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.
4. Bye-bye, CSI (CBS)
No, this pop-crime–procedural has never really been “hip” (outside of the Season Five two-parter that Quentin Tarantino directed). But during its mid-2000s heyday, CSI was one of the rare scripted shows that approached 30 million viewers per episode, and there’s scarcely a modern primetime crime-and-punishment show that hasn’t ripped off the show’s bloody special effects, sleek sets, and colorful ensemble casts. While viewership dropped to around eight million a week by the end of last season, the franchise’s flagship show had so much to do with the decade-long ratings dominance of CBS and the transformation of the genre that it earned a proper send-off, in the form of the two-hour TV movie.
The finale’s big hook is the return of the main cast from the series’ glory years — William Petersen’s Gil Grissom, Marg Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows, and Paul Guilfoyle’s Jim Brass — joining Ted Danson’s silver-fox investigator, along with fan-favorite recurring character “Lady Heather” (Melinda Clarke), a manipulative dominatrix who may be behind a string of Las Vegas suicide-bombings. Creator Anthony E. Zuiker wrote the script for this complex little whodunnit, with a few satisfying character moments woven between all the little deductive conversations and weird experiments (bomb tests! bee-tracking!) that was always CSI‘s selling-point. It’s so like this show to end a 15-year run with just another well-plotted episode — un-sexy but refreshingly reliable.
3. Octavia Spencer’s “bad bitch” Harriet Tubman on Drunk History (Comedy Central)
Behold as a hammered Crissle West stumbles through the story of how Underground Railroad slave-freer Harriet Tubman worked with the Union army to raid South Carolina plantations along the Combahee River — and as often happens on this inebriated civics lesson, the “drunk” and the “history” cohere spectacularly. In addition to the usual literalized descriptions (the military’s map of the waterway is marked “Mines & Shit”) and amusingly foul-mouthed proclamations (“Guns back then were just basic as fuck”), this segment had a secret weapon: Octavia Spencer as Tubman. There’s a rare comic alchemy in the combination of Spencer’s fierce facial expressions, her dowdy clothes, and the casually modern sound of lines like, “I know I can free way more slaves than what you guys are doin’ right now.” This is what Drunk History does best: teaching America about its own past while also recognizing that it’s never not funny to watch an Oscar-winning actress lip-synch someone’s boozy spiel.
2. Bill Hader: high-strung on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, singing high on Documentary Now! (Fox/IFC)
R.I.P., Seth Dozerman: Bill Hader’s persnickety police captain only lasted half a day in the 99th before he had a heart attack and died — right after catching Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta and Melissa Fumero’s Amy Santiago “frenching” in the evidence room. But the new boss had a memorable run, however brief. This was a ruthlessly efficient man, so anxious about the idea of anyone wasting time that he gave everyone in the squad-room personalized tablet computers, with countdown clocks for their assignments. (“It also has backgammon on it, which I could not delete, but which you are not allowed to play.”) As always, Hader struck a balance between cartoonish and genuine, playing him as an over-the-top tyrant with “tragedy-in-the-making” practically tattooed across his knitted brow.
And yet Brooklyn Nine-Nine was only the actor’s second-best performance on TV this week. In the season finale of Documentary Now!, Hader and Fred Armisen spoofed 1970s soft-rock and the Behind the Music/Bands Reunited-style series, playing a pair of working-class Chicagoans who briefly topped the charts by singing breezy tunes about California. The genius of the two-part “Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee” is that it goes beyond the easy joke of making fun of Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, et al. By the end, it becomes a surprisingly touching portrait of two men: the talented musician who wrote impersonal smash hits, and the old friend who rode his coattails. Hader’s character is a born hustler, whose only natural gifts are a falsetto voice and a willingness to sell out hard and fast. Like the real movies about musical megastars, it’s a cautionary tale of a guy who’s always gotten what he wanted, but never what he needs. That final scene by the pool is a doozy.
1. Black-ish tackles “The Word” (ABC)
This week, both Gotham and Fresh Off the Boat returned with confident, entertaining season premieres; and in the weeks to come we’ve got The Flash, Jane the Virgin, iZombie, The Leftovers, and Fargo to look forward to. But when it comes to returning Class of ’14 standouts, you have to give it up for Black-ish, which bested all newcomers this week with a premiere — “The Word” — that’s both a high point for the sitcom and a strong candidate for one of the best TV episodes of 2015.
By description alone, the show’s Season Two kick-off sounds like a prime-time version of an Afterschool Special. The Johnsons’ youngest son Jack sings an unexpurgated cover of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” (epithet included) at a talent show; cue a family- and school-wide conversation about when the word’s racist and when it’s okay, complicated by the differences between the hippie-dippy childhood of Jack’s mom and the harder “hood” upbringing of his dad. Eventually, everybody admits that they’re not sure where the boundaries are — not in a world where rich white kids sing along with their favorite rap lyrics, and where two of the top black charities are the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Negro College Fund.
But “The Word” is no chin-stroking lecture on semantics and etymology. It’s a rapid-fire, riotously funny half-hour of television, at once silly (Andre guiding his office through a complicated chart of who can and can’t use certain words) and sharply observed (Rainbow’s comment to her water-conserving eldest son that a black family has to keep their lawn neat and green in a white neighborhood). In short: This is Black-ish at peak strength, building off a promising first season by declaring its intention to crush the competition. Who cares if the new network shows blow when last year’s rookie champs are coming back this strong and on-point?