CBS's new series Under the Dome (Monday, 9 p.m.) is premised on a beautifully simple "what if" scenario: What if an invisible dome descended on a small town, cutting it off from the outside world?
In this Stephen King adaptation, the residents of Chester's Mill are in the midst of a normal day when the dome drops -- a spectacular special effect involving fire, earthquakes and debris. The town's population is immediately divided into those on the outside and those on the inside. Then there's the unlucky cow that happened to be standing right where a part of the dome's edge hit the ground. It simply splits in two, lengthwise.
Is this an act of terror? An act of God? Or does it have something to do with the propane recently stockpiled by city officials? A journalist (Rachelle Lefevre) investigates, a city councilman (Dean Norris) struggles to restore order, and a shady character (Mike Vogel) proves his humanity by ministering to victims. The pilot is a thrill a minute, skillfully introducing the large cast of characters. It also sets up multiple mysteries that will require solving over the 13-week season.
One thing is for sure: Nothing will ever be the same in Chester's Mill. In other words, there's no way to glue that cow back together.
Sunday, 9 pm (BBC America)
The second-season premiere takes us back to rough-and-tumble New York City in the Civil War era. "Home sweet bloody home," in the words of one roguish inhabitant.
Indeed, almost all the inhabitants are rogues of one sort of another, whether upper or lower class, natives or immigrants. This week, a mustachioed scoundrel has wreaked violence on a madam who's muscling in on his prostitution business. It's up to our hero, Irish cop and Civil War veteran Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), to hunt down the villain and bring him to justice. Or at least a close approximation of justice, given the Wild West setting.
Yes, this is the frontier version of New York City, with rowdy saloons and trigger-happy lawmen. Copper does a great job of evoking the setting, from the dank interiors to the dirty streets. This is a town where life is cheap, cops are corrupt, and sex is anything but sacred.
It's a horrible place to be -- though certainly a fascinating place to visit for an hour a week.
Sunday, 9 pm (Lifetime)
The creators of Desperate Housewives turn their attention to another cohort of women in extremis, Devious Maids. In this new series, five Latina maids work for rich and famous couples in Beverly Hills. The employers (Grant Show, Susan Lucci) are condescending and clueless; the maids (Ana Ortiz, Dania Ramirez) are scheming and secretive. The writers indulge in every sordid plot element they can cram into an hour: murder, adultery, betrayal, jealousy, lies, catfights and revenge.
Devious Maids can be overly cartoonish. The actors camp it up, and the Latin-tinged score says "naughty" a bit too emphatically. Still, I respect any series that works this hard to titillate us. I hope to be truly scandalized as summer wears on.
Tuesday, 9 pm (TNT)
Last year, I slammed the pilot of this crime series. The premise seemed absurd: Neuroscience professor Daniel Pierce (Eric McCormack) is a paranoid schizophrenic who sometimes forgets to take his meds, resulting in hallucinations that help him solve crimes with a pretty FBI agent (Rachael Leigh Cook). The series took itself too seriously, making it not only preposterous, but pretentious.
But wait a minute. The second-season premiere turns out to be perfectly watchable. Daniel is called in as an expert witness in the trial of a vicious killer who appears to have changed his personality by shooting himself in the brain; the defense argues that he must be found not guilty because, with the new personality, he's not really the same man who committed the crime. True, it's farfetched, but the episode finds the right tone between dramatic and droll. That allows you to suspend disbelief and enjoy yourself.
I find my positive response puzzling after last year's scathing review. There are two possible explanations: 1) Perception has vastly improved; or 2) I forgot to take my own meds before viewing last year's pilot and hallucinated an episode much worse than the one that actually aired.
Franklin & Bash
Wednesday, 8 pm (TNT)
You might think the puerile lawyer duo Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) have worn out their welcome after two seasons of Animal House antics. It's been fun, but how many more times can we watch them get the better of uptight fellow lawyers with a brilliantly out-of-left-field stratagem?
Luckily, season three has a brilliantly out-of-left-field stratagem of its own: casting Heather Locklear as Rachel King, a haughty new law firm partner. Locklear commands the screen in the role of Franklin and Bash's ultimate opponent, an intimidating legal genius with no patience for their frat-boy nonsense. A born sadist, Rachel relishes every condescending put-down as she makes their life a living hell.
"Maybe she enjoys torturing us," Bash ventures.