Power Rankings! Summer Escapism Edition

2:42 PM 8/25/2017

by Tim Goodman

THR's chief TV critic ranks the escapist fare that will help ease the mental fatigue of 2017.

'People of Earth,' 'The Good Place' and 'Stranger Things'
'People of Earth,' 'The Good Place' and 'Stranger Things'
TBS/Photofest; NBC/Photofest;Netflix/Photofest

I think we can all agree that 2017 has been pretty stressful. Anger, resentment, insanity, nuclear threats, Nazis, terrible songs you can't stop singing.

Do you know what's harder to agree on? The escapist fare that will take you away from all of that. Seriously, figuring out what will ease such mental fatigue is some spicy-ass debate fodder. When I started thinking about "escapism" as a Power Rankings! choice, it got way more complicated than you'd imagine way more quickly than you'd imagine.

The easy part is there can't be anything really dark and depressing. But one person's dark is another person's Legion, which I could watch like a preschooler with warm cookies at my side. Obviously The Handmaid's Tale is out. Rectify is out. Great shows, but no. We need a bearable lightness of being. No crying — so This Is Us is out. It's easy to start tossing out the heavy stuff — The Americans, Happy Valley, Horace and Pete, Black Mirror (although to me it's escapist, as is Game of Thrones, which arguably should have been included), etc.

The series that kick-started this idea for me was TBS's People of Earth. It's perfect. Entertaining, clever, funny, engaging, different. The escapism idea then ramped up when I watched the first six episodes of Amazon's The Tick. In many ways, The Tick is the poster series for this list. But in many ways it's not, because so is Orphan Black and so is Stranger Things and they are decidedly different in tone.

I found myself saying yes to the scary parts of Stranger Things and no to the real-world tough stuff of Better Things, a series I love. Debating the components of escapist fare might be pointless because it's an almost indescribable vibe, which means there will be lots of arguing about what's on this list and whether the series here can transport you, temporarily, from dread to dream-like indifference.

That brings us to the difficulty in curating escapism. It can't all be whimsy. And it can't all be sci-fi or superheroes. And it most definitely can't be all comedies, because A) that's too easy and B) I already did that list for a separate Power Rankings!. But I will definitely be stealing comedies from said list.

Elements of all the above will be here. But just know that I debated whether Sherlock was too dark, or if the over-the-top element of American Gods made it escapism or an existential albatross. I sought advice from others and ruled out The Man In the High Castle (what were they thinking?) on one end of the spectrum and Supergirl on the other. It wasn't easy.

I had to rule out plenty of shows I haven't watched — like GLOW, which was No. 1 on the last Power Rankings! and seems like a slam dunk. (Catching up on shows will obviously add to this list, creating churn and the shuffling of spots.) Stuff that I don't have enough knowledge of but would otherwise be perfect — like Doctor Who — fell out. Inspired choices like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell were too old. I ruled out unscripted — which has great choices like Planet Earth II and Soundbreaking — because that brings in way too many options (and will likely end up as a separate list).

Not including too many comedies — the simple route — was in my mind at all times.

In the end, I realized this is the early frontrunner for the Power Rankings! with the most potential for flux and thus maybe the best rankings so far.

All hail the series that can hold down the No. 1 slot the longest. As you'll see below, there are two numbers associated with each entry. The number on the left is the current ranking; the number on the right was its last ranking. They will of course match on the inaugural list.

  • 1/1 — People of Earth


    Ian Watson/Turner Entertainment Networks

    Call it timing or call it genius, but some series have that indescribable combination of elements that block out all your stress, your unfinished tasks, your bills, etc. Those shows transport you somewhere else. That somewhere is Beacon, New York. Epicenter for People of Earth, inspiration for this list.

  • 2/2 — Detectorists


    Courtesy of BBC

    Are you harried? Frazzled? Visually transplant yourself to England and follow Andy and Lance (Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones), who don't do a whole lot of anything except search for things in the ground. I love this series. It lowers your heart rate. It makes you want to take up this hobby. It will probably make you want to get Acorn.

  • 3/3 — The Good Place


    Courtesy of NBC

    Arguably another perfect pick for this list, but the two above it hold dear places — stress reduction, unexpected joy, a lifeline from bleakness. So, too, does The Good Place deliver optimistic absurdity, with a twist of snark. Catch season one on Netflix now before the second starts in the fall.

  • 4/4 — The Tick


    Courtesy of Jessica Miglio/Amazon

    Talk about good timing. I loved the Patrick Warburton short-lived version on Fox, but this one delivers as well. The Tick is basically a beautiful idea for ugly times. Daring enough to be joyful and aspirational, smart enough to cut that with ridiculous good vs. evil bloodshed and bullets.

  • 5/5 — Broad City

    Comedy Central

    Comedy Central

    This might be the "well, duh, yeah" choice. Everybody needs Abbi and Ilana in their life. Weed, sex, foolish choices, randomness. And if you binge past episodes you just feel better about life, whether you smoked a bowl or not.

  • 6/6 — Bob's Burgers


    Courtesy of FOX

    One argument is that you could fill this entire list with animated series. Brightly colored funny stuff makes everybody feel better than, say, Nazis. But such a list would be cheating (also really long). And yet, you can't leave this gem off. How many times have you watched this and your shoulders came unstuck from your ears? A lot, I'd bet.

  • 7/7 — Brooklyn Nine-Nine


    John P. Fleenor/FOX

    Both this and Bob's made the essential comedy Power Rankings! list. Yes. And for good reason. I once had an editor who watched Cheers reruns every day at work, even when chaos engulfed the newsroom. Why? A classic rewards you, viscerally, spiritually. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is already a classic in my book (while also fitting the Power Rankings! rules, which Seinfeld wouldn't).

  • 8/8 — Orphan Black

    BBC America

    Courtesy of Ken Woroner/BBC AMERICA

    The first of the heavier shows. But escapism takes many forms, as described at the top. Orphan Black was a fine idea excellently rendered via Tatiana Maslany, inspired writing and non-traditional decisions. It transports without agitating, remaining captivating throughout.

  • 9/9 — Humans


    Colin Hutton/Kudos/CH4/AMC

    Even when series have tension, as most dramas obviously do, they need not always be emotionally taxing. I love how Humans takes a well-worn idea and seems completely fresh. Excellently drawn, engaging characters help a lot. When life gets crazy, Humans (and the faces of Gemma Chan, Ivanno Jeremiah, Will Tudor, etc.) can take you away for an hour without making you reach for a second screen.

  • 10/10 — The Magicians


    Courtesy of SyFy

    The "grown-up Harry Potter" tag might annoy some fans (and the creators?) but going to Brakebills College for a little magic distraction isn't that far removed from the joy everyone felt at Hogwarts. There are different stakes, different stories, but The Magicians is a gem you should seek out for solace.

  • 11/11 — Red Oaks


    Courtesy of Amazon

    Sometimes a period piece ferries your mind someplace else, whether you previously lived in that world or not. As a friend who smartly recommended this said: "All the joy of an '80s movie in a TV show." That'll work.

  • 12/12 — Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

    BBC America

    Here's a show you probably missed, despite the Douglas Adams connection. It is relentlessly weird, unexpected fun, with smart performances from Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood. "How did I miss this?" is probably what you'll say. It's a joy, so don't.

  • 13/13 — Archer


    Courtesy of FXX

    Beyond the obvious things that I adore here — the swearing, the anger, the incredibly smart snark and the voice of H. Jon Benjamin — once Archer decided not to be guided by any rulebook or even logic it became legendary. This is story-based, voice-activated distraction from people, tasks and news.

  • 14/14 — Stranger Things



    Not many people would say horror is a calming bit of escapism. There are plenty of scary bits in Stranger Things. But it's the indescribable mind-meld it creates in viewers that works. As the band Okkervil River once sang so intelligently: "And this film we once saw was reviled for its flaws/But its flaws were what made us have fun." That's Stranger Things. It works despite itself sometimes because it's got some magic. Magic is escapism.

  • 15/15 — Outlander


    Aimee Spinks/Starz

    Here's a more familiar kind of escapist fare — romantic idealism, romantic longing and, yeah, time travel. You put good looking actors together in a costume drama and start telling a ripping yarn and people will forget a lot about what's bugging them in life.

  • 16/16 — Into the Badlands


    This is old-school. Martial arts. Really sharp blades. Mayhem. Motorcycles. Buckets of blood and overly heightened drama. You don't have to work too hard here. It's just a non-stop rush with some mythology and blood. Have I mentioned blood? Slice and dice your worries away.

  • 17/17 — Patriot


    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    Now, you might say, hmmm, here's an outlier choice. But Patriot works because it's packaged as something familiar but rewires your brain about the outcome. Meaning, you think you know it, but you don't. It's quirky without announcing it. There's unexpected charm and sweetness where you thought a traditional drama might rest its head. I thought this was a lovely find in the drama landscape — a show that I wasn't expecting to take me where it did. Everyone's route elsewhere is different.

  • 18/18 — Sense8


    Courtesy of Netflix

    First off, yes, there's some anxiety and tension here. Big, topical, social issues. But holy hell, no series literally transports you to so many continents and cities, then back again, trippy and fun in the process. Once you get beyond that lovely surprise, Sense8 and its characters hook you. Yeah, it can be heavy and so it's not a logical pick, but whoa, this is drama as travelogue.

  • Out, In Peril and In the Mix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    OUT None.

    IN PERIL Prediction: This specific Power Rankings! will always have the most possible flux, so any number of these shows could rise, drop or be replaced.

    IN THE MIX Master of None, Westworld, pretty much any Marvel property but The Defenders for sure, Legion, iZombie, The Simpsons, Game of Thrones, South Park.