Maria Bello

And now, the main event. At least that's how Thursdays used to feel in past seasons. But according to the early returns in this new season's ratings race, Mondays and Tuesdays have their share of powerhouse shows as well, including the revamped Two and a Half Men and the delightful New Girl. Here's a quick overview of Thursday's programming strategies, with thoughts on tonight's pilots and some of the more notable returns.

Thursday in a Nutshell: Fox has officially planted its flag on this night, with The X Factor and (starting in November after the World Series) the durable Bones. CBS scored last season by moving The Big Bang Theory from Monday, but the feeble How To Be a Gentleman (premiering next week) reminds us how hard it can be to find the right companion piece. CBS' biggest risk: Moving CSI off the night to make room for the offbeat crime thriller Person of Interest. Look for The Mentalist, coming off last season's powerful cliffhanger, to continue to dominate, though NBC's Prime Suspect may lure away some of the procedural crowd. On ABC, Grey's Anatomy remains the jewel in a tarnished crown, stranded between the moronic Charlie's Angels reboot and the insipid Private Practice. NBC's comedies nicely fulfill the cult quota, though the shrill Whitney stands out in all the wrong ways. And the CW's The Vampire Diaries is the night's guiltiest pleasure, unfortunately saddled with a virtual clone in The Secret Circle.

Want more fall TV news? Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!

Moving on to tonight's series premieres:

Think MTV — as in, "mute your TV" — if you're inclined to check out ABC's laughable remake of Charlie's Angels (8/7c). My Fall Preview take: "The devil is in the details of TV's latest uninspired reboot. Acting and writing? Mere afterthoughts in this noisy misfire. Even the casting lacks those essential star-is-born Farrah-mones. It's like a USA Network show after a lobotomy." To elaborate: Blech. There's plenty of competition this season, but in an Emmy magazine critics' poll, I ranked Angels as this fall's worst show. It's not just a lazy idea, it's atrociously executed, pathetically acted and cynically conceived. The tweaked premise turns the title trio into reformed bad girls, which is way beyond this cast's emotional range. With clumsily staged catfights and all the dramatic tension of a car wash, this joyless retread is best watched for visuals alone. Because when one of the Angels, grieving over the loss of one of their team, emotes, "I never thought my heart could hurt this much," I kind of felt the same about my ears.

Angels is a textbook case of inadvertent comedy, but it's almost worse when a show thinks it's funnier than it is. My Fall Preview two cents on NBC's Whitney (9:30/8:30c): "Like the noisy neighbor you want to keep shushing, the brash Whitney and its hyperactive laugh track are tonal misfits on NBC's night of higher-brow humor. (Why isn't Up All Night on Thursday?) The star's abrasively kooky shtick often feels like a stand-up working out her material." To elaborate: Do not expect a repeat of New Girl's breakout performance this week where Whitney is concerned. Adorable is not a word that readily comes to mind when describing the frantically annoying character Whitney Cummings plays here. Relying heavily on sex talk and slapstick, Whitney is the kind of show where less funny people surround the star, always commenting on her zany actions. As her long-suffering longtime boyfriend says after Whitney tries her best to wreck a wedding, "Wow, you're on fire tonight. What are you closing with, blackface?" If only Whitney were on fire. More like a fire sale on desperate humor.

Thankfully, Thursday's new dramas (Charlie's Angels doesn't count) raise the bar a little higher. My Fall Preview take on CBS' Person of Interest (9/8c): "Color me interested — and intrigued. This is the rare crime drama that revels in actual mystery, its dark, paranoid tone embodied by two damaged heroes. Michael Emerson's aura of inscrutability is well-matched with Jim Caviezel's whispery, explosive intensity. I don't always understand what they're doing, but I'm hooked." To elaborate: The mood in this who'll-do-it from J.J. Abrams' camp is less that of a formula procedural than of a high-tech thriller, as mysterious billionaire Emerson enlists a vigilante former special agent (Caviezel) to avert crimes that haven't yet occurred, using special software to target "persons of interest" — whether they're about to be the victim or the villain is never quite clear. Taraji P. Henson adds a Fugitive angle as an NYPD detective on Caviezel's trail. CBS believes so much in this show, they moved CSI to Wednesdays to make room for it. One of the season's more interesting questions is whether this gambit will pay off.

A show by any other name would be less objectionable. In Fall Preview, I wrote of NBC's Prime Suspect (10/9c): "This otherwise solid whodunit will never approach the dark ambitions of the British classic, so why call it Prime Suspect? Maria Bello, however, shines as the pugnacious detective standing up to a cartoonish crew of Neanderthals at work." To elaborate: No show is going to live up to comparisons to the brilliant original Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren in a career-defining role as the groundbreaking yet deeply flawed Jane Tennison. (The original series has been released on DVD by Acorn Media and is well worth discovering.) As Jane Timoney, whose main vice is smoking — and a reliance on a particularly unflattering hat — Bello is scrappy and intuitive, combative and fun to watch in action, but her demons are mostly external, as she takes on a "beef trust" of grotesquely overt sexist pigs at work who act like they've never seen a lady cop. This on a network that has showcased the exploits of Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson for more than a decade. It feels awfully dated, except when Bello takes matters in her own hands to keep things fresh.

Returning Favorites: The odd duck out at this year's Emmys from NBC's Thursday comedy lineup, Community (8/7c) is as gloriously deranged as ever as it kicks off its third season with a musical number that promises, "We're gonna have more fun and be less weird," which almost instantly proves to be untrue. Thankfully. As Jeff clashes with the new ex-con biology prof (Michael K. Williams from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, inspired casting) and Dean Pelton crosses swords with the vice dean from the profitable Air Conditioning Repair annex (John Goodman, also inspired), the surreal shenanigans are as intoxicating as monkey knockout gas (don't ask, just watch). Best gag: Abed's reaction to Cougar Town's programming woes, which prompts an homage to a certain award-winning British miniseries. This is such a smart, and ultimately endearing, labor of lunacy.

It's followed by the return of Parks and Recreation (8:30/7:30c), which finds Ron on the run from ex-wife Tammy One (a severe Patricia Clarkson) and Leslie in a pickle, worrying how she'll break the news to Ben that her newly ignited political ambitions could mean the end of their career-threatening office romance. But that's not the only scandal afoot. Wait till you hear what Rob Lowe considers "the ears of the genital system." (But what's with his floppy hair this season?)

While Desperate Housewives prepares to wobble to the finish line this season, ABC's Grey's Anatomy (9/8c) appears relatively robust in its eighth year, with an emotionally charged two-hour premiere that uses a treacherous sinkhole as the metaphor-of-the-week for the unhappy current state of affairs between Derek and Meredith on one hand and Cristina and Owen on the other. Neither couple is on speaking terms, with Meredith suffering fallout for having wrecked her husband's Alzheimer's trial (on behalf of the chief's wife) and Cristina still wavering on whether to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. It's a very baby-centric night at Seattle Grace. Not to mention that the fifth-year residents are all acting like children, shunning Alex for having ratted on Meredith and refusing to listen to April as she haplessly takes the chief resident's reins. The comedy is a bit forced, but Grey's still knows how to go for the emotional jugular when it needs to.

So what else is on? ... For those who can't get enough of this unfortunate story, Dr. Phil (syndicated, check local listings) sits down with Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' Taylor Armstrong for an exclusive interview, discussing the turbulent marriage (played out on TV) that ended with the suicide of her estranged husband. ... Dunder Mifflin welcomes James Spader to The Office (NBC, 9/8c) as the new CEO, but it's hardly a celebration when the staff sees that he's put their names on an unexplained list, igniting even more paranoia than usual. ... Patrick Jane spends the fourth-season opener of The Mentalist (CBS, 10/9c) in prison for last season's cliffhanger shooting of Red John — or was that really him? Meanwhile, Van Pelt is in hardly better shape following the death of her dirty-cop fiancé from the same eventful episode. ... Earlier in the night, the Emmy-winning The Big Bang Theory (8/7c) returns with back-to-back episodes. In the first, the boys play paintball while Penny copes with the fallout of her misbegotten night with Raj. In the second, Sheldon and Penny's latest quarrel tests the loyalties of Amy (the hilarious Mayim Bialik). ... Adam Lambert gets judgey on Project Runway (Lifetime, 9/8c) as the designers create a look for the band The Sheepdogs. ... If Top Chef: Just Desserts leaves your TV sweet tooth unsatisfied, Food Network offers Sweet Genius (10/9c), a new competition series in which master pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel presides over dessert pros in a series of (what else) elimination challenges.

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!