Matt's Guide to Wednesday Night TV: New and Returning Shows

TV Guide

Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn | Photo Credits: Richard Foreman/ABC

Continuing with a weeklong look at how the new season is shaping up, night by night, with thoughts on the pilots and selected season premieres, among other goodies.

Wednesday in a Nutshell: Hey, Fox, save something for everyone else. That's the inescapable feeling as a new juggernaut looms in The X Factor, which many expect to approach American Idol levels, at least initially, if only because of the thunderous Simon Cowell-Paula Abdul reunion hype. This will not be good news for its main reality competition, CBS' long-running Survivor franchise. But there's always room for counterprogramming in comedy and drama, which is why even if numbers are depressed a bit for ABC's sitcom lineup, there's no reason to fret when the shows are as terrific as The Middle and Emmy champ Modern Family — and this year, there's even a promising sitcom airing between them, the broadly satirical Suburgatory (premiering next week). At 10/9c, ABC's sudsy Revenge saga will consider it lucky if it can get arrested, given that it's going up against a showdown between two longtime crime titans. Look for CBS' established crime dramas to thrive — Criminal Minds has owned its slot for years — and then things get interesting at 10/9c as the CSI mothership moves from Thursdays, with Ted Danson now at the helm, facing Law & Order: SVU, which suffers a big loss with the departure of Christopher Meloni. Neither show is what you'd call a spring chicken, but Danson does put a little spring back in the step of the Las Vegas crime lab. Elsewhere on NBC, it's likely to look grim for the new comedies Up All Night and especially Free Agents, while Harry's Law makes its argument for David E. Kelley's brand of legal absurdism. With the CW, many are laying bets that the repulsive H8R isn't long for this world, but how that affects the all-star America's Next Top Model remains to be seen.

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Now on to the shows, starting with what's new:

In our Fall Preview issue, I had this to say about Fox's The X Factor (8/7c): "Y fight it? You know it's going to be huge. Let's just hope the talent lives up to the hype." I'll be tuning in live to watch the final cut of the first audition episode, and until then, there's not much I can add to that.

Also new, but already feeling kind of stale, is ABC's Revenge (10/9c). My Fall Preview take: "Forget that 'dish best served cold' cliché. Revenge's temperature runs more toward the lukewarm, feeling like an overwritten, contrived Lifetime potboiler that, like its simpering antiheroine, doesn't know when to quit." To elaborate: Brothers & Sisters' Emily VanCamp takes center stage, virtually choking on the voice-over exposition as she promises, "This is not a story about forgiveness." Setting up camp (and we do mean camp) in a Hamptons beach house, within spitting distance of the blue bloods who ruined her father — including Madeleine Stowe as the starchy queen bee — the lovely VanCamp schemes to work her way into high society so she can secretly ruin her enemies, one by one. Some are embracing this as a juicy guilty pleasure, a return to Dynasty times by way of The Count of Monte Cristo. I found it all a bit predictable and thick, like I was choking on Crisco.

A Returning Favorite: While I couldn't be happier for Modern Family's near-sweep of the comedy Emmys, I keep hoping the Academy will someday acknowledge the existence of ABC's underrated gem The Middle (8/7c), which kicks off its third season with a very funny hourlong episode that sends the Hecks on a raucous camping trip, a prospect that only papa Mike seems to savor. The big headline is the stunt casting of Ray Romano, reuniting with his Everybody Loves Raymond mate Patricia Heaton in a fractious flashback to Frankie and Mike's ill-fated outdoor honeymoon. But the heart of this episode is, as always, in the sharply drawn hilarity of the family comedy, as Poor Sue frets about starting high school, which drives shoeless brother Axl bonkers, while little Brick is too busy burying his nose in a book to fully appreciate the great outdoors. Love this wacky family.

Ditto for Modern Family (9/8c). The first of two back-to-back episodes also takes this extended clan out of its comfort zone to commune with nature, in this case a dude ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The second episode is back on home turf, as Mitch and Cam decide to tell everyone they'd like to adopt again, but as usual, the evening doesn't go according to plan.

The Crime Beat: Lots of turbulence on the job front on CSI (CBS, 10/9c) and SVU (10/9c) as they begin their 12th and 13th seasons, respectively. Things seem a little brighter for the CSI crew (and we're not talking neon here), because few will miss the leaden presence of Laurence Fishburne's Ray Langston — especially once fans get a load of Ted Danson in action as the quirky, playfully off-kilter D.B. Russell, first seen literally lying down on the job. A re-organization has ruffled feathers, most particularly those of a demoted Catherine (who calls him "Moonbeam"), but Russell is a disarmingly "easygoing kind of guy," and Danson eases gracefully into this grind.

Over at the SVU precinct, Benson is understandably rattled by the absence of her partner Stabler — "It's up to him," says Capt. Kragen when asked if he'll return, a nod to the rigorous contract negotiations, perhaps? — but Olivia is soon distracted by a classic "ripped from the headlines" case, involving an arrogant high-ranking French diplomat (Franco Nero) accused of sexually assaulting a Sudanese hotel maid (Anika Noni Rose) whose credibility soon comes under scrutiny. "Too bad Stabler's still out," says Ice-T's Tutuola, a sentiment shared by all. And it will take two new characters to fill Stabler's gumshoes. The first arrives tonight: Kelli Giddish (Chase) as a gung-ho recruit from Atlanta who can't believe she's working alongside her sex-crimes idol. Danny Pino (Cold Case) arrives next week as a cocky veteran of military intelligence. Tonight's episode shows that SVU hasn't changed its stripes or lost its step, but Benson and Mariska Hargitay won't be the only ones missing Meloni's impassioned volatility.

TIME IS UP: The final hour of BBC America's engrossing The Hour (10/9c) is upon us, and in the first-season finale — thankfully, it has been renewed — the news team risks it all, defying network bosses and the government to tell both sides of the controversial Suez story. In the process, more details emerge about Ruth's murder, and as for the identity of the mole within the BBC? You'll have to tune in to find out.

So what else is on? ... Someone finds an immunity idol on CBS' Survivor: South Pacific (8/7c). That didn't take long. ... The fans have spoken, and Paget Brewster and A.J. Cook are back full time on CBS' Criminal Minds (9/8c), but first the BAU is subjected to tough questioning by a Senate committee, led by Mark Moses (Desperate Housewives, Mad Men), who's always so good at being bad. ... Another reason to mourn Fox's cancellation of Human Target? Mark Valley is back to playing a lawyer on a David E. Kelley show, joining NBC's Harry's Law (9/8c) in its second season. It's just one of many changes, including welcoming another new associate (Tony winner Karen Olivo) as the firm moves into a plush loft. Guest stars include Alfred Molina as a murder defendant and Jean Smart as Harry's new adversary, the D.A. ... And here's a fun bit of moonlighting. Dean Norris, so memorable as Breaking Bad's pugnacious DEA agent/brother-in-law Hank, plays host to the History special The Stoned Ages (9/8c), exploring the long history of drug cultivation and use from ancient civilizations to modern pharmaceuticals (dare we say meth?).

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