This busy premiere week is far from over. Here's a night-by-night look at how the weekend is shaping up this fall, with some thoughts on the new-season pilots, several key season premieres, and other highlights.
The Night in a Nutshell: If you're not a CBS loyalist on this low-viewership night, then it's best to have a healthy appetite for cult TV. CBS is expected to rule as usual, with the new A Gifted Man grafting the popular voices-from-beyond genre of Ghost Whisperer and Medium with a medical procedural, leading in to CSI: NY (which barely got renewed this year) and Blue Bloods. Once again, Fox's mind-blowing Fringe and the CW's undying Supernatural duke it out for out-there enthusiasts, with the underrated spy thriller Nikita taking over Smallville's old time period. NBC enters the game in mid-October, launching the final 13 episodes of Chuck alongside the third supernatural offering in the 9/8c time period: the fairy-tale/mystery hybrid Grimm. Reality fans will soon be able to choose among ABC's transplanted Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Shark Tank and Fox's Kitchen Nightmares.
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From Fall Preview: My take on CBS' A Gifted Man (8/7c): "Ghosts have played well for CBS on Friday nights, but this hybrid of the mystical and the medical is jarring as it veers from transcendent to schmaltzy. Skeptics might yet succumb, thanks to an unusually gifted cast led by the dynamic Patrick Wilson." To elaborate: Several in our office have dubbed this show House Whisperer, referring to Wilson's House-like character: a coldly arrogant neurosurgeon whose humanity is reawakened when he's visited by the ghost of his ex-wife (the almost literally luminous Jennifer Ehle), an idealistic doc who guilts him into doing good works at her inner-city clinic. To Wilson's credit, he plays these spectral encounters with an edge of terrified panic, and he's not going to become a softie overnight, or without fighting back. An added bonus: newly minted Emmy winner Margo Martindale (Justified) bringing some wry spice as Wilson's invaluable assistant. It's all a bit edgier than you might imagine, and I'll be giving this another look — though it's probably not going to keep me home on Fridays.
A Returning Favorite: Where the unholy heck is Peter Bishop? That question haunts the fourth-season opener of Fox's fabulously bizarre Fringe (9/8c), as Observers lurk on the, yes, fringe of the action while the Fringe team — aided by this world's version of Agent Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel) — tracks down a "freaky see-through killer." The freak-of-the-week case is just a pretext for our heroes to work through issues of loss they're not even aware they're dealing with. As Walter notes, "I don't think there's anything sadder than when two people are meant to be together and something intervenes."
End of An Era: Pine Valley will be a ghost town when ABC's All My Children signs off after 41 years, one of the saddest chapters yet in the seemingly unstoppable decline of the daytime drama. (For those who want to pay homage, The View is devoting its entire hour to the show's legacy, with Susan Lucci as guest co-host.) AMC is expected to return in an online version, but it will never be the same.
So what else is on? ... Plenty of season premieres, including a poignant look back at the 10th anniversary of 9/11 on CBS' CSI: NY (9/8c), with Eureka's Jaime Ray Newman appearing as Mac's late wife Claire. ... Tony Bennett and Carrie Underwood perform on the opener of CBS' Blue Bloods (10/9c) at a benefit, where Frank is put on the spot in a murder case by the new mayor-elect. ... Cult alert on the CW, as Nikita (8/7c) returns for its second season with Nikita and Michael on the run with their black box of lethal intel, while former protégé Alex is back at Division doing new boss Amanda's bidding. ... On Supernatural (9/8c), the Winchesters' world is upended again as Castiel starts playing God, literally. ... The extremes of music are represented in two very different specials. On PBS' Great Performances, Placido Domingo: My Favorite Roles (check local listings) relives the fabled tenor's most notable triumphs in opera houses around the world. Shifting gears to the punk world, VH1 Classic celebrates the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind album with the never-before-seen concert special Nirvana: Live at the Paramount (11/10c), filmed in Seattle on Halloween night in 1991.
Network TV once again largely ignores this night, with the exception of Fox's long-running Cops (8/7c), which airs a special episode about an undercover officer posing as a hit man to trap a woman plotting her husband's murder. (Also bucking the trend, new episodes of CBS' Rules of Engagement will start airing Oct. 8.)
Tonight's top pick: the return of NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:35/10:35c), as Alec Baldwin sets a hosting record with his 16th appearance. Radiohead is the musical guest. Let's hope the writers have been keeping an eye on these raucous GOP debates.
For fantasy fans, BBC America's Doctor Who (9/8c) nears the end of its season with the Doctor in the waning days of his life, embarking on yet another mysterious adventure while the Cybermen are waiting. ... Syfy's campier franchise, the classically cheesy Saturday night monster movie, pays homage to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine in Morlocks (9/8c), starring Stargate veteran David Hewlitt and Star Trek: Voyager alum Robert Picardo. The title creatures are futuristic humanoids discovered by time travelers. Things get ugly when the Morlocks figure out how to transport themselves back to the present.
The Night in a Nutshell: With NBC's Sunday Night Football going gangbusters, the night's most interesting showdown will be between CBS' Emmy darling The Good Wife and ABC's on-the-way-out Desperate Housewives at 9/8c (though Good Wife will have to cope with pesky football overruns in certain time zones, so set your DVRs accordingly). ABC has found a delectable companion piece for Housewives in the period piece Pan Am, taking on the aging CSI: Miami. In late October, ABC will launch the ambitious fairy-tale fantasia Once Upon a Time, which may need some marketing magic to break through. And Fox chugs along with its animated hits. (Sunday is also a big night for pay cable, with HBO's Boardwalk Empire returning for its second season and Showtime plotting a counteroffensive with the return on Oct. 2 of Dexter and the much-buzzed-about Homeland, which I'm not alone in declaring the best new drama of the fall.)
From Fall Preview: My take on ABC's Pan Am (10/9c): "Up, up and away! The sky's the limit for this infectiously glossy romance that might make you actually desire to fly again." As I elaborated in the same issue's "Top 5 Shows" feature: "Watching Pan Am is like getting a free upgrade to escapist class. If Mad Men (its stylistic predecessor) burrows under the surface of the swinging '60s, Pan Am is all surface, a sleek globe-trotting romance of the Jet Age, when even bumpy flights felt glamorous. With Desperate Housewives in its twilight, could this become our new Sunday addiction?" The deluxe pilot episode looks amazing, fetishizing the worldly stewardesses — that's what they were called then — in their crisp blue uniforms, white gloves and girdles as they jet around the world, seeking adventure and amour in the tradition of the best beach reads. Toss in a little improbable Cold War espionage for good measure, and settle back with longing for a time when you didn't have to take out a loan to check your bags.
A Returning Favorite: HBO's Emmy-winning Prohibition-era Boardwalk Empire (9/8c) begins its second season with style, substance and subtlety. The show has raised its dramatic stakes, awash in deadly hypocrisy, bitter betrayals and assorted other intrigues as Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi, a rather chilly central character) struggles to stay atop his criminal perch of power, money and illicit hooch. Family ties are repeatedly, and often violently, challenged as the political and criminal machinations escalate, slowly (too slowly for some) building to moments of breathtaking savagery and unexpectedly shattering poignancy. Especially fine in the first batch of episodes: Kelly Macdonald as Nucky's Irish-widow mistress Margaret Schroeder, who shows unusual fortitude and cunning in dealing with domestic affairs; Michael Pitt as Nucky's protégé-turned-rival Jimmy Darmody, a soulful WWI vet now learning the ropes of power-brokering from his real father, the ruthless Commodore (Dabney Coleman); Michael Kenneth Williams as black bootlegger Chalky White, who feels alienated within his own home; and the haunting Jack Huston as Richard Harrow, a disfigured war vet cloaking physical and emotional scars beneath his mask. This is a gorgeous piece of storytelling that requires and rewards patience.
Beginning of the End: I finally broke up with ABC's Desperate Housewives (9/8c) midway through last season, no longer enjoying any of their company, but I came back to watch the premiere of the eighth and final season, which finds the Wisteria Lane Four rallying around Gaby to clean up the mess and bury the evidence from Carlos' killing of his wife's abusive stepfather. Can they keep a secret in a world where secrets always have a way of getting out? Will it drive the ladies apart and/or crazy? The strain is especially hard on neurotic Susan, naturally, and Bree's torrid relationship with a detective has everyone on edge, but there are some moments of comic relief. A catfight that ends up in a pool made me groan, but I laughed out loud when a guilt-wracked Carlos goes into a confessional and is confronted by a baby priest who blurts, "I'm so bummed I can't tweet anymore." The episode's final twist is a jolting callback to the show's origins, leaving me hopeful these Housewives aren't entirely out of gas.
Even More Desperate: Somehow AMC's brilliant Breaking Bad (10/9c) just keeps upping the intensity with each episode, power-shifting from last week's electrifying Mexican cartel massacre into a new and harrowing ordeal for Walt, who takes extreme measures to derail brother-in-law Hank from his ongoing rogue investigation into Gus's business. But no matter what he does, Walt senses the danger he's brought upon his family is only getting worse. And since we know more than he does about everyone's actions, including his wife Skyler's, we figure he has good reason to worry.
Ciao For Now: Lifetime's charming Drop Dead Diva (9/8c) wraps its summer season with a Mambo Italiano opening production number, foreshadowing multiple romantic cliffhangers for its heroine Jane, once she resolves an oddly timely case involving Death Row procedures and organ donation. Guest stars include The Sopranos' Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Jonathan Schaech and soap queen Diedre Hall. "This is like the end of a movie or something," says one of the men in Jane's life. But it's not the end for Diva, which was just renewed for a fourth year.
So what else is on? ... Fox's eternal The Simpsons (8/7c) kicks off a night of all-new animation, welcoming Kiefer Sutherland in a very clever guest role as a security guard trying without much success to escape his violent past. A nod to Taiwanese animation is just one of the highlights in this homage to 24-style mayhem. ... Marking its 10th anniversary this fall, CBS' Emmy-winning The Amazing Race (8/7c) embarks on an itinerary including first-time stops in Indonesia, Malawi, Belgium and Denmark. The team to beat: past Survivor winners Ethan Zohn and Jenna Morasca, who'll no doubt have a target on their back. ... Saving the potentially best for last, the Sunday premiere I'm most excited for is the third-season opener of CBS' The Good Wife (9/8c), setting up shop on a new night with Emmy champ Julianna Margulies looking sexier than ever — in the provocative promos anyway — as Alicia defends a Muslim student accused of murdering a Jewish classmate.
What are you most eager to watch this weekend?