"The Good Wife" (CBS, Sundays), "Nashville" (ABC, Wednesdays), "Madam Secretary" (CBS, Sundays). The most satisfying and the most vexing network dramas, as seen from my little critic's corner of the world, return. And a new show whose degree of satisfaction and vexation is yet to be understood -- but which, like the others, is built around strong female leads -- comes to join them.
"The Good Wife," beginning its sixth season, is the series that has carried the banner for dramatic quality and possibility in network television; I don't want to say that it has carried it alone -- because (1) I'm probably forgetting something and (2) we may differ as to the meaning of "quality" and (3) it is sad to think this might be so. The show is not immune to bad decisions and unprofitable plotting; though I like Josh Charles, it wasn't a bad idea to eliminate his character -- the romance between Julianna Margulies' Alicia and his Will has always struck me as insisted upon from above rather than felt from below, more of a dramatic obstruction finally than an opportunity. Even so, there's nothing to beat it for intelligence, mischief and, despite regular visits to the dark side, a sense of joy. Among other things, and not the least of them, the show is a celebration of acting and actors -- and not incidentally: It makes a meal even from small, passing parts, which it fills with players, familiar and less familiar, whose presence is always a pleasure and often a surprise. (And Margulies, Christine Baranski, Alan Cumming, Archie Panjabi and Chris Noth every week -- it's a cornucopia, veritably.)
Its episodic nature, with each week's discrete cases and clients, allows the "Good Wife" writers to develop the regular characters' own messy business at a leisurely, lifelike pace. On "Nashville," where the serial is all, everything happens at an insane speed -- the hookups and breakups, personal and professional, the revelations and betrayals -- creating an air of perpetual crisis more "Valley of the Dolls" than "Treme" -- the show I once hoped "Nashville" might be, at least a little. Indeed, for a while, the producers did seem to want to create a realistic portrait of a place and a pursuit. But ABC, its taste perhaps whetted by the success of "Revenge" and then "Scandal" (whose creator Shonda Rhimes the network has given a night all her own), clearly has a thing for crazy melodrama. (So much has happened that I'm actually sort of shocked that this is only the third season.) I continue to follow the show, nevertheless, for a great, great cast; interesting characters, if somewhat misshapen by the writers' need for sensational action; and moments where the series still captures something true to the making of and the uses of music. If it isn't strictly the case that I would happily watch Connie Britton in anything (her stint in "American Horror Story" showed that I have my limits), her Rayna James is a great creation, and Britton stays grounded in the real even when all about her are losing their heads and twisting truths to make traps for fools. Sometime antagonist Hayden Panettiere shines whenever she's allowed to portray a person with feelings; and, apart from last season's unconvincing descent into drugs, Clare Bowen's Scarlett comes from a place outside of television entirely. And the new season brings the gift of Laura Benanti in a recurring role whose particulars are unknown to me -- but still, people, Laura Benanti.
The new "Madam Secretary," with Téa Leoni as the secretary of State, feels a bit like CBS looking for another "Good Wife" (they're paired on the latter's "new night"). Like Alicia Florrick at the beginning of that series, Leoni's CIA analyst-turned-academic-turned-diplomat is a family woman suddenly handling a high-pressure job, navigating office politics, acquiring colorful colleagues and working for a boss (the renascent Keith Carradine as the president of the United States) with whom she has some old business. (It is not frisky business; and her marriage -- Tim Daly, in the full flush of his mature handsomeness, is the man at home -- seems, unlike Alicia's, secure.) The pilot feels promising; it is hard to pull off seat-of-power dramas without seeming at least a little inauthentic, as most nearly every political drama other than "The West Wing" has demonstrated. But it's great to have Leoni back on television, and, like Margulies, she projects intelligence and an almost heroic ability to say no when she means it and yes when she wants to, and to tell the truths nobody else wants to hear. And Bebe Neuwirth is in it, which is never bad.
"Masterpiece Mystery: Agatha Christie's Marple" (PBS). While David Suchet had complete charge of Hercule Poirot for a quarter-century (his final episodes now available to stream from Acorn TV and airing in the good old way over PBS this fall), Agatha Christie's other great detective, Jane Marple, has been played in TV series by three women: Joan Hickson from 1984 to 1992, in the BBC's "Miss Marple," and Geraldine McEwan and then Julia McKenzie in ITV's "Agatha Christie's Marple." This series too is coming to an end, as the BBC has gained exclusive rights to adapt Christie's work. (ITV was also the home of "Agatha Christie's Poirot," so this is not a question of quality, but of British institutional prestige.) Two of the season's three feature-length episodes -- "A Caribbean Mystery" (also made as an American TV movie with Helen Hayes) and "Greenshaw's Folly" -- will air Sunday back to back. Each has the usual lot of suspects gathered together in a small place -- an island resort in the first, the traditional British country house in the second -- and a 1950s setting. (A pre-published Ian Fleming makes a cameo in "A Caribbean Mystery.") The compact, round-faced McKenzie, who more than her predecessors is the Marple I see in my mind's eye, has an underlying seriousness her mien belies: Having lived long and seen much, nothing human is foreign to her, and so she has the narrative imagination to outsleuth the local authorities who alternately grumble and patronize her; and she is hard to shock, which is also helpful, considering how the bodies pile up around her. Britcom fans note: "A Caribbean Mystery" was written by Charlie Higson, from "The Fast Show," who also appears briefly as the ornithologist who gave James Bond his name, and features Robert Webb of "That Mitchell and Webb Look" and "Peep Show."
"The Middle" (ABC, Wednesdays); "Black-ish" (ABC, Wednesdays). "The Middle" is the best family comedy on television, I am in a mood to declare, and yet I am always a little surprised to see it back again; someone must agree with me. (Not the academy voters, seemingly: Its single Emmy nomination, in 2014, was for Outstanding Makeup for a Single-Camera Series, Non-Prosthetic.) It's not quite right to call the Hecks of Orson, Ind., average -- in some respects they are below average, in other respects they are on some other chart altogether; they are prone to disaster and to the degree they triumph it's in making that disaster less than complete. Still, their joys and sorrows are recognizable ones, their money issues more common to the commonalty than the economically frictionless existence most TV characters get to live. In the opening episode of the series' sixth season, Frankie (Patricia Heaton) gets the first day of school wrong by a week; Sue (Eden Sher) goes to the orthodontist, hoping to spend her senior year without braces; Brick (Atticus Shaffer) attempts to rebrand himself with a new school bag; and Axl makes his father (Neil Flynn) feel his age.
The family in comic Anthony Anderson's new "Black-ish" is, by contrast, well-off -- mom Tracee Ellis Ross is a surgeon, pop Anderson is about to become the first African American vice president at his ad agency, or as his own doubting father Laurence Fishburne puts it, "head puppet to the white man." The point the pilot makes, pointedly, is that the family, living in affluent white suburbia, are immigrants, crossing lines of class and culture, with the same generationally determined issues (or lack of them) you'd find in any like comedy. The pilot is more assured than most; the actors know their characters and show them to you without making an explicit fuss of it. And the kids (four of them) make an unusually good impression, the more so as they're not required to act other than their age.