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Don't Bette On It

You waited all summer. And now, after months of anticipation, the time has come: new episodes of Moesha! Well... maybe Brandy doesn't tickle your fancy, but the coming weeks promise an on-air onslaught of prime-time premieres fit to make even the most unenthusiastic viewer a little randy. From Frasier to Futurama and back again, the fall TV season is upon us.

Our boob-tube buddies are a little late this year and we have Sydney to thank. NBC's late-summer coverage of the Olympic Games pushed back many premieres, which usually air in September. With a few exceptions (Buffy and Angel are back in business), we're waiting on everybody, and it'll be several weeks before the full prime-time schedule has debuted.

So what should we expect? Unless you're a fan of Regis Philbin and the yearling phenom Millionaire, don't tune to ABC anytime soon. With only four new shows on its schedule and three action-packed hours of newsmags, the network's nightly lineups are sourly homogenized. The bright spots in this alphabet soup? Returning Sunday favorite The Practice, which will feature lead lawyer Bobby's wedded bliss, and the so-good-it'll-fail Gideon's Crossing, a gritty ER/Homicide hybrid starring critics' darling Andre Braugher. Oh, and in case you cared, brat-pack badboy Charlie Sheen will step into Michael J. Fox's still-warm loafers on Spin City.

And what of Must-See TV? NBC's new offerings look disappointing, save the potentially heartwarming Ed and the guilty-pleasure might-be-Melrose Titans. Kramer-err, Michael Richards-returns to the Peacock as a private investigator, but don't expect any laughter of Seinfeldian proportions. This one's been marked D.O.A.-dumb on arrival. Beyond the debuts, the season-ending assassination cliffhanger of The West Wing met favorable resolution, and those wacky Emmy-snatchers on Will & Grace will bump Frasier to Tuesdays.

As for CBS, we all know we're just hanging around for Outback Survivor (returning post-Super Bowl). But in the meantime, the net will try to keep us glued with a Fugitive update, a corny acronym action drama (C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation), and a pair of middle-aged divas (Bette's Bette Midler and Welcome to New York's Christine Baranski) As usual, the lineup has little to appeal to the pre-Medicare set, though returning Monday anchor Everybody Loves Raymond may inspire a few chuckles.

And the renegade upstart? Fox will try to cram another season of The X-Files into our collective psyche, but Agent Mulder is on his way out. Look for Terminator 2's Robert Patrick (the T1000) to replace Duchovny by Christmas. The Simpsons returns for yet another season, as does sophomore champ Malcolm in the Middle. Series producers promise Ally McBeal will "grow up," and the Beantown school system will open its doors in teacher-drama Boston Public. Rounding out the it-list is John Goodman's gay-dad sitcom, Normal, Ohio.

The WB and UPN will continue to vie for the coveted number-five spot in the Nielsens, but none of their new offerings look to tip the scales. Star Trek: Voyager enters its seventh and (whew!) final season, while WWF Smackdown! offers more testosterone-charged Thursday-night nonsense. On the George Dubya B., Buffy gets a 'tween sidekick and the kids of the Creek stay dramatic as the Joey-Pacey romance troubles Dawson. And Felicity-ahh, well, no one's watching that anyway.

The long and short? Few things have changed. NBC again offers an Emmyriffic drama (The West Wing) and sitcom (Will & Grace), as well as the viewers' faves in those categories (ER and Friends, respectively). Of the new series, each net should garner few keepers, but the four previewed here look like their best bets. Read on for the inside scoop, and lest you be unimpressed, remember, only four months till Survivor.


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