Here's a guide to the best and worst shows and those worth noting -- to help you through the clutter of the new network season.
Best new show: "My So-Called Life," Thursday nights at 8 on ABC. ABC wanted to make sure it got sampled before the crush of new series, so it's already debuted. It's about a 15-year-old girl (Claire Danes) coming of age. But it's also a drama about her fortysomething parents and their middle-age angst. The drama is produced by the angst-meisters of all angst-meisters, who gave us "thirtysomething" -- Ed Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Winnie Holzman.
Runner-up: "Friends," Thursday nights at 8:30 on NBC. Ensemble sitcom without much plot about young singles who sit around and talk about life, love and relationships. Sound like the perfect lead-in for "Seinfeld"? Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow and David Schwimmer are the best of a very good cast. In the pilot, Schwimmer's character has just been dumped by his wife after her realization that she's a lesbian. You probably have already realized the scheduling conflict between "Friends" and "My So-Called Life." This is the kind of thing that makes us love the networks.
Worst: I'm betting it's going to be "Touched by an Angel," starring Della Reese and Roma Downey. It's a drama about an angel sent to Earth to inspire people to change their lives. CBS didn't want to let critics see the pilot, which the network now says it's scrapping.
Of the pilots available for preview, it's a tossup among "Due South" on CBS, "Fortune Hunter" on Fox and "On Our Own" on ABC. Check out the mini-previews on pages 6 and 7 inside this section to find out just how bad they are. I can't bear to revisit them. Sorry.
Best new character: Harvey Fierstein's Dennis Sinclair in the CBS sitcom, "Daddy's Girls." Sinclair is openly gay and proud of it. Fierstein promises his character will have relationships, unlike Matt Fielding (Doug Savant) on "Melrose Place." If only the rest of "Daddy's Girls," which stars Dudley Moore, were as funny and edgy as Sinclair.
Worst new character: Any of the knot-heads in Fox's "Hardball," a sitcom about a hapless baseball team whose producers seem to believe dumb is not only funny but also beautiful and worth celebrating.
Best scheduling move: ABC's scheduling of "Me and the Boys," between "Full House" and "Home Improvement" on Tuesdays. A perfect hammock for a family sitcom.
Worst scheduling move: NBC and CBS putting two doctor dramas, "E.R." and "Chicago Hope," opposite each other Thursdays at 10 p.m. Of the two, go with Michael Crichton's "E.R." despite the presence of Mandy Patinkin in "Chicago Hope."
Most daring move: NBC putting red-hot "Frasier" Tuesdays at 9 p.m.
Most revealing move: ABC swapping places between "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement" at the last minute so "Roseanne" wouldn't have to face "Frasier." Is research telling ABC that "Roseanne" has peaked and is on its way down? You bet. "Frasier" vs. "Home Improvement" is going to be one of the match-ups to watch.
Best trends: Dogs and cities. There are a number of new canine characters in sitcoms this year and lots of shows set in the city.
The dog trend is homage to the success of Eddy on "Frasier." My favorite so far is the deaf pet wolf on "Due South," though the dogs on "Blue Skies" and "On Our Own" have potential.
As for the second trend, in the early days of TV, many sitcoms were ethnic and set in the city. But by 1955, everybody had moved to the "Father Knows Best" suburbs. Part of the return to the city is due to the successful urban sitcoms like "Seinfeld." And part of it involves the city's symbolic service as a kind of
frontier for crime and a testing ground for young adults.
New shows set in the city include "Chicago Hope," "Blue Skies," "Wild Oats," "Friends," "Under Suspicion," "Due South," "M.A.N.T.I.S." and "E.R."
Worst Trends: Sitcoms with three kids and shows with mom and dad out of the way (as in dead). The first is mainly a matter of technique, according to producers: Three kids gives you about the right number of plot possibilities for a weekly 22-minute show. Maybe.
As for the missing parents . . . two shows -- "On Our Own" and "Party of Five" -- do not a trend make. But it might have cultural, or at least Freudian, possibilities. It's taking "Beverly Hills, 90210" -- in which the parents are alive but without authority -- one step further and doing away with them totally.
Best made-for-TV movies: Because few of the fall movies have been made available for preview, this is a limited category. But here's a sleeper, which you might otherwise miss: Kellie Martin and Tori Spelling in "A Friend to Die For" on NBC Sept. 26. Martin is great and Spelling is better than you might think. In November, look for Woody Allen's remake of "Don't Drink the Water" on ABC. Not as good as the first feature-film version with Jackie Gleason, but it's still a lot of laughs by made-or-TV standards -- with Allen in the Gleason role.
Worst: OK, I'll indulge in a bit of prescreening speculation here and guess that "The O. J. Simpson Story" on Fox, and the two film versions of Roseanne's continuing divorce (in production at NBC and Fox), are not going to be the artistic highlights of the season. Give Fox credit, though, for hustling a ton of newspaper publicity with its trial balloons on the O. J. Simpson film, then managing to look as though it actually had a social conscience by promising to delay showing the film until after jury selection.
P.S: Don't believe any of the network promises about how they are not going to do ripped-from-the headlines films this year. They have been saying that every summer for the past five years; the second they find a doable version of Roseanne, O. J. or the Menendez brothers, it's on the air in November, February or May.
Best Heads-up: Keep an eye on "Scarlett," CBS' $54 million miniseries scheduled for November. It's based on the sequel to "Gone with the Wind," and it stars Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and Timothy Dalton. The preview reel of highlights, which was shown to critics, was a disaster. A network holds its breath.