Although some new series have already premiered, the 2013-14 TV season officially starts next week with returning series offering new episodes and newcomers making their debut, including NBC's "The Blacklist" and CBS's "Hostages" and "Mom" on Monday night.
Easily the best of the three new Monday shows debuting next week, "The Blacklist" (10 p.m. Monday, WPXI) stars James Spader ("Boston Legal") as the FBI's most wanted fugitive Raymond Reddington, who mysteriously surrenders to the FBI and starts spilling a terrorist's secrets after years in the wind. But he has one condition: He'll speak only to rookie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone).
He tells her a terrorist is on American soil and plans to kidnap the child of an American general.
"I'm gonna make you famous, Lizzy," Reddington says somewhat ominously.
Their relationship is reminiscent of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in "The Silence of the Lambs" right down to a conversation similar to the lambs conversation in "Silence."
"Tell me about the scar on your palm," Reddington purrs. "I've noticed how you stroke it."
It's clear Reddington knows Keen, but the pilot teases what that relationship might be. Is he her father? Does he have some knowledge of her damaged past? Presumably all of that will play out in upcoming episodes.
Naturally, everything in the pilot happens at just the wrong time for Keen, who is preparing to adopt a child with husband Tom (Ryan Eggold, "90210"). Their relationship is tested by the entrance of Reddington in their lives and the revelations the events of the day prompt.
"The Blacklist" begins with somewhat lighter scenes then the intensity ratchets up as the pilot episode continues. The tone change is a bit abrupt, and the show does nothing to prepare viewers for the mayhem -- several stabbings, a child's life is threatened -- that follows.
But viewers who can handle the twists and turns will be intrigued, particularly by Mr. Spader's performance. He's perfectly cast as the show's enigmatic lead character, a self-amused mastermind with a murky past who's just as comfortable being cheeky as menacing.
CBS takes a swing, but mostly misses, with "Hostages" (10 p.m. Monday, KDKA-TV), a rare, serialized thriller on a network mostly known for episodic police procedurals.
Toni Collette ("The United States of Tara") stars as Dr. Ellen Sanders, who is due to remove a mass from the right lung of the American president (James Naughton) when a rogue FBI agent, Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott in full McDermottian smolder), takes her and her family hostage and orders her to kill the president on the operating table.
That setup brings to mind last fall's flop, "The Mob Doctor," which had a crime boss forcing a surgeon into the same impossible scenario. It's no more plausible in "Hostages," which is only slightly smarter.
What makes "Hostages" such a disappointment is the overly familiar/lame dialogue and plotting.
"The women's rights groups are going to love this lady doctor," says a smarmy aide to the president. He doesn't twirl a mustache while saying the line, but he might as well.
Along the same lines, Ellen's family members each come with ready-made secrets that will complicate the kidnappers' plans. It's all contrived, after-school special-styled drama viewers have seen a million times, which makes "Hostages" a paint-by-number thriller.
The series does hint at Carlisle's motivation, and maybe the show will get more interesting once his reasons for wanting the president dead are revealed, but the pilot doesn't exactly demand viewers tune in for episode two.
It's clear a pilot isn't holding one's attention when the most interesting thing about it is the casting of Kate Burton as the president's wife when she already plays the vice president on "Scandal." (The role has been recast and scenes in the premiere were reshot with actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio playing the president's wife.)
Viewers meet high school dropout Christy (Anna Faris, "Scary Movie") on a bad day when the young waitress is crying into her customers' food. Daily affirmations in the car do little to calm her down when she comes home to find her daughter's half-dressed boyfriend (Spencer Daniels) climbing out of a bedroom window.
"In case you've forgotten, I got pregnant with you when I was a teenager, and, please don't take this the wrong way, it ruined my life," Christy says to daughter Violet (Sadie Calvano).
"Mom" is a bit all over the place in its pilot, introducing seemingly extraneous characters at Christy's workplace, including a sour chef (French Stewart, "3rd Rock From the Sun"), who encourages a staff member to "beat those egg whites gently as if they were a small annoying child."
The show is at its best when the focus is on Christy and her relationship with her own mother, Bonnie (Allison Janney, "The West Wing"), whom she blames for her own mistakes, including alcoholism and poor parenting.
"Some mothers teach their daughters how to bake," Christy says. "Mine taught me how to beat a cavity search and still feel like a lady."
Ms. Janney definitely improves "Mom" when she arrives fairly late in the pilot. Where Christy sometimes feels like a sad sack, Bonnie is self-assured.
"While other mothers were cooking dinner, you were cooking meth," Christy complains.
"Otherwise known as working," Bonnie responds.
Created by Chuck Lorre ("Two and a Half Men"), Eddie Gorodetsky ("Two and a Half Men") and Gemma Baker ("Two and a Half Men"), "Mom" needs some work to develop its overlarge cast, but the core characters of Christy and Bonnie show promise.
The new TV season won't officially start until Monday, but already there's been a programming change since Sunday's Post-Gazette fall TV preview went to press: Fox has pushed the start date for its Friday night Army brothers sitcom "Enlisted" from Nov. 8 to Jan. 10, although I expect it could air sooner if "Dads" flames out on Tuesday nights.
The "Emmy Awards" telecast airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS. The Creative Arts Emmys were handed out last weekend, and canceled filmed-in-Pittsburgh Nickelodeon series "Supah Ninjas" won an Emmy for outstanding stunt coordination for a comedy series or variety program.
'Hollow Crown' on PBS
PBS's "Great Performances" (9 tonight, WQED-TV) presents "The Hollow Crown," a four-part miniseries that assembles four of William Shakespeare's plays -- "Richard II," "Henry IV, Parts I & II" and "Henry V" -- into a single chronological story.
This epic miniseries stars Jeremy Irons, Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart, John Hurt, Michelle Dockery and Tom Hiddleston.
"I've always believed that Shakespeare's ripe for reinvention and rediscovery and reinterpretation because the soul of the actor who takes on the role is necessarily different," Mr. Hiddleston said at an August PBS press conference. "Because of the size and the breadth of the compassion and the understanding and the writing, all the actor has to do is fill the well of the character with their own humanity."
Executive producer Gareth Neame ("Downton Abbey") said Shakespeare's stories haven't been assembled in this manner on screen in English since the 1970s.
"I vaguely remember being shown those at school 35 years ago or something," he recalled. "And they weren't really made with any modern production values. They weren't made in any cinematic style. This is a sort of miniseries, because all four of these plays are completely interconnected and intertwined. ... I love the idea of an audience watching all four films and seeing that connective tissue."
'Bad' trivia night
AMC's "Breaking Bad" has been on a nail-biting roll with two incredibly intense episodes in a row. Fans can participate in a Geeks Who Drink "Breaking Bad" trivia night Wednesday at the North Side's James Street Gastropub, 422 Foreland St., at 8 p.m.
This past Sunday "Breaking Bad" hit a ratings high with 6.4 million viewers tuning in.
AMC has increased the episode order for the final season of "Mad Men" to 14, but it will split the show into two batches of episodes airing in spring 2014 and spring 2015. ... Fox News Channel will revamp its prime-time lineup on Oct. 7 with Megyn Kelly's "The Kelly File" at 9 p.m., "Hannity" at 10 p.m. "On the Record With Greta Van Susteren" moves to 7 p.m. "The O'Reilly Factor" stays put at 8 p.m. ... Fans of ABC Family's canceled "The Nine Lives of Chloe King" can read a script for a proposed but never filmed wrap-up movie at http://alloyentertainment.com/news/the-nine-lives-of-chloe-king-movie-script-exclusive-913131/ ... Discovery Channel will air a special tonight at 10 on the salvage operation of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Italy. ... AMC is developing a companion series for "The Walking Dead" with its producers for 2015. No plot details were announced. ... For 2014, the Pittsburgh TV market remains the 23rd largest in the country with 1.18 million TV homes, up from 1.16 million in 2013.
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Hoarders," "Longmire" and contacting TV networks. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Sons of Anarchy," Andre Braugher in "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," TV critics' top fall shows and a TV news reporter parody. Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week the Tuned In podcast is on a break. It will return next week. Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.