TV column for Wednesday, Sept. 28

“Empire,” 9 p.m., Fox.

Like last week's
season-opener, this is relatively low on music and strong on societal

One issue involves
gun violence in Chicago; Jamal – who's been emotionally fragile
ever since Freda almost killed him – tries to take charge. Another
issue – a prevalent one – strikes his brother Andre in the final
minutes. In between, there are more stories ... including a slickly
handsome councilman (Taye Diggs), who instantly has Cookie's
attention; Lucious, who keeps trying to win her back, is not pleased.

II: “Code Black” season-opener, 10 p.m., CBS.

Just as cancellation
seemed imminent, “Code” hatched a drastic transformation. Gone
are Bonnie Somerville and Raza Jaffrey, whose doctors (Christa and
Neal) were at the show's core; getting more focus are three new
residents and two bosses:

Boris Kodjoe arrived
late last season, to lead the emergency room and operating room; Rob
Lowe arrives now as Col. Willis, embedded in this hospital because it
resembles a combat zone; soon, he's on a wild helicopter ride, trying
to save shark victims.

ALTERNATIVE: “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” 10:30 p.m., TBS;
or “Designated Survivor,” 10 p.m., ABC.

Tonight, we can take
our presidential politics in two ways – satirical or fictional. The
former is from Bee, whose show -- usually caustic, generally funny --
has received a Television Critics Association award and an Emmy
nomiation. This episode was pushed back two days, so she can eye the

And the fictional
side is from the season's best new show. Last week, a lowly cabinet
member (Kiefer Sutherland) was the”designated survivor,” hidden
away during the State of the Union address. A disaster struck and now
he's president, trying to run the country amid chaos and confusion.

Other choices

“Lethal Weapon,”
8 p.m., Fox. Jason Derulo guests as a boxer. Riggs (Damon Wayans) and
Murtaugh go to his house to field a noise complaint; then guns are
fired, bringing them into a major case of gun-runners who have
advanced military technology.

“Survivor,” 8
p.m., CBS. A week into this generational battle, the young folks
lead. The “Millennials” tribe survived; the first ouster, from
the “Gen X” tribe, was Rachel Ako, 37, a recruiting director.

8:30 p.m., ABC. One of the best things about last week's debut was
Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), the truth-telling groundskeeper. Now
J.J., who has cerebral palsey, has chosen him as his caregiver and
his voice. That creates instant conflicts with J.J.'s intense mom
(Minie Driver).

“Criminal Minds”
season-opener, 9 p.m., CBS. It's turnover time again, as the 12th
season starts. Shemar Moore has left; Thomas Gibson was fired –
anger issues, apparently – and will be gone by this season's fourth
episode. Paget Brewster returns to the show early this season and
Aisha Tyler becomes a regular. Adam Rodriguez (“CSI: Miami”)
joins the cast tonight, joining the search for an escaped killer.

“Modern Family,”
9 p.m., ABC. Jay wants to impress the new neighbors and Manny wants
to impress an attractive girl who has radical views. Meanwhile,
Alex's mono changes life at her home. Also, Cam and Mitchell re-think
their own parenting, after hearing Lily insults her new friend.

9:31 p.m., ABC. When his daughter starts questioning her belief in
God, Dre looks for ideas from family members and co-workers. Also,
his brother-in-law moves in, creating problems.

“Younger,” 10
p.m., TV Land. Liz juggles the requirements of her real age (early
40s) and what she pretends to be (mid-20s). Tonight, she sends her
daughter to college and ponders two handsome guys, one from each age
group; Sutton Foster, 41, fits the role neatly. The “Impastor”
season-opener follows.

TV column for Tuesday, Sept. 27

SHOULD-SEE: “Frontline,” 9-11 p.m., PBS.

On the night after
the debate, most networks retreat from politics. One exception is
Comedy Central, where “The Daily Show” (11 p.m.) can take a
day-after view of the debate; another is PBS.

At 8 p.m.,
“Contenders” views the Mitt Romney and Michael Dukakis campaigns;
at 9 is a duo biography, startig at turning points: Hillary Clinton's
husband had lost his re-election campaign for governor, amid
complaints that her hip look and attitude didn't suit Arkansas.
Donald Trump had been mocked by President Obama, whose citizenship he
disputed. Both would transform their images.

“Agents of SHIELD,” 10 p.m., ABC.

Ghost Rider has had
a wild ride through Marvel Comics. He was a cowboy on horseback, then
Johnny Blaze on motorcycle and then Robbie Reyes in a souped-up, 1969
Dodge Charger.

Blaze had two
Nicolas Cage's movies, but now it's Reyes' turn. Gabriel Luna –
fresh from playing a motorcycle racer in “Harley and the Davidsons”
-- plays the avenging spirit with a magical car. Tonight, Dixie
battles him, at a fierce cost; also, Coulson meets his new boss
(Jason O'Mara).

ALTERNATIVE: “This Is Us,” 10 p.m., NBC.

If you still plan to
see last week's terrific debut, skip this item. If you have seen it,
you know its twist:

Until the final
minutes, viewers didn't realize the childbirth scenes were a
flashback; that couple (Milo Ventimigilia and Mandy Moore) had twins
and an adopted son ... all of whom we meet as adults.

Now flashbacks show
that raising three 8-year-olds strains a marriage. In current times,
Kate struggles with her weight; her brother ponders the aftermath of
walking out of a starring TV role. Their adopted brother (new
Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown) struggles to bond with his biological

Other choices

“The Voice”
(NBC) or “Dancing With the Stars” (ABC), 8 p.m. After trimming to
an hour Monday, to make room for the debate, both go to two hours
tonight. For both networks, the regular Tuesday line-ups will finally
be in place on Oct. 11.

“NCIS,” 8 p.m.,
CBS. There's a death at a reunion of people from the Quantico Marine
base. Probing it, the team finds a bomb plot and a long-running theft

“New Girl,”
8:30, Fox. Sex and politics combine here. Nick gets a lesson in
modern phone sex; Jess and Cece vow to recruit voters for the
presidential election.

“Scream Queens,”
9 p.m., Fox. In the first season, Denise (Niecy Nash) was a campus
cop. Now she's a special agent, fresh from FBI training, helping
Munsch pursue the killer.

“NCIS: New
Orleans,” 10 p.m., CBS. Already being probed by the FBI, Pride
brings more suspicion when he helps a Navy Intelligence analyst (Tom
Arnold) who is suspected in multiple murders.

“Atlanta,” 10
p.m., FX. In a truly bizarre episode, Paper Boi is in a celebrity
basketball game with Justin Bieber ... who is played by a black
actor; there's a point here, arriving in a round-about way. Also,
mistaken identity lets Earn (Paper Boi's almost-manager) see how
upscale agents live.

“Born This Way,”
10 p.m., A&E. Fresh from its Emmy (best unstructured reality
show), here's the season-finale of this likable look at young people
with Down syndrome. Tonight, Stephen Ashmore faces up to his feelings
about Megan Bomgaars ... who also finds that caring for a baby is
tougher than she thought. Also, Rachel Ostergard finds romance.

TV column for Monday, Sept. 26

SHOULD-SEE: Presidential debate, 9-10:30 p.m. ET, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox,
PBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, C-SPAN, CNBC, Fox Business Network, Telemundo and Univision.

After a long and
bizarre campaign, things get serious. Three events – tonight, Oct.
9 and Oct. 19 – will play a big part in choosing a world leader.
NBC's Lester Holt will moderate this one, splitting the topics
between “America's direction,” prosperity and security. Rebuttals
will follow two-minute answers.

The broadcast
networks plan to continue coverage until at least 11 p.m. ET; the
cable channels can go on endlessly. And yes, there will be
alternatives, which we'll get to in a minute.

“The Big Bang Theory,” 8 p.m., CBS.

In its 10th
season – a time when shows are either creaky or gone -- “Big
Bang” keeps improving. Last week's season-opener was one of its
best episodes; it also opened a key plot door.

The military tried
to contact Howard about the gyroscope invention. He ducked, even when
an officer (in imposing, top-brass uniform) showed up at the door.
Now he has relented and agreed to a meeting. Meanwhile, Penny draws
gripes after revealing a secret to Bernadette's co-workers.

ALTERNATIVE: “Supergirl,” 8 and 9 p.m., CW.

As the only major
broadcaster to skip the debate, CW can boost the above-average showit
inherited from CBS. The first year's final four episodes air today
and Oct. 3, leading to an Oct. 10 season-opener.

Both of tonight's
hours eye Siobhan (Italia Ricci), the Silver Banshee; in the second,
the Flash arrives to help fight her. The first episode also ponders
secret identities: Kara considers revealing hers to someone; J'onn
J'onzz reveals how he assumed Hank Henshaw's identity.

ALTERNATIVE II: Football, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, with preview at 6.

Oddly, two of this
year presidential debates will collide with pro football games. Only
the middle one and the Oct. 4 vice-presidential one are on any of the
four days each week that the pros skip.

This game is in New
Orleans, currently forlorn after losing the first two games by a
combined four points. Arriving are the Falcons, who evened their
record at 1-1 with a big night from Matt Ryan.

Other choices

“The Voice”
(NBC) and “Dancing With the Stars” (ABC), 8 p.m. Both shows trim
their Monday in half, because of the debate. They'll each have two
hours Tuesday.

“Gotham,” 8
p.m., Fox. Everyone wants to find Hugo Strange, whose work at the
asylum brought havoc. Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) takes the
search into her own hands; Gordon reluctanly links with journalist
Valerie Vale. Meanwhile, the Penguin's popularity grows and Ivy
Pepper returns.

Movies, 8 p.m.,
cable. For those who simply want to skip the debate, there are plenty
of choices, led by the deligtful “Ghostbusters” (1984) on AMC.
Others include Bradley Cooper's “Limitless” (2011) on TNT and, at
8:30, “Pitch Perfect” (2012) on Freeform.

More movies, cable.
It's a two-choice night for fans of Mel Gibson or Angelina Jolie. He
has “What Women Want” (2000) at 6 and 9 p.m. on Oxygen and the
rousing “Road Warrior” (1981) at 8 p.m. on Sundance. At 8 p.m.,
she has “Salt” (2010) on Syfy and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”
(2005) on FX. In the latter, ironically, she and Brad Pitt keep
trying to kill each other.

“Cake Wars,” 9
p.m., Food. On Sept. 13, fans celebrated the 100th
anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl, whose books led to such
movies as “Willy Wonka,” “Matilda” and “The BFG.” Here,
four bakers try to create the perfect cake.

Post-debate humor.
Many shows, including “The Daily Show” (11 p.m., Comedy Central)
have day-after humor. Indeed, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”
(10:30 p.m., TBS) has a rerun tonight and a debate special on
Wednesday. But there are exceptions: Stephen Colbert (11:35 p.m.,
CBS) and Seth Meyers (12:37 a.m., NBC) plan live shows tonight.

TV column for Sunday, Sept. 25

“Secrets and Lies” opener, 9 p.m., ABC.

Eric (Michael Ealy)
has a bright future, a beaufiful bride (Jordana Brewster) and a warm
family. At a party, his father (Terry O'Quinn) is retiring and giving
him control of the company. Then, suddenly and starkly, there's a
murder and he's a prime suspect.

This is the second
“Secrets and Lies” mini-series. Like the original, it has a
beautifully crafted opener and then nine more episodes. Juliette
Lewis again plays the unrelenting police detective; along the way,
we'll find many people – including the detective – holding

II: “Masterpiece: Poldark” season-opener, 8-10 p.m., PBS (check
local listings).

Returning home to
the seaside beauty of Cornwall, Ross Poldark found stark poverty. He
tried to revive his families crumbling estate and its mine, while
battling his fellow aristocrats. All of that peaked at the end of the
first season, when the locals scavenged the remains of a shipwreck.

Now Poldark is on
trial, accused of stirring a mob and even of murder. Already
shattered by the death of his daughter, he offers little defense.
There are times tonight when his near-suicidal behavior wears thin;
still, “Poldark” is a beautifully filmed and acted story of a
stridently decent man.

ALTERNATIVE: “Parts Unknown” season-opener, 9 p.m. ET, CNN.

To many Americans,
Hanoi brings thoughts of death and despair. But to the people there –
most of them born after the war – that's distant, Anthony Bourdain
says. Tourists insist on seeing the war museum, but he keeps
returning for the food and the low-key friendship.

And for a portion of
this interesting hour, he meets a kindred spirit. During his Hanoi
visit in May, Barack Obama joined Bourdain at a noodle restaurant
($6, including beer). Obama fondly compared it to the flavors he
recalled from his four boyhood years in Indonesia, his stepfather's
native land.

Other choices

“Perino &
Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What,” 5 p.m. ET, Fox News. This began as
a podcast from two of the channel's regulars – Dana Perino (former
George W. Bush's press secretary) and Chris Stirewalt. It had some
promising moments in last week's opener and will continue through
Nov. 13.

“Once Upon a
Time,” 7 and 8 p.m., ABC. Lots of characters whirled past, filling
two worlds plus flashbacks. Tonight's first hour is a recap of the
first five seasons; then come new problems. Our heroes try to stop
Mr. Hyde (of Dr. Jekyll fame), while Storybrooke gets refugees from
The Land of Untold Stories. Also, Regina and Zelena – half-sisters
and (sometimes) evil witches – are roommates.

“The Simpsons,”
8 p.m. Sunday, Fox. The 28th season begins with
Springfield burning down. (You can do that sort of thing pretty
easily in a cartoon.) Mr Burns will only finance the rebuilding if
he's allowed to put on a variety show.

“NCIS: Los
Angeles,” 8:30 p.m. (barring a football overrun), CBS. To get us
used to the show's new night, CBS has a two-hour opener, holding
other shows (“Madame Secretary” and “Elementary”) until next
Sunday. Tonight, a Washington official takes control of the unit;
also, a Syrian missio goes awry, leaving a team member severely

Football, 8:30 p.m.
ET, NBC, with preview at 7. After losing their first two games (with
the second-lowest-scoring offense in the NFL), the Bears visit
Dallas. Last week, the Cowboys evened their record at 1-1, with
strong work from rookies Ezekial Elliott and (for the injured Tony
Robo) Dak Prescott.

“Last Man on
Earth,” 9:30 p.m., Fox. For these six people, who assumed they were
the only survivors, last season ended with a jolt – armed invaders
were spotted. Only Melissa (January Jones) seems ready.

season-opener, 10 p.m., ABC. The new season taskes us far from the
FBI Quantico training base of the first season. Now Alex is at “The
Farm,” a mysterious CIA training spot. Soon, she's enmeshed in a
conspiracy that threatens the U.S. and beyond.

TV column for Saturday, Sept. 24

“This is Us,” 10 p.m., NBC.

If you missed
Tuesday's debut, catch this rerun. And if you know nothing about it
... all the better.

We meet a couple
(Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia), the doctor (superbly played by
Gerald McRaney) delivering their baby, a rich businessman (Sterling
K. Brown), a TV star and more. Each is fascinating; most seem wildly
unrelated to each other. But stick around and savor how well this
hour is constructed. We have no idea where it can go from here ...
but it's the best pilot we've seen in years.

“Star Wars” marathon, TNT.

Fresh from its
mega-million-dollar deal with Disney, TNT is juggling its schedule to
show off some of the prize films it has grabbed.

First is the trilogy
set in the years before “Star Wars.” There's “The Phantom
Menace” (1999) at 10:48 a.m., “Attack of the Clones” (2002) at
1:48 p.m. and “Revenge of the Sith” (2005) at 4:55 p.m.. Then –
skipping one spot in the chronology -- “The Empire Strikes Back”
(1980) is at 8 and 10:47 p.m.

ALTERNATIVE: More movies, cable.

Tonight has all the
high-tech zing of modern movies ... and the low-tech saunter of the
cowboy era. The latter is “Shane” (1953), at 8 p.m. ET on Turner
Classic Movies; the American Film Institute lists it as the 45th-best
American movie ... and the No. 3 western, behind “The Searchers”
and “High Noon.”

In sharp contrast
are the “Matrix” films (1999 and 2003) at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. on
IFC, “The Mummy” (1999) at 7 p.m. on AMC, the first two “Hunger
Games” films (2012 and 2013) at 7:15 and 10:30 p.m. on Freeform and
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) at 8 p.m. on FX.

Other choices

“Love Begins”
and “Love's Everlasting Courage” (both 2011), 9 and 11 a.m.,
Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Wes Brown stars as a young man
finding romance and tragedy in the early West.

Janette Oke
marathon, 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Like the
films this morning, these are based on the characters in Oke's
frontier novels. January Jones stars in the first film, with Erin
Cottrell taking over the same character after that.

Football, all day.
Prime time has Baylor (ranked No. 6) hosting Oklahoma State at 7:30
p.m. ET on Fox and Stanford (No. 7) at UCLA at 8 on ABC. But ESPN may
have better match-ups, including Georgia (No. 12) at Mississippi (No.
23) at noon and Arkansas (No. 17) at Texas A&M (No. 10) at 9 p.m.

“The Voice,” 8
p.m., NBC. Here's a rerun of Monday's opener. After dominating, with
seven of the 10 winners, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine get fresh
competiton from Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys.

“NCIS: Los
Angeles,” 8 p.m., CBS. In a rerun, a DEA agent asks for help, after
her partner is killed. Also, Kensi is surprised when Deeks introduces
his mother (Pamela Reed).

“NCIS: New
Orleans,” 9 p.m., CBS. This rerun centers on a Navy hero whose
plane crashes at an air show. The team must quickly decide if the
fault was with her or the plane.

“Saturday Night
Live,” 11:29 p.m., NBC. A week before the new season starts, here's
a rerun of this past season's finale, with Fred Armisen hosting and
Courtney Barnett as music guest.