Happy (and busy) premiere week. It's a killer thriller showdown when two of the fall season's slickest new shows, NBC's The Blacklist and CBS's limited-run suspense serial Hostages, square off Monday (at 10:01/9:01c) in a contest of marquee power and derivative but inviting high concepts. They take on ABC's durable Castle, opening its sixth season (10:01/9:01c) with its star-crossed leads facing a personal and professional crossroads.
Let's start with the new. Blacklist is the more purely and criminally enjoyable of the night's new melodramas, largely because James Spader is so good at being playfully bad, making a triumphant return at a sinister right angle from his jocular Boston Legal persona. He commands attention from the startling opening scene, during which "Most Wanted" master criminal Raymond "Red" Reddington inexplicably surrenders himself to the custody of an unsuspecting FBI, whose counterterrorism chief (Harry Lennix) he mercilessly teases as he makes his first demand known: He'll only open up to rookie profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), who's introduced as a flustered mess on her first day at her new gig (with a cute husband and dog in short-lived domestic bliss).
This is only the first of Red's manipulations, and the initial fun of The Blacklist is in trying to intuit his intentions even as the refreshingly resilient Agent Keen — "My colleagues call me 'Sir,'" she declares — pushes back against this diabolical new mentor. "We're not a team. I'm not your partner," she snaps at Red when her privacy is violently violated. But Red begs to differ. They're a team, or there's no show. And he wastes no time putting her to work and in peril, rescuing a general's young daughter who's in danger of being kidnapped by a thought-dead terrorist. The result is a combustible cocktail of explosive action and sly intrigue, which provides an ingenious showcase for Spader to work his inscrutably enigmatic magic.
Meanwhile, everyone's a prisoner — including the rapt viewer — in the tense and fast-paced Hostages, which piles on twists upon complications upon secrets with enough breathless zeal to keep us wondering what will happen next, even when it challenges our disbelief. The conflict is straighforward enough: On the eve of life-or-death surgery, the U.S. President's doctor (Toni Collette) is home-invaded by a gang of too-pretty-to-be-all-bad terrorists, led by rogue FBI hostage negotiator Dylan McDermott, who threatens to take out her not-entirely-happy family (husband, two teenagers and, yes, a dog) unless she kills the commander in chief.
The first episode doesn't shy from suspenseful, violent confrontation — "We have thought of everything," McDermott reveals after one of the first attempts at resistance fails — and it's also not lacking in preposterous contrivance. How convenient that several of the doc's family members are in such a state of personal crisis just as this ordeal begins. Still, there has to be enough story to propel Hostages through a 15-episode run — which will all take place over a two-week time frame. The best thing about this new trend in limited-run series is the potential to pack more story and incident into each hour. The downside is the tendency to overstuff each episode, threatening to render the show an action cartoon that's so over the top we may forget what the stakes are.
Bottom line: I enjoyed both pilots, and hope they hold up well enough to merit staying on the weekly playlist.
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CASTLE'S QUEEN KATE: The time period's longstanding top pick for sheer escapism, Castle, reminds us why we like it by instantly resolving its two-tiered cliffhanger, which involves Castle's (Nathan Fillion) marriage proposal to Beckett (Stana Katic), a happy distraction from deciding whether she'll move to Washington, D.C., in a major career jump as a federal investigator. Given that everything after the opening scene is a spoiler, let me just say that it's great having Lisa Edelstein (House) back on Mondays for a while as a top cop who takes a direct interest in Beckett's future and who, like so many others we've met, is less than keen on Castle always meddling in Kate's business. Back at home, Castle is unhappily startled to get a Pi in his face — Pi being the name of daughter Alexis's new-agey boyfriend whom she brought back from Costa Rica. The mix of humor, romance and mystery on Castle is as agreeable as ever, speaking well for its ability to withstand the new competiton.
MAMMA MIA: Mother, may I be excused — for laughing out loud at hitmaker Chuck Lorre's latest snarky-yet-heartfelt sitcom, CBS's Mom (9:30/8:30c), introducing two generations of damaged single mothers whose rocky road to recovery is paved with biting one-liners. It helps that these barbs are delivered by authentically endearing pros: a tremulous Anna Faris as Christy, an emotional train wreck of a waitress who considers her 118 days of sobriety "the worst days of my life," and the sensational Allison Janney as the grandly unrepentant Bonnie, Christy's horror-show of a mother who struts back into the life of the daughter she nearly destroyed with an undisciplined upbringing marked by all manner of bad behavior. Sample exchange: "While other mothers were cooking dinner, you were cooking meth!" wails Christy. "Otherwise known as working," Bonnie retorts.
Can Christy do better by her own precocious teenage daughter, whose new boyfriend is no prize? How will she ever find self-worth if she continues conducting a sad affair with her nebbishy boss (a winning Nate Corddry)? Salty yet unexpectedly sweet in its tartness, Mom reminds us how far we've come from June Cleaver and Carol Brady — for better or worse.
On a more legen — wait for it ... oh wait, you say you've waited too long? — maybe not quite so legendary note after all, CBS's How I Met Your Mother begins its ninth and at-long-last-final-season's premiere with back-to-back episodes (8/7c), which jump back and forth in time a bit as is the show's method, perhaps to distract us from the dangerous foreknowledge that the entire season will play out over the course of Barney and Robin's wedding weekend. At least this scenario finally brings The Mother (doe-eyed charmer Cristin Milioti) into the picture, if not yet into full focus.
Circumstances find her bonding with wedding-bound Lily (Alyson Hannigan) before she ever meets Ted (Josh Radnor), who in one of the better running gags finds himself annoyingly patronized by the hotel's desk clerk (Roger Bart) because he's come stag to his best bud's wedding — to his former girlfriend, whom he's clearly not over. Matters of the heart have always been Mother's strong suit, and it's especially fun to watch Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) conquer his commitment phobia despite comical obstacles, one of which prompts a solid King Joffrey joke (for Game of Thrones nerds). The worst subplot belongs to Marshall (Jason Segel), who's desperately trying to get to Long Island from Minnesota, where he acquires an annoying traveling companion in The View's Sherri Shepherd. Like Marshall's journey, the road to Ted meeting The Mother has taken too long and has not been without its considerable bumps. But stay to the end of the hour-long premiere to get a glimmer of the happy ending we all deserve for sticking it out this long.
REALITY CHECK: While Fox's The X Factor implodes, NBC's surprise Emmy winner The Voice (8/7c) hopes to escape the curse of diminishing returns for TV singing competitions. Reuniting the original team of coach/mentors — Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera rejoining Blake Shelton and Adam Levine — is a good start, and the "Blind Auditions" round is the best gimmick boasted by any of those shows. ... The dancing was unexpectedly strong on last week's premiere of ABC's Dancing With the Stars, with top scores by Emmy winner Derek Hough and Glee's Amber Riley. Which could make this week's first elimination, at the end of the live show (8/7c), more interesting than usual at this stage of the game. Regardless of who's staying or going, everyone must dance either a samba, jive, rumba or paso doble before learning their fate.
THE MONDAY GUIDE: Witches are all the rage this season, with Lifetime's Witches of East End and FX's American Horror Story: Coven on the horizon. But first, Fox follows last week's successful launch of Sleepy Hollow (9/8c) with an episode putting Ichabod (the appealing Tom Mison) and Deputy Abbie (Nicole Beharie) on the trial of yet another reawakened menace: a witch from the 1700s. ... Also on Fox: Bones and Booth go undercover on Bones (8/7c), with thick Italian accents barely masking their uneasy truce, at a touchy-feely couples' retreat, where Cheers's John Ratzenberger and the effervescent Millicent Martin are among the guests. ... Taking over for what used to be known as Style, cable's new Esquire Network (think Bravo for a straighter crowd) gets off to a soft launch with a two-hour special celebrating Esquire's 80th (9/8c), with new series bowing as the week continues. ... Fresh off its fourth consecutive best-comedy Emmy win, Modern Family expands its reach by going into nightly syndication (check tvguide.com listings), with a cable run on USA Network starting Tuesday. ... The late-night wars rev up as ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live (11:35/10:35c) shuts down Hollywood Boulevard for a concert featuring first-time guest Paul McCartney, with Justin Timberlake taking the outdoor stage Tuesday. And CBS's Late Show With David Letterman kicks off a new season with President Bill Clinton paying his ninth visit. Dave's old sparring partner Cher shows up to perform on Tuesday. ... TCM's dazzling The Story of Film: An Odyssey (10/9c) moves into the sound era with a '30s survey of "The Great American Movie Genres and the Brilliance of European Film." Accompanying highlights include James Cagney's gangster classic The Public Enemy at 11:15/10:15c, followed by the original Frankenstein (12:45 am/11:45c).