USA Network made some news last week when it cut bait on several of its more marginal properties: Common Law, Fairly Legal and (boo) the juicy Political Animals miniseries. The channel's shelf is still plenty full, and while Covert Affairs winds up its best-yet third season over the next two weeks, Burn Notice returns from its hiatus and summer cliffhanger on one of TV's busiest nights, with a two-hour opener (9/8c) that emphasizes the show's action-series strengths.
The first hour, or episode, is especially strong, picking up in Panama where Michael (Jeffrey Donovan) and his freelance gang are still reeling from the realization that his CIA mentor Tom Card (a perfectly smarmy John C. McGinley) set them up to be killed — at the hands of Tyler Gray (The Shield's Kenny Johnson), the same sniper agent who inadvertently killed Michael's brother in the summer season's most shocking twist. With Gray now in their clutches as a most untrustworthy albatross, Michael & Co. embark on an explosive caper to escape Panama on a cargo plane that puts them in the crosshairs of a murderous cocaine smuggler.
The violence quotient is higher than usual, including torture and other mayhem, but there's time for the show's usual humor — including a nod to a classic Sidney Poitier character — while back home in Miami, Sharon Gless shines with grim purpose as Maddie goes the extra mile to get her remaining son back home. Even if that means going face-to-face with Card, who she now knows to be a snake.
The second episode reverts closer to Burn Notice formula, advancing presumed-dead Michael's clandestine vendetta against Card while also embarking on a caper-of-the-week rescue mission. At least this one makes sense, because the new client played a big part earlier this year in helping Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) survive her overlong prison ordeal. By episode's end, the body count rises, and among the life-changing events is a new sort of burn that hits very close to home.
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THE FIXER: "You'd be surprised what powerful people can get away with behind closed doors," says glamorous crisis manager Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on another busy and fast-talking installment of ABC guilty-pleasure Scandal (10:02/9:02c). Actually, by now we're not that surprised — that's this show's bread-and-butter, after all. Although I'm happy to report that we finally get a little more insight into the closed-door powwow that somehow unites Olivia, the first lady, the president's chief of staff, a Supreme Court justice and a slimy oil mogul in a high-stakes cover-up (code name: "Defiance") that all involved are trying to keep from the attention of dogged AUSA David Rosen (Joshua Malina).
This week's scandal du jour involves the Governor of Maryland — whose presidential bid Olivia had a hand in derailing — who shoots his wife's rapist in their home, though as usual, there's more to this bloody picture than meets the peering media eye, and Olivia finds herself "digging up good old-fashioned dirt" to stay ahead of the ever-changing story. For comic relief, the bizarre Huck (Guillermo Diaz) goes on a date. And to remind us just what a fantasy this all is, gay chief of staff Cyrus' husband returns to the White House press corps, as one does, peppering his mate with awkward questions at a briefing that fairly screams "Conflict of Interest." Or, possibly, disinterest.
This time of year, I'm especially sensitive to casting in Big Sweeps Episodes, and tonight's Scandal gives off a nostalgic Everwood vibe, with Tom Amandes as the embittered governor and Debra Mooney as the crotchety Supreme.
In other notable sweeps casting, let's start with CBS' top-rated lineup: The Big Bang Theory (8/7c) welcomes back Sheldon's Star Trek: The Next Generation nemesis Wil Wheaton, bringing along LeVar Burton. But the real news: Wolowitz may finally move out of his mom's house, at Bernadette's urging. ... Miley Cyrus returns to CBS' Two and a Half Men (8:31/7:31c) as Jake's perky chatterbox squeeze, who had me reaching for the "mute" button during her annoying first appearance. ... I'm much happier to see Paige Turco back on Person of Interest (9:01/8:01c) as the enigmatic Zoe, who's caught up in Reese's latest assignment, which takes him undercover to the bucolic suburbs, where his undertaker's wardrobe would really stand out. Also appearing: Carrie Preston (Michael Emerson's real-life wife) as Finch's lost love, Grace. ... On Elementary (10:01/9:01c), as Sherlock investigates a small plane crash, guest stars include 24's Reiko Aylesworth and British stage and TV veteran Roger Rees, who may or may not be playing the sleuth's elusive dad. ... Switching networks, the most unusual pairing of the night may be Ben's divorced parents, finally getting to meet Leslie on NBC's Parks and Recreation (9:31/8:31c). They're played by Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks (RIP, Mike) and ER's Glenne Headly.
WHAT ELSE IS ON? The showdown between NBC's The Voice and Fox's The X Factor continues to intensify, with both singing competitions going head to head at 8/7c with their first live results shows factoring in audience votes. Raising the stakes, Voice coach Adam Levine will perform with Maroon 5 on The Voice, while One Direction (a product of the British X Factor) performs on The X Factor. ... Or you could watch ABC's enjoyably outlandish Last Resort (8/7c), in which the officers are disoriented after a mysterious attack that leaves them scrambling to save the sub and their position on the island. ... This week's crisis on The CW's The Vampire Diaries (8/7c) once again involves vampire killer Connor, who takes human hostages at the Grill. ... The intriguing focus of this week's Grey's Anatomy (ABC, 9/8c) is solely on long-distance soul mates Meredith and Christina as the story cuts between both doctors, facing new challenges in their respective cities. ... Fox's Glee (9/8c) returns from hiatus with a reunion for Mercedes and Mike Chang, who've come back to help cast the school musical Grease. Among those vying for a lead role: Second-season The Glee Project winner Blake Jenner as football jock Ryder (the new Finn?). There are worse things you could watch.