The family hour makes a comeback

Fall, and the leaves are just yellowing. But inside on the tube, the new season is just blossoming. It's a pretty good season, really – although there's not too much in the way of breakthrough TV.

But at least families are back in force (nearly half of the 34 new shows are family oriented, with an emphasis on multiple generations trying to get along). That said, not all of these programs are really suitable for children.

Then there is a remarkable upsurge in cool filmmaking techniques on nearly all the cop dramas this season. Sharp camera work, sometimes excellent compositions, and inventive visual storytelling are the modus operandi among the 10 new crime shows.

Still, despite the fancy camerawork, I came up short when trying to compile a Top 10 list of the best new shows. So here, then, is my Top Nine, as well as my picks for the biggest waste of entertainment dollars.

1 American Dreams (NBC, Sundays, 8-9 p.m., beginning Sept. 29): So much happened so fast in the early 1960s, we're still reeling. And this family drama puts a human face on those vast and complicated cultural transformations. Two families, one white and one black, struggle to find meaning as the upheaval begins with the death of President Kennedy. In the white family, the teenage daughter just wants to dance on "American Bandstand" (clips from the original are woven throughout), her brother rebels against his father's expectations, and their mother finds out she can think for herself. Racism and integration haunt the black family as the young son wins a scholarship to a white parochial high school. Fine acting, fascinating characters, and excellent writing bode well for the season.

2 Everwood (The WB, Mondays, 9-10 p.m., beginning Sept. 16): The Frog network presents yet another outstanding family drama (with plenty of comic relief). A world-famous neurosurgeon (played with layered, authentic sensitivity by Treat Williams) suddenly loses his wife and finds himself having to face his failures as a father. He moves the family to the one place in the world his wife loved best – a small mountain community in Colorado, and opens a family practice. But the show is really about learning to understand the individuals who are his children – a rebellious teenage son and a broken-hearted little daughter. The children's roles are written with genuine understanding and respect. If the series holds up to the pilot's promise, it's a hit.

3 Push, Nevada (ABC, Thursdays, 9-10 p.m., beginning Sept. 17): Ben Affleck's involvement as producer for this daring, high-energy mystery ensures that something exciting will happen through the season. As weird as "Twin Peaks," but with a much better soul, this interactive mystery (it's a game, too) includes a truly unlikely hero, an IRS accountant named Jim A. Prufrock (as in T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock) who investigates the disappearance of a casino fortune. Fabulous visual effects, daring camera work, a surreal array of characters worthy of Fellini, and super-cool writing make this one of the most engaging new series.

4 Hack(CBS, Fridays, 9-10 p.m., beginning Sept. 27): The premise is right out of Dostoyevsky. David Morse plays a disgraced policeman, now driving a cab, who is still making excuses for his criminal behavior. But something in him drives him to expiate his crime by rescuing an assortment of unlovable but upright citizens – albeit using semilegal tricks of the trade. Morse is brilliant. And Andre Braugher, as the cabbie's ex-partner, gives such a layered performance that his character's conscience shines through his apparent hypocrisy. This is an amazing cast; let's hope the writers work out the kinks and give our modern Raskolnikov scripts worthy of the subject.

5 Boomtown (NBC, Sundays, 10-11 p.m., starting Sept. 29): Most of the creativity this season can be found on the cop shows. There are two this season on the LAPD (CBS' "Robbery Homicide Division" was not available for review at this writing), and aching angst is the order of the day. This one takes a look at crime from the point of view of various characters – à la Kurosawa's "Rashomon" – and the characters are fully engaging. Donnie Wahlberg is especially spellbinding as a bright cop with a tragic personal life.

6 John Doe (Fox, Fridays, 9-10 p.m., starting Sept. 20): Maybe Friday prime time will be rescued this year. A man wakes up on an island off the coast of Seattle, knowing every fact in the world except who he is. He uses his knowledge first to make himself rich, and then to solve crime. As absurd as the premise may sound, this crime-fighting fantasy is fully engaging as the hero searches for the bad guys, rescues innocents, and seeks his own identity.

7 Greetings from Tucson (The WB, Fridays 9:30-10 p.m., beginning Sept. 20): This surprisingly sweet family sitcom about an Irish-American woman married to a Mexican-American man is culturally specific, funny, and charming. Dad is still trying to assimilate, while his wife is proud of his heritage. He's a penny-pincher, and conflicts with his children arise over his work ethic and his frugality. But this sitcom, unlike the egregious "8 Simple Rules" or noxious "Hidden Hills," respects both parents and children enough to create a realistic home life and a more creative view of parenting.

8 Life With Bonnie (ABC, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. beginning with an 8:30 p.m. debut Sept. 17): Bonnie Hunt is a first-rate comedian, and she finally has worthy material to show off her layered talents. A frazzled working mother juggles little children, a demanding doctor-husband, and a daily talk show. She's not always on top of things, as when she interviews a writer on air without having read her book, only to discover the writer is a hate-mongering lunatic. Working women should get a serious kick out of this funny material.

9 Still Standing (CBS, Mondays, 9:30-10 p.m. beginning Sept. 30): This sitcom needs time to warm up, but the jokes are genuinely amusing. Family life, presented here with real feeling for kids and parents, may be a bit goofy, but at least we know who the parents are. English actor Mark Addy's American accent is a lot better than most Americans'. And his sweet, paunchy persona – befuddled by the complexities of raising children who are brighter than he is – is one of the most endearing sitcom dads in a long, long time.

Tie for Worst New Show

Whether to castigate the nitwit wheel-squealing cop "drama," Fastlane, or the nasty, disheartening family "comedy" 8 Simple Rules, that is the question. Fox's "Fastlane" (Wednesdays, starting Sept. 18) is an attempt to re-create the thrills of "Starsky and Hutch." Maybe the idea is just too dumb to worry about. But there's no excuse for John Ritter's crass "8 Simple Rules For Dating My Daughter" (ABC, Tuesdays, 8-8:30 pm), in which he acts as goalie, cracking wise about his two daughters' sexuality and trying to keep them dressed and their beaus at bay. It is just offensive to hear a middle-aged man ask his daughter about her bodily functions.

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