BOSTON — Just as a new school year begins each fall, so does a new TV season. With 38 new offerings (including the new half-hour version of "Ally McBeal"), there will be plenty to choose from. Which shows will still be on the air - and which should be? - a few months from now? These capsules hint at what to catch and what to zap by.
The most promising THE WEST WING (Wednesdays on NBC, premires Sept. 22, 9-10 p.m.): This is a White House equipped with an admirable president - principled, fair, and smart. The show features terrific screenwriting by Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men," "An American President," "Sports Night") and captures the breakneck pace of the political world and the savagery behind the scenes. Stars Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe.
ONCE AND AGAIN (Tuesdays on ABC, premires Sept. 21, 10-11 p.m.): This timely comedy-romance is written by a couple of Hollywood's brightest (Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz). It investigates how two fortyish divorced people with children navigate the rocky shoals of previous relationships to reach each other. The two love their kids devotedly and speak to them with gentle authority. The luminous Sela Ward and Billy Campbell are nicely matched as the couple.
FREAKS AND GEEKS (Saturdays on NBC, premires Sept 25, 8-9 p.m.): Excellent writing and marvelous performances by the most natural teen actors since "My So-Called Life." High school is seen for what it is - and was (it takes place in the 1980s): Nothing is too exaggerated or sentimentalized. A sister (Linda Cardellini) and her younger brother (John Daley) are interesting people who love their parents and each other.
MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE (Sundays on Fox, midseason replacement, premires in January): This promising show covers the whole adolescent gambit with a new spirit - a tad irreverent, a tad wise. When the school bully gets his comeuppance, it's by cleverness and teamwork rather than violence. Malcolm's kindly family is roughhewn rather than dysfunctional, and his zany parents do right by their boys. Stars Frankie Muniz.
NOW AND AGAIN (Fridays on CBS, premires Sept. 24, 9-10 p.m.): A near-future sci-fi-thriller-comedy/international-espionage-adventure. The unusual pilot features John Goodman in a cameo appearance as an insurance salesman who is killed in a subway accident. His brain is inserted into the body of a genetically engineered "superman." The government has plans for him that don't include visiting his family.
HARSH REALM (Fridays on Fox, premires Oct. 8, 9-10 p.m.): Chris Carter's new sci-fi thriller places Scott Bairstow at the center as a highly decorated soldier tricked by his general into a virtual-reality war game. It's impossible for him to exit the game without killing the virtual-reality tyrant. This hero's journey is as innovative and scary as Carter's "The X-Files."
ACTION (Thursdays on Fox, premired Sept. 16, 9:30-10 p.m.): The only truly outrageous new show. As rude and crude as it is, it does satirize Hollywood convincingly. Not even Robert Altman went this far to skewer the brazen amoralities of the entertainment industry. Jay Mohr stars as a conscience-free movie executive.
LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT (Mondays on NBC, premires Sept. 20, 9-10 p.m.): Icky subject matter (sex crimes, honestly described) notwithstanding, this gripping police-drama spinoff sports good writing and an excellent cast. Stars Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay.
FAMILY LAW (Mondays on CBS, premires Sept. 20, 10-11 p.m.): A comic-drama with some serious intentions, it starts out a bit overwrought (and a bit male-bashing), but may turn into one of the more involving shows of the year. Kathleen Quinlan stars as a family lawyer whose husband deserts not only her, but their practice as well, taking their clients with him. Dixie Carter costars.
MAYBE: KEEP THE REMOTE CLOSE
WORK WITH ME (Wednesdays on CBS, premires Sept. 29, 8:30-9 p.m.): Kevin Pollack and Nancy Travis are at least as cute together as Dharma and Greg, though the rest of the cast is less amusing. The romantic comedy concerns a husband-and-wife lawyer team adjusting to working together.
THE BADLAND (Fridays on Fox, premires Oct. 15, 8-9 p.m.): The interesting premise looks more predictable than it really is: A 19-year-old decides to become a cop rather than go to college. The raw experience of the streets of Philadelphia makes him a stranger among his peers. Sean Maher stars.
STARK RAVING MAD (Thursdays on NBC, premires Sept. 23, 9:30-10 p.m.): Neil Patrick Harris is miscast as an uptight editor, but Tony Shaloub hits hilarity as his crazy client, a horror writer who is always doing "research." The side characters are terrific; the second episode is funnier than the first.
GROWN UPS (Mondays on UPN, premired Aug. 23, 9-9:30 p.m.): Urkel (Jaleel White) has grown up, buffed up, and wised up in this rather sweet sitcom. He searches for love and relates to his best friends, Gordon and wife.
OH GROW UP (Wednesdays on ABC, premires Sept 22, 9:30-10 p.m.): The opening episode starts off depicting men (three roommates, one gay) as simply large children, but ends well.
GET REAL (Wednesdays on Fox, premired Sept. 8, 9-10 p.m.): The characters in this self-conscious family show can be annoyingly unaware of how they treat one another, yet there's something realistic in the way they try to solve their problems. A strong cast and good writing offset the melo in the drama.
COLD FEET (Fridays on NBC, premires Sept. 24, 10-11 p.m.): Three Seattle couples in various stages of relationships, from brand new to married with children, struggle with the vagaries of modern morality. David Sutcliffe and Jean Louisa Kelly are engaging.
JACK & JILL (Sundays on The WB, premires Sept. 26, 9-10 p.m.): Initially appealing, we'll have to see whether it can sustain its first good impulses. Jack (short for Jaqueline) is a runaway bride, Jill (short for David Jillefsky) is her upstairs neighbor, a toy designer with an established relationship. But they clearly belong together.
JUDGING AMY (Tuesdays on CBS, premires Sunday, Sept. 19, 10-11 p.m.): The reshot pilot, which introduced some new minority characters, has a lot of problems, no doubt a result of a hasty rewrite. Still, the show has a good premise - a divorced lawyer starting over in her hometown (living with her feisty mom and artistic brother) as a juvenile court judge. Stars Tyne Daly and Amy Brenneman.
ROSWELL (Wednesdays on The WB, premires Oct. 6, 9-10 p.m.): A trio of illegal aliens - from outer space! - try to elude detection by the obsessed local sheriff. Some good writing and a sci-fi premise can't turn this show into adult fare. But the "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" set may go for it.
POPULAR (Thursdays on The WB, premires Wednesday, Sept. 29, 8-9 p.m.): Another "Dawson's Creek" teenage angst show but with more realism and more girls. Carly Pope and Leslie Bibb star as competing sides of the high school social condition.
THIRD WATCH (Sundays on NBC, premires Thursday, Sept. 23, 8-9 p.m.): Cops, paramedics, and firefighters work together to minimize emergencies. Fast-paced, the ethnically balanced show should appeal to action-adventure lovers.
THE PARKERS (Mondays on UPN, premired Aug. 30, 8:30-9 p.m.): This Moesha spinoff has some funny moments as Nikki (Mo'Nique) and daughter Kim (Countess Vaughn) return to junior college.
SAFE HARBOR (Mondays on The WB, premires Sept. 20, 9-10 p.m.): "Seventh Heaven," with no mom. A widower raises three sons and a runaway girl with help from grandma - all in a beachfront motel. Schmaltzy, but laudably safe for families.
WASTELAND (Thursdays on ABC, premires Oct. 7, 9-10 p.m.): The story about six twentysomethings trying to find themselves, New York style, is a tad too self-conscious. And yet, the young stars are engaging.
THEN CAME YOU (Thursdays on ABC, premires Oct. 7, 8:30-9 p.m.): Divorce takes up with a much younger man, a bellhop in her hotel. Some very funny one liners, but absolute fluff.
TUNE THEM OUT
LOVE & MONEY (Fridays on CBS, premires Oct. 8, 8:30-9 p.m.): Sweetly savvy Swoosie Kurtz can't save this shallow script. A rich girl falls for a poor boy.
ODD MAN OUT (Fridays on ABC, premires Sept 24, 9:30-10 p.m.): One charmer, Jessica Capshaw, can't save this dreary sitcom about a lone teenage boy growing up in a shrewish female household.
SNOOPS (Sundays on ABC, premires Sept. 26, 9-10 p.m.): Even reshot, the pilot is hopeless. Three women play private investigators with attitudes.
THE MIKE O'MALLEY SHOW (Tuesdays on NBC, premires Sept. 21, 9:30-10 p.m.): As bland Mike (Will Arnett) tries to grow up and learn about women with bad advice from his pals, he talks to us as if we care.
LADIES MAN (Mondays on CBS, premires Sept. 20, 8:30-9 p.m.): With a marvelous actor like Alfred Molina in the role, this ought to be better. It's bad.
UNAVAILABLE FOR REVIEW ANGEL (Tuesdays on The WB, premires Oct. 5, 9-10 p.m.): This "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" spinoff may hold the most promise. Angel, a good vampire, takes on the forces of darkness in Los Angeles.
MISSION HILL (Fridays on The WB, premires Sept. 24, 8-8:30 p.m.): Animated show about a teenager living with his brother.
MANCHESTER PREP (Thursdays on Fox, late fall, 8-9 p.m.): Nasty teens at a prep school.
WWF SMACKDOWN (Thursdays on The WB, premired Aug. 26, 8-10 p.m.): The World Wrestling Federation has more of what you watch TV wrestling for.
THE STRIP (Tuesdays on UPN, premires Oct. 12, 9-10 p.m.): Las Vegas decadence and violence.
TIME OF YOUR LIFE (Mondays on Fox, premires Oct. 25, 8-9 p.m.): Sarah Reeves Merrin (Jennifer Love Hewitt) leaves "Party of Five" and moves to New York to find her parents.
SHASTA MCNASTY (Tuesdays on UPN, premires Thursday, Sept. 30, 8:30-9 p.m.): Three buddies hope to hit a musical payday.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society