Kaley Cuoco), Howard (Simon Helberg). Raj (Kunal Nayyar), Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), and Amy (Mayim Bialik) sat around the coffee table eating take out for the last time. In an overwhelmingly satisfying finale, TV’s biggest comedy said farewell with poignancy (Sheldon realized how much his friends mean to him), trademark humor, a fun cameo (Hi Buffy!) and plenty of shout outs to loyal fans (The elevator is fixed! Bernadette and Howard’s kids actually exist!) In a culmination of their life’s work Amy and Sheldon won the Noble Prize. But life for this close knit crew will go on even if we aren’t there to see it. So Raj’s search for love continues. And yes after years of saying she didn’t want children, Penny seemed quite pleased to be pregnant. But every series finale needs some sort of controversy. The farewell of The Big Bang Theory will be remembered as one of the best.—Amy Amatangelo
Network: Amazon Prime
Last Week: Ineligble
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
Last Week: Not ranked
Endings are hard. Unless you’re Breaking Bad. Or Halt and Catch Fire. Or The Americans. Okay, so a good ending isn’t impossible. But let’s not forget how great this show was. The four best battle episodes that have ever been on television. Characters you cared deeply about until they were killed off, keeping you on your toes whenever another character you cared about was on screen. Political masterminds always two steps ahead of their rivals until they turned utterly stupid. A flawed heroine who freed slaves until that moment in the final season she snapped. Did I mention really great battle scenes?
Game of Thrones ended with a whimper when we were all hoping for a bang, but I really did love this show. There were times when I proclaimed it my favorite show ever, and while this season has knocked it off the, ahem, throne, it’s still finishes in the Top 10. I was sad when the theme song kicked in, signifying that the end was near and there would be no new moments in Westeros (until the many spin-offs). I don’t want to be ungrateful. Game of Thrones and the books that inspired it have brought me a great deal of joyful entertainment. And I’m not going to sign a petition for the ending to be changed. But that will not go down as one of the great conclusions of a Peak TV show. I’m happy for Grand Maester Sam and Ser Podrick of the Kingsguard (though, that kind of seems a waste of his best talents) and Arya’s new adventures at sea. I’m glad the show that became famous for sudden shocking deaths of main characters delivered some happy endings. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss swept us along to a concluding season that felt rushed only to let the final episode breathe. But other than Brienne’s moment with the History of the Kingsguard , were there other scenes that will be remembered alongside the countless great ones the series has delivered? And for a final nitpick, why in Westeros did Bran make Bronn the Master of Coin? For making Tyrion promise a castle under the threat of a crossbow bolt?
So let’s forget the questionable choices of Season Eight and celebrate the best moments HBO’s gamble on fantasy delivered. We’re not here to bury Game of Thrones, but to praise it.—Josh Jackson