The future of prime time is beginning to look like one big question mark - from both sides of the screen.
Some of the biggest stars, for example - Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen at CBS (Ink) and Brooke Shields at NBC (Suddenly Susan) - have yet to offer up a finished product for review.
As for Bill Cosby, his new CBS sitcom isn't going to blow anyone away. And Fox Broadcasting's much anticipated Millennium (from the creator of The X-Files) is so dark it's going to scare half of its potential audience.
Still, you never can tell. TV shows aren't movies. They can grow, get better, become something more than they were when they began.
In the meantime, here's a prime-time guide:
COSBY kicks off the week with a premiere at 8 p.m. (WRDW-TV, Channel 12). Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad have as much chemistry as any couple on television. She can catch, said Mr. Cosby, summing up Ms. Rashad's ability to take an impromptu comic toss from him and run with it. Madeline Kahn is the drop-in neighbor.
Mr. Cosby, playing a worker newly laid off, squeezes a lot of humor from his role as a fellow amazed and appalled at the common outrages found in and around home - like the laundry that charges for cleaning a stained garment, even though it cannot get the stain out.
DANGEROUS MINDS offers a truly leaden knock-off of the Michele Pfeiffer flick. Annie Potts takes the TV role of the ex-Marine out to shape up a mostly minority high school class that is long on ability but short of motivation. The show airs at 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 30 (WJBF-TV, Channel 6).
INK. Speaking of stains, they were still scrubbing a few spots out of this one this summer, too. Mr. Danson and Ms. Steenburgen are counting on the same chemistry that led them to marriage to make a success of this comedy about a divorced couple working together at a newspaper. She's the boss. It airs on WRDW beginning Sept. 21.
MR. RHODES. Standup comic Tom Rhodes has the habit of elevating his voice at the end of sentences. This inflection makes everything he says sound like a question? His character in Mr. Rhodes does the same thing? He plays this offbeat novelist who falls into teaching at a starchy prep school? The show begins 8:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23 (WAGT-TV, Channel 26).
PARTY GIRL, airing at 9 p.m. (WFXG-TV, Channel 54), was inspired by the nonhit movie of the same title. It introduces us to Christine Taylor (of the Brady Bunch movies) playing a carefree young Manhattanite forced by cruel and unusual circumstances to work at the public library. Bummer.
It's followed at 9:30 p.m. by LUSH LIFE (WFXG), which features two young women thrown together for the duration of the TV season by virtue of their friendship and a failed marriage. Karyn Parsons is the one with the great hair and fractured relationship. Lori Petty is the one with the cropped hair, big eyes and sassy lines.
LIFE'S WORK, premiering at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday (WJBF), features standup comic Lisa Ann Walter as a wife and mother returning to the workplace after having done the child-rearing, night-school thing. Her job: assistant state's attorney for Baltimore.
SPIN CITY, which premieres at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday (WJBF), has, hands down, the most fully realized pilot episode among the season's new comedies. Michael J. Fox, as the crafty deputy mayor in charge of spin control for a doltish New York mayor portrayed by Barry Bostwick, will strike some as just the sort of guy Alex Keaton of Family Ties might have turned into. Media mavens will gasp at the conflict-of-interest romance between Mr. Fox and Carla Gugino, who plays a reporter. Hey, it's a sitcom - that sort of thing never happens in real life. Richard Kind, as the press secretary, rounds out a cast that executive producer Gary David Goldberg can be proud of.
PROMISED LAND premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday (WRDW). It's from producer Martha Williamson, who created Touched by an Angel. In the premiere, Gerald McRaney, Wendy Phillips and Celeste Holm, as Mr. McRaney's mother, are introduced to us and touched by angels. The series will follow their travels as they look for work, Mr. McRaney's troubled brother and America.
SOMETHING SO RIGHT premieres at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday (WAGT). A family is formed when Mel Harris takes a third husband, Jere Burns. Ms. Harris has a daughter, Emily Ann Lloyd, and a son, Billy L. Sullivan, by her previous husbands. Mr. Burns brings a daughter, Marne Patterson, to the mix. We join them barely a fortnight into their new situation. Slick comedy follows.
TOWNIES (premiering at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, WJBF) brings Molly Ringwald to TV-series work as the glue that holds an unlikely trio of young women together in the unlikely town of Gloucester, Mass. The pals are Lauren Graham and Jenna Elfman. Ms. Graham plays a new mom about to marry her child's father. Ms. Elfman is the one with the "regular or decaf" line in the Honda commercial.
PEARL, which premieres with a special showing at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday (WRDW), brings Cheers' Rhea Perlman back to series television as a widow who has enrolled at a prestigious university. There she collides with Malcolm McDowell, out to win a supporting-actor Emmy as a delightfully arrogant and overbearing professor. Carol Kane plays Pearl's sister-in-law. This could be fun. Its regular time is 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
PUBLIC MORALS airs at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays (WRDW). Much of the early buzz about this show has to do with the differences between CBS and producer Steven Bochco over what sort of dialogue is suitable for prime time. Even if it's filed down a bit from the pilot, the language and the show's theme - a sitcom revolving around the lives and work of police vice officers - will still have sharp edges. The ensemble cast is in the hands of innovative executive producer Jay Tarses.
EZ STREETS airs at 10 p.m. (WRDW). It's a drama about a good guy and a bad one living parallel lives on mean urban streets. Ken Olin stars. The producer is Paul Haggis, creator of Due South. It's hard to imagine both shows coming from the same person. South was droll in tone, simple in concept, quirky in style. EZ is a dense, multi-layered drama that will challenge the viewer's attention span and willingness to commit to a complex piece of story-telling.
MEN BEHAVING BADLY is about just that. Rob Schneider reaches new depths in boorishness in this comedy, which premieres at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday (WAGT). Ron Eldard (ER) should stick with driving an ambulance. Justine Bateman - in only the second sitcom she's ever attempted - is Eldard's girlfriend and the show's best hope. At first glance, she appears to be way too good for him, and the series, too.
NICK FRENO: LICENSED TEACHER at 8:30 (WBEK, Channel 67) stars Mitch Mullaney as an aspiring actor whose substitute teaching turns into a career.
MOLONEY offers Peter Strauss as a police psychiatrist, a man inclined to talk it out rather than shoot it out. He is aided and abetted by his assistant D.A. pal, Wendell Pierce. It premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday (WAGT).
SUDDENLY SUSAN. Brooke Shields stars in this show, which premieres at 9:30 p.m. Thursday (WAGT). Virtually everyone else was recast after the pilot was shot, and the premise was adjusted to make Ms. Shields a nice young woman who has broken off a relationship and has a job with a hip publication in San Francisco. The fractured pilot showed one thing, though: Ms. Shields' feel for comedy may be a pleasant surprise.
SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH joins the ABC Friday lineup of youth-skewed sitcoms beginning this week at 8:30 p.m. (WJBF). Melissa Joan Hart, from Nickelodeon's Clarissa Explains It All, is an otherwise normal 16-year-old who has the power of witchcraft. Based on the Archie Comics story.
CLUELESS, which begins at 9 p.m. Friday (WJBF), brings to television much of the cast that made the movie an item of interest, except for its star Alicia Silverstone. The role of Cher, the Bel Air shopping specialist, is taken by Rachel Blanchard, another familiar Nickelodeon face (Are You Afraid of the Dark?), with much of the rest of the cast held over from the film. Producer Amy Heckerling, who is so successful at this sort of thing, holds the reins.
EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND airs at 8:30 p.m. Fridays (WRDW). Standup comic Ray Romano, his wife (Patricia Heaton) and their children live across the street from his parents. People dumb enough to live across the street from their parents deserve all the things that happen to them, like having the parents - even if they are Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle - drop in each week to run their lives.
MR. AND MRS. SMITH premieres at 9 p.m. (WRDW). Scott Bakula and Maria Bello are secret agents representing different interests who will somehow work together each week in a technology-laced action show. The action in the pilot was energetic, and Mr. Bakula is one of TV's more agreeable leading men.
MILLENNIUM premieres at 9 p.m. Oct. 25 (WFXG). In Chris Carter's world, there is a lot to worry about. For instance, Mr. Carter, creator of The X-Files, looks at the kill-count by strangers and marvels at - and worries about - the randomness of death. Mr. Carter's new show stars Lance Henriksen, perfectly cast as a retired FBI agent who specialized in tracking serial killers. He brings wife Megan Gallagher and their daughter to Seattle, seeking a less troubled life than the one he had in the other Washington. But serial killings are committed in Seattle, too, and strange stuff keeps coming in the mail. Even his gift, his penchant for seeing what a killer has seen, haunts him. In Mr. Carter's hands, this could be riveting - and a bit scary.
COMMON LAW takes us to the world of Greg Giraldo and Megyn Price. He is a Harvard man who has not forgotten his roots (Hispanic, Queens), and she is an Upper East Sider. They are lawyers in the same firm, with a secret romance, and their legal practices are sometimes at odds. The show premieres at 9:30 p.m. Sept. 28 (WJBF).
RELATIVITY. She is strolling around a square in Rome, and she is sobbing. Suddenly he is there, a good listener and much more. So begins the most engaging romance of the TV season. Kimberly Williams, who bears a slight resemblance to Natalie Wood, plays a young woman engaged to one man yet attracted to another. And she takes adorable to a new level. David Conrad is handsome, gentle and persistent. You haven't seen kisses like theirs in a long time. The whole affair is in the hands of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, who produced thirtysomething. It premieres at 10 p.m. Sept. 24 (WJBF).
EARLY EDITION. Stockbroker Kyle Chandler is summoned to his door one morning by a cat reminiscent of Morris, paws planted on a newspaper - for the next day. How he handles this daily peek into the future is the stuff of the series. Neat idea, messy execution, at least in the first episode, which airs 9 p.m. Sept. 28 (WRDW).
LOVE AND MARRIAGE takes us to the home of Patricia Healy and Tony Denison, who have two jobs (one day, one night), three kids and no time for anything. It premieres at 9:30 p.m. Sept. 28 (WFXG).
Saturday night is for the paranoid and the paranormal on NBC.
Producer Bryce Zabel believes that in 1947 something landed at Roswell, N.M., that did not originate on this planet. If you like that idea, you'll love DARK SKIES, Mr. Zabel's version of recent American history shaped by the presence of aliens, which premieres with a two-hour special at 8 p.m. Saturday (WAGT). Eric Close plays an eager congressional aide who stumbles onto another side of events such as the Kennedy assassination.
THE PRETENDER (premiering with a special showing at 10 p.m. Thursday, WAGT) features Michael T. Weiss as a genius with a complex past and the ability to master almost any profession. The seductive Andrea Parker gives the proceedings a Fugitive spin as she pursues Mr. Weiss for reasons of her own. It will air in its regular 9 p.m. Saturday spot beginning Sept. 28.
In PROFILER, at 10 p.m. (WAGT), Ally Walker is an investigator adept at reconstructing crimes and drawing conclusions about perpetrators from scant evidence.
There are no new shows on the Sunday prime-time schedule, but there is some rearrangement of the holdovers for the 1996-97 season.
Touched by an Angel assumes the slot held for most of a dozen seasons by Murder, She Wrote, opposite the relatively new NBC sitcoms, 3rd Rock From the Sun and Boston Common.
Fox (WFXG) returns Firefighters to the air after a game show, Big Deal, completes a short run. Sunday also is home to The X-Files, as of Oct. 27.
Other wire service reports were included in this story.