Thursday nights are getting kind of nuts down NBC way. When the network decided last year to kill its long-standing tradition of back-to-back comedies, it meant it with a vengeance — and that should be read literally.
"The Blacklist," the show everyone's still trying to duplicate, returns Oct. 1 to a time slot NBC hopes is made even more hip and happening by two new even higher-concept bookends: "Heroes Reborn" and "The Player." Both premiere Thursday, and one of them is very good.
"Heroes Reborn" is undeniably the more anticipated of the two, although the nature of that anticipation ranges from tentative hope to full-on dread. The Icarus-like fall of its initially brilliant and groundbreaking progenitor is the stuff of TV legend. Not even streaming-service triage could have saved "Heroes." Creator Tim Kring was forced to sit and watch Marvel reap the rewards of his live-action superhero efforts.
So it's not surprising Kring wants back in the game, even though the level of difficulty has quadrupled. His first task was to overcome the wreckage of his past. Which, to his credit, he does immediately by making metaphor into reality.
The series opens with a brief and shining glimpse of a world in which humans and their higher-evolutionary counterparts (Evos) live in blissful harmony — the Cheerleader may no longer be talking to her father, Noah Bennett (played once again by Jack Coleman), but she appears to have been saved and with her the world.
That changes in an instant, of course. A bombing kills thousands and Kring shamelessly uses real news clips to set up a parallel to the current war on terror and all that implies. Although the government assures the populace that the Evo threat has been contained, we know this is neither true nor fair.
Lots of super-cool superhumans still exist, albeit now in frightened secrecy. They are being hunted not just by the government but also grief-crazed mercenaries, including one played by "Chuck's" Zachary Levi.
This is, of course, the story that drives virtually every superhero narrative to one extent or another, most notably "X-Men." But the problem here is not familiarity but density.
Relying over-much on nostalgia for its roots, "Heroes Reborn" seems astonishingly obtuse about the new world of television. With superhumans and global threats a dime of dozen, what really matters, particularly for the broadcast networks, is establishing an immediate bond between the audience and the characters.
Even with a two-hour premiere, "Heroes Reborn" makes this absurdly difficult. Ambitious is one thing, a big hot mess is quite another.
There are too many characters to keep track of, never mind care about. One character is Noah, who gets a lot of screen time and who wasn't exactly anyone's favorite the first time around.
I came away hoping the show would ditch half its story lines in the third hour to focus almost exclusively on Miko (Kiki Sukezane), a subtitled Tokyo-based character with the freshest power twist. Perhaps the story will clarify itself by hour three, but honestly, to ask that with an already established concept seems more than a little arrogant.
"The Player," on the other hand, works with an equally complicated, not to mention familiar, uber plot. But it's spruced up and streamlined so the attractions of the fast-paced Bond-lite story allow the leads to shine immediately.
Las Vegas security expert Alex Kane ("Strike Back's" Philip Winchester) has all the super-skills, snappy humor and roiling darkness we love to see in a former military op. Just as capable of reading a room in a glance as he is of swinging through a high-rise window to make a point, Kane has been saved from the darker side of life of mayhem by his now ex-wife Ginny (Cara Buono), for whom he still has feelings. When Ginny is apparently murdered, all bets are off. Or rather, on.
Mr. Johnson (Wesley Snipes) and Cassandra King (Charity Wakefield) are icy cool, teched-out orchestrators of a high-stakes "game" in which billionaires bet on violent crime. He's the Pit Boss, she's the Dealer and they want Kane to be the Player. As he attempts to solve or prevent these crimes, the gamblers will bet for or against him.
It's an efficient if mass-produced engine — every week a different race against crime and time — made a bit more interesting by the most dangerous game gone digital. Snipes is the A-lister here, and from the opening scene on, he displays an excellent poker face, moving from menace to all-but-winking complicity in a variety of roles.
But it's the chemistry between Cassandra and Kane that ignites "The Player": She is the sleek all-seeing computer to his street-smart physicality and, like Ginny, appears to have a soft spot for doing "good."
Kane, handsomely standing in for the audience, blusters a bit about the absurdity and morality of the proposition, but he's all in, and so are we.
NBC's Thursday nights just got a little crazier.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)
When: 10 p.m. Thursday