CBS (Fridays, 9 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

You can't always tell a series by its pilot. A show comes on like gangbusters, and a few weeks later you're shopping for an alternative by the first commercial. But if Buddy Faro maintains the entertainment level established in its Sept. 25 premiere, it will be well nigh unmissable.

Dennis Farina, who proved in Get Shorty that he can put a strong comic spin on his street-tough image, is perfect as fabled L.A. private eye Buddy Faro, a missing person since he landed in a jam even he couldn't handle and lost himself south of the border back in '78. Bob Jones (Frank Whaley, Broken Arrow), a young P.I. who's diligent but as dull as his name, is hired to find Buddy and winds up allied with him against a shadowy villain and his gunsels. Along the way, Buddy tries to set Bob an example of "confidence and style," while Bob brings Buddy up-to-date on pro-football franchise shifts and automated teller machines. Writer and executive producer Mark Frost (Twin Peaks) fills the opening hour with funny asides, and director Charles Haid keeps the pace fast and the camera active. Buddy and Bob are hardly the first mismatched private eyes to come down the pike. Teamed on a weekly basis, they may get into a rut. But no one can say they didn't hit the ground running.

Bottom Line: Play Faro and win

NBC (Mondays, 9:30 p.m. ET)

We swore we wouldn't forgive the title characters in this series for starting the Sept. 21 premiere with a chat about NBC's ER. Gratuitous plugola should not go unpunished. But we must admit they're a likable pair. Will (Eric McCormack) is a gay lawyer. Grace (Debra Messing, Prey) is a straight interior designer. Not only are they best friends and soulmates, they're also roommates by the end of the second episode. (Grace quits her ex-lover's Manhattan apartment. Will, also unattached after a breakup, can't bear to see her move to the wilds of Brooklyn.... Why go on? It's a sitcom.) McCormack and Messing convey the warmth and fun in their characters' relationship, and Sean Hayes (Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss) is razor sharp as Will's snit-prone friend Jack. But the show needs to guard against the cutesies (twice already we've heard Will say, "Good night, Gracie") and allow both principals to do more than talk about their sex lives.

Bottom Line: A comedy you can live with

The WB (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

Citing the "lure" of the Big Apple, The New York Times reported recently that New York City is becoming "the college applicant's destination of choice." For Felicity (Keri Russell), the protagonist in this involving new drama series, the lure is Ben (Scott Speedman), a classmate on whom she has long had a quiet crush. On graduation day at her Palo Alto, Calif., high school, she decides with unwonted impulsiveness to blow off nearby Stanford and follow Ben to the University of New York (a fictional equivalent of New York University). Once in New York, she changes her mind and then changes it back—for reasons entirely unrelated to academics. All this may seem implausible, except to viewers who either are in their youth or haven't forgotten it. Russell (Malibu Shores) has an unassuming sort of star quality that draws us to her character, and the writing in the pilot is sensitive without being soapy.

Bottom Line: Promising freshman

A&E (Sun., Sept. 27, 8 p.m. ET)

Ernest Hemingway killed himself in 1961, but his body of literary work survives and even grows: True at First Light, an unfinished manuscript edited by his son Patrick, is scheduled to be published next summer. An equally enduring part of the novelist's legacy is his outsized legend—the death-defying adventures, the four turbulent marriages and always the aggressive assertion of manhood. This two-hour Biography (subtitled Wrestling with Life) covers the story well, particularly as "Papa" Hemingway descends into suicidal depression. His sons Jack and Gregory provide insights that more than compensate for granddaughter Mariel Hemingway's uninspired delivery of the narration.

Bottom Line: Solid bio of a man who lived large

ABC (Saturdays, 10 p.m. ET)

Forget what you know of Jeremy Piven from his supporting roles on Ellen and The Larry Sanders Show. When you see him on the Sept. 26 premiere of Cupid, you'll think he must have been sedated on those other series. Playing a guy who turns up in Chicago claiming to be the Roman god of love, Piven is an irresistible force—mercurial, mischievous and impossibly glib. The character says the higher ranking deities, dissatisfied with his job performance, have ordered him to make 100 lasting matches before he's allowed back in their good graces. With no weapon but his wit—his superiors confiscated his bow and arrows—he acts like a comic intent on getting 100 laughs in one hour. If he falls a little short, it's not for lack of effort.

We're eager to see what develops between Piven's character and an attractive psychiatrist (Paula Marshall) who views him as a potential book subject. Would a relationship of his own count toward Cupid's quota? But he has so many other romances to arrange. We'd hate for Piven to step discreetly into the background while happy couples clinch.

Bottom Line: You may fall for this one

>Sunday, Sept. 27 FOREVER LOVE CBS (9 p.m. ET) Whoa, things have changed. Reba McEntire awakens from a 20-year coma in this TV movie.

Monday, Sept. 28 THE KING OF QUEENS CBS (8:30 p.m. ET) Doug (Kevin James) fears there's fat in his wife's future as this new sitcom enters Week 2.

Tuesday, Sept. 29 BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER The WB (8 p.m. ET) The season opens with the high school heroine dueling demons in a new city.

Wednesday, Sept. 30 THE SECRET LIVES OF MEN ABC (9:30 p.m. ET) Splitsville's the scene of this sitcom premiere about three guys in different stages of divorce.

Thursday, Oct. 1 FUTURESPORT ABC (9 p.m. ET) Wesley Snipes and Dean Cain play a deadly game in this futuristic (hence the title, folks) TV movie.

Friday, Oct. 2 MILLENNIUM FOX (9 p.m. ET) Frank (Lance Henriksen) gets a new partner (Klea Scott) as the strange series starts its third season.

Saturday, Oct. 3 MARTIAL LAW CBS (9 p.m. ET) Action star Sammo Hung chops into the second week of this cop show.

>Brian Benben

Playing a bed-hopping bachelor on HBO's Dream On (1990-96), Brian Benben inevitably found himself in various states of undress during each episode. Shortly after CBS recruited him for his own series last year, the word came down from network suits: no nudity. "To the great relief of everyone," Benben jokes, "I keep my clothes on this time." Though less racy than Dream On, The Brian Benben Show (Mondays, 9:30 p.m. ET) finds plenty of fodder for the actor in the role of a seasoned TV news anchor demoted to covering absurd human interest stories when he's replaced by a news reading team. Benben, 42, says he drew his inspiration from hours glued to the local news. "Some of what you see is incredible," he says of the antics of ratings-hungry newsmen. "They almost parody themselves."

Those comic possibilities persuaded Benben to return to the small screen. When Dream ended 2½ years ago, he retreated to his ranch outside Fredericksburg, Texas, with his wife, actress Madeleine Stowe, 40, and their daughter May, 2. There, Benben and Stowe helped ranch hands with, among other chores, castrating bulls. He also developed a sitcom about—get this—an actor who moves to Texas. The networks passed on the pilot, but CBS snagged him for the newsroom comedy. What's the one thing Benben hates about The Brian Benben Show? The title. "People will hear that," he says, "and think it's a children's clown show."

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff.