About 15 minutes into the comic-book frenzy of the new ABC drama The Last Resort, the chap in charge of a U.S. nuclear submarine gets an order to launch a missile at Pakistan. At first the commander, an Obama-like figure (Andre Braugher), gets the attack in motion. Then he hesitates. And he asks Washington what the heck is going on. Within seconds he, his crew and the audience knows something is amiss in Washington. Maybe rogue military officials are playing a nefarious game at a possibly perilous cost to the world.
Sounds a bit paranoid, right? Sounds pessimistic? Get ready for more.
Less than 15 minutes into Revolution, an NBC drama, the world goes dark. All the power that fuels cars, computers, electric light, just evaporates. Planes fall from the sky. Google is no more. The meat of the drama then begins years later, in a postapocalyptic America where small communities grow their food the old-fashioned way, hunt with bow and arrow and are ruled by militias. It's dystopian and, literally, a dark America. Yeah, what if a devouring electromagnetic pulse wiped out civilization? Yeah, and what if somebody with a plan was behind it?
Paranoia permeates the new U.S. network TV season. Sure, there are frivolous comedies and cutesy dramas, but "paranoia" is an apt description for the medley of narratives and concepts that shape and identify the new season. Take the Fox drama The Following, which will air mid-season. It appears, in synopsis, to be a conventional procedural about a mentally battered FBI veteran matching wits with a wily serial killer, and yet by the end of its first hour a ripe sense of emotional despair has been unleashed. The show, best described as The Mentalist on acid, posits a cabal of serial killers with followers who can, and will, organize killing sprees.
In truth this is not the strongest of U.S. network TV seasons. Things may improve massively mid-season when new dramas to replace failures are unveiled, and cable channels kick in with their new series. There is fun and there is frippery. But there is anxiety lurking everywhere, even in a seemingly cheesy drama about a haunted apartment building. That would be ABC's 666 Park Avenue. Things go bump in the night in this elegant old Manhattan building, but there is a thorough sense of general foreboding too, and a cynical suggestion that vast wealth is accumulated only by the truly evil.
The past pervades the network series, too. While there isn't the emphasis on nostalgia that came last year when The Playboy Club and Pan-Am were debuted, the past is definitely present. The CBS drama Vegas is set not in the contemporary Las Vegas of gloss and good times – the scenario for so many TV series and movies – but in the late 1950s, when the town was the frontier for mobsters looking to control gambling and the last stand for cowboys and ranchers evading urbanization. It's essentially a good-versus-evil drama and, while upbeat, is sharply realistic about corruption. In fact there are very few blue-sky shows this season. If there isn't outright dread, there is anxiety.
Where the paranoia and anxiety come from is what is in the air in the U.S. culture now – an election year in a country still struggling to recover from a devastating recession. What happens in Revolution, with its paranoia about the fuel that drives the world evaporating overnight, is linked to an anxiety arising from the near-collapse of giant auto companies and the disappearance of huge financial institutions. What happens in The Last Resort reflects a gnawing sense that those in power in Washington are not really in charge.
There are serious shows that amount to escapism and escapist shows that have a subtly serious intent. As always, there are disastrously unfunny sitcoms and dramas that look like failures from the get-go. But there is much to be optimistic about in the quality and the craft, and there is the added bonus of returning quality network shows and serious cable dramas from previous seasons. Throughout, no matter the situation or the context, every show that's entertaining or off-putting adds a little to our understanding of the theme, small and large, that pre-occupy the American culture. People, power up your remote for paranoia, silliness and sass.
SIX SHOWS YOU CANNOT MISS
Revolution (Monday, 10 p.m., NBC, CITY-TV, now running). For all the possible meanings that can be extrapolated from it, Revolution is also populist drama with action, romance, derring-do and very handsome people. It is mainly the work of Erik Kripke, who wrote Supernatural, with J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias, Fringe), acting as executive producer. There's a big emphasis on the younger characters and a touch of The Hunger Games about the set-up, as teenager Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) sets out on a long and dangerous journey. It's a very Spielbergian show, in some ways, with a strong dynamic in family connections and the oomph of teenage love, with well-orchestrated action sequences happening at just the right intervals.
666 Park Avenue (Sunday, 10 p.m., ABC, CITY-TV, starts Sept. 30). A nice young couple move into a fab old apartment building in Manhattan where, it seems, the owners Gavin (Terry O'Quinn) and Olivia (Vanessa Williams) just like young people and help them succeed. In fact everybody in the building seems to be on the cusp of greatness. Except those who are terrified. Terrible things happen in this building and it is strongly suggested that Gavin is the Devil himself, buying and selling souls as he accumulates a vast fortune. O'Quinn (Lost) is excellent, as ever, though Vanessa Williams continues to act mainly with her widow's peak. Grabby, well-paced and spiky enough to keep you guessing, it's delicious fun, apart from its paranoid theme. American Horror Story-lite is the gist.
The Mindy Project (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., Fox, CITY-TV, starts Sept. 25). This romcom has the biggest buzz among the comedies, thanks largely to the charm and wit of Mindy Kaling (The Office), who created it and, of course, plays main character Mindy Lahiri. She's a gynecologist and romance addict looking for a love interest that matches her fantasies. It's all Bridget Jones storytelling with a dash of New Girl-style zaniness. As she tells it, Mindy fell in love with Tom (Bill Hader) and it was dreamy. Then he dumped her, married someone younger and she got arrested after getting loaded at Tom's wedding. This is the first five minutes of the show. It has undeniable charm and even snark, but Kaling, famous for her tweets and her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), is actually funnier than this and the show needs more wit and less goofy, syrupy charm.
Nashville (Wednesday, 10 p.m., ABC, CTV Two, starts Oct. 10). With an absolutely killer pilot, Nashville is the season's swiftest, smartest soap opera. All About Eve by way of bitchy country-music melodrama, it has a sizzling power struggle at its core. Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story) plays Rayna, a Nashville superstar living large until she's told her new album isn't selling, her tour is in jeopardy and, well, this kid Juliette (Hayden Panettiere, the cheerleader on Heroes) is the hottest new thing. As it happens, Juliette wants Rayna's songs, backing musicians and power, but Rayna has what Juliette doesn't – money and political influence. Sex, politics, ambition and gorgeous country songs saturate the storyline. Obviously derived thematically from the movie Country Strong, Nashville is fabulous froth. Anyone who doesn't have a hate-on for Juliette has no heart.
The Neighbors (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. ABC, starts Sept. 26; Saturday, 10 p.m., CTV, starts Sept. 29). Oh man. The show that some critics see as the first to be cancelled is indescribably goofy, but good, venomous fun, so watch it while you can. A family moves into a gated community that, they discover, is populated entirely by aliens. The aliens, who have been waiting for years for instructions from home, have half-integrated. They name their kids after famous American sports stars. So there are characters named Larry Bird, Reggie Jackson and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. They try to be good neighbors but don't understand boundaries about sex-talk and stuff. What unfolds is a raucous satire of American suburban conventions and a sharp poke at uniformity. Jami Gertz is excellent as the harried mom who finds herself surrounded by very weird critters from space. Cartoonish, mad, but inspired comedy.
Elementary (Thursday, 10 p.m., CBS, Global, starts Sept. 27). The CBS take on Sherlock Holmes is, to the surprise of almost everyone, very charming. Jonny Lee Miller is Holmes as a gadfly in contemporary Manhattan, a bundle of chic neuroses. Lucy Liu is Dr. Joan Watson and, for all the talk of gimmickry in casting a woman as Watson, the chemistry between the two is shockingly good, vaguely sexy and subtly perverse. No point in trying to sell it to fans of the new BBC version, with Benedict Cumberbatch. This is a kind of punk take on the Holmes persona and universe.
FIVE SHOWS WITH SERIOUS PROMISE
Last Resort (Thursday, 8 p.m., ABC, Global, starts Sept. 27). This is more interesting as an idea than in execution. Andre Braugher is fine as the enraged submarine commander who goes rogue, but the plotting is furiously florid and the acting style of most of the cast is manic. For all its bravura paranoia (it was created by Shawn Ryan, who did The Chicago Code and The Shield), it feels like there's a long wait to figure out what's actually at the core of the story.
Vegas (Tuesday, 10 p.m., CBS, Global, starts Sept. 25). Vegas has an expertly crafted pilot with Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis offering a masterclass in fine TV acting. Quaid is the Vegas-area rancher hired as a lawman to calm down an overheated town on the cusp of gambling mayhem, and Chiklis is the smooth thug who wants to control the action and funnel the money to his mob bosses. The retro, early-Vegas setting is nicely nourished and intriguing. With the two lead actors, this is a major testosterone high.
The Mob Doctor (Monday, 9 p.m., Fox; Sunday, 9 p.m., CTV, now running). What the title says – a doctor owes the mob so she does medical work for serious hoodlums. The pilot is overly dependent on ordinary medical stories and one longs for Jordana Spiro, in the lead role, to be given more spicy material.
Ben and Kate (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., Fox, CITY-TV, starts Sept. 25) has a mercurial charm. It's a kind of Glee-without-the-music, and about tolerance. Mainly it's about a seemingly narcissistic slacker, Ben (Nat Faxon), moving in with his tightly wound sister Kate (Dakota Johnson), and everybody, including her kids, trying to get along. The stoner tone works in the pilot and the show has loads of room to expand into genuine weirdness, if it is allowed. In truth, this series is actually funnier and more female-friendly smart than The Mindy Project.
Go On (Tuesday, 9 p.m. NBC, Global, now running). Go On is the latest in a long line of vehicles for Matthew Perry and his alleged comedic charms. This one is so-so, largely because Perry isn't central. He plays a sports-radio guy whose wife has died and he's told to undergo grief-counseling sessions. It's the group dynamic of oddballs that clicks, so far.
FOUR TO AVOID AT ALL COSTS
Beauty and the Beast (Thursday, 9 p.m., The CW, Showcase, starts Oct. 11). A woeful rehash of the 1980s soaper about a woman drawn to a hideously disfigured man. Here, it's all mostly thin teen angst as Kristin Kreuk (Smallville) plays a cop drawn to a guy who is only slightly less than hunky. An offensively vapid conspiracy plot surrounds the romance.
Partners (Monday, 8:30 p.m. CBS, CITY-TV, starts Sept. 24). An impossibly cutesy, self-indulgent, unfunny comedy about two friends, one straight and one gay, who run some kinda architecture firm together, and is based allegedly on the lives of Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick. So unfunny it almost makes it unhip to celebrate a gay-straight male friendship.
Animal Practice (Wednesday, 8 p.m., NBC, starts Sept. 26; Sunday, 7 p.m., Global, starts Sept. 30). Animal Practice features a wizard vet with a thing for critters, not people. But he's got an ex-girlfriend who, of course, becomes his boss. Highjinks ensue for 30 seconds with a chimp in a lab coat. The pilot is dreck.
Guys with Kids (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m., NBC; Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., Global, now running). Produced by Jimmy Fallon, who shouldn't give up his night job hosting a chat show. This slim sketch of a sitcom is about guys who have kids and joke about it and, well, that's about it.
NOTABLE RETURNING SHOWS
With a small smorgasbord of new and notable shows, returning hits are the main must-see TV. Few new cable dramas are scheduled for this fall and little wonder, with such shows as Boardwalk Empire (Sunday, 9 p.m., HBO Canada, now running) going ever stronger in a third season.
Dexter (returns Sunday, Sept. 30, 9 p.m., The Movie Network) has an entirely new and bizarre dynamic, since Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), adoptive sister to Dexter (Michael C. Hall), actually knows that he's a vigilante serial killer. Since she's a cop, that's tricky.
Homeland (returns Sunday, Sept. 30, 10 p.m., SuperChannel) is, of course, one of the original paranoia dramas and was last season's best new show. Returning hero Brody (Damian Lewis), who might be the most dangerous of terrorists, gets "good news" about his fate. And we're told about what's happened to Agent Carrie (Claire Danes) since undergoing electric shock therapy. The raw, nasty chemistry between these two characters is the most toxic thing on TV.
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