On a night that's hardly starved for appealing programming, two of the season's most enjoyable and intriguing pilots make their bow.
First, the underdog: ABC's Last Resort (8/7c), an electrifying military-gone-amok thriller that bridges the macho hardware of Tom Clancy with the suspense of paranoid Cold War classics from the '60s like Fail Safe and Seven Days in May. (Look them up if you've never seen them.) This series is like nothing else on network TV, which is why one's first impulse is to pray for its survival. It's also airing in what has become one of ABC's more treacherous time periods, and beyond the fact that there are very attractive people in the cast (starting with Felicity alum Scott Speedman) and the story is heavily serialized, it has nearly nothing in common tonally with the night's sudsy anchor, Grey's Anatomy.
But just in case there's an audience looking for a ripping good story brimming with action and tension, filmed with dramatic panache and featuring the latest blockbuster performance by Andre Braugher as the rogue captain of a well-armed nuclear submarine, Last Resort commands attention, scoring a direct hit on our nervous system.
Especially in the opening acts, when we meet the crew of the USS Colorado (Speedman is Braugher's earnest No. 2 with a lovely wife back home). They're underwater and soon under attack by their own country, after Braugher defies mysterious orders from an unverified source to fire upon Pakistan. They've just rescued a group of Navy SEALs from the surface, who may have some clues to the havoc happening above ground, though they're acting pretty hostile. And we also get glimpses of turmoil back in Washington, D.C., where a perky Pentagon lobbyist/tech whiz (Autumn Reeser, the show's least credible character) has a vested interest in the fate of the Colorado.
Things aren't exactly ship-shape on board, with threats of mutiny among the crew, and the situation becomes even more hectic, and the drama a bit more scattered, when they set up base by taking over a NATO tracking station on a remote Pacific island, Sainte Marina (yes, we're back on Lost locations in Hawaii). This tropical paradise may now be "the biggest bulls-eye on the planet," as one of the more tormented SEALs grouses in the second episode, but having more than a dozen nuke warheads on hand makes Braugher & Co. a formidable force to be reckoned with.
How long can this exciting them-against-the-world premise be sustained? I have no idea. But having watched executive producer Shawn Ryan work his magic in a range of genres, from The Shield to The Unit to the cult classic Terriers, I'm more than intrigued. I'm gung-ho.
Last Resort is the sort of show that's likely to benefit from critical and media support. CBS' Elementary deserves its share as well, but it probably won't need it nearly as much. This show rests comfortably in the network's crime-drama wheelhouse, capping a strong Thursday lineup (at 10:01/9:01c), but raises the bar by taking on arguably the most iconic character in the canon: Sherlock Holmes, who is modernized here (like in PBS' brilliant Sherlock) and transplanted to New York City, where the heavily tattooed quicksilver genius of observation and deduction is rebuilding a life after a troubled stint in rehab. Played with roguish charm by Jonny Lee Miller, finally able to display his real accent on American TV, this dashingly damaged interpretation of the fabled sleuth has an impulsive restlessness about him, and it's all Dr. Watson can do to keep up.
Ah, Watson, that's where Elementary also stands out, by casting Lucy Liu as a female version of the trusty sidekick, re-imagined as a disgraced surgeon turned sober companion for the cocky, scruffy, inscrutably unpredictable Holmes. She follows, always wary but ultimately admiring, as he trains his dazzling intellect on solving murders as a consultant for the NYPD (his captain is Aidan Quinn, who worked a similar beat a year ago on the same night on NBC's Prime Suspect). Elementary brings edgy new life to CBS' procedural formula, and is just different enough from the Masterpiece Mystery! version (and Benedict Cumberbatch's Emmy-nominated spin) to prove yet again just how versatile this legendary character is.
Elementary makes a terrific companion piece to my current favorite of all CBS dramas: Person of Interest (9:01/8:01c), which bristles with inexplicable mystery, danger and explosive violence in its second-season opener as Reese (the stoic Jim Caviezel) is forced to engage directly with the mysterious "Machine" in a desperate search for his friend, mentor and partner in crime prevention, Finch (Michael Emerson). As the episode gives more flashback insight into the development and testing of his all-knowing computer creation, Finch is drawn further into the web of his kidnapper, master criminal "Root" (Amy Acker, who makes a mighty fine and cold-blooded Moriarty). And though Reese's priority is finding Finch, the Machine insists on dropping another POI into his path: a justifiably nervous accountant, amusingly played by Lost's Ken Leung. Along the way, while taking down a gang of murderous neo-Nazis, lone wolf Reese makes an unexpected new best friend. And the conspiracy storyline extends to Washington, D.C., introducing more new enemies who will make Reese and Finch's mission more complicated.
The night's other season premiere made available for review: ABC's guilty-pleasure melodrama Scandal (10:02/9:02c), which it's hard to imagine will ever reach the berserk heights of its seven-episode run last spring. Not that the show ever takes a breath in this opening hour. It quickly reveals the identity of mystery employee Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes), plunging the crisis-management firm of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) into one of its highest-profile showdowns with the law and media yet. Back at the White House, President "Fitz" (Tony Goldwyn) is still pining for Liv, taking little joy in the opportunistic first lady's publicity scheme for "America's Baby" that she's carrying: "My way of giving you a little political bang for your buck." Somehow, an impending conflict in the Sudan factors into the busy plot, but the real war in this enjoyably preposterous series is one of perception, how to "control the narrative" when dangerously dirty laundry is about to be exposed. Olivia is a master at the game, though by the end of the episode, we're left wondering about some of her tactics.
PREMIERE FEVER: Among the audience faves returning for new seasons: CBS' The Big Bang Theory (8/7c) starts its sixth (!) year with Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) still in space, which still isn't enough distance to drown out his mother's nagging. ... Two and a Half Men (8:31/7:31c) begins life on a new night, in a pairing likely to crush NBC's comedies, with Walden (Ashton Kutcher) planning a birthday surprise for girlfriend Zoey (Sophie Winkleman). Which may explain the guest-star casting of Michael Bolton. ... ABC's Grey's Anatomy (9/8c) revisits Seattle Grace in the wake of last season's plane-crash cliffhanger, though we won't witness the immediate aftermath of that trauma until next week's flashback. Still, expect plenty of angst as the doctors try to heal themselves, emotionally anyway.
WHAT ELSE IS ON? Let's hope when Sarah Jessica Parker makes her entrance on Fox's Glee (9/8c), she's a lot nicer to Kurt than Kate Hudson has been to Rachel. ... The clock is ticking for NBC's Up All Night (8:30/7:30c), which reinvented itself last week with a woefully unfunny set-up that will now find an unemployed Reagan (Christina Applegate) taking care of baby at home while husband Chris (Will Arnett) goes into business with Reagan's carpenter brother, a nothing of a character played by Luka Jones. One possible bright spot: guest star Sean Hayes, as Ava's (Maya Rudolph) former accompanist. ... Also on NBC: The Office (9/8c) brings back one of its more memorable characters when Pam and Jim attend the wedding of her ex-fiancé Roy (David Denman). How could that be awkward? And on Parks and Recreation (9:31/8:31c), Leslie tries to use her councilwoman powers for good, instituting a tax on giant sodas throughout all of Pawnee. Is she trying to get impeached so soon? ... Gauging from FX's promos, Amy Poehler also appears to have something to do with the season finale of Louie (10/9c, FX) wrapping a marvelous season with an episode set on New Year's Eve, which knowing Louie isn't likely to be the happiest of occasions. See you next year.