The new season doesn't officially begin for another two weeks. Tell that to the networks. Fox, as is its practice, is launching many of its shows preemptively to avoid the September stampede. This year Fox's fast start has set off a chain reaction, not unlike what happens in those tense seconds before a race when one swimmer jumps the gun, springing off the blocks: Suddenly the pool is full of swimmers. This week we'll look at no less than five new series. In August! Praise the Lord and pass the sourdough pretzels.

Fox (Fridays, 8 p.m. ET)

B+

This burlesque Western is like the old Robert Conrad-Ross Martin series, The Wild, Wild West, gone Looney Tunes. In fact, in this two-hour pilot, outlaws cause a train wreck by dropping a boulder on the tracks and painting it with scenery—a ruse that, if memory serves, was a favorite of Wile E. Coyote's.

Our smirky hero (played by Bruce Campbell) is a maverick bounty hunter with a Harvard law degree. Each week, with the help of his wonder horse, Comet (who does everything but give stock tips), Brisco faces death with a glint in his eye and a smart remark on his lips. His archnemesis is a flamboyant villain named John Bly (Billy Drago), who's like Hannibal Lecter as played by Peter O'Toole.

The show has a refreshing sense of humor and whimsy. For instance, when a Calamity Jane type (played by Anne Trimko) accidentally slugs him, Brisco says, "Where did you learn to throw a punch like that?" "Catholic school," she responds. "That was going to be my first guess," he says, gingerly touching his nose.

While the series is distinctive and diverting, most of the supporting roles are weakly cast, particularly Christian Clemenson as a starchy lawyer, John Astin as a screw-loose inventor and Julius Carry as Brisco's bitter business rival. Campbell (Army of Darkness) gives a game, often enjoyable effort, but he can't push this goofy, spoofy conceit around by himself.

NBC (Fri, Aug. 27, 9 p.m. ET)

C

Hoping to bolster its Friday-night lineup, NBC introduces a novel ploy, Great Escapes. Or better yet, make that a romance-novel ploy. For Great Escapes is a collection of discrete soap-opera miniseries.

First up is this howler, set on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, in which two prominent families make a stiff, stilted run through greed, lust and the other deadly sins (except for sloth, which on TV is the sole province of sitcoms). A large cast features Efrem Zimbalist Jr., John Beck, Michael Michele, Michael McLafferty, Anita Morris and Stephen Meadows, who in real life is married to ubiquitous infotainment pep-rallier Leeza Gibbons.

Really, I don't see how it constitutes a Great Escape to combine exotic settings, beautiful people, dull, dumb writing and bad acting. That's just TV as usual. After this two-hour premiere, Trade Winds will blow over on four consecutive Fridays at 10 p.m. ET.

The Family Channel (Saturdays, 6 p.m. ET)

B-

In this Australian series set in the 19th century, the Man from Snowy River, the daring young roustabout celebrated in song and verse (a character that also inspired the 1983 Kirk Douglas movie) is now a good deal older. He's a successful homesteader and cattleman, a widower with three children in rugged southern Australia.

Andrew Clarke, Wendy Hughes (who was the coroner Ned Beatty had a crush on in NBC's Homicide), John Stanton, Amanda Douge, Josh Lucas and Victoria Tennant costar.

Handsome and pastoral, the show is like The Virginian, albeit with a stiff Aussie accent—and one other, even more important, difference: There are no holsters, guns or shoot-outs to speak of, which makes this wholesome and rather stodgy series a good fit for the Family Channel.

Fox (Sundays, 8:30 p.m. ET)

C-

This sitcom about four female Brooklyn buppies who are best friends is brash, scattered, derivative and kind of desperate. If nothing else (and we're dangerously close to that state of minimalism), it does have what may be the season's most curious, eclectic cast.

Rap star Queen Latifah plays a woman trying to launch a women's magazine on a shoestring budget. She's the den mother to the other characters. There's a spacey office assistant played by Kim Coles (In Living Color) in the time-honored sitcom role of the moron. There's a man-hungry material girl hammily played by Kim Fields (Tootie on The Facts of Life) with all the extravagant mannerisms of Diana Ross. Finally there's a fly-girl divorce lawyer, played by Erika Alexander (Going to Extremes) with the only comic verve evident in the cast. That's not entirely the actresses' fault. They're hemmed in by bad gags and clichéd characters.

The supporting male figures (played by T.C. Carson and John Henton) are particularly reprehensible. Their idea of a salutation is "We hungry." One of them says to the other, "My brother, this ain't Home Improvement." You got that right.

ABC (Mon., Aug. 30, 9 p.m. ET)

C+

Daniel J. Travanti lands back on series TV not far from where he jumped off in 1987. But there are some key variances between Lt. Ray McAuliffe of the Chicago Missing Persons squad and Capt. Frank Furillo of the Hill Street station house: McAuliffe is more hot-headed, by-the-book, and isn't averse to using mind games to keep his staff motivated. Much of McAuliffe's attitude can be explained by the fact that he's a former street hound now shackled to a desk after a hail of bullets nearly took his life in the Cabrini Green housing project.

Missing Persons tries to copy the gritty urban flavor and punchy tempo of NBC's Law & Order without succeeding on either front. And it shreds TV's already thin fabric of plausibility and common sense. In this two-hour pilot, one cop (Erik King) entraps a murder suspect by impersonating a pimp. Then after taunting the killer for being fooled, the cop leaves this man, who has a history of brutality to women, alone in a hotel room with the laughing prostitute who just helped sign his death warrant.

Besides Travanti, the only cast member who stands out is newcomer Jorjan Fox, who brings a plucky charm to her role as the squad's junior member. In three weeks this stale show will settle into its regular slot: Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET.