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" (9 p.m. CDT) 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 that 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 the one between Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in "The Silence of the Lambs."
It's clear that 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 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.), 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 all have ready-made secrets that will complicate the kidnappers' plans. It's all contrived drama that viewers have seen a million times, which makes "Hostages" a paint-by-numbers 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 that 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."
Janney definitely improves "Mom"