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Here are the new shows, returning classics, and standout characters that deserve special attention this TV season.

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A FRESH SEASON, A FRESH START.
Just as the beginning of each school year brings with it anticipation and a volatile mix of young and old, so, too, does the start of a new TV season as shows debut or return, battling for the coveted top spots in the ratings.

This year, however, expect your home-entertainment schedule to be a little bit different. The shift is due in large part to the Hollywood writers’ strike, which shortened the past season and granted reprieves to several series. That drastically shrunk the number of prime-time holes that needed to be filled with new programming this fall. As a result, the networks are warming up to the idea of having yearlong programming instead of a traditional 36-week season. So no matter when you turn on the tube this year, be it January or July, it’s likely you’ll find yourself being introduced to a new show.

The details on the midseason shows are, of course, still sketchy, but that doesn’t mean we’re looking forward to them any less. In preparation for the start of the new season, we crown some of our TV favorites (and also our not-so-favorites) in high school style. Because not every show can be prom king. (Right, Cavemen?)

CLASS CLOWN
In CBS’s new Meet the Parents-style comedy, Worst Week, Kyle Bornheimer is Sam Briggs, a mild-mannered magazine editor who adores his fiancée, Melanie (played by Erinn Hayes of Kitchen Confidential). Unfortunately for him (but quite fortunately for us), whenever sweet, gentle Sam gets around his future in-laws, he implodes, resulting in a series of hilarious mishaps and humiliations. The misfortunes are especially bad around Melanie’s disapproving father, played by Kurtwood Smith, who graciously brings along his perpetually grim mug from That ’70s Show. How painful will it get? If the pilot -- which includes a scene involving Sam in a diaper -- is any indication, the awkward-o-meter threatens to go off the charts.

TRANSFER STUDENT
High-wire medical comedy Scrubs returns this fall for an eighth and supposedly final -- though we’ve heard that before -- season. But this year it won’t be airing on NBC. The series has changed teams and will say its goodbyes on rival network ABC.

How’d it happen? Scrubs is produced by Disney, which owns ABC Studios and ABC. It’s called synergy. Still, the risk is big, switching an aging sitcom in its final season to a different network and airing it on a new night and at a new time. ABC President of Entertainment Stephen McPherson either knows something we don’t or nothing at all.

MOST TALENTED
It’s so hard to discuss Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton without gushing, without slobbering with superlatives, without lashing out at Emmy imbeciles for not simply handing her a statue pronto. How has Britton’s portrayal of Tami Taylor, wife of football coach Eric Taylor, gone so unsung? Blame the show’s sheer number of strong character studies. Blame the lack of attention from viewers (the 6.2 million pairs of eyeballs last season just barely secured the show’s renewal for a third season). Blame those who mistake Friday Night Lights for a numskull high-school-football show, even though it’s actually an exploration of relationships that touches on hot-button issues like race, teen angst, marriage, and parenthood.

No matter where the blame lies, Britton deserves better. Her performance last season was a marvel of nuanced emotional precision. Tami is part of Britton’s own making. She also played the coach’s wife in the 2004 film version but told creator Peter Berg that she wanted no part of the series if her character was another one-dimensional, stand-by-your-man type. “Pete promised me that he wanted to explore this role and this marriage,” Britton says. “He’s done that, and I think it’s really a great character to play.”

LEAST LIKELY TO SUCCEED
Or to make it to a third episode, actually. Fox’s Do Not Disturb has all the elements of a spectacular failure: bad writing, a bad concept, bad execution, bad chemistry, and a bad title. Poor Jerry O’Connell (Carpoolers) tries his best to make the show watchable as he plays a manager of a hip hotel in New York City. But he’s surrounded by a cast of characters who aren’t funny or amusing or witty or interesting or likable or -- you get the idea. Reno 911!’s Niecy Nash, who costars with O’Connell as the hotel’s head of human resources, also gets our award for Loudest Mouth. Her voice carries like there’s a megaphone stuck in her throat. If only this show would provide her with some lines worth spouting off.

GOTH GIRL
Vampires are popping up everywhere in pop culture, from fiction (in the works of Stephenie Meyer) to TV (in the recently departed and quite-missed Moonlight). Now we get the dark, offbeat, and very promising True Blood on HBO, in which former X-Men star Anna Paquin stars as a telepathic waitress whose boyfriend just so happens to be a vampire. It’s your typical “girl meets boy, boy bites girl” love story.

The show comes from the twisted mind of Alan Ball, who created the terrific Six Feet Under. Fans of Ball’s previous efforts will find a lot to like here: moral complexity, notions of good and evil, and the unfortunate reality that good doesn’t always win.

Paquin says, “We get to see this roller coaster of an odd relationship, because I guess having a vampire as a boyfriend isn’t always the simplest thing to choose.” No kidding.

MOST SURPRISING COMEBACK
In NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy, Henry Spivey is a droll suburban dad with a boring job, while Edward Albright is a slick spy trained to kill with his teeth. Both characters, however, are played by one man: ’80s heartthrob Christian Slater (who’s still looking pretty foxy, if we do say so ourselves).

Save for a part in 2006’s Bobby and a guest appearance on My Name Is Earl, Slater’s largely been out of the spotlight recently. Now, in My Own Worst Enemy, he is like James Bond meets Jason Bourne meets Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- but “deeper,” he says. “The question the show is going to be dealing with,” Slater told the Today show, “is what happens when you find out that the person you can’t trust is yourself?” He’s right: That is deep. But we like our TV shallow. (See “Most Beautiful.”)

 DAY PLANNER Here’s when to turn on and tune in to our superlative winners.
MONDAYHeroes, NBC
(premieres September 22)
Worst Week, CBS
(premieres September 22)
My Own Worst Enemy, NBC
(premieres September 29)
 
TUESDAY90210, CW
(premieres September 2)
The Mentalist, CBS
(premieres September 23)
  
WEDNESDAYGossip Girl, CW
(premieres September 1)
Do Not Disturb, Fox
(premieres September 10)
Knight Rider, NBC
(premieres September 24)
 
THURSDAYER, NBC
(premieres September 25)
The Office, NBC
(premieres September 27)
Life on Mars, ABC
(premieres October 9)
30 Rock, NBC
(premieres October 30)
MID-SEASON SHOWS (premiere dates unavailable at press time):
Scrubs, ABC // Friday Night Lights, NBC // Dollhouse, Fox // Lost, ABC // Law & Order, NBC


MOST BEAUTIFUL
So it’s pretentious and superficial and callous. So what? CW’s Gossip Girl is great eye candy. These gorgeous young actors weren’t hired; they were created in some casting lab. The guilty-pleasure hit show, with its rich-folks-have-feelings-too story lines, is a mix of Sex and the City and The O.C., and it works. And believe it or not, the parents are almost as interesting and gorgeous as the kids, a rare feat in the high-school-soap genre (sorry, Beverly Hills, 90210’s Jim and Cindy Walsh).

MOST LIKELY TO CLING TO PAST GLORIES
Speaking of the Walshes, Beverly Hills, 90210 is returning to the airwaves. But this time, it’s dropped half the title and picked up an edge. Besides a few cameos by the original cast (Jennie Garth pops up as now-guidance counselor Kelly Taylor), 90210 features a new batch of bratty Beverly Hills High students. This favorite from the ’90s has been updated in order to compete with the rich-kid clique of Gossip Girl.

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Honorable mention: Knight Rider, an update of the popular ’80s series. The original series’s lead, David Hasselhoff, is not part of the revival cast, but he may guest star on a future episode. You knew this was coming the moment KITT, the talking car, drew 13 million viewers to the February TV-movie version.

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MOST UNPREDICTABLE
Fox’s Dollhouse is dark and mind-twisting yet humorous and hilariously bizarre. The same could be said for creator/writer/producer Joss Whedon, whose latest venture was a web musical called Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog with Neil Patrick Harris. Dollhouse stars Eliza Dushku, who played Faith on Whedon’s glorious Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here, Dushku is an agent with no identity except for the personalities imprinted on her by her employer so she can complete her missions. Sounds like a dramatic version of Samantha Who? but with Whedon’s usual array of larger issues (to start with, society’s attempts to program people how to walk, talk, and think). Oddly enough, we bet it will be funnier than Samantha. Let’s hope it has a longer life than Whedon’s last TV project, Firefly.

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MOST POPULAR
Simon Baker is like the jock you hated in high school: All the girls love him (as do cameras and many a casting director). And this fall, the former star of The Guardian returns to television -- with his knowing smile and golden-blond curls -- as The Mentalist. What’s a mentalist, you ask? According to CBS, it’s a detective and police consultant who isn’t a psychic or a medium or a possessor of paranormal abilities. Instead, a mentalist merely uses “razor-sharp skills of observation.” Baker’s ultra-observant character, Patrick Jane, is the stereotypical loose cannon who gets the job done at any cost. A bit of a drama king, he’s excessively narcissistic and constantly irks those around him by bending the rules and skirting protocol. (Did we mention that he looks great doing it?)

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FIFTH-YEAR SENIOR
This one goes to ER, after its way too many seasons. The perennial series will finally flatline after 15 seasons, making this the final go-round of a show that should have left, oh, about five years ago. But while the show may have overstayed its welcome, we have to give credit where it’s due: ER redefined how medical shows are made -- often moving so quickly it resembled a track meet -- as well as how viewers watch them. Hopefully, creator/producer John Wells will see fit to catch us up on past characters during this swansong season. Noah Wyle is already set to return to County General for a handful of episodes; hopefully a few more familiar faces will reappear as well.

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DRAMA QUEEN
Of course, that’s Life on Mars -- but not because of the on-screen action; instead, it’s the show’s behind-the-scenes fireworks that have captured audiences’ attention. The as-yet-to-air series had everything going for it: a great time slot (right after Grey’s Anatomy) and a proven writer/producer in David E. Kelley, who also brought us hits like Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Boston Legal. But at some point, the more-than-capable Kelley became unattached from the project, which has now landed with the producers from October Road, a drama that tanked last year. Published reports say that Kelley made a deal with ABC that would keep his Boston Legal on the network if he agreed to wash his hands of Mars. No one will fess up about what really happened, but ABC is bringing back Legal for a final 13-episode run. That’s just enough for the show to boost itself over the magical 100-episode hump and package better as a syndication product.

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BIGGEST FLIRT
Tenacious teaser Lost continues to vex us. Series creator J.J. Abrams assured audiences that the convoluted show was going to get clearer and simpler and be easier on the senses. It hasn’t. Instead, May’s finale left us with even more questions than seasons prior. Is Locke really dead? Will Kate and Jack stay together? And why isn’t Kate with Sawyer, who seems to be more man than the waffling Jack could ever be? Are we going back in time again when we go back to the island, or is the island even in a place where time matters?

Oh, who do we think we’re kidding? No matter how many times we swear we’re finished, we will continue to come back to Lost -- watching, scratching our heads, and waiting for answers.

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MOST GENEROUS
Just because Tina Fey sits among a wealth of acting talent on 30 Rock doesn’t mean she has to share the spotlight with the characters supporting her smart-but-harried Liz Lemon. And yet the leading lady seems to be just as happy to rack up assists as the straight woman to her kooky sidekicks as she is to slam-dunk a well-timed comedic jab of her own.

Perhaps that generosity comes from her years of behind-the-camera work. As the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live (experience which she drew upon when creating 30 Rock), Fey fancies herself a writer first and an actress second. But as her acting chops sharpen, so does this gem of a situation comedy that has turned Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin each into something of a comedic genius. 30 Rock still isn’t the megahit that Fey (or NBC) wants it to be. But with strong word of mouth and as Fey’s star rises (thanks in part to her big-screen turns in movies such as Baby Mama), the third season may be the charm for this critical darling.

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MOST DEPENDABLE
Okay, so Law & Order’s better days are behind it. But the original series has endured (inspiring a trio of spin-offs along the way), due in part to a low-key style that never changes. The straightforward crime show, well known for swiping its plotlines from big-city newspapers, is a mainstay of NBC’s prime-time lineup year after year. Visionary creator and executive producer Dick Wolf has kept the show relevant by avoiding the gimmicks often seen in other programming. He knows better than anyone that at some point, bells and whistles cease to be interesting and become nothing but noise. Besides, Law & Order marches on quite well without them.

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The B-Team
Once considered side acts in the circus that is NBC’s The Office, the show’s background players (read: cast members not named Steve Carell, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, or Rainn Wilson) have blossomed into stars in their own right. These scene-stealers, whose perfectly portrayed characters seem like they could be coworkers right out of your own office, help make up the best second string in television.

The roster includes Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling), the bubbly, intellectually deficient customer-service rep with a long-standing crush on temp-turned-sleazy-executive Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak); reformed rageaholic Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), who has set his sights on uptight Angela Martin (Angela Kinsey), Dwight Schrute’s ex and the head of accounting; dim-witted but jovial Kevin Malone (Brian Baumgartner) and his accounting accomplice, longsuffering Oscar Martinez (Oscar Nunez); and more than a half dozen other regular cast members. The Office misfits make up the strongest ensemble cast in recent TV memory.

The Cool Kids
We’re sure that if Heroes’ Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) had gone to our high school, she would have been the belle of the ball. Not only is she a pretty, perky cheerleader, but she’s also completely indestructible. We’d like to see our prom queen compete with that. And Bennet isn’t the only one from NBC’s hit drama Heroes with enviable abilities: There’s time traveler Hiro (Masi Oka), power grabber Peter (Milo Ventimiglia), and the alternate personalities of Niki and Jessica (Ali Larter), who have superhuman strength, to name a few. Who wouldn’t want talent like that on their varsity football squad?

In season three, we’ll learn the fates of a number of characters and be introduced to some new blood, such as Daphne (Brea Grant), a Flash-like superhero who’ll undoubtedly annoy Hiro.

ERIC CELESTE is shopping his sitcom idea: A quick-witted in-flight magazine writer is in love with his eight female roommates. Hilarity ensues. KEN PARISH PERKINS is a writer based in Arlington, Texas, who delights in surfing through bad television to find the good so you don’t have to.