Four new series to make time for

How are you fixed for time? Because there are four big new series bowing this week, all worth checking out. And whether you record them, download them, or watch them on air, that's a chunk of hours you have to surrender.

So here's a tip for freeing up viewing time: Dump all those greedy shows that demand excessive commitment, multi-night sponges like Utopia, America's Got Talent, The Voice, and American Idol. Hey, if you can't wrap it up in an hour, you can peddle your wares elsewhere.

Problem solved. Now on to the fun stuff.

How to Get Away With Murder may seem like a clunky title for a TV series, but Shonda Rhimes can get away with anything. The prolific producer now rules ABC's Thursday night schedule - lock (Grey's Anatomy at 8 p.m.), shock (Scandal at 9 p.m.) and barrel (How to Get Away With Murder at 10 p.m.)

Viola Davis (Ender's Game) stars as Annalise Keating, an intense and intimidating law professor at Philadelphia's Middleton University.

The school is clearly a stand-in for the University of Pennsylvania. The pilot was shot in and around Philadelphia with the lecture-hall scenes at Ursinus College, the trial at Delaware County Courthouse, and campus sequences at Bryn Mawr College. The show, however, is being produced in Los Angeles.

Davis goes all Sasha Fierce on the role. In fact, her potent performance nearly overwhelms the show, something that rarely happens on TV. She certainly makes the younger contingent of the cast fade into the woodwork.

Keating teaches Criminal Law 100, which basically consists of using students to help her with whatever sexy murder trial she is currently defending away from school. Each semester, she hires the four students who impress her most.

It's kind of hard to believe that an introductory course could win you a job at a prestigious law firm. But also when we visit Keating's office, it's just her and two mature assistants (Charlie Weber and Gilmore Girls' Liza Weil) rattling around. Wouldn't you expect to see dozens of former students hard at work? The place is empty. Maybe she hires them and then eats them.

Anyway, it's obvious that Keating doesn't teach legal ethics because her competitively crazed students will lie, cheat, and even pimp themselves out to get exculpatory evidence. If there's one thing you learn in Criminal Law, it's that nothing is inadmissable.

The pilot is nerve-wrackingly frantic, but if anyone can make this flaming Paper Chase exciting, it's Lady Rhimes-a-lot.

Tea Leoni's character on Madam Secretary is one of those people who have greatness thrust upon them. She's mucking the stalls at her Virginia horse farm when a presidential convoy roars up her dirt driveway.

POTUS (Keith Carradine) informs her that she's going to be his new secretary of state (the last one died suddenly). "I won't take no for an answer," he declares as he exits her kitchen.

And away we go. Madam Secretary, which will usually air Sundays at 8 p.m. (NFL permitting), adroitly juggles several plots: the international crisis of the week, an ongoing tease of Beltway conspiracy, some Foggy Bottom office politics, and a maudlin slice of Leoni's family life with her saintly husband (Tim Daly) and their precocious teens.

The scripts are witty if a little pompous. Here's a sample punch line: "You know, there's a reason they killed Socrates."

Leoni succeeds at the new post because she's always the smartest person in the room. In other words, she talks like one of Aaron Sorkin's TV proxies.

Madam Secretary has been unfairly described as a homage to Hillary Clinton. In fact it's a great deal more like Borgen, the excellent Danish TV series about a woman in a position of political power.

Except that Leoni's shrewd cabinetista is a little too perfect: calculating and compassionate, shrewd and sincere. She has a mother's heart but can play hardball like Mike Trout.

The role would be hopelessly contrived if Leoni didn't handle it so adeptly. It's wonderful to witness her maturation here, because she still trails the vixenish vapors from earlier in her career.

We travel now from Washington, D.C., to DC Comics for Gotham, the season's most buzzed-about show. As the CW's Smallville was to the Superman universe, so is Gotham (Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox) to Batman's cavernous ouevre.

Only this is not so much the origin story of the Caped Crusader as it is the early years of the man who will one day be Commissioner Gordon. The young, incorruptible police detective is played by The O.C.'s Ben McKenzie.

Gotham is heavily seasoned with bad guys, including the slimy hatchling (Robin Taylor) who will evolve into the Penguin. The Riddler? The Joker? Their prototypes are waiting in the wings.

The pilot is unusually dense in terms of characters and plot, as if desperate to be taken seriously. Chill, guys. We were already smitten with your lustrous and cinematic atmosphere.

In its early going, Gotham is hamhanded and a little bombastic, but drop-dead gorgeous.

No superheroes in Scorpion (Monday at 9 p.m. on CBS). Just individuals of extreme intelligence, which as TV has shown us over and over, is a terrible affliction.

Elyes Gabel (World War Z) plays Walter O'Brien, a guy we are assured is "one of the five smartest people alive." (O'Brien is an actual person, an Irishman with a sticker-shock IQ whose hacker name was Scorpion.)

Our TV savant heads up a misfit pack of brainiacs who are so lost in their thoughts they have to be reminded to eat.

But Homeland Security's Los Angeles bureau chief (Robert Patrick of The X-Files) decides to harness their collective genius to prevent catastrophic events.

The show awkwardly tries to rope in a coffeeshop waitress (Smash's Katharine McPhee) as the only person who can mediate between these eccentric eggheads and regular people.

Scorpion has a really cool and grabby pilot that moves at a jolting, jackrabbit pace. But the episode has the unmistakable aura of a magic trick. If the series can indeed replicate the pilot's voltage every week - or even some weeks - this could be one of the season's happiest surprises.

HILTBRAND'S HIGHLIGHTS

Warm up the DVR. These are five programs you don't want to miss this week.

The Good Wife (season premiere). Will Alicia run for office? Will Diane join Florrick/Argos? Most important, will Cary ever get out of a place a lawyer should never find himself? 9:30 p.m. Sunday on CBS3

Forever (series debut). Ioan Gruffudd (love typing that name) plays a . . . well, it's complicated. But the shocking opening sequence may be the best introduction of a protagonist and a premise you will ever see. 10 p.m. Monday on 6ABC

Black-ish (series premiere). Anthony Anderson hits the mark as an affluent African American who worries that his four kids have become too suburban. With Laurence Fishburne. 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on 6ABC

Key & Peele (season premiere). Endlessly inventive comedians Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key bring the funny back, including one futuristic sci-fi skit in which they sort out humans from occupying aliens by checking their racial attitudes. 10:30 p.m. Wednesday on Comedy Central

Transparent (series premiere). A Jewish patriarch (Jeffrey Tambor) shakes up his already neurotic grown children when he announces he is a woman trapped in a man's body. 10 episodes available for streaming Friday at 12:01 a.m. on Amazon.

SUMMER LOVE

What TV was Philly downloading this summer? These are the most-watched on-demand shows locally. Pretty spicy stuff.

1. The Strain (FX)

2. The Last Ship (TNT)

3. America's Got Talent (NBC)

4. Murder in the First (TNT)

5. Tyrant (FX)

Source: Comcast

 


TV REVIEW

How to Get Away With Murder

10 p.m. Thursday on 6ABC

Madam Secretary

8:30 p.m. Sunday on CBS3

Gotham

8 p.m. Monday on Fox29

Scorpion

9 p.m. Monday on CBS3


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4875 @daveondemand_tv