- Scream Queens. Fox. Tuesday, September 22. 8 p.m. EDT.
- Limitless. CBS. Tuesday, September 22, 10 p.m. EDT.
- Rosewood. Fox. Wednesday, September 23. 8 p.m. EDT.
- The Player. NBC. Thursday, September 24. 10 p.m. EDT.
When a furious college dean accuses a sorority house of practicing drunkenness, drug abuse, racism, and bestiality in Fox's new drama Scream Queens, the president offers an indignant defense: "No one forced that goat to get as drunk as it did." That's a reasonable if inadvertent metaphor for the continuing rollout of the first week of the fall broadcast TV system, which is part debauched fun, part deja vu all over again, and part potential trigger for profound drug abuse.
The debauched good fun is available in Scream Queens, Fox's blackly hilarious slasher parody from the producing team of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. The tale of a psycho killer loose on a college campus, Scream Queens plays a bit as like a gang war between two of their other shows, the bedlamite cutthroats of American Horror Story vs. the twee teens of Glee.
The main targets of the unknown killer are the sisters at Kappa Kappa Tau, a relentlessly blonde and bitchy sorority known for its sideboob mixers and exacting standards of feminine etiquette. (A member who indecorously gives birth to a baby in a bathtub during the spring formal is sternly warned, "You are officially the worst Kappa pledge of all time!")
There's no shortage of suspects for Kappa's high body count, including sorority-hating Dean Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis), who has ordered the house to accept anybody who wants to join, even "fatties and ethnics"; pledge and possible mole Grace Gardner (Skyler Samuels, The Wizards Of Waverly Place), whose mother came to grief at the house two decades earlier; and possibly even house president Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts, American Horror Story), whose predecessor died following a tragic and still-unexplained spray-tan accident.
Co-creator Murphy has been wittily mocking adolescent caste systems ever since he produced the cult sitcom Popular in 1999, and he's never been sharper than in Scream Queens, which is studded with affectionate allusions to everything from Animal House to Caligula. And the uber-hormonal mutual persecution between Curtis, the patron saint of martyred babysitters in the Halloween movies, and the shrewette Roberts, is masterful. The sly, cutting Roberts, with this waspishly funny performance, has emancipated herself from her genes; she's no longer daughter of Eric, niece of Julia, but just plain TV star Emma Roberts.
The week's deja vu element is CBS' Limitless, based on the 2011 Bradley Cooper/Robert DeNiro film in which a wonder drug enables the lucky few with access to it to wield every lost or unused bit of their brainpower, even the cells driven mad by Miley Cyrus records.
Though technically a sequel—it takes place after the film, and Cooper has a recurring role—Limitless feels like more of a remake, and at least in its early going plays better if you haven't seen the movie. Jake McDormin (Shameless) plays Brian Finch, a slacker nearing 30 with nothing on his resume but a failed band ("I wouldn't call it a band, per se, it's a project") and a series of ever more demeaning temp jobs.
When a sympathetic old friend offers him a pick-me-up pill, Brian's brain roars to life, not just plowing through two weeks of file-screening drudgery in an afternoon but diagnosing the mystery illness that's killing his elderly father. Every vague idea and half-wisp of a memory is now crystal clear to him and ready to be acted upon. The downside: Strangers are trying to kill him for the pills, the FBI is after him drug trafficking and—unknown to him—every other known user has wasted away and died within two years.
The interesting wrinkle introduced by the TV version of Limitless is the FBI's forced recruitment of Finch to help them track down the unknown source of the drug, NZT. But Finch's semi-super-powers make him the most unreliable of assets, able to evade and outwit his FBI handler Rebecca Dayan (Jennifer Carpenter) at will. She is scarcely more enthusiastic. "If you hand me my gun right now," she suggests after he's gotten the drop on her in one dispute, "I probably won't shoot you."
The introduction of a new crime drama on CBS—home of the cookie-cutter CSI, NCIS and Criminal Minds franchises—is usually a cause for celebration only by the (admittedly powerful and broadly based) Mediocre Screenwriting and Characterless Drama cartels.
But the chemistry between McDormin and the quirkily tempered Carpenter, who played the prickly cop sister of a serial killer on Dexter, is extremely promising. So is the clever use of CGI and lighting tricks to simulate Brian's powerful new brain doing the work of 20 people. As the show unveils multiple conspiracies, all at cross-purposes, Limitless seems less like an exploitation of its movie namesake and more like a well-made and well-thought-out TV series of its own.
"Well-though-out" is not a phrase that comes readily to mind when confronted by NBC's Player, which features Philip Winchester (Fringe) as a former military special-ops guy turned Las Vegas security consultant. The plot gimmick is Winchester's character has fallen under the control of a sinister organization that plunges him into crazed cliff-hanger situations for the high-stakes gambling amusement of bored one-percenters. It turns out that our plutocratic overlords are extremely interested in guys racing up and down stairways, swinging from roofs, crashing through windows in car chases and running around the Strip in their underwear. In short, they're plotting to turn the world into an episode of Starsky and Hutch. Has anybody told Bernie Sanders about this?
Then there's Fox's Rosewood, with Morris Chestnut (Nurse Jackie) as Beaumont Rosewood, a crime-fighting Miami pathologist who likes to smirkily show up the cops with whom he works as unscientific dumbasses—sort of like Neil deGrasse Tyson with a badge, and in just as much need of having his eyeballs slapped out. Rosewood usually introduces himself as "considered by some to be the Beethoven of private pathologists." The only benefit of watching is that you won't be able to stop humming Chuck Berry afterward.