TV column for Wednesday, Oct. 4

“Designated Survivor,” 10 p.m., ABC.

moments sometimes exist under a cloak of casual fun. Back in 2011,
President Obama seemed bright and breezy at the Correspondents
Dinner; on his mind, however, was a plan that, the next day, would
kill Osama bin Laden.

Here's a fictional
version: The president has two concerns – so-so comedy material for
the dinner ... and a madman who could kill thousands. The result is
an adequate mix of quiet drama and sharp jeopardy.

II: “Empire,” 8 p.m., Fox.

Already a crisp
blend of gifted actors and uptempo music, “Empire” adds another
top talent: Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker plays Uncle Eddie, a
music-business icon and a friend of the Lyons.

Right now, they need
all the friends they can get. Lucious Lyon, still recovering from an
explosion, has lost his memory. His mother (Leslie Uggams) insists
he's a monster; now he sneaks away, in hopes of learning more,
causing Cookie to panic. Also, Becky makes a rash decision about
Jamal's new song.

ALTERNATIVE: “Star,” 9 p.m., Fox.

Scrambling for its
own place in the world, these three young singers keep changing their
look, sound and style. Which, alas, is sort of what the show keeps
doing, too.

Tonight, a fierce
label head (Michael Michele) puts their plans on hold. Carlotta
responds with diplomacy; Star responds with Star-like fury. It's a
scattered hour, but ends passionately.

Other choices

season-opener, 8 p.m., PBS. There are good reasons why few TV shows
focus on elephants. This one does ... and tends to be slow and dry.
It tries hard, with a booming music track; still, the story about an
orphaned elephant – isn't really crescendo-worthy.

“The Story of
God,” 8-11 p.m. ET, National Geographic, rerunning 11 p.m. to 2
a.m. Here are three pieces of Morgan Freeman's terrific documentary
series. All eight hours will air Sunday (2-10 p.m. ET) ... followed
by something even more ambitious: Freeman's superb “Story of Us”
starts next Wednesday.

Baseball, 8 p.m. ET,
TBS, or 8 p.m., AMC. Take your pick: TBS has the National League's
wild-card game; Colorado visits Arizona, with the loser ending its
season. And AMC has some fun memories: “Moneyball,” with a sharp
Aaron Sorkin script, has Brad Pitt as the Oakland A's boss.

“Modern Family,”
9 p.m., ABC. College transitions can be tricky: Manny tries to avoid
a long, tearful farewell; Haley, however, may be much more
self-reliant than her parents realized.

“Law & Order:
Special Victims Unit,” 9 p.m., NBC. Colleagues are at odds, when
Rollins and Carisi insist that a rape story seems fabricated.

“Chicago, P.D.,”
10 p.m., NBC. After a deadly explosion, a policeman disappears. He's
a Muslim and quickly becomes the prime suspect.

season-opener, 10 p.m., PBS (check local listings). Here's a big,
ambitious way to start the season – an investigation of Kim
Jong-un, including the question of who killed his half-brother.

TV column for Tuesday, Oct. 3

“This Is Us,” 9 p.m., NBC.

The three siblings
face simultaneous crises. Kate makes her debut as a bar singer ...
Kevin reluctantly returns for one episode of his TV comedy ... and
Randall frets about his own foster-parent idea.

That last one is
played brilliantly by Sterling K. Brown, capturing the wobbly
perfectionism of one of TV's great characters. But the highlight,
surprisingly, involves two people who are rarely together –
Randall's brother (Kevin) and wife (Beth). It's a brilliant little
scene; add flashbacks to Jack's struggles with alcoholism and you
have “This Is Us” at its finest.

II: “The Middle” season-opener, 8 p.m., ABC.

Every family is
supposed to provide something for the town's time capsule. Naturally,
Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton) worries about this. “After we're
gone, will people remember us?” she asks.

Yes, we will. For
eight seasons, the Hecks have provided us with a rarity – the
everyday (albeit exaggerated) humor of middle-income,
middle-Americans, just getting by. Now the final season begins with
Sue trying to cram all summer experiences into two days. It's a
bright start.

ALTERNATIVE: “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World” debut, 10 p.m.

Kevin (Jason Ritter)
has failed at everything, including a suicide attempt. Now he
retreats to the rural home of his sister (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) –
a top scientist – and her teen daughter.

Then he's genuinely
surprised to meet a celestial messenger who has news: Kevin is one of
God's chosen ones, destined for good deeds. His floundering sometimes
gets way too repetitious. Fortunately, the show is also spiced with
special-effects moments and with Ritter's off-hand charm.

Other choices

“NCIS,” 8 p.m.,
CBS. Gibbs and McGee are back from their hostage crisis, but they
must pass a psych evaluation. Meanwhile, the body of a long-missing
lieutenant has been found at a local cemetery.

“Finding Your
Roots” season-opener, 8 p.m., PBS. Larry David, 70, and Bernie
Sanders, 76, grew up in nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods. Their lives
went in opposite directions – until David began Sanders
impersonations on “Saturday Night Live.” Now we visit both men's
family trees, finding moments of joy and of profound tragedy ... and
then a neat, closing twist.

Baseball, 8 p.m.,
ESPN. The play-offs begin with a one-shot, win-or-go-home game. The
Yankees are used to playing in the post-season; the Twins are not.

“The Vietnam War,”
9 p.m. to midnight, PBS. Ken Burns' 10-part, 18-hour documentary was
a masterpiece. Now it reruns in weekly chunks; the first takes us
through the Kennedy years.

season-opener, 9 p.m., ABC. After seeing a lame Columbus Day program
at school, Dre links with Aloe Blacc to create a song for Juneteenth,
the holiday that celebrates emancipation.

“The Mayor,”
9:30, ABC. As a publicity stunt, a rapper runs for mayor ... and, to
his surprise, wins. He knows nothing about mayor-ing, but has a good
heart and two strong forces – his mom (Yvette Nichole Brown) and
his administrator (Lea Michele). The result is erratic, but has its

“NCIS: New
Orleans,” 10 p.m., CBS. A Russian operative has come to the U.S. to
provide information about sleeper agents. But now he's disappeared
and his Navy escort has been killed.

“Law & Order:
True Crime,” 10 p.m., NBC. In the opener, Lyle and Erik Menendez
went on a shopping spree shortly after their parents were brutally
slain. In this moderately interesting hour, they become suspects ...
and a tip strains the limits of patient-doctor confidentiality.

TV column for Monday, Oct. 2

“The Big Bang Theory,” 8 p.m., CBS.

After a decade, TV's
best comedy is better than ever.

Yes, the four guys
remain flawed and funny. (Tonight, Leonard botches a radio interview
so badly that he puts his job – and the entire physics department –
at risk.) The difference now is that there are more women for
counterpoint and commentary. Penny has always been there, but she
keeps getting sharper ... and she's joined by Amy and Bernadette.
Most of this is funny; the last minutes are hilarious.

“9JKL” debut, 8:31 p.m. , CBS.

For Mark Feuerstein,
this was taking togetherness to the extreme. His home (with wife and
kids) was in California, but his new show -- “Royal Pains,” set
in the Hamptons – was in New York. So he rented an apartment that
had his parents on one side and his brother on the other.

Now Feuerstein and
his wife (a comedy writer) have turned that into a show. Feuerstein
plays someone sort of like himself, but divorced and between jobs;
Elliott Gould and Linda Levin play hyper versions of his parents. The
result is sometimes too strained and silly, but mostly remains fairly

“The Gifted” debut, 9 p.m., Fox.

The Marvel stories
often appeal to kids who feeling they don't fit in. Sometimes that's
subtle; this time it's direct: Andy is a sensitive teen, stalked by
bullies; his sister Lauren is cute and popular. Both are also
starting to realize they have unharnessed powers ... something that
can get them arrested.

Their dad (Stephen
Moyer of “True Blood”) has spent years prosecuting such kids ...
but now love prevails. He's on the lam, with his wife (Amy Acker) and
kids, trying to link with a youthful, underground movement. The
result offers a fairly decent mix of warmth, fantasy and whiz-bang

Other choices

“The Voice”
(NBC) and “Dancing With the Stars” (ABC), 8-10:01 p.m. The
reality giants will keep colliding each week. “Voice” is still
early in its auditions, but “Stars” has been ousting people –
starting with its oldest competitors. Barbara Corcoran, 68, went
first; Debbie Gibson, 47, went second.

“Lucifer,” 8
p.m., Fox. Lucifer was really getting used to being on Earth, looking
like everyone else and helping solve crimes. But now he wakes up in
the desert; his wings are back and he doesn't know what happened. Tom
Welling (“Smallville”) joins the cast, as a stern police

“Kevin Can Wait,”
9 p.m., CBS. In last week's pleasant opener, Kevin's daughter had a
hurry-up wedding, to keep her her fiance from being deported. Now she
finds her dad is way too attentive, so she tricks him into taking a
job at the security firm run by his former police partner. That's the
role played by Leah Remini, whose real-life husband Angelo Pagan
guests as Anthony.

“Me, Myself and
I,” 9:30 p.m., CBS. At 14, Alex tries to recover from his
embarrassing moment at the dance. At 40 and divorced, he's urged to
try the dating scene. At 65, he and Eleanor have their first date.

“The Halcyon”
debut, 10 p.m., Ovation. In 1940, the German blitz is about to batter
London. But at this upscale hotel, with a soaring jazz band, the
patrons seem cheerful, the owners seem oblivious. The manager and his
brainy daughter know better. Trouble looms, in a solid start to a
sturdy drama.

“The Good Doctor,”
10:01 p.m., ABC. In the excellent opener, Dr. Murphy was saving lives
before reaching the hospital. Now, in his first full day, he shows an
attention to detail that frustrates the others.

“The Brave,”
10:01 p.m., NBC. A CIA agent is attacked by rebels in Russia. The
team races there, wondering why she's so important to the attackers.

TV column for Sunday, Oct. 1

“Ghosted” debut, 8:30 p.m., Fox.

Once a top
policeman, Leroy (Craig Robinson) is now a mall cop. Once a Stanford
professor, Max (Adam Scott) is a book-store clerk. Clearly, this
isn't the desired career trajectory.

Then they're
snatched by a secret unit that fights aliens and such. Like
“Ghostbusters,” this show deftly mixes comedy and special
effects. Much of the fun is i the droll give-and-take between two
strangers who are united only by a deep disdain for headless

II: “Ten Days in the Valley” debut, 10 p.m., ABC.

Jane seems to be
breezing through an easy life. After making an award-winning police
documentary, she became writer-producer of a TV cop show. She has a
beautiful home, a sweet daughter, more.

But she's also
divorced and overworked, using drugs to get her through. Then comes a
horrendous crime ... one that her own secrets complicate. This is the
start of a richly layered, 10-week mini-series, one boosted by a
skilled cast led by Kyra Sedgwick.

ALTERNATIVE: “Masterpiece: Poldark” season-opener, 9-11 p.m.,

Strong and silent,
sturdy and steady, Ross Poldark is a pillar from the past. In a TV
world of flawed heroes, he remains honest to a fault. And tonight,
that fault becomes way too prevalent: By stubbornly staying aloof, he
may have set the path for future injustice; this good man is
sometimes hard to like.

That part doesn't
happen until late in this two-hour opener. By then, many things have
flashed past us – a wedding, a birth, several deaths and the first
sparks of young love. Old characters return; an old feud keeps
re-igniting. Against gorgeous backdrops, this is an epic – albeit
frustrating – tale.

Other choices

“The Toy Box” (7
p.m.) and “Shark Tank” (8-10 p.m.) season-openers, ABC. At least,
this is consistent: For the TV season's first week, “Shark Tank”
expands to two hours, preceded by a show that's almost its clone, but
for toys. This may be laziest scheduling since Tuesdays
(“NCIS/Bull/NCIS”) on CBS.

Football, 8:30 p.m.
ET, NBC. This seemed likely to be a top-tier collision – Andrew
Luck's Indianapolis Colts visiting Russell Wilson's Seattle Seahawks.
But Luck could miss half the season, Wilson has had shaky support and
both teams are off to a 1-2 start.

“Wisdom of the
Crowd” debut, 8:30 p.m., CBS. Wouldn't it be interesting if people
used social media to solve crimes and catch crooks? Maybe, but
“Wisdom” is mostly flat and wooden. Like last year's “Pure
Genius” and “APB,” it shows us that high-tech shows can miss
the human connection.

“Ray Donovan”
(Showtime) or “The Deuce” (HBO), both 9 p.m. On Showtime, we get
emotional moments in flashbacks, as Ray's wife faces late-stage
cancer; on HBO, Vincent (James Franco) gets a tempting offer from a
mobster; his brother Frankie (also Franco) hits a lucky streak.

“Last Man on
Earth” season-opener, 9:30 p.m., Fox. It's a “Saturday Night
Live” reunion, when Kristen Wiig joins Will Forte's show. In a
couple episodes last season, she played a spoiled-rich survivor, Now
she's on a yacht to Mexico with the others ... none of them with any
boating skills.

“Curb Your
Enthusiasm” season-opener, 10 p.m., HBO. Maybe Larry David
misunderstood how a sabbatical should work. This season arrives six
years and 20 days after the previous one ended Still unenthused,
Larry offends Jeff's barber and tries to get rid of an inept

“This Is Life”
season-opener, 10 p.m. ET, CNN. What happens when the sexual drive
simply seems to be missing? In this hour, Lisa Ling views an
exuberent love-your-own-body advocate and a soft-spoken sexual
surrogate. It's a fairly restrained visit to an adults-only subject.

TV column for Saturday, Sept. 30

“Saturday Night Live” season-opener, 11:29 p.m., NBC.

Life has been good
for “SNL” lately. Last season, it had its highest ratings in
years, then piled up eight Emmys. That included best variety/sketch
show and Emmys for one regular (Kate McKinnon) and three guests (Alec
Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy and Dave Chapelle).

Now it starts its
season with Ryan Gosling as host and Jay-Z as music guest. Three of
the regulars Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer and Sasheer Zamata -- are
gone, but the comedy continues.

“Blood Ties: The Menendez Brothers.” noon to 2 p.m.,
Investigation Discovery; and “The Murder of Laci Peterson,” 6
p.m. to 12:02 a.m., Lifetime.

TV keeps handing us
true-crime tales in two ways – long and REALLY long.

You can catch the
Menendez story as a two-hours documentary today on ID ... or as a
scripted mini-series on eight Tuesdays on NBC. The Peterson story was
a two-hour ABC film and a seven-hour A&E series. Now most of the
latter reruns on Lifetime; its final hours then re-rerun from 12:02
to 4:04 a.m.

ALTERNATIVE: “Halt and Catch Fire,” 9 p.m., AMC, rerunning at

This episode starts
with a small surprise and ends with a large, shattering jolt.

At first, it's
simply the story of five people who used to work together, now split
far apart. Joe and Gordon have one search engine (Comet); Donna
(Gordon's ex-wife) had another (Rover), until she was dumped by
Diane. Cameron, Joe's lover, secretly helped Rover, as a favor to
their friend Boz. Can anything bring these scattered pieces together?
Tonight's final minutes are beautifully crafted.

ALTERNATIVE II: “Versailles” season-opener, 10 p.m. ET, Ovation;
reruns at 2:30 a.m.

This lush series
deftly juggles genres. It's filmed in France, but in English, mostly
with British actors; it offers some soap-style bursts of fiction, but
does it against a backdrop of history.

Now that history is
at a wobbly point. King Louis XIV has built his gorgeous, suburban
palace and his gorgeous life, complete with wife and on-site
mistress. But he has perpetual wars, plus a new crisis: We are
entering what was called the “Affair of the Poisons,” a five-year
stretch filled with executions.

Other choices

“Alice in
Wonderland” (1951), 10:05 a.m., Freeform. One of the all-time
greats is the first piece of a Disney cartoon marathon. “Snow
White” (1937) is at 12:05 p.m.; after a break, there's “Cars”
(2006) at 4:50 p.m., “Mulan” (1998) at 7:30 and “Up” (2009)
at 9:30.

Football, 8 p.m. ET,
ABC and Fox. ABC again has the top match-up, this time with
second-ranked Clemson visiting Virginia Tech (No. 12); Fox counters
with Oklahoma State (No. 15) at Texas Tech. There's much more on
cable, including top-ranked Alabama hosting Mississippi at 9 p.m. ET
on ESPN.

“NCIS,” 8 p.m.,
CBS. In a rerun from last year, the murder of a petty officer is
linked to a missing British agent. Now Quinn and Bishop go to
Philadelphia to work with a British agent (Duane Henry).

“Will &
Grace,” 8 p.m., NBC. If you missed Thursday's season-opener,
definitely catch this quick rerun. It mixes slick, smart dialog with
broad sight gags ... including, perhaps, the first Oval-Office pillow
fight. It's a great episode ... and next Thursday's is even better.

8:30 p.m., NBC. Here's another quick rerun from Thursday. The
physical effects of the tornado are being repaired, but the emotional
ones linger ... including Amy and Jonah's awkward kiss.

“The Man From
U.N.C.L.E.” (2015), 9 p.m., TNT. There's a shaky line between being
cool and simply being cold and flat. Director Guy Ritchie and star
Armie Hammer pass that line, turning a fun TV show into a cardboard
movie. As an alternate choice, try two films – the jaunty
“Kingsman” (2015) at 7 p.m. on FXX or “Pitch Perfect 2”
(2015) at 7:30 on FX – before seeing their sequels. Both repeat at