William Petersen in CSI
What a night of extremes is this first official (as in mostly complete) Thursday night of the new season. An absolutely terrific CSI opener, with William Petersen hitting a wrenching career high as he and his team deal with the aftermath of last season's dastardly shooting of Warrick (also memorably played in his swan song by Gary Dourdan, who has a heartbreaking scene midway through the episode that cements his relationship with mentor Grissom for all time). This goes head-to-head with a very funny, and blissfully half-hour, The Office in which HR rep Holly (the hilariously chipper Amy Ryan) attempts to lead the Dunder-Mifflin gang in an ethics seminar that goes awry in typically unexpected ways. (A shout-out here to the often underused Kate Flannery as office lush Meredith, whose confession spurs the episode to its sardonic conclusion.) Office will be followed by the first of three prime-time Saturday Night Live Weekend Update specials, and we can only hope they'll be able to find some humor in Tuesday's uninspired town-hall presidential debate. So far, the election has been very, very good to SNL. As long as they stick to politics (a Palin cameo, please?), it should be a spirited half-hour.
It's a busy night of network premieres, all of shows based on overseas concepts. The riskiest and most rewarding is ABC's remake of Life on Mars, the time-travel cop drama that transplants a modern-day cop (the charismatic Jason O'Mara) into gritty 1973 Serpico-era New York, with Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli and Gretchen Mol among his colleagues. The pilot is terrific, but it's almost a letter-perfect remake of the original, so it's hard to know how the show will sustain over the long haul, given the limited-run nature of the British series. Still, very much worth watching. In the same time period, CBS's Eleventh Hour (based on a creepy British procedural that starred Patrick Stewart) is a more generic crime drama involving outlandish science-based crimes being tackled by a brilliant biophysicist (Rufus Sewell) who's a consultant for the FBI. The plots are weird, but the storytelling is often blandly straightforward. Which may keep it from the top of critics' lists, but could make it a good fit following CSI. (As I noted in a recent Review column, this show's scientific curiosity makes it something Gil Grissom might actually enjoy in his spare time.)
That's the good news. The bad news involves new comedy, two of the worst I've seen in ages. NBC's Kath & Kim is a hopelessly unfunny travesty of the outrageous Australian sitcom about a dysfunctional mother-daughter team. Molly Shannon works too hard as mother Kath, and dour Selma Blair doesn't seem to be trying at all — except at being trying — as her immature daughter Kim. It's a waste of talent, a waste of promising source material, and a waste of time. Any other night, this would be the worst new comedy on the air. But FX has decided to inflict a vile thing called Testees our way as a companion piece to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Consider this an object lesson in the different between tasteless-funny (Philadelphia) and tasteless-unfunny (Testees). About as amusing as its pun of a title, Testees is a low-rent slacker buddy comedy about two scraggly losers who earn money by doing repeat business as test subjects at a drug company. Obvious, unpleasant and unfunny jokes ensue about penis enlargement, male breast milk, rectal probes, flatulence and an abortion gag that's as ugly as it is witless. Testees feels like an endless version of one of those terrible Saturday Night Live skits that pop up in the last half-hour. Don't say you weren't warned.