The big topic of conversation among TV fanatics this past week? The overall lousiness of the network’s new fall shows. After a summer filled with UnREAL, Mr. Robot, Show Me a Hero, and The Carmichael Show — not to mention the soon-departing Fear the Walking Dead, which aired its best episode yet — it was damned dispiriting to have to slog through the likes of Life in Pieces, Blindspot, and Rosewood. Where’s the panache? Where are the series with something to say?
Yes, ABC’s The Muppets and Fox’s Scream Queens had memorable debuts, though both turned some viewers off with their undertones (and overtones) of cynicism. Still, they have potential — and could even land on this weekly list of notable television somewhere down the line. Plus the next several days brings another Daily Show host, and a showcase for Rob Lowe, so who knows? Maybe new can be good.
For now though, we’re more turned on by the returning series. After hard days of hanging out with fast-talking super-detectives and middle-aged sitcom schlubs, it’s fun to spend time with the Lyons and Johnson clans — not to mention getting blackout drunk with Harriet Tubman and revisiting our favorite Brooklyn cops. In the true spirit of toasting old acquaintances, we even took a moment this week to say a last goodbye to the brilliant criminologist who launched a thousand procedurals. Bring on the Top 5!
5. Empire returns, wilder than ever (Fox)
Here’s a burning question: Is Empire “prestige television,” or just superior trash? The second-season premiere backed both claims — and strongly. “The Devils are Here” continued the show’s 180 BPM plotting, introducing a new villain (a bone-evil, sadistic drug-lord played by Chris Rock), only to bump him off by the closing credits. Meanwhile, Marisa Tomei showed up as the marvelously named “Mimi Whiteman,” a pushy lesbian who pretends to be helping Cookie wrest control of Empire Entertainment when she’s actually working with Jamal Lyons. (The twist is revealed in a literal “swiveling chair” scene!) One of the hallmarks of the hit show’s first year was how alliances shifted from episode to episode; now they flip from scene to scene, to the extent that there’s no real point in getting invested in any character’s success or failure.
So forget narrative restraint and good taste. What Empire has going for it — and what makes it more vital than a lot of TV’s “classier” efforts — is a willingness to push buttons, wantonly and frequently. It’s hard not to be impressed when one of the most most-watched programs in the country throws in a superfluous scene of gender-bending reality star Miss Lawrence singing the drag anthem “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Or when it has Our Lady of Perpetual Shade, Cookie Lyons, leading a Black Lives Matter-style protest in Central Park by donning a gorilla suit and giving a speech from a cage. Whether or not it all makes sense, this series packs more memorable images and moments into an hour than most primetime dramas do in five years. At this point, it’s more a train of thought than a TV show — and that train keeps chugging past some unexpected locations.