TV's new fall colors

From a slew of spy and crime shows to a silly superhero called 'The Tick,' network TV hasn't given up on dramas and comedies

The new year really begins in September. In much of the country, the air turns cool enough to encourage outdoor projects. And kids head back to school.

So, naturally, the new television season kicks in just in time to interfere with our best intentions to build that new deck or finish that algebra homework.

This fall, a host of favorite shows return to the six noncable networks, along with plenty of new offerings. It's a pretty good season, overall, though there's nothing absolutely brilliant.

In general, look for women in stronger roles and more variety in storytelling. And never has TV actually looked better: Nearly every drama is beautifully shot, as well as well-written and well-acted. Maybe the wretched excess of reality shows (see story, page 17) is benefiting TV, after all - by freeing up the best writing talent to produce a small number of

first-rate comedies and dramas.

Of our returning favorites, nothing is cooler than the oddball Buffy the Vampire Slayer (UPN, 8-9 p.m., Tuesdays), whose big news is that it moves from The WB to UPN. The story line killed Buffy off last season, just when UPN outbade The WB for the show, but the only question now is how, not if, she returns. The sweet and smart Gilmore Girls (The WB, 8-9 p.m., Tuesdays) moves into the "Buffy" time slot and will give the courageous slayer a run for her money.

Network TV's best show will still be West Wing (NBC, 9-10 p.m., Wednesdays). It will be followed by the long-running Law & Order (NBC, 10-11 p.m.). In fact, "Law & Order" and its spinoffs (including Special Victims Unit and the brand-new Criminal Intent) will appear on cable or network TV 27 times a week, in what has got to be an industry record of some kind.

Round up the usual suspects for the best crime-and-law shows of any season: Law & Order, The Practice, Judging Amy, Family Law, The District, NYPD Blue, The Job (for comic satire), and CSI - then add the best of the new - and you have the strongest genre on TV.

Among the few innovative comedies in a fading genre, the returning Malcolm in the Middle and The Simpsons will be joined by the outrageous The Tick (Fox, 8:30-9 p.m., Thursdays, begins Nov. 1): Based on a comic book and cartoon, the live-action superhero comedy is witty, weird, and wired. Patrick Warburton in the title role is a tongue-in-cheek scream. Another new oddball comedy, Scrubs (NBC, 9:30-10 p.m., Tuesdays, begins Sept. 25), tells the story of interns in a hospital run by a group of demented professionals.

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Among the other new series (many premières have been postponed next week, check local listings), the best include:

Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC, 9-10 p.m., Sundays, begins Sept. 30): The newest member of the "Law & Order" franchise is the best yet. Vincent D'Onofrio as detective Bobby Goren is a hulking, intelligent, and insightful Sherlock who plays against the stereotype.

Philly (ABC, 10-11 p.m., Tuesdays): Steven Bochco does it again. Scooping Kim Delaney off his own "NYPD Blue" and giving her a lead in a terrific new courtroom drama was a smooth move. It's as sharp and as complex as any drama on TV. As a defense attorney, Delaney reveals a new range of emotions and new layers of intelligence.

The Guardian (CBS, 9-10 p.m., Tuesdays): Simon Baker stars as a brilliant, hard-edged corporate lawyer who commits a crime and is sentenced to community service, representing children undergoing extreme crises.

The Education of Max Bickford (CBS, 8-9 p.m., Sundays) stars Richard Dreyfuss and Marcia Gay Harden, both Academy Award winners. The plot revolves around politics and pettiness at a university. But the writing celebrates the real work of professors - encouraging the next generation to think clearly.

Danny (CBS, 8:30-9 p.m., Fridays): The ever-appealing Daniel Stern runs an urban recreation center and raises his kids with more wit than usual in this family sitcom.

Alias (ABC, 9-10 p.m., Sundays, begins Sept. 30): This exciting, if far-fetched, drama concerns a college girl and CIA agent (Jennifer Garner) whose main concern after dodging bullets is her midterm exams. The twists in this labyrinthine plot keep us on edge, and the surprising Garner is winning.

24 (Fox, 9-10 p.m., Tuesdays, begins Oct. 30): Speaking of the CIA, Kiefer Sutherland stars as an agent whose wife and daughter are kidnapped just as a nasty political murder is about to take place. The gimmick is that the season of 24 episodes will take place in real time. Multiple screens tell us how the various stories are going. It can get exciting.

Pasadena (Fox, 9-10 p.m., Fridays): Yep, it's a soap opera - but of the highest order. The teenage daughter of a rich Pasadena, Calif., family discovers where all the skeletons are hidden - and what kind of folks she really comes from. Her inherent moral sense gives the show greater weight than it might otherwise have had.

Smallville (WB, 9-10 p.m., Tuesdays, begins Oct. 16): Superman is back as a high school kid with a mission. No cartoon this, yet it nevertheless taps into the whole mythology of the comic book hero.

Citizen Baines (CBS, 9-10 p.m., Saturdays, begins Sept. 22): James Cromwell ("Babe") gives a thoughtful, complex portrayal of a politician who loses an election after a lifetime in Congress. Looking for his new life's work, as well as developing new relationships with his daughters, should prove fascinating.

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Among the series that don't glow quite as bright, but still have possibilities:

Enterprise (UPN, 8-10 p.m., begins Sept. 26): The two-hour series première shows some promise but is strangely ham-fisted. The action takes place 150 years before Capt. James T. Kirk, and its hard-tech look is terrific - lots of levers and buttons instead of the sleek look of "Next Generation" and "Voyager." But if you're looking for the debonair presence of a Captain Picard or the steel-trap mind of a Captain Janeway, Scott Bakula as Capt. Jonathan Archer doesn't hack it.

Crossing Jordan (NBC, 10-11 p.m., Mondays): The unusual heroine (Jill Hennessy) is a medical examiner who can't help but investigate the crimes she encounters. The action can be violent, as she solves the murders with the help of her ex-cop dad. Not always believable, but involving.

One on One (UPN, 8:30-9 p.m., Mondays): A ladies' man and sportscaster dad (Flex Alexander) is suddenly responsible for his 14-year-old daughter. The trite subject is saved by good writing and a brilliant daughter (Kyla Pratt), who tosses one-liners like a discus thrower.

Raising Dad (WB, 9:30-10 p.m., Fridays): Bob Saget stars as a widowed teacher who just happens to spill his teenage daughter's secrets to his creative-writing class. Overworked as it sounds, the show can be entertaining, and the cast charms.

Reba (WB, 9-9:30 p.m., Fridays): Country music superstar Reba McEntire is bound to draw viewers with this family sitcom about a divorcée trying to raise her children with her ex-husband's questionable help.

Bernie Mac Show (Fox, 9:30-10 p.m., Wednesdays, begins Nov. 7): Stand-up comedian Mac inherits three children from his crack-addicted sister. He's a funny guy, but the parenting techniques shown in this extreme comedy are highly suspect.

Emeril (NBC, 8-8:30 p.m., Tuesdays): The great Chef Lagasse can't act, but he doesn't have to, since he is surrounded by fine performers. Maybe it will work.

The Ellen Show (CBS, 8-8:30 p.m., Fridays): Ellen DeGeneres is back in a comedy about a dot-com exec who goes home for a visit and stays forever. This gentle comedy can be mildly amusing.

Thieves (ABC, 9-10 p.m., Fridays): Two thieves are busted in the first episode and forced to work for the government. But John Stamos and Melissa George don't sparkle together, and the repartee gets predictable.

Wolf Lake (CBS, 10-11 p.m., Wednesdays): The pilot had to be completely remade because the first try was incomprehensible. The story about a town in which much of the population turns into wolves at night is edgier and darker now, but not all that entertaining. The best thing about it is Graham Green as a perpetually amused native American shaman. Lou Diamond Phillips is too humorless for his own good.

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Among new shows not even worth a quick look:

According to Jim (ABC, 8:30-9 p.m., Wednesdays, Sept. 26): Jim Belushi stars in this family comedy that tries too hard for its few laughs.

The Agency (CBS, 10-11 p.m., Thursdays): A third new show about the CIA. But this thriller is hard to follow and not worth the trouble. Gil Bellows ("Ally McBeal") is too good actor to waste on this.

UC: Undercover (NBC, 10-11 p.m., Sundays, Sept. 30): More government secret agencies - what is this, a conspiracy? None of the writers has the least idea of how to engage the viewer's imagination. It's all violent nonsense as agents go undercover to get the really bad guys.

Inside Schwartz (NBC, 8:30-9, Thursdays): Breckin Meyer is cute - but not cute enough to carry this silly show about a would-be sportscaster who sees referees, coaches, and players in his mind's eye commenting on his love life.

Off Centre (WB, 9:30-10 p.m., Sundays, begins Oct. 7): Two friends, one British, one American, move in together and pursue women. The American is a hypocrite who secretly lusts after his friend's sex life. Wit free.

Bob Patterson (ABC, 9-9:30 p.m., Tuesdays, Sept. 25): This has to be the worst show of the season. "Seinfeld" alumnus Jason Alexander has never been less amusing. He plays a motivational speaker who is selfish, insecure, and mean-spirited. This blowhard dictates are also dull-witted.

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