Claire Danes

Let's hope you didn't have much else planned for this weekend, because there's so much excellent TV on tap it's hard to know where to begin.

Let's start with the winners' circle. You couldn't ask for better timing, or a more satisfying result, than Homeland's sweep of the top drama Emmy prizes last Sunday — exactly one week before Showtime's launch of what's shaping up to be a remarkably taut second season (Sunday, 10/9c). Expectations couldn't be higher. (If you missed any or all of the first season, with the deservedly Emmy-winning lead performances by Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, Showtime is replaying all 12 episodes in a Saturday marathon starting at noon/11c.) As the new season begins, you may once again be asking yourself: Has there ever been a scarier loose cannon than mentally unstable spy gamer Carrie Mathison (Danes)? Or a more unnerving secret saboteur than war hero-turned-congressman Nicholas Brody (Lewis)?

The suspense in Homeland goes beyond what will happen next in an international game of high-stakes cat-and-mole, set against a frighteningly timely backdrop of Middle East turmoil. From the edge of your seat, you wonder if they can possibly keep topping themselves. Based on the first two episodes, the answer is a resounding and brilliant yes. The pressure keeps building, to exquisitely squirm-inducing levels of tension, for both of these deeply conflicted protagonists. The result: a master class in powerhouse performances, as Danes brings all of Carrie's bipolar anxieties and impulses to the surface with explosive intensity as she is returned to the field before she's mentally ready. Meanwhile, Lewis keeps an impressively tight lid on Brody's inner torment, hidden from Beltway power brokers and his family, as he is reluctantly drawn back into terrorist Abu Nazir's web of violent retribution.

The pace is swift, with potentially game-changing twists introduced before we may be ready for them. If the writers (who must have nerves of steel) are willing to burn through story this quickly, all we can do is hang on and try not to get whiplash as we await the fallout. With terrific support from Mandy Patinkin — holla! — as Carrie's wary handler and Morena Baccarin as Brody's worried wife, Homeland joins a revitalized Dexter as cable's most thrilling combo of white-knuckle intrigue.

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Speaking of Dexter (Sunday, 9/8c, Showtime), all sour memories of last season's sup-par mystery evaporate immediately, as the seventh year kicks off immediately after the cliffhanger, with the long-awaited confrontation between Dexter (Michael C. Hall) and his sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) over his killing ways. It's the ultimate OMG game-changer for a show that desperately needed one. As by-the-books Deb wrestles with her psyche, shattered by a secret that could ruin both of their careers with the Miami police, ultimate control freak Dex frets over how much to reveal. (As ghost-dad Harry warns him: "If she ever saw the real you, she'll never get over it.") And his sister's not the only one poking a nose where it doesn't belong. Even with this turmoil, the Dark Passenger is back, sending Dexter on another mission of bloody vigilante justice that promises serious repercussions. Dexter's quality has ebbed and flowed over the years (peaking in the John Lithgow season), but so far, this season is looking like a riveting winner.

LABOR OF LOVE: Once again, PBS delivers the goods — and while it may be too harrowing at times to describe as a bundle of joy, the heart-tugging Call the Midwife (Sunday, check tvguide.com listings) is a delight to watch. Fans of Downton Abbey seeking that next transporting period-drama addiction are in for a treat over the next six weeks.

A hit for the BBC earlier this year, with a second season already on the way, Midwife drops us into the '50s and the gritty squalor of London's East End, where the baby boom is more of a constant parade of life-and-death crises. Forever riding their bikes to the rescue: a team of young, wide-eyed midwives, who live together amid a convent of seasoned nuns who consider themselves "nurses first and midwives foremost." They are also marvelous characters, civilians and sisters alike (most memorably, Judy Parfitt as the aging Sister Monica Joan, whose mischievous ways are either a sign of dementia or willful eccentricity). Based on the memoirs of the late Jennifer Worth, Midwife unfolds from the perspective of sheltered nurse Jenny Lee (the terrifically sympathetic Jessica Raine), who's initially appalled by the conditions in which her clients live.

"Your comfort is not important," cautions the Zen sister-in-charge Julienne (Jenny Agutter). And as Jenny Lee begins to embrace her calling, immersing herself in the tragicomic lives of the salt-of-the-earth locals, we witness life at its extremes: bringing newborns into the world with anxiety, agony and ecstasy, while attending to the poignant final days of others. Along the way, there's melodrama, humor and, naturally, romance. You're not likely to see a more endearing love story this fall than the courtship of the clumsy, well-bred nurse Chummie (the wonderful Miranda Hart) by an unassuming constable (Ben Caplan) who's swept off his feet — literally, considering what a menace Chummie is on a bike. "I found grace and faith and hope hidden in the darkest corners," Jenny recalls through Vanessa Redgrave's evocative voice-overs from the future. We hope she never runs out of stories to tell.

FANTASY FREE-FOR-ALL: "What a miserable future," grumbles the mad genius Walter Bishop (John Noble) as he tastes what passes for eggs in 2036, the apocalyptic setting for Fringe's final 13-episode season on Fox (Friday, 9/8c). That's only the beginning of Walter's torture, and if your heart doesn't break for the old man, maybe you belong in an alternate universe. This endgame for one of TV's most adventurous sci-fi fables is staged as a battle for mankind's survival against the invading Observers, who've poisoned the environment and eradicated hope: "Nothing grows from scorched earth," one Observer remarks. Fringe has always grounded its bold and entertaining imaginative storytelling in deep emotional realities, and this is especially true as time-tripping Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Olivia (Anna Torv) reunite with their now-grown daughter Etta (Georgina Haig), a resistance leader, while continuing to fret over Walter. His messed-up mind could hold the key to usurping their oppressive hosts, who aren't above quoting Star Trek's Borg when it suits them. For Fringe's small but loyal following, resistance is truly futile. We'll stick with this remarkable series to the end.

"I hate endings," says the title hero (Matt Smith) of Doctor Who, who demonstrates by tearing the last page out of the book he's reading in Central Park. We certainly know how he feels as we approach this week's mid-season finale on BBC America (Saturday, 9/8c) with trepidation and sadness, as it has been billed as the farewell episode for the good Doctor's most recent beloved traveling "companions," Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her devoted husband Rory (Arthur Darvill). Parting is rarely sweeter sorrow than when the Doctor parts company with old friends, and this one is marvelously executed by executive producer/writer Steven Moffat. "The Angels Take Manhattan" pulls out all the stops, emotionally and otherwise, with location footage in New York City enhancing a story framed as a paperback noir mystery, where a key rule is declared early on: "You can't read ahead." As the episode title suggests, the Weeping Angels are back, and I don't think I'll walk through my adopted city again without nervously looking back at the gargoyles, statues and cherubs that decorate so many historic edifices. As always, those spooky Angels made me jump numerous times, while the episode itself — so rapturous and wrenching — had me fighting back tears. I'll miss "the Ponds," maybe as much as the Doctor.

"Magic is different here, dearie," cackles Mr. Gold, aka Rumplestiltskin (the wonderful Robert Carlyle), as the town of Storybrooke awakens from the Evil Queen's curse in the second-season opener of ABC's hit Once Upon a Time (Sunday, 8/7c). After the initial euphoria of the purple haze wears off, the transplanted fairy-tale characters have a second thought: Why are we still here? Naturally, the magic that Old Rumpy has unleashed on the town has its dark side and unexpected consequences. One of which is creative. Last season, I found myself much more entranced with the revisionist back-stories in Fairy Land than what was going on in Storybrooke. This season, with flatly played new characters introduced in the world of fantasy, I found myself itching to get back to Storybrooke, although the way the lands eventually intersect makes for a nifty cliffhanger.

GOOD TIMES: Conspicuously missing from this year's best-drama Emmy roster: a single series from the Big Four broadcast networks, including (for the first time in three seasons) CBS' scintillating and sophisticated The Good Wife (Sunday, 9/8c), somehow deemed not good enough to stack up against the often darker, edgier cable fare. "I feel cursed," cries the show's emotionally overextended title character, lawyer/mom/wronged political spouse Alicia Florrick (the sleek Julianna Margulies), in an upcoming episode. She has a point. Her embattled firm is digging out from a $60 million debt, shedding employees and office space. Her messy private life is in a public fishbowl as her estranged husband (Chris Noth) runs for governor.

But playing the victim card isn't in Alicia's dossier. This good wife is no goody-two-shoes. In court or at home, she fights hard and not always fair to protect her family, her reputation and even her dignity. Four seasons in, The Good Wife remains a marvel of clever plotting and tremendously witty ensemble acting (with Archie Panjabi, Margulies and recurring guest Martha Plimpton so far honored with Emmys). Not good enough? Please. This season is blessed, as usual, by outstanding guest performances, including a sly Nathan Lane as the firm's no-nonsense financial trustee, Kristin Chenoweth as a gleefully nosy reporter (before she was injured during filming) and (starting next week) the wry Maura Tierney as a wealthy patron impressed by Alicia's resilience. Who wouldn't be?

Anyone desiring cable-like "edge" can be treated — if they dare — to Kalinda's (Panjabi) bizarre 50 Shades of Say-What? S&M subplot of marital combat with her thuggish mystery husband (Marc Warren), guns and knives drawn in an outrageous display of hyper-sexualized simmering violence. Bound to be polarizing, this twisted interlude (which I hope doesn't take all season to resolve) reminds us that The Good Wife is not afraid to go bad, even aggressively over the top, to showcase its stunning and acclaimed female stars. But seriously, Kalinda: Get a grip.

WHAT'S NEW? And the fall season's new shows just keep coming. ... Just once, I'd like to see a series where someone with street smarts doesn't, by nature of spunk alone, win the day. CBS' Made in Jersey (Friday, 9/8c) is not that show. My own wish-fulfillment fantasy might be for something a bit more original, but they can't all be The Good Wife. Jersey's painfully familiar but easy-to-take act, which plays like a USA Network show on auto-pilot, feels "Made for Fridays." Janet Montgomery, a very appealing British actress attempting a brash Jersey attitude, is the best thing about this show, starring as Martina Garretti, her loud and clichéd Italian family's pride and joy, their first college grad — who "made it over the wall" to Manhattan, where she works among insufferable snobs in a ritzy law firm. Does she show them up with instincts born from hailing "from a long line of self-taught beauticians?" What do you think? Next!

ABC's 666 Park Avenue (Sunday, 10:01/9:01c) caps a new Sunday lineup of high-concept escapism, following Once Upon a Time and the buzzy soap Revenge (transplanted from Wednesdays). I kept thinking "Rosemary's Sublet" while watching this sinister, supernatural immorality tale about an Upper East Side apartment complex known as The Drake, where every lease is a Faustian deal signed in brimstone. Lost's Terry O'Quinn and Desperate Housewives' Vanessa Williams are delicious as the building's diabolical owners, devils you know you're not supposed to love but somehow do. As the series begins, they've lured an ambitious young couple (Brothers & Sisters' Dave Annable returning to his old time slot, and short-lived Charlie's Angels star Rachael Taylor) to sign on as The Drake's new managers. "We're not in Kokomo anymore," they quickly conclude, but they have no idea the high price the other residents are paying for living in the lap of luxury. I wish I could say 666 scared or even spooked me, but the set-up is awfully obvious to an outsider weaned on the genre, and it feels more like a stationary Love Boat anthology geared toward predictably unhappy endings. True horror fans are counting the days until AMC's The Walking Dead returns to Sunday night. This posh address, which could yet become catnip for occultists, looks to be for amateurs only.

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