Every fall, a new TV season dawns, all shiny with promise. Your favorite shows return to pick up where they left off. New shows compete for your attention, since they are fresh and bouncy and as yet unencumbered by the acrid stench of failure and despair. (That usually arrives by the first commercial break.) Some rookies can deliver the goods; some don't. The Office will try to limp to the finish line with a little dignity. CBS' 2 Broke Girls will try to top the lofty standards of lines like, "Once you go Ukraine, you will scream with sex pain." With that in mind, here's a daily viewing guide to the new and returning shows that are truly worth your time.
ABC, Sundays Starting September 30th at 9 p.m.
The first season ended with a crash-and-burn, as Madeline Stowe's bitch goddess Victoria Grayson apparently met her doom in a plane wreck. Or diiid she? (Have you never seen a prime-time soap before? Do arch-villainesses ever die offscreen?) Extremely welcome development for the second season: Emily VanCamp's Emily Thorne finds her long-lost mother, played by none other than Jennifer Jason Leigh. It's inspired casting, as Leigh is sure to bring a touch of that Single White Female mojo.
AMC, Sundays Starting October 14th at 9 p.m.
Don't worry – there will be vomit. The Walking Dead remains the most gruesomely stomach-churning zombie show in the history of basic cable, unless you count the Kardashians. It's also the most watched; the second season scored blockbuster ratings. So it's not like they're going to start playing nice now – blood, guts and brains sweet brains will remain the currency of the zombie/human war economy. The new season gets a boost from two pivotal characters who loom large in the original comic books: the hooded female warrior Michonne, who memorably rescued Andrea in the second-season finale, and the malevolent Governor.
ABC, Sundays Starting September 30th at 10 p.m.
Terry O'Quinn, who played the wheelchair-bound Locke on Lost, returns as an Upper East Side landlord who just might be Satan. Except now he's married to Vanessa Williams (not the one from Melrose Place – the one from Ugly Betty). Nobody does the sinister, remote, crooked-eyebrow thing quite like O'Quinn. In 666 Park Avenue, he rules demonically over his posh apartment complex, the Drake. And he puts the chill into the gullible young couple who just moved in to be his new building managers – including the fetching Rachael Taylor, who begins to suspect they're living in a high-rise hell. On one level it's Bravo-style real estate porn, but on another it has a Rosemary's Baby vibe. Is the building evil, or just the people in it? Or is it just New York?
Showtime, Sundays Starting September 30th at 10 p.m.
The rookie season was a sensation, getting more intriguing as the Carrie vs. Brody mind games got deeper. It might have initially looked like a one-season mystery, but Homeland kept finding ways to push the narrative ahead. So as the second chapter begins, we still have to worry about terrorist mastermind Brody – and maybe also the fact that only loose-cannon CIA agent Carrie (Claire Danes) is crazed enough to keep up with him. She might not have a badge anymore: She got the axe, with a side order of electroshock, in the horrifying finale. But that just makes her more dangerous. In any event, Homeland has built up so much good will with its audience, nobody doubts this drama can keep the roll going.
NBC, Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
Sorry, American Horror Story, but this has to be the most viscerally frightening thriller to star Adam Levine this fall. The Voice might have hit speed bumps in its second season, as the judges turned up their nasty sides. (Anyone surprised?) But it's easily the most entertaining singing competition on the airwaves, with the savviest, most far-flung contestants and the quippiest, most hands-on judges. The core team is back in the red chairs: Levine, Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton and Cee Lo.
ABC, Mondays Starting September 24th at 8 p.m. and Tuesdays at 9 p.m.
How often do you like awake at night and whimper, "Please, Lord – won't you let America watch Kirstie Alley dance just one more time? Can't you bring Joey Fatone back to network TV in a leotard? And the guy who was on Newlyweds with Jessica Simpson, was that really 10 years ago? Damn. Well, if he's still alive, won't you please give us some more of his 98-on-a-Scale-of-97 Degree dance moves?" Done, done and done, ye of little faith! It's the first all-star edition of Dancing with the Stars, which means it should make for meaty reality-TV roadkill even by this show's standards. Hey, let's take the high road here and not even mention a certain right-wing politician who keeps pimping her hasn't-she-suffered-the-fuck-enough daughter out to reality shows! Like this one! Naaah. Let's mention the fact that this poor girl didn't even get a proper vacay after the mega-humiliation of her summer reality show, Life's a Tripp. Sorry, sweetie – better you than America.
Fox, Mondays at 9 p.m.
The Mob Doctor might be the most inspired high-concept title of the season – why didn't somebody think of this before? (USA Network, I'm looking at you.) It bangs you over the head with a brilliantly cynical pitch: People love mob dramas, and people love hospital dramas, so why not jam them together? True, hardly anybody loves both of them. But on Mob Doctor, the Mafia action redeems the ER clichés. Jordana Spiro, after years wasted on the TBS non-com My Boys, plays the sassy young surgeon with connections to the Chicago mob. Her brother racks up gambling debts he can't pay, so she takes on a side gig as house doctor to the South Side wiseguys. William Forsythe, fresh from Boardwalk Empire, is especially great as the don.
NBC, Mondays at 10 p.m.
In Revolution, his great new drama on NBC, J.J. Abrams conjures up a world where electricity is a thing of the past and human civilization has descended into tribal warfare. Fifteen years after the lights went out, an ordinary girl (Tracy Spiridakos) tries to solve the mystery of how planet Earth blew the fuse. The great Giancarlo Esposito, last seen getting his face blown off as Gus Fring on Breaking Bad, continues to rule as TV’s most diabolical villain. In this global wasteland, the landscape is full of threats – peaceful farmers, murderous militias. In other words, it’s a lot like the America where we already live. Most impressive: the way Revolution goes for capital-D dramatics, making other shows look small-time.
Fox, Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.
Mindy Kaling is like a charm bombardment: She slays on The Office, on her shopping blog, in her Twitter feed and in her chatty book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). The upshot: She'll get plenty of chances to dazzle the world, so don't sweat the impossibly high expectations fans have for her new sitcom, The Mindy Project. Kaling plays a neurotic gynecologist (based, naturally, on her mom) who's looking for love yet knows almost nothing about straight guys beyond her rom-com fantasies. True, the pilot is shaky – but then, so was 30 Rock's. The best gag is about John Cougar Mellencamp – but it's not as funny as the one in Kaling's book, where she argues that if "Jack and Diane" were a couple of immigrant kids, they would have had too many after-school jobs to hang out at the Tastee Freez. Point taken.
FX, Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
The Sons of Anarchy biker gang rode tall through the fourth season, and this one promises to be on the same level, especially with strange new additions to the cast like Jimmy Smits and Ashley Tisdale. But the soul of the show is still the battle between Clay (Ron Perlman) and Jax (Charlie Hunman), the old-school hippie psychopath and his blond babyface Kurt Cobain archetype of an adopted son. Last season went out with engines roaring, not to mention Jax's blade held to Clay's throat with mama's full approval. Expect the subcultural and generational warfare to keep raging.
CBS, Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
Dennis Quaid vs. Michael Chiklis? Now that's a duel. The new thriller, Vegas, is set in the 1960s for a bit of that Mad Men flavor, à la Pan Am or The Playboy Club, already-forgotten flops from last year. Quaid, having reached the network-drama point in his fame arc, struts his stuff as a down-home rancher who turns sheriff, Walking Tall-style, because he's sick and tired of these goddamn city slickers bringing their casino corruption to his native soil. Chiklis is the Chicago mobster who isn't going to roll over so easily, and Carrie-Anne Moss, from The Matrix, shines as a feisty DA. It's not to be confused with the meta-cheese Aaron Spelling drama with the same title, though Spelling was shrewd enough to spell his Vega$ with a dollar sign.
NBC, Wednesdays at 8 p.m.
It definitely says something about the sorry state of the sitcom when one of the best new ones is about a sex-starved veterinarian. Is Animal Practice groundbreaking comedy? No. Is it aggressively insulting to any functional human cortex? Well, yeah. In other words, it's an old-school lunkhead sitcom out for cheap giggles, and it proves why that kind of sitcom is often superior to the quippy mockumentary-style clever-clever kind. The doctor even gets a zany monkey for his sidekick. (Does this monkey know how to give people the finger? Let us pray.) Justin Kirk, so underused on Weeds, heads a cast full of hungry shoulda-beens who have to realize this could be their last shot, always a promising scenario. As the doctor, Kirk romances his boss, who owns the hospital. But he's a better match for the monkey.
The CW, Wednesdays Starting October 10th at 8 p.m.
Ladies and gentlemen, the most topless vigilante superhero on television: Stephen Amell as the Green Arrow, of DC Comics fame. It's like this guy can't keep his shirt on, because that would interfere with the aerodynamics of his bow-and-arrows technique. On Arrow, Amell starts off as billionaire playboy Oliver Queen, who has to check his head when he gets shipwrecked on an island for a few years. When he returns home to Starling City, he adopts a secret identity, the kind that billionaire playboys love. By night, he fights crime, archery-style. It has all the glitz you expect from the CW, but Amell is the one who holds it all together. He battles the bad guys, armed with truth, justice, his trusty crossbow and his permanently erect nipples.
Fox, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m.
Has any show in TV history ditched Nicole Scherzinger and not improved drastically? How about Paula Abdul? Okay, so Idol has never really filled that Paula-shaped hole, but the reshuffled judge panel on X Factor can only mean better days after an underwhelming debut season. Demi Lovato, yeah yeah, but the real reason to watch: Britney. The very idea of our girl on live TV, speaking words no less, is enough to push the "gimme more" button. Bold prediction: This will make an even finer Brit TV series than Britney & Kevin: Chaotic.
ABC, Wednesdays Starting October 10th at 10 p.m.
Connie Britton is building the most nonsensical résumé in Hollywood: from the mega-earnest Tami on Friday Night Lights, where she played the only straight woman in America who didn't seem like she wanted to sleep with Coach Taylor, to the hapless harridan of American Horror Story, where she jumped on the gimp in the attic and rode him like a funky pony. But Nashville may be her crowning glory. As a washed-up country star, Britton tries to salvage her career by going out on tour with a snotty, stuck-up little ingénue: Hayden Panettiere. Needless to say, the two square off with jealous mind games – Britton gets in touch with her self-righteous scorn, while Panettiere is bracingly believable as the brat. It all makes for extremely fruitful pulp – it's Smash meets Amadeus, only in cowboy boots.
NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.
Leslie Knope goes to Washington? The mind reels. A John McCain cameo is one thing – but an Olympia Snowe cameo? Now that's hardcore. Moderate Republicans might have to settle for Parks and Rec as the last American institution where they still exist.
CBS, Thursdays at 8 p.m.
Talk about boldly going. Thanks to saturation airplay in late-night reruns, the nerds of The Big Bang Theory are now huger than ever. They continue to defy every law of show-biz science by charming the masses with ridiculously arcane jokes about experimental physics. And the Green Lantern. And brisket. As the sixth season begins, newlywed Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) orbits in outer space. (Will his mother still torment him there? Of course she will!) Meanwhile on earth, Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik are one of TV's most compellingly anti-romantic couples.
ABC, Thursdays at 8 p.m.
Last Resort, the new show from The Shield's Shawn Ryan, goes for the sort of big-budget huge-cast tropical-location gusto you thought the networks were too chicken to attempt any more. When the crew of the USS Colorado receives a suspicious order to launch a nuclear attack on Pakistan, the captain (Andre Braugher from Homicide: Life on the Street) has a hunch he's getting suckered into starting World War III. The White House strips him of command, the sub gets attacked, and the crew winds up taking over a NATO base and declaring itself an independent nation – complete with nukes. All of the acting is strong, and Braugher is superb as the troubled chief. But it's the wide-screen ambition of Last Resort that makes you hungry to know what happens next.
CBS, Thursdays at 10 p.m.
We're living in a golden age of Sherlock Holmes knockoffs, from House to Breaking Bad, with brainy asshole antiheroes who boast superdeveloped intellects and no other human skills. But the Sherlock of
Elementary captures the brain-for-hire cynicism of the original stories. Jonny Lee Miller, best known as Sick Boy from Trainspotting, has a bratty restlessness that's perfect for this Holmes, a London-born rogue who just got out of rehab and moved to New York to get off drugs. (People do that in real life all the time, right?) Lucy Liu is his sober sidekick, Dr. Watson, and Aidan Quinn gives them a run for their money as the NYPD captain who has to work with this head case. It's Sherlock Holmes as the ultimate freelancer – especially since he has a rich daddy to cover his health insurance.
NBC, Fridays Starting October 19th at 8:30 p.m.
Exit Dan Harmon, enter Malcolm McDowell as the creepy new history professor. And Chevy Chase is hanging in there. So will they have more fun and be less weird than the first three years combined? The Greendale study group got a welcome death-row reprieve from the network guillotine, but Harmon was the visionary who gave Community its distinctively twisted touch. Even if it fails without him, the typical Community fan can at least find a perverse way to appreciate this season as a parallel-universe timeline.
Fox, Saturdays at 11 p.m.
Like The Office, of all shows, Fringe heads into a final season where nobody can even guess what the hell is going on. It's superb news that the astoundingly inventive Fringe is getting a fifth season to bring the story to a close. And it's a sure bet to be awesome, because Fringe has never screwed up before; every step of the way, through all the drugs and time travel, the writers have kept faith with the viewers without cheating or cutting narrative corners. Last season ended with a badass flash-forward to 2036, with Walter Bishop and the Fringe heroes plotting to outsmart the Observers who have taken over the planet. Despite all the complex lysergic narratives dangling in the air, this should be a hell of an endgame.