Margo Martindale

On a busy Wednesday of new TV, we hear a familiar sound. It's the numbing drum roll of broadcast-network mediocrity, which beats on into the late midseason as Fox offers up a new comedy titled Breaking In (9:30/8:30c). Because heaven forbid something might actually break out this year.

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This isn't a terrible show, because that might make it memorable. Instead, it falls into that category of being fairly clever without really being funny or all that amusing. A caper series with a high geek factor, Breaking In reminds me of those debates from Chuck's early days, when some wondered how much more effective its comedic elements might be if the show were a half-hour, not an hour. (Which is still a valid point, but that ship sailed long ago.)

Like Leverage with far punier stakes, this sleek but familiar sitcom of wacky misfits is set in a security firm that tests security breaches by finding flaws in the systems of their clients and (hence the title) breaking in and often robbing them, all for the greater good. Our window on this clandestine world is Cameron, a hacker caught in the act after years of gaming a college for free tuition and room and board. "I registered as twins," he sheepishly confesses about his plush living quarters to the boss of Contra Security, who blackmails Cameron into joining the team. Our reluctant hero is played by the always affable Bret Harrison, whose nebbishy charms were put to better use on the cult comedy-thriller Reaper. Here, he's coasting, and seriously upstaged by Christian Slater's typically high-pitched theatrics as his all-seeing, all-knowing, sadistically manipulative and sword-wielding boss, Oz.

"Life is about either trying to dodge a bullet or hit a bull's-eye," Oz tells his cowed new hire. I'm not sure Breaking In achieves either goal. It's pretty much paint-by-numbers as we meet Cameron's cohorts, the usual assortment of one-note flotsam: a resentful and none-too-impressive master of disguise, a prank-prone gadget guy who speaks fluent Klingon, and a hot crush who'd rather spend time with her cheerfully crude boyfriend Dutch, given unexpected verve by Smallville vet Michael Rosenbaum.

Weirdly, both the pilots of Breaking In and Comedy Central's execrable new time-waster Workaholics include multiple references to urine. As in, trying to score samples untainted by drugs. That's basically the entire plot of the first episode of Workaholics, a lazy series about three colorless best buds (one's shaggy, one's preppy and the third doesn't even register) who while away their post-college youth partying at home and doing as little as possible at their telemarketing workplace. One of their favorite pranks is to place feces inside a dollar bill they leave on the sidewalk. It all stinks.

On a much higher plane, Bravo wastes no time between its various versions of Top Chef by serving up a new and improved twist on the venerable Top Chef Masters (10/9c). For the first time, all 12 established contestants (playing for charity) are pitted against each other, instead of being separated in smaller groups for elimination rounds. As is often the case, too many chefs can make for a hasty and muddled introduction, and it may be a while before we discern clear favorites. Rather surprisingly, the competition kicks off with what is usually a late-season highlight: "Restaurant Wars."

With professional reputations at stake, tensions run high, but without the level of profane desperation and bitter back-biting you tend to see in regular seasons of Top Chef. In fact, one of the masters making a strong first impression is Zen master Suvir Saran, unfazed by the kitchen's frantic hubbub. "The younger they are or the more fragile their ego, the more garnishes they add," he quietly laments. "To true masters, less is more. When you become masters, you make magic from nothing." When's the last time you heard minimalism praised as a virtue on a reality show?

(A DVR alert for reality-competition fans in the 8/7c hour. While most attention will be paid to American Idol as usual, this is a pivotal episode of a very strong Survivor season and a great time to check back in on the feisty tribal dynamics. This is merge week, and also the first chance for the ejected castoff on Redemption Island to rejoin the game. Can Matt, the undefeated player sent away first, win his sixth duel in a row and be invited back? If Matt does win, will he align with Boston Rob's tribe, which sent him packing in the first place, or will he flip with Rob's rivals? Rob has pretty much owned this season. Can anything threaten his power base? This promises to be a very memorable episode.)

And finally, saving the best for last: You can't do better than tonight's exceptionally eventful episode of FX's Justified (10/9c), which has never been better. So much happens in this hour, most of the activity percolating around Mags Bennett, the lethal mountain matriarch who's not about to roll over for the coal company trying to sully the patch of land she and her degenerate sons rule over. Margo Martindale is on everyone's "give her an Emmy" list for her tremendously entertaining and often chilling portrayal of this literally larger than life character, who last week took over a town meeting and invited her Kentucky community to her place for a "whoop-dee-doo."

That's where tonight's episode picks up and takes off, with Mags in her element as Martindale exhibits an awesome range. She is tender and loving with her precious ward Loretta (the impressive Kaitlin Dever), whose hapless father Mags had killed in the season opener. With her unruly boys, including the twitchy Dickie (Jeremy Davies) and the bear-like Coover (Brad William Henke), she is controlling to a potentially tragic fault. With everyone else, she is a fearsome force of nature to be reckoned and negotiated with. She drives a mean bargain, but we also learn she can also carry a mean tune.

These mountain folk are smarter and more cunning than they look, and an episode like this confirms Justified's standing as one of the smartest, most suspensefully surprising and gratifying series on TV. The Peabodys made a great call last week by honoring this show. Even Mags would approve.

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