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Fall TV 2015: Empire and 22 other returning shows you need to be watching

From low-rated (but excellent) cable dramas to some of TV's biggest hits, this fall has something for everyone

When most people talk about "fall TV," they're talking about the huge glut of new shows that networks — broadcast, cable, and streaming — put on the air between September and November. But fall also means the return of some of TV's best — or at least most entertaining — shows.

This fall might be a pretty weak one for new shows, but it's positively stuffed with great returning shows. Below are 23 we think are worth watching, organized by return date. Some are among TV's best. Some are just shows we like keeping up with. All are worth celebrating as part of the annual ritual of stuffing your DVR as full as it will go.

Watch on, America. You need never be without TV again.

1

The Mindy Project (Hulu)

Mindy Kaling’s light, charming rom-com The Mindy Project never garnered huge ratings, but it earned enough buzz to get a second life at Hulu after being canceled by Fox. If anything, the move to streaming seems to have reinvigorated the show: The strong season four premiere — which offered both a Joseph Gordon-Levitt guest turn and the long-awaited introduction of Mindy’s parents — was one of the best episodes yet. This season sees main couple Mindy and Danny facing down the twin dragons of parenting and wedding planning, with the show’s mile-a-minute quips and bizarro supporting characters to keep things from getting too gooey.

Returned September 15; new episodes air Tuesdays.

2

Gotham (Fox)

While the Batman prequel series Gotham was one of last year's most anticipated shows, it fizzled quickly thanks to a determinedly grim take, muddled cases of the week, and impatience that led to blowing through some of the most intriguing characters in Batman lore. There were moments when it worked, like whenever slinky kingpin Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) was onscreen, but overall, the show stumbled under the weight of its own expectations. Though Pinkett Smith has left the show,Gotham does seem to have heard the criticism. This season promises to amp up the campiness factor to 11 by killing off "significant" characters, exploring the infamous Arkham Asylum, and focusing on Gotham City's nefarious and cartoonish villains. Gotham is also bringing the great James Frain on board, which is a smart move for anyone looking for a convincingly menacing and endlessly watchable villain.

Returns Monday, September 21, at 8 pm Eastern.

3

Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)

Family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat premiered mid-season to a firestorm of controversy and skepticism, thanks to its contentious relationship to Eddie Huang, the memoirist who inspired the series, and an overwhelming pressure to perform as the first network sitcom about an Asian-American family in 20 years. But the show persevered, delivering week after week of pointed yet affectionate humor. Randall Park and Constance Wu made for a dynamite onscreen couple navigating what it means to be an immigrant, while their onscreen children snapped through dense lines like it was nothing. As the Huang family settles even more into their lives in 1995 Orlando, Fresh Off The Boat will hopefully build upon its momentum to deliver a similarly strong second season.

Returns Tuesday, September 22, at 8:30 pm Eastern.

4

Empire (Fox)

No network series had a faster, hotter ascent in 2015 than Empire, which debuted midseason and quickly became such a water-cooler show that Fox is bringing it back ASAP as a fall premiere, rather than holding it for January again. A musical drama centered on the troubled Lyon family and the successful record label overseen by its patriarch, Lucious (Terrence Howard), Empire gives audiences their weekly dose of high-gloss musical numbers alongside a heaping helping of prime-time-soap theatrics. Season one strove to one-up itself with each subsequent episode, so it’s reasonable to expect season two to come screaming out of the gate with lots of twists, turns, and high-profile guest stars (including Chris Rock, Marisa Tomei, and Oprah Winfrey, among many others). It’s anyone’s guess how long Empire can sustain and amplify the tone it’s set for itself, but whether the show burns brighter or flames out in season two, it’ll be a spectacle worth watching.

Returns Wednesday, September 23, at 9 pm Eastern.

5

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)

Now entering season 17, SVU shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it's become much more aggressive in recent years about adapting the latest headlines, with season 16 covering Duke porn star Belle Knox, the Slender Man stabbing case, Ray Rice's since-overturned suspension for domestic violence, the UC Santa Barbara shooting, Gamergate, and the retracted Rolling Stone story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, all within months of the stories breaking. This year looks to be no exception. The two-hour season premiere is loosely based on the case of accused murderer Robert Durst, featured earlier this year in HBO's documentary series The Jinx, while episode three concerns a bullied transgender teenager, calling to mind the death of trans teen Leelah Alcorn late last year. It's not great drama, but SVU definitely remains America's premier tabloid crime procedural.

Returns Wednesday, September 23, at 9 pm Eastern.

6

Black-ish (ABC)

Kenya Barris' freshman comedy Black-ish was one of the big success stories of the past TV season: It was the top new comedy among 18-to-49-year-olds, and lead Anthony Anderson was nominated for an Emmy. Besides bringing some sorely needed diversity to the airwaves, the show is really damn funny, and it tackles thorny cultural issues with warmth and intelligence. Barris has said he plans to lean into discussions of race, and if he can avoid the quicksand of the Very Special Episode, the new season could very well prove to be an even bigger hit than the first.

Returns Wednesday, September 23, at 9:30 pm Eastern.

7

Scandal (ABC)

Shonda Rhimes' twisty drama Scandal earned an audience of diehard fans thanks to an endless stream of steamy love scenes and OMG moments — not to mention a compulsively watchable performance by Kerry Washington as DC fixer Olivia Pope. But season four got bogged down in a ponderous mystery that threatened to overshadow everything else. With that largely wrapped up, star-crossed lovers Olivia and President Grant finally together, and the always-welcome Portia di Rossi bumped up to series regular, we have high hopes season five will see Rhimes and co. getting back to what they do best: Twitter-exploding, balls-to-the-wall drama.

Returns Thursday, September 24, at 9 pm Eastern.

8

Bob's Burgers (Fox)

As it enters its sixth season, this animated family sitcom created by Loren Bouchard has established itself as a lynchpin of Fox’s Sunday-night comedy lineup. After a shaky first season, Bob’s Burgers quickly evolved into a consistent delight for comedy and animation nerds alike, routinely featuring a who’s-who of comedic voice talent alongside its dependably stellar main cast, and frequently mounting ambitious, slightly bent episodes that tinker with the expected format and emotional beats of an animated sitcom. Last season saw Bob’s Burgers experimenting and becoming more confident with new character pairings and relationships, usually to hilarious effect, which bodes well for this season’s ability to keep finding new, inventive avenues to send its cartoon cast careening down.

Returns Sunday, September 27, at 7:30 pm Eastern.

9

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)

In a way, Brooklyn Nine-Nine suffered last season because of its consistency. The cop sitcom has been solid from its beginning, and while the first season garnered Golden Globes for both the show and Andy Samberg, the talk around it died down as the second season chugged steadily along. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine is only getting better as it gets more time to develop its incredibly specific, deeply weird characters. It's not getting too comfortable, though, since the third season opens with a fair amount of upheaval. Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) has been sent to push paper in the PR section by his grinning nemesis (Kyra Sedgwick), leaving his precinct in the hands of his replacement (Bill Hader). Meanwhile, Jake (Samberg) has officially made a move on his partner, Amy (Melissa Fumero). The fallout could go in a thousand directions, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine's hilarious track record is promising.

Returns Sunday, September 27, at 8:30 pm Eastern.

10

The Last Man on Earth (Fox)

The debut season of The Last Man on Earth, a tweaked post-apocalyptic comedy created by and starring Will Forte, seemed to be on a mission to push audiences’ ability to sympathize with a wholly unlikable character to its limit. As Phil Miller, Forte is truly committed to finding new and horrible ways to be a complete and utter cad, and the expansion of the cast beyond his "last man" as the first season progressed brought new shading and conflict to that characterization. But the final episode of the first season pointed Phil and Carol (the reliably great Kristen Schaal) on a new path that suggests something completely different for the second season. It’s unlikely Phil will suddenly stop being an asshole in season two, but the prospect of seeing him be an asshole in an entirely different context is weirdly appealing, and maybe a little frightening.

Returns Sunday, September 27, at 9:30pm Eastern.

11

Homeland (Showtime)

Watching former 24 writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa craft a spy thriller for the Obama years has been a somewhat frustrating experience. Season one of Homeland was gripping and fun, despite bearing basically no relation to how the CIA actually operates, but season two went completely off the rails, and season three suffered for its focus on a harebrained scheme to secure a nuclear deal with Iran — even though Secretary of State John Kerry secured an interim deal that did just that, without resorting to wacky spy hijinks, as the season was airing. But season four, while not great, at least featured a compelling villain and culminated in an excellent-if-bananas battle scene at the US embassy in Islamabad. Season five takes Carrie Mathiesen (Claire Danes) out of the CIA and plops her in Berlin, where she's working for a private security firm; Showtime president David Nevins has promised plotlines echoing the Edward Snowden case, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the rise of ISIS. This being Homeland, it's anyone's guess if the makeover will land or fail catastrophically.

Returns Sunday, October 4, at 9 pm Eastern.

12

The Leftovers (HBO)

The love-it-or-hate-it show of 2014 returns with brand-new characters, a brand-new location, and the same existential consideration of the weight of depression and loss. The Leftovers' first season focused on people who had lost everything, in the wake of 2 percent of the world's population disappearing in a rapture-like event. Season two, however, shifts the action to a small town in Texas where no one disappeared, to see what happens when people assign a sense of the miraculous to what was once mundane. The Garveys, season one's main characters, are back, having moved there, but there's also a brand new family, with brand new tensions and even the slightest hints of a sense of humor. It's good to have you back, you brooding old show.

Returns Sunday, October 4, at 9 pm Eastern.

13

The Affair (Showtime)

The Affair, a prestige drama from former In Treatment writer Sarah Treem, started as a subtle, high-concept account on a dalliance between frustrated writer/teacher Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and Montauk waitress Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson), leaning on a Rashomon-style format wherein viewers see the same events from the perspectives of both Noah and Alison, whose memories differ in telling ways. But as the season proceeded, the style transitioned dramatically into high melodrama, with characters getting arrested and pulling guns on one another, rather than lying on each other's chests and pondering the human condition. It's a lot more fun as a result, which bodes well for season two, but it's unclear how heavily Noah's wife Helen — easily the best part of the show due to Maura Tierney's stellar performance — will be featured. At least we'll finally get to see a few scenes from her point-of-view, as the show expands its structure beyond just Noah and Alison.

Returns Sunday, October 4, at 10 pm Eastern.

14

The Flash (The CW)

The CW has been rapidly solidifying its brand in the past few years, between its supernatural soaps and burgeoning interest in comics, and The Flash is one of its best efforts to date. While Arrow broods on rooftops, The Flash zips around Central City with incredible energy and focus. It's often heralded as one of the best TV comics adaptations thanks to its genuine love of all things earnest and wacky. It doesn't hurt that everyone on this show is having a blast, most especially Grant Gustin as Barry Allen. The first season sent Barry on one hell of a self-discovery ride, including but not limited to heartbreak, time travel, and the reveal that his mentor (Tom Cavanaugh) was actually bent on his destruction. The explosive finale set up an opportunity to build out The Flash's mythology even further, and the second season will explore parallel universes. Are you not entertained?!

Returns Tuesday, October 6, at 8 pm Eastern.

15

iZombie (The CW)

There are few loglines stranger than "crime-solving zombie," but incredibly, midseason series iZombie pulled it off. It was undoubtedly a team effort, between whip-smart creators (andVeronica Mars alums) Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero and star Rose McIver as Liv Moore. (Yeah, we know, stay with us.) Based on a comics series, iZombie centers on a wisecracking heroine who eats brains, absorbs the personalities and memories of the deceased, and helps people, all while trying to adjust to her new reality. The show isn't afraid to take big swings or get into the more unsavory particulars of empathetic zombies. With any luck, iZombie's bold debut presages an even more engrossing second season.

Returns Tuesday, October 6, at 9 pm Eastern.

16

Arrow (The CW)

Over the course of its three seasons, The CW’s adaptation of DC Comics' Green Arrow has evolved into a solidly entertaining show. It's managed to turn even its more tiresome characters (ahem, Laurel) into vital parts of the ensemble and built in an enjoyable crossover with the network's other DC series, The Flash. With last season’s big bad vanquished and the main character's little sister, ex- and current girlfriends, and bodyguard/best friend now all solidly in the vigilante-justice business, will tortured billionaire Oliver Queen finally get a chance to retire his bow? Fat chance! Thanks to great new cast members (Rutina Wesley, Parker Young, Jeri Ryan) and a Legends of Tomorrow crossover, things are shaping up to be more complicated — and entertaining — than ever.

Returns Wednesday, October 7, at 8 pm Eastern.

17

American Horror Story: Hotel (FX)

If we're being honest, the third and fourth seasons of American Horror Story squandered much of the promise the early seasons held. (If you can refer to a show that was already wildly erratic in terms of quality as having "promise.") But season five marks the show's biggest shakeup yet, as longtime star Jessica Lange has left the premises and has been replaced by (naturally) pop star and former Sopranos guest player Lady Gaga. Reportedly, characters from the previous four seasons will check into the titular hotel, further tying together the show into one massive, shared universe. No word on if creator Ryan Murphy will be bringing over characters from some of his other shows, like Glee and Nip/Tuck.

Returns Wednesday, October 7, at 10 pm Eastern.

18

Fargo (FX)

The first season of Fargo was one of 2014's biggest surprises — mostly because it wasn't completely terrible. A series based on a beloved Coen brothers movie shouldn't have been as good as this one was, but showrunner and head writer Noah Hawley's mixtape approach to the directors' oeuvre turned a bad idea into a very, very good one. Of course, now that everybody knows this can be good, the pressure is on for season two. (See also: True Detective.) The setting shifts to the '70s, with a metaphorical retelling of the corporate takeover of small-town America, as filtered through a story about small-time crime bosses and desperate longing for something other than the snowy wastes of the Upper Midwest. We've seen the premiere, and it's very, very good.

Returns Monday, October 12, at 10 pm Eastern.

19

Manhattan (WGN America)

Nervy little historical drama Manhattan grew from a pleasant-enough watch to something terrific over the course of its first season. Now, headed into season two, it hopes to build on that momentum — and in the ratings. The series follows the scientists behind the Manhattan Project, but not the bigwigs. Instead, it looks at the smaller-time players, who were tasked with actually turning the notion of splitting atoms into a usable weapon. With a workable model constructed as of the end of season one, season two hinges on actually building a full-scale bomb, even as the interpersonal conflicts between fellow scientists and husbands and wives threaten to boil over. You’ve seen pressure-cooker dramas before, sure, but never one where everybody actually wanted to explode the atomic bomb, instead of trying to defuse it.

Returns Tuesday, October 13, at 9 pm Eastern.

20

Nathan for You (Comedy Central)

If you've ever gotten high and thought up accordingly stupid business ideas — "What if you named a coffee place 'Dumb Starbucks'? There isn't a law against that, right?"; "Could you clean a house in five minutes if you sent in 40 maids all at once?" — Nathan for You lets you see what they'd look like in practice. Host Nathan Fielder's deadpan helps sell the concepts to the non-actor participants in his plots (like the liquor store owner he convinces to put up a sign saying "We sell alcohol to minors"), but the real secret behind the show is his ability to twist seemingly plausible observations into complete madness. Take season one's "The Claw of Shame," wherein Nathan reasons, sensibly, that the scariest thing in the world is being put on a sex offender registry for life — and so, as an act of daredevilry, forces himself to escape from handcuffs before a robotic arm pulls his pants down in front of a group of small children.

Returns Thursday, October 15, at 10 pm.

21

The Knick (Cinemax)

Director Steven Soderbergh has helmed all 20 episodes of The Knick, a turn-of-the-20th-century medical drama that blends the early days of modern surgery, drug addiction, and racial tensions into a surprisingly heady stew. Season one took a while to get going, but by its end, it was one of TV's most visually audacious, thrillingly paced shows. With all of the groundwork laid and all of the exposition out of the way, here's hoping season two hits the ground running. If nothing else, it'll be fascinating to see how Dr. John "Thack" Thackery (played by the nervy, terrific Clive Owen) copes with getting out of an early form of rehab.

Returns Friday, October 16, at 10 pm Eastern.

22

Jane the Virgin (The CW)

What a beautiful surprise Jane the Virgin was. Like fellow CW show iZombie, Jane the Virgin had to fight an uphill battle against the sheer absurdity of its premise: A virgin is accidentally artificially inseminated, and shenanigans ensue. But the show leaned into the absurdity by gleefully embracing the melodramatic structure of telenovelas. Jane the Virgin somehow manages to balance said absurdity with brilliant, heartfelt moments that pulse with joy, sadness, rage, and love. While the entire cast is phenomenal, star Gina Rodriguez is irreplaceable as the titular Jane,who's smart, a little neurotic, and fiercely loyal. She anchors the show with her grace. There's hardly been a better first season than Jane the Virgin's. Maintaining that kind of consistency is tough, but showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman has proved more than capable of steering a steady ship.

Returns Monday, October 19, at 8 pm Eastern.

23

Mom (CBS)

Can we interest you in a traditional "filmed before a live studio audience" sitcom? What if it's one of TV's funniest, most thoughtful shows? And what if it's one of the few shows on TV that actually tries to tackle issues that its viewers might have to live through? Mom isn't perfect, and it can veer all over the place in terms of tone. But when it's on, it's a fascinating, surprisingly realistic look at trying to live a life post-addiction. And even when it's off, it's trying so many interesting things that you'll never get bored. Plus it stars Anna Faris and Allison Janney, as one of TV's very best duos, while the supporting cast is filled with dependably funny ringers. Season two improved by leaps and bounds over the shaky season one, and these sorts of sitcoms often get better with age. That means season three could be the best yet.

Returns Thursday, November 5, at 9 pm Eastern.


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